Having recently played the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG for the first time (finally!), I found the experience exhilarating and hilarious as our bumbling 0-level characters found themselves immediately in over their heads and striving to tackle traps and dungeon guardians they couldn’t possibly defeat without incredible ingenuity and luck. It’s what makes the game great: the stuff you face can and should destroy you utterly, but — when the adventures are done right — there are little tips and tricks tucked away that can push things in your favor. If you look for them, roll good, and make use of them. It rewards good play and hangs on the occasional good score or dice roll, as opposed to just relying on good scores and lots of mechanical options and doodads to play with.
As I prepare to run DCC for the first time, as opposed to being a player, I co-opted something that will help reinforce the roleplay aspect of DCC for a new player, giving them deeper motivations to send their character into the heart of danger. I also came up with a little mechanic that can help the 0-level characters get a better fighting chance in an especially hard funnel adventure, one that also will provide them with useful prompts to help them learn some of the “good strategy” involved in D&D-style gaming, if they aren’t already familiar. This may sound like I’m being too nice of a Judge — DCC is by intent not a game in which you really should be a “nice” and giving GM — but if you know anything about Rappan Athuk, well, that’s the adventure I’m using as the funnel and later campaign, so I’m actually probably still being mean. The players just won’t know it as quickly.
To make it reasonable that a latrine-cleaner, Elven cartographer, and low-Dexterity locksmith would even team up to enter a dungeon filled with goblins and trolls and wraiths, proper motivation is key. It’s easy to just handwave things and start at the entrance of the dungeon with the PCs holding their pitchforks and kitchen knives aloft, but a little verisimilitude goes a long way, and for first-time or inexperienced gamers, giving them a roleplaying hook is a great way to get them to come up with a backstory for their character and maybe some dialogue to add to the game, without having them write paragraphs of history for each of their soon-to-die 0-level schleppers.
For the example below, I took a note from the Bonds section of Dungeon World and just came up with a couple possible situations that might’ve touched on the character’s lives. I don’t have grand designs here, just a couple one-sentence situations that might motivate someone to be rightfully pissed at a badguy and go hunting for them, despite all odds.
In all cases, I tell the players to choose one or roll (in this case 1d6). For reference, Ulman Dark is a necromancer, Kandra Dark is his wife (a bounty hunter) — they are both from the Zelkor’s Ferry area in the Rappan Athuk adventure — and Enelweth is an Elf slaver who I just made up that works with those two on occasion. The three of them are involved in an operation of abducting living people as well as stealing corpses that all go to a larger operation involving interplanar slavery and zombie-animation. Good times!
- Ulman “The Necromancer” Dark murdered your loved one. (Specify your loved one’s relationship: mother, father, brother, sister, grandpa, grandma, cousin, lover, son, daughter, best friend.)
- Ulman “The Necromancer” Dark stole the corpse of your loved one.
- Enelweth the Corpse-Trader bought the corpse of your loved one, and you are convinced they did something evil with it.
- Kandra Dark, a bounty hunter, arrested your wrongfully accused love one for some crime and sold them into slavery.
- A family heirloom — perhaps magically enchanted! — was stolen, and you are convinced it ended up in the hands of the Necromancer, Ulman Dark, for some nefarious purpose.
- You made money — perhaps grudgingly — by digging up corpses for an arrogant elf named Enelweth. He still owed you money when he died, and you know that it was Ulman Dark that was his benefactor.
As you can see, it basically boils down to:
- Badguy killed someone I care about
- Badguy did something else bad to person or thing I care about
- Badguy betrayed me
With those three motivations, you can motivate heroes and even some scumbags to do anything.
Because Rappan Athuk is supremely difficult, I’m framing the 0-level funnel as this big operation of local law enforcement conscripting locals (like the Player Characters) to fill out their numbers and assault the front gate of the dungeon in order to track down a terrifying criminal (Ulman Dark, mentioned above). I want the PCs to feel like the rubes they are at 0-level, but I also want them to have a fighting chance to breach the gate and get to the meat of the adventuring area, plus I’ve got players new to roleplaying games, so giving them just enough of a boost, plus a script of helpful strategies to learn from, can make the experience both last more than a single round of combat and more harrowing. More harrowing? Yeah, because they’ll see NPCs more skilled than they dying left and right, and that’s frightening.
Here’s how it works: The PCs get to fight with a number of trained soldiers. These are the dudes who conscripted the PCs and who are considered the “leaders” of the assault. They point the PCs in the direction of evil, and they lead the charge along with the PCs. They are better equipped than the PCs, too, but that doesn’t automatically translate to free loot the PCs can pick up when (not if!) these soldiers go down fighting, because as we all know equipment is breakable. We represent these soldiers by tokens (thus “soldier tokens”), for which you can use little glass beads, extra minis, extra dice, or whatever floats your boat.
But first: the teachable moments! As the PCs get their first taste for combat in the adventure, the soldiers go around shouting orders and strategies (as they start getting mowed down by whatever monsters meet them on the field of battle, which in the case of Rappan Athuk’s mausoleum level is a bunch of gargoyles!). They will shout things that act as good gaming tips, such as:
- “Concentrate your fire to take them down faster! The less of them there are, the less they can strike us!”
- “Use cover to your advantage!”
- “If your comrade dies, their weapons do them no good in the afterlife! Arm yourself!”
- “Run away to fight another day!”
This goes back to all the old school gaming philosophies that are very important to DCC specifically, but generally useful for seeing that at least one of your funnel characters actually survives to become level 1.
Each PC gets their Personality score divided by 3 in soldier tokens. So, Personality 12 divided by 3 = 4 soldier tokens. These tokens represent the soldiers that accompany the party, and are a lot easier to manage than an additional character sheet.
- When you take damage, you may instead kill a token. This represents a soldier dying, either protecting you or caught in the crossfire.
- The number of tokens you have is an amount of damage you can automatically deal to any one target in a round, at the end of your turn. This represents concentrated attacks by the soldiers.
- When a token dies, roll 1d4: [1-3] nothing additional happens,  they drop some loot (roll 1d8 on the table below). The rolls of 1-3 represent the fact that whatever hits the soldier took destroyed their gear, or that they dropped, threw as an attack, or lost their stuff during the chaos of the fight.
Here’s what they might drop on a roll of 4; roll 1d8 on this table:
- Short sword
- Short bow and 1d4 arrows
- Leather armor
- Coins: roll 1d30 copper pieces (cp), 1d16 sp, and 1d3 gp
- Sling and 1d4 stones
I’m being a little generous on this table, but like I mentioned, Rappan Athuk is absolutely brutal in every possible way, so I feel like it’s not too bad. In adventures that are less deadly, reduce the options to 1d4 (armor and shields are less likely to survive the effects of combat anyway) and maybe trade out the bow and arrows option (#4) with the sling option (#8). Or expand the options if you don’t mind giving the PCs a bone every now and again, such as adding the possibilities of heavier armor or a bigger sword.
As a note, I have it written down that once the players open the front door and head into Level 1 of Rappan Athuk, any soldier tokens they have remaining are lost. These are either soldiers that die holding the door against any attackers, or their morale breaks and they flee, or whatever you want, so long as these guys don’t last past those first couple of encounters. Knowing that these better-equipped, better-trained NPCs get utterly destroyed by the first few encounters will either add some fear to the players or embolden them for all the wrong reasons: just as adventurers should be! Either way, they won’t have the added ablative armor or resource drops that these soldier tokens represent for very long.
The point of all of this is that the PCs can simply make it past the first encounter area of Rappan Athuk (a gargoyle and rat/wererat-infested graveyard) and into the first level of the dungeon (where they’ll probably die anyway!). Or they have enough gear to flee relatively safely back to the encampment of the soldiers and maybe level up. Plus, it adds some roleplay opportunities on the field of battle, which shakes up combat nicely and can lead to further dialogue options when you factor in the PCs’ vendetta motivations. First-time roleplayers love this stuff, and it’s loose enough to ad-lib a lot of moments off of without derailing the adventure or overcomplicating character sheets.
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