Dungeon Fantasy RPG: The Notes (Part III)

On to Part III of thoughts upon exploring Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game, the latest “powered by GURPS” wonder from Steve Jackson Games.

Part I offered miscellaneous notes on the Adventurers book. Part II focused on Adventurers‘ catalog of skills. Here in Part III, I look briefly at the remaining four books found in the game box.

Exploits

Unless I’m missing it, DFRPG doesn’t offer Optional Rule: Extra Effort in Combat from GURPS (BS p. 357). That’s a bit too bad, as the rule is useful for letting fighter-types burn off FP for nifty minor combat boosts, which in turn means more tactical options and more resource management fun. Well, like a lot of rules bits, it’s an easy thing to fold back in if a GM likes. (That’s the really nice thing about this whole “powered by GURPS” concept: there’s a fully realized game system lurking beneath DFRPG, ready to fill any gaps a GM could want.)

I’m glad that “combat toolkit” options like Deceptive Attack and Rapid Strike are included in DFRPG; they’re one of the first things I checked for when I picked up Exploits. A key appeal of GURPS is that combat isn’t just about using skill to whack away at foes’ hit points; rather, the game encourages fighters to do something with their skill—go for vital targets, overcome defenses, strike multiple times, etc. It’s good to see DFRPG carry this over…

… with a small exception. One of my favorite combat toolkit options has gone AWOL: Telegraphic Attack, a great, simple tool for finessing a lot of unique combat situations. Telegraphic Attack is particularly useful for backstabbing – and, hey, maybe it does exist in the DFRPG rules for that action: “The sneak’s first attack roll on that foe is at +4 because it’s perfectly set up”. That’s surely a veiled invoking of Telegraphic Attack. Good!

Even if DFRPG does quietly build Telegraphic Attack into one of its most common uses, though, I’d rather see it made an explicit option like Deceptive Attack and Rapid Strike. Players would find it useful in many situations. So would GMs. For example, I heartily recommend that GMs make Telegraphic Attack the favored fighting option of roaring, clumsy brute-monsters. Without that +4 bonus, low-DX monsters end up just swiping at air (boring!). When monsters do take the bonus, PCs will have to jump for their lives (exciting!), but will likely succeed at that defense (again exciting, and whew!). Which is how tense fights against big brutes typically play out in fiction.

Oh well. Once again, returning this missing bit to the DFRPG toolbox is an easy house rule for GMs.

On to another topic: Traps. Among the sample traps detailed on p. 71, I like the inclusion of the humble trip-rope. Sure, it feels a little out of place among crushing ceilings and evil runes, but it’s the sort of trap the PCs are likely to set! (And in the bigger picture, I like that DFRPG often zooms in on little details like this.)

Spells

A discussion of the Spells book is most likely to focus on the spells that didn’t make the transition to DFRPG from GURPS Magic and other books. No need to re-hash the topic here; anyone interested will find a full online discussion here.

Both Adventurers and Spells note penalties on druidic spells where Nature’s strength is low, but Spells also notes contrasting bonuses for pristine forests and the like. The DF line doesn’t offer this bonus to druids (unless I’m missing it), but I’m really glad to see DFRPG introduce it. Druids almost always face spell penalties for the usual game settings of dungeons and towns, without opportunity for the occasional high-power spots that wizards and clerics enjoy (High Mana and High Sanctity, respectively). I had actually been thinking that it’s only fair to give DF druids some similar bonus for “deep” nature. DFRPG beat me to it.

A related thought: While DFRPG suggests primeval nature, untouched by humanoids, as high-power spots that grant druids bonuses, I’d also suggest the occasional high-power spot that isn’t untrod wilderness, but is consecrated all the same (perhaps representing harmonious co-existence between humanoid-kind and nature). You know: Stonehenge, and places like that. High-ranking druids should be able to imbue a natural spot, whether primeval or not, with high Nature’s Strength through lots of Religious Ritual (Druidic), perhaps backed by appropriate spell castings and sacrifices. (And circles of big rocks. You want those too, apparently.)

Monsters

Repeating what I said about professional templates in Adventurers, I’d like to see color used in monster write-ups, too. That’d make stat blocks easier to read. Even more, I’d like to see the entry headers (i.e., monster names) rendered in color. Or just made bigger. Or both. As it is, the headers don’t stand out as much as I’d like.

Dragons are in the Monsters book, and that’s great. I think they’re low on ST and HP for their size, though. (I know, they’re dangerous enough as they are, but still…)

I think that the Monster Prefixes section from DF‘s Monsters 1 book would have been a really nice inclusion in Monsters. Oh well. Surely there will be another DFRPG Monsters book in the future that could add this.

I like the category organization used for some monsters, such as placing a number of creatures under “Goblin-Kin”. Maybe this should be extended, though. For example, how about placing all those oozes, jellies, puddings, slimes, and molds under the single category “Goo”? Similarly, would it make sense to group demons under one umbrella? Or put all mundane animals into a category?

As it is, the random-seeming use of grouping can make a few things hard to find. There’s Horde Zombie with its own listing on the Contents page, and then there’s regular Zombie too, listed separately toward the end of the page… but Orc? Or Hobgoblin? These aren’t listed on the Contents page. You need to remember to look up Goblin-kin if you want to find these. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher to me.

Here’s a thing you won’t find in Monsters—which, if you’re coming from other games, you may see as a big blank spot. The book’s monsters come with no easy-read indicator of power level. There’s no Challenge Rating, no level or hit dice number, not even the point cost total you’d find on monsters in some GURPS books. Is a riled ice wyrm a worthy foe for a PC party, or will it take two or three wyrms to challenge the group? GMs will just have to eyeball beasts and abilities, and use judgment—something newcomer GMs won’t find easy.

Although Monsters’ discussions of gaming foes doesn’t address “challenge level” head-on, Exploits does under Balancing Encounters (p. 85). That section offers good, gritty tips on matching monster mettle to PC prowess, and even includes a a three-way classification of monster power into fodder, worthy, and boss. So that’s something—though, again, GMs are on their own in deciding which of these power categories a given nasty falls under.

I understand that this “problem” is unavoidable. An ice wyrm looks like a “one-is-plenty” boss monster, but whether it’s really a proper challenge—or too much of one—is hugely dependent on the PCs’ capabilities, their power level, and, of course, their number, as well as the environment and timing of the encounter, the players’ game experience, and how “smart” the GM plays the beast. In all but the simplest game systems, power rating comparisons are necessarily of sketchy usefulness. Taking Exploits’ helpful advice on encounter balance to heart, and learning harder lessons about balance through experience, may be the best that a DFRPG GM can do.

Dungeon: I Smell A Rat 

I’ll pass on lots of commentary until I play this vermin-infested adventure. There’s already plenty of discussion online, especially regarding the decision to openly mark the play maps with areas of interest. (Like many other buyers, I have to wonder why DFRPG doesn’t mark the areas only on the GM’s maps in the adventure book itself, and leave the actual play maps clean of these obvious clues.)

One thing I like about the Dungeon book: it goes out of its way to give GMs more than just the adventure itself. Advice: Running Combats on p. 8 is a very short, very nice overview on handling combat and playing monsters well, and is a good complement to the above-noted Balancing Encounters section in Exploits. A lot of experienced GMs would do well to read this a time or two.

As a final comment on the book, I’ll just note that “Merle” is not a name I expected to see in a medieval fantasy adventure. Well, I guess surprising the players is part of the game. So Merle it is.


That covers the core five books of DFRPG (and the play maps), but there’s still more for me to babble about. Stick around for Part IV.

7 Comments

  • Captain Joy

    I do not regret my purchase one bit, but my biggest disappointment was not having art for every monster. 

    IMHO, if you don’t have a representative picture of the monster, then that monster description is markedly incomplete.And, I agree, showing secret things on the map was a huge mistake, basically rendering the map as is unusable.  They should have a players-safe big map, then add smaller GM map sections that can be placed on top of the big map as they are discovered.

    • tbone

      I’m saving art comments for later, but we share one wish: A picture for every monster.

      Not to be negative here, but Monsters actually offers less art than a reader might first realize: every illustration, as far as I can see, is taken directly from Cardboard Figures artwork (most from the included figures; some, like the dragons, from the much older sets sold by SJG). Unless I’m missing something, Monsters’ interior art offers no illustrations unique to the book. (Well, it does create new compositions of the Cardboard Figures pieces against backgrounds… all dull “bit of wall + floor” backgrounds, true, though I guess the repeated motif creates some thematic unity…)

      That said, while I guess the above technically qualifies as a complaint, I don’t mean to come across as critical. I fully expect that the SJG folks, being game nuts themselves, would love to pack the book with all-new original art, but budgets and schedules and page count limitations are the reality. And some art just isn’t needed. Bears and giant snakes? If there’s room and budget, sure, but otherwise we already know what the real things look like. Dire wolves and zombies? We can’t see real ones… though if some art has to be sacrificed, we can imagine these monsters well enough without help. Maybe the same for gargoyles and gryphons, which we’ve seen aplenty in other games and media. But a karkadann? Doomchildren? Crushroom? It’d really be nice to see how the game creators picture these new creatures.

      I know that good art isn’t quick and cheap. The discussion brings the old D&D Monster Manual to mind, though. Its art pieces were B&W, small, generally simple, and not always great. But they really sparked the imagination!

      Re the map: Leaving the “secret thing found here” indicators off the map would indeed be a good idea. There’s another difficulty, though: even without special indicators, a big map of interconnecting rooms, on its own, gives away lots of information. That is, the play map makes obvious what’s behind any given marked door (right there on the map, there’s another room, a hallway, etc.). Even if a door is secret and left unmarked, the presence of a little room floating behind a wall makes it obvious there’s a secret door. The remedy would seem to be for the GM to cover up unexplored rooms with papers and stuff until the PCs open a door and view a new room – but that’s not going to work well with all the hands and dice and books and drink cups flying all over the map.

      So to really limit map knowledge, the DFRPG play maps would have to not only leave secret things unmarked, but would also have to disconnect rooms and tunnels, scattering them about the sheet to conceal what fits with what. Only the GM’s adventure book would show how the parts fit together. Looking at the play map, players might see a bunch of scattered rooms, etc., but until they open the south door, the GM won’t reveal that they are now entering this tunnel over here. A character passing through the door would then “teleport” over to that tunnel’s entrance on the play map, and continue his movement.

      Hm. Can’t say I like that much, and maybe SJG said “nah, let’s not do that” for good reason.

      But as for marking the areas of interest on the play maps… I have to wonder what was the reason for that.

  • uE5Xg9p2

    In regard to character art for books more generally, I would like to see SJG go with what I believe is currently referred to as “minimalist”. (A search for that term on an art site like DeviantArt should reveal numerous examples of near-faceless portraits in a vector style of drawing.)

    I think the benefit of that would be twofold: the look is simplified and generic, which matches the underlying theme of GURPS; and because of that very property, drawings from different artists could be included together without there being the stark contrast between what would otherwise be individual styles.

    This is, in fact, what I’ve begun to do for the myriad unfinished character writeups I’ve attempted across a dozen or so franchises. How many of those will ever see the light of day, I don’t know, but if/when they do get out, at least they’ll match in style from cover to cover.

    • tbone

      The GURPS “house art style” is all over the map – which is fitting, I suppose, for a line that spans decades, countless genres/topics, and hundreds of books. But some core element to unify it all could be a good thing.

      DFRPG has gotten praise for adopting a central style (which I’m calling “lush painting style” because I don’t know what else to call it). It’s featured in 3 of the 5 boxed books plus the maps, but Monsters uses Cardboard Heroes art and so does Dungeon (except for the map shots).

      If DFRPG expands (and I hope it does), it’ll be interesting to see whether SJG continues with “lush painting style” over the long haul.

      Re those illustrated character writeups: When will some of those be available for public viewing?

  • uE5Xg9p2

    “Re those illustrated character writeups: When will some of those be available for public viewing?”

    Who knows if my writeups will ever be released. Most of them are mere fragments, wishful thinking that I can’t back up with sufficient knowledge of the source material.

    007, Big Trouble in Little China, Conan, DC comics, Doctor Who, Dune, Gargoyles, G.I. Joe, InuYasha, Mario, Marvel comics, Masters of the Universe, Mortal Kombat, Popeye, real life, Star Wars, Street Fighter, ThunderCats, TMNT, Transformers, and Wheeled Warriors, just to name a few. Then there are the numerous one-offs, like updating the 3E version of Long John Silver, or negotiating the revision of Hannes665’s posts on Jim Rockford and Thomas Magnum.

    The ones that require watching a TV series (Doctor Who, Rockford) or reading books (Conan, Silver) are straight-forward but time-consuming. Even then, should I consume all that media — decades of TV in some cases — or limit it to the first few appearances of a given character?

    (When possible, I’ve piggybacked on the work of others, at least as far as attribute choices. “Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space” was a breeze once I understood the progression of trait levels. “Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game” along with SFRPG.com’s expansion has also been instrumental. Transformers is based on the toys’ filecards. G.I. Joe is based on the MSH adaptation at Technohol.com. All of the numbers worked wonderfully in the context of Basic Set’s “How to Select Basic Attributes”, plus the article “Knowing Your Own Strength” from Pyramid #3/83.)

    Obviously my desires outstrip my ability. Moreover, I don’t have confidence in my own knowledge of the source material, so I tend to solicit opinions on every little thing — just like I did with Conan. Frankly, it would work a lot better as a cabal of enthusiasts agreeing to examine one franchise at a time, then taking and comparing notes.

    And then I wonder, what’s the point to any of it?

    (I’m getting rather off-topic from your DF thread, so maybe you should move this to a fresh one.)

  • uE5Xg9p2

    The fact that I probably can’t handle all those franchises by myself really shows the benefit of the method I’ve used when writing up Conan: cite each and every little thing. As long as citations are there to the explain the decisions and allow for better examples to be submitted, it really doesn’t matter who does the writeups — scientifically, they should come out identical.

    To that end, though, I would still like to be the one who brings them all together in the form of an illustrated PDF.

    • tbone

      I didn’t know you were working on so many character adaptations (all for GURPS, I gather) outside of Conan. That’s a dizzying number. A full-blown wiki might be good for collaborating with people on so many characters (though I can’t say I’ve ever managed a large wiki, so I may not know what I’m talking about).

      Side thought: With a loose community of people centered on some topic, like GURPS here, it’s always interesting to see the niches that captivate individuals. You’ve got an interest in detailed, source-based write-ups of fictional characters. Some people seem intent on statting up every gun that ever existed. Others are all about reworking settings from other games. Me, I largely do odd rules hacking involving characters’ physical performance.

      I don’t know where these mini-obsessions come from, but to me it’s such an interesting part of the communities.

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