DFRPG Review: Exploits

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Dungeon Fantasy RPG Review

This post dives into the second book included with the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game (DFRPG), produced by Steve Jackson Games through a Kickstarter campaign. If you missed the review of Adventurers, the first volume, you can find a link in the sidebar.

As a brief reminder: DFRPG is a standalone GURPS product for roleplaying hack-and-slash dungeon delving. It is fully compatible with other GURPS publications but does not require anything beyond the boxed set. The goal of this product is to give new-to-GURPS players an accessible starting point for one of the most popular genres of tabletop roleplaying games.

The focus of Adventurers was player characters, and especially character creation. Exploits covers what those characters do and how to run the game they are in. It is also written by Sean Punch.

The Covers & Front Matter

Cover of Exploits book
Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game: Exploits

Like with the Adventurers volume, the front cover of Exploits features a beautiful, thematic image of the kinds of scenes players can expect to confront while dungeon delving. The back cover has likewise been converted into a reference page with an assortment of GM rules: light and vision penalties, wounding modifiers, falling damage, and throwing distance/damage.

Using the back cover as a reference is a good idea, but the selected rules definitely suggest a crunchy version of the game. In particular, the wounding modifiers take up half the page because they are broken down by type of damage, hit location, and living/unliving/homogenous status. Whether that’s too much detail for gaming groups or a helpful reference for a frequently used mechanic will depend on how quickly the GM can become comfortable with the rules options chosen for Dungeon Fantasy.

The introduction for this volume is a single page that summarizes what is in the book. Exploits is explicitly not pitched as a gamemaster guide: it is intended for use by both GMs and players so they each can discover what they can do during the game.

Rolling the Dice

The first chapter uses only eight pages to explain everything dice-related except for damage rolls. There are a lot of improvements in this chapter compared to the Basic Set.

The chapter opens with success rolls. Generic task difficulty modifiers are featured more prominently than in Basic Set, although there isn’t explicit permission for GMs to use task difficulty modifiers to ballpark whenever they don’t want to reach for the full rules. Team-based skill use is highlighted in a prominent sidebar.

One of the bigger changes from the Basic Set is how fright checks are handled. Failed fright checks used to require rolling on a lengthy table to determine the consequence. Now, the GM instead gets to pick a disadvantage for the PC, with the point cost of the disadvantage determined by how badly he or she failed the fright check. This approach greatly simplifies fright checks.

Influence skills are also simplified, although the result is mixed. Sex appeal no longer has better or worse results than other influence skills, which is a nice decision to eliminate a rules exception. But, there is no discussion about how influence skills are about the approach taken rather than the content, which may make influence skills seem more limited. There’s also a weird organizational choice here: the rules on fright checks are sandwiched between influence skills and reaction rolls, and the reaction roll section still has a paragraph on influence skills that feels repetitive. It seems like the influence skill rules should have just been put inside the reaction roll section.

With the exception of that odd organization detail, this chapter reads well. The explanations are concise and omit details that aren’t relevant to the hack-and-slash genre.

Dungeon Delving

The second chapter, which is 13 pages long, sets up the basic dynamic of a dungeon adventure: beginning in town, traveling to the dungeon, exploring and surviving, returning, and recovering for the next round.

This chapter is rich in ideas for what PCs can do during the game, and both players and the GM should read it for inspiration. The suggestions also showcase how GURPS’ lengthier skill lists can be used to make the game interesting. The one negative to this approach is that there aren’t explicit statements that the players or GM shouldn’t be limited by these suggestions, and newer participants may feel like the ideas are prescriptive rather than suggestions.

The rules for physical feats seem more relevant than in Basic Set; the volume does a good job of using the dungeon dive context to motivate the feats discussed. However, the level of detail is inconsistent. For instance, the Basic Set rules for how quickly PCs can climb have been eliminated, but there is still a table to look up how far an object can be thrown based on its weight and the PC strength. There are some oddly specific feats discussed in detail, such as how two PCs can lift each other up a ledge or how to jump and kick off one obstacle to get to a higher one. This section may have benefited from a change of voice—by working through how to estimate a task difficulty modifier using these feats as examples, a new GM would be more able to choose relevant penalties during a game for all kinds of unusual situations.

While the ideas in this chapter are thought-provoking, there is very little flavor beyond the text. There is only one half-page image and a couple of pull quotes to build atmosphere. Compared to other major RPGs, the text-heavy approach feels unpolished.

Fighting

At 33 pages, the combat chapter is more than twice as long as any of the other chapters in this book. It’s clear that combat is expected to be a major part of dungeon fantasy games, and there is a lot of crunch packed into this chapter.

In some ways, dungeon fantasy combat is required to be crunchier than the standard combat system in the Basic Set. Movement points are used instead throughout the chapter, hex maps are assumed, and there’s no discussion of turning off options like knockback, hit locations, or damage to objects. There’s a lot to absorb here, and new-to-GURPS players will probably need to read through a couple of times to get it all.

There are some nice touches in this chapter. There is a short discussion of how the GM can set the scene for the combat. The evaluate maneuver has been eliminated as underpowered. The last two pages are dedicated to ideas for using noncombat skills in battle, such as giving an inspiring speech to your allies or taunting animals to take their attention off weaker party members.

This chapter straddles the line between providing a combat system that is rich enough to keep dungeon fantasy interesting and describing a combat system that is simple enough for players to jump in. It doesn’t strike a bad balance, but it could have been improved by using examples for some of the more complicated rules or flagging some rules as optional or advanced variants.

Bad Things

The fourth chapter covers all the rules for injury, fatigue loss, and other afflictions and ailments. The presentation is well-written and there is nothing here than is foreign to the Basic Set.

Like the combat chapter, many of the rules that are optional in the Basic Set are assumed to be on for Dungeon Fantasy. For instance, major wounds and crippling injuries are required rules for injury, and the starvation rules for fatigue loss are also mandatory. It’s clear that this decision was guided by the genre considerations, but it does impose an additional burden on new GMs.

The biggest complaint about this chapter is that the Other Pain and Suffering section is weirdly organized. Traps are included in a list with other damage sources like acid, flame, and poison instead of being their own section of things that can cause various types of injury, and the rules for detecting and disarming traps feel out of place in this listing. The afflictions category is also a catchall for a wide variety of conditions. While that’s consistent with how afflictions function in GURPS, it’s not obvious to a new player what that list contains or where within the affliction subcategories they should look to find a specific kind of suffering.

Treasure

The entire point of dungeon exploration in the Dungeon Fantasy game is loot, so chapter 5 is dedicated to treasure. This is a short and functional chapter; it’s only eight pages long and the focus is on the basics of what can be in a dungeon. There are the standard coins, precious metals and jewels, but also unique items like art, maps, and spellbooks.

Towards the start of the chapter, there is some helpful GM advice to err on the side of more treasure rather than less, with some suggestions on how to handle when the players accidentally get too much.

This chapter also includes magic items, but the treatment is fairly abbreviated. There are no examples except for magic items with a specific mechanical function, like an enhanced shield that gives a +1 bonus. The most exotic item is the loyal weapon, which flies back to the owner if it is dropped or thrown.

While this chapter is functional, there’s not a lot of depth to inspire GMs. It’s a good thing that one of the supplement books produced during the Kickstarter focused on magic items.

Game Mastering

The final chapter is a 15-page smorgasbord of topics for GMs to consider as they plan and run the game. The topic selection is good, especially for new GMs, but beginners may need more depth than this chapter provides. There are also some organizational challenges in this chapter; it reads as a list of thoughts rather than a logical sequence.

The chapter begins with a brief description of the GM’s duties. This section helpfully clarifies that, although the GM is running the opposition to the players, the GM’s role is to provide challenges rather than be an adversary, and that the goal is for everyone to have fun.

The next section of the chapter covers dungeon design and preparation. This section has some good worldbuilding questions to guide the GM’s thinking. There are very detailed statistics for game world stuff (e.g., the DR for various door materials); the depth of mechanics feels out of place in this chapter, but the information can certainly be useful during a campaign.

The risk of the way information is presented is that it creates the impression that gamemastering must be a prep-heavy activity. New GMs won’t find much advice for how to estimate or make decisions on-the-fly. The implication is that gamemasters have to know all the answers to what their dungeon looks like and how it functions in order for the players to have fun.

This section also contains a page or so of advice for balancing encounters. Some of the advice is concrete and actionable, e.g., make sure at least one enemy can hurt your best protected PC, but can’t outright kill the weakest one. Other advice tells what to consider but doesn’t follow through with what to do about it. For instance, the text suggests incorporating monsters that have a high Dodge ability, but doesn’t tell what changes to make in order to compensate (such as having those creatures deal less damage). This section is a step in the right direction for GURPS, but there’s still room for improvement in the thoroughness of the advice.

There is a helpful sidebar for extending the game beyond the dungeon into the wilderness or parallel planes. As I noted in the Adventurers review, Dungeon Fantasy is explicitly positioning itself as a “quest for loot” game, which is a narrower focus than other fantasy RPGs on the market today, and this sidebar sticks to that focus. There are good reasons for the narrower scope, as well as reasonable objections; it will be interesting to see how the market reacts to that choice.

The second section of the chapter segues from preparing the dungeon to GM advice for running the game. There’s a variety of topics in this section, ranging from how to structure a session, adventure, and campaign to dealing with players.

There’s a couple of highlights in this section. For new GMs in particular, the advice about how to structure sessions and adventures is welcome. The suggestions for how to make each profession useful are good ideas to keep each PC relevant. Because GURPS games can result in PC death or dismemberment, there are a couple of pages of advice for keeping the PCs alive and adapting when things go wrong (although some of the suggestions could use more detail on how to implement them).

However, there is a particularly heavy-handed way for dealing with table talk: impose the “if you say it, your character says it” rule. This approach can be used successfully, but it can also be antagonistic—especially if the GM isn’t reflecting on why the players are engaged in table talk.

The final section of the chapter discusses character advancement. It’s a very mechanical process of counting worthy monsters, found bonus areas, and the like; it would have been nice to see a bigger-picture framework for character advancement before getting the laundry list of calculations. There’s a list of rules for what players can spend character points on; one of the nice touches is a list of how each profession can exceed the general limit on trait levels in specific areas.

Back Matter

The back matter begins with eight pages of reference tables: attack and defense modifiers, maneuvers and postures, critical hit and miss effects, etc. The format is similar to the Basic Set. For some reason, the explanation of the size and speed/range table is separated by a page break from the table itself.

There’s a two page example of play. This imagined dialogue among the GM and players is a great addition. It illustrates lots of the game mechanics and concretely demonstrates what a GURPS session sounds like. Any future book that has beginners in its intended audience should have a segment like this (and ideally towards the front of the book!).

The example of play is followed by an index, a one page ad, and four pages of GM sheets for recording character and adventure info.

Overall Thoughts

Exploits is a solid volume. It covers the mechanics of the game well and gives enough advice for gamemasters to start running sessions. There’s a clear awareness of the issues that new players and GMs struggle with and a conscious effort to address those concerns. The execution on those efforts is not perfect, but it’s moving in the right direction.

It’s not a great volume, though: it still implies that GURPS is a rules-heavy game that is prescriptive and requires lots of session prep. Tighter organization, more high-level summaries before diving into rules minutiae, and better indications of what is optional would make this a stronger book. It’s a definite improvement over the Basic Set, but it’s not outstanding work like Adventurers.

Exploits also feels at times like a perfunctory, mechanical work. The lack of thematically rich items or other sources of flavor is apparent. The sparse artwork and text-heavy layout contributes to this feeling. Exploring for gold may be a rational economic choice for adventurers, but this book doesn’t showcase the excitement, mystery, and wonder that such explorations can provide.

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