Friday, September 12, 2008

Donjon: elegant and simple dungeoneering

The only tabletop role-playing game I've really played in recent years has been Donjon, an indy game that I discovered via web recommendations and the Forge website. I bought it as a PDF file. (Here's a review of Donjon that I enjoyed.)

I like it because it's pretty simple and freeform, rules-light and elegant. It has a few concepts and it uses them consistently. You can make up pretty much any character you like with it, and rate them, and still not unbalance the game. You can call your characters abilities what you like...but your character gets the same number of dice as any other, so it'll still be fair.

But the most interesting things about it are in the mechanics that allow the players some measure of the kind of control usually relegated to the gamemaster.

The gamemaster can't and shouldn't make a detailed map beforehand, because players can create landscape and building features during play. This power, normally reserved for the GM, is shared with the players when the players make successful die rolls; the players can use some of the successes they achieve to erase wounds, create objects, or assert reality.

For example, a player who is trying to open a door makes a really good roll and gets 3 successes. Each success can become 1 fact in the game. The player can decide to state things like this:

1. There is a troll behind the door.
2. The troll has her back to the player.
3. The troll's weapon is on the far side of the room.

So it's not just that players are allowed to do this's that their access to this power is metered out by the rules of the game. That's fascinating stuff.

One thing I noticed when playing this with my small kids, though, is that one of these more modern, simple, and elegant games -- one that expects you to make most of it up on the spot -- has problems for kids. Kids don't have the vast array of canned creatures, plots, etc. that a longtime genre fiction reader like myself has (or any adult who has watched years of TV). Yes, I know they're watching vast amounts of TV too. Maybe it's the fact that they didn't try to memorize the Monster Manual years ago.

I should probably quit whining and introduce my kids to some of the online resources available for Dungeons & Dragons, and use all of that. I have to admit that though I like the make-it-yourself aesthetic, it sometimes dissuades me from playing, thinking that I'll have to make everything up. You really have to be able to think on your feet.

As soon as I introduced the game to my son, I had to adjust. I'd been thinking of a game world where there were just two intelligent races -- goblins and elves -- to focus on conflicts between them. Nah, he wanted to play a Pixie, because he'd been reading Artemis Fowl. Heh. He's my son, and I let him do it. I could probably have browbeat an adult into letting me have my way as gamemaster. But that's not how Donjon is supposed to be played; you could introduce a new race in the middle of a fight, if you wanted.

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