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Dungeon Game

Written April 22, 2021, last changed May 3, 2021

You understand that the world was not always like this, all cracked apart and deadly. You know too that the collapsed ruins that the goblins build their homes upon were once mighty monuments to the rule of their long-dead sorcerer kings. You know that the gods once walked upon the land, and those that remain now have turned their back upon us, offering only more hardship. You know also that amidst this struggle there is beauty, passed down from one hand to another, through generations, conveyed by stories, by the land we tend to, by the things we make and the trades we master.

You are a wanderer, restless and free, leaving behind family and home for a land that bleeds from old wounds, where strange beasts prowl, where ghosts still mourn the passing of a forgotten time, and where goblins pick at the remains. You know that out here, it’s important to remember where you came from.

Dungeon Game is a forged-in-the-dark dungeon-crawling tabletop rpg about heritage, ecosystems, and our relationship to material things. It is still a work in progress as it is rather unreasonably large in scope.

The name is a placeholder until I think of something actually good.

Dungeon game has a lot of mechanics in the service of making the game feel tangible, weighty, and meaningful, but at no point is realism a goal except in how it achieves the above aims.

Dungeon game is my attempt to reconcile the things I like about D&D (navigating strange, beautiful, and dangerous places; deadly encounters; a slow sense of mastery; weird fantasy) with the many things that no longer sit right with me. The result is something at once familiar and strange.

Brainstorming document

The setting

Mechanics

Approaches

Approaches are the ways you can handle a situation. Approaches start at d4 and go up by die sizes as you grow more confident in them: d6, d8, d10, d12.

The approaches are:

Battle with an enemy in a head-to-head fight; assault or hold a position; wage war; outmaneuver, outplay, or outsmart an opponent.

Charm with smooth, quick, or clever talk; manipulate others to change their attitudes or behaviors; draw attention; cause distractions; give a performance; run with a bit.

Cobble together a tool or item; mend or patch broken equipment; tend to wounds; make use of herbs and medicines; tinker with machinery, disarm traps, and pick locks;

Connect emotionally with someone or something; express yourself creatively; recognize patterns; take part in ritual; imagine alternatives and impossibilities.

Hunt something down, track its movements; lean on your intuition; forage for resources; locate and exploit a weakness; ambush with precise violence.

Kindle hope, strength, or love in yourself and others; resist despair; inspire others; lead others in action; push on despite setbacks; ignore or recover from wounds or illness.

Pass unnoticed; act naturally or underhandedly; sense things before they happen; scout ahead for danger or opportunity; act quickly on instinct; read the mood of a situation.

Scramble into a new position; climb, swim, run, jump, and tumble; dodge out of the way; maintain or recover your balance; force your way through.

Study someone or something with close scrutiny to answer a question; learn or master a pattern or practice; commit something to memory; test your knowledge.

Attributes

Each approach belongs to one of the three attributes:

Battle, kindle, and scramble belong to Strength, which determines your fatigue: how much you can carry and how long you can push yourself before getting tired.

Charm, hunt, and pass belong to Poise, which determines your focus: how you well you can keep your wits together in a dangerous situation.

Connect, cobble, and study belong to Insight, which determines your skills: the special things you know how to do that most don’t.

Experiences

Each character has a list of experiences unique to them. They represent the things that give your life meaning, reflecting your culture, lifestyle, and path. As you play, if you have any of these experiences, you can check them off. At the end of each session, you’ll erase any checks and gain an experience point (EXP) for each erase this way. EXP can be used to grow and change.

Heritage and Background

Your heritage and background reflect your life before you became a wanderer.

Your heritage is traditions that your culture and family upholds, and the physical shape that your people take on. The forms your people take (whether that be humanlike or something stranger) should be understood as poetical and not as any concept of “race”.

Your background is the role you played in your community, perhaps a trade, caretaking, a ritual practice, or something else.

Your heritage and background each give you two experiences.

Vocation

Vocations are the crafts you master as a wanderer. You start with one vocation which you might continue to advance in, and you may learn other vocations from the people you meet, from the harsh experience of the road, or from sources stranger still.

Your starting vocation gives you three experiences and a special ability

Journey

What kind of wanderer you and your companions are.

Your journey gives you another three experiences.

Skills

A list of specific masteries you have acquired. You have a number of skills equal to your Insight, and can give you an advantage during some actions, or even make certain actions possible that wouldn’t be otherwise.

Fatigue and possessions

You have an amount of fatigue equal to half your Strength (round down) plus 10. This represents your capacity to withstand exhaustion. Each possession you carry permanently consumes 1 fatigue for as long as you hold it, weighing you down and making you get tired faster. Lighter items might be represented as a collection of things that in whole take up 1 fatigue or may be ignored. Heavier or bulkier items might be counted as multiple things or otherwise take up extra fatigue.

The amount of fatigue an item takes shouldn’t be taken too literally. A sword and a sack full of blueberries weigh different amounts, but they are both “a thing” as far as this game is concerned.

Value

Your equipment has value. The value isn’t something intrinsic to the thing, as different places and cultures place different values in things.

It’s easiest to describe the different levels of wealth by about how much labor such a thing entails:

However, the value of something is not always just the labor put into it: something particularly scarce or of high-quality might be more valuable, for example.

Broadly speaking, a bundle or collection of things of one value might become, taken as a whole, something of higher value.

Choosing an Action

Like from blades, yeah?

You can’t attempt the same action twice in a row, unless the circumstances have changed.

Rolling

Once you’ve decided on your action, you can roll for it using the appropriate die for that stat. On a 4 or higher, it’s a hit: that means you get accomplish what you set out to do. Otherwise, it’s a miss: the MC makes a move. Often this means setting up a consequence that you’ll have a chance to react to.

Reactions

Sometimes, instead of acting, you’re reacting: trying to prevent a threat from coming to pass. On a hit, you’ve prevented it and can immediately take an action of your own. On a miss, you’re at risk of what threatens you, but in this world you learn to recover from mistakes fast. You lose focus equal to the amount under the target you rolled, and as long as you don’t run out, you still prevent it, but only barely.

Focus

You start with an amount of focus equal to your Poise. If you don’t have the focus to spend on a missed reaction, your focus breaks, and the threat comes to pass.

If your focus is zero, you can’t act (but can still react) until you take a deep breath.

Turns

This game is played in turns. On your turn, you’ll usually either be acting against the MC’s reaction, or reacting to prevent their action.

Each turn, all the players will decide on their own actions, negotiating them with the GM, and rolling any dice if appropriate. Once everyone has done so, the GM will resolve the effects of those actions simultaneously, and then take their own turn.

Taking Deep Breaths

If you’re running low on focus, you can spend your turn taking a deep breath: mark 1 fatigue, and then replenish your focus back to its starting value.

Running out Fatigue

When you would mark fatigue, but don’t have any fatigue slots remaining, erase all of your marks not taken up by possessions. You will immediately suffer a minor setback (usually “tired”).

Setbacks

Setbacks are the injuries, diseases, bad moods, hexes, and other problems that bear down upon you along your journeys.

Minor setbacks reduce your base focus by 1, major by 2, and severe by 3.
If you run out of setback slots of one level, you gain a setback of the next worse level instead. If this would be worse than severe, you die.

I can be possible to treat a major or severe setback: on a success, it still takes up the same slot, but only reduces your focus by one and can usually be recovered by resting. A decisive treatment stays effective unless something aggravates it. An effective treatment stays effective for the whole day. A limited treatment stays effective until your next deep breath. Some setbacks (like hungry) cannot be treated in this way, and some setbacks may take extensive or difficult treatments.

Risk & Reward

The approach you choose for your actions and reactions can affect the result.

When you choose your approach for an action, the MC will tell you how effective it will be on a hit. An action can be futile, limited, effective, decisive, and critical.

When you choose your approach for a reaction, the MC might adjust the possible consequences, telling you if the reaction is desperate or assured. If you miss an assured action, your focus cannot drop below 1 (and thus can’t be broken). If you miss a desperate reaction, your focus will always be broken and reduced to 0 immediately.

Risk represents how terrible it would be for your focus to break during a reaction. A reaction can be desperate, risky, or safe.

Fear

The world is overwhelming and terrifying. As fear increases, so does the target for dice rolls, making actions harder and reactions more dangerous.

In low light, the fear level increases by 2, and in the dark it increases by 4. Some places and monsters can also increase the fear level. Watch out!

Character creation

Before making characters, you’ll need to decide what kind of journey you are going on.

Characters are made through a combination of random rolls and personal decisions, reflecting a life of opportunities and pitfalls. At any point in the process, players are welcome to trade the in-progress characters with each other.

Heritage

To start, roll on the heritage table to determine your heritage. You do not get to choose how you are born. Who raised you? Give them a name a describe a few things that stick out to you in. Your heritage has three favored approaches listed. Pick one that you took well to and improve that approach by one step. Record your heritage’s experiences on your sheet.

As you make your character, you will be presented with three rites of passage. The first is for your heritage. First, pick one of the three attributes: strength, poise, or insight. At some point in your life, you were faced with a test of this attribute, a challenge that marks you as a member in your community. How well you did in this challenge determines your starting value for that attribute as well as how well you fit in with your people and culture.

Drawing upon the examples given for your heritage or inventing your own, paint a picture of the crucial moment where you needed strength, poise, or insight as you passed from childhood to adulthood. Imagine what it would look like to fail this test or to overcome it. Then, roll a d4 to see what happened. Write down the result of your roll to use later.

A 4 means things went perfectly: you passed through the challenge exceptionally. You’re known as a model member of your heritage and are naturally adept in the chosen attribute.

A 3 means you barely succeeded: you did it, but only scraping through. What went wrong and how did you recover? You’re considered a typical member of your community and are reasonably capable in the chosen attribute.

A 2 means you almost succeeded. What went wrong and how did you almost, but not quite, overcome it? You’re considered mostly typical for your community, if a bit odd or misplaced, and have some trouble with the chosen attribute.

A 1 means you unequivocally failed. Describe the worst possible outcome. You’re tolerated confusing, strange, or dangerous among your people at best and an exile or pariah at worst, and have little capability in the chosen attribute.

Background

Next, roll three times on the background table for your heritage. These are the opportunities you had to make of your life; choose one that you decided to pursue. Who showed you the ropes and taught you what you needed to know? Give them a name and describe your memories of them, as well. Improve one of your background’s favored approaches and record its experiences.

Then you will do another rite of passage for you background, this time showing how well you fit into this role. Choose a different attribute from the previous rite, and describe and roll for it as before. Write down the result.

Vocation

Whether you fit in or not, at some point something restless grew inside you that caused you to be a wanderer. Roll three times on the vocation table, and pick the one that you took up when you decided to leave home. You taught you these skills? Name them and describe your memories of them. Improve one of your vocation’s favored approaches and record its experiences.

Now it is time for you final rite of passage, which will determine whether you’ve started off your new life on the right foot. This rite will be for the last attribute not yet determined. Describe and roll for it.

Approaches

You may now finish filling out your approaches. For each attribute, you may improve an approach under that attribute of your choice a number of times equal to the value you rolled for the appropriate rite of passage, going no higher than d8.

Add up the results of all three of your rites of passage. If the total is 3 or 4, you are cursed, and have lived a difficult life with little opportunities to grow. However, if nothing else you have learned how to live through one day at a time. Add this experience to your character sheet: “Survive another day”.

If the total is 11 or 12, you are blessed. You have drawn the attention and favor of one or more gods. The MC will tell you which, and what favors and obligations this places upon you.

Skills

Pick a number of skills equal to your insight, pulling from the supplied list or coming up with your own.

Possessions

To choose your starting possessions, write down as many everyday and common things as you wish to be carrying (keeping in mind your available fatigue and leaving some slots open for you to exert yourself), plus one fine possession for each 4 you rolled during your rites of passage. For those fine possessions, consider: who gave it to you? why? who made it? and when?

Sub-Systems

These mechanics are not required to play the game. You can introduce more sub-systems as the game progresses and the players gain more familiarity with how the game works.

Light

Candles produce light for one person, and dim light for another. Torches and lanterns are 2/2.

Phases of the Day and Activities

The daylight of a day is broken into 12 hours (maybe less in the winter or more in the summer).

You can abstract most actions as taking an hour and pace your day out accordingly. Choose one player to be the time-keeper.

Examples of actions that take an hour:

In many contexts it might make sense to play out your actions more granularly: conversations, battles, and exploring a dungeon are common examples. Don’t worry too much about tracking time during these activities except to occasionally say “I imagine an hour might have passed by now.”

Resting & Recovering

You need sleep every night to survive, and a good night of rest can also recover setbacks.

There are several quality levels of sleep:

By default, your sleep is restful. The following conditions (and others) will reduce the quality:

Broadly speaking, sleeping outside is something done only when there is no other option. It’s expected that you’ll seek shelter in towns or in small travellers’ cabins and huts along the road. A larger entourage might have a covered wagon and/or a large tent.

Eating

You’re expected to eat two meals a day (in the morning and the evening) but you can get by on just one. The first time you skip a meal in a day, you gain a minor setback (maybe “angry” or “distracted”). The second time, you gain a major setback (starting with “hungry”, becoming “starving” if your major setbacks are full). “Hungry” and “Starving” can only be recovered by eating.

Eating consumes 1 supply of food. Many ingredients need to be cooked to be safe to eat or to even be edible at all. Any meal will stave off hunger. A good meal can also improve the quality of your sleep or put you in a good mood for a day. A bad meal can make you sick.

Travelling

Traveling is done landmark-by-landmark. To move to the next landmark, you spend an amount of fatigue depending on the difficulty of the terrain.

MC Moves

Consequences

Equipment

Here is some equipment your character might start with:

Tools

these basic tools can be crafted of materials of various qualities

Everyday

Common

Fine