Dungeon Crawl Classics was high on our list of games to play during our geeky guys weekend. In fact, it was the only game we explicitly said "we're going to play". We were reading the rules on the car ride down, talking about all the quirks and tables. Cthulhu's Librarian even ordered some Zocchi dice for me! We were all excited about the game, but after playing it a bit using the Free RPG day adventure, my excitement is now considerably muted, though not completely abandoned.
Our first night, we all rolled up a stable of characters. There were only three of us, with Cthulhu's Librarian agreeing to GM, so that left RM and I to come up with the fifteen or so characters required to play the adventure. We dove in to the random generation of scores, occupations, and equipment. I found this part quite fun, actually. Sure, some of the characters had horrible stats, but it was always interesting to see how they were all going to turn out. I ended up with, among others, a noble and two squires -- so the noble immediately had two people to carry his stuff around. Cthulhu's Librarian also rolled up a few characters, so by the end we had a party of 22.
My initial thoughts about the character creation process was that it's fun, but there's some degree of tedium involved. By the time character 8 rolled around, things were getting a little stale. I think the party had a total of four squires and five farmers. There were only three demi-humans, while we also had three grave-diggers. The rules certainly say you can choose professions, so this is easily avoided. Really, I think we were all just disappointed no one rolled the privy-cleaner and his complementary bag of poop.
We put our characters aside for the evening and dove into the adventure the next day, beginning the "character funnel" by which the giant party is winnowed down to a more manageable size of adventurers who will go on to be first level. This aspect of the game has potential, but it was one of my least favorite parts of play. I was effectively playing 14 characters at the beginning, so my play experience was atypical and certainly colored by that. First, without a proper in-game set up, having all these random commoners head into the dungeon was hard to rationalize. "Hey! We're poor and want adventure. Let's all head into the mysterious magical gate to see what's there" just didn't work for us, especially when we began to consider how these folks would act in the dungeon itself. Do they stick together? Follow a leader? Shove others forward into the doorway that's almost certainly trapped? Wait, do they know it's trapped or is that just my meta-game knowledge creeping in? This is aside from the fact that it's just hard to play that many characters with any degree of skill.
That last point -- meta-gaming -- was actually something we struggled with quite a bit. Even if you take out the role-playing problems the character funnel created, there was still the gamey problem of resource (i.e. character and party) optimization. Within our party, there were clearly some folks who were more competent than others, based on the random stat rolls. There were clearly some who were tougher, with substantially more hit points -- if you consider 4 hit points to be substantially more than 1. How do you play that, from a tactical level? The characters who are "better" are the ones that give the party as a whole the best chance of survival, but they are also the ones you want to survive because they will make better 1st level characters. Do you then send your 1 hit point gravedigger with an 8 agility ahead to scout, even though you know he won't find anything or be of any use except by dying to alert the rest of the party of the monster or trap? We really struggled with this.
For the record, we did not finish the adventure. It got late and we got tired. I lost a total of five of my fourteen characters in the time we did play, with the first dying seventeen minutes into the game. That was too be expected, but the constant death simply got old, especially when it's almost a given that ANY hits to a character will result in his or her death.
We didn't get to try out many of the aspects of the game I was looking forward to -- the magic system, especially. It's probably more accurate to say we playtested the character funnel concept. Generally, I found that lacking, though I can imagine a couple of scenarios where the level-zero start with a large number of characters would make sense and provide a very interesting beginning for a game.