Wednesday, May 13, 2009

REVIEW: Dungeonslayers

Dungeonslayers is a free 20-page "old-fashioned roleplaying game" by Christian Kennig. Originally written in German, I presume that some of its linguistic oddities, such as its sub-title, are the result a less than perfect translation into English. Don't misunderstand me: the translation is solid and perfectly intelligible, but there are infelicities here and there in the text that are jarring, such as when the game describes its focus as "slaying monsters and looting dungeons in a primitive and old-fashioned way." From context, I presume the author meant that Dungeonslayers is an old school game that harkens back to the early days of the hobby rather than implying, as the words "primitive" and "old-fashioned" do, that it's an unsophisticated and outmoded RPG. Such are the hazards of translating from one language to another.

I mention the translation at all, because, for its length, Dungeonslayers is in fact a very good game -- simple without being simplistic, focused without being narrow, and very much in keeping with the spirit of old school gaming, even if its mechanics owe more to 3e than to OD&D. In this respect, Dungeonslayers reminded me a bit of Microlite20, another excellent minimalist RPG that pares down the bloat of the D20 rules to a more manageable level (and that serves as the basis for the terrific Microlite74 rules). That said, Dungeonslayers is most emphatically a modern game; it's rules are not old school so much as designed to emulate the freewheeling style of old school games. For that reason, I suspect it's probably more of interest to gamers who either aren't interested in going "back to the source" or who never played such games in the first place.

As in D&D, players create a character by first choosing a race (dwarf, elf, and human are given as examples), each of which grants some small benefit, such as nightvision or a bonus talent point, in addition to a +1 bonus to a single ability. There are three available character classes (fighter, scout, and spellcaster), with the spellcaster itself being divided into three sub-classes (black mage, healer, and wizard). The classes feel somewhat vestigial compared to OD&D, since their main differences (aside from the fact that only spellcasters can learn spells) is the rate at which abilities improve, what talents one can learn, and a +1 bonus to a single ability. All classes require the same amount of XP to gain a level and the rules provide for advancement up to level 20. All classes likewise gain learning points (by which they can raise abilities and hit points) and talent points at the same rate, so the game is designed with at least some concern for balance between the various options available to players.

There are three attributes (body, agility, and mind), underneath of which are there are two abilities. Players are given 18 points to assign to their character's attributes, but there is an upper limit of 10 and only even numbered values may be chosen. To generate ability scores, a player divides the appropriate attribute by two and distributes that number of points among the two abilities, with 0 being an acceptable option. Thus, a character with 4 Body may have Strength 0 and Toughness 2. Characters have numerous combat values, such as Hit Points, Defense, and Dodge, whose values are determined by combining together attributes and abilities in various ways. Talents are a bit like feats from 3e but much more modest in scope, with most offering fairly small benefits to characters under very specific circumstances, such as +1 bonus to stealth checks or +1 bonus on all healing and protective spells.

Checks are at the heart of Dungeonslayers mechanics, a check being a single D20 roll under a check value that typically consists of adding an attribute and an ability together, modified by the situation. Though not a fan of universal mechanics in general, I didn't find this one as irksome, mostly because there's no exahustive list of standard actions and the formulae for implementing them. Instead, referees are free to combine any attribute with any ability as he deems fit to determine the chance of success. Certainly there are examples in the rules for many actions but each referee could easily ignore them and determine successes according to his own sense of which attribute and ability seem most appropriate for a given action. Combat is quick and easy and consists an attack roll to hit and deal damage and a defense roll to reduce any damage suffered. Magic is interesting and low-key with a clear Vancian pedigree. Spellcasters can have only one active spell at a time, but they can cast it as many times as they are able to do so, based on the spell's "cooldown" -- an unfortunate invasion of computer game terminology into Dungeonslayers. Changing from one active spell to another is not automatic and could, in the heat of battle, prove difficult.

Dungeonslayers has a brief game mastering section that discusses the creation of dungeons, awarding XP, and adjudicating various hazards, such as traps and random encounters. There's also a short bestiary and listing of magic items, along with a 15-room dungeon adventure called "Lord of the Rats." Rounding out the PDF is a 2-page character sheet.

All in all, Dungeonslayers is a nicely presented and simple game in a vein not unlike that of the venerable Tunnels & Trolls, which is to say, a game whose enjoyment depends on a combination of rational game mechanics combined with having players and a referee willing to "fill in the gaps" with their imaginations. Dungeonslayers is also a game that cries out for house rules and supplements (easily done since it's released for free under the Creative Commons License), because, though complete as written, it's still a very sketchy game. Regular play will undoubtedly result in new options, expanded rules, and personal interpretations to accommodate the quirks of each group of players. Personally, I see that as a good thing and an indication that, while the engine that drives it isn't a vintage model, it can still take you to many of the same places as the classics of the past.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 6 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Get This If: You're looking for a set of simple, minimalist rules for running fantasy adventures (or just looking for ideas to add to one you're already using)
Don't Get This If: You prefer "crunchier" rules systems or already have a set of minimalist rules you're happy with

5 comments:

  1. A very fair review, I think.

    I was more dismissive of Dungeonslayers, but am now encouraged to look at it again.

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  2. I have to agree with Timeshadows that it was a very fair review.

    And as the person who did the bulk of the translation I can tell you it wasn't as easy as I first thought and although we had a couple of native speakers to help us, a few strange translations sneaked into the final version.
    And you may "thank" me for the spell's cooldown. Alas I just couldn't come up with a better translation.

    By the way, Christian recently released another 1-page adventure and a basic gamemaster screen on the DS site, you may want to check out.

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  3. I looked this over a while back and I've got to say that I think I'm glad I didn't discover Dungeonslayers before I discovered the retro-clones. I may very well have gone with Dungeonslayers.

    There's a lot there mechanically that I don't really care for, but it is simple and straightforward and open enough to allow all the old-schooling you could want.

    I'll be sticking with the retro-clones, and anyone I introduce to the hobby will be introduced to the retro-clones. But Dungeonslayers does look like it's got a lot of potential for the sort of gaming that I prefer. Many of the newer-version games don't.

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  4. There's tons of support material on the German site (dragonslayers.de) if you've got the language skillz. A 3.5 update of the rules (haven't looked at what's different yet), 5 more Dungeons 2 Go, weapon & armor supplement, firearms rules, and a lot more. Sadly the "Map Pack" that looked very exciting turned out to be three sheets of blank graph paper with different textures :/

    Looks like this system is being enthusiastically supported in its native tongue.

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  5. "Old-fashioned" isn't a bad name for it. But the warm fuzzy feeling you get from "old school" has gradually drained away from old-fashioned, in the last few years. Now you have to specify "good old-fashioned" to get the warm fuzzies.

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