Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Crawling Back

After a brief personal hiatus into none of your beeswax, Joseph Goodman's stunning Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game has pulled me kicking, screaming and crawling back into the collective imaginings of pulp science-fantasy tales. While the paper edition of this significant work is enough to earn it a worthy place in every bookshelf and collection, with gorgeous art and design from the maker's of The Dungeon Alphabet, the real contribution of this manual to the "Old School Renaissance" is much more fundamental.

We have already seen revolutionary additions to the literature of this reborn hobby. Not only the aforementioned Dungeon Alphabet, but The Random Esoteric Creature Generator and Vornheim have been billed as new ways to imagine a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Instead of providing new variants to an old paradigm, these publications emerged from the fog of our expectations like strange, inexplicable time travelers from another dimension. They were built upon entirely different theory, as if the original game had never been the illegitimate child of generic, colourless wargaming rules and colourful but unruly fantasy literature. They naturally and effortlessly wove story and system, form and function. But these were always partial additions, covering not the basics of play, but only peripheral subjects. There was no foundational text yet.

Of course, it was only natural that the majority of the OSR would follow a much more conservative trajectory. Just like the historical Renaissance in Europe, the movement began as a return to classical form and style. Considering the timeline, the early OSR began merely with an attempt to emulate generic, vanilla fantasy D&D, with HackMaster (2001), Castles & Crusades (2004), OSRIC (2006), Basic Fantasy RPG (2006), Labyrinth Lord (2007) and Swords & Wizardry (2008).

After 4e was released in 2008, the direction of new OSR games and supplements shifted dramatically, and the community really began to focus on alternate directions that D&D could have taken (both thematically and mechanically). There was a strong urge to go back to the literature genres that inspired the original game (particularly Lovecraft and Howard). Just take a look at the slew of Cthulhu & Conan games after 2008: Barbarians of Lemuria (2008), Supplement V: Carcosa (2008), Lamentations of the Flame Princess (2010), Realms of Crawling Chaos (2011), Crypts & Things (2011), Adventurer, Conqueror, King (2012) and Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea (2012?).

Joseph Goodman's Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game builds on these, but significantly is not based on them. Although the drive to discover "the D&D that never was" after the advent of 4e is not unique, the vision of DCC is not a new, even alternative, edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game. It is not the next version of D&D; if anything it is Arduin, it is Encounter Critical in comparison. It is a fundamental and core shift in our understanding of the horizons of collective fantasy storytelling, which weaves dark, trippy and weird tales natively with supporting game mechanics that actually suggest the play promised by the famed "Appendix N". Like the historical Renaissance, this unlikely and unpredicted development is the product of the renaissance coming to full term and finally bearing forth a truly originary work.

Will everyone "get" Dungeon Crawl Classics? Certainly no more than those who saw the value of The Dungeon Alphabet and similar publications. Nevertheless, DCC is significant in that it is the first offering of a core rules that is based on a new theory of the relationship between story and system. While this game is really at its best when producing pure Appendix N action, some will inevitably miss out and simply use it to play the same type of game they have been running for decades. They may even wonder why their Wizard has to make tough choices and dangerous allies, or why their Cleric has to sacrifice to his idol deity or fear the machinations of the gods, or why their Fighter has to actually think carefully and cleverly about how to engage an enemy, or how their Thief seems to have the knack to miraculously pull off any feat at the last moment.

Is DCC really that good? For the casual gamer, it is a wealth of inspiration and ideas that will not disappoint. For those that learn to play it on its own terms, and to let the inspirational fantasy literature and music of that era take the imagination away, the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game is nothing less than the game of the OSR thus far.


  1. Very pleased to see this blog again.

  2. Intriguing post. My gut feeling is that you are right: DCC RPG is the game of the OSR. I'll have to wait and see, however. I can't read a book when it is a PDF. All I can do is hunt and peck through it. What I see so far is very promising. I'm looking forward to holding the actual book in my hands in about 3 weeks. Then I can dive down deep into it.

    1. So what are your thoughts? I just got mine this week and am amazed by the quality of it. Its focus on storytelling and creativity is sharp on. Loving it so far.



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