Friday, February 20, 2015

Magic School Campaigns by System and Setting: Dungeon Crawl Classics



Dungeon Crawl Classics is one of the most popular OSR games currently on the market.  Not emulating any one particular Edition, DCC borrows elements from multiple games to create a series of themes drawing inspiration from 1970s Sword & Sorcery and lethal "Fantasy Fucking Vietnam" game-play.  One of its most notable features is the Level 0 Funnel, where each player runs 3-4 PCs little better than average folk unsuitable to adventuring such as bakers, tax collectors, and other medieval occupations.  Those who manage to survive the adventure and gain 10 experience points reach 1st level and selects a real Class; it is assumed that from then on the players will control one 1st level PC of their choice, the lucky survivors.

Like other retro-clones, the existing classes are strongly role-based.  The three magic-using classes are Cleric, Elf, and Wizard.  Unlike in other retro-clones, magic is less predictable, where the elf and wizard risks their soul and sanity and the cleric can earn disfavor from their deity.  Combine that with rather deadly critical hit and fumble charts, and you have a dungeon crawl full of random elements and unpredictable combat.

The Class of 969: the School-based Funnel

So, how can we adapt a magic school campaign to Dungeon Crawl Classics?  Well, notice for one how a lot of Level 0 parties are quite large: 12-20 PCs to be weeded down to a pack of grim survivors.  That's a healthy-sized student body for a typical classroom, right?  So instead of villagers of differing occupations banding together, the PCs are all fellow classmates of differing magical traditions banding together to face some impending threat coming to their school!

The school is home to a lot of strange goings-on, but the painstaking discipline of senior staff and daily training imparted to the students keeps most magical disasters from spiraling out of control.  But something terrible happened, and now the class finds themselves in peril!  Perhaps the academy's under attack by an invading army seeking its wealth and secrets; maybe one of the students or teachers turned traitor and summoned a horde of demons past the protective wards; or maybe a civil war erupts among the magical factions as one side takes the initiative and starts killing everyone in the school.

There might not even be a group threatening the academy's stability.  Perhaps the dangers of magic are too great to let anyone but the most skilled keep, and the PCs are sent into a dungeon of trials.  Those who make it to the end alive and with their sanity intact are accepted as full mages and taught the inner mysteries of sorcery.

Larius Firetongue's School for Sorcery: Further Adventure as Level 1 Mages

They got through the funnel, reached first level, and now have real magical power at their fingertips.  What then?  Well for one, this game isn't called Dungeon Crawl Classics for nothing!  You need weirdness and adventure!  Forgotten crypts to climb through, rituals to perform, planar gates to close before the Purple Ooze seeps through and engulfs the entire kingdom!

The Megadungeon: Even senior mages whose minds are battered and broken from contact with otherworldly powers know better than to set up a magic school in any podunk town.  Location is key, it has to be close to a source of eldritch power to properly harmonize the supernatural energies so that when the stars align and-yadda yadda yadda, it's a bunch of wizardly gobbledygook.  What matters is that the school's been built on top of, nearby, or even inside of some strange, labyrinthine place.  This dungeon is responsible for not just the strange goings-on in the land, or the monster of the week bursting forth to menace the school and the nearby peasant village; its foundations hold the key artifacts, spell tomes, and ritual components so necessary for the mages to further their studies into that which can never be truly known.  In order to advance their own power, they must delve into this strange land where civilization ends and the laws of the world do not apply.

It might seem negligent, cruel even, to allow young men and women barely old enough to learn a trade into such a dangerous dungeon.  But the truth of the matter is that they can't rely on anyone else: the teachers have their hands full keeping order among the factions and holding the wards together so the school doesn't cave in on itself in a magical conflagration.  The witch-hunting Knights of Magus, tasked with cutting down any student or teacher who becomes 'too far gone,' see little need in going on dangerous adventures and potentially helping the mages unlock some eldritch abomination upon this world.  The peasants in the nearby village are even more out of their league than you when it comes to dealing with monsters and magic, and those necromancer jerks in the school's basement are probably digging a tunnel straight into the megadungeon and by Sezrekan are you going to let them snatch up all the good stuff!

Careful now, you don't want to end up vaporized! In spite of their best efforts at security, magic is an inherently unstable art.  Death, dismemberment, and insanity are accepted casualties of learning at the school.  It's sad when a student dies or vanishes to the realms between planes, and the mages do hold funerary rites in the ever-increasing cemetery, but it happens often enough that nobody is truly surprised when poor Achebe is stricken with permanent blindness by failing to follow the ritual's instructions, or when Esmerelda turns into a mute snake-woman after spending too much time in the Reptilium.

For this reason it's not out of the blue to suddenly drop a dangerous random encounter within the school grounds.  The PCs might flee, try to unite with fellow students and staff, or even be forced to handle it themselves.  As the DM, take care not to make the danger constant, but do it often enough when the PCs are treating the school as a safe haven too much to remind them that nothing is truly safe when magic is involved.

In a DCC magic school, even middling apprentices and senior staff members bear some kind of physical ailment, deformity, or personality tick.  Feel free to take examples and inspiration from the Corruption section (page 116) of the main rulebook.  For further inspiration, I made a table here:

Roll
Ailment/Behavior
1
Mage has a prosthetic hook hand
2
Mage’s eyes lack irises, are milky pools of white
3
Mage is forming gill slits on neck
4
Mage speaks backwards
5
Mage’s skin is transparent
6
Mage’s flesh, and room has runes carved into it
7
Mage is severely underweight, has to be reminded to eat to survive
8
Mage writes everything in their own blood
9
Mage experiences no emotions, speaks in monotone voice
10
Mage talks to objects as though they’re real people
11
Mage’s skin exudes slimy sweat
12
Mage’s bones are like rubber, body is super-bendable
13
Mage attracts a flock of birds whenever they go outside
14
Mage wears eyepatch, covered eye offers maddening glimpses to those who stare into it
15
Mage wakes up every day with no memories older than 24 hours, still accumulates spell knowledge
16
Mage is living on borrowed time, will drop dead with no explanation in 1d4 months
17
Mage is colorblind
18
Mage collects dead insects
19
Mage refuses to cast any spells for any reason
20
Mage gnaws on their hand, is bruised with teeth marks

Embrace the Zany: Whereas many fantasy RPGs and retro-clones are tightly-defined with genre-appropriate ideas and canon, this is not the case for Dungeon Crawl Classics.  While there's plenty of room for iconic traditional fantasy, there is no shortage of strangeness which would not have a place in more tightly-defined games.  One game session the PC might be infiltrating the dark tower of school's bone-clad necromancers to stop a dangerous ritual.  The next session a meteor from space might crash near the village, from which emerges Rotol the Conqueror, Extra-Dimensional Alien Overlord who must feed on the brain matter of sapient humans to grow to full power.  The emotionless teenage girl who does nothing but dutifully study might actually be a disguised golem, and ends up revealing her super-strength once she throws the class bully across the lake!

Combine what your players know and take for granted in the fantasy and sword & sorcery genre, lay it over the setting in appropriate parts, then scatter some stuff which goes beyond their expectations.  This not only keeps a sense of wonder and mystery in the game, it applies for a nice variance between adventures.

New Apprentice-Based Occupations!

In core Dungeon Crawl Classics, there's not much in the way of suitably supernatural occupations. Astrologer, Fortune-Teller, Shaman, and Wizard's Apprentice are about it.  More than a few standard ones might be offbeat or unsuitable for a magic school-based campaign, so I decided to make a new 1d100 table!  Below is detailed a variety of disciplines and traditions of magic; as 0-level PCs, they do not know any spells (yet) so feel free to theorize as to what some of the more obscure titles might signify.  What is a Claw of Chaos, and why does that PC wield such a mean-looking dagger?  It depends on your campaign, and what the player or GM makes sense of it!

Table: Magic Academy Apprenticeships


Roll
Apprenticeship
Trained Weapon
Trade Goods
1-2
Abjurer
Club
Shield
3-5
Alchemist
Staff
Oil, 1 flask
6-7
Amulet Maker
Hammer (as club)
Warding amulet (non-magical)
8-10
Astrologer
Dagger
Spyglass
11-12
Bard
Short Sword
Musical Instrument
13-14
Blood Mage
Dagger
Vial full of own blood
15-16
Celestial Devotee
Staff
Holy water, 1 vial
17-19
Claw of Chaos
Kukri (as dagger)
Blasphemous Tome
20-22
Curse Speaker
Hammer and Chisel (as club)
Runic plate with names of hated enemies
23-25
Demonologist
Hand Axe
Robes with 5-pointed star on back
26-27
Diviner
Dagger
Crystal Ball (non-magical)
28-29
Earthspeaker
Mace
Pouch of blessed soil
30-32
Eldritch Historian
Quill (treat as dart)
Book of Strange Lore
33-34
Elven Bladecaster
Longsword
Leather Armor
35-36
Elven Greenbond
Club
Clothes made of interweaving leaves
37-38
Elven Star Mage
Staff
Star-shaped necklace worth 1 gp
39-40
Enchanter/Enchantress
Dagger
Perfume
41-43
Fortune-Teller
Dagger
Tarot Deck
44-46
Herbalist
Club
Herbs, 1 lb.
47-49
Illusionist
Sling
Hallucinogenic herbs
50-51
Iron Magus
Iron Bar (as club)
Iron spike
52-53
Maintainer of Balance
Staff
Set of weighted scales
54-56
Naturalist
Sling
Herbs, 1 lb.
57-59
Necromancer
Shovel (as staff)
Bone meal
60-61
Pyromancer
Dagger
Flint & Steel
62-64
Shadowcaster
Garrote
Black hooded cloak
65-66
Spell Dancer
Dart
Performer’s Outfit
67-68
Spirit Keeper
Staff
Ouija board
69-71
Summoner
Spear
Pouch of powdered silver (5 gp worth)
72-73
Sword of Law
Longsword
Shield
74-75
Tattooed Mage
Needle (as dart)
Ink
76-78
Temple Ritualist
Club
Religious Text
79-81
Transmuter
Spear
Vial of unknown substance
82-83
Truenamer
Mace
Dictionary
84-86
Universalist Mage
Spear
Bag of multi-colored pebbles
87-89
Warlock
Shortbow
Human skull
90-91
Warmage
Battleaxe
Vest with royal insignia
92-93
Wearer of Silver
Short Sword
Silver necklace worth 10 gp
94-95
Wild Mage
Flail
Multi-colored string of cloth
96-97
Windshaper
Blowgun
Weathervane
98-00
Witch-hunter
Short Sword
Chain, 10’