2020 Retrospective: War All the Time
by Michael Curtis
It will be remembered as an age of unforeseen catastrophe. A time when it was beyond the ken of even the wisest to foresee what would occur next. There were those who worked to restore order to a world gone mad, while others toiled to tear apart what little sanity remained. Across the world, the inhabitants held their breath, not knowing what each day would bring and fearing the night would herald new horrors.
And 2020 was pretty bad, too.
Like just about everyone reading this, I found myself navigating unforeseen waters in 2020. I had expected it to be an unusual year for me as I would be working on an archival grant project which saw me returning a normal day job after largely working in the RPG industry exclusively for the last several years. I was going to have to figure out how to balance both my Goodman Games responsibilities with the grant work, and was anticipating the next year-and-a-half of my life with a mixture of excitement and dread. Then COVID-19 hit us pretty hard here in New York and everything went out the window.
I was furloughed for five months when the university I was working at shut down. All the conventions I usually attend got cancelled. My friend who hosts our local gaming group is married to a nurse who worked in the COVID wing at a nearby hospital, so, suffice to say, we stopped regular game nights even before the governor said we needed to keep our distance from each other. Suddenly, like most of us, I found myself sitting at home with a lot of time to kill. And while I had a large pile of miniatures in need of painting, one cannot get their gaming fix by paint alone.
Fortunately for not just myself, but for everyone with an interest in Goodman Games’ products, those of us in the GG inner circle started discussing how to address the New Normal not long into the quarantine. It was clear we’d have to embrace online gaming, something that the majority of the Goodman crew had managed to avoid doing, being hoary old relics who started gaming in the 1980s. With some trepidation, we got Roll 20 accounts, attended “How Zoom works” seminars, and, with our feet still very, very wet, forged ahead with the first ever Goodman Games online convention, Cyclops Con. I think much to everyone’s surprise, we managed to A) pull it off, and B) discover that online gaming, while still not quite face-to-face gaming, isn’t so bad.
With that revelation, unforeseen opportunities suddenly presented themselves.
Some years ago, I got into a discussion at North Texas RPG Con with a buddy in which we discussed the wargaming roots of RPGs and what had since been discarded from its sand table origins. From that conversation, I got it in my head to run a wargame-RPG hybrid campaign that brought back some of the elements from the old Twin Cities/Lake Geneva days. The campaign would feature a large pool of players each of whom would take on several roles: a baron overseeing a small fiefdom, one to three adventuring PCs, and the general of the baron’s house guard. Each baron would belong to a different “side” in the campaign, serving either Law, Neutrality, or Chaos, and that choice would determine which adventuring party their PCs played in. Each week, I’d run three gaming sessions, with one for the Lawful group, one for the Neutral group, and one for the Chaotic party. The PCs would largely be dungeon delvers, looking for treasure to bring back to the baron so their liege could build better fortifications, hire more troops, and so forth, to augment the tabletop wargaming battles which would be occurring as each baron’s forces, led by the general, claimed more territory or put down political rivals. It would be a complex plan, not only hindered by its ambition, but by a lack of local players needed to fill out the number of participants necessary to pull it off. After facing reality, I put the campaign on the “Amazing but Will Never Be Realized Campaigns” pile and moved on.
Now suddenly, I saw I wasn’t restricted to just who I could find locally and was willing to play in my crazy campaign. Could I possibly adapt the idea to an online format? That question gave birth to the DCC WarCrawl campaign of Summer 2020, one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal year.
In adapting the campaign to online play, I knew I’d have to throw out the wargaming element entirely. And since this is DCC we’re talking about, I knew limiting the action to a single small kingdom wasn’t worthy of Dungeon Crawl Classics. Instead of sides fighting over a kingdom, I’d make them contend for the entire multiverse!
The core tenet that survived was the concept of alignments being literally opposing sides in a conflict and the PCs choosing to serve one side over the others. Being Lawful wasn’t about making sure you always told the truth and didn’t jaywalk. It meant driving a flaming longsword down the maw of Chaos to keep the multiverse from plunging into entropy. Alignment would play an important role in the campaign, one I intended to underline right from the beginning.
The campaign had a stealth start. I wrote up a zero-level funnel I called Phelan’s Pile, a series of chambers under a grassy hill outside of a small village. Then I put out the call on the DCC RPG Rocks Facebook group and started getting volunteers to play through it. I told all the participants to generate four zero-level PCs, but not pick their alignments without explaining why. Over the next few weeks, a total of 77 zero-levels went into the Pile and 40 survived to the end. In the final encounter, each PC was faced with a decision: What side do you serve? Almost everyone made a choice (a few skedaddled with their loot, since they didn’t know this was a secret campaign kick-off), and found themselves whisked away to a new location based on which cosmic force they aligned with.
The campaign’s premise was that the Balance, Neutrality, had removed itself from the multiverse and, with nothing to keep them in check, Law and Chaos decided to fight for control of the cosmos in a final apocalyptic battle. The PCs who chose Law and Chaos where therefore directly opposed to one another, while those who decided to serve the Balance were tasked with finding out why Neutrality had removed itself and, if possible, bring it back into the multiverse to keep Law and Chaos from tearing reality apart. After each PC made their choice, the forces of Law gained nine champions, the Balance received thirteen, and Chaos had nine reavers willing to serve. The remainder fled the Pile without pledging to a side.
With the funnel’s success and people showing interest, I launched the campaign. Somehow, and I doubt I could make this work again, I managed to coordinate the schedules of 15 players to meet on three separate nights AND figured out a way to accommodate their PCs’ alignment choices. For the next few months, with only one or two weeks off, I ended up running a convention’s worth of games each and every week. Thursday night games were dedicated to Law, Friday nights where when Chaos gathered, and Saturday mornings, to accommodate players from Europe and the UK, saw the forces of the Balance get together.
I made one pledge to myself at the start of the campaign. Since it was originally set to run a total of 10 game weeks, I knew there wasn’t time for a slow build. Being DCC, I wanted to make the campaign worthy of the stories it has its roots in. Immediately, the parties encountered people, places, and things that I hoped would strike them as memorable. In week one, we had animated gorilla-headed printing presses, the Acid Jungle and its uplifted lizard people with spoon heads who lived there, flying brass squids, and the revelation that a trip to the Moon would be in at least one party’s future before things came to an end! Things got weirder from there on out. The players regularly commented how they couldn’t believe what they were encountering each week, what with the whale skeleton flying ships, a giant space pterodactyl, an honest-to-goodness run-in and ultimate slaying of a dragon, and a submarine all making appearances before we had to close the campaign down when my furlough ended. All in all, we had eight solid weeks of gaming, plus the original funnel sessions. The DCC WarCrawl campaign became one of my top five campaigns of all time.
Since it was a war, we needed to have a victory condition. Each game session saw the parties earning between zero and five victory points depending on what they accomplished. The point scores were always close, with one side taking the lead one week, only to lose it the next. There were a few heartbreak sessions where a team earned next to nothing and one almost TPK. The champions of Neutrality, thanks to some great teamwork and a devious misinformation plan that did its job in the last week of the campaign, seemed likely to restore the Balance, but at the final moment, Law won the war for the fate of the Multiverse by a single point! Luckily, the forces of Neutrality were summoned back into the cosmos, preventing the universe from plunging into a staid, well-ordered but ultimately boring existence, but at the cost of some wildness, creativity, and all human wizards losing their ability to work magic.
There’s been some talk about trying to do WarCrawl on a larger scale, but that’s a work in progress. Ultimately, I’d like to find a way to recapture the fun of this summer’s campaign in a manner that everyone can play a part, but that’s beyond the means of one single judge. There’s nothing stopping you all from doing something like this, however, and with everyone becoming more fluent in online gaming these days, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding players. If you’ll excuse a moment of blatant advertising, we recorded all the WarCrawl sessions from Week 1 to the final retrospective episode, and those are available to backers of my Patreon. Become a backer for $5 or more and month and you’ll have not only access to the videos, but to game material created for the campaign, all of which could be useful if you want to run something in the WarCrawl style yourself.
I’m on record of saying that I don’t think DCC, despite its name, is a good system for running megadungeon-style campaigns and WarCrawl is my rebuttal to those who argue otherwise. Why limit yourself to a single hole in the ground when there’s an entire multiverse—moon worms, ether steeds, and necromantic bombs included—waiting for you to explore?