Harley Stroh wrote:
Designer’s Diary #4: Adventuring in DCC RPG
Or, Running DCCs that Don't Suck
As we begin the count down to Free RPG Day, Joseph asked me for some thoughts on running successful adventures for the DCC RPG.
And as I mentioned to one of our playtesters this past weekend, I’m just as much as fan as a writer. So consider these as design notes from a fellow judge; it won’t be long before you are running your own DCC RPG adventures, converting old classics, and sending your PCs off to do battle against the unknown. Together we can work out some guidelines that can that help to ensure that all our adventures don’t suck.
No Old Monsters
Joseph’s first design mantra. Or better put, no known monsters. The world of the DCC RPG is the world of the unknown. As blacksmiths, woodsmen, squires, beggars and slaves, the 0-level PCs in our games are ignorant of the wider world, its mysteries and threats.
We’ve all run games in the past 25 years where this was true of our PCs. But now you have the chance to make it true for your players.
Every adventure will have new monsters that your PCs (or players!) haven’t faced before. Weird, ungodly, alien new monsters, whose very existence threatens the logic of our staid, simple lives. These aren’t the same entries regurgitated from the last 20 monster manuals, these are beasts from the outer dark that live up to the title of “Monster.”
Our players are comfortable with the known. Even if their PCs are 1st level, the players have all “been here and done that” before.
Never again. It’s time for a true test of courage, to pit their precious PCs against something terrifyingly unknown.
Embrace the Chaos
The DCC RPG is unpredictable. Really unpredictable. One moment, the PCs are losing a battle against a Rat God and thousands of his furry minions, and the next, the dwarf has won a strength check against the god, ripped free his bejeweled scepter of death and is hammering that Rat God back through time and space to whatever pit that spawned him.
And the opposite happens as well: When that glorious natural 1 rolls up, the entire table howls with agony, and you get the chance to add another notch in your judge-screen.
It isn’t pretty. It isn’t predictable. But it is a fundamental feature of the game. No battle is truly lost until the last PC gives up, and death is never more than a heartbeat away. With judicious use of Luck, spellburn and piety, the PCs can turn the odds in their favors. But stare too long into the abyss, and at some point the abyss will look back.
Don’t Sweat the Balance
This is true of all good RPGs: When PCs get desperate, players get brilliant. While it is no fun to go up against immediate and certain death, games do get interesting when the PCs have exhausted all their traditional options and need to get a little creative/crazy to survive.
This past weekend our PCs encountered an enormous toad that had a nasty habit of freezing its prey solid, and then gumming the frozen prey into shards. Our thief clawed his way to the top of a frozen cavern only to be swallowed whole.
The party was at a loss and the PC was moments away from turning into a thief-iscle. But then a lucky enlarge spell tripled the thief’s size, bursting the poor toad from the insides, and spattering the ice cave with toady bits. Sadly, the gigantor thief succumbed to the numbing kisses of two other toads, but for an instant he was drawn back from the brink of certain death by creative spell use.
Give them enough Rope (or Magic) to Hang Themselves
Magic in the DCC RPG is predicated on PCs dealing with otherworldly entities. There is no generic power source; rather you are dealing with capricious, fickle, covetous powers. And these are your friends. There is only so long PCs can draw from these alien powers before they expect favors in return.
In this way, there is much more at stake for the PCs than simply delving a dungeon for forgotten loot. Rather the wizard is trying to regain a portion of his lost soul, the priest is bent on a crusade for his patron, the warrior is fighting for mastery over the fearsome helm that threatens to transform him into a raging machine of destruction, and the thief … well, thieves have never needed much help getting into trouble.
By stepping out of their roles as serfs, apprentices, slaves, and indentured servants, the PCs become masters of their own destinies, with the chance – no matter how slim – of shaping it to their whims. Sure, many will perish, but the ones that survive will have spat in the face of Death, torn the loom of life from the three Fates, and triumphed against all odds.
And that is something to fight for.
Appendix N: Know it. Love it.
Finally, a successful run of the DCC RPG is steeped in the weird, otherworldliness that is Appendix N. In the next couple weeks visit your local bookstore and pick though their stacks of musty old pulps. What you’ll discover is fantasy adventure before it became codified.
Thumb through the old magazines and maybe pick out one with a Frazetta cover. Spend the evening imagining lost futures and forgotten empires, their degenerate inhabitants, the weird magic lurking behind altars to obscene gods … and you’ll find you’re set to run a DCC game.
These are a few of the covenants we’re following as we write the modules that will reboot the DCC adventure line. But none of it should come as a surprise – you've been preparing the last 30 years. Drag the whetstone down your broadsword one last time and wipe the rust from your hauberk. Adventure is calling.