Thursday, 19 May 2016

Dungeon Crawl Classics + Funnel Adventure

Zero Charisma. 
On Monday night we completed the funnel adventure for our first game of Dungeon Crawl Classics. Lewis again was in fine form as our DM and despite sacrificing more characters for the greater good (to avoid Total Party Kill), spirits were high. The final encounters were the stuff of a high-cthulhu-fantasy epic.

However, as we sat at the table leveling up to 1st level, choosing a class for the surviving characters and rolling new hit dice, I asked myself the question, "Is the Dungeon Crawl Classics funnel system any different from what we do normally?" Or is it a knee jerk reaction to the level creep that has existed since Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was released? I mean who would want to play a mere Fighter when the superior 'sub-classes' Ranger and Paladin are on offer?

Henchman = Meatshield
The funnel adventure is a meat grinder module for zero level characters. It's reminiscent of how we played back in the day with henchmen supporting our first 1st level characters. Each character could hire as many as allowed by their Charisma attribute. Those henchmen were often non-player character 'meatshields' but could be promoted to player characters when the need arose; essentially giving the players a chance to keep playing during a session if their character died. However, most henchmen were 1st level fighters. Preferably strong ones if we were following the rules for encumbrance.

My early days of D&D in the 80's often involved large groups of players to begin with. The first character I played was a hobbit, at primary school, with around twenty classmates. Later on, the library sessions at high school often had a dozen kids at the table. I recall the game where everyone died except Claris the Cleric. We were travelling down a dungeon corridor and opened a door to discover a solitary Orc. One by one our characters fell, slain by the Orc who held the doorway. Claris was at the tail end of the party with his trusty mace. Victory (and a costly lesson in tactics), was ours! Alex wrote down the experience points on his character sheet while the rest of us rolled up new characters.

Normal Humans = DCC Zero Level Characters
During those days of sudden character death it was just as common for a new character to be rolled up quickly while other players continued the game. The dead character would be quickly looted and out of the bushes, or around the next corner of the dungeon, a friendly fresh-faced adventurer would join the party.

Those early games were run using the early D&D rules. Not Advanced Dungeons & Dragons but the Mentzer boxed sets that came out in the early eighties. Our DM had the earlier (Whitebox and Moldvay) sets and hallowed AD&D rules, which we would soon progress to anyway.

The Moldvay Basic Set (page 40) told us that any Normal Human gaining Experience Points via adventuring must choose a character class. Normal Humans were listed in the monster section of the rules and were non-player characters run by the Dungeon Master. The player action began at 1st level. Unless you were playing in that quirky AD&D module that began with a shipwreck: Treasure Hunt.

Treasure Hunt 
Treasure Hunt (1986) was my first ever 'zero-level' adventure, where player characters earn their way to 1st level. The DM takes notes during play and player actions determine what class each character will evolve into; Fighters will have spent time fighting, Magic-Users investigating magic, Thieves being sneaky, etc. Everyone begins as a zero level shipwreck survivor and must equip and do the best they can with what they have. This was probably best exhibited by Geoff's homosexual half-orc but perhaps that's best left for another post?

The only other time I played a zero level character before Dungeon Crawl Classics was as a Cavalier (AD&D). It needs to be said that despite the continued (and massive) level creep inherent in the Unearthed Arcana character classes, like the (incredibly overpowered) Barbarian and Cavalier, the later had some really cool ideas; like a percentile mechanic for increasing attributes each level.

The Cavalier also had not one but two 'zero' levels (Horseman and Lancer) before reaching 1st level (Gallant). Of course a zero level Cavalier is not a Normal Human! They begin with the trappings of wealth and privilege. A far cry from the pitiful yet lovable characters we played in the funnel adventure. A Cavalier in our party would have stood out like proverbial dog's balls. In the spirit of DCC, we would have jumped him (while he slept) and dolled out his equipment to our jeweler, cheesemaker, forester, gambler, trapper, herbalist, sage, merchant, locksmith, cobbler, farmer and jester!

Sailors of the Starless Sea
So, how did our party fare as Sailors of the Starless Sea? Just under half made 1st Level! For the other less fortunate characters, even a great name or the occasional attribute bonus did not save them from random and senseless tragic endings. Hit Points are the only stat that matters on a character sheet.

Alys the Jeweler + Death by spear
Farold 'the Blessed' Winterborn + Death by mace
Bryndwr the Elven Forester + Death by flail
Lucky Brolt the Gambling Man - Thief 1st Lvl
John the Trapper + Death by Sea creature? 
Herbie Sweetleaf the Herbalist - Cleric 1st Lvl
Megan Fox the Elven Sage - Elf  1st Lvl
Honesty Jones the Merchant - Fighter 1st Lvl
Irasmus Oggon the Locksmith + Death by chest trap
Chuu Murcot the Cobbler - Fighter 1st Lvl
Enion Gug the Farmer + Death by drowning
Eibur Japthon the Jester + Death by cudgel

I am comparing DCC to D&D and not the other (numerous and varied) RPG's I have played because this is House Rules D&D with the roof set on fire. The zero level funnel is a gimmick and one that works. Why? It's in the spirit of the game. It really is no different to the attrition rate suffered in the first few levels of any D&D game. The first time I ran 3rd Edition D&D, the players lost half their characters in an ambush they set for a Troll. Their characters were tough and the traps they set were effective but they clearly underestimated the 3rd Edition Troll's new special abilities. Grievous the barbarian was torn in half!

In the immortal words of an INXS song, "Sometimes you kick, sometimes you get kicked," It's a learning experience.


  1. Enjoyable read. I agree... The funnel in DCC is just a reminder of what D&D used to be in early levels back in the day. I love the feel of the game. Old school feel but with greatly streamlined and accessible rule set. Have you taken a look at that old AD&D Dungeon Master Guide? This is a cakewalk, up until your jester gets killed with a cudgel.

    1. Of all the editions, I have played and DM'd more 1st Ed AD&D than the others. I wasn't a fan of 2nd and never played 4th. The latest edition is actually quite good. However it doesn't matter whether you are playing D&D, Warhammer, Bushido, Dragon Warriors, GURPS, Paranoia, Traveller, MERP, Gamma World, Dragon Quest, Maelstrom, Star Wars, Tunnels and Trolls, Rune Quest, Ars Magica, or any other RPG. What really matters is the people who turn up to play and the way they play that makes the game enjoyable. I am looking forward to playing a magic-user in DCC. Time to roll up some new characters.