One thing the OGL and Old School Renaissance seem to have spawned between them is a range of D&D-like dungeon crawling games; Dungeon Slayers is one such.
Written by Christian Kenning, the core rules are a 20-page PDF, free to download here. You can also find half-a-dozen supplements of a few pages each, and a number of "Dungeons to Go", each of which is a small adventure on one side of a single page.
For today, I’ll focus on the core rules – note that I have version 3.5, but when I checked the link, I see there is a version 4 now; I’ll look at that in my next review post, it’s much bigger at 172 pages. The author states his aims clearly:
"Dungeonslayers is not about having elaborate, realistic rule mechanics nor about playing out pseudo-intellectual dramas filled with egomaniac monologues. Instead it’s about straightforward plots in your traditional fantasy world, where evil is still evil, where monsters are killed mercilessly, where devious traps strike and where fantastic loot awaits, while pencil and graph paper work their own special magic around the gaming table."
The first 5 pages of the PDF are a colour cover (nice), inside cover, introduction, dedication and so on. It’s page 6 before we get to characters; three attributes (Body, Agility, Mind); six abilities (Strength, Toughness, Reflexes, Dexterity, Reason, Aura), each of which is linked to one of the attributes; six combat values, each of which is found by adding together an attribute and an ability, then modified by equipment. Armour, for example, adds to your Defence but is deducted from your Spellcasting.
To create a character, you pick a race (elf, dwarf, human) and a class (fighter, scout, spellcaster – there are three different types of those); divide 18 points between the three attributes; and then split the points in the governing attribute between its two related abilities. Your race and class each provide +1 to one ability; humans also get a Talent (think of this as a skill or feat or advantage), while elves or dwarves have racial abilities. If you’re a spellcaster, you now choose your initial spell – you only get one to start with. Regardless, you calculate combat values, buy equipment, and you’re good to go.
Levelling up is by gaining experience points; you start at level 1 and work your way up to level 20. Each time you level up, you gain learning points, which can be used to improve abilities, and talent points, which are used to improve existing talents or buy new ones – there are about 30 in the rules, each with multiple "skill levels". Learning new spells doesn’t cost points, but you must have found a copy of the spell – in an old, mouldy book in a dungeon, perhaps – and you must level up to learn it.
By now, you’re up to page 10, where the rules of play start; they’re simple, and take up only two pages. The core mechanic is this; when a character tries to do something, the GM will tell him which attribute and ability are relevant, and how difficult the task is. The player adds these three numbers together and tries to roll the total or less on 1d20. A list of standard checks is provided.
Combat turns follow the traditional model; in a turn, each figure may move and take an action, for example an attack. How attacks are handled is a bit unusual, though; a successful attack applies the result as damage to the target’s hit points, but the damage applied is reduced by the result of a successful Defence or Dodge roll; thus, for example, if I have 9 damage incoming and roll a 4 on my Dodge, I only take 5 damage. The benefits of high skill are that you succeed more often, and when you do succeed, the damage is potentially higher (if attacking) or reduced by more (if defending). That has an appealing elegance, but it still requires attacker and defender both to roll, which I don’t like as a general rule – I feel it complicates things and slows them down.
Casting a spell is much like making an attack, but each spell has a cooldown time – the number of turns you must wait before you can cast it again. That’s an intriguing approach to limiting casting, somewhat like the "may cast 3 times per day" of EPT, or perhaps Encounter and Daily powers in D&D 4th Edition. However, you can only have one spell active at a time; you must make an attribute/ability test to change it. So, you can cast spell A as often as its cooldown will allow, but before you can cast spell B you must make a successful roll to change your active spell. A spellcaster could be doing quite a bit of rolling, I think, as he switches spells in and out of active while waiting for them to cool down.
There are about 50 spells, all listed with statistics and effects on a single page (p. 12). Each of them appears to have a price in gold pieces, but I didn’t understand why. Cost to learn it? Cost to have an NPC cast it? What you can sell the scroll for? Whichever of those the GM wants? Maybe I just missed it as it was getting late.
Page 13 is the equipment list; armour, weapons, transport, mundane items, healing (magical and otherwise), structures.
Pages 14-16 are about how to GM Dungeonslayers; awarding experience, hazards, treasure, bestiary (22 monsters). As you’d expect in a product as small as this, these are more guidelines than detailed rules.
The game concludes with a one-page dungeon, Lord of the Rats, and a character sheet.
The phrase "beer and pretzels" comes to mind. This is a plain and simple game, with a clear and straightforward mandate: Kick in the door, kill whatever’s behind it, and take its stuff.
It’s well-supported in terms of free adventures and supplements. It has some intriguing rules mechanics, and I was tempted to try it out for a while; that gets the rating up to a 4. But, I don’t think it’s for me. Good effort, though, and you can’t beat the price.
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.