DCC Magic in 5e

Drunkens and Dragons was the first place to put me onto Dungeon Crawl Classics, in particular, the DCC RPG rulebook. This 400+ page long monster is a love letter to the feel of AD&D, and is filled with incredible art and inspired ideas. One of these ideas is its incredible, and wildly intuitive, magic system.

Whereas D&D 5e’s magic system is what Gygax himself once described as:

“a spell point system whose record keeping would warm the heart of a monomaniacal statistics lover” (AD&D Players Handbook, pg 6,

an opinion that I am, much as I love D&D spellcasting, inclined to agree with. In a world where magic is so commonplace that cantrips are thrown around like petty novelties, such as the Forgotten Realms, the spell slot system works fine. But when I’m introducing a new player to the game (which is, blessedly, fairly regularly), explaining the spell slot system is a pain in my arse.

When I’m teaching new players, the first thing I tell them is that, while the character sheet is complicated, and full of numbers and jargon (I use this incredible sheet, which is even more intimidating than the official one), as long as they know where the basics are I can simply guide them to what they need to roll. This teaches them, through experience, how to play the game. I’ve found it works wonders; players get to roll dice and have fun, with me telling them which dice to roll and where on their sheet the appropriate information is, until finally I don’t need to anymore, after a few sessions or less. The huge bloody spanner in the works is magic.

One of my friends decided he wanted to play at the last minute. It was going to be his first time playing, and I didn’t have time to build him a character. What I did have was a dwarvish bard, designed for another friend who was unable to play. We handed him the character sheet, and went from there. During the session Tim had fun, and even did some great things, but he was unfulfilled by the character. He, in truth, didn’t understand the magic system, and who can blame him? As if learning the very basics of the game wasn’t enough, while also trying to role play for the first time, and trying to be immersed in the story, he also had to learn what eight spells did, and how spell slots worked. In the end he did what so many first time spellcasters do – he spammed one spell until it worked.

DCC offers something I’ve never experienced in D&D’s spells. There is uncertainty as to what they will do, and whether they will work. This might not sound great, but it really is. In order to cast a spell you roll a d20 and add certain modifiers. You compare that result to a chart, and that tells you what happens. Each spell is different, and has effects of increasing severity as the roll result gets higher. Now break that down; rather than making the new player learn another mechanic, on top of the d20 + mod mechanic which anchors the vast majority of 5e, you simply use what you’re already teaching them. On top of that, it makes each casting something to be attained! Rather than knowing the spell works, there’s a chance it might not, and worse, a chance it can go horribly wrong. Each success ends up feeling like an achievement, and the wizard gets to feel the same exhilaration the fighter feels when his blows find their mark.

All of this is amazing, but the thing I love most about the DCC system is the feeling of mystery. When I began adapting the DCC ruleset to 5e for my Talomire setting, the first change I made was to take away completed spell sheets from the players. A player’s physical spellbook is, then, not a sheet filled with spell names, but a physical booklet, with spell names, types, and empty charts below. Each spell must be cast in order to learn exactly what it does. You know to some degree that Magic Missile fires an arcane dart at your foes but, unless you’ve rolled a 28 before, you have no idea that it can fire 1d12+2 darts, each dealing 1d8+1 force damage! Imagine that! You cast magic missile as a first level wizard, and roll a natural 20. Add your +3 Int bonus and +2 prof bonus for 25, and a d6-1 for your critical success (let’s assume +3), and now you have a 28! The four goblins you’re facing explode in a shower of sparking bolts!

There are balancing issues, obviously. My way around this is to seriously limit the number of spells a caster can use. Some players may see this as a bad thing, but to my mind it simply reinforces the idea that this knowledge is not easily come by. You have to seek it out, rather than relying on the two extra spells you gain per level, or the six you start with. And each spell, even first level spells, has the opportunity to be useful at later levels.

You can find the VERY EARLY draft for my DCC ‘conversion’ HERE. Feel free to give it a try and let me know how you feel it works. I’ll be updating it a lot over the coming days, and then more as I begin my Talomire campaign proper. Please note that the document is my attempt to create the DCC system using existing 5e concepts and mechanics, and is not a conversion per se (as a general rule, though, I replaced ‘caster level’ with proficiency, and luck with the Int modifier. There’ll be issues in there, but they should iron themselves out in the long run.

Cheers,

Chris.

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3 Comments

  1. Are you going to include mercurial magic effects in your adaptation? I think that your idea of not revealing the exact effects of a spell to the player besides the “General” description is awesome and definitely creates excitement in the game. On the other hand, it’s a bit more work for you.

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    1. Absolutely, although I do need to work them out for the bard character I’m DMing at the moment. The one issue I’ve had explaining spell effects mid-game is that it slows things down. Done well, it’s great, but it’s something I’m learning at the moment (on podcast, helpfully, so everyone can watch me suck at it!)

      Also, sorry it took so long to reply; I thought I already had! 😫

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