When I downloaded the DCC RPG beta rules I have to admit that when I moved past the cover image I was greeted with something that caught me completely by surprise. I guess I was expecting either a full color interior with art more in the style of the cover, or at least fancy layout with b/w interior. What greeted me was a very definite and probably exaggerated presentation of old-school styled art and layout. As I looked through the beta release I realized that the design and presentation is very strongly influenced by the internet phenomena we commonly call the OSR, which surprised me even more. Some readers will think, “well duh” to that, but the reason it surprised me is because a little over two years ago Joseph Goodman contacted myself and some other old-school publishers about getting Labyrinth Lord and other materials into distribution (which was just a few months before I relaunched LL back into distro myself). I had a few conversations with Joe that left me with the impression that he felt the online scene was too small to market to alone, and that more of an effort needs to be directed at stores and gamers at conventions. So to come full circle, this is why it surprised me that the DCC RPG would be so influenced by opinions from blogs and forums. I think in some ways Joe was right in that it’s always good to try to widen an audience, but for him to inform much of system design and presentation based on the internet surprised me.
This is very interesting for a few reasons. One reason is that it looks like the “OSR”, whatever it is or isn’t, has reached a level of influence that many people would have never anticipated. This isn’t to say the influence is huge, because I still think the majority of people who don’t frequent forums etc. know nothing of it. Nonetheless, WotC has clearly noticed it and reacted to it, and others continue to as time goes on. Another thing that is interesting about this is that I’ve learned that the majority of publishers these days receive most of their income through internet sales/orders, with that being direct sales, POD, or with electronic books, or in many cases a combination of these. Sales through traditional distribution, for most, are smaller in number and profits are less per unit because of the distribution structure.
What all of this comes around to is that my impression of the DCC RPC is that it has been designed and presented specifically to attract people from the OSR and to touch some of the “nerves” of the OSR that are frequently talked about. The game probably is not aimed at people who are really die hard about playing only the original games books, but there are many people in the OSR who are more flexible, and might be willing to play something like the DCC RPG even with its 3rd edition heritage.
I’m not going to do a complete review of the DCC RPG, partly because it is probably not appropriate for me to do so. I write this as a person interested in old-school D&D and the “revival” of that, however you decide to label it. I’ll talk about four of the “OSR nerves” that I think Goodman is trying to hit and my thoughts about it.
Appendix N: This is one of the areas that immediately tells me Goodman is aiming for the online OSR movement. If you could gather all of the OSR bloggers and a bunch of regular posters to old-school D&D forums into one room, I bet the majority of them would know what you are referring to if you ask “what is Appendix N?” Now go into your local game store and grab a random gamer and tell him you heard about a cool new fantasy RPG based on Appendix N. “Appendix huh?”
But I think this approach has been successful in terms of getting online attention. What perplexes me about it though, aside from the lack of “real world” recognizability, is that I always thought the wave of Appendix N blog and forum posts that pop up now and again was a far more casual discussion, not a doctrine, and wouldn’t warrant not just a marketing angle but also inform a lot of system design. I’m not going to go into whether I think the system design lives up to this “ideal” if you can call it that. I leave that to others. My main point is that by hyperfocusing on Appendix N it feels like there is an attempt to fetishize or create an idol of something that isn’t as big of a deal as Goodman seems to think it is. Maybe I’m wrong? Old-school D&D is already designed with Appendix N in mind, after all.
“You’re not a hero.”: One of the dichotomies (maybe the most important) between “new school” vs. “old-school” D&D is the attitude toward characters. The new school approach that really became emphasized in D&D 3.x and even more so in 4th edition is the idea that characters are (super) heroes. They don’t die often and they start out with powers/abilities way outside of the reach of old-school characters and normal men. The term “hero” really just means way above the human norm. Old-school gamers of D&D have often criticized this approach, preferring that a PC crawl up from being a weak 1st level character toward something that might seem more heroic. This kind of translates into the idea that one should “earn” that additional power, often through many character losses along the way. I think this is one area where Goodman took that sentiment and exaggerated it too far in the DCC RPG. The tagline “You’re not a hero” is most definitely a reference to this old-school philosophy, but to me it seemed to miss some of the point. The DCC RPG sort of goes for a soft Hackmaster angle, but in the end I think it takes the idea of character mortality further than it needs to. By default in classic D&D character survival is precarious. Something not often talked about as a reality of this is that many people houserule various ways to increase survivability—max hit points at 1st level, healing potions for the starting group, survival below 0 hit points with one method or another, etc. But in the end upping character mortality (to me) in the DCC RPG doesn’t make it “more” old-school than existing games, and maybe even creates an imbalance. It felt like an attempt to ratchet up this concept to a higher level, when it is already higher than a lot of old-school players deal with by the book anyway.
Old-school art/layout: Personally I think this is one of the areas that the DCC RPG both succeeds and fails at simultaneously. It succeeds in that it includes a lot of very old-school art by some great artists. It fails to me in that it doesn’t seem to strike a great balance between homage and aping. As others have pointed out, a few of the art pieces are very clearly copies of some pieces from the Moldvay/Cook B/X set, a move that is very perplexing to me due to the obvious copyright issues on one hand (they also did not fill out the copyright section of the OGL correctly, they left out the SRDs). But on the other hand, because that combined with the number of other homage pieces gives the impression that the DCC RPG is either floundering for its own image (which had a great start in the cover), or it is trying to blast its readers with an overload of old-school art homage and art/page density in order to influence perceptions of the game beyond (or in spite of) the actual gaming content. Is that a fair assessment? I’m not sure. There is a definite message being conveyed(“this is old-school”), but maybe it is being said to forcefully.
Tables: One of the things old-school gamers love is a good table for determining random outcomes. In fact I’d say that after the issue of heroes vs. adventurers, one of the other big differences between the new and old schools of D&D is the degree to which the characters’ fates and the game in general is left to random die rolls. Accordingly, the DCC RPG includes a lot of tables. But I wonder if they are the wrong kind of tables? Or at least, too many of what might be the right kind in some circumstances? Again this is an area where it felt to me like the DCC RPG was designed with a laundry list of old-school elements. The randomness of the spells, for me, is off-putting. I understand and like the core concept, but for every spell to be like that changes spell casting in a way that removes it from the heritage the DCC RPG is trying to embrace. It really becomes a sort of “wild magic” game. There are other ways unpredictable magic could have been introduced, perhaps even in a modular way so people can use it or leave it. For example, instead of constant uncertainty in spell casting what if the uncertainty is only introduced when magics from more than one caster, or maybe a caster in proximity to some other magical effect, are operating with a certain range. You can get a kind of pulp fiction vibe from magic in various ways.
There are some positive elements to the DCC RPG, too, lest readers think I’m being too negative. I like the flavor of the “Gods of the Eternal Struggle,” even if I’m a bit hesitant on the system execution of turning unholy. I like the concept of the spell tables and their effects, even if it makes magic a bit too random for my tastes. In the end I can’t (and won’t) say whether I think the DCC RPG is a “good” or “bad” game. What I am left with is a lot of confusion about who this game is written for. Clearly from the above discussion, much of it is geared toward the OSR, with varying levels of success. But the inclusion of things like 3rd edition saving throws and AC, or old-school thief skill percentages and separate class experience charts, seem to make the game too old-school for some and not old-school enough for others. I suppose the real question is whether there has been enough of a balance achieved, like in Castles & Crusades, to attract a similar fan base. We’ll see how it all shakes out. Since much of the response to the DCC RPG has seemed to be luke warm right now it’s hard to say, but it is a beta release after all, so the jury is still out. In any case I wish Goodman Games much success with it.