Review: Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game – Powered by GURPS

Last updated on 25/08/17 with new information.

Oh boy, the Powers that Be really sent all us boys and girls who couldn’t go to GenCon a prime gift to make up for that. (Well, every backer at GenCon also got their gift, but I guess they won’t be able to read it electronic cover to cover until they get home. What am I talking about? The long-awaited Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game – Powered by GURPS, of course or DFRPG for short (don’t get confused by that other DFRPG – Dungeon Fantasy has been around for longer than that).

For everyone coming in from the cold, be it computer RPGs or some other games: This is basically GURPS D&D in a box. You get a lot more rules and options than GURPS Lite, but without the “all genres, all worlds” adaptability that some feel overwhelming on a first read of the Basic Set. It’s also made to be much more accessible to new players and contains everything you need to play a dungeon-centric fantasy campaign. Matt Riggsby calls it GURPS Medium and there’s some reason for that.

As this is of yet exclusive for backers of the Kickstarter, things – especially pricing, image and publication date are still subject to change. But that shall not deter me from trying to write one of the first possible reviews. As there’s currently only the DFRPG bundle available for pre-order I’ll stick to the DFRPG proper and the GM’s Screen for now. The other supplements will come later. So let’s go and have a look!

Product Image for the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game

Facts

Author: Sean Punch (a.k.a. Dr. Kromm) with additional material by Peter V. Dell’Orto, Dan Howard, Matt Riggsby (a.k.a. Turhan’s Bey Company), William H. Stoddard, Jason Levine (a.k.a. PK), Phil Masters
Date of Publication: 17/08/2017 (Kickstarter-backer-exclusive)
Format: PDF-only (at the moment)
Page Count: 474 (11 cover pages, 7 title pages, 6 contents pages, 7.5 index pages, 4 ads pages, 10 pages character/record sheets etc.)
Price: $84.90 (price is for printed copy as for now), $0.18 per page of content; Score of 8/10 (+1 for being a full-colour product)
Preview: none so far

Review

As all my other reviews this one will be rated according to meat (rules, stats, game mechanics), cheese (setting, characters, story), sauce (form, writing, style, art) and generic nutritional substance (universal nature, adaptability). At the end you find a weighted average of those components and a value score that also takes into account price per page. Clearly Dungeon Fantasy is all about stats, so this will be almost all meat.

Whew! Even counting pages on this monster took me a quarter of an hour (okay, maybe I got a little distracted now and then). At 418 pages the contents of the DFRPG box proper narrowly beat the already humongous Discworld Roleplaying Game. Hopefully, they will handle a little easier being spread out over eight different physical products. So, what exactly do we get? In the box, there are five booklets that shouldn’t feel completely out of place for anybody who ever played ‘that other game’. First, we get Adventurers, which is basically a player’s guide without all the spells, which makes a lot of sense at the table. One player or the GM can look up spells while somebody else is looking up skills and a third person is judging how difficult it will be to jump of that chasm. At 130 pages this is a bit chunkier than Exploits, which as the GM’s guide comes in at 108. Still a lot pages since we are probably not worrying about radiation, tech-levels and monsters in this cut-down version of Basic Set – Campaigns. Next we get to Spells, which is DF’s version of Magic and frankly the part where the prospective Dungeon Fantasy GM had, until now, do the most pruning, and – let’s be frank – bug-fixing. This one clocks in at a lean 82 pages, even though few colleges have been completely omitted (yeah, even Gate is in there, just don’t go looking for teleportation). Next we have Dungeon: I Smell a Rat and its maps. I assume the maps will be printed on both sides of two sheets in the actual product, but I might be mistaken. Anyway, there are four of them and they are of sufficient resolution to print out for direct play. The module itself is 26 pages.

But that’s not all! There’s also the GM screen. It’s the usual foldable thing that presents four pages to the players (this times all imagery) and four to the GM. And then there are the Character Cheat Sheet and the Delvers to Go booklets, which come in at 18 pages each.

All these come with gorgeous full-colour artwork that is miles above the usual GURPS fare (not counting outliers like Mars Attacks and the Discworld RPG). The same doesn’t hold true for the bonus PDFs, by the way. These are greyscale, even though the artwork is still great. I go into the details of how all the respective volumes are put together in the meat section, since the overwhelming amount presented here is crunch.

Meat

Adventurers

The first thing in the book is a page on skills instead of the usual blank end-paper. Given that RPG books are mainly about usability that is quite a useful innovation. The book proper starts out with the table of contents on a single page some short notes on role-playing and FRPGs in general, maths and dice (more about that in the cheese section). Within that section is a one-page mini-glossary that gives me the first surprise. There’s actually some world information, though it’s very basic like “Devil, The: Godlike boss of all Evil. Wants your soul.” The rules terms are more generally helpful, as is the section on gamer jargon. This section seems intentionally kept short and covers only the very basics. And then comes the first chapter appropriately called “Basics”. This is not very different from the info in the Basic Set’s “Creating a Character”, but condensed and streamlined. Also it gives clear limits on attribute levels and disadvantages. It also keeps the maths at a minimum, we get a table for move while encumbered for example in addition to the formulae. Also the two column-layout was infinitely more readable than the Basic Set‘s three columns – much to my surprise. And after six pages of this, the chapter’s already finished.

Next up is “Professions” and we revisit all the old templates from 2007. But not everything is as it used to be. For starters there are vastly more hints for building balanced groups, choosing off-template abilities, niche-protection and even backgrounds and quirks. And then the templates are very different to to look at. First-off all the longer lists of choices and skills are put into neat tables and separated from the rest of the text by orange font colour. This takes up a little more space, but it’s actually not much more. I didn’t do any cross-checking, but the templates in general do look very similar. What’s different is the customisation. For each profession, there are some traits that are specifically reserved for that character. For example, only the Barbarian can buy Discriminatory Smell, Lifting ST, Temperature Tolerance and Tough Skin. There’s a little overlap with the Power-Ups from DF11, but not much. These are things each profession can buy at the start of the game, not rewards offered later. Also all the special abilities like Bard Songs are right there next to the profession, not hidden in some other part of the book. And where DF1 had only roughly worked special abilities, here they are all in finished builds for the GM and players ready to use. There are some hints as to roles and archetypes for each profession, but the level of detail is far less than in the Dungeon Fantasy Denizens sub-line.

Looking through this huge chapter (29 pages) lets you find some interestingly reworked abilities, some repriced ones (Detect Good is cheaper than Detect Evil, because it’s less often useful) and some radical, new stuff like the Swashbuckler’s Every One’s a Critical, the Scout’s Multi-Aim or the Thief’s Expert Backstabbing.

Chapter 3 deals with the available fantasy races and it starts with a detailed explanation of how to correctly stack the templates. The races presented (cat-folk, dwarves, elves (one variety), half-elves, gnomes, half-ogres, half-orcs and halflings) are only a small selection from what we’re used from DF3: The Next Level and that’s frankly a little disappointing. I had hoped this would showcase the ability of GURPS to play an intelligent beetle, corpse-eating misanthrope, diminutive faerie, half-spirit or minotaur. As it is the selection is very D&D with added cat-folk – not much of an incentive. What’s also missing is a mention of choice and marginal professions, but with the limited it doesn’t matter as much. The races are changed a little to make sense with the reduced number of advantages, but otherwise close to their original versions.

Chapter 4 makes up this reduced list of advantages. It’s not very different from what we’re used to, even though it introduces maximum levels for advantages that are keyed to professions and other concepts. Some advantages were renamed, some were subtly changed like Very Rapid Healing and Signature Gear. Where it was very apropos extra info has been added that helps the player decide whether the advantage is worth it. One choice I don’t quite agree with is separating talents out into their own advantages. It makes things harder to remember if nothing else. All in all, the chapter is only nine pages long compared to Basic‘s 69 (not counting modifiers, which have also been dropped). Still, it gives more options than many other game systems and definitely way more things to take care of during character creation than that other game system.

Chapter 5 deals with disadvantages and is, at 14 pages, actually longer than the preceding one, which is good, since it showcases how GURPS makes characters different, even if they have the same profession, race and effective combat build. Also there are almost no profession-specific disadvantages explained in chapter 3, so there are still more advantages out there. New players are shown how disadvantages can be appropriate for a character and don’t have to be considered flaws or weaknesses. There are a couple of physical disads that are marked as Old War Wounds. Those are the usual suspects like Lame, One Arm, One Eye, One Hand and we get a warning about how much they can suck and a useful reference of how to get rid of them in Exploits. That’s something that comes up often, by the way. DFRPG is heavy on the referencing, which is needed, because the information generally follows the flow of character creation and you won’t necessarily know where you’ve seen that bit you needed if you’re not actively playing the character who has the trait you’re looking for.

Chapter 6 finally brings us to skills and this is likely the section where players coming from other game systems that are less skill-based will have the most problems. Thankfully, the templates in chapter 3 make sure everyone is at least somewhat competent, but figuring out how skills are bought and what the levels mean (and why they should be higher than the controlling attributes for the primary skills) is still somewhat complicated. Sean Punch does a good job of taking new players by the hand, though and things are considerably less daunting than in the Basic Set. There are numerous examples for using and increasing skills and sometimes then it feels a bit excessive sometimes keep in mind the target audience. What’s gone are the mandatory training costs and that’s a good thing in my opinion. There’s enough to get your head around without any extra shenanigans. Exploits has an optional rule to add them in again and that’s more than enough. Skills are basically unchanged with defaults and specialties, though everything has been pared down to the basics. Some skills have been changed somewhat to make them more useful (Connoiseur) or less specific (Current Affairs, Navigation), some got extra specialties (Fast-Draw, Hidden Lore) and all get dungeon-specific context and usage tips. Finally missile weapon and unarmed combat skills are grouped together like melee weapon skills, which makes for a lot less page-flipping. When everything’s said and done, there are a lot more skills in here than in the average RPG manual (27 pages), even exotics like Hazardous Materials and Poetry are covered. And there’s a section on removing and adding new skills without even needing the full GURPS rules for that. I don’t think most DFRPG players will miss anything.

Most of the rest of the book deals with “Cash and Gear” and again that’s a big chapter (24 pages) – dungeon-delvers love their toys. Sean Punch starts out by telling us general things about starting money, Signature Gear and Buying/Selling stuff. There’s also a wealth table and a money system that almost makes sense (20 copper to a silver and 20 silver to a gold coin). And then we get weapons and how to decide which ones to buy. The stats are explained with a short paragraph each and weapons are sorted as usual by skill. I am very glad to say that the good doctor has taken a leaf from Messieurs Stoddard, Dell’Orto, Howard and Riggsby and went with the Low-Tech stats that are much more sensible than the old ones. For missiles we get a nice table with a per pound number and cost and some options as to arrow points. And then we even more modifiers. Most of these are from older sources, but it’s nice to see them here together and with Cost Factor numbers – very nice and clear on one page. Shields get the same treatment but fit all one page with the modifiers. The stats are generic but in line with Low-Tech. The same can be said of armour, which is conveniently broken down into separate pieces for each type, though I am not completely sure how that extra 5% snuck in, though I seem to remember thinking that the groin area was missing in the Low-Tech treatment. Anyway, it may make for uneven numbers, but it’s more realism than you’ll get in RPGs most of the time. Next up is miscellaneous and there’s not much to say about that other than that it’s pretty dang complete – I’m only missing the awesome quick-release backpack from DF1. Also there are Concoctions (with instructions on how to use them), Power Items and various Magic Items including weapon and shield modifiers. A nice touch are the charged and universal scroll rules from DF4.

The book ends on two sample characters ready to play: a female half-orc knight and male human cleric with a vow of poverty, each with a portrait and some design notes. The layout here is much clearer than from previous sample characters thanks to the magic of the tabulator. Of course there’s also the index, which is only for this book though, unlike in the Basic Set. That could cause the odd problem in play when some actions are already explained in Adventurers, but it’s probably not too bad and keep the booklets more manageable (or so I would imagine). And there are character sheets at the very end. They’re four pages long, which makes them more interesting than the usual two-pagers, but they’re not fillable, meaning that they will see very limited use for most players nowadays. Maybe these could be included in a fillable format as an extra once the public version comes out?

Exploits

This booklet starts off with an end-paper on light and vision, throwing, falling damage and wounding modifiers – a bit eclectic perhaps, but certainly useful. A two-page table of contents shows us that the GM has much more on their plate than the ordinary player. A short introduction makes it clear that Exploits is a GM Guide in all but name. Sure, if your players are old hands at that-other-game, they will want to read up on combat some other things, and there’s nothing in here that is inappropriate to know for players, but in essence this book is for the GM. Though in this case GM Guide means a way to resolve actions and situations instead of counting every last gold piece and experience point and setting up encounters with exactly the right challenge level – that’s not really possible in GURPS and not actually the point either. The intro also tells players where to get more Dungeon Fantasy stuff without sounding like an ad.

Chapter 1 is appropriately called “Rolling the Dice” and is all about success rolls of different kinds. Dr. Kromm makes is abundantly clear who rolls when and how everything is calculated. It’s exactly how it should have been done 13 years ago, even though it does take up a bit of extra space. Complementary rolls are there on the second page as is a rule for mandatory all-party rolls like climbing together. I hadn’t seen that one before and it isn’t bad, but is a bit too forgiving for my taste. Narrative modifiers are mentioned too and they’re fun if a bit silly. Margins of success and failure, criticals, contests, resistance rolls. Fright and perception are also covered, but instead of a expansive fright check table, we get guidelines on mental stun and acquired disadvantages and how to keep everything fun and fair. Reaction rolls are more expansive with dungeon-typical modifiers. And the tips for Roll and Shout! are also solid. After eight pages the newbie GM should know most things about when to roll and what.

Chapter 2 – “Dungeon-Delving” – is larger and clocks in at 13 pages. It starts off with a section on town and how to make money, finding a quest and selling the spoils. Most of this can be found in earlier works, but the box on “Tavern Tales and Moldy Books” is an atmospheric addition designed to make the players gather intel before venturing off into the unknown. The expanded “Selling the Tale” is also a nice touch for cartographers like me. Getting to the dungeon and camping is dealt with in a short section – nothing like DF 16: Wilderness Adventures – but it has enough useful rules to cover the essentials. “In the Dungeon” is where it gets interesting for most players and GMs. Lighting, mapping, marching orders, scouting and signalling are dealt with in quick succession. “Dungeon Parkour” covers a lot of fiddly physical feats, while “Muscle” does the same for feats of strength. These parts come straight from DF2: Dungeons, but the rules on running away are new – unfortunately GURPS makes it pretty hard to run while wounded. The bits about traps are also from DF2 and more can be found in chapter 4. The rest of the chapter is about looting. Rest assured that most things you’re players will think about is covered here – including mutilating the bodies. Not much of this is new, though.

Chapter 3 continues with the gerund-based naming scheme and goes by the title of “Fighting” instead of combat. Unsurprisingly enough this takes up 33 pages, but surprisingly it does not start with combat, but with tips on setting the scene and making things interesting, which is a nice change and segues naturally into ambush and surprise situations. The rules given here are actually more involved than in the Basic Set and nicely descriptive at that. Next come combat maps (not optional this time), turn sequences and manoeuvres. Nothing of this is completely new, but everything is well explained and every manoeuvre has a lead-in sentence that makes clear what it tries to achieve. Even Wait doesn’t seem quite so complicated (but it does leave room for misunderstandings). The only thing missing are clear examples. Movement is much the same as in basic, but there’s a handy chart of the movement point costs. Attacking and defending are handled much the same as old GURPS hands are used to. You have to roll for each attack and defence and also for the damage you inflict. Thanks to the martial artist, unarmed fighting gets a bit clearer rules for getting parried and parrying weapons. Interesting is that the rules for explosions – one of the notorious culprits where players cry “Maths!” and munchkins sob about their explosive fireballs’ diminishing returns – are unchanged from regular GURPS. Special highlights in this chapter include close-combat rules on one page, attack options with cloaks and shields, hit locations almost on one page, but with a quite hideous version of the dummy from Basic, a much improved version of the box for damage to unliving, homogenous and diffuse targets a section called “Special Damage” that deals with delivery methods from Follow-Up to Blood Agent to Malediction. The whole thing is rounded off by “Non-Combat Skills in Battle”. These range from talking to acting to roguish tricks and acrobatics.

Chapter 4 breaks the mould and is called “Bad Things” in a certain shout-out to Munchkin. This is a bit of a mixed bag, but mostly deals with illnesses, injuries and fatigue and the things that cause them. First-off comes a box on temporary penalties that is a much needed summary of things mentioned elsewhere, then we delve right into injury. Especially nice is the expanded treatment of mortal wounds. It needs more than a Major Healing spell to get rid of one of those! Shock, major wounds, crippling (with a table that gives the thresholds by HP) and recovery are all covered including your insurance policy – I mean donations to temple in town. Fatigue, afflictions, irritating/incapacitating/mortal conditions are all there as are disease, falling and fire. The later is treated differently from what we’re used to and focuses more on what to do once you’re on fire than on whether this wooden chest is in that or yonder flammability category. Poison gets a full-page treatment and that doesn’t include the examples that are found in Adventurers. Environmental stuff is also covered and traps get some further love, though this section is still pretty basic, but I assume the volume on traps will more than make up for this – if I know my Levine and Rice.  All in all, most things that will make fantasy heroes cry are covered on the 13 pages of this chapter.

Chapter 5 is short (8 pages), but sweet as it deals with treasure. I think I see the hand of Mr. Riggsby in most of this, but I could be mistaken. Coins get some more mileage with interesting alloy variants, gems are there, of course, but new are the notes on luxuries and objects d’art that are popular in town. Proper identification is given some space as is disposing of the loot. Magic Items make up roughly half of the chapter. The whole section is quite well-organised and easier to parse than the respective section in GURPS Magic. Again this is somewhat basic, but we’re sure to get more in the respective booklet by Dell’Orto.

The final chapter (15 pages) deals with game-mastering proper and is the first chapter that’s very light on the meaty, crunchy stuff, so I’ll cover it in the cheese section. After that it’s tables of modifiers, manoeuvres, hit locations, speed/range, criticals, hit points etc. for eight pages. The text proper ends with a two-page example of play that’s also covered under cheese. The index and lots of forms – again unfillable – cap this off.

Spells

Next up is what I’d like to call GURPS Magic for the Dungeon. At 82 pages this volume is considerably lighter than the previous ones, but it still contains 376 spells to my best count. That might seem a lot to GURPS newbies, but this already represents a serious paring down from GURPS Magic‘s 839 and means players have fewer options than D&D 608 (source: SRD for 3.5). But let’s have a closer look at how the book is organised.

First, we get an end-paper filled with all the useful stuff you can imagine. Resistance, ritual, area, mana/sanctity/nature’s strength levels, critical spell failure and a handy look-up table for where to find the spell classes. There’s little to be left desired here. After the table of contents, the introduction makes it clear that this book is only about spells, that means “one ritual, one effect”.

Then the first chapter, “Principles of Magic”, delves right into the mechanical stuff. In GURPS spells are skills quite like all the others, only that they have some prerequisites need mana/sanctity/nature and immediately cost fatigue or similar energy. The tricky stuff here are the prerequisites, at least for wizards. Druids and clerics just need a certain level of Power Investiture. Wizards need a certain level of Magery (mostly 0) and further prerequisites. To put it simply you need to know how to light something on fire before you can shape fire or create fire from nothing and you need to know how to create and shape fire and have a certain level of Magery before you can learn how to cast a Fireball. This can get complicated fast and unfortunately, Spells does not provide a handy tree diagrams like the ones with have for Magic.

Next we learn about all the basics of spell-casting. We learn how clerical, druidic and wizardly spells are different, but can still interact and how dependent they are on their environment. The notes on mana/sanctity level and nature’s strength are easy to understand even for new players. The whole build-up on distraction, energy costs, rituals and energy reduction and so on are a bit long for somebody who just wants to cast a spell, but they’re well-written and unambiguous. In my opinion, it’s part of the GM’s job to parse that before they go through character creation with their players. Next up are the different classes of spells: regular, area, information and so on. It’s nice to see that jet spells get their own little sub-section, though I would have preferred them to be their own class and marked that way in the spell-book. All in all, the chapter provides a good enough introduction and overview to spell-casting in DF without standing out in any way. What it certainly doesn’t do is changing how standard GURPS magic works. There had been quite a few who had hoped that DFRPG would provide a huge overhaul, but that hasn’t happened. About the only change worth mentioning are that DF casters can learn any new spell within a week or instantly, when they are willing to sacrifice a scroll for the purpose.

Chapter 2 is the spell-book that contains the actual spells, sorted by colleges. Colleges are different schools of magic like the air, fire, body control or knowledge. To my great surprise, there were only two standard colleges from GURPS Magic missing: technology and enchantment. The first is a doozy, because it really doesn’t fit most fantasy. The second is a can of worms you don’t really want to open unless you want your wizard to take regular half-year vacations to make just the right magic item. The other big omissions are creation spells from the illusion and creation college and evil necromantic spells like making zombies. The mix of spells is what you’d expect from a fantasy RPG with maybe a bit more emphasis on things that are not immediately applicable to the dungeon. Even so, most of these spells have been removed. You won’t find Hair-cut or Dye and other such utility spells. All the border-line broken and exploitable spells like Enlarge are gone too along with everything that’s very complicated to explain and real death spells like Eviscerate. Still, there are more than enough spells in here to provide a real problems for selecting your basic ones. That is made worse by the fact that the wizard profession just has a few general hints instead of the suggested spell lists that were present in DF1. I don’t know why this was done when the cleric and the druid both get spell suggestions even if they don’t need an prerequisites beside Power Investiture.

As for the spell lists themselves, they’re quite a bit easier to parse thanks to the two-column layout. Spells are also sorted alphabetically within their colleges, which makes finding things considerably easier, even if you don’t find the very basic ones immediately and have to look where to start your chains. A note for the newbies here: if there’s not Time to Cast mentioned, it’s always 1 second. As all the colleges are compressed into one chapter and some pages have spells from two different colleges on them, the pages aren’t colour-coded by college, which makes quickly flipping through to find your college a bit harder, but that’s a minor point. As for new spells, there are none (unless you count Detect Evil, which is has been published before). Not even Land Mine, which had been presented as a preview during the kickstarter, made. While I didn’t expect oodles of new stuff I was looking forward to seeing a dozen or so new additions to increase the dungeonesque flair. Most of the other changes are down to balancing, wizards loose access to lightning to give druids some more chance to shine and similar changes. A few spells like Create Earth also get a bugfix to make them less exploitable, but generally the exploitable ones have just been cut. On the whole, that leaves the chapter mostly useful to newbies and those who actively want a reduced spell selection.

Next there’s a spell table (6.5 pages) of all the spells presented that keeps to the fundamentals: name, college, prerequisites and page reference. While that means it lacks a lot of information that’s present in the same table from GURPS Magic, I think this is a change for the better. Except for the prerequisites you normally go to this section just to find where the blasted thing is actually printed, because you rarely want to just check the casting time or such. The book ends with an index and an unfillable spell sheet that really would be no fun to fill out by hand as it lacks column boundaries.

All in all, Spells is the only volume that disappoints the old hand in some regards. I imagine these things don’t matter at all to the new player, but even those could have used a couple more pointers. For example, it’s nowhere said explicitly that GURPS doesn’t have high-level spells that quickly take care of your enemies. New players might quickly pick Earthquake and Geyser, because they sound flashy instead of settling for good old Stone Missile and Create Fire. In GURPS a powerful caster is one with lots of additional energy, not exceptional spells – although high skill level helps.

Monsters

Together with Dungeon, this is GM-only material and I try not to give too many spoilers, but you might still want to skip ahead if you don’t intend to GM. The book starts out with another quick look-up sheet with size of counters, size & speed/range table, facing, wandering monsters and quick page reference – all useful, nothing special. The introduction gives the GM and idea of why they need monsters and how to get the most out of the booklet.

Chapter 1, “Monsters in Action” (5 pages), deals with general stuff and starts off by presenting the delver’s point of view and what they can do to identify monsters, exploit their weaknesses and – if they really need to – negotiate with them. Then we monster’s point of view, which means tactics, manoeuvres and changes based on non-humanoid physiology (including swarm attacks).

The next chapter deals with “Monster Traits” (6 pages). It starts off with some comments on why you don’t build monsters with points and how their traits don’t have to obey normal restrictions. Most of the chapter is an abbreviated list of exotic advantages/disadvantages or those considered not useful enough for characters to appear in Adventurers. These mostly take up 3-5 lines and include only the most relevant information for making them interesting foes. New players should take note that these are all condensed versions of regular GURPS traits that are available to non-humanoid characters in non-Dungeon-Fantasy campaigns. The chapter ends with a list of monster classes, all well-described and with any special immunities/vulnerabilities explicitly called out – including whether they’re living or not.

Chapter 3 is “The Bestiary” and with 48 pages takes up the lion’s share of the book (pun intended and lions included). There are 77 headings that sometimes present a single monster, sometimes a small family of two to four related monsters and sometimes a veritable monster generator (Dragons, Slimes etc.). Each monster has a description, a condensed stat block (or a way to generate one) with attributes and secondaries, defences, attacks, traits skills and class. There are also notes on how to handle the monster in encounters and special tactics or qualities you might have missed. The length of the entries varies, but it’s a rare monster that gets more than half a pages. The various dragons almost get two, but the generator allows you to make up 16 different dragons.

The monsters are a mixed bag ranging from evil humanoids and animals to undead (from the common to the very exotic), magical beasts, demons, golems, elementals and things that could have sprung from Lovecraft’s imagination. On a quick read-through, most of the monsters from DF2 and first two Dungeon Fantasy Monsters volumes present with a couple of additions from Magic and the Basic Set (mostly undead and animals). We also get a – well-hidden section on making up your own monsters right before the zombie. Except for the placement that box is well worth the paper it’s printed on.

What’s notably missing are stats for human brigands, guards and so on. The DFRPG assumes that the opposition will be mostly non-human apparently, but these would have been useful fodder for inexperienced GMs. What’s also missing are the very useful monster prefixes from DF Monsters 1. Who wouldn’t want to rather fight a Berserker Elemental Orc Juggernaut than boring, plain, old Orc? The book ends with small sheets for your own monsters, traps and diseases. There will be some time before the beginner GM will need those, though. Monsters provides more than enough fodder for aspiring delvers to mow through, though it would have been nice to see some new material or present the old material in its original glory (especially the illustrations, which are notably inferior to those in DF Monsters 1) – I am still waiting for the Squirrel-pion and the Fae Reaver I was promised!

Dungeon – I smell a Rat

The 26-page adventure that comes with the box starts off with a plain rock hex grid in the end-paper – useful, but unexciting. It’s split in four parts: Setting the Scene, Dungeon, Rewards and The Adventure Continues. That’s about all you need to know, when you don’t intend to be the GM. Scroll on down!

The introduction gives some basic hints about dungeons, how to get the adventurers to accept the quest and how to scale encounters up and down – more of the latter can be found with each encounter . Chapter 1 (2 pages) gives you the basics of this town adventure. It can be set anywhere with a busy trade road. Funny thing, it seems to be about slaying giant rats in a road house cellar! Of course, there’s more to when the owner seems to have recently died and was wont to have funny rituals with his sorcerer friends in the cellar

Chapter 2 (15 pages) details everything that’s interesting about the dungeon. Players might be glad to hear there aren’t actually any giant rats to fight here until they notice the giant spiders. Enemy stats are generally not given in the text, but in a monster index at the end. Every little feature of the rooms is keyed to the maps, though, and many of them are destroyable! The first room has one way out that’s relatively easy to spot and one secret door. That’s important, because especially unimaginative players could think that the first room is the whole adventure if they don’t spot the easy clue. It might be good to make it more obvious if no high-PER character is in the party.

The adventure develops in seemingly typical old-school fashion. Each room reveals some more leads to even stronger opposition and the players are free to retreat to safety at most times. Still, the whole thing comes across as believable and each section is lovingly detailed. There’s also an immensely useful box on running combat encounters. On the whole, the layout is solid, but in some cases you might confuse the map excerpts on first sight – no biggie though. The story is pretty plain in the end, but the adventure is good for a couple of surprises. If anything, I would swap out one of the confined monsters in the cells for an untransformed, half-starved victim that is actually thankful (or even a helpful combatant if the party is down on their luck). Except for that, there’s little to improve this pretty straightforward adventure. Just remind the players that they can go back to town if they are too wounded to make it.

Chapter 3 presents a handy list of all monetary rewards possible. That’s a big improvement over having to flip through the module and re-read every little room description. I wonder why you rarely see that in D20 adventures. Everything including selling the furniture and sewer flotsam is taken care of. Character point rewards are also given with a detailed option, which gives +1 or +2 points for every encounter defeated. A maximum of 30 points is a bit much for my taste, though, even when it’s possible to spend three or four session on this with absolute newbies. There is instant karma for bad deeds like black-mailing the quest-giver, but that’s in-character for the genre.

Chapter 4 is just one page and deals with two things: players who love secret compartments with more monsters and more loots and alchemists who love reverse-engineering stuff. Both can be fun and useful with the right players. The adventure also contains high-quality maps with the worrying flaw that all secret doors and such are clearly marked. You basically have to cover part of the map to make things secret again. But more on the maps under the Sauce section.

Character Creation Cheat Sheet

At 18 pages this will be a very small booklet that can go from player to player while they finalise their characters. It starts with a useful end-paper on manoeuvres, movement costs, postures, size & speed/range table and the effects of accumulated injury and fatigue – useful to have during a game. It’s divided into Character Creation (9 pages),  Equipment (2.5 pages) and Completing Your Character Sheet (1.5 pages)

The first part reiterates the basics and gives a summary of the costs of attributes, secondaries, advantages, disadvantages, races and skills (complete with defaults and prerequisites). Spells get only a table on skill level benefits and then we’re already into money and expenses. “Equipment” lists all weapons, shields and armour with modifiers. There’s also a quick sample equipment loadout useful for everybody. Then it’s off to calculating damage, encumbrance, basic lift and all that. All in all, a nice little booklet to take you by the hand.

Delvers to Go

Another 18-page booklet, this one starts with an end-paper explaining all sorts of hex-based things movement, front and rear hexes, scatter rolls. Not quite the place I’d look for this, but good to have. The introduction here just points out what the booklet is all about explains all the sections of the character sheet.

Each of the 13 delvers is presented with a one-page write-up that gives all the stats and a short summary of their character as well as other important things that could be missed. Each gets a box with design notes and a character portrait too. The characters are presented in a similar manner to the professional templates with extra columns to make them long lists easier to read. The characters are nicely mixed and some go a bit against the stereotype: female half-ogre barbarian, dwarf druid, elf scout with no spells. There are no egregious errors, though one wonders why the orc-raised martial artist doesn’t know their language – must have been one of those modern cloisters! There’s not much more to say, except that these (along with the two sample characters from Adventurers) are the commentators who shared their wisdom all through the DFRPG books. Most players should find something they like. Each profession gets one character and thief and wizard get two to show off how they can be customised: silent backstabber vs. tinkerer and earth/illusions/knowledge/mind vs. body/earth/fire/meta/necromancy wizards.

GM Screen

The screen is all cover art from the booklets in the box on the player side (not sure it lines up correctly in one case) and the four GM side sheets provide information. What do you get? Attack and active defence modifiers, hit locations, size/speed/range table (up to 100 yards only), wandering monster rolls, fright checks, probabilities of 3d6 rolls, effects of injury and fatigue, critical hit, miss (armed/unarmed) and head-blow tables, scatter rolls, reaction rolls and a box on task modifiers. That’s quite a bit less than what’s on the standard GM’s Screen, but it’s all geared towards DF, where you won’t miss firearms malfunctions, fright checks work differently, a lot of modifiers are not relevant and reach is generally set. What could have been useful, but missing are posture, throwing, long-distance modifiers, basic damage tables and above all critical spell failures. I get the design idea that less is more and that art should dominate on the player side, but some compression might have been a good idea. Still, a very useful tool.

So, that leaves me to give you an overall meat score for all those deliciously crunchy bits that make a whole. Ordinarily I would be inclined to an even 9 for a very complete treatment, but there are some (minor) holes and a decided lack of anything really new that makes me want for just a little more.

Meat score: 8.5 (very good, but not perfect)

Cheese

Now this is where you would expect the DFRPG to loose points, but let’s see how it goes. There’s not very much in the way of fluff/cheese in Adventurers that’s true, less than in normal Dungeon Fantasy even. It’s basically page 3-4, little bits from the professions and races and sample characters. But Exploits is where GM-ing tips and storybuilding come into play and Chapter 6 does a really good job of introducing novice game-masters to their business. It starts off with the basics (and essential prep of the gaming materials updated for the 2010s – including cloud storage of character sheets) and then segues into different dungeon settings in the wider sense. Yes, this isn’t world-building in the traditional sense, it’s dungeon-building. There’s still some meat in the chapter, but the stats for doors and walls are there to further the story of and act as choke-points. Oh, and we finally learn the difference between concealed and secret doors. I never figured that out in that other game. While this section deals mostly with dungeons there is also a box that shows the GM how to go beyond that into wilderness, town and even other dimensions. Next come suggestions as how to build and balance encounters with monsters and the all time favourite of wandering monsters. We get the usual division between fodder, worthies and bosses and learn how to challenge all the characters without killing some of them outright.

After all that prep work we get to running the game and the simple instructions at beginning are worth to be repeated: don’t lean on rules, be fair, keep the action moving! Fun is the focus of role-playing, after all. The section on pacing holds advice that is just as useful, especially telling the players outright that they missed nothing. I wish I had learnt that one at the beginning of my career as a GM. We also learn what constitutes a successful session, adventure or campaign. Yes, there’s a lot of combat, but if you were into social-only adventures you should have enrolled at Worminghall! It’s exceptionally nice how this section effortlessly brings the GM around to the idea that world-building is maybe a good thing after all – not that the book explores this topic further. Game time vs. real time is also explored in detail, something a lot of newbie GMs have trouble with.

Next up is how to make everyone useful and that’s one of the things Dungeon Fantasy has always done better than most generic fantasy RPGs I’ve tried. Each profession is structured around things that are useful and fun and can’t quite be done as efficiently or in exactly that way by any other one. The next section is entitled “Keeping the Heroes Alive”, but it’s also about making dungeons more believable than early attempts of the genre and avoiding the “everything is evil and hostile”-trope. We also get tips on NPCs and hirelings. “Settling Rules Questions” and “Dealing with the Players” will be quite helpful for newbie GMs, who haven’t encountered these problems before.

The chapter ends with a couple of pages on character advancement offering the option to give out points in an old-school style (an example can be found in I Smell a Rat) or the usual 5 points a session. For spending points we get increased attribute levels and other specials for all the professions and also ways of getting rid of disadvantages. The chapter closes with traits gained in play whether through mundane slogging through bogs or divine grace. Much of this chapter is adapted from older sources, but it’s still good advice put plainly. The example of play is that comes at the end of the book is not particularly funny, but will prove enlightening to first-time role-players. Plus it uses the example characters from Delvers to Go.

There’s precious little that is not rules in Spells, but Monsters gives the odd bit of world information now and then, not enough to make up an ecology for the critters, but enough to keep up our interest. The Dungeon in itself offers a relatively straight-forwards story with only a couple of simple twists, but it is consistent and doesn’t feel far-fetched.

The Delvers to Go booklet presents interesting characters who don’t live in a vacuum, even though they aren’t tied into a strong background world. And you didn’t actually except world information from the screen and the cheat-sheet, did you?

Where does that leave us? The DFRPG is certainly not all about weaving complex stories and finding just the right motivation for your NPC, but it does give you the necessary tools to make up more than just brawls between murder machines. It does act as a valid if constrained replacement for the Basic Set where fantasy is concerned. And don’t get me wrong, you can use this to play other things than dungeon-delvers. It just takes more work to grab a copy of GURPS Fantasy and make up your own world. So, the cheese rating is pretty solid too.

Cheese score: 7 (not the main purpose, but way more than a passing grade)

Sauce

The thing that catches your eye is the full-colour, which is easily the best I have seen in a non-licensed product since Dungeon Fantasy Monsters 1. It is a pity that they didn’t use the art from that volume for the Monsters booklet though. The art in there is not in line with the rest of the product – I guess there was either a licensing issue or it was impossible to get those illustrations in colour versions. Still, some colour, some greyscale would have been better than what we got in Monsters. There are far too few illustrations and what we got is often very flat and cartoonish. They’re not bad per se, but they make you realise that corners were cut on this part of the set. The eight pages (4 sheets back and front) of miniatures from Cardboard Heroes are certainly useful, but only for more or less normal-sized foes. Some of the illustrations are from the Monsters booklet and again these are easily the weakest and look out of place.

The writing on the other hand, is of high quality through and through and I noticed only one thing that could be an errata (old lighting table on page 45 of Spells). On the whole, there are far fewer tongue-in-cheek jokes like in regular Dungeon Fantasy. It’s easy to see why. Steve Jackson Games didn’t want this to be written off as a game of no consequence or worse as something that pokes fun at role-players’ favourite genre, but as a serious, less abstract alternative to that-other-game. However, for me at least, it does take some of the enjoyment out of the DF line. As always with humour and role-playing your mileage may vary though. There are also no vignettes of any kind, unless you count the example of play. The only in-character bits we get are the “Speaking from Experience” boxes and while these do contain good advice from the example characters, they aren’t exactly gripping and sometimes even come across as a bit bland.

Of course, the tables of contents are hyper-linked with the sections and the whole thing is bookmarked. The indexes aren’t hyper-linked, but I haven’t found an RPG yet where they are.

What’s really outstanding is the layout though. Especially the templates are much clearer than anything I’ve seen so far and not only in GURPS. I might niggle and nit-pick about the GM Screen’s wasted space and some other tiny things, but overall it’s great! Editing is top-notch as usual. I found just one mistake in over 400 pages and I am not usually bad at spotting likely candidates.

Sauce score: 8.5

Generic Nutritional Substance

Well, this is a box about people raiding dungeons and while I know some role-players for whom that statement summarises all RPGs I wouldn’t go that far. But even for those who prefer some more expansive fantasy games, this is a good starting point, especially when you are new to GURPS. It can be used as an entry point into fantasy role-playing that allows you to eventually outstrip its contents. There’s nothing here that makes the characters created with DFRPG illegal in standard GURPS and there’s no stopping the GM from playing a couple of sessions with DFRPG only and then deciding that they want to go farther afield and leave the limitations of the DFRPG behind them. That’s not completely anti-universal if you ask me.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 6.5 (goodish when it comes to being generic)

Digesting Everything

The DFRPG is streamlined a lot and for experienced players that is not strictly necessary, but even for them it’s great if they want to play a Dungeon Fantasy game right out of the box. For newbies this is a great way of tipping a toe into the GURPS ocean without immediately catching a cold (or a headache). I am not sure I like the removal of the “behind-the-curtain” stats block we had formerly seen in DF. It gave the more experienced players a guideline on how to build their own abilities. Granted, this box is marketed at new GURPS players and nothing in the box gives you the tools to do that much fiddling (no modifiers for once), but things being as they are I am quite sure it’ll be picked up at least as much by older hands. It would have been nice to give everybody some incentive to dive into the deeper GURPS waters.

As I said above, there’s not much that is really new, but in most cases the streamlining helped to make things go smoother like all delvers being Size Modifier 0 now – although that one might raise problems with armour-wearing barbarians. The clarifications, clearer restatements and the handful of new profession-specific abilities are nice, but they’re probably not going to be worth the price of admission on their own.

A couple of nice things I noticed were the very diverse cast of characters. The illustrations show us tough women muscling open portcullises, men and women of different ethnicities and generally doing stuff that isn’t necessarily coded male-only or female-only. The example bard is a guy for crying out loud! Players are told that it’s okay to play “other” genders and to play a female character when male (and vice versa). What wasn’t so nice, was one commentator talking about ‘the lesser races’, which had pretty ugly ring to it even in a world where fantasy racism is the norm. I would have wished, RPGs could avoid such language by now.

Summary

The Dungeon Fantasy RPG is a good buy for…
1) those who want to try out GURPS, but feel slightly intimidated by the amount of options
2) those who look for a somewhat realistic fantasy RPG experience and haven’t tried GURPS yet
3) old GURPS hands who want to recruit new players who don’t know GURPS yet
4) old GURPS hands who want to have everything half-way decent with the GURPS name on it

It might not be the best investment if…
1) you already own most of the DF supplements and want new material
2) you are an old hand at GURPS and just want to see what the fuss about Dungeon Fantasy is all about without spending a lot of money (DF 1-3 are $24 and are likely to serve you better – unless you want to bring in new players or absolutely need paper versions due to dyslexia or the like)
3) if you aren’t particularly thrilled about the genre per se and don’t want to convince people to try out GURPS
But even then you still get a lot of good content for the money you spend.

Total score: 7.9 (excellent)
Total score is composed of a weighted average of Meat (50%), Cheese (15%), Sauce (20%) and Generic Nutritional Substance (15%). This is a cheese-oriented book. A “cheesy” story- or world-building-oriented book would turn the percentages for cheese and meat around.

Value score: 7.95 (excellent value)
Value Score is composed of the average of Total and Price.

Accessibility: excellent – accessible to complete newbies


GURPS is a registered trademark of Steve Jackson Games, and the art here is copyrighted by Steve Jackson Games. All rights are reserved by SJ Games. This material is used here in accordance with the SJ Games online policy.

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9 thoughts on “Review: Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game – Powered by GURPS

  1. Nice, thorough review. One correction, though – none of the monsters from Dungeon Fantasy Monster 3 are in here. There are plenty from one and two, but none from volume three as far I can tell.

    I’d also say that Exploits is only half a GM book – it would be extremely helpful for the players to read the first 70-odd pages of Exploits. Tactical combat run with people who don’t know how facing works (or when to change it), how damage types work, how to Wait or how Surprise works, etc. is a grind. I’ve done that and every turn for every player who has no clue grinds the game to a slow drag. So it’s certainly a book players should read eventually, even if they don’t need to do so initially. It’s written without any “GM only” information, as well.

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    • I was so sure the Gryphon was from Monsters 3! That’s what I get for not checking my sources. My professors would be horrified!
      I somewhat agree with your assessment of Exploits and will rework the text to make things a bit clearer. That’s the danger of writing while you go. But for the exercise of introducing new players to GURPS I wouldn’t expect them to read much if any of the volume. Heck, I wouldn’t expect them to read anything but there profession and race description! That’s exactly what the first session is for in my book. But then, I tend to think one combat is plenty per session ^^

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      • Ah, I don’t mind one combat per session. I do mind when I play a 7-hour session and we only have time for one combat because of tactical options being chosen by people who don’t well understand the tactical rules. I wish DFRPG had included a mapless combat option in a box for people who have the same issue to deal with.

        My first session of an RPG is always play, not chargen. The days I can game are few enough to need to spend session one as “what do I want to run?” and “hand me that book.” We do all of that by email ahead of time, even with folks totally new to gaming. Admittedly I don’t assemble entirely new groups to play. For that case, I think “first session is chargen” has merit but even so, who wants to say, “I tried the DFRPG, it was okay, we spent four hours making up guys and went home”?

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        • God no, you got me quite wrong there! Character generation takes place before the first game session, unless it’s “take a pregen and change your quirks and a disadvantage you don’t like.” Couldn’t stand a session of helping four to six people build characters at the same time.
          I do like to start raw beginners off with a session where everything is explained as you go. For people who have never role-played before things that would bore old hands to tears are still strange and confusing even if you don’t throw in a lot of plot twists. I guess this sort of learn-as-you-play approach would be a bit harder with Dungeon Fantasy where most characters are at a level where regular attacks just won’t be worth it and you will have to resort to rapid strikes, feints and such early on. I see how this would make little sense if you play with experienced role-players (no matter the system), but usually I break in raw newbies or GM at cons. Both situations where saying “read a hundred pages over the weekend” just doesn’t cut it.

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