I just played my second session of DCC RPG (run by Josh from Being Giant) yesterday. Our first session was a zero level funnel with four character each. Two of mine survived, and became Natan the Cultist (wizard) and Javid the Thug (thief). I rolled for their alignment, and both turned out to be chaotic. Natan’s background was a trapper, so I’m picturing him a bit like a mountain man but with some voodoo going on. Javid was a scribe with an intelligence of 5, so he must have been a failure at that career, probably just writing random characters and hoping nobody would notice. For the second session, I generated another zero to serve as a retainer (Pergamoy the smuggler).
There was one other player in our second session, with a first level cleric, a first level halfling, and a newly generated zero. I have read the criticism that DCC is insufficiently lethal after zero level, but that was not our experience. Of our six characters, only two survived (Natan the Cultist and the halfling). The less fortunate were slain by the rakes and hoes of some sort of underworld gardeners. It’s true that characters reduced to zero HP get one round per level of bleeding out during which they can be saved, but that was not enough for us, even with a cleric in the party. I do think there is an aspect of the funnel which is 3d6 in order, four times, choose the best. The only character of mine that survived from my first four probably had the best scores. It seems natural to be more cautious with the character that has the most potential.
Characters above zero level also have a “not really dead” chance which is a luck check (it functions sort of like a saving throw), but the thief and the cleric both failed their second chance roll too. This is a nice compromise between danger and survivability (and is similar to how I play basic and original D&D, with a save versus death at 0 HP, success indicating unconsciousness rather than death).
Every class felt like it had interesting things to do without having a huge list of powers. The magic system really shined. For every spell (you begin with 4 + intelligence modifier), you roll for a unique side effect (this is called “mercurial magic”). For example, Natan becomes ravenously hungry every time he casts detect magic, (mechanically this is a personality penalty until he eats). Whenever he casts magic missile (which for him is a ray of frost), he changes something nearby into lead and something else into gold (determined randomly).
Spell checks are required for every casting, and you can use the spell again if you don’t fail the spell check (so the system offers more spells than traditional D&D without being unlimited). In practice, this felt very similar to my vancian variant 1 rule (save to retain spells), and I like it a lot (though I still think all those tables are probably overkill, and unique spell fumble charts might be a better use of that space). You don’t need to prepare specific spells beforehand though, which destroys the planning aspect of the magic-user class. The thief ability to burn luck for temporary bonuses was also nice. It allows you to have a greater chance of success on important rolls, without making the outcome certain.
Having absolute control over zero level characters that you don’t care very much about can lead to a hazardous style of play. (We used one of our zeros to fish for plant people in a pit.) I think I prefer how retainers are traditionally handled in D&D, where they are pseudo-NPCs. As a player, you can only partially control them, the referee can veto anything, and they are subject to morale checks. Also, if you mistreat retainers, it may become harder to hire more later. Since zeros are “PCs” though, and control over PCs is sacrosanct in D&D tradition, these constraints to not work.
Whatever else this game might be, it is not rules lite. It feels very similar to Third Edition D&D in play, with ability checks (roll high against a DC) replacing most skill checks. DCC lacks much of the customization complexity of 3E though, so it is much easier to get started, and doesn’t feel as overwhelming. There is little opportunity or pressure to optimize. We had to look things up several times, though I expect such need will decrease once we have played a few more sessions.
There are lots of tables that need to be used in play. Critical hit charts that vary based on class, general fumble charts, one chart per spell, and probably a few more that I am forgetting. That being said, I didn’t mind. All of these tables added to the fun of the game. It would be nice if the book had an index though, and it would also be nice if each spell chart was exactly one page. But those are minor issues. In any case, I’m really looking forward to my next session, and in the end I think that is the best for of praise for any game. (Also, I think Josh might have space for another player or two, if anyone is interested; we have been playing on Thursdays so far.)