Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Reviews - Tiny Dungeon and Dungeonpunk

Two low-cost games show the potential, and limits, of rules-lite and free-form RPGs.

Tiny Dungeons

Tiny Dungeon, by Brandon McFadden, Smoking Salamander Games, is a rules-lite, well-produced fantasy RPG that relies on an extremely simple dice mechanic. In fact, there are only three kinds of test, a standard test, a test with advantage, and a test with disadvantage, and consequently exactly three probabilities to roll for. Adventurer characters are also simple, having a race, a short list of Traits, a Weapon Proficiency, and a fixed number of Hit Points. Weapon Proficiencies and Traits confer advantage on tests, neither armor nor weapon type have any effect in combat (a hit is one Hit Point), and that's pretty much the game.

The Traits list is interesting and well-chosen, and would offer a variety of ways to make a character, although the race list is close to what you might expect of a generic fantasy. The low-key magic is interesting and essentially freeform. The Spell-Touched trait confers the ability to cast a variety of minor magics at the GM's discretion, while a Spell Reader can read spell scrolls to greater effect (though the scroll contents are also up to the GM).

Since there are only three probabilities, it's fair to ask why the system doesn't use the same dice roll with an "easy, standard, hard" target number, rather than adding or subtracting a die to generate advantage or disadvantage, but in such a simple system, this hardly seems difficult. One consequence of this system is that a standard test has a reasonable chance of success, which makes it harder for characters to hide effectively (since creatures have a fair chance of spotting them), and also more likely that combats will be decided not by skill but the higher Hit Points.

The PDF is well-designed, with engaging, somewhat cartoon-style artwork, and there's room in the short document for a scenario, as well as some GM advice. Given the scope of the rules, the system might not carry you through a long campaign, but there's certainly enough there for a few adventures, with few barriers to engagement or fun.


Dungeonpunk, by Eric C. Medders, is a free-form system that presents itself as fun and easy, but lacks coherence when it comes to figuring out how you actually play. The tone and approach are intriguing, but sometimes the details matter.

Dungeonpunk, much like Sword & Backpack, takes a freeform approach to the rules. Characters have a class and a brief description, and are backed by 5 all-purpose Destiny Points. The essence of the system is: roll high good, roll low bad, 1 fumbles and 20 crits. There's a lot to like in a system with no modifiers, ever, where the roll is considered "'outside' the game itself." But what is a "high roll" or a "low roll"? There are no guidelines, not even something like the rough chances, to help eyeball the probabilities. Furthermore, some rolls are against a Difficulty Class (DC), a target number, whereas in other situations you simply look at the number on the D20 and take it from there. So when do these apply? In combat, there's mention of an attack and defense roll, but then the result seems to be a matter of comparison: highest roll wins. In which case, why does the scenario at the end use a system by which the players score so many hits per points rolled on the D20?

Now, in line with the punk aesthetic, the Game Master section advises you to "Make the game up as you go", but although punk is brash and anarchic, it's also tight and fast, and this approach comes close to getting bogged down in a mix of GM say-so and uncertainty. On the one hand, it's liberating to be able to write instead of roll a character, but what we're looking for with freeform is a set of clean procedures and mechanics that can serve the moment and also provide a flexible frame for resolution, and Dungeonpunk isn't quite there yet.

Unlike Tiny Dungeon, the Dungeonpunk PDF is a simple text document with a handful of stock-art images, and its clarity further suffers from a lack of proof-reading and consistency (at one point, for example, the text mentions a "Plot Roll", which sounds fine, except the term is never explained). Nevertheless, if Dungeonpunk was tighter and clearer, it could potentially offer a lot more depth of play over time, because freeform provides space for elaboration and development from a simple set of rules.