The Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game is here! This series of reviews will cover the Dungeon Fantasy game materials created by Steve Jackson Games in their recent Kickstarter campaign.
In case you hadn’t heard of this Kickstarter, the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game (DFRPG) is a standalone GURPS product designed to bring new players into GURPS through the hack-and-slash fantasy genre. DFRPG is fully compatible with other GURPS resources, from the Basic Set on. It is based on the Dungeon Fantasy line of PDFs for GURPS, which is a worked example of how to use GURPS for the adventuring genre. Unlike the previous Dungeon Fantasy materials, the DFRPG is designed so it can be played without the GURPS core books: it is a fully self-contained game.
In order to make the game more appealing to new players, DFRPG does most of the heavy lifting to bring the game to the table. The rules presentation is streamlined, there are fully developed templates to speed up character creation, and there is even an included adventure to get started. DFRPG sits somewhere between a starter set and a core RPG rulebook: it has more material than a starter set, so GMs can run a full campaign based on the material here, but it strips away many options that are presented in the full GURPS Basic Set to focus on what makes dungeon-based adventuring exciting.
The Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game includes five books. This review looks at the Adventurers volume, which is written by Sean Punch, the GURPS line editor. At this point, the physical versions haven’t been shipped, so I’m reviewing the PDF version. This volume is 130 pages.
Just by looking at the cover, the reader knows that this is not just another GURPS product. The art is a full-color, full-cover spread that immediately evokes a mood of danger. The cover art also depicts a diverse cast of dungeoneers, which is a welcome addition to the visual world.
The back cover has also been changed. Instead of a standard blurb about the book, the back cover has been filled with charts and tables for players to reference during the game. The idea of using the back covers as reference aids is new to DFRPG, and it immediately makes the game feel more accessible. The back cover of Adventurers includes a list of skills by attribute, rules for success rolls, and a table of task difficulty modifiers. The tables are well-chosen: players will often want to refer to these lists during character creation and play.
After the table of contents, DFRPG begins with a four page introduction to roleplaying in general and the dungeon fantasy genre in particular. These pages feature a glossary of many RPG terms, an explanation of how dice work in GURPS, and most importantly: a clear statement about what dungeon fantasy is.
The framing of this genre is simple: go exploring dungeons for treasure. This is not setting up adventurers who seek glory, to right wrongs in the world, or are summoned by desperate need. The focus is on finding loot, killing the bad things that stand in the way, and making it back to safety.
The chosen framing is a mixed blessing. On the positive side, there is a strong vision of what dungeon fantasy looks like, and that vision makes it possible to create good character templates, straightforward presentations of the relevant rules, and a coherent subset of GURPS’ possibilities. On the other hand, this is a narrower focus than many other games in this genre. There’s little room in this vision for political intrigue, adventuring to save the world, or non-loot based activities. GURPS definitely supports those kinds of games, and the DFRPG ruleset is fully compatible with the rules from Basic Set that enable those campaigns, but there is only minimal support for those options within the DFRPG itself.
There’s a tradeoff between making the game easily accessible and supporting a variety of campaign styles. DFRPG unapologetically errs on the side of accessibility. It’s a defensible choice, but it will be interesting to see if the market agrees with the balance that the GURPS staff chose.
Chapter 1 is a six page introduction to GURPS characters. In short, GURPS is a point-buy system, and dungeon fantasy characters are built on a 250 point budget. This chapter covers the most essential elements of characters: the four basic attributes and the secondary characteristics.
This section is concise; in particular, the presentation of secondary characteristics is more straightforward than in Basic Set. It is clear that the rules have been rewritten with a focus on how these traits function within the dungeon fantasy context. Traits like character age, status, and languages are either dramatically simplified, eliminated, or simply treated as 0-point features. As a result, this chapter is a dramatic improvement in accessibility compared to the equivalent section of Basic Set.
The first chapter introduced the basics of GURPS characters; chapter two covers the heavy lifting for character creation. In 30 pages, this chapter presents full templates for 11 common dungeon adventurers.
It’s clear that templates are the preferred way to create characters in DFRPG; there’s a short section explaining that players can build characters on their own, but the templates are intended to eliminate the difficulties new players and GMs face in getting games started.
There are a lot of improvements in the template format compared to previous GURPS products. The templates are written in two columns, use white space effectively to group elements, begin traits on a new line to improve readability, and eliminate the cumbersome notation for built advantage packages and skills from Basic Set. Each template also has useful customization notes and explanations of profession-specific elements, making it easier for new players to grasp what the template does. The biggest drawback to the new template format is that relative skill levels aren’t listed, so it’s harder for new players to realize what needs to change if they choose an advantage or disadvantage option that modifies an attribute.
The 11 included professions span a range of typical adventuring heroes: barbarians, clerics, druids, knights, thieves, wizards, and more. There aren’t any of the obscurer professions like tinkerers or alchemists, and the range of magic-users is somewhat limited, but the choices for what classes to include seem right.
This chapter is one of the best sections not only of this book but of the GURPS line in general. Yet, there were some missed opportunities to create atmosphere and help players connect with the characters. There is very little art in this chapter: only one half-page illustration and two quarter-page images. There are some pull quotes in the voices of fictional adventurers that compensate somewhat, but compared to other big name RPG products this chapter is text-heavy and light on inspiring visuals.
The third chapter is a brief (four page) discussion of character races. In GURPS, a race is a template package that is purchased as a single block, and is paid for in lieu of some of the advantages on a professional template.
This chapter has eight racial templates. Most are humanoid; the most exotic is the cat-folk. The templates themselves are clearly presented, and the text is much improved over the Basic Set (and even the previous Dungeon Fantasy publications) in how to mix a racial template with a professional template.
Like chapter 2, there’s nothing wrong with the choices here, but they may feel thin to some players. Some more exotic racial templates would be welcome, as would more art to evoke the world in which these races live (there is only one quarter-page image in this chapter).
Advantages and Disadvantages
Compared to the Basic Set, the mere nine pages on advantages and 14 pages of disadvantages in DFRPG is dramatically streamlined. Most of the complicated options for changing these traits have been eliminated, and the focus on genre-specific elements comes through clearly.
There’s not much to say about the traits themselves. The GURPS fan can work backwards to determine how the advantages were built from the Basic Set if they want, but there’s no need. Because DFRPG does the work for the players, the list here is a set of ready-to-play options instead of an instruction manual for how to build a particular effect. This is another chapter where the new-to-GURPS experience has been improved.
Likewise, the disadvantages are chosen strategically to fit the genre, and the presentation is improved. Because some disadvantages have self-control rolls, there’s a little more work to explain the disadvantage rules. But, the chapter remains accessible and beginner-friendly.
The meat of GURPS gameplay is the skill system, so the chapter on skills is important. This chapter is another improvement over GURPS Basic Set. First, the list of skills is much more accessible because it’s shorter and more focused on the genre needs. In addition, the explanation of skill details such as defaults, how to calculate skill levels with advantages, and the advice for how to use skills in game is explained better than in Basic Set.
Because DFRPG is fully compatible with GURPS, the skill system retains the skill difficulty rules. These rules can be a stumbling block for new players, but the choice to preserve backwards compatibility makes sense.
There are a couple of places in which the skill list presentation is modified from previous volumes. In particular, the melee weapon skills are all grouped together. There’s a little inconsistency here because ranged skills are still listed separately and thrown weapon skills are handled with required specializations, but the idea of grouping the skills has been used in other GURPS publications (such as the Discworld Roleplaying Game) and it’s a move in the right direction.
Cash and Gear
The final chapter, on money and equipment, uses 23 pages to discuss everything from currency to magical items. There are some notable successes in this chapter. The advice for choosing weapons is a welcome addition for new players. There is some worldbuilding flavor in the modifiers for equipment (e.g., magic-immune tools are meteoric, and non-breakable weapons are made for orichalcum).
The tables of equipment are virtually identical to what is presented in the Basic Set. There’s plenty of options to keep players happy, and there are enough options on how to add enhancements for GMs to have loot to dangle in front of the PCs.
The section on magic items is short, and the focus is on functional items (like a +2 weapon) rather than creative artifacts. Fortunately, there is a supplement on magic items that was also funded in the Kickstarter, but this book would have benefited from a larger section here.
Because the magic items are function-driven, there’s not a lot of need for art to create character in this chapter. On the other hand, it’s another place where other RPGs use more art to evoke a specific mood or visualize unusual weapons. The lack of art in this chapter is another missed opportunity to create atmosphere and engagement.
The volume ends with ten pages of back matter. There’s an appendix with two sample characters, fully built out with character portraits and design notes. The design notes are a great addition, and the headshots help the characters feel alive.
The index is broken into several parts: a main index and then separate sub-indices for advantages, disadvantages, and skills. This list doesn’t quite fill the same niche as the trait list in Basic Set or the cheat sheet of dungeon delver traits in Dungeon Fantasy 1 – Adventurers (the original dungeon fantasy line PDF)—the trait lists are better for getting a big picture of what is available to dungeon fantasy characters—but it’s functional.
After a one-page ad for OGRE (another SJ Games product), the PDF ends with a blank four page character sheet. The sheet has minor organizational improvements compared to the Basic Set character sheet, but there is no fillable PDF form and four pages is a lengthy character sheet.
Because Adventurers is only one part of the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game package, I’m going to review the package as a whole instead of giving a score to each part. Overall, this book does an excellent job at introducing GURPS characters, simplifying character creation, and making it easy for players to jump into a dungeon fantasy game. The biggest drawback is the lack of art to bring the world to life.
For new players, this book is a huge improvement on the character creation experience from the Basic Set. Adventurers should be the model for future worked genre or setting-specific versions of GURPS.