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[DCC RPG] Dungeon Crawl Classic's Implied Setting

Galadrin

Registered User
Validated User
At first glance, the implied setting of the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG is one of ancient tombs, bizarre enemies, irresistable treasure and dangerous magic. DCC is a game of chances, where something is constantly happening. Characters can be stymied by fumbles or transformed into creatures by their own magic just as often as they can maim gargantuan enemies with critical hits or escape certain death with a lucky roll. The dice mechanics make these events relatively frequent, so that something is always happening in the scene and every decision involves a gamble. The effect is that the story being told is closer to a pulpy science-fantasy novel than the slow, predictable and calculated progression that roleplayers are used to. True, characters do become more powerful, but there is always danger and never a guaranteed payoff. DCC is gritty in the sense that players have to claw every gemstone and coin from the judge that they can. The judge should not always be perfectly impartial, either. After all, life isn't always fair.

In my opinion, if you are playing this game as you would D&D (a band of plucky heroes tasked with figuring out mysterious, fighting evil and protecting the innocent), then you are doing DCC a disservice. Of course, everyone knows the best playstyle for their group, but DCC characters will eventually become something that their rescuees will hate: scarred, mutated and cursed veterans that do not really belong in polite society. DCC heroes do not retire; they conquer until there is nothing left to conquer, and are left like restless and aged Conan on his throne.

I am interested in what everyone else is gathering from the implied setting of DCC. There is a lot to say mechanically just as there is a lot to gather from the setting covered in the rulebook and suggested by the artwork. The author seems intent on returning to a what-if D&D based entirely on the inspirational reading of Appendix N, but this requires "unlearning" D&D as such. What is this teaching us about 1970's fantasy?
 

harpy

Retired User
Before encountering DCC I had begun reading or rereading Appendix N stuff on my own to get a better idea of the mindset of how D&D developed back in the day. It was a pleasant surprise to then come across DCC, since it was tackling that thematic backdrop head on.

What I discovered in myself in both reading Appendix N novels, along with DCC is that I'm both drawn to and repelled by the whole "oeuvre." I was born in '72 and so I lived through enough of the 70's to get a sense of the brown gloom of the decade, however I was also young enough that it didn't really stick. Particularly because of Star Wars. Appendix N is decidedly pre-Star Wars in it's view of the world. It's fatalistic, cynical, gloomy, and devil-may-care. It's also completely understandable. You've got the cold war, Vietnam, oil embargoes, and the culturally the world is being reformatted during the 60's and 70's with civil rights, the women's movement, pop culture... on and on. For myself though, all of that wasn't really sticking because I had burned into my 5 year old brain the older hero's journey via Star Wars, plus copious amounts of rereading Tolkien. I had my horizon shaped by the idea that the world may be grim and dark, but there are an elite fated few who will be able to rise up to confront the darkness, saving and rejuvenating the community. It's because of that framing old school D&D never quite sat well with me. While it might be a bit less fatalistic than DCC, it still had an overall tone that didn't reflect the Star Wars values that I was locked into.

So that's kind of the problem I have. I'm straddling two different worldviews and wish they could be rectified. One way of explaining it is that I'd want one of my PCs to be like Gandalf but placed into the Dying Earth series. Despite all of the petty bickering, voracious grasping for ioun stone power, and glib attention to morality, my character would be a moral anchor through the milennia, safeguarding a purity that transcends the long profane walk into Earth's oblivion. The gritty fatalism is there to give clarity to hero's journey.

I suppose another way of looking at is would be to have a Star Wars dramatic arc, but it looks like Monty Python's Holy Grail along the way.

The challenge today is that the culture is rather different from the 70's, though some of the historical events have similarity. One could, if you squint a bit, see parallels:

Cuban Missile Crisis = 9/11
Vietnam = Iraq/Afghanistan
Oil Embargo = Great Recession
Cultural Revolution = Technology Revolution

It's like today the stresses exist, but just on a smaller scale almost across the board. It's a bit gloomy right now, but not as bad as then and the pop cultural memes we have to draw upon are more potent, nuanced and varied than before.

So there is room for more fatalism today to draw people in, but you also have a lot of powerful counter weights with the imagination, mixed in with an information culture that lets people insulate themselves from broader social trends.
 

Galadrin

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Validated User
Interesting, I had never really associated grim, dark fantasy with the current events happening in the world at that time. I don't think I would want to go so far as to make heroic adventure depressing, but something can be said about how the process of adventuring affects and changes the hero in Dungeon Crawl Classics. I noticed this first with the wizard, who succumbs to numerous transformations and mutations by the time they reach level 10. The same can be said of warriors, who become scarred by critical hits, and clerics, who can become cursed and betrayed by their deities. It makes me wonder if the end-of-game goal of building a fortress isn't just to throw up walls to keep the world out (rather than to become a king and rule the world). The result of adventuring seems somewhat lonely, as the process of adventuring is something that changes you and makes you too alien to truly return home. I can't help but think of Conan, who loses his home physically just as much as spiritually (as he becomes something that could never return to that life). I can see parallels with soldiers returning from modern wars, I suppose.

But again, that might be too depressing, and I am not sure I am happy with it going that far. After all, my point was really just to highlight that DCC heroes (in my mind) adventure for wealth and power, not to "save the innocent" (as D&D is often played these days). So maybe that wealth and power is a balancing factor, so that DCC heroes do become alien to the "simple lives" they previously led, but instead of hated by society, they become rightly feared by society. Whether they use their power for good or evil depends on their alignment and worldview, so that a scarred veteran who rose to level 10 and rules over a city can be a tyrant or a champion of the needy (although he is feared regardless). I think this is closer to the literature anyway. I always found it somewhat emasculating how modern D&D characters can become beloved folk heroes that drink their ale with the common man. The hero should be different enough from commoners that this friction causes a kratophany (from Mircea Eliade's term for the moment in primitive religions of the appearance of such immense power that it induces fear and also worship).
 
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Alcamtar

Grog-nerd
Validated User
The result of adventuring seems somewhat lonely, as the process of adventuring is something that changes you and makes you too alien to truly return home.
Hmm, this is actually a pretty common theme in fantasy. A few off the top of my head:

- Bilbo
- Frodo
- Conan
- Elric
- Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser - they never return home, they settle in Lankhmar instead with their ghosts
- Morgon (the Riddlemaster of Hed)
- Gord
- Protagonists in any of Lovecraft's stories
(I'm sure there are more but I'm drawing a blank. This is a common theme in movies too. As soon as I click submit I'll think of more examples!)

As gamers we all have fond memories of our first games, and what drew is into gaming. But as the years go by and we learn and grow and try new games, we do not enjoy those first games in the way we once did. In a real sense, other games and new ideas ruined it for us. It is also true of my other hobbies. And my career.

And I think can be generalized to people, to life in general. You grow up. Even if you could go back to your youth, would you truly be able to enjoy it? Innocence is bliss, but ignorance always lost and replaced with knowledge. and for most of us, cynicism.
 

timbannock

Member
RPGnet Member
Validated User
Hmm, this is actually a pretty common theme in fantasy. A few off the top of my head:

- Bilbo
- Frodo
- Conan
- Elric
- Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser - they never return home, they settle in Lankhmar instead with their ghosts
- Morgon (the Riddlemaster of Hed)
- Gord
- Protagonists in any of Lovecraft's stories
(I'm sure there are more but I'm drawing a blank. This is a common theme in movies too. As soon as I click submit I'll think of more examples!)

As gamers we all have fond memories of our first games, and what drew is into gaming. But as the years go by and we learn and grow and try new games, we do not enjoy those first games in the way we once did. In a real sense, other games and new ideas ruined it for us. It is also true of my other hobbies. And my career.

And I think can be generalized to people, to life in general. You grow up. Even if you could go back to your youth, would you truly be able to enjoy it? Innocence is bliss, but ignorance always lost and replaced with knowledge. and for most of us, cynicism.
Lighten up, dude!

;-P j/k

On a serious note, though, you have struck on a very "fundamental" fiber of these stories, one that I don't think translates well to tabletop RPGs quite in the way it does other forms of storytelling. By its nature, tabletop is a little bit more of a collaborative effort, and unless you're in a really small group -- or playing a very narrow set of games -- cooperation among adventurers is pretty much assumed to some degree. Often, the only "us vs. them" that comes out of this is either an "us vs. the GM" or an "us vs. the NPCs" mentality, and thus it's not about the loneliness or the change that the PCs face internally, but more about the adversarial nature of the plot/NPCs towards the PCs.

It's a subtle divide, but I think it's something that most games don't really care to bring up, while other games focus on it in interesting ways. The One Ring actually has some mechanics that relate to it, but D&D never really has, which I think is why the in-game economy of D&D is always screwy ;-)
 

Kevin Mowery

WAUGH!
Validated User
Hmm, this is actually a pretty common theme in fantasy. A few off the top of my head:

- Bilbo
- Frodo
- Conan
- Elric
- Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser - they never return home, they settle in Lankhmar instead with their ghosts
- Morgon (the Riddlemaster of Hed)
- Gord
- Protagonists in any of Lovecraft's stories
(I'm sure there are more but I'm drawing a blank. This is a common theme in movies too. As soon as I click submit I'll think of more examples!)
Pretty much every good western movie ever.
 

The Disgruntled Poet

Registered User
Validated User
... I was born in '72 and so I lived through enough of the 70's to get a sense of the brown gloom of the decade, however I was also young enough that it didn't really stick. Particularly because of Star Wars. Appendix N is decidedly pre-Star Wars in it's view of the world. It's fatalistic, cynical, gloomy, and devil-may-care. It's also completely understandable. You've got the cold war, Vietnam, oil embargoes, and the culturally the world is being reformatted during the 60's and 70's with civil rights, the women's movement, pop culture... on and on.
I think this sort of misses the point of Appendix N chronologically speaking. Many of the most important authors on the list were dead before the 70s. (Lovecraft, Howard, Merritt, Pratt). Others like Vance and deCamp had most of their seminal works done by the 70s. That right there is the "sub-list" that Gygax references as being the most important influences of AD&D and they are actually more early-to-mid 20th century writers than 1970s writers. If anything, they were products of the intense changes wrought by industrialization, the Great Depression, and the first two world wars.
 

harpy

Retired User
I think this sort of misses the point of Appendix N chronologically speaking. Many of the most important authors on the list were dead before the 70s. (Lovecraft, Howard, Merritt, Pratt). Others like Vance and deCamp had most of their seminal works done by the 70s. That right there is the "sub-list" that Gygax references as being the most important influences of AD&D and they are actually more early-to-mid 20th century writers than 1970s writers. If anything, they were products of the intense changes wrought by industrialization, the Great Depression, and the first two world wars.
But even then, the works that are being selected are riddled with anxiety, fatalism and entropy. I think though I was confusing above because I was blending both the authors of the books, and the authors of D&D together. A lot of the point I was trying to make is that it wasn't just what was being read in Appendix N, it was the time period they were living in that shaped their worldview and subsequently the type of play that was being aimed for.

The contrast is post Star Wars, the Regan "a shinning city on the hill" 80's optimism, the end of the Soviet Union, the illusion of the end of nuclear armageddon, the short in-and-out victory of the Gulf War, the massive explosion of console games and personal computers, and then the internet and prosperity of the 90s, plus cell phones and PDAs. Growing up in that 20 year time span was almost a totally different worldview from previous generations. It was, to a young persons eyes, one positive thing after another. It was Hegelian spirit of progress just rolling through history. Meanwhile pop culture was echoing back all of this positivity, making an echo chamber out of it all.

It's that historical contrast that helps in part explain the difference between old school and new school approaches to play. There is a stoicism in old school play that is born out of the cultural influences that shaped it. There is a heroicism that is likewise baked into new school play that is being derived by the culture that fermented it over several decades.
 

The Disgruntled Poet

Registered User
Validated User
But even then, the works that are being selected are riddled with anxiety, fatalism and entropy. I think though I was confusing above because I was blending both the authors of the books, and the authors of D&D together. A lot of the point I was trying to make is that it wasn't just what was being read in Appendix N, it was the time period they were living in that shaped their worldview and subsequently the type of play that was being aimed for.
..
I think you're onto something in the oldschool (fatalism, entropy) vs. newschool (optimism, sanitized) approach generally, but I wouldn't tie it to history, as broadly as you are doing, or at least not 70s vs. 80s (since again, most of Gygax's inspirations were early to mid 20th century). If anything, the fatalism came out of an older generation of writers who had lived through the turbulence of this murderous century, culminating in the huge slaughters of WWII and the Holocaust.

In a nutshell, I think later post-AD&D versions were less fatalistic and grim because of 1) Marketing and legal decisions TSR made in the 80s, and 2) Fantasy literature generally got sort of dumbed down by never-ending Tolkien clones and their ilk. Kids and their parents like happy endings, right? And TSR /WOTC was in the business of selling as many rulebooks as possible... so after a while, they kept the genre assumptions as bright and generic as possible. I hardly blame them for that... their moves in this regard were right in line with their commercial plan.

The great thing about the OSR and the Internet is that hobbyists who enjoy those more rarified niches can explore them to our hearts' content with no/little worry about commercial considerations.

Crypts & Things is the latest example of many such things...
 

Stainless

Not enough time!
Validated User
Please tell me what's "fatalistic" about Paladins and lawful good alignments? What's "optimistic" about the utterly bizarre (to my mind) obsession by modern RPGs with post-apocalyptic settings and vampires?

With the greatest respect, I think you're all taking out of your rears.

What I personally see in new school compared to old school is a design mindset that expects everything now and for little personal effort. Is it any wonder in the age of Internet information, online shopping, mobile phones, cable TV, wireless, laptops, 7-days-a-week shopping, one-stop shopping malls, key-hole surgery, etc. Of course it's understandable that the "younger generation" should take convenience, ease and immediacy for granted. The media has also been greatly responsible for morphing traditional fictional concepts into superhero-esque forms (e.g., the "old school" pirate meme is becoming almost unrecognisable when you view it the light of the Pirates of the Caribbean).
 
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