Dungeon Fantasy RPG: The Notes (Part V)

It’s time for more notes on Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game (DFRPG), Steve Jackson Games’ condensation of the GURPS roleplaying system and its Dungeon Fantasy (DF) product line into an all-included, standalone game.

The first four articles looked at specific books and components; this installment will add a few observations on the product as a whole. And even then, I believe I have another installment in store for later. (Just think of this as the slowest unboxing ever.)

The dire elephant in the room

We can’t jump in without mentioning this big piece of DFRPG news, announced in the Steve Jackson Games (SJG) Report to the Stakeholders for 2017 just a few days after my last installment. Under the unhappy column of initiatives labeled “Failures”:

Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game: We have now sold the majority of what we printed. This should instantly slide the game into the “highlights” category . . . and it would be there if not for being so very late, costing more to produce than is healthy, and requiring so much of our upper management team’s time and sleep. As it is, the game will likely be sold out at our primary warehouse before the end of the first quarter and will not be reprinted. The current market doesn’t leave room for a game like this to succeed, and it’s a great thing that we cut our planned print run by 30% or we would be stuck with copies for years to come.

Yikes!

Let’s be clear: Almost nobody is calling the game a failure in terms of quality. And this is a game that pretty much sold out (though, yes, following a production cut). But even if reasonably good, sales just weren’t good enough for the product’s time and cost requirements. The game will continue, though, via support in Pyramid, and through ongoing support for the game’s doppelgänger, the popular DF line. 

More on all that later. For now, just note that most of the below was sketched out before that announcement, so don’t be surprised to see suggestions for “future supplements” and the such. (And hey, who’s to say that a future upturn in interest couldn’t revive the publication of the DFRPG line.)

All right. Time to tuck in:

On the names of books

The “GM book” of DFRPG has a name worth noting: it’s not Campaigns or Combat or GM Guide, but rather Exploits. That name says “This is a book about how to do stuff”, which is a welcome clear focus. (A couple of section names, Treasure and Game Mastering, don’t quite fit perfectly under a label of Exploits, but that’s perfectly fine.) To me, the name also suggests that the book isn’t necessarily for the Doritos-stained hands of GMs alone. Every character engages in exploits, so every player should arguably feel free to peruse this book. 

I also like the name Exploits because it positions “fighting” as just one subset of the much broader range of things characters can do. That’s as opposed to setting combat as the core focus (as games often do), and lumping everything else into “other miscellaneous actions”. (Then again, even if Exploits nicely goes far beyond combat in its coverage, it certainly devotes more pages to the pursuit of violence than to any other topic. The genre is what the genre is…)

The included adventure, too, has an interesting label above its I Smell a Rat subtitle: Dungeon. Not Adventure, not Module, but Dungeon. Very on-point for DFRPG. Though if the line does release wilderness or town adventures in the future, I suppose the label Dungeon might have to be swapped for something else. 

On grouping stuff

A game like DFRPG contains big catalogs: listings of spells, skills, monsters, you name it. How to organize these is naturally an important question. The biggest catalog of the bunch, the listing of spells in the Spells book, follows GURPS tradition and groups its entries into colleges. No surprise there. But what about the catalog of skills in Adventurers? Was that book right to list skills alphabetically as GURPS 4e does, or should it have grouped skills GURPS 3e-style, under “Athletic Skills”, “Combat Skills”, “Thief/Spy Skills”, and so on? 

I’m a fan of the latter. Gathering all of Adventurers’ medical-related skills into one group, for example, would be a great help in scanning and comparing the offerings; as it is, grokking the range of skills requires a lot of flipping around in the book. And I’ve already noted that placing most skills in the skills catalog, but squirreling away others under professions’ descriptions, makes finding things even harder. (The same goes for those advantages and disadvantages plucked out of their catalogs and placed under professions.) 

True, grouping skills by type has its drawbacks. The groupings are arbitrary, and it’ll happen that a player ends up, say, searching for Stealth under “Athletic Skills” when it’s listed under “Thief/Spy skills”. But everything comes down to arbitrary placement: the college of a spell, the skill that some pointy thing falls under on a Weapons Table, and so on. Overall, I think skill groupings can only help players in quickly scanning the skills they might want for specific tasks or character concepts.

Actually, Adventurers does indulge in some grouping of skills. I like the way that many weapon skills are bunched under the categories “Melee Weapon Skills” (which even has sub-categories!), “Missile Weapon Skills”, “Unarmed Grappling Skills”, and “Unarmed Striking Skills”. There’s a “Thrown Weapon” grouping, too. (Side thought: why not consolidate the naming scheme here, and go with “Thrown Weapon Skills” instead of “Thrown Weapon” as the grouping name?)

The skill grouping is oddly incomplete, though. Beyond the question of why the book uses groupings for only combat-related skills and not, say, social skills, is the question of why some combat skills are left out in the cold. Bolas, Cloak, Garrote, Net, and Shield float outside the weapon skill groups, hanging loose with Forgery and Skiing and other completely unrelated skills. I don’t know why they’re not included in the groupings for melee or thrown weapons (or even an exclusive “Other Weapon Skills” category if they don’t fit elsewhere).

It’s similar to the oddly halfway groupings of enemies found in Monsters: Orcs and Hobgoblins are grouped under the “Goblin-kin” category, but there’s no similar grouping for slimes and oozes, or animals, or even something as group-able as variants of zombies. This creates a small unnecessary burden: a need to remember which entries come under a group and which entries just appear alphabetically.

If I may yammer pedantically a bit more, there are two levels of consistency to deal with here: whether any individual catalog (spells, skills, monsters, etc.) should use grouping or alphabetical listing, and whether all catalogs should hew to the same method. I mention the latter because it’d arguably be a small aid to players if every catalog worked in the same expected manner. But I don’t think it’s terribly vital, and grouping may simply make more sense for some catalogs than for others. Take the grouping of spells by college. These colleges aren’t just logical organization for the sake of organization; they’re important distinctions for purposes of prerequisites and profession-based spell restrictions. By contrast, while I think grouping skills by type is logically and aesthetically nice, as well as a great aid for mulling character concepts, there’s no particular rules-related need for grouping skills.

Monsters, though, seem more like spells to me! That is, grouping all of Monsters‘ entries by “monster class” – Animal, Construct, Demon, etc. – would not only make for clean organization, it’d be genuinely useful. GMs would generally find it easy to look for a monster under the right class, and the scheme would make it simple to quickly browse, say, all animals for a wilderness encounter, or all demons for use in a cursed temple. These groupings matter for rules purposes, too: monster classes directly determine which skills and spells you need to recognize monsters, understand them, deal with them, fight them, and so on.

Let me wrap this up. I think Spells does organization right. Its catalog is organized into useful, meaningful groups (i.e., colleges) – and should you forget which college you need to look under for a given spell, that’s no problem, as a handy Spell Table also gives you a purely alphabetical listing with page references. Now imagine the same for other catalogs: all monsters grouped by class and all skills grouped by type, but each also with a handy alphabetical listing (in the books’ indexes, if nowhere else). That’d be doubly useful all around, IMO.

Well. That’s all just one reader’s musings; the books are printed and shipped, and that’s that. And even if the monster and skill catalogs’ odd penchant for partial groupings strikes me as less than ideal, let’s keep things in context: after a bit of familiarization with the catalogs’ quirks, they’re all perfectly usable. Game on!

On what’s not there

When I earlier poked around the maps, figures, and other fun extras, I neglected to ask what’s missing. Things like… Character sheets! A pack of several sheets – A dozen? More? – would certainly be welcome. As it is, players have to copy or print out their own before they can hit the tables. Printing is no onerous task, but for a set that’s all about making GURPS ready to play out of the box, the lack is a hiccup. There are players out there who view a fresh, “official” character form as a symbolic token of classic fantasy gaming.

Then again… I can see a big difficulty in including a supply of forms: sheer quantity of paper. The character form at the back of Adventurers isn’t a page; it’s four pages. As I think I mentioned before, that small stack of pages is a testament to the richness of a DFRPG character… as well as a scary point for some newcomers. “Your character can fit on an index card!” does not describe GURPS or DFRPG. 

(The ideal component for DFRPG? I think it’d be a one-sheet – two pages, front and back – abbreviated character form, with at least a half dozen sheets in the box. Along with the suggestion that players later graduate to copying and using the four-page form in Adventurers.)

What else would be good to see in the box? Some critics have charged that having three dice is little better than having none. Players won’t often need to roll four or more dice at once, true, but every player needs a set of three. While players can share in a pinch, passing dice back and forth between players and GM, especially with all the secret rolls that go on behind a GM screen, isn’t going to work. 

Is including only three dice really an obstacle to quick play? No, because what group out there can’t come up with as many six-siders as it needs? Just think of the included dice as a nice little present. Still, some buyers will certainly find it an oddity: DFRPG is a game that thoughtfully supplies its own dice, just not enough of them.

Okay, what else? More maps? Not for the adventure, no; the maps it requires are all there. What would be great, though, would be a big blank map – perfect for an open-air rumble, for a giant cavern battle, or even for laying out any needed small room by walling off a portion with blocks, rulers, paper strips, whatever. (DFRPG does come through a bit here, with a 10-by-9-hex blank map on the back of its Dungeon book. That’s a nice touch! It’s just not very big, that’s all. It’s a fine barroom brawl map, when sometimes you want a battle map.)

In short, a third map sheet, with a blank hex field on one side and all-purpose rooms and tunnels on the other (Circular room! Cavern with chasm! Little chapel of evil!), would be a great thing. (Barring that, I suppose DFRPG could have taken the larger unused spots on its two map sheets, and maybe sacrificed a couple of big unneeded graphics, to toss in a few generic room shapes labeled for general use, not for the Rat adventures. But that’s just me, an unrefined sucker for the “Use all available space!” aesthetic.)

Well. It’s interesting to think about such additions, but don’t take the above as criticism. You can chalk up my wishes for character sheets, more dice, and more maps as a fun mini-game of “Let’s spend SJG’s money for them!”

More?

Yeah, I think a little. ‘Til then –

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