As I mentioned in last week’s blog, I recently ended my local D&D 4E campaign, and switched the game system to Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics. I had wanted to inspire my players to be more engaged with the campaign, increase their role-playing options, and to feel a greater investment in both their characters and the campaign world.
But as an OSR style game, DCC has a fairly draconian character generation system – in comparison to d20/3.5, Pathfinder, and D&D 4E –which took some players aback when we first rolled up characters. Given their previous gaming experiences with more modern fantasy RPGs, having to use a 3d6 method where ability scores are rolled in order, certainly seemed harsher to them than the 4d6 (drop lowest) and point-buy systems we often see in games. And then to add on top of that a random system to determine backgrounds, where their “peasant” profession and even race of their 0-Level characters are determined by a dice roll, I’m certain that some of them were having second thoughts.
But yesterday, I ran my first DCC session with my group, and used the games’ introductory adventure “The Portal Under the Stars” which comes with the core rulebook. And when eighteen 0-Level peasants (three characters per player!) went down into that foreboding dungeon, something really, really awesome happened:
I proudly saw my players rise to the challenge… and ROLEPLAY!
Oh sure, there was lots of death and mayhem too. For those who haven’t played DCC, the authors created what’s called the “character funnel”, in which the first adventure is designed to kills off about half (or more) of the 0-Level peasants-yearning-to-be-heroes.
And oh boy, did my players watch their characters die!
There were two characters dead and one wounded after the very first room. Three more died in the second room, and two more met an untimely end in the third room. In two and a half hours of playing, seven peasants met their grisly ends, leaving a couple characters with only one character remaining.
But the players roleplayed their peasant cadre to the hilt. There was actual tension and trepidation expressed as the characters jostled their way through the ancient crypt, fearing what might lurk in each room. They argued as to what action to take, or who would enter a room first – some going boldly, while others entered quite fearfully. Quirks began to arise amongst the characters – a cheesemonger rolled his wheel of cheese across the floor tiles to search for pressure plated traps, while a gambler rolled dice to decide if he would fight a monster or hide until the battle was over. There were heroic moments, such as a Halfling charging in to try and stop a traps mechanics from activating, sacrificing a spear to stop up the works. A woodcutter and seeress bravely charge a horrid monster, hoping that the rest of the band would back them up. But alas, not all the party stayed together, for a jester decided to go off exploring on his own, deciding it was the funniest thing he could do, while a sage followed the fool thinking he might have the right idea!
[I should mention that the cheesemonger later began talking to his cheese, after witnessing the grisly demise of his comrades – he’s down to one character. He’s named the cheese Geoff, and being a strong cheese, has made it a member of the party!]
It was a great session, with some awesome characterizations, and I can’t remember when I’ve laughed so hard at a game. But while I laughed at the antics my players’ enacted with their characters, I noticed something that made me realize an element of the game that’s been missing from my D&D games since 3rd Edition came out.
Players don’t need a ton of character content (classes, feats, skills, backgrounds, and themes) to make great characters – here were peasants with no classes, and just a common trade as a skill, but great personas were already emerging. And even more importantly, it’s actually the low ability scores that really builds the characters!
The Roleplaying School of Hard Knocks
Now some gamers might disagree here, and claim they can build just as deep a persona without having to deal with one or more crappy ability scores And further, they probably feel that all the backgrounds, themes, feats, skills, and other game mechanic trappings of the game, allow them the freedom to build exactly the alter-ego they want to play. I used to think so myself, and enjoyed game editions that offered me better ability score generation methods, and more skills, more feats or powers, and more options to build the character I wanted to play.
But Sunday’s session reminded me of a time, very long ago, when I didn’t need all those character options to play a good character. And in fact, some of my favorite characters came from campaigns where the DM imposed odd quirks into character generation – like rolling ability scores in order, or even assigned an array of stat numbers that included something nastier than just a one single low score of 8 to deal with.
In my new way of thinking, having to deal with a two or three really low ability scores, say, in the 5 to 7 range, that really gets the creative vibe going in the player, and makes them wonder how to deal with them.
Case in point, one player talked to me before the game and asked me how I would resolve an obvious paradox in the randomness of character generation. He had rolled for his peasant profession a merchant, which actually allowed his to start with a pouch of a few real gold pieces (gasp!) instead of the 30 – 40 copper everyone else was stick with. But his character also had a 6 Personality, a poor score which seemed completely at odds for a merchant who obviously knew how to make deals with folk. I pointed out that a low score in Personality did not necessarily mean he was ugly or a poor dealer, but could mean he had some quirk or eccentricity which got him into trouble – like being condescending to everyone, or an annoying voice. The player took my advice and pondered it while the others were introducing their characters.
And when it came around to the merchant with the low Personality score, we were all introduced to William (“call me Willomena, hun!”) – the merchant was a “non-passable” crossdresser who sold cheap knock off jewelry! Now that’s a character everyone is going to remember, and gives a good reason for why he might have trouble making those Personality checks when meeting the local nobility!
Now I’m not saying every RP gamer should abandon their games character generation systems in favor of something leaner, meaner, and tougher than nails. But it’s worth considering whether the system one uses to make a character is too easy, too overdesigned, or is bloated by over-choice. It’s worth asking if such a game system actually benefits the role-playing experience, or whether it just gets in the way. And if you’re feeling more and more like it is the latter, then maybe an OSR experience might be the thing your game needs.
After all, there’s no school like the old school – right?
So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!