Originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/11/26/tabletop-review-transylvanian-adventures-dungeon-crawl-classics/
Back in July I reviewed an adventure entitled The Winter Home for the Dungeon Crawl Classics system. This adventure, set in a quasi-homage to 1950/60s Hammer Horror films, was for an upcoming campaign setting known as Transylvanian Adventures. I really enjoyed the adventure and it made me excited for the eventual release of the core product. Now that it’s been in my hands for a few weeks and I have thoroughly devoured it, I have to say you will more than get your money’s worth. After all, it’s 300+ pages for only thirteen dollars. That’s an insanely good deal. Is it perfect? No. There are a few minor strikes against it, as we’ll see throughout the review, but for the most part, this is a wonderful addition to any DCC fan’s collection and it’s arguably my favorite release for the system yet.
When you see the name Transylvanian Adventures, I’m sure your first thought is to think of it as Dungeon Crawl Classics‘s Ravenloft. Well that’s not quite the case. Ravenloft was merely a campaign setting. There were no new classes, races or major rules change. Sure, Ravenloft added three types of checks (fear, terror and powers) and slightly modified some spells, but Transylvanian Adventures does far more than that. In fact, it almost reinvents DCC from the ground up. You have only one race (humans, since it’s set in a quasi-real world). You have entirely new classes for use with this game, but none of the original DCC classes are compatible. You don’t have any spellcasters in this book save for some classes that can read scrolls (the equivalent of mages/clerics comes later in a different release). There are lots of rules changes, some major and some minor, and by the time you are done, what’s here has some resemblance to Dungeon Crawl Classics, but it’s still a very different beast. I’d say a better simile is Transylvanian Adventures is to Dungeon Crawl Classics what Street Fighter: The RPG is to World of Darkness or Know Your Role: The WWF d20 OGL RPG is to Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. This is neither a bad thing nor a good thing, just a clarification that a DM really has to pay attention to, and keep track of, the myriad changes that occur in a Transylvanian Adventures game. At times I wondered if Land of Phantoms would have been better off just creating their own rules set from scratch rather than trying to modify DCC, as now you have to have two large weighty tomes instead of just one to play a game.
Which brings me to the next disclaimer I have to give about Transylvanian Adventures. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, you’re going to need to buy two large rulebooks in order to play TA. Unfortunately, though, you will still eventually need one or two more books to get the entire rules set. The Hanging Judge’s Guide to Transylvania and The Transylvanian Grimoire will contain monster stats, spells, a new character class than can cast magic and a lot more. Unfortunately, those aren’t out yet, so you’re really kind of sitting on this book (and DCC if you bought it just to play TA) until those come out. This also means you’re going to need to buy another one or two books to actually have Transylvanian Adventures fleshed out enough to play and/or homebrew some adventures for it. That’s a lot of books, a LOT of reading and more importantly, a lot of cash being spent before you can optimize the game. Most RPGs only require a single core rulebook (New World of Darkness and Dungeons & Dragons are notable exceptions though) and so, for gamers on a limited budget, Transylvanian Adventures might not be for you. Personally, I’d have rather seen some more magic and a few monsters instead of thirty pages of superfluous tables, but at least it’s only thirteen dollars? To me, that’s still a great deal. Unless, of course, the next two books cost like $25-30 for a PDF version. Then I’ll start to get annoyed.
So let’s talk about the actual game now that we have the petty concerns out of the way. Transylvanian Adventures has a unique narrative. The author is speaking to us, instead of the usual “in-game” narratives you see with games like Shadows of Esteren or Shadowrun. It also lacks the more professional but lecture style tone you see in most core rule books. Instead, one would call the tone of Transylvanian Adventures conversational. The author cracks jokes, makes puns and can be outright flippant towards his audience. It’s far from the gloom and doom atmosphere you’d expect from such a game, but then, it’s an homage primarily to Hammer Horror, and many of those films were more than willing to take the piss at themselves. The end result is where the book feels like an actual person trying to describe the game’s rules and mechanics to you. This is both bad and good, depending on what you like to personally read. For the most part, I found it a pleasant change of pace.
Transylvanian Adventures describes itself as “Gothic Ass-Kicking Horror.” Of course, it’s set in the late 1800s/early 1900s, so it’s more Victorian, as Gothic Horror actually starts in the mid-1700s, but feel free to play with the time period. You’re the one playing/running the game after all. Influences besides Hammer Horror include M.R. James (which I wholeheartedly approve of), Polidori, Le Fanu, Castlevania video games (primarily “mine!” Whoo!) and the Vampire Hunter D movies, but not the original books by Hideyuki Kikuchi… probably because the author doesn’t read Japanese and the English translations are awful. Still, I approve of all the motifs and inspirations for the game, aside from Babylon 5 and Buffy, but again, we see that these sources are very different from Ravenloft, which more or less plagiarized Shelly, Stoker and some other authors without trying to hide it.
There are many big differences between Transylvanian Adventures and Dungeon Crawl Classics, so we should cover them. First up, the 0 Level characters you start as. DCC advises four characters per player because of the high death rate. TA is a lot kinder to PCs, and so you only really need two 0 Level characters per player at the start. You can’t use any of the previous 0 level classes, like the Cheesemaker in TA, but there are SEVENTY new 0 Level classes to choose from. You can roll on a random table to see what you get or just pick one. Then, when you hit Level One, you can pick from one of eight base classes to advance in for the rest of the game. It’s worth noting that, while DCC only goes up to Level 10, TA goes to 11 (It’s a Spinal Tap reference, but I was hoping it would be a nod towards Working Designs). It’s also worth noting how important turning undead/unholy can be in this game. Some 0 Level classes let you turn, which is very nice. Of course, what if the Level 1-11 class you want doesn’t let you turn? Do you lose that ability? Well, it’s your choice. You can either lose the turn power or you can keep it in exchange for lower two ability scores (which are all the same as regular DCC by 1) and permanently raising your Ruin score (more on what that is below). Depending on your rolls, this might be worth it.
Core character classes are interesting, but I wouldn’t say balanced. Depending on your alignment, a class may get more or less abilities. For example, only a Chaotic Exotic (a non-white character, more or less) can cast Level 0 rituals. This doesn’t make sense to me, as any anthropologist would tell you most shaman/witch doctor like figures tend to be the lynchpin of societies that have them, and thus they’d be more inclined to Lawful. Of course, there’s nothing in return that Lawful or Neutral Exotics get, so why would you give up a huge power? No, there needs to be something to balance out that a Chaotic gets an ability but other alignments don’t. We see this in just about every class. The Neutral Valiant (everyman type of hero) gets +2 to his High Save, while Chaotic and Lawful Valiants only get +1. Why does a Neutral Valiant get a better save? The game doesn’t say, nor make any attempt to justify the imbalance. So on and so forth throughout the classes. Basically, the game seems to push you to a very specific alignment per class, and I really don’t like that. If you want alignment restrictions for a character class, you need to make them hard and fast, ala a Paladin or “No Lawful Scoundrels.” Character classes could have used a bit more work before release, and I definitely see this section getting picked apart and/or house ruled like crazy.
Perhaps the biggest change to DCC with this campaign setting is the Ruin score. Ruin is a somewhat flexable attribute that helps a character survive the usually extremely brutal world of DCC. 0 Level Characters start at a Ruin of 0 and when you hit first level, it drops down to 1. Lower is better like old school AD&D Armor Class. Each time a character drops to 0 Hit Points, a point of Ruin is added while a point of stamina is decreased. Now, instead of outright dying horribly ala DCC, you go through a slightly complicated procedure to stay alive. First you roll a number of d6 equal to your ruin score. So if your Ruin is 4 (0 Level Character + 1 for being down to 0 Hit Points), you must roll 4d6. The result you roll is the target you must roll on a Luck check. So in the previous example if you rolled a 7 with your 4d6, you would then need to succeed on a DC of 7 with your Luck roll. If you had rolled a 24 on your Ruin Check, you’d have to make a DC of 24 with your Luck check. So once again, lower is better. If you succeed, you live but are unconscious. If you fail, you die. It’s a little complicated and there are probably ways to streamline it, but I like the idea that you can survive a brush with death. As well, the DM can subtract points from your ruin ala a Numenera GM Incursion. If the DM wants to give a bad guy an advantage on an attack, he can subtract Ruin points from players and for each Ruin point he removes, the antagonist gets a +1 to his move of choice. So don’t feel Ruin is a slippery slope ala Sanity in Call of Cthulhu
Another big change involves healing. There is no magic healing in Transylvanian Adventures, which will make some of you balk at first. After all, DCC is extremely lethal to begin with, so no magic healing just ratchets up the threat of a horrible demise. Thankfully though, TA has lots of new ways to heal naturally. You can take non permanent hit dice damage instead of Hit Point damage for one thing. After each battle you get 1d4-1 Hit Points back. You can also trade in a point of stamina for 1d6 Hit Points + your character level. This can be done as an instant action which is very nice indeed. You also gain Hit Points by having a good night’s sleep and the Heal Others skill (Which everyone seems to take right away for obvious reasons). I really like the new ways to heal and it does balance things out in the long run. It is a bit of a mind shift to get used to the idea of magical healing not being available, but the new ways are pretty useful. I mean, if your players are really unlucky with their rolls, you can always throw an exceptionally easy encounter at them to get them a Hit Point boost (and a tiny bit of XP!)
Transylvanian Adventures comes with an adventure entitled “Starkweather Mountain.” Unlike most rule books that place their complimentary adventure in the back, this adventure is in the middle of the book, which is an odd placement to be sure. Having an adventure in the back makes it much easier to find when you want to use it. Instead you have to hunt for “Starkweather.” The adventure is a very atypical dungeon crawl, especially for DCC which tends to be more about rolling dice and combat rather than storytelling. Not so with “Starkweather” or the previous TA adventure I reviewed in July. Here players have to explore the horrible machinations of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and the results of one of his experiments. Here players will kill monsters, evade traps and discover that perhaps humanity is a far greater evil than the sin against nature they will also find within the laboratory walls. It’s a lot of fun and a nice 0 Level adventure to introduce the setting and system with.
After the adventure you have a little bit more content and roughly 100 PAGES OF TABLES Yee cats! Random rolling tables are fun, but no game needs THIS MANY TABLES. Still, they’re optional and clever, so you can definitely make use of them. I just wish the sheer number of tables had been confined to a supplement instead of some core rules like magic and monster stat blocks.
Overall, I really loved Transylvanian Adventures. Sure it’s far from perfect, but my issues with the game are minor and have to do with either the organization/layout of the book, character class balance or the spreading out of rules across three rulebooks instead of one. The rules provided here are solid, the setting is fantastic and you’re getting a veritable truckload of content for a fraction of what you would pay for most RPG books of this girth. It’s definitely my favorite release for DCC so far and with a little fine tuning, I can definitely see this becoming a hit for fans of the system or those looking for a good horror game that feels more like D&D instead of Chill or Call of Cthulhu. Again, thirteen dollars for all you get here is a phenomenal deal and I’m looking forward to the next two planned rulebooks for the system. I’m just glad all of these are digital releases instead of physical, especially if they’re going to be as big as this one.