Sunday, November 10, 2019

Dungeon Crawl Classics: Lankhmar Review

Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar Review
Publisher: Goodman Games
Date Received: July 2018(PDF) November 9, 2019 (Physical)
Retail Price: 59.99 USD


Goodman Games has been attempting boxed sets for quite some time. I won't be discussing the megadungeon, Castle Whiterock. I'm here to talk about the DCCRPG line of products. Dungeon Crawl Classics: Lankhmar (hereafter shortened to DCCL) is the third boxed set for their lovely, but somewhat flawed RPG, DCC. The first two efforts were adventures that were kickstarted due to the odd components they would use for the adventure. DCC loves its gimmicks, after all, but while they were both just "adventures that needed a box to hold their supplementary material in", DCCL is a completely different beast, and I'm going to review each component in the order you'd unbox it in.

The Box
The Chained Coffin and Peril on the Purple Planet came in somewhat flimsy boxes that would warp and bend rather easily. If I had to rate the box material, I'd give it a solid 5/10. They were sturdier than most WotC boxed sets released for the current edition (5e for future kids), but DCCL takes a big step up. It seems to be a millimeter or two thicker, but while that was likely quite expensive, it feels much sturdier and I don't feel as cautious as I do with the orders when placing things on top of it in my shelf. As for extra space - no. This boxed set might be able to hold one or two extra adventures inside of it, but to do that you'd need to toss out the Road Crew and Goodman Games Gazette, and you won't want to be doing that. I give it a 8/10.

The Miscellany
The Goodman Games Gazette, dated January 2019 is full of interviews, and a handful of content for DCCL, including a ridiculous 1d30 table. There's a sheet of paper in mine that came with a code for using it on DTRPG, and the art on it is surprisingly evocative considering. This is followed by the standard Road Crew posters for Road Crew 2019. I give them a 6/10.

The Maps
The game comes with 3(?) maps. There's a fourth, cloth map you can purchase which looks quite impressive, but I may have had a packaging error because I got two city maps and a world map. The City Map is large - it's not wide, it's long, so it'll fit on most gaming tables no problem. It's full color and it's a map of Lankhmar, which if you didn't know what that was would be difficult to distinguish from the generic fantasy city maps. It's very functional, though, and that's going to come up later.
The world map is in black and white and it's much more stylized. You won't be laying that transparent grid paper over the map and using it as a reference for overland travel here! (Did anyone ever actually do that?) Otherwise, they really let Doug Kovacs go, as they say, "buck wild" .I give them a 9/10.

The Judge's Screen
The Judge's Screen is a pretty standard fare for RPGs, but this isn't a nice, thick cardboard one. It's very much like most of the others I have for DCC. It's glossy, but the cardboard is very thin. Other confusing choices was to simply put the box art on the front, and then for the two other player-facing flaps, there's the crit table (monsters) which is just the one from the DCC corebook. The other flap has random lankhmar building generation, a currency conversion table, a list of the various healing potions (more on this later) and a lighting table. These are generally readable. On the Judge-facing side, we start to run into accessibility problems, which is a normal part of GMing these days in the OSR.

A bit of a disclaimer, I'm not exactly blind, but as I've been getting older, I've been finding it harder and harder to read small, tiny, itty-bitty text. The OSR has major accessibility problems with this because it loves to simply just drop the font size to keep it all fitting on the same page. The Judge's Screen's Judge facing side is tiny and it's not overly great. These materials are meant to be for quick reference, and if I have to squint, shine a light on, use my phone camera and zoom in etc etc etc you've made it far too inconvenient for something that's supposed to increase convenience.

There's also problems with the layout. DCCL's Judges screen is very basic, and while this isn't going to bother most people, as someone who has been learning how to do graphic design and layout and such, I find it somewhat unimpressive that DCCL is using layout tools that one would find in word, default border and table settings, etc. It's a common problem with DCC overall, but I figured I'd add it in here. This screen just does nothing for me. 1/10.

The Starter Adventure
DCC #0: No Small Crimes In Lankhmar comes with the boxed set, and it's about what you'd expect Kovacs and Poag make a great team and the art is a treat. It's a simple adventure and requires a bit of work from the GM to make work. You enter the house and promptly shrink. Shrinking in such a manner was in The Swords of Lankhmar, and naturally the adventure has many references to the undercity from that great book. It can also function as a meet, which is explained more below. The adventure is otherwise very standard, with the players "crawling" over the floors and having to do a lot of climb and search checks to figure out where to go. There's also a fun "signs of the cat" which functions as one of the "big bads" in this adventure. Each room you enter, you find "signs" that the cat is in here and once you've run out of signs, the cat springs forth and attacks. I've run this adventure about 4 times and it always did a good job in building up tension. Some issues persist: there's very little explanation as to how long it would take to cross floors, climb stairs, etc in your shrunken state. You're as tall as a rat - this changes the scale of things, does it not? These things are left up to GM arbitration, which might not be ideal for some Judges. 7/10

Lankhmar City Book
Lankhmar: City of the Black Toga is the book that handles the meat of the city-crawling in this boxed set. It's great. The cover art is interesting and the back of the product features a d100 table of Lankhmar street names. The end-papers are utilized as well - they have included these wonderful little hex-shaped street sections on each section of the city, with space for writing notes - this is a wonderful idea and it's hard not to love it just on that alone - as far as street crawling goes, this is one of the more useful Judge Aids.
After that, there's alot of Vornheim in this book. There's no big map of the city that's keyed, instead the book comes with a myriad of tables for quick generation - and at a readable font too! Random building generators, air quality and lighting tables, random street dressing, something that too few city books have.

The general way that crawling in a city is handed, then, is the quarters. Sections of Lankhmar are broken up into quarters and come with a batch of plot hooks and usually area-specific NPC generators. There are tables for shops, nobles, underlings, boats, etc. This is all wonderful stuff. It's going to cut down on session prep like you've never seen. It does mean that unless you're using the hex sheets, you're going to essentially conjure up a different, say, Plaza of Dark Delights every single time you go there, but Lankhmar is vast and most of these quarters are, too.

Then, there's also the "rogue's gallery" which features various Lankhmar characters. Interestingly enough, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser come with three stat blocks, one for them when they first met, one for their middle ages, and one for their "retirement" at the end of the series. It's a clever idea. I don't really dislike any part of this! It's a big improvement over the bizarre TSR offering where Farhd and the Mouser were over level 20 and multiple classes, now they're just decently powerful enemies (which is fair, F&GM were never superheroes).

Finally, there's the "neighborhood generator" and this might be the best feature in the city book. Giving players a "stronghold" wouldn't really work in Lankhmar unless they were able to purchase the Rainbow Palace, but in DCCL, you get your "neighborhood" which serves as your base of operations for adventuring in the city, including a specific "base" which is usually a hideout behind a front operation. This kind of stuff is so much fun. Then, you have interesting neighborhood residents, neighborhood secrets, and adventure seeds (yes, even more). This is definitely the star of the show. 10/10

Compendium of Secret Knowledge
This booklet is all of the rules changes for DCCL, because DCCL is not a simple setting book, it changes stuff! Which is good, because I have to start by saying I don't care for the art on the cover of this one. A fairly generic tavern, ho-hum. The endpages are a bunch of drawings of generic NPCs with spots for names and a too-small section for notes. Still, it's nice to see.

But what is different? Well, let me summarize quickly:
- No funnels, you start at level 1.
- No demi-humans.
- No clerics.
- Character creation is more involved, you roll backgrounds, boons (think feats) and banes (think...anti-feats). These range from cool items you gain at character creation, to the location of buried treasure only you know about, extra attacks, etc. It's fun. Some of the boons are actually class features from the demi-humans. You can take on more, but it costs luck to do so, and you also take on more banes.
- The Warrior can add his AGI modifier to his AC.
- The Thief doesn't change much.
- The Wizard loses mercurial magic and corruption, but gains "spell stipulations" and a milder corruption. The spell stipulations are much less punishing than the corebook's ones, there's no "and then the campaign ends as you summon Cthulhu" effects. There's black and white magic, and some spells are retroactively designated as such.
- Damage and Healing is changed. You cannot be healed with Lay On Hands anymore, as it doesn't exist as a spell. So, you can spend your luck to roll your hit dice and heal. Or drink a beer with it and add even more things to your healing roll. It's a good idea, enough that I stole it for my own system. There's also healing potions, but these barely heal, instead merely giving you back 1d4 hp. It seems small, but the purpose to prevent death, not heal fully. This is interesting.
- Luck now functions as temporary, metacurrency-esque fleeting luck. You get it for being a hero and doing cool things. It doesn't carry over from session to session, so you'll be spending luck to heal and boost rolls a lot. Which is interesting, because in DCC you only had the thief and the halfling really doing that, since it's a permanent loss for any class that does it.

Overall the rules changes bend DCCL to fit the lore, and do not bend the lore to fit the game. It's an excellent little book and I like it a lot. 10/10.

The Judges Guide to Nehwon
Behold, the Judge's guide to Nehwon! This is just a gazeteer for the most part. If you like the setting of the Fafrhd and the Grey Mouser stories, then this is for you! If you couldn't care less, you might not even bother to look into this kind of stuff. It does have some fun stuff, such as a 1d30 table to determine what day it is and what superstitions are held about said day. There are eight spells included, most of which are pretty great. A few of them are directly yanked from the source material.

Also, in DCCL, anyone can have patrons! And they don't need to be wizards or sell their souls. This mechanic comes in the form of the patron die, which allows the PC to get small boons in exchange for tasks. There's a whole mechanic here where you have a harder and harder time getting small boons the more you ask and you need to do tasks for the patrons to lower it. I won't go into details, but it really feels like they "gamified" the mechanic of patrons.

Speaking of patrons, DCCL includes eight new patrons, and five of those get the whole nine yards with three patron spells, an invoke patron table and patron taint. The other three get two pages, consisting of a specific table for that patron and an invoke patron table. It's very good, and adds lots to your regular DCC games, if anything!

Then you have a section of rules advice and -curiously- a carousing table (couldn't this have gone anywhere else?), which usually allows players to recover spent luck and bring an amusing anecdote to the table. The GM advice is very good - although you might not need it.

Lastly, there's a bestiary. Not a lot to say here, just "yup, those are monsters from the setting".

Overall I give it a 8/10.

Final Thoughts
DCCL is an excellent book with a few minor stumbles here and here. The Judge's screen is useless, you won't find much value in it if you don't care for the setting and there's no real use in it if your group doesn't like human-only campaigns. Some of the newer ideas are brilliant (fleeting luck, patron dice, neighborhood generators) and some of the changes to the core of DCC feel like very sensible errata (especially the mercurial magic table). It's well worth your money for the Compendium of Secret Knowledge and Lankhmar books alone.

Final Score: Yeah, get it if you're liking what you hear and you'll get a lot out of running it.

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