Dungeon Fantasy RPG: The Notes (Part VI)

What? I still have unposted “review” notes on the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game (DFRPG)? Let’s make this the last installment. Sure, there’ll be more to say about the game – thoughts, content (monster and character ideas, etc.), play reports, lots of stuff. But it’s well past time to close up this World’s Slowest Unboxing™.

What’s left to talk about? Not details of spell lists or combat options, but meta-stuff. And comments on artwork. Wrapped up with thoughts on the game’s future.

Before the big stuff, a few more random observations: 

Miscellaneous stuff

  • Huh? The weapon tables don’t offer a thrown rock? I hereby register my permanent vote for rocks on weapon tables.
  • Hey, I noticed that cat-folk don’t have Curiosity as a racial disadvantage. Surely an oversight… or not. Maybe the old proverb is right, and cat-boys/cat-girls with the trait are all dead. (If Curiosity’s going to kill anyone in DFRPG, it’s gnomes.)
  • I would have liked to see Pressure Secrets included as a martial artist skill. It’s nicely cinematic, and boosts the profession’s modest damage-dealing. Hmm, could it have been considered too deadly for inclusion? I can see that argument being made – yet Pressure Secrets doesn’t deal damage far beyond what anyone can deliver by picking up a pointy stick. I don’t see a danger in allowing it. (Though for both GURPS and DFRPG, I wouldn’t object to making Esoteric Medicine another prerequisite. After all, Pressure Secrets is really applied acupuncture. Heavy on the puncture.)
  • A really obvious thing, but: If you use one of DFRPG’s pregenerated characters, carefully note what’s not included, especially skills. For example, Grükuk Kzaash from Adventurers is a fine knight build – great in a fight and simple to play, even for a newbie. But watch out: this PC has no experience with climbing, riding, swimming, survival – really, anything outside of battle and soldiering basics. Is that a realistic skill selection? Sure, for a PC from a strictly soldiering background! Clearly, Grükuk is laser-focused on fighting. Her skill lacunae should be fun when they crop up in play – though with defaults from DX 14 and HT 14, she won’t hinder the party much even then. But anyway. All I’m saying is: Check those sheets carefully before heading out of the tavern!
  • Is “Dungeon Fantasy” a funny name? A name that’ll give some buyers pause, as I’ve heard suggested? (The daddy of DFRPG, GURPS, definitely knows from funny names, and reactions to them.) Yes, I suppose “Dungeon Fantasy” will induce a few smirks. But the game’s target audience will understand and appreciate the name just fine. (I suppose some of these will crack jokes anyway – but we gamers would crack some sort of joke, somehow, regardless of any name. It’s what we do.)
  • I earlier wrote plenty about DFRPG’s maps and its (mostly) stand-up counters, and I mentioned the minor drawback that the mapping of larger stand-up counters to hexes is unclear. I should have restated that a bit, as something not just unclear but actually odd: the stand-up counters look like they’re from a different game than the top-down, flat counters depicted in the books. Being so used to the GURPS combat map illustrations that DFRPG uses, and being so used to playing GURPS with stand-up figures, I didn’t give the mismatch a thought. But DFRPG is meant to be an all-in-one, integrated experience. A newcomer will surely find it strange that the figures and the book illustrations just don’t mesh.
  • Added 2018-10-20: I just noticed that DFRPG’s weapon tables make a couple of the tiny changes I suggested for GURPS LITE (and Basic Set): no goat’s foot doohickey and no “non-thrusting” (blunt-tipped) swords on the charts. 

 

Default roll vs Connoisseur (Gaming Art)

So, how about the books’ art? I can say a lot of nice things about the cover and interior pieces by Brandon Moore (with pieces in the Spells book by Felipe Gaona and map art by Ben Mund). They bring an assured painting style that’s in line with modern production values (and gamer expectations). Beautiful!

Character art

The constructive criticism I would (amateurishly) offer is this: I’m a sucker for good action art, and that’s not a strength of the pieces. That is, a lot of figures strike stiff poses, even in combat. On a similar note, characters in many pieces, including close-up character portraits, wear a dull lack of expression. Sure, there are nice smiles and scowls to be found here and there, and a few sternly blank faces are fitting as well. But overall, a lot of characters look needlessly bored.

These are just opinions. (I’ve read and appreciated the old classic How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way; I may be biased toward ridiculously exaggerated action and expressions.) And even if they might be valid observations, they’re also very addressable. Artists of these individuals’ obvious talent should have no problem mastering fluid action and intriguing expressions, and probably quickly, too. 

All in all, I’d love to see more work from these artists in SJG releases.

Monster art

That covers the three biggest books. Then there’s Monsters and Dungeon. As noted in a previous article, almost all of the Monsters book’s art is shared with the stand-up figures, as is Dungeon’s non-map art. This is a small disappointment; it feels as if the art budget ran out when it came time for Monsters and Dungeon.

On the plus side, that figure art happens to be by classic SJG artist Denis Loubet, and I’ve named myself a DL fanboy many times now. That said, this particular round of his art excites me less than usual. No particular reason; just as every music fan is entitled to prefer this album over that album, so it is with me here. Maybe Denis’ vision for dungeon monsters doesn’t resonate as strongly with me as, say, his sci-fi creations. (Case in point: I love so many of Denis’ pieces in the old GURPS Aliens, which really highlight his strong inking. Like the Irari – I can’t say exactly what it is, but I’d play that race based on the artwork alone.)

Moving on: I was really hoping that Monsters would include artwork for every entry. That, for me, is a big selling point in a bestiary. It’s a big request, too, meaning more artwork to buy and more pages needed. I understand the difficulty. But it’s a wee sad trombone all the same. 

It’s not just monsters, though. In other books, a piece of art to accompany each professional template and each PC race would go a long way to breaking up monotonous-looking pages, as well as illustrating concepts for new players who don’t have a grognard’s honed ability to picture a dwarven swashbuckler (or even a dwarf at all). It’d be nice to have even one big “group photo” piece showing all the professions, and one lining up all the races, as some games have done. (The counterargument: It’s hard to depict professions, as each covers a wide range of concepts. Races, meanwhile, already enjoy depictions throughout the art pieces. So, no big loss.)

I know, those are again demands on page count and art budget. If it was a painful but necessary decision to drop those, so be it. I’m just musing on what would have been fun. All said and done, DFRPG looks great as it is. It’s one of the best-looking GURPS-related products ever!

Other observations on art 

I like the overkill on the cover of Monsters. Skeleton Wizard is summoning a skeleton ghost and releasing a flaming skull, while also raising skeletal zombies. This villain has a theme and he’s sticking to it.

Hey – the Spells and Monsters covers go together to make one picture! I noticed this some time ago, though I was probably the very last person to do so. It’s made obvious on the GM Screen, which repeats these art pieces and also the covers from Adventurers and Exploits. (The latter pictures, I’m told by more observant SJG forum members, depict adjacent rooms, with an adventurer in one and a cultist in the other trying to listen in on each other from opposite sides of a door. Good concept. Somebody’s in for a surprise check soon.)

Let’s see, what else is there to say about the art… Hey, I don’t know whether everyone’s already noticed this, but the dragons depicted on Monsters p22 come straight from SJG’s old Cardboard Heroes line. (I am slaying the Observation rolls over here.) 

Sharing visions

People talk on and off about the idea of a potential “community content program” for DFRPG or GURPS content that is approved by but not created by SJG. That’s a big topic for elsewhere. But even if that’s a far-off dream, perhaps it’d be easy for SJG to set up an image-sharing page to solicit fans’ renditions of Dungeon Fantasy (DF) or DFRPG monsters, characters, etc. It’d be fun for the artists, helpful for those GMs who want to show players a Doomchildren horde but couldn’t draw an eggplant, and maybe useful for drawing newcomers’ attention to the game, through social media sharing of the images.

Just a nutty idea. But it’d be fun. 

Uh-oh… It’s the “D-word”…

Let me wrap up the art talk with an appreciative nod toward one more thing. It’s embarrassing to me as a human that we even need to broach the following topic, but there were… comments in social media, shortly after the DFRPG release. 

Content warning for those of delicate constitution: If you’re reading this seated below a prized Confederate flag or some even more questionable banner… or if you’ve just penned a screed on how the new Star Wars movies have destroyed your childhood  – destroyed it, mind you! – because key characters are tainted with estrogen… you’ll want to brace yourself and have the pixie smelling salts at hand. Because, you see: DFRPG’s illustrated dungeon adventurers are not all male and not all white. They exhibit an actual modicum of the d-word: diversity.

Believe it or not, this bothers some people, and caused a few to yammer about “feminist agenda” and “social justice warriors” and what not after the game was released. While I appreciate the entertainment value of such reactions, I can’t claim to understand them in the least. Even if I didn’t care a whit about the positive points held up by approving reviewers – empowerment, more inclusive representations, and so on – I’d still welcome the pictures. Why? Because… well, why not? More variety, more creativity, more openness to any character concept you can imagine, instead of the same ol’ recycled hero images. The more you think about it, the more this variety just feels natural, and the more that galleries of look-alike male figures just seem weird. (Almost like those one-note figures are part of some agenda or something. Who needs that?) 

I hope there’ll be no more fuss over “agendas” and “SJWs” because a piece of game art gave a fantasy hero skin tone B instead of skin tone A. (As opposed to something believable, like, you know, a fire-breathing dragon man.) That sort of discussion forces me to write about deep and important stuff, not the shallow game rules hacking and low-brow jokes that are my forte. Please don’t make me have to get thoughtful any more.

Big meta-observations on DFRPG

On easing the burden for GMs

The difficulty of finding a good GM has long vexed gaming groups. That’s become all the more true as easy entertainment like video gaming highlights the sheer work aspect of GMing.

Casual readers may not immediately appreciate this, but DFRPG (and DF too) goes the extra league to make gaming easier for GMs (and thus for the whole group). Part of that lies in the great job the game does of working things out for the GM in advance, specifying exactly how to resolve this case, or what to roll for that task, or how some trait affects what skills. Monster stats include ready-to-play damage, defenses, everything, already taking into account armor, weapons, etc. Loads of inevitable player questions are answered in advance – not just the thousand and one topics covered by GURPS’ obsessive completeness (“Effects of summer clothing in a cold clime? Got that covered!”), but specific dungeon world stuff (“Can I sell dungeon junk in town? Can I make my own armor instead of paying? What happens if I’m caught counterfeiting? Can I do anything useful with Poetry? What if I attack the chest’s hinges?”). New GMs can jump in with confidence that the game will guide them through a lot of situations.

Related to that, DFRPG is great in how it sets up an environment of “always something to do” (for lack of a better term). Stuck in town between dungeons? DFRPG demurely claims it doesn’t cover “town adventure” in detail, yet it still offers PCs tons of activity. Craft goods! Busk! Scour gutters for coin! Try your luck at the gambling tables (or the black market)! Seek rumors! Forage in the shrubbery! Pen letters to sponsors! Advertise services! All spelled out with simple rolls, rather than leaving things to the GM. Likewise in the dungeon: When no monsters are at hand, PCs can keep plenty busy with feats of parkour, scouting, chest-bashing, trap-seeking, curse cleansing, prospecting, and more. Again, these are all worked out for the GM. And to cap off all that, DFRPG appears to carefully make sure that every trait, every skill, has specific uses in the game.

Take another look at Dungeon, too. Included in the adventure itself is lots of advice on running combat, scaling encounters, dealing with unexpected player decisions, and more. Instead of sending you to Monsters for foes’ stats, Dungeon repeats all the stats you need. All followed by a neat summary of available treasures and other moneys to be earned, detailed guidelines for character point awards, and tips for extending the adventure. Great stuff for a new GM.

Another quiet service that DFRPG performs is excising the parts of GURPS that create GM headaches. These include gate spells (requiring the GM to create worlds on a dime), the Flight advantage (meaning some PC is always flitting off from the prepared map), and the abuse of magic or alchemy (creating permanent gold is a classic). There’s even the suggestion (via pre-generated character designs) that PCs take Sense of Duty (Adventuring Companions), a tool that explicitly lets the GM enforce player unity when intra-group bickering or backstabbing threatens GM sanity.

The biggest GM gift of all, of course, is paring down the generic, universal GURPS “toolkit” into a dungeoneering game. That’s a daunting task that has always loomed before a would-be GURPS GM, while her counterparts who chose D&D or a hundred other themed games have been able jump right into play. Thanks to DFRPG, GMs of “it’s like D&D, but using GURPS” games can now do the same.

On switches

Another stealth feature of DFRPG is the cutting of big-item “switches” to nearly zero. That is, a major part of the game’s “streamlining” of GURPS consists of taking all of GURPS’ (in)famous optional rules sections and making the call on each one – i.e., toss it out or present it as a standard rule. Tactical or basic combat? Tactical. Bleeding rules? Nope. And so on. (The only big thing I’ve seen so far with an “Optional Rule” label on it is the Training Expenses rule.)

Maybe this is why DFRPG offers an Adventure planning form, but no Campaign planning form. After all, a Campaign planning form is mostly just a place to record the “switches” that the GM will use in the game. You don’t need to make those decisions with DFRPG. 

On streamlining

As noted, DFRPG is “streamlined” GURPS in that it pares the toolkit down to a ready-to-go game, with clean presentation and with switches already flipped. But it’s important to note that it’s not streamlined in the sense of a hugely simpler game. 

It does simplify some GURPS rules. (Like language rules: they’re dumbed down to a binary “you know this language or you don’t” – which isn’t out of place in the genre!) But character building uses the same old concepts (if with helpful templates); combat, magic, reaction rolls, and many other subsystems remain mostly unchanged. A new buyer should be aware that DFRPG primarily streamlines, not simplifies.

While that won’t please those who wanted a vastly simpler GURPS, there’s an upside: excellent compatibility with GURPS. That means there are a lot of books you can expand into later: the DF series for more professions and other dungeony goodness, and the whole GURPS line for the rest of the universe. 

In other words, there’s an expansive, vastly tested system that’s got your back as GM for rules situations not covered by DFRPG, or spells and skills you feel are missing, or options you want for more grit or cinematic heroics or detailed combat fiddliness. There’s even full setting support if you want to leave dungeons behind for broader fantasy. Or world-hopping, fantasy-tinged sci-fi. Anything at all, just a book or few away.

On complexity

I won’t say a lot here, because the oft-alleged “complexity” of GURPS is its own huge topic. I’ll just repeat my standard counter: With DFRPG, as with GURPS, the charge of “complexity” seems to often confuse breadth of coverage (say, the huge number of circumstances addressed as potential combat considerations) with resolution difficulty (for lack of a good term; I refer to the number of steps and rolls needed to do stuff, like whack an enemy).

Take the section Flame (Exploits p68). There’s nearly a whole page on rules involving flame, plus whatever other bits are out there (monsters’ breath weapons, flame spells, molotovs, etc.) That’s a good amount of text – but when nothing is on fire, it’s all irrelevant and gets in the way of nothing. 

That describes GURPS/DFRPG as a whole: there’s a lot of text, but at any given time, the vast bulk of it sits harmlessly unused, waiting until you need it. That’s readiness, not complexity. That’s game designers doing their job by doing the work for you, before it’s needed. (Work that you can just ignore anyway, if you prefer to wing the situations.)

Still. A lot of people blanch at the sight of GURPS, and while I think the “complexity” charge is largely unfair, it’d be disingenuous to brush off all doubters with “they just don’t get it”. The rules may be broad, not difficult, but the result is a big page count either way, and hefty books do have a psychological weight. DFRPG isn’t entirely free of this; while it’s smaller than GURPS and can make a claim of “quick, ready-to-play fantasy”, you can’t entirely blame a fan of light games for casting side-eye at DFRPG’s text-dense books. 

I’m always impressed by the breadth of coverage in GURPS and DFRPG, but I’m afraid that their completeness will forever make the games appear more complex than they are.

On Munchkinism

To me, DFRPG embraces munchkinism in a healthy way. It doesn’t zealously block off every action the munchkin could take, just paths that go too far and would wreck the game. (Think easy gold creation, unlimited teleportation, and so on.) It doesn’t slap power players down as bad gamers; it gives them some elbow room, a bit of “safe space” to stretch their munchkin legs and subject the rules to a satisfying bit of grief. This is good. DFRPG recognizes that, within bounds, power gaming is fun. (Sample characters and miscellaneous notes even demonstrate how to munchkin by squeezing the most bang out of trait selections. Nothing goes overboard, though; after over 30 years of fine-tuning the costs and effects of traits, GURPS is pretty resistant to unbalancing.)

This is again an area in which DFRPG makes things easier for GMs. It predicts the clever ruses that munchkins will surely devise (“I’ll dump lots of poison on my blade!”), and gives the GM a helpful ruling and a how-to. As opposed to no comment, or a vague “the GM may allow this unless it would be unbalancing…”

On combat challenge

DFRPG offers GMs plenty of good advice on challenge levels, mostly in Exploits and Monsters. For inexperienced GMs, perhaps it could have also invoked video games as an example. (Side note: It’s interesting that DFRPG notes RPGs as an influence on video games – and certain video games as an influence on DFRPG.)

Note Monsters p61: “Monsters that hover out of reach, teleport, or hit and run at insane speeds get tiresome for melee fighters. If such adventurers make up a significant proportion of the party, save these abilities for serious bosses – or at least until the heroes gain similar capabilities (or better missile weapons!).” 

This principle is referenced again in Automatic upscaling a bit later, with a note to upscale overall challenges (if not individual monsters) as the PCs progress. Even new RPG players may be familiar with this principle from video games, in which foes or challenges requiring new abilities or knowledge will typically appear only after the characters could have gained those abilities, or after the players could have gained that knowledge. It’s good advice for GMs.

Just as a video game won’t throw a “resists all but fire” foe at the player until the characters have (or could have) obtained fire-based attacks, GMs can look at monsters through that lens. Does the monster have DR 15? Well, is there at least one PC able to deal that damage? Not every monster needs to follow that calculus; “The occasional pushover is good for player morale,” says p61 – and the occasional “learn to run away from encounters like this” keeps players on their toes. Just as in video games.

(There’s a great essay waiting to be written on applying video game knowledge to good GMing. I’m not the one to write it; my video game experience is sadly lacking.)

On D&D

It’s interesting to see where DFRPG picks up tropes from classic D&D-style fantasy gaming and reworks them with GURPS-like twists. I like how thieves’ backstab is constructed from a (camouflaged) Telegraphic Attack for good TH and good damage with the right hit location, and then adds more damage from a thieves-only ST bonus that can be leveled up. Then there’s an easily overlooked special power of knights: the ability to purchase weapon skills at any time, even during combat. As someone clever pointed out on the forums, this is an easy and elegant way to mimic a “proficiency with all weapons” ability. 

Other areas less resemble D&D. The Turning power of clerics references D&D, but arguably less satisfyingly (it can’t be powered up other than by boosting Power Investiture or Will, and doesn’t offer the fun ability to destroy scrub undead). The biggest difference may be HP; DFRPG gives a nod to class-based HP by allowing higher HP purchases for some professions, but it has no truck with HP stats of 50 or 100 or worse. In true GURPS fashion, PCs will instead progress in means of avoiding damage, not in ever-multiplying HP for absorbing it. (And speaking of progress, DFRPG doesn’t even attempt to recreate character “levels” or “hit dice”. Most GURPS players call that a good thing.)

Gamers with an interest are sure to discover lots of little areas in which DFRPG adopts, tweaks, or avoids some D&D trope. Make Observation rolls as you read and play.

On iconic monsters

Speaking of D&D, here’s a final thought on Monsters – more a question than an observation. It’s long seemed to me that D&D enjoys (and has earned) one nice little advantage in the fantasy gaming market: monsters that aren’t just part of the catalog, but that have become iconic. The beholder, the mind flayer, the owlbear, the gelatinous cube, many others. These creatures just “say” D&D. They’re recognized widely in the hobby; they pop up in fan art, in humor memes, and even in “Most Iconic D&D Monster” listicles.

I’d love to see our game gain “iconic” monsters whose very names or images reference the game. That’s not easily done with GURPS itself – “it’s a toolbox, not a setting” and all that – but could happen with DF/DFRPG. How? I dunno; declaring “The Dinoman will now be iconic!” will go down as well as an auto executive announcing “Our new model shall hereby be loved like the Beetle!” It doesn’t work that way.

But setting the “how” aside: I wonder whether DF/DFRPG has monsters that could “break out” as fan favorites, even becoming informal (infernal?) spokesmonsters for the game. I like the crushroom for its name, and the Demon from Between the Stars for its Lovecraftian touch (with a nice weirdness that fits SJG itself). But I’m not sure that anything in Monsters jumps out at me as the beholder for “our” crowd (not even the knockoff-ish eye of death and sphere of madness).

Going beyond monsters, it’d be fun to see professions or races become iconic symbols of the game. DFRPG’s conventional elves and dwarves aren’t going to attract special attention, but I don’t see a lot of cat-folk running around in other games. If the image of, say, a cat-folk swashbuckler gained popular recognition as a classic DFRPG figure – well, I’m not sure why that’d be a nice thing, but I like the thought all the same.

The future of DFRPG

As noted in the last installment, SJG has announced that it intends to sell out all first-run copies of DFRPG, with no plans for reprinting. 

While that sounds like an “end of the line” announcement, DFRPG does have a future.

I don’t know whether DFRPG will see reprint and new growth. But even as the last physical copies sell out, the game lives on in PDF form. And then there’ll be ongoing support in Pyramid…. except, oops, there won’t be. After I began writing all this, SJG announced that Pyramid will seal its chambers soon. Okay, so that’s yet more bad news for DFRPG…

… except that this also happened: Hall of Judgment, a whole new fan-instigated, SJG-approved adventure book for DFRPG! In full color, packed with art, looking as professional as anything by the Really Big Companies, and available in PDF and print. How’s that for support? Not so shabby!

So, with that welcome jolt to the line, who knows what the future could bring for DFRPG. Are more supplements in the pipeline? Could more great releases and social media create enough interest to spark a new printing? Might there someday be a “community content” program to let fans enliven the line?

It all sounds possible to me. Until then, we have the ever-growning DF line. Any future DF release can be easily outfitted with “How to use this book with DFRPG” notes – and even if it isn’t, the release will probably require close to no work to adapt anyway.

In short: DFRPG may have taken a good swat to the vitals, but it nowhere near -5xHP. This game has many more levels to explore.

Done!

There. Call this game fully unboxed. If you’re intrigued but haven’t yet geared up for the dungeons, go buy your own boxed set right away while there’s still a copy to be found!

2 Comments

  • Douglas Cole

    Great overview, tbone. I do want to point out one thing, though:
    “… except that this also happened: Hall of Judgmenta whole new fan-instigated, SJG-published adventure book for DFRPG! In full color, packed with art, looking as professional as anything by the Really Big Companies, and available in PDF and print. How’s that for support? Not so shabby!”
    Hall of Judgment is not published by Steve Jackson Games. It’s published by a third party, my company Gaming Ballistic, LLC, under license. That means in exchange for a nominal royalty, I got to use as many of the rules from the DFRPG verbatim as I needed.
    If it were published by SJG, each sale would get the author either nothing (because they accepted a flat fee on a work-for-hire basis), or a royalty. In a license, each sale gives SJG a royalty, and the rest goes to the publisher – in this case, me.
    Why do I fuss about it? Other than the license, SJG did not involve themselves in the work. That gets them money for the line at little investment.

    • tbone

      Yikes, how did I let that get past my eyes? I was aware from the start that the product is published by Gaming Ballistic, not SJG; all the discussion surrounding the product made that very clear. I believe I meant to write “SJG-approved”, and wrote something else entirely. Because of a disad that keeps popping up: “Compartmentalized Mind (Only for thinking/doing screwy things unintended, and not realizing it)”.

      The fix is made. I apologize for the error, and much appreciate the correction!

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