Friday, September 16, 2011

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG: The Wizard

There are many things that I like about Goodman Games' Dungeon Crawl Classics Role-Playing Game (the name is not one of them). Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG (henceforth DCCRPG, blech) is, to a degree, a retroclone, in that it intentionally harkens back (in book art as well as rules) to the early days of Dungeons and Dragons. But it is a particularly deadly, dangerous game, even compared to others of its relative ilk.  This being said, probably the "worst" type of character one could play in DCCRPG is the wizard, based purely on the degree by which bad things can and will happen to the character.

The game world supposes that magic is inherently an extremely dangerous, alien, and corrupting thing, so that the more often someone uses it, the more likely it is that they will be permanently changed, maimed, or worse. When a wizard PC rolls a one on a spell check, the player must first roll on the spell fumble table, which can be as innocuous as a small explosion nearby, or as bizarre as a torrential rain of iron ingots (it doesn't say that they will necessarily cause damage, but I can't imagine a situation where heavy metal suddenly begins raining down upon your head and it NOT hurting). But ADDITIONALLY, the wizard character must also face a roll on the corruption table, since when magic goes wrong, it goes very, very wrong. Corruption is, for the most part, permanent, and also very obvious.  It can be the character's ears falling off, their limbs turning into tentacles, a permanent case of weeping pustules all over the face, one's mouth being replaced by a beak, or growing a tail with a third hand at the end. One can only imagine a very old wizard to being a repugnant, shivering mound of flesh, worse than a chimera and hardly able of speech of locomotion. Furthermore, one wonders why anybody, in this world, would want to be a wizard at all. Given, there is only a 5% chance of failing, and given that many corruption effects are not that bad, over time, the probability becomes staggering. Pair this with the fact that when a wizard learns a new spell, it is possible that it will be difficult to cast, requiring the use of a d14 or a d16 rather than a d20, raising the likelihood of corruption to 6 or 7% every time a spell is cast.

In analysis of this, I can only guess that this system was put into place as an alternative to the Vancian system of older editions of D&D. Typically, in DCCRPG, if a wizard succeeds on a spell, it is not lost and can be cast again. This is a great improvement, in my eyes, over the set-and-forget one a day Vancian system. However, if the spell fails, one suffers all of the effects above, plus the loss of the ability to cast that spell anymore for the rest of the day. So even after all that, you still fail. Unless, of course, you perform some horrific act of self-mortification called "Spellburn" to regain the spell, which can even result in temporary stat loss (there is a picture of a wizard stabbing a knife through his hand) until the wound heals. All of these things, corruption, mercurial magic, spellburn, spell fumbles, are completely random. You have to roll on tables.

This is completely insane, to me. It completely takes away the roleplay aspect of the wizard, and makes it seem like the character is not in control of their own actions. Especially in regards to spellburn, it seems like it would make a lot more sense for the player to be able to choose what type of self-mortification they would like to engage in, for a similar level of effect in regaining the spell. For instance, maybe the player only wants to burn some of their hair; maybe then that the spell would be regained, but instead of a d20 you can only roll a d12. The most bizarre spellburn action is if you roll a 1 on the table: "The wizard sacrifices one pound of flesh per spell level, which he must carve from his own body with a knife that is holy to a powerful outsider." WHO CAME UP WITH THIS? One, if you cut a pound of flesh out of your own body, YOU WOULD ALMOST CERTAINLY BE MORTALLY INJURED, and even if you weren't, you'd be bleeding so badly you couldn't do anything except lay there for a while until you died or passed out. Secondly, where would this holy knife suddenly appear from? What if you rolled a one, but shucks you were fresh out of holy knives to powerful outsiders? Would you have to roll again to try to get another result? This doesn't seem to be a very well thought-out system, and honestly if I ran a DCCRPG game, I would not include this rule, period. Losing a spell on a failure is fine. You get it back the next day, you'll just have to use your crossbow until then.

Let me take a second to recompose myself here. Anyway, this is not a case of "he who summons the magic, commands the magic." This is a case of "he who summons the magic is completely screwed." Though magic comes from immensely powerful and ineffable extraplanar entities who obviously do not have much stake in humans besides as playthings, the onerous punishments for being an ordinary wizard doing ordinary wizard things seems a bit extreme; the idea is great, but I can't imagine an actual person playing a wizard in this game and having fun for long, as they become less and less able and more and more hideous, while the Fighter literally can do no wrong. If I were to run a game like this, I would be very tempted to highly modify the wizard rules in order to make the class more playable. I can't tell whether DCCRPG wants to be more deadly and serious, or more zany and goofy, since it seems to want both, and it creates a very jarring experience in the process.

Foremost, I would allow a willpower save against the corruption every time a spell is failed. Spell misfires are fine, I can deal with that, I just wish the table was more expansive. I would also allow for the possibility of the corruption effects being reversible, however at great cost or very difficultly is completely fine. An alternative to that would be from within the rules themselves: many effects from misfired spells wear off after 1d7 days, 1d7 weeks, 1d7 months, etc.; an arbitrary and random amount of time, that'd be fine.  Rather than the wizard becoming an increasingly disfigured mound of undifferentiated flesh with tentacles, beaks, claws, and wings sticking out of it like some miniature toy breed of shoggoth with bad acne, give the guy a break.

Wizards receive their magical power from extraplanar patrons; why can't they try to appease their patrons after failing a roll by accepting this... alteration, but then after a period of time they are returned to (mostly) normal. Or maybe they can remove a sign of corruption by giving something up; a spell, one point off a stat, something to the tune of the spellburn table. Or maybe they can even just temporarily lose the use of the spell that caused the corruption altogether, until they can overcome the corruption it caused. Give the player a little bit of control and a few choices, or else the forced randomness only creates a different kind of rails for the game to follow. Warriors deal more damage, more easily, with fewer penalties for failing, and look better while doing it. There is no mechanical reason in this game to be a wizard, and in fact players will probably end up feeling like they are being punished for playing one. There has to be a better way to handle a world where magic is inherently dangerous that does not involve systematically (and randomly) deconstructing a character and transforming it into something that the player wouldn't want to play anymore.

Postscript: I suppose it should be mentioned that these are the beta rules, so the wizard might be much less unplayable in the final form. I am a little disappointed that the publication date for the final rules was pushed off until February, this is one of my most anticipated new games, despite my less than generous attitude in this article. Even with these rules, I would love to run a game in which there was a wizard, maybe even two wizards, to see how the rules actually play out in practice, so all of my comments above are purely on a theoretical level having just read the rules.

1 comment:

  1. I've been playing a DCC Wizard for about 5 sessions now, and I love it. Magic is super dangerous, but it's also very powerful -- much more powerful than an AD&D 1st level wizard would ever wield. Although a lot of the rules in DCC seem arbitrary and deadly, in practice it's fun as hell. Try playing, it's the most fun I've had with a fantasy RPG in years.