RPG Review: Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG from Goodman Games, Part V

Why is it that I have the lyrics to “It’s a Kind of Magic” by Queen going through my head? (No, it’s not because Ryan Reynolds was recently rumored to be cast in the Highlander reboot and I want to run screaming from the news.) Perhaps it’s because I have been pondering the craziness of magic. Magic in the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG offers a tantalizing mix of ideas, both in terms of randomness and the different “costs” of such power.

The mechanics of magic, just like the rest of the system so far, seem pretty common sense. Casting a spell? Roll 1d20, add your caster level, and add your Intelligence modifier (or Personality modifier if you’re a cleric). Each spell has a table of results to check your result against. Make it? Cool, you get the effect listed. Didn’t make it? Bummer, again – look at the table to see what happens. A Natural 20 is a critical success. A Natural 1 is a failure.

Spell work is clearly left to the professionals, though anybody can try to read a scroll or cast a spell. Rolling a d10 with no bonuses vs. a d20 however means you’re typically doomed to failure (and seriously bad results).

Get into trouble where you need an extra boost? Use what’s called “Spellburn.” No, this isn’t quite like freezer burn or razor burn… You can sacrifice points of your own ability scores (need a guaranteed success? spend just enough points of abilities to make sure your roll doesn’t fail) – and they eventually return over time, healing 1 point of ability score per day. Maybe the wizard is offering those points to a demon or god… Just be careful what those patrons may require in return. There are some great examples (table 5-1) of potential “spellburn” actions – like spilling your own blood (1 tbsp per spell level), branding a symbol into your arm, helping out a strange cult… or worse.

But before I go too much further, I have to talk about the “Mercurial Magic” table. The idea here is that every spellcaster is different and as such, affects how the magic of a particular spell manifests itself. This goes beyond the spell effect table for each spell. EACH spell has a different mercurial effect. And you roll percentile dice on the table for each spell the wizard learns. There are five pages of potential effects here… From (01) someone the wizard knows dying each time he or she casts the spell (99) to being a natural-born talent at a particular spell and gaining a better die roll (i.e. if you normally roll a d20, now you roll a d24 or d30 – whatever’s next up the die chain).

Then there are other tables in here for the corruption a caster may incur if they fail a casting roll… Maybe you get horrible pustules, mutated ears, horns, height or weight changes, tentacles, crab claws, or whatever…

You remember that a few parts of this review ago I talked about how I loved how clerics could get in the doghouse with their patron deity if they failed casting rolls? I still love that. But I’m really not sure what to think about the seemingly completely random effects and combinations of effects that happen for wizards. Though on the one hand, I think random effects will keep things lively as far as magic used in combat, I have to wonder how crazy it would be once characters are at higher levels trying to keep track of the various adjustments, benefits, and drawbacks of the various spells in their grimoire.

Would I really choose to use a spell that could possibly mean the death of someone I know as a character? Probably not unless I absolutely had to do so. I might end up with whole sets of spells that are completely unusable due to the effects that surround them.

When we played the DCC RPG Free RPG Day adventure a few weeks ago, I was struck by how bizarre it was to have to roll for a different effect each time a cleric prayed or the wizard cast a spell. Thankfully we didn’t have to deal with the consequences of failure. But I would imagine that it could get quite old having to roll every time for entire campaigns… Maybe not. Maybe it would keep things from getting stale.

With 200 pages of spells in multiple levels and forms reminds me of some of the old D&D “Spell Encyclopedia” references I used to see at game stores. Hundreds of pages of details, tables, and pictures of spells for every conceivable situation. Thankfully DCC RPG really only has five levels with 80-90 spells and a few higher-power “patron spells” to deal with. So it’s not too hard to narrow the field and pick a few spells here or there and move on. And the traditional ones like “Magic Missile,” “Magic Shield,” “Sleep”, etc. make it easy to pick a few solid stand-bys, though they may not actually work the way you’d remember.

As an example of that, we used “Magic Missile” quite a bit in the Free RPG Day adventure and it varied from a single missile at a target in line of sight to 3d4+2 missiles to a target the caster has a physical memento of and the target has to be somewhere within 100 miles. Oh – and in the first case, the missile does 1 point of damage. And in the second case, it does 1d10+caster level. Imagine sending 140 points of damage to a destination without a chance of missing.

Perhaps the fickle dice gods will be kind to you in your time of need. Or not. You know those dice gods. Can’t trust ’em.

So I don’t know about all the randomness. I think there’s some amazingly cool stuff here. And I like that there’s a cost to wielding magic. But I think if I was running a game using these rules, I’d ponder some house rules to make things a little more consistent. Maybe.

What do you think? Anybody playing DCC RPG consistently at the moment? What are your thoughts about the extended use of randomness in a long-running campaign?

(This is part V of the ongoing review of DCC RPG. Check here for part Ipart II, part III, and part IV. I’m slowly working my way through this 400+ page tome and enjoying every minute of it so far!)

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