Introduction: Dungeon Crawl Classics has been making some buzz on the RolePlayingGeek forums. The "not just another return to old school" RPG comments and Goodman's reputation made me take a closer look at this highly thematic fantasy RPG.
Art: Probably what hits you first is the "old school" art. It's not the slick Magic the Gathering art that's been infecting coffee table RPG's, but art last seen in the old first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I'm namedropping, but Erol Otus, Jeff Dee, and Jeff Easley are contributing artists. And, yes, the art still has no relevance to the text the page is on, comsuming gobs of laser printer ink if you're even thinking of printing this out. I REALLY wish a printer-friendly PDF version of this book was released.
Core Mechanic: It's OGL.
Differences from other systems: Basic D&D's Cleric, Thief, Warrior, Wizard, Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling classes. Surviving 0th level. The Luck ability score. Spell checks -- which work differently for wizards versus clerics. Critical hit tables, fumble tables, and other tables of thematic fury. No prestige classes, attacks of opportunity, feats, or skill points.
Organization: The book is pretty intuitive to use. For example, character generation comes first (because all the old school gamers did that sort of thing), before the actual combat mechanics. It's also a PDF, so searching is easy. While it has a simple Table of Contents, it has no index. Chapters are Characters, Skills, Equipment, Combat, Magic, Quest snad Journeys, Judge's Rules, Magic Items, Monsters, and two Adventures.
You start at to 0th level, with its high mortality rates. The book states upfront you'll generate -- and play -- several characters and see who survives. The core book comes with a 0th level adventure so DMs will have an idea of how to design one. And there IS a random character generator at Purplesorcer.com. Still, you can easily make first and higher levels if you want to do boring things like survive.
In addition to the standard platonic solids (and the heretical d10), the game calls for Zocchi dice: d3, d5, d7, d14, and so on. They'll set you back over $20 on Amazon.com. Rather than just using positive and negative modifiers, you will "step up" and "step down" dice. A d8 might be stepped up to a d10, or stepped down to a d7, for example. Unfortunately, for those of us who own iPods, there's no app for this (yet). But see Purplesorcer.com for a web die roller and KickStart app.
DCC pretty much uses the standard six ability scores and modifiers. Personality replaces both Charisma and Wisdom. Luck is a new ability score used for a variety of skill checks and other rolls. You can burn Luck for a one-time bonus on a roll (typically life-or-death) and gain it back through roleplaying to your alignment. Your character will roll on the Luck Score table to see what special ability they can modify with Luck (eg. The bull: Melee attack rolls).
Character generation consists of: 3d6 for each ability. 1d4 hit points, modified by Stamina, one randomly determined piece of equipment, one randomly determined occupation, and zero XP. On the character Occupation tables, you roll your character's occupation and if their character is a non-human (such as a halfling chicken butcher). You get to choose your alignment: Law, Chaos, or Neutral.
PDF Notes: Character generation is only twelve printed pages long, so you can print this section as a handout for players.
Classes: As said, the classes are Basic D&D's Cleric, Thief, Warrior, Wizard, Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling. Each class has its OGL level progression table, but also have special abilities that set them apart. Clerics and Wizards cast spells (that's a whole chapter in itself). Thieves have thief-related skills and can better use Luck than other classes. Warriors can make cinematic Mighty Deeds of Arms, such as blinding or disarming an opponent, and have improve critical hit tables. Dwarves and halflings are fighters while Elves are fighter/wizards. Besides racial abilities, dwarves have a shield bash attack, and halflings can fight two-handed and serve as a party good luck charm! The non-spellcasters are easier to play. Each class's section is only a few pages long so you can print out these sections as player handouts. (Spell casters, however, will need to know the Magic rules.)
Combat: Combat is pretty much OGL with chromey tables and without a grid. Roll for Initiative, roll for your Attack, roll for damage. A Natural 1 results in a roll on the Fumble table, and a Natural 20 means rolling on your classes' Critical Hit table (yes, there's more than one Critical Hit table!). Warriors and Dwarves have their Mighty Deeds. NPCs have Morale Checks. Characters can fight two-handed with penalties, and clerics can turn unholy opponents. DCC also has a complex Spell Duel subsystem that can accomodate multiple spellcasters -- and can result in nasty eldritch side-effects (demonic invasion, anyone?). With the grid gone, combat has been simplified back to AD&D.
Magic: Magic is dangerous. Spellcasters make a spell check, and each spell has its own results table. The higher the result, the better effect the spell has. Critical failures and successes add highly thematic penalties and consequences. A cleric's failure reduces his chances of casting spells until the next day (his deity's busy fighting a holy war) and a roll on the disapproval table (eg. a test of humility). Wizards have the far worse (and amusing) miscast and corruption failures. Miscast an Animal Summoning spell, and your familiar might disappear and come back very very angry. An example of a minor corruption would be ears mutating, major corruption corpulence, and greator corruption tentacles replacing limbs. Wizards' spells are further individualized with side effects ("Mercurial Magic"). Spellburn rules allow wizards to temporarily sacrifice ability points to add to his spell check or recover cast spells. Wizards have familiars, can consult spirits, and can even acquire supernatural patrons. These effects are handled by extensive but uncomplicated tables in the book. Unfortunately, the magic rules and spells are not well layed out for printing from a PDF. The magic section mixes rule players must know (eg. descriptions and ranges of spells) with information a gamemaster may wish to keep from the players (eg. the various tables of effects). Spells are about a page long, but some spells wrap to the next page, making printing of individual spells inconvenient. Clerical spells and wizard mechanics and spells differ enough that I would have preferred to see a different chapter on each.
Magic Items and Monsters: In the DCC world, magic items are rare and unique, monsters mysterious and heresay. Swords receive an extensive treatment of tables to personalize them. Rules for scrolls are provided. Potions have a table in under the Make Potion spell, but that's about it. Magical items are more like the One Ring than Home Depot. Although a monster bestiary is included (they get their own Critical Hit tables, too!), so are suggestions to make a stock creature unusual enough for players to be unsure what they're facing. Stat blocks are also included for human non-player characters. Treasure is relegated to an opinion piece against the conventional "monster guarding a pile of coins". If you (and particularly your players) don't like this aspect of the game, it shouldn't be too hard to change.
Adventures: The core book comes with two adventures, The level 0-1 Portal Under the Stars, and 5th level Infernal Crucicable of Sezrekan the Mad. These adventures were also released at the 2011 Free RPG Day, so do not purchase the Free RPG Day product. True to its lethal character generation, Portal is designed for fifteen to twenty 0th level characters, with each player definitely controlling more than one character. The author's playtests show games of up to 28 players and a 50% mortality rate, with only one TPK. Infernal is more conventionally suited for 4-8 5th level characters. Portal has nine encounters and Infernal three. I haven't played them, so don't have a sense how long the adventures take or how "meaty" they are.
Support: Despite the new release of the core books, DCC already has some adventures and other support available. Purple Sorceror Games has a free character generator and dice roller. Their first adventure, Perils of the Sunken City for 0-1 level, is available on DriveThruRPG and has free paper miniatures and battlemaps at the website. Goodman Games has released two DCC adventure: Dungeon Crawl Classics #67: Sailors on the Starless Sea, and Dungeon Crawl Classics #68: People of the Pit(previous DCC adventures are for other game systems). Other 3rd party companies (even Paizo) are advertised with the PDF but their websites don't show product released yet. DCC is OGL, so, except for 0th level 15+ character adventures, I don't think it would be difficult converting from D&D 3.x to DCC.
Conclusion: Dungeon Crawl Classics puts a fantastic spin on generic fantasy roleplaying. Those of us who remember "old school" games with their extensive critical hit tables and other wild ideas have them again. Spells are no longer lifeless stat blocks but are to be feared, even by those who wield it. With D&D Next returning back to its "old school" roots, Dungeon Crawl Classics is definitely worth a look at.
[4 of 5 Stars!]