Dungeonslayers: A Review

I have now run 3 games of Dungeonslayers and thought I would write up a review. The first two games went quite well, however some problems were uncovered in the third game.

All of the games I ran started with the sample adventure included with the core Dungeonslayers rules, the third went on to a second adventure. Minor spoilers of these adventures will be included in the review, as I feel I need to describe the situations the players were in to accurately describe the problems encountered.

The first game was run via IRC, with 2 players: A fighter and a black mage. The players quickly understood the rules and went through the first two encounters without issue, and had some trouble with the fight with the spider. After this session I was highly enthusiastic about DS and spent a great deal of time trying to find others to play with. I ran this one as a X-Crawl like game I’ve dubbed X-Slayers, adding in commentary and whatnot on the fly. This worked quite well.

I then ran a second, in person, session of DS. The party consisted of two black mages and a fighter. The party handled the first two encounters without issue, and again liked the quickness of combat. I ran this game straight out of the rulebooks. The only problems came from the poor ordering & layout of the DS rulebook, which made things hard to find on the fly. On the otherhand, I was pretty new to the system & this will hopefully be fixed in 4e.

My third game ran over the course of an afternoon and we got my further. One player arrived significantly before the others, and after rolling up a fighter we started the dungeon at my request, as I knew the first fight was very easy and I thought teaching the players the system one at a time would be simpler. He easily handled the rats in the beer cellar and levelled to level 2. Then the second player arrived. We quickly made up a gnome race for him (Dwarven racial
traits + elven stat choices) and he made a black mage. The players then entered the wine cellar and easily took out the rats, though the black mage took some damage. The players took easily to the system, and things seemed to be going well. Both players increased in level at around this point. The third player arrived and rolled up a white mage, healed the black mage and joined the adventure. The party explored the dungeon in a roughly clockwise direction, clearing out the weak rats before attacking the final battle, which I think is a good choice and probably a result of a good map. However during this time they levelled up to 3rd and 4th levels. The fighter put the vast majority of his stat points into defence, quickly getting into the 15-16 range. Given the rats low attack I could basically do no damage to him, so most fights involved him standing in the door of the rooms and the rats attacking him en mass 2 or 3 at a time, which the black and white mages casting spells past/at him. Even the final fight, were the small rats bypassed him and attacked the spellcasters did not offer much of a challenge, though this was in part due to poor dice luck on my part. There was a final fight with the spider, which I did a tiny bit of damage to the black mage, but at this point they were 4th & 5th level, the white mage having caught up to the black mage, and it offered little challenge. There was also a fair bit of confusion with the web attack of the spider: Does it stop the player from moving from location to location? Or does it paralyses them? Can spellcasters use magic while paralyzed? The game does not say they can or can’t. I would lean towards can’t, but a web makes me think of
trapped in place at the feet, not unable to move at all.
We then started a second adventure, Dungeon2Go #2: Tomb of the Witchking. The combats in this adventure have seemed much more challenging, so I think the ease at which the part went through the first adventure had to do with how quickly they levelled up on the rats. The players got through most of the adventure, which was primarily trap and puzzle based.

Based on this I’ve found a few points about the system I would like to mention:

-I very much like the combat mechanics: They are fast and simple, though critical hits took my players a bit to understand.

-Attack magic works just like an attack, so this also works pretty well.

-Most rounds the white mage had very little to do, having only 1 spell (Healing Hands) and the fighter not taking much damage. This is partly the players fault in my opinion for not taking a ranged weapon, even when offered one. This would hopefully improve with time as the characters get more spells.

-However the unlimited amount of healing makes damaging traps outside of combat pointless. This was very clear in the 2nd adventure as there were many of these present. These are a genre convention of the dungeon crawling genre and Gygaxian dungeons, so I would like to include them. I could go to deathtraps, but those have always felt unfair and cheap to me.
To put this another way, combat in Dungeonslayers is entirely tactical: Almost all consequence of the combat are negated at the end of it, therefore each and every combat is either a challenge in and of itself, or simply a source of experience for the characters. I prefer there to be at least some strategic elements: In D&D that is how much damage you take and how many spells you burn. Dungeonslayers does have some spells with long refresh times, however it remained a very tatical game, which appears to be a trend in RPGs.

-The identify spell, which gives all of the information about magic was used heavily by my players to bypass traps, as they would use it on statues and whatnot to find triggers, command words and whatnot. I’ve started compartmentalizing magic, like computer code, but I’m thinking of making it only work on magic items. When I write my own adventures I’ll also make more touch triggered traps to discourage this tactic, or magic traps that are protected by physical traps designed to hit those that try and read the instructions.

At this point I will include some comments from the player of the black mage,as he is quite well spoken and has phrased certain things better then I am able to:

“Well, ultimately any game comes down to two things. What you INTEND for the game to be like… And what the rules make the game like. The ethos of the game seems pretty straightforward. Going for a relatively high-fantasy setting, something akin to a rules-lite D&D but with their own added twist. Rules lite OLD D&D, make that.”

I agree with this: The game feels like fantasy, and it presents what it wants you to do with it very well.

“Solid ethos established. Definitely a strong high-fantasy setting, as established by the kind of spellcasters that they’ve made a pinnacle part of the game. For a system that goes for non-Vancian magic, this is actually one of the ones I’ve liked the best. Instead of relying on things like magical energy or whatnot, the spellcasters just have a limited capacity to hold the shape of a spell within them. They can then use it as often as they like. It’s novel, it’s refreshing, and it feels fairly good. There are problems with it in the system and with the magic system in general, but those can wait for a moment.”

I agree with this as well, and originally the magic system was one of the things that drew me to the game. I liked that spell casters would have something to do every round, and the spell delay times and system of switching from spell to spell seemed like a great idea. I found it a touch boring in my first couple of playthroughs, but figured this would improve as the players levelled up and got more spells.

“It’s nice to be able to roll a 1 and be happy about it.”

I can take this or leave it, I find the critical system a touch annoying, but that is a minor gripe. I do find the fact that since a 20 is always a failure, and you only add a second die when you need to roll 21 or higher makes there no practical difference between defence 19 and defence 20. Again a minor gripe.

“While classes specialize in particular leading roles, you can kind of think your way through most problems that you don’t have the skills for. It definitely encourages planning over rushing in.”

I did notice this a bit, though I think any well-run game can do this, regardless of system.

“Combat is relatively fast-paced and a comfortable fit.”
I have said this several times, though it is nice that the players agree with me.

However:

The Bad:
“The magic system, for all that it felt novel and fresh, needs some work. If you only get to learn so many spells, early decisions will be painful later in. This can be countered by spending ‘feats’ (edit to be whatever they’re actually called), but this punishes the wizard in a way that the fighter doesn’t get.”

I agree with this. I also noticed that it would be virtually impossible to have a decently versatile spellcaster who also knows a high level spell: A 20th level wizard who knows a 15 level spell can only know one or two other spells, and you have to delay taking big spells for levels and levels after you get then if you want to avoid ‘unlearning’ other spells. One of my favourite parts about classic D&D is the wizards constantly looking for more spells, and one of the
things I was looking forward two was a system that doesn’t punish you for memorizing ‘mount’ instead of ‘fireball’ or ‘haste’.

“Although this is more a complaint with the mods we played than the game itself, it does seem as if the game favours people who are familiar with fantasy RPG tropes. While this isn’t inherently a bad thing, As it rewards genre familiarity, It does tend to punish newcomers, which is not inherently a good thing in such a game.”

I think this is the sort of thing that the sample adventure should be for, and to some extent it does. It has a really hard to find bit of treasure, some easier to find treasure and similar things. Smart adventures should then notice that treasure can be hidden and look for more. I don’t really see a way around this, other then having players well, play more.

-Players level *very* quickly. In one day of play we were at 5th level or so. While I don’t think this is a bad thing, it meant that my players burned through the first adventure at way higher level then it expected. I think that rat XP needs to be reduced to 5-10 XP and Giant Rat XP needs to drop to 10-20. I think that 5XP for the rat and 10 for a giant rat would be much better. I think I might also add a house rule that each successive fight with a monster grant 1 less XP as you learn less from it. However that would require players to track how many of each monster they have killed, or at least how many battles, so it is not an ideal solution. Due to the XP system I found that fights with a lot of weak monsters were far less challenging then one large monster that could hurt the fighter, while at the same time granted far more experience. Reducing the XP for each additional creature in a group after the one that gives the most experience might be a good idea.

There we go, my first review. Sorry this post is so late, I got caught up in work and the associated 3000 km move.
Until next time, stay geeky!

–Cangeek

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My next online game?

I’ve been thinking about what RPG I’ll run next after my current online game. I mean its not anywhere close to ending, but I’m finding 4e rather heavy for online play. I’m more comfortable with rules light systems now, after playing CoC for a year now, and a session with the full BRP rules. I’d love to run Call of Cthulhu online I am not sure how much interest there would be. On the other hand, it is rules light enough the players don’t really need copies of the rules, so we will see. Anyway I noticed a thread on Google Wave about free RPGs for online play. While there wasn’t much interest in it I added some Retroclones and a couple other games, as I figured it could be useful. I was going to cross post it here, but I then realized you could get almost all of it from other sources much faster. They did miss Microlite20 as its not a retroclone, but a stripped down d20 system. I’ll link to that wave if someone shows me how.

Anyway I started thinking about what I’d like in a rules light game:

  • No arbitrary restrictions: For example if class/level based there shouldn’t be ‘no elves can be rouges’ or ‘no dwarf mages’. Other things I don’t like are maximum level limits on demihumans. They just feel restrictive and unfair to me.
  • No holdovers from early D&D (Or at least few of them): AC should go up. There is no reason for it to go down (that I can think of anyway, I guess nostalgia). I’ve heard arguments that it makes more sense if you just have a track on your character sheet like people did back in the TAC0 era. However you CAN just write the same thing if AC goes up.
  • Preferably nothing obviously broken out of the box. I’m still trying to figure out how the autofire rules in BRP got past the editors (+5% to hit per bullet, roll to see how many bullets hit? Ummm yeah…. So firing 8 bullets gives me +40% to hit and I hit with 1d8 bullets. Biggest complaint with the system so far.) On the other hand I don’t think 3e or 3.5 was broken out of the box. Sure there will always be some edgecase that the games doesn’t do well, or one class will be a hair more powerful, thats fine. I just don’t want everything busted when I sit down to play.
  • If there is magic I want it to be useful outside of combat: My biggest problem with 4e right now is that in reaction to all the ‘scrying and teleporting broke my adventure’  magic isn’t that useful outside of combat in 4e. It takes forever to cast and is skill based. Some combat powers are useful outside of combat, but still. I like solving problems through creative solutions. Sadly in old editions of D&D each non-combat spell you carried took away from your combat spells so I usually could only have what scrolls I could afford. Really this has been a trend for a while as I noticed it in 3e as well. I’m guessing it was due to some of the stupid stuff I saw on the net from old editions (flying battering rams, gnomish flying machines powered by oil of blasting)
    • On the other hand magic shouldn’t take over the game like it had a habit of doing with high level 3e, where most of the time was spent buffing
  • While I normally love battle maps I’m spending too much time on them in my 4e game, even with Rich’s great silverlight map. So something position-light would be nice. I know 4e can be run sans-map, but its still reasonably position heavy. Same with 3e, though less so (most combats became stand around & hit it anyway)
  • Characters that are statistically different from one another. Back in 2e two 10th fighters looked very similar. Wizards got new spells so each one would have a different selection, but if you had two in the party they’d probably swap spells anyway. I want some way to customize characters as they level. Skills, feats, proficiencies something.
  • Characters have to be able to advance. While this is kinda a no-duh one there are some old RPGs without this. Traveller springs to mind (My version is old enough that you can still die in character creation). Levels, advancement through usage, skills, advancement points, something.
  • Non-random character creation preferred. While I’m using that right now in my CoC game I originally started it as a one-shot. It’s gone pretty well, but I think non-random eliminates a lot of problems. I can work out what the average roles would be and make points however.
  • Action-Reaction based: I’ve seen two types of RPGs. I don’t know if there are official terms for them, or at least commonly accepted ones, but  I’m going to call them action-reaction and shared narration. Action-Reaction is the traditional type: The player takes an action, the DM describes the result. If there is a conflict or chance of failure you break out the dice. See D&D, Alternity, CoC, BRP,  GURPS. Shared Narration can be fun, but I don’t think I want to run it right now. For those curious I count it as ‘Player succeeds at something and describes the result’ For examples see The Pool, Wuxia, Fung Shei.
    • This usually goes along with a traditional system: As in one in which the characters act continuously as in a simulation of the world. As opposed to ‘cinematic’ or whatnot systems where there are set scenes to overcome and everything in between them in blurred over. I’m mostly thinking of a game called ‘Story Engine’ or some such I played once for this. Also a game where each player uses actions & acts to influence what is happening rather then everyone declares what they are doing, and uses some abstract system to determine the outcome.
  • Something I can find an adventure for. This is a big one: I don’t have time to write adventures. I’ll modify them heavily, but it has to be easy to do so. I’ve kept playing CoC because the book comes with no less the FOUR adventures. While some are a lot better then others none of my players have finished all four. (Several players are on the 4th: I’ve rerun several adventures with different groups and let players move between groups as convenient.). I’ve also bought another book about Arkham which has more adventures, and a book of adventures set in Arkham. Whereas I bought the Conspiracy X book (Unisystem edition) and have never played it as it doesn’t have a sample adventure for me to cut my teeth on.
    • This has always been my problem with old editions of D&D: How do you tell what is a fair challenge for the party? 3.X had CR, which while buggy worked pretty well though it took more math then I was willing to do. 4e has a great system for this. I need some kind of guideline
    • BRP/CoC doesn’t have this but the power curve is pretty flat. Skills go up enough that you feel like your advancing, but your not that much stronger in any one area.
    • On the other hand if I’m running a single published adventure I don’t care about this as much.

This isn’t a complete list by any means. just something I threw together to try and collect my thoughts.

I’m thinking BRP with a CoC adventure would work. On the other hand combat & dungeon crawling seems to be more popular with my players so I may go with some sort of D&D type game. Suggestions?

Anyway, its late and my wrist is getting sore (I injured it a while ago) so I’m going to head off now.  Until next time Stay Geeky!

–Canageek