Thursday, June 9, 2011

DCC RPG: Observations and Comments

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.


cyclopeatron said...

I wonder if DCC is being marketed TO the OSR as much as it's begin marketed AS the OSR...

Joseph told me his main goal is to market DCC to the 3.0/3.5/d20 demographic. I wouldn't be surprised if he's going for the OSR-curious portion of this market that never fully adopted Pathfinder for whatever reason.

Robert Fisher said...

Very good overview and highlighting of the interesting bits.

On the fetishization of Appendix N: I think this works as a way to distinguish DCC RPG from the other "old school" choices. And the game needs something that does that. (I'm really curious to see if that angle actually pans out in play.)

On "your not a hero" and the tables: I think Goodman isn't so much trying to attract the old school crowd as trying to evangelize and sell these ideas to the 3e/4e crowd. Not the hardcore elements, but the more open minded people. Sort of a "Hey, give this a shot. It might not be as bad as you think." I think I know a number of people (who don't spend a lot of time on the blogs or forums) for whom this approach might work well.

The suggested body-count and the overly unpredictable magic are turn-offs for me and perhaps going too far. OTOH, widening the contrast between "new school" and "old school" here can, perhaps, get the point across better. A more middle-ground approach makes it more likely that people just house rule their current style of play over it completely without giving it a fair shake. Maybe.

All I can say so far about the art is that I like it. It feels like a combo between B/X and the 1e DMG, which--for me--strikes the nostalgia chord big time.

Well, those are some off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts. I would've written less, but I didn't have the time. ^_^ I'm actually fairly optimistic about it at the moment.

Grimbones said...

One 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 ...

One minor note: many of the illustrations that appear to be "copied" from prior D&D books are actually done by the same artists who did similar images back in the 1970's and 1980's. Joseph asked the artists to re-interpret some of their classic works.


Dan of Earth said...

Harley, thanks for the clarification, that solves one riddle. ;-)

Dan of Earth said...

@cyclopeatron: Could be, and your comment about the demographic makes a lot of sense. I had always assumed Joe was after the 3.x/d20 crowd (similar audience to C&C), but the game that was delivered doesn't seem to fit that demographic. Unless of course I'm totally off base in my assessment of what that audience would be responsive to, which is certainly possible.

@Robert: You make a good point about evangelizing, but I do wonder if that message has already been expressed by the OSR and rejected by the 3.x audience. In fact it seems to be one criticism I've seen a number of times against the OSR,this "doctrine" of character mortality, dungeon delving, etc. Have they achieved a middle ground? I'm not sure. Yhe elements they chose from either side of the fence seem odd to me, but who knows. They definitely had to take a unique approach or they would have ended up with something like Castles & Crusades, and then all of the criticisms would be for that.

Robert Fisher said...

“...expressed by the OSR...”

Yes. But, as you point out, the OSR’s message may not be reaching a lot of people. Goodman can perhaps spread the word farther. And in a different voice than the OSR. (Or C&C)

“...rejected by the 3.x audience.

Rejected by the 3.x advocates. i.e. The 3e equivalent of the OSR. The blog and forum crowd.

Of course, the most important question is: What can we borrow from it for our LL games. ^_^

The Mad Hermit said...

Thank you for the comments regarding DCC. One thing that I was less than pleased with were the vast number of tables. It reminded me of the old ICE books more than anything else. It seems like an effort to introduce imaginative game effects into a what can sometimes (but should never) be routine, boring combat situations. It seems the GM could just as easily narrate interesting combat developments than rolling on the various tables. The tables are witty and enjoyable, but I fear that just as with all the ICE "law" books, the effects will quickly become stale and often have nothing to do with specific in game developments.