Book Review: Dungeonslayers by Christian Kennig

Sometime since college, roleplaying games for me became more about the role I was playing than the rolls I was making. And yes – dice, cards, and coins are at times inherently unlucky. But every failure offers just as much chance to roleplay as a success does. Even the occasional character death offers a chance to go out in a final blaze of glory, or at least with a few pithy last words to be remembered by your comrades and forgotten by your enemies. (Well, unless you’re miraculously brought back to life and can shove those words down their throats with supreme satisfaction!)

No matter what rules system you use, they all support the same basic guidelines – create a character and play that character in a fictional shared world with a referee who makes sure people play fairly. Now, the referee isn’t strictly necessary in all games – but imagination definitely is. Even if that fictional world is based on the real one we inhabit, 99% of us aren’t wizards, spies, or space cadets in real life – so we must imagine ourselves in those roles and react accordingly. For me, it’s fun to create characters (PCs or NPCs) who exaggerate my own qualities or sometimes offer the ability to express qualities I wish I had in real life. Other people always love playing fighters or wizards or thieves and charging blindly into combat with sword or spell held high…

Regardless of setting or genre, you must have a set of rules. The rules can be as simple or complex as you make them, but they encourage fair play. I have played in games with rules I think are complex due to all the math involved (such as HERO), but I know many folks who believe those rules make perfect sense. And I know not everybody believes in the “rules light” movement, but games such as Warrior, Rogue and Mage reduce the complexity and by doing so decrease the barrier to entry that prevents some potential gamers from joining tabletop RPGs.

That said, though I’d heard of Dungeonslayers from Michael Wolf (Stargazer) about a year go, I hadn’t really had a chance to take a look at the system. And now that I’m looking for a simple rules system I can use with my two daughters (ages 6 and 10), it offered a good opportunity to take a look.

To start out this review, I just want to talk about the name of the game briefly because it gave me a momentary pause. Can you actually slay a dungeon? I envisioned a crazed barbarian attacking the entryway to a dungeon and decided that the name was metaphorical, as in a mountain climber “conquering a mountain.” And with this thought, I was able to dive into the book…

Much like WR&M, characters are based around three simple attributes. Instead of Warrior, Rogue, and Mage however, you have the more traditional Body, Agility, and Mind. Each of these is then expanded into two abilities. Body gets Strength and Toughness. Agility gets Reflexes and Dexterity. Mind gets Reason and Aura. You get 18 points to split into the attributes, and then you split the points in each attribute into the two abilities. So if you have 9 points in Mind, you might go with 4 points of Reason and 5 points of Aura.

Strength and Toughness are pretty self-explanatory. Reflexes boils down to how quickly s/he can react to things like traps and dodging opponent attacks. Compare that to Dexterity, which is described as hand-eye coordination and how precise your character’s ranged attacks are. Reason amounts to the “Sherlock Holmes” brilliance factor for a character. And Aura quantifies not only their magical talent abilities, but the character’s beauty and raw charisma.

These ability scores which play into basic “checks” such as to see if a character can climb a rock wall. For climbing, the book suggests using Agility and Strength as the check value. To see if the character succeeds or not, the player rolls a d20 to see if they get a value less than or equal to the check value. For example, if Bob the Fighter is climbing a rock wall and has an Agility 3 and Strength 4, his check value would be 7. The GM can also modify checks if they are made easier (maybe a thief scaled the wall before and threw down a rope) or harder (perhaps it just started raining or there’s snow on some of the rock surfaces).

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Image via CrunchBase

Other generated values are used for combat, such as Hitpoints (Body + Toughness + 10), Melee Attack (Body + Strength), Dodge (Agility + Reflexes + any armor value), and so on. These are quick and easy to figure out with some basic math.

Creating a character is pretty darned easy – pick a race (Elf, Human, Dwarf); pick a class (Fighter, Scout, Spellcaster [Black Mage, Healer, Wizard]); assign your attribute values; assign your ability values; add any racial & class bonuses (i.e. Fighters can add a point to Strength or Toughness and Elves can add a point to Reflexes, Dexterity, or Aura); pick a spell (if you’re s spellcaster); pick up some equipment; figure up your combat values and movement speed; and then flesh the character out with a name, gender, history, and all the usual character bits.

Over time, characters gain experience points (XP) and will go up in level (up to level 20). Every level the character gains, they get a talent point. Talents affect things like areas of knowledge, special combat moves, faster healing and more. And what’s cool is that some talents can be taken multiple times to make them even stronger.

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Mechanics-wise is where I think Dungeonslayers shines. Nearly everything is handled with a simple d20 check. Come up with a target number and have the player roll equal to or less than that number to succeed. Add in a critical success (natural 20) or critical failure (natural 1) and the ability to have “check” values greater than 20 (which require two check rolls by the player), and you have an elegant, consistent way to handle 99% of what occurs during any game. Even combat actions such as initiative, attacks, dodges, and spellcasting are handled using this mechanic.

There’s a great list of spells and equipment to get characters started and a short section for the GM on giving XP, designing dungeons, and dealing with monsters and treasure. The monster list is entertaining – covering everything from bears, wolves, and spiders to demons, “tentacled brains” and zombies. Personally, I would have loved to have seen a drawing of a tentacled brain – H.P. Lovecraft might even appreciate that concept!

Add in a one-page adventure to get the GM started (“Lord of the Rats”) and a character sheet and you have complete RPG in 20 pages. Oh, and did I mention that it’s free courtesy
of the Creative Commons license?

From a layout perspective, I have to say that Kennig did a great job putting the book together. He proves that you don’t need a lot of pictures to make great content work, and can instead use layout to keep things interesting. There’s a great full-cover picture on the cover by Paul C. Butler that’s reused on an interior title page in grayscale and a portion (the giant spider) is reused on the back cover. But from page 6 to page 19, the book is done with big, bold titles at the top of each new chapter/section and solid black bars with white text as sub-section headings. Icons, tables, and images of the character sheet are used well to tie things together graphically as well. Though the pages are busy, there’s plenty of white space to make things easy to read.

Having seen other short products for sale with much less effective layouts, I think small publishers (especially one-man shops) would benefit from taking a look at what Kennig did with the Dungeonslayers book.

Tonight, I’m hoping that I can put things together for a small adventure to go through with my daughters (ages 6 and 10). It ought to be an interesting experience, so I’ll see if I can get a playtest article up after we get through it. With such simple, complete rules however I think we’re guaranteed success.

For the game PDF and more, check out Dungeonslayers at Dungeonslayers.com. In addition to the main game, there are several supplements available, including a monster manual, a GM shield (think “rules summary”) and several pre-made adventures to use. There also seems to be a lively forum with recent activity, so you have the ability to join a great community as well!

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