Dungeon Fantasy RPG: The Notes (Part II)

It’s Part II of a scattershot passel of notes on Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game, the GURPS-based all-in-one game that everyone’s talking about. (They are. You just can’t hear them all the time.)

Part I offered miscellaneous notes on the Adventurers book. This installment focuses on Adventurers‘ catalog of skills, a key component of a DFRPG character. Part III and later will look at additional books and other facets of the game.

(Abbreviations: “DFRPG” is Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game; “DF” is Dungeon Fantasy, SJG’s “full” series of dungeoneering books for use with the regular GURPS Basic Set.)

Skills in Adventurers

A farewell to skills

DFRPG pares down the GURPS skill list aplenty – even some skills found in DF professions. Case in point: in making the jump from DF to DFRPG, bards lost the Musical Influence skill and the four Enthrallment skills found in GURPS Basic Set. In DFRPG, bards’ special powers come from Bard Song abilities and bardic spells alone, two sources that are more than capable of covering for the dropped skills.

(A bit of lore for newer players: The above special skills were originally born in the GURPS 3e port of the old Bunnies & Burrows game, a setting focused on rabbit PCs. With rabbit bards. (Yes, rabbit bards.) Musical Influence and the Enthrallment skills fit the bill in that adaptation, and handle bard-like persuasion powers in any other setting. In DF, though, bards found themselves juggling three overlapping takes on bardic abilities, watering down their power. I think DFRPG does the right thing in paring these down to two sources of power.)

DFRPG bards also rely on the mundane skills of playing instruments, singing, and composing music. These are the same musical skills available to any character, not some special magical versions, but they’re needed to power bardic magic and Bard Song abilities. Note that it’s not always important that the bard be a good musician: once a Singing or Musical Instrument skill prerequisite is met, the actual level of said skill often doesn’t matter. Then again, it does matter in some cases: a bard’s skill with music affects Contests with some abilities, and also resists Dispel Magic aimed at her magical effects. So don’t let your minstrel skimp on the mundane skills!

If there’s anything missing from DFRPG’s simplified bards, perhaps it’s a spelled-out ability to use mundane musical skills to improve reactions and sway emotions – much like the Musical Influence and Enthrallment skills that were dropped, but in a limited, realistic way. As it is, bards can put their mundane musical abilities to use in drumming up a little cash in town, but that’s about all the non-magical uses spelled out in text. (Then again, it’s simple enough to use mundane musical skills as complementary skills for all manner of reaction rolls.)

(There’s a lot of fun added material that could be considered for bards; see Dungeon Fantasy: The Musical! feat. Bards. Much of that would be overkill for DFRPG‘s simple approach! But some ideas, like special effects for different musical instruments, could be fun additions if you wanted to flesh out bards more.)

Elsewhere in skill omissions, DFRPG offers almost no scientific skills. That’s understandable; there’s little need for Astronomy in the dungeon. What scientific skills do pop up are purely oriented toward dungeoneering. Psychology, for example, appears in the game but only as a skill for understanding monsters’ minds. (With the goal of putting a broadsword through those minds, of course.)

I was surprised to see no Physician skill in DFRPG, something I noticed after seeing numerous mentions of Esoteric Medicine for healing-related exploits. I was reminded by GURPS experts, though, that this isn’t a surprise at all: GURPS brings Physician into existence only at fairly advanced tech levels. So down in the faux-medieval dungeons, Esoteric Medicine is what we’ve got – which seems fair enough, given that “esoteric” is perhaps the kindest way to describe much of medieval medicine. (“What? How can he be dying after all the bleeding we’ve done? Bleed ‘im some more!”)

DFRPG characters spend a lot of time inside odd structures, often underground. A structure itself can be an important story point in fantasy RPGs; the layout and features of the structure shape the action, and clues found in architecture or masonry can yield hints about a room’s purpose, the danger posed by a weakened wall, the presence of a hidden level, and so on. In addition, it’s not odd for PCs in a fantasy game to want to build modest walls, repair fortifications, or engage in a bit of tunneling.

So I’m a little surprised that DFRPG doesn’t offer a clear skill for drawing clues from a dungeon’s features or construction. I’d think that Architecture, Masonry, Carpentry, and Engineering (Civil, Combat, or Mining) would all be at least as in-genre and useful as Poetry. In their absence, I suppose Prospecting can be considered the same thing as Engineering (Mining), letting PCs pick up clues from tunnels and undertake safe digging. For constructed buildings and basements, perhaps Urban Survival could suffice to yield architecture-related clues. Assuming those make sense, DFRPG isn’t entirely without skills for reading the dungeon environment. Still, I’d welcome one more skill – probably Architecture – as the go-to roll for gleaning hints from a dungeon structure.

Finally, one more “where’d it go?” skill: No Zen Archery for the scouts and martial artists? That’s a minor surprise, if only because the skill’s cinematic nature is a neat fit for cinematic heroes. On the other hand, its time requirements aren’t so friendly toward frenetic dungeon combat. DFRPG hands scouts the Telescopic Vision advantage instead. That requires a bit of aiming to use well, but should require less time between shots than Zen Archery does, and even has uses outside of combat.

Welcome inclusions

As noted above, DFRPG makes Esoteric Medicine the go-to medical skill for healers. The game’s medicine chest also offers Diagnosis, First Aid, Pharmacy, Physiology (if for monsters only), Surgery, and Veterinarian; should those not be enough, Alchemy, Herb Lore, and Poisons can all aid healing at times. That’s more than enough to keep the town sawbones, barbers, herbalists, and quacks busy.

I did expect to see craft and professional skills covered in DFRPG – not with lots of detailed examples, but at least as broad categories offered to cover anything from Tanning and Smithing to Farming and Lawyering. Well, the “craft skills” and “professional skills” categories don’t get named, but Adventurers p. 93 does offer a quick delve into such “other” skills. (The writeup wisely uses its short length to slip in several specific skills with potential adventuring relevance.) With that, GMs get the go-ahead to introduce everyday skills for townies – and for creatively-designed PCs with interesting backgrounds. Good job.

I like DFRPG’s inclusion of the Hazardous Materials skill, though it looks a bit overshadowed by Alchemy, which can often accomplish many of the same tasks plus much more. On the other hand, Hazardous Materials is two degrees easier (Average vs Very Hard), and lets you extract nasty monster bits and wield Gorgon heads with weird expertise. Perhaps further play, or future expansions, will turn up many more specific uses (though DFRPG‘s two published adventures give all their love to Alchemy alone).

I also like DFRPG’s inclusion of the Hidden Lore skill. PCs have a choice of many specialties, whether monster types (Demons, Divine Servitors, Elder Things, Elementals, Faeries, Spirits, and Undead) or miscellaneous types (Nature Spirits, Lost Civilizations, Magic Items, and Magical Writings).

Hidden Lore (Lost Civilizations) can neatly fill in for the missing skills of Anthropology and Archaeology. The rest look useful too, though I’d like to see more notes on how to cleanly separate these from other skills. Hidden Lore (Magic Items) and Hidden Lore (Magical Writings) seem to step a bit on Thaumatology’s toes. Similarly, I’m not sure how clean the boundaries are between the Hidden Lore specialties of Faeries, Spirits, and Nature Spirits. We can wonder, too, whether it’s a great idea to separate knowledge of, say, Faeries into Hidden Lore (Faeries), Physiology (Faeries), and Psychology (Faeries) – that’s a lot of skills to juggle for the ability to say “yeah, I can answer questions about faeries”.

Here’s a specialty I’d like to see added: Hidden Lore (Dungeons). This skill would let the GM hand out rumors and tidbits of information about the location, features, and histories of dungeons: tales of the Shifting Labyrinth of Skargar, rumors of when the Sunken Tombs will next appear and what they contain, and legends of where the famed delver party Tersen’s Tunnelers buried its final treasure and why those heroes were never seen again. As PCs increase their skill with this lore, they’ll be able to identify and prepare for quests based on their own knowledge, without having to look for “jobs” on the quest grapevine or wait for a convenient “X marks the crypt” map to show up. (Current Events and Research rolls would still aid in picking up yet more rumors, or verifying known ones.) Anyone else think this sounds like a good fit for the game?

Skills in action

Most skills are followed by a neat little Modifiers section that summarizes all modifiers to the skill (including those for talents). But some skills instead include that information as part of the main text. This looks like a minor bug… or does it? A rough skimming suggests that Adventurers uses the latter method when there’s only one modifier to note; if the book follows that rule consistently, then, well, no problem! (Wait – is this the way that the Basic Set has worked all along? Hm, now that I look, I think it is. It’s interesting how an “offshoot” product like DFRPG gets you to see things in the original product that you never noticed before.)

DFRPG‘s Animal Handling skill carries over its beast-fightin’ combat benefits from Basic Set: specifically, “animals’ attack and defense rolls are at -1 against you”. I’m not a fan of this mechanism. Applying a penalty on defense to a combatant whose actions can be ‘read’ is fine, but applying a penalty to the combatant’s TH for the same reason always strikes me as odd, rules-wise. A better (and properly GURPS-like, IMO) way to do this, should you wish to house-rule a small tweak, is this: With the appropriate level of Animal Handling skill, animals’ defense rolls are at -1 against you, and your defense rolls are +1 against animals. (Any more on how this should work in GURPS, and whether characters should be able to obtain this combat expertise without the whole Animal Handling skill, is a bigger topic; see this article.)

Finally, let me pass along some top-level clarifications of questions about DFRPG skills (see this forum thread). First, I had a question about the Esoteric Medicine (Druidic) skill: does it suffer penalties (and occasional bonuses) for Nature’s Strength, as druidic spells do? No, says DFRPG chief author (and GURPS line editor) Sean “Kromm” Punch: Esoteric Medicine (Druidic) relies on natural medicinal ingredients, which work the same regardless of surounding Nature’s Strength. This is a key difference from Esoteric Medicine (Holy), which depends on the presence of an external power source (i.e., sanctity).

Next, what’s up with Acrobatics and encumbrance in DFRPG? In Adventurers, neither the section on encumbrance nor the Acrobatics skill entry suggest penalties on the skill, though the book’s description of thieves’ armor (p110) and the Dungeon Parkour rules in Exploits do. Taking the liberty of quoting Kromm’s detailed reply:

In general, no – as in GURPS. Encumbrance has no effect when you use Acrobatics to pounce (Exploits, p. 40), dodge (Exploits, p. 48), deal with knockback (Exploits, p. 53), attempt the tricks in Speed Is Armor! (Exploits, p. 58), or break a fall (Exploits, p. 67). But for the specific tasks under Dungeon Parkour (Exploits, pp. 20-21), yes. You’ll note that Adventurers, p. 12 speaks of “all uses” for Climbing, Stealth, and Swimming, but not for Acrobatics; this is why.

Fair enough. For my part, I’ve long gamed that encumbrance definitely and always nerfs Acrobatics, and will continue to house-rule things that way. Still, it’s good to know the official response.

Regarding a key use of the Poisons skill, I wondered how long it takes to envenom a weapon (noted as a “long action” on Exploits p. 58, but with no specific time given under the long action guidelines on Exploits p. 32). Kromm suggests “several minutes”, which sounds fine, and certainly precludes ducking out of a brawl to hurriedly dose a blade.

Finally, there’s the slightly tricky (and picky) matter of how Esoteric Medicine skills and their corresponding kits interact. My question: The writeup of Esoteric Medicine (Druidic) in Adventurers, backed up by the medical treatment rules in Exploits, states that a healer’s kit is needed to use Esoteric Medicine – a pretty big consideration that’s confirmed on Adventurers p. 114, tucked away in the kit description. The kit also gives +1 to skill. So, does this mean that one never rolls against straight skill for a practical application of Esoteric Medicine, i.e., that a PC either rolls at +1 for the kit, or can’t use the skill at all?

Kromm weighs in:

All forms of Esoteric Medicine require a kit when you treat injury – so yes, this skill is nearly always used at a bonus in that context. Many uses don’t mention the kit, though; e.g., weird treatments (Exploits, p. 63), dealing with swallowed acid (Exploits, p. 65), and counteracting a heart attack (Exploits, p. 66). That is, when the skill stands in for “general medical knowledge.”

All right. I’ll see how that plays out, but for now it sounds fair enough.

Time to look at some other books. On to Part III.

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