Interview with Joseph Goodman, Creator, Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG


dungeoncrawlGoodman Games head honcho Joseph Goodman has been producing quality products for many years, but the Dungeon Crawl Classics roleplaying game may very be his magnum opus. A 500 page, hardcover love note to the early days of gaming, the Dungeon Crawl Classics roleplaying game returns gamers to an era where life was cheap and dungeons were full of terror. It’s not a retro-clone, though, at least not entirely: this is an evolution in classic design, a roleplaying experience that can stand side by side with the big names in the industry and hold its own.

An interview with Joseph Goodman:

Tell me about the first gaming experience that hooked you. What sealed the deal to make you a gamer for life?

My first D&D game was with my brother and a friend on our back steps. I was the DM. I didn’t understand “hit dice” properly and I thought they were the number of dice I rolled when the monster tried to hit the PCs. The PCs got slaughtered as I summed up handfuls of dice for the monster attack rolls! The game ended pretty fast but like so many other D&D players, I was hooked on the mystery and exploration.

How did you become a gaming professional? Was there any point at which you looked around and said “I made it!”?

I don’t think I’ve “made it” and hope that I never feel that way – complacency is a dangerous place to be when it comes to maintaining a business. Many years ago, I got my start as a gaming professional by first being a fan. My brother and I played Warhammer 40,000 for many years, and we created reams of fan material. After high school I self-published a magazine to share some of this material we’d created. Based on that magazine I was hired to edit an existing professional publication, and one thing led to another after that.

You’ve been promoting what might be called an “old school” gaming aesthetic for a while. Can you talk a little bit about this? What exactly makes something a “dungeon crawl classic”?

I recently read a great definition of classic science fiction: “Classic sci-fi is the books you read when you were eleven.” There are several million of us who played and loved D&D when were eleven, and that experience is “classic” now that we’re in our 30’s and 40’s. We all shared a common experience, built from several common building blocks beyond “just the game itself.” One building block is the artists we collectively admired: Otus, Roslof, Dee, Easley, and so on. Another building block is the style of play we collectively enjoyed: dungeon crawling. And another building block is the American lifestyle that we were all collectively part of while forming our affection for D&D: bell bottoms, cargo vans, afros and moustaches, metal and rock bands, Savage Sword of Conan. The Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game tries to touch on all of these shared experiences.

Are there any philosophical differences between modern and old school gaming that bother you?

No more than the philosophical differences between card games and board games. They’re just different styles of games. I have a preference for my own games, and I don’t begrudge others their choices. My son will grow up in a very different era than I did, and his choices on gaming (and many other things) will be different as a result.

Tell me about the development of the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. How did this idea first start?

DCC RPG grew out of several other ideas and projects, so it’s tough to nail down a specific moment in time where it first started. I’ve been interested in the old-school aesthetic for a long time, having published DCC #1, one of the very first products that could be called “old-school,” way back in 2003. As D&D evolved from 3.0 to 3.5 to 4E, I personally found the game getting further from my desired style of play. More time was spent on “game management” than “game play.” I started thinking of ways to produce a more streamlined, simpler game play experience. This led to several attempts to devise a solution. I explored publishing a “choose your own adventure” type module that Harley Stroh wrote, and also considered publishing a 1E module that Brendan LaSalle authored under the line “Vintage Ventures.” I was introducing simpler rules into the games I ran, trying to write adventures using entirely non-standard monsters, and experimenting with some hybrid variations on D&D rules sets. At the same time all this was happening, I had embarked on a several-years-long project to read all of Appendix N. At some point I published Michael Curtis’ Dungeon Alphabet, the success of which made clear that there was a large market for old-school aesthetics outside the current D&D rules set. And I had been gaming with Doug Kovacs, who has a very strong aesthetic of “simplicity in gaming.” Looking back on it, I guess you could say there was a camping trip in the Southern California deserts that really set DCC RPG in motion. While all these other factors were in the background, Doug and I spent several days gaming in the desert. On that trip these various threads and ideas and projects finally coalesced into the idea of DCC RPG. It was soon after that when I ran the first playtest of something actually called DCC RPG.

Was there any consistent design philosophy at the core? Anything you tried to stick to?

The core philosophy behind DCC RPG is to create a game that allows you to play the adventures described in Appendix N. As you probably know, Appendix N is the bibliography of fantasy, sci-fi, and horror books that Gygax credits with inspiring him to co-create D&D. Underlying this primary allegiance to Appendix N, there are several other goals of DCC RPG game play: Magic must feel magical – not scientific and not predictable.Fantasy must be fantastic, outside the boundaries of the genre. Most of Appendix N was written before “fantasy” was a recognized literary genre, and very few of our modern conceptions of fantasy (i.e., what an elf or orc should be like) are present in Appendix N. Many Appendix N books cross between what we would now call fantasy, science fiction, horror, and modern adventure. Let us not forget that this cross-genre diversity is the source material of D&D. Game play must be simple. A player should be able to create a character in 10 minutes or less. A judge shouldn’t need to spend time working monster stats. The time emphasis should be on game play not game management. The rules should guide player choices that relate to the adventure, rather than game statistics or meta-gaming. I’d like players to think about exploring the dungeon, describing the actions of their character, interacting with the environment – in short, role playing. Published books should minimize materials not used in-game. Some RPG lines become large and unwieldy with so many supplements and sourcebooks. I would like DCC RPG to have the same “ease of entry” for new players 5 years from now as it does at the beginning.

Also, I’ve got to ask you about the Zocchi dice. Why did you include them? Tell me why players should consider purchasing a new set of dice? Also, what if I can’t or don’t want to? Are there ways to make do with what you have?

I like funky dice. That’s about it. Most people didn’t notice but I’ve included Zocchi dice in my products for many years. The 3E DCC modules utilized Zocchi dice, usually in out-of-the-way locations (like wandering monster tables).

Part of the shared experience of old-school gaming is related to the novelty of unusual dice. At some point in our lives (probably between 1978 and 1982), we all thought the d4 was crazy. Ironically, the “crazy” dice of the 1970’s have become the “mundane” dice of the 2000’s. Remember when you couldn’t find a d4 in stores? And the d12 made your mom nervous that the baby would eat it? The d7 and d16 bring that back. Players should consider purchasing a new set of dice because FUNKY DICE ARE AWESOME!

For those players who don’t enjoy the novelty of funky dice, you can simulate all Zocchi dice using traditional D&D dice. There are actually multiple ways to do it. DCC RPG gives instructions on one approach, and players on my forums have described several other methods.

This thing is obviously a labor of love: it’s lavishly illustrated and weighs a ton. There’s no expense spared, it appears. How long did it take to go from inception to finished project? Also, it’s only $39.99, which is cheap for what you’re getting. Are you planning on making a profit off this thing or what? I’d easily expect to pay $10 more.

Inception to finished project was a long road, and a lot of people helped me with playtesting and proofreading to get it there. The manuscript was written over the course of about three years, the art direction took nearly two years, and the layout (which included more art direction for much of the “margin art”) took about half a year. Yes, it definitely took a while.

The hardback is affordably priced relative to some other RPG’s of similar length. I am a fan of Castles & Crusades from Troll Lord Games, and I admire how they’ve handled pricing. C&C is very affordably priced and TLG has used this entry-point pricing to build a solid and loyal fan base over the years. I think it’s the right way to approach building an RPG community.

On the other hand, DCC RPG was very expensive to produce. If the game is fortunate enough to earn a second printing, the price may increase to $49.99.

The illustrations and design elements are so authentic! The first time I flipped through this book I immediately thought, “Wow. This would have terrified overprotective moms and crusading TV preachers when I was a kid.” It continues to excite me today. I’m completely delighted. Did you have a list of artists you wanted to bring to the project? How did you choose them?

I most definitely had a list of artists in mind! We all have our favorite artists from the TSR glory days and I am no exception. Wherever possible I included artists who had contributed to TSR products in the 1970’s and 1980’s. I also included modern artists who share that aesthetic and can illustrate in a similar style.

You went with the “race as class” model versus “race and class”. I love it, but I know a lot of people don’t. Why did you do this?

There are several reasons, and I started to write an answer here that articulated them. But really it comes down this: what hooked me on D&D back in the 1970’s was the part about exploring dungeons. I really want the game to get there, and fast. I don’t want to spend time on character creation, nor do I want to focus player energy on choices not related to the adventure at hand. Race-as-class gets us back to what was wonderful about D&D when we are all eleven – and fast.

Seeing as how most of us are now in our 30’s and 40’s, we can all handle the complexity of race-and-class. I’m sure many gamers will adjust DCC RPG to suit such a style of play, which is okay with me. But in a couple years my young son will ask to play D&D, and when I teach him, I want to teach a version that we can both play. It has to be simple and fast. It has to be race-as-class.

DCC RPG is an old-school game, but it is written with the next generation in mind. You’d be amazed how many comments I got on Dungeon Alphabet from grognards whose kids loved that book, or how many comments I got on the 3E DCC modules regarding gamers running their kids through the dungeons. DCC RPG will make that multi-generational gaming easy – and hopefully let a generation of grognards pass on their enthusiasm about the game. The art helps, too – kids absolutely love flipping through books with as much art as DCC RPG.

Magic is very dangerous in DCC. Can you talk about that? Why the variable effects?

There are a lot of people who use the term “Vancian magic,” most of whom don’t realize the term comes from Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series. Vance is one of several authors in Appendix N who essentially created the concepts underlying Gygax and Arneson’s magic rules. If you approach game design with the intent of emulating the adventures of Appendix N, you end up reading Vance’s take on magic, as well as that of de Camp and Pratt in their Harold Shea series. These books are the building blocks of D&D’s magic system. (Even though the Dying Earth books were written decades before D&D was published!) And in all of these books, as well as throughout other places in Appendix N, there are highly variable, highly dangerous magical effects. I personally believe the term “Vancian magic” is mis-used in its common application; if D&D really did feature a magic system based on Jack Vance’s writings, that system would be a lot closer to what DCC RPG offers.

I love the inclusion of fumbles and criticals, but I know some players are loathe to see a favorite PC impale himself over dumb luck. This seemed to go along with what I’d describe as a “life is cheap” ethos to your game. Is this intentional? How will players used to having lovingly detailed character backgrounds to start adapt to this bloodthirsty new world? Also, tell me about the character funnel and how it goes along with that.

I wouldn’t call it “life is cheap” so much as “dumb choices will result in character death – and the clever, brave characters really become special.” D&D 3E was so perfectly balanced that characters rarely faced any real risk. The game had a highly complex system of Challenge Ratings and Encounter Levels to ensure that characters never faced a threat beyond what they could handle. Where’s the fun in that? Would we all still enjoy reading stories about Conan and Elric and John Carter and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser if they routinely faced mathematically appropriate odds with little risk involved? No, certainly not!

What makes adventure, drama, and character stories interesting are amazing deeds, triumph over great odds, and clever strategems – which is what you find in Appendix N. DCC RPG is a system designed to emulate the great adventures of Appendix N. More than once, Conan was critted – he gets knocked unconscious (and defeated) despite the fact that he is a great warrior. He breaks his weapons. John Carter gets captured. Elric has, in D&D terms, a terribly low Constitution and suffers as a result. These characters are interesting to read about because they do conquer great odds and bad luck.

When the DCC RPG adventure modules hit stores, you will see the game’s ethos in very practical terms. For example, People of the Pit is a level 1 adventure where the characters face off against a tentacled pit-beast big enough to destroy a city. Yes, it’s level 1 and the characters are sent to stop a creature with thousands of hit points. I’ve run this adventure perhaps a dozen times now, and seen everything from a TPK to a “clean success.” It all comes down to player choices and the luck of the die, rather than a vanilla-flavored math exercise. The parties that triumph walk away feeling like they really accomplished something. Even in the TPK I ran, the players had a great time, and the fact that the entire party was killed by the great pit-beast only made the post-game story all that more enjoyable.

Play DCC RPG as it is intended, and you will probably have a few characters die. Those that survive will weave a narrative that is very special.

Also, let’s talk about the “You’re No Hero” tagline. What does that mean?

Somewhere along the way, the rogues and rascals of Appendix N turned into the heroes of 4E. The protagonists of Appendix N are not heroes in the D&D sense of “let’s save the town and rescue the princess.” The characters of Appendix N act out of self-interest, fighting for glory and gold, not to aid others or be good Samaritans. Conan is a thief and murderer with a soft spot for damsels in distress. Fafhrd and Gray Mouser are thieves, period. Elric is a self-centered traitor. And so on. There are a couple more heroic types sprinkled in (e.g., John Carter) but the Appendix N source material tends much more toward neutrality in its protagonists. Neutral characters are not heroes: they are adventurers. There’s a difference.

The demons, devils and gods of the book conjure forth a lot of bad and good stuff for their followers. In other games they stay in the shadows. What encouraged you to bring them to the forefront?

Demons, devils, and gods are an important part of the D&D legacy. Even though the game has been scrubbed somewhat over the decades, it started out with an uncensored vision of characters as “part of a larger system of powers,” not superheroes who could unbalance the order of things. DCC RPG returns characters to that humble position of mortality, where they will always be the mortal playthings of sentients more powerful than they. Demons are a great way to accomplish that.

Do you think that this book will encourage new players to try the Old School way, or is this book more for the already converted?

I think DCC RPG will bring new players into the Old School fold, but not in the manner you expect. I believe it will happen in the sense of “new players” being the children of the old school players. At the early stages of DCC RPG I really wanted it to be a 64-page book, to minimize entry barriers to younger gamers. The game obviously went past that but I think it could be boiled down to 64 pages, if published with less art, fewer spells, and only the core character-and-combat rules. By the time my son is ready to game, I’d like to have a 64-page “Father-Son” edition of DCC RPG that he can easily read and digest.

What’s next? What kind of supplements are coming out? Will there be new classes and spells and that kind of thing?

I touched on this above, and I’ll expand a little here. I’m a Star Wars fan (aren’t we all?) and several years ago decided to read the Stars Wars novels. Well, that’s not as easy as it seems. There are dozens and dozens of them, set in different time periods, sometimes sequential but not always, and not numbered or organized in any overall method. It’s actually quite hard to step into that universe of books, and it took me a while to figure out where to start.

A lot of RPG’s are the same way: on day one there’s a single player book, but three years later there are a dozen supplements, a bunch of modules from different sub-series, and a couple core books. Aside from making the game hard to enter for new players, all these supplements have too many rules and just too much complexity – as the game lives longer, it becomes progressively harder to enter as a new player.

My goal with DCC RPG is to keep the same low barriers-to-entry over time. All modules will be stand-alone and sequentially numbered (keeping with the DCC tradition) so they’re easy to collect and follow. There will be only one rules supplement or sourcebook each year, and it will be called that year’s annual (e.g., DCC RPG 2013 Annual). Each Annual will have a mix of rules, source material, and short adventures. And that’s it.

On my forums right now there are many players requesting additional material. Patrons and spells are popular aspects of the game, and I’ve had several requests for books on these subjects. Future Annuals will definitely cover this ground, but I do want to avoid too many supplements with too narrow a focus. Let the published books provide the inspirational framework, and let the judge use that framework to build his own game!

The game seems to take its inspiration from sword & sorcery fiction, which is typically humanistic in focus. Despite this, you include the high fantasy staples of elves, dwarves and halflings. Why so?

Appendix N consists of well over 100 books, almost all of which were written before the terms “sword and sorcery” or “high fantasy” were ever coined. In fact, many were written in an era where they were called “scientifiction,” the early term used by pulp magazines to describe stories that combined science and fiction. The genre of “science fiction” developed out of “scientifiction,” and the genre of “fantasy” wasn’t recognized until after that. Early on, they were all just adventure tales.

We’ve come to a time in the era of fantasy literature where genre boundaries press down against us. Everyone knows what an orc is, or what an elf should be like. If you describe an orc as yellow-skinned with tentacles, that’s “wrong” – that’s not what an orc should be. How interesting that a genre supposedly based on imaginative fiction has now become circumscribed by convention!

As it relates to our role playing experiences, the game becomes progressively less interesting to players as the encounters become predictable. Read Appendix N literature and you will be surprised by what the protagonists encounter – the subject matter crosses out of fantasy conventions and into exciting territory. Read may modern D&D adventures and you will be bored by what the protagonists encounter. More skeletons? More orcs? A stirge, again? And yet another dragon? Would you buy a novel that was this predictable? Probably not.

DCC RPG tries to capture the excitement of fantasy unbounded by genre, in the way that Appendix N excels at doing. The source material includes a significant amount of what we would now call science fiction and horror literature (all part of Appendix N) as well as fantasy. The game itself, and the modules that are yet to come, encourage imaginative encounters that defy genre conventions. Insofar as this includes demi-humans, they take inspiration from Appendix N. Most of us are familiar with the elves of Tolkien, but there are other varied representations in Appendix N: Lord Dunsany’s elves from The King of Elfland’s Daughter, of course, and the various representations by Poul Anderson, as well as the more marginal interpretations of Moorcock (if you call Elric an elf) or Merritt (if you consider his matriarchal society in The Moon Pool to be Gygax’s model for the drow, as many do). Dwarves and halflings are, again, well known from Tolkien, and don’t have quite as many other identified models in Appendix N, but there are examples of other demi-humans if you read with an open mind: John Carter’s martian allies, Lovecraft’s various halfbreeds, the strange creatures encountered by Fox’s characters and P. J. Farmer’s tiers, the things encountered in Gondalar’s adventures, and so on. Demi-humans are present in DCC RPG because they’re present in the source material for D&D.

Finally, complete this sentence: “If you like_____, you’ll love Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG.”

If you like imaginative literature, you’ll love DCC RPG.

If you like D&D as you remember it, you’ll love DCC RPG.

If you like simple, fast gaming, you’ll love DCC RPG.