Saturday, 24 May 2014

Advice to Players Part I

The following was originally written as part of the Player's Guide for RCFG.  This was my attempt to include a section of advice for players akin to what Gary Gygax included in the back of the 1st Edition Player's Handbook.  I have updated it to reflect the Dungeon Crawl Classics game system.  I hope that some find some useful bits of advice therein.  

I have ever been prone to seek adventure and to investigate and experiment where wiser men would have left well enough alone.

– Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars
At its heart, Dungeon Crawl Classics is a game about exploration and adventure.  This doesn’t mean that the Judge is a “story teller” whose job it is to devise a plot for Player Characters to follow, nor does it mean that Player Characters are necessarily destined to be heroes.

Your Judge will certainly throw out “hooks” that may lead to adventures.  Some of these will be red herrings, some will lead to riches, and some will lead to great adventures.  It is up to you, as a player, to set goals. 

Some characters may indeed grow to become great heroes.  Others might die or become incapacitated through poor judgement or worse luck.  When things go against you, try to remember that its part of the game.  Dungeon Crawl Classics characters are pretty easily made, and it shouldn’t take long to get back into the action.  You can also use henchmen and hirelings to take part in adventures where your primary character has been killed or incapacitated.

Preparing for an Adventure

When you are preparing for a game session, there are some steps you can take to increase your success, regardless of what sort of adventure is in the offing, or where it takes place.
  • Set a Goal:  There is nothing more important than setting a goal for each game session.  You don’t have to be bound by this goal – if circumstances change, your goal can change too.  Having a goal, however, helps to keep things moving during the game. Anything can be a goal:  Locating a new dungeon level, guarding pilgrims en route to a shrine, finding some specific area or treasure, or whatever else you can think of. It’s completely okay to have more than one goal, so long as you know what your primary goal is.  Likewise, everyone in a group can have personal goals, so long as there is some goal that unifies all the characters.
  • Update Your Character Sheet:  This is a simple expedient – make sure that your character sheet is up-to-date.  This is especially true if your character has gained a level.  Did you gain some treasure you haven’t marked on your sheet yet?  Did you discover some clue as to what that magic gem does?  Now is the time to mark it down.
  • Check Equipment:  While you’re updating your character sheet, check your spells and your equipment.  Considering the goals you set, do you have the equipment that you need?  If not, make a list, know how much you have to spend, and be ready to perform the necessary transaction(s) within as short a time as possible.  With your Judge’s permission, you may be able to do much of this before the actual game session begins.  If you know that you will be scaling the vast pit of offal known as Filthfall Middens, and you fail to bring rope and spikes, it is not simply bad luck if you fall into a deep pool of refuse.
  • Contact the Other Players:  All the personal preparation in the world is of little avail if you fail to contact the other players who will be sharing your expedition and ensure that you share a common goal.  Brainstorming sessions are a perfect time to review clues from previous sessions, make connections between characters and past events, and to plan how to deal with problems that you know you will encounter.  Talking about the game with the other players will not increase your chances of success, but it may also increase your excitement – and hence your fun – in the actual game session.
Death is always beckoning in Dungeon Crawl Classics.  Your job is to avoid answering, as often as possible!

These tales, of course, are obsolete and ridiculous; because they come down from very old times.

– H. P. Lovecraft, The Dunwich Horror
The Role of Intelligence

It is said that knowledge is power.  This is certainly true in Dungeon Crawl Classics.  The more you know about an adventuring area or an encounter before you commit to it, the better your chances are of profiting from the game session. 

There are many ways of gaining information in the game.  The simplest is to gather whatever rumours may exist about the adventuring area.  Be ready to spend a few coins to do this – loosening lips in the inn with a pint or two is a time-honoured tradition among adventurers.  The guards at the city gates, and watchmen on the night patrols, often see or hear of unusual happenings.  Beggars sometimes know things that others do not.

Consider also, Who is affected?, and What might they know?  For instance, if the Baron hires you to hunt down an ogre that has been stealing sheep from local farmers, those farmers might well have seen the creature’s tracks, and know what direction it was heading in.  They might even know where its lair is!

Sages often know more, but can be expensive to consult.

Local legends should not be entirely ignored.  At the same time, beware misinformation.  Rumours that contain a grain of truth might also be misleading.  The haunted house might be an abode of smugglers, rather than of the un-dead.

Divination spells are probably the most powerful, and most reliable, source of intelligence available to Dungeon Crawl Classics characters.  Use them!  Although there are spells and effects that can skew the outcome, and the answers can sometimes be cryptic, they are included to be useful, and a good Judge will keep this in mind.  Even if no PC can use divination magic, there may well be an NPC witch or oracle in the milieu.  A wizard or elf might be able to gain information from her patron - but there is always a price.

Finally, pay attention to your surroundings.  Few creatures live in a vacuum.  Monsters leave signs of their existence – “footprints” either figuratively or literally.  Even constructed opponents can affect the environment around them.

If nothing else, the presence of a victim indicates that something – trap, spell, or monster – was the victimizer.  Listen to your Judge’s descriptions, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. 

"Do you know what you are asking?" said the Fairy of the Desert, frowning, and looking at him suspiciously.  "Do you want me to employ my art against the Yellow Dwarf, who is my best friend, and take away from him a proud princess whom I can but look upon as my rival?"

– Andrew Lang, The Yellow Dwarf
Friends in All Places – High and Low

After your first successful adventure, you might be tempted to keep your share of the treasure, or to spend it all on new equipment and upkeep.  Of course, gaining XP means gaining power.  And kept gold can be used to better your equipment, which also means bettering your chances of survival.

Yet I would urge you to spread some of that wealth around.  Consider giving that emerald as a gift to the Duke.  Pass a few pieces of copper, and even silver, to beggars.  Buy a round of drinks at the tavern.  If the innkeeper’s daughter is marrying, give something of value to the happy couple.

These are the actions that win you friends, and you cannot know ahead of time when you might need them. 

When the beggars warn you that the militia is coming to arrest you, and the magistrate must take into account your friendship with the Queen, when the gaoler lets your friends in to see you, and the gate guards refuse to recognize you as you escape the city, you will know that your money has been well spent.

If you have never seen The Godfather (1972), I urge you to rent it and watch it.  The film explores a microcosm in which politics and the exchange of favours is fully illuminated.  It is, of course, also a very fine film!

Friendship is a two-way street.  Just as you might find yourself in need of aid, so might your friends need your help.   Many Judges delight in using danger to friends as adventure hooks.  Good Judges also have NPCs approach your character with offers of friendship and gifts as they gain power in the milieu – you will have to sift carefully through these offers to determine who you wish to associate with, and who are nothing more than sycophants.

But friends are worth it.  Good allies are worth more than gold.

The day seemed to wear away without an opportunity for the deadly combat, until they halted at a ford above where the village of Unadilla now stands.  Here they held a parley, as the stream was swollen and rapid.

– Hervey Keyes, The Forest King
Giving Them a Good Talking To

Sometimes it is possible to speak with other creatures, even if they are otherwise hostile.  This is called a parley.  Characters may be able to come to terms with other creatures, accepting surrender, surrendering, paying or accepting a bribe or ransom, or coming to terms in a truce.

The key to a successful parley is to determine what the other creature(s) want. 

Sometimes the Judge will have creatures tell you that they don’t want to talk.  Unless such a statement is followed up by an immediate attack or retreat, you should take it as a clue that you simply haven’t discovered what they want yet.  Many Judges enjoy the opportunity to role-play that comes with a parley, and reward their players accordingly.  Remember that no creature has better intelligence about what a dungeon contains than one who lives there.

Remember, too, that by willing to speak to creatures less powerful than your characters, you are setting a precedent that might one day save your characters’ lives.

In the meantime, there was no doubt of one thing; they kept an infamous bad watch. If it had been Silver and his lads that were now creeping in on them, not a soul would have seen daybreak.

– Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island
Keeping Watch

Keeping watch during an adventure is an important consideration.  Characters need to rest in order to heal and regain spells, but lying down to sleep in the middle of a dungeon or the wilds, with no one to watch for danger, can bring a sudden halt to a promising career.

There are two important elements to a proper watch:  staying awake and keeping alert.  Your Judge might require a check for either or both.  Staying awake usually requires a Fort or Will save.  DC 5 is average – although if the day’s events were particularly strenuous, or the characters are close to their last legs, the Judge is justified in raising this to 10, 15, or even 20.  

Remaining alert requires a Fort save with a similar DC.  Failure may result in the watch being surprised regardless of being awake.

House Rule:  Awakening

It is a DC 10 Luck check to awaken due to nearby shouting.  Newly-awakened characters are groggy, taking a –2d on the dice chain penalty to all rolls (including attack rolls, initiative, and saves), as well as a 2 penalty to AC.  These penalties are reduced to –1d and –1 to AC with a successful Fort or Will save (DC 15), and thereafter removed with another successful Fortitude or Willpower save (DC 10).  A character who spends an Action Die trying to wake himself up gains an extra save with a +4 bonus

"Woe to the rash mortal who seeks to know that of which he should remain ignorant, and to undertake that which surpasseth his power!"

– William Beckford, The History of the Caliph Vathek
Beware the Classic Cons

If something seems too good to be true, it often is.
Judges delight in setting up situations where the PCs are faced by classic cons.  This has been going on since the first die was rolled in the first session of the first role-playing game, and you can be certain that it will go in any game you play.

Some of the “classic” cons in adventure role playing are:

  • The quest where vital information is left out.  Especially when it turns out that the PCs are hired by the villain.  
  • "Free treasure" that turns out to be a monster or a trap.  Again, if it seems too good to be true.... 
  • Creatures that look like other, far more dangerous, creatures.  Actually, this is a classic con in nature, too, called mimicry.  Likewise, dangerous predators may attempt to pass themselves off as something harmless, the way a crocodile might appear similar to a floating log.


  1. I think that this advice column would also work for other RPGs beside DCC, such as classic D&D or Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

    1. Thank you. It was really intended for my own pet project initially, and should work with any game where there is a sustained and well-thought-out milieu. Moreover, following this advice should encourage the GM to maintain such a milieu.