In my last review, I looked at Dungeonslayers 3.5, an Old School hack-and-slash fantasy RPG; but I’ve recently noticed that last year, version 4 was released under a Creative Commons Licence. It’s a lot bigger (172 vs 20 pages), so what’s under the bonnet?
IF YOU HAVEN’T PLAYED DUNGEONSLAYERS BEFORE…
It’s a class-and-level system with point-buy character generation (three attributes, six abilities), three races (elf, dwarf, human), and three character classes (fighter, scout, spellcaster).
The core mechanic is "roll target number or less on 1d20 to succeed", with the target number generally being the sum of an attribute, an ability, and modifiers for equipment or circumstances.
Damage inflicted is basically the attacker’s roll to hit minus the defender’s roll to defend, but the roll must have been a success to count.
There are no spell slots or mana points, but spells have a cool down period before they can be cast again.
Got that? OK then…
Setting aside the covers, credits, introductions and what-not…
Roleplaying? (3 pages, new in version 4)
Your standard what is roleplaying section, with an extensive example of play as you would hear it and see it (i.e., not explaining the rules in detail as they are used).
Characters (16 pages, was 2 pages in version 3.5)
Dungeonslayers is, as stated above, a point-buy system with 3 attributes, 6 abilities (two of which are controlled by each attribute), 3 races and 3 classes. The number of points you spend on each attribute determines how many points you can use on its abilities (20 in version 4, rather than the 18 of version 3.5), while race and class give you a +1 each on a relevant ability. There are then 8 combat values, each of which is the sum of an attribute, an ability, and maybe a modifier for gear; in combat, you will try to roll the relevant combat value or less on 1d20 to do stuff.
Humans also start with a free talent, while other races get night vision; in addition, elves are fleet-footed and dwarves are tough. Spellcasters choose one spell. Everyone gets a couple of languages (which were glossed over in 3.5). Everyone buys equipment, then we’re off.
This chapter also covers character advancement, which is by accumulating experience points to level up. Advancement has changed a little from version 3.5, although that seems to be mostly an attempt at clarification; basically, when you level up, you get Progress Points, which you can use to improve abilities, learn talents or spells, or buy more hit points.
The main change, though, is the addition of Hero Classes, much like D&D 3rd edition’s prestige classes. Each character may switch into a hero class once in his career, at level 10, and thus gain access to new talents and spells. If you were looking at Dungeonslayers from a D&D player’s perspective, you might well be thinking "Where’s my paladin? What happened to assassins?" and so forth; this is where they are.
Talents (19 pages, was 2 pages)
Humans start with a free talent, while elves and dwarves effectively have those preselected for them, and everyone can learn more as they level up. The 30-odd talents of the previous edition have swelled to roughly 130, many of which have multiple ranks, and between them allow a lot of customisation of your character. Talents typically work by giving a +2 bonus per rank to a particular roll, or by allowing you to use your attribute points to boost things (say, the combat values of summoned creatures).
Rules (10 pages, was 2 pages)
I’ve already explained the basic mechanic; add an attribute, an ability and a modifier together, and try to roll that or less on 1d20. Here, that’s expanded into a full rules system with a list of sample tasks. The chapter covers critical hits ("coups"), fumbles, opposed rolls, combat,
New wrinkles here are the table limiting which class can wear what armour types, like early versions of D&D; combat options beyond simply hacking at someone; and optional rules for slayer dice and slayer points, which are somewhat like the exploding dice and bennies of Savage Worlds.
The key thing that makes the rules stand out to me is how damage is inflicted; if you hit, the damage you deal is what you rolled. High abilities, high attributes, talents and gear all work to increase your target number, so not only do you hit more often but you are likely to do more damage as well. Conversely, the defender rolls to defend or dodge, and if he succeeds, he reduces the incoming damage by his score. I suspect this means combat between evenly matched adversaries could go on for some time (my usual gripe with both sides rolling), but a fighter with a significant advantage will trash his opponents in short order.
Spells (30 pages, was 1 page)
The 50 spells of the previous version have expanded to 130 or so, giving a wider range of options. Casting a spell is treated like any other check, but a caster can have only one spell active at a time; he can cast this as often as the cooldown period will allow, but must make another roll to change his active spell and thus cast something different.
The spells will be familiar to anyone who has played other RPGs; ones for damage, healing, protection, and so on. You learn new ones by finding them, then levelling up.
Note that the local equivalent of Detect Magic is an innate talent of spellcasters, requiring only a skill check and no particular spells.
Equipment (3 pages, was 1 page)
Armour, weapons, mundane items, food, travel, structures. Much the same as before, but with a few new items – I rather fancy the dwarven War Hog, a trusty battle steed which will only allow dwarves to use it. Other than that, if your character wanted (say) a camel or a bear trap, he can now buy one.
Game Mastering (47 pages, was 3 pages)
This much-expanded section provides more information on dungeons, hazards (e.g. fire or acid), long-distance travel, languages, crafting items, awarding experience points, a welcome expansion on how standard checks work, treasure (including quite a few more magic items), and loads more monsters (over 70 as compared to about 20 before).
Adventures (16 pages, was 1 page)
This is a get-you-started series of three linked adventures. Lord of the Rats (from the earlier edition) is here, along with two sequels, Treacherous Travels and Fortress of Doom. These are larger than the version 3.5 one-side Dungeon2Go adventures at about 4-5 pages each, but essentially each is a small dungeon or wilderness trek that should take about one session to play.
Caera (6 pages, new in this version)
This is a classic high fantasy setting for the example adventures and more. It consciously ignores real-world constraints so that all possible adventure locales are within a few days’ travel of each other. There are a couple of paragraphs of setting rules, which modify the basic rules so that (for example) dwarves can’t be wizards, a pantheon of gods each with a one-liner explaining what they do, a couple of overland maps and a brief gazetteer of places to see.
Addenda (13 pages, new in this version)
Miscellaneous bits and pieces. Treasure tables for what you might find on that humanoid you just killed, depending on what it is and where you found it – just over 5 pages of these; suggestions on using miniature figures and battlemats, although I believe Dungeonslayers could be played easily without them, just as Original D&D often was; race creation rules for adding your favourite playable race to the game; firearms, if you got your Warhammer in my High Fantasy again; index and character sheet.
172 page PDF, free to download, written by Christian Kennig with help from a large and enthusiastic fan base. Professional or semi-professional quality artwork. Simple, printer-friendly layout.
SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT
As there are now many choices of talent and spell, and it isn’t immediately clear how best to allocate attribute and ability points, I’d suggest some character archetypes be added to the Characters chapter, ideally with pre-filled character sheets so people can just print and play.
I was concerned that something nearly 20 times the original page count would have buried the elegant simplicity of the work under a pile of special cases and unnecessary detail. I don’t think it does, although it’s definitely easier to understand for having read version 3.5 first (still available from the Dungeonslayers website).
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5. I’m actually quite tempted by this. It may make it as far as a guest game appearance at some point, though probably not this year.