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5th Edition to Dungeon Crawl Classics: A Transition

If I’m honest, that’s a misleading title. I don’t intend to transition fully away from 5e, far from it, however I’ve moved over to Dungeon Crawl Classics for a short campaign (Doom of the Savage Kings) with one of my two main Fantasy Grounds groups. It’s had some high points and some challenges though so I thought I’d detail what I’ve experienced so far.

For anyone who doesn’t know what Dungeon Crawl Classics is then it’s probably best to start by reading this article I wrote a while back. Otherwise, read on.

Race IS class

I’m starting with this one because this could be a deal breaker for a lot of people. Like B/X and BECMI D&D before it, Dungeon Crawl Classics takes the race as a class approach. You can be a Cleric or a Dwarf, but not a Dwarf Cleric.

Now, before you go throwing the toys out of the pram, in my opinion there are enough class specific abilities and powers to make it well worth your while playing a demi-human class. For example, Halflings give luck bonuses to allies and can fight with two weapons at once!!!

My group are a mixed bag in terms of experience. Some of us started playing way back in the 1e or B/X days while others likely didn’t start playing until 3rd Edition, so not everyone has experienced race as class before. So far though, there have been no complaints.

There is (thankfully in my opinion) a lot less complexity in the character options – no archetypes, fighting styles or pathways at different levels. Again, some min-max types won’t like that. For me however, it’s simultaneously refreshing and familiar. It’s how we used to play back in the day. As a Judge (DM), it means I don’t have to keep track of an endless array of possible character permutations which is a weight off the mind.

It uses the d20 system

That was a big part of the appeal of playing it. Everyone who has played 3e through to 5e will understand the d20 system. Roll a d20, add modifiers and aim for a target number. Unlike other OSR systems, DCC limits the old skool influence to a retro feel within the game and the adventures, rather than using old skool game mechanics. That made it easier for my group (and me) to understand the system. I’ve no interest in going backwards in time to descending armor class, THAC0 and rolling a d6 for initiative.

It has old skool modules

Instead of the WoTC style campaign length adventures for 5e, that take characters from level 1 to 10, Dungeon Crawl Classics published adventures tend to be single adventure modules – shorter, self-contained expeditions which can be either played on their own or strung together to form a longer campaign. This is how adventures were in the early days of D&D and I like it a lot.

It’s wackier than a wacky thing

If you are running published adventures then expect them to be wackier than the usual 5e published fayre you might be used to. It’s a fantasy setting but don’t be surprised to find robots, time-travel and other science fiction tropes in the published modules. Adventures also tend to get straight into the action without a huge historical backstory and complex motives to digest.

The “Mighty Deeds”, magic and critical hit systems in DCC tend to lead to some bonkers narrative outcomes as well. Magic corrupts and my group currently has an Elf who now has a high speed, spinning brick circling his head, dishing out 1hp of damage per round to anyone he stands next to. He’s a dynamic, multi-faceted enemy but a terrible travelling companion because he keeps forgetting about it and running through the middle of the party.

It’s deadlier

Dungeon Crawl Classics starts characters at level 0. Players are meant to run multiple villager type characters who die in their droves throughout an adventure called a “Funnel”. The characters left standing at the end are the ones who advance to first level and actually choose a class.

For a 5e DM like myself, there’s a certain stigma attached to killing a character, never mind the entire party. In 5e, players have death saves and a number of other healing options to save a dying character. In Dungeon Crawl Classics, options are a lot more limited.

Adventures can feature traps which are truly dangerous and utterly unforgiving. One of my players recently triggered a trap where a cavern roof collapsed and killed his character. The trap was designed in such a way that various events took place on certain initiative counts. Some of those things negatively impacted the player’s initiative count if they failed a save. He started with an initiative count of 1 due to a horrendous roll. By the time the first few rocks fell from the ceiling he was down to an initiative count of -3. On initiative count 1, the whole of the cavern collapsed, killing everyone inside. He was dead before it was ever his turn to make a move. Yes, I could have ignore it, or ruled it differently, but to do so would strip away the very essence of what makes DCC what it is.

It’s fiddlier

This is probably the aspect we’ve struggled with most as a group. A lot of this is down to the fact that playing Dungeon Crawl Classics was my decision so only myself and another player have the core rulebook to hand.

There are a lot of tables to roll on. Casting a spell can result in rolling on anywhere from 1-3 tables. We play via Fantasy Grounds and ironically, finding the right table quickly can be a bit trickier than it would be at a physical table. That said though, a lot of that could be down to me having created all the characters myself as pre-gens and therefore the players not knowing actually what tables they need, let alone where to find them in Fantasy Grounds.

It’s not a huge grumble. The extra effort is worth it for the narrative benefits it brings (as noted above) but we’ve found that it can slow spellcasting and healing down to a crawl at times which might jar if you are used to the quicker, more predictable and consistent effects provided by 5e spellcasting.

It does a lot of things better than 5e

Many things about DCC are better than their 5e equivalent or have no 5e equivalent at all (and 5e would benefit from adopting something similar).

The concept of spell slots doesn’t exist in DCC. Instead, players can cast a spell as many times as they want, until such point as they make a bad roll and the spell fails. Then they lose it for the remainder of the day and don’t get it back until they’ve had a long rest. It’s only a subtle twist on resource management but it’s way more unpredictable so keeps the players on their toes.

Spellburn is another great mechanic. It has no equivalent in 5e but it’s so simple that it could be easily incorporated. Wizards can sacrifice points from certain ability scores to add bonuses to their spell rolls. It’s meant to represent the Wizard putting their body on the line to make sure the spell works. There’s also a similar mechanic where players can burn points from their “Luck” ability score to aid rolls. In most cases, this can’t be recovered and can come back to bite the player later as luck is used in saving throws and the death mechanic. Burning down luck is risky because you never know when you might need it. My group haven’t used either of these mechanics yet, but I can’t wait until they do.

Healing is also better, with Clerics able to “Lay On Hands”. Depending on the roll, they can end up restoring no health at all or up to multiple hit dice worth of health. The success of healing attempts is influenced by the alignment of the healer and the character being healed and is a great way of making alignment matter.

The wacky dice don’t feature as much as you think

DCC uses a standard polyhedral set, enhanced with a d3, d5, d7, d14, d16, d24 and d30. This has caused us some issues in Fantasy Grounds because these are hidden inside sub-menus in the dice interface. However, you don’t actually use these dice as much as you think you would so it’s not a massive issue.


Moving from 5e to DCC has caused us a few problems, largely around the spellcasting and death mechanics, but these bumps in the road have been more than compensated for by the hilarity that ensues from it’s wacky adventures and spell effects. My group is way more about laughter and fun that any kind of realism, so it suits us to play “like it’s 1974” to some extent.

5e will always be my main love as a system. It’s slick, polished – some might say elegant. Sometimes though, I want to try something different and out of all of the systems I’ve tried, DCC is head and shoulders above the rest in terms of providing a raucous good time for all involved.

Return of the DM View All

I am a 40 something DM/GM located in Scotland. In 2016, I rediscovered the joys of tabletop role-playing games. This blog documents my journey back into the fold.

4 thoughts on “5th Edition to Dungeon Crawl Classics: A Transition Leave a comment

  1. I personally like a lot of the deadly danger involved in systems like this, and it works well for my group, but we’re branching out a bit, bringing some new people in who are used to less danger in their games.

    I’m curious how it affected the play at your table, and how the players felt about it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a challenge. If players grew up playing early editions of D&D like B/X then they’re much more attuned to that level of danger and tend to seek more creative solutions to problems, not just combat. Players who started playing from 3rd edition onwards though, are more likely to view combat as a viable solution to every situation and always expect it to be balanced. It’s just a case of being open and discussing the lethality up front. My players loved it. In fact, it was me who struggled more with it. I was often loathe to apply the killing blow. The lethality of it did tend to lead to me rolling randomly to determine targets, so that I didn’t feel like I was victimising any particular character deliberately.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Interesting blog post, thank yoiu. I discovered DCC not too long ago and hope to get try out some games of it soon. I particularly enjoyed OD&D so there is the nostalgia factor, though I’m going to have to turn that 1970’s part of my DM brain back on. I suspect that I might end up having some of the problems you talk about, such as players who “view combat as a viable solution to every situation and always expect it to be balanced,” aren’t used to their characters dying, etc. etc. The player, who I consider the anchor for my small group says he’s extremely excited about DCC so that is good. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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