Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Dungeon Crawl Classics and the Curse of the Death Spiral

Dungeon Crawl Classics is a fantastic game. I love everything about it. It's rules are simple and very evocative. The funnel creates immediately playable characters with personalities and histories, all springing from a one-word occupation. The classes are distinct and each one gets something special.

DCC is great for short-term games where you aren't too attached to the character. Death is cheap, plentiful, and sudden in this game. My players agreed that DCC is the most fun they've had playing dungeon crawls (hence the name).

However, the DCC rules made it difficult to invest in characters for long-term campaign play. A number of factors play into this. The first is the cheapness of the value of life in the game. The second is the lack of player choice in character design and destiny. Finally, and most importantly, the luck rules and the rules regarding permanent injury as a result of critical hits and near-death experiences create a slow spiral of debilitation that make a character harder and harder to play over time.

Life is Cheap
First, death is cheap, sudden, and plentiful. The design of the game encourages a high death rate. You are not encouraged to grow attached to your character. They are going to die, it's just a matter of when. DCC is set up for troupe-style play where everyone is controlling 2-4 characters because there's going to be a lot of attrition.

DCC does mitigate this a bit by allowing characters a kind of death save. It's called "rolling the body over". If a character is reduced to zero hit points, they can make a Luck check. If they succeed, they are still alive with 1 HP, -4 to all actions for the rest of the day, and a permanent -1 penalty to either Strength, Agility, or Stamina. Yowch!

First, the "Death Save" itself is nebulously defined. Some Judges interpret this as being "roll d20 under current Luck stat".

Proposed Rule: Change Death Save to DC 10
My suggestion is to treat it like a saving throw. Roll a d20 plus your Luck modifier vs. a difficulty of 10. You can spend Luck points on this roll in order to survive. If you succeed, you survive. If you fail, you're permanently dead.

Proposed Rule: Alternate Permanent Injury
I have also created a table to serve as an alternative to the permanent -1 penalty. My Near-Death Experience rules do have some permanent effects, but most of the effects are temporary until the lost Hit Points are healed, and there are even a few beneficial results.

Proposed Rule: Change Luck to multiple d20 rolls
This proposed house rule takes a lot of the danger out of the death save. Currently, you can spend points from your Luck score to modify the results of your death save. Each point spent adds +1 to the roll. This can result in a hefty expenditure of Luck if you like your character and really want them to survive. An alternative would be to allow each point of Luck spent to allow a separate d20 roll. You then take the new result, for better or worse. If you don't like that result, keep spending and keep rolling.

Thieves, however, roll 1d6 for each Luck point spent. The result is how many d20s they roll. They can then choose the best roll.

Lack of player choice in character design and destiny
Players don't get a lot of choices regarding the destiny of their characters. You create ~4 characters per player for the funnel. Each character is completely random. 3d6 for each stat, in order, no stat placement. There is absolutely no player choice here. The savvy player, however, can try to be selective over who survives the funnel. If you like a certain character, protect them and keep them safe during the funnel and hopefully that's the character that will survive.

If that character survives, you get your next choice - you select a class. And that's pretty much it. Magic users get random spells. Clerics get random or assigned spells. You can't get better stats. You can't specialize in a certain type of fighting.

Magic users, however, do get to choose new spells later, sort of. They have to hunt them down and quest for them. Also, magic users get to choose a magic specialty.

Proposed Rule: Allow Stat Increases at Certain Levels
A generous Judge might allow his players to develop their character's stats. I suggest +1 to a characteristic every other level, to a maximum of 18.

Proposed Rule: Allow Magic Users and Clerics to Select Spells
Instead of randomly rolling or assigning spells, allow magic users and clerics to select their spells. Alternatively, allow them to select one spell then roll randomly or assign the rest. Then, as they advance in level, allow magic users to choose spells to learn from a wizard's guild and clerics to learn new prayers from a higher level cleric at a temple. You still need to quest to find the appropriate guild or temple, it's just a little more known where these resources might be. Perhaps via legend, word of mouth, or reputation.

The Death Spiral
The unfortunate truth is that DCC sets characters up to eventually die. Adventuring is a dangerous life. The longer a character stays alive, the greater the cumulative effects of past injuries have on their survival. Every time a character survives death, they suffer a permanent -1 to a physical stat. Some critical hits have permanent effects. Most poisons and venoms have permanent effects. Characters will need to spend Luck to make good things happen, or sometimes just to survive, but Luck recovers very slowly.  The longer the cleric lives, the more Deity Disapproval they're likely to encounter. The longer the wizard lives, the more Corruption they're likely to accumulate.

This ongoing accumulation of deleterious effects, negative modifiers, and permanent injuries create diminishing returns for the player character. Although they get better as they level, they get worse as they survive.

These effects are mitigated if the party cleric is able to heal some permanent injuries or poisons. Also, the character can knowingly quest for healing items, but this itself leads to more injury and negative modifiers.

These negative effects are fun for a dungeon run but really hamper attempts to tell long-term campaign stories with long-running characters. A character that manages to survive to 3rd or 4th level may, by that time, be considering retirement.

Proposed Rule: More Luck Points
One potential solution for the campaign-minded Judge is to award more Luck Points. The guidelines detailed in this blog are an excellent starting point, except that I wouldn't require the player to roll for the chance of receiving a reward, I would just award the points. Giving the player characters more Luck Points will enhance their survival chances, especially if you combine the award with the modified use of Luck mentioned above.

Proposed Rule: Injury from Surviving Death are Temporary
An alternative to my proposed injury table above would be to simply make the permanent -1 to Strength, Agility, or Stamina roll into a temporary modifier. Perhaps for a week or a number of days.

Alternatively, change it from a -1 to rolls to a -1 to the stat. This lessens the impact to player characters.

Randomness of Spell Casting
One of the most frustrating aspects to my players was the spell casting rules. Wizards and clerics must roll stat + level + 1d20 vs. a chart for each spell. For wizards, 1-5 meant the spell is lost, 6-12 meant the spell failed but wasn't lost, and 12 or 13+ was a success, with greater effects for a higher roll. For clerics, a 1-11 or 12 was a failure and increased your fumble range by +1. A 12 or 13+ was a success, with greater effects for a higher roll. Corruption results in permanent mutations while divine disfavor could result in penalties both temporary and permanent.

The randomness of these results make spell casting highly unpredictable. As a result, tactically-minded players find it very difficult to create strategies for defeating opponents. Players of magic-using characters try to help only to fail miserably, increasing their frustration and lessening their enjoyment of the game.

The rules for Spell Burn offset the chance of failure, somewhat. A wizard can burn a temporary point of Strength, Agility, or Stamina for a +1 to the spell casting roll. These lost points return at a rate of 1 point per game day. Even with this mechanism, my players were loathe to spend these points.

The threat of corruption and the overall chance of failure while casting spells caused my players to dismiss spell casters (wizards and elves) as undesirable character classes. They wanted to avoid magic like the plague! Likewise, the chance of failure for cleric spells led to one my players calling it "Fail until you Fumble".

Proposed Rule: Multiple d20s from Spell Burn
An alternative rule that allows for much more predictable spell casting would be to allow wizard and elf characters an extra d20 roll for each characteristic point spent. You take the next roll, regardless of what it is. This would cut down on the number of points you have to spend for effective Spell Burn and could also result in completely different spell results, turning a failure into a critical success!

Some purist DCC Judges will balk at my proposed rules as coddling the players. DCC should be a hard game with easy death. Spells should be random and unreliable. Life is short and the stakes are high. Magic comes from chaos and should be unpredictable.

I would say to them that this attitude is great for fun short term dungeon crawling but is anathema to long term character development and campaign play. A short life span makes it difficult to enjoy the creation and development of character personalities with history and investment. Unpredictable results make it frustrating for players of wizards and elves and make it difficult for tactically-minded players to plan to win.

These rules aren't for everyone. Really, I created them specifically for my group of players who enjoy long-term character stories and strong tactical play.

We recently stopped playing DCC as a result of the frustrations I have outlined above. Frankly, my players were past the point of house rules and band-aids. Hopefully, we will one day give DCC another try. If we do, I will implement most of the changes I have described above. After that, I'll be better able to describe the effect these changes have on the game in real terms.