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Thursday, 6 December 2018

RPGPundit Reviews: Dungeons & Delvers Black Book

This is a review of the RPG "Dungeons & Delvers: Black Book", published by Awful Good Games, written by David Guyll and Melissa Fisher. It is, allegedly, an OSR 'homage' the "easy to master" black box of the original D&D game.  That is to say, not the BECMI Master Rules, but rather the later 1991 D&D introductory box set.

This is, as always, a review of the print edition, which is in the form of a smaller softcover (of similar size to the LotFP products), about 140 pages in length. The cover is full color, featuring a trio of adventurers about to face off with a dragon. The interior art is also color, featuring illustrations of adventurers, equipment, and monsters.  Production values are quite good by the standards of a small press product.

The back cover of the book reads a bit like an infomercial, the sort of thing that you used to see in 1990s "heartbreaker" RPGs. It's a very long diatribe about the various differences between this game and standard D&D. It has creatures that are more similar to its mythological counterparts, people get to choose things when they level up, fighters scale damage, armor does damage reduction, clerics and wizards have different magic than the standard, there are "simple and effective crafting rules", magic is not required for adventuring, and treasures are handled differently ("not every monster has a hoard").

On the one hand, I guess this gives you a good perspective on what's different. But let's face it, most people shopping for this game won't be looking in a brick & mortar store, they'll be buying it online. And there's just something a little amateurish about it. It's a bit like they don't realize that most of the things listed have been done by one OSR game or another, in some cases years ago. My own Lion & Dragon has mythological based creatures, choices of how you advance at every level, fighters scaling damage, and non-Vancian magic systems (as well as different, more medieval-authentic treasures).  I didn't put that on the back cover of my game, though.

But all that said, you shouldn't really judge a book by its cover, not even its back cover. And if the game lives up to all the back-cover hype, and does it the right way, it might be quite good. So, let's find out!

The foreword to the book has the designer telling us that he had found himself disillusioned with 5th edition, and that for a while he'd played Dungeon World, but it wasn't quite satisfying his gaming needs, so he started working on his own project. Initially, Dungeons & Delvers was going to be a 4e D&D spin-off (eww), but he was unsatisfied with the complexity of that game, and with the amount of time it took to run a fight, and the excessively complex options. So then he went back to the version of D&D that he first played: the 1991 introductory black box set. He used that as the base, and began building on his house rules from there.

Now, his story doesn't mention the OSR, which leads me to think his 'heartbreaker' style of back-cover description may well be (as I suspected) a product of a lack of experience with many OSR products. It's also kind of troubling to note that the two main inspirations of his recent play are the abominable 4e and Dungeon World, as the former isn't even real D&D, and the latter isn't even a real RPG. Let's hope he freed himself from their influence and we don't see problematic elements of either in the product.

After a couple of pages of the basics of how to play, we get to character creation. Ability scores are rolled on 3d6, with rolls assigned at will. Alternately, you can go with a predetermined array. Races are chosen, and the four included in the book are Human, Elf, Dwarf, and Kobold (an interesting variation from including halflings). Each race comes with a list of potential names, racial features, and a description of typical adventurers of that class.
Each race gains a +1 to one or more ability scores (humans get a +1 to one score of their choice). Elves and dwarves have base weapon proficiencies. Dwarves have poison resistance and a +1 to dungeoneering checks, as well as taking less time to craft. Elves can either increase their perception and stealth or gain a wizard talent and some base mana. Humans can choose one skill or raise an existing skill by +1, and get a bonus talent (or can get special talents making them have part elven or part fiendish blood). Kobolds (who are not typical D&D kobolds but closer to mythological little-fairy-folk) get a bonus to stealth and a few set bonuses depending on whether they're 'hearth', 'mine' or 'ship' kobolds. The kobolds are the most interesting thing about this game thus far.

Characters have wound points and vitality points. Wounds are based on your constitution ability score bonus, modified at character creation by the class you chose. You gain more wound points as you level. Vitality points are based on level, and they're usually lost before wounds. So this is basically a variation on the system from the D20 Star Wars RPG. Characters also gain weapon and armor proficiencies by class; if you use a weapon without proficiency you have penalties to hit, and armor you're not proficient in cause penalties to movement, attacks, spells, reflex saves and armor class. Characters also begin with a handful of skills based on class.

Clerics handle their magic through "Favor", which is based on one's Wisdom score. They start with specific powers and select a couple more, and then gain more as they go up in level.
Fighters gain extra damage bonuses, special combat talents, and at higher levels multiple attacks.
Rogues get sneak attack, skill bonuses, and special talents.
Wizards have magic, which they cast using mana points (they can also use up vitality and wound points if they don't have mana points left). Wizards choose talents that indicate a school of magic they are studying, and then each school is a prerequisite to accessing certain skills. This is also in some ways reminiscent of force powers in Star Wars D20.
Each class also starts with default equipment, which are in the forms of "packs" (ie. Wizard pack, explorer pack, etc).

Each class covers levels 1-5. This is, if I recall correctly, the level range in the original 1991 black-box D&D set. So I guess, unless there's an expansion coming (and a sidebar text in the book suggests that there will be), that this is a game for low-level play.

The game is level based, and XP is handled quite simply (which I like). It takes 50xp per level to level up. So to get to level 2 requires 50xp, level 3 requires 100xp, level 4 takes 150xp, etc.
You get XP for the standard monster-fighting, as well as overcoming hazards and traps. You also get XP any time you survive getting down to 0 wound points. At the GM's discretion, PCs can also gain XP by completing quests or making important discoveries in game.

The game uses a skill system, and there are 18 default skills. They're tied to ability scores, plus skill bonuses (up to +5). They're rolled on a D20. There are more detailed rules for crafting skills, which include alchemical substances, and making armor and weapons.

The equipment section starts with the option of players starting with a certain amount of cash rather than pre-determined equipment. Aside from that it, it provides a pretty standard (not exhaustive, but adequate) list of weapons, armor, general gear, mounts (which include some unusual ones like "dire wolf" or "giant spider"), alchemical items, and potions.
The weapons have certain special qualities. Some of them grant bonuses to initiative, or to piercing damage reduction from armor. Weapons are divided into "simple" and "martial", in the 3e style.
Armor provides both bonuses to AC, as is traditional, and damage reduction qualities (ranging from AC10+Dex bonus and DR1 for leather; to AC15 and DR5 for plate mail). Shields don't provide DR, but add bonus to AC and to reflex saves.

The basic mechanic of the game is pretty much the standard from the D20 system, the D20+mod vs DC method, which has of course been used in various OSR games, including DCC and my own Arrows of Indra and Lion & Dragon. It also includes the less-frequently-used (in the OSR at least) "take 10/20" mechanic and the "passive scores" concept. Mechanics are also provided for travel, climbing, doors, and digging.

In Combat, Initiative is rolled on a D20+DEX, and combat actions are similar to those of 3e/D20, or rather a simplified version without the unfortunate excesses of the 3e system.  It's pretty standard to OSR play. Critical 20s do maximum damage. Damage is applied first to vitality, and later to wounds; though some special forms of damage (like poison) get applied directly to wounds.
The big difference in the combat system is the fact that Armor soaks damage. There's also some weapons with the "armor piercing" quality which means they ignore a certain amount of damage reduction.

In another case of borrowing from new-school D&D, there's short and long rests in this game. A short rest is 30 minutes long, and allows the recovery of 1 vitality per character level, plus 1 mana point per wizard level for wizards. A long rest is 6-8 hours, and the character recovers a number of short rests equal to the number of half-hour increments they slept, plus at the end of the long rest they recover their CON+level in wounds. Resting in wilderness areas make recover a little worse, while staying in high quality accommodations or using a healer's kit improves them.

I have to say, I was not a big fan of the "rests" in 5e. However, in this game, with the division between vitality and wounds, it makes a bit more sense. Some OSR gamers might still feel that recovery is too fast in this system; I guess that would be mostly a matter of taste.

Characters that fall to 0 wounds are unconscious and potentially dying. They can be stabilized by someone with medicine, but failing the medicine check cause more wound damage. A character who reaches negative wounds equal to their wounds will die. If they survive there's a random table for a chance of permanent injuries.

At this point we're at page 91, and we get into the gamemastering section. There's a couple of pages of pretty generic GM advice, none of which seems super useful to me for anyone who isn't buying this as their first RPG (and, as I've often pointed out with other products like this in the past, it seems extremely unlikely to me that the vast majority of purchasers would be buying this as their first game).

There is some good advice on the section on "Charisma skills", which help to avoid some of the excesses of what games which use these tend to have, where a character maxed out on social skills just uses them as a kind of superpower. The designer makes it very clear that there are many circumstances where no amount or roll of a charisma skill will allow the PCs to just get what they want. For example, a low level adventurer won't be able to intimidate a Dragon into letting them take their treasure hoard, no matter how good their Intimidate skill or intimidate roll might be. Good advice!

I'm also glad to see that the designer also includes the old-school Reaction Table. Something that was badly noted for its absence in the later editions of D&D. The section on "building encounters" is also very well written with the right philosophy in mind: it plainly states that the goal here is NOT to get the GM to build "balanced encounters" but rather to give the GM an idea of what is likely to happen with the types of encounters PCs might face; but it's made clear that in the game there should be encounters that are beyond 'balance', because in a realistic world you're not always going to face foes that are your equals.

There's also some guidelines to design, including a table to randomly roll some scenarios; which is fine but it's only 8 entries long. There's also a 12 entry setting to describe the location of a dungeon (ie. "a building in a town", "a ruined castle", "wizard's tower", "corpse of massive creature", etc).

The rest of the guidance material about how to handle the party and how to lay out the dungeon is all just average in quality. Nothing awful, but nothing special.

Next is the Monster section, and it has 24 pages of monster stat-blocks, including treasure suggestions for monster type. The stats are fine, the monsters don't include anything radically new or surprising. It's mainly standard types of creatures you'll find in D&D. It was perhaps the most disappointing section of the rules. First, because for all the promise of being mythologically-based, there's actually little here that I find as being a significant mythological variation from D&D-standard. There are a couple of details, like how a ghoul is closer to a demon than an undead and can put on the face of the last person it killed, but for the most part it is a lot less medieval-legend focused and much more conservative in staying close to D&D-standard than the monsters in my own Lion & Dragon (and note that some people felt I was still way too conservative in staying close to D&D-standard myself).
Also, monsters are listed with vitality and wound points, rather than what dice they'd roll for vitality and wounds. Of course, on the one hand this makes sense as PCs themselves don't roll for vitality or wounds, they get a fixed amount at every level (only modified by CON). But I just found it jarring, like a pesky flaw that shows that the reality is virtual, when your party knows that every time it faces an ogre (barring GM intervention) it will take precisely 54 points of damage, no more and no less, to take it down.

You also get a 3-page guide for converting monsters from other OSR products to this system. Most of it is pretty straightforward.

There's also a couple of pages with a guide to traps, including a few examples.

The last section is the treasure tables. This is a small section, about 6 pages long. It has a couple of random tables for generating gems and jewelry, and 17 magic items (some of these are relatively novel and creative, so the chapter has that going for it).

So what to conclude about "Dungeons & Delvers Black Book"? On the whole, it's a good little OSR ruleset. It could be particularly appealing to gamers who like rulesets that incorporate the better elements from 3e (and a touch of 5e) play. It would also appeal to gamers whose favorite D&D play involves low-level action.
On the other hand, gamers who are OSR purists, or who want something that gets to higher levels of play won't really be satisfied by this book (though in the latter group, the eventual expansion of this game, if it comes to pass, would likely resolve the problem).

The game has nothing particularly wrong with it at all; other than the very nitpicky point that the author could have made more mythological focused monsters with a slightly bolder effort to come out more different than standard D&D. But fortunately, it shows no signs of the dangerous influences that were mentioned in the forward. On the other hand, other than the incorporation of some of the new-school mechanics, it also doesn't take any daring or innovative risks.  It's not something you'll get if you want to buy a really innovative game on the creative edge of the OSR. However, if you were a fan of the old Basic Set (or for that matter, the black-box basic set of the early 1990s that this game was inspired by), this could be right up your alley.


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  1. Sounds not bad. Good review. If I didn't already own various games I would use for fantasy, this would be worth looking at. Sounds brief, which is a relief.

  2. (Damnit, three days late...)

    Thanks for the review Pundit (better than I was expecting)! I'll keep it brief since this is just a comment (I'll chime in more on the forum post), but we have a bunch of free PDF-only "zines" we keep adding to the core product (there's like 8 or 9 of them, now).

    If you buy it through DTRPG you get them automatically, and alerted when we add a new one, but we can also send them by request to anyone that just gets a physical book OR buys directly through PayPal (if you want Pundit I can send them all to you).

    Those have more races, classes, gear, magic items, monsters, and so on. Also ups the level spread to 20. After people kept asking us to, a lot of it DID get compiled into an expansion book (Appendix D).

    We are working on a kind of 2nd Edition, as it were, so the things you didn't like are really good to know!