Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Dungeons & Delvers Black Book Review



Dungeons and Delvers Black Book from Awful Good Games was written by David Guyll and Melissa Fisher (who have been very open, pleasant, and quick to reply). I became aware of it a few weeks ago in a thread about "Your favorite retroclone" on RPG.Net. It was mentioned several times.

I went to Awful Games website and liked what I saw. So I contacted them and they were kind enough to give me a PDF review copy of the Black Book and it's supplement Appendix D, which I will review at a later date.

In going through the website I saw that Dungeons and Delvers Black Book, hencforth known as DDBB, started life as a DnD 4E project. An attempt to improve upon and build-up the best parts of 4E. While, I only played 4E for a bout a year, I'm very aware how much Wizards of the Coast's designers learnt from it and applied to make 5E a better game.

However, at it's heart, DDBB feels like an OSR product. It's power level is far closer to B/X DnD than to 3.X, 4E, or even 5E. While it doesn't specifically reference bounded accuracy, by 10th level a Fighter has an attack bonus of +3 and Wizard's spells are far less powerful than modern DnD systems.

One thing you will immediately notice about the project is the art. Many people comment that they find it reminiscent of the Dark Dungeons computer game, which I agree with and find to be a plus. The art is far better than you typically find in most projects from smaller publisher and it's presence and mood strengthens the project.

The PDF is a 141 pages and Print On Demand options are available.

The designers chose the Black Box name as an homage to TSR's DnD Black Box and I feel they have captured the wonder of that product.

The PDF opens with the core mechanic of d20 systems and an overview of how things work.

The Creating Your Character section offers a change from most retroclones, while ability scores are rolled, the number is ignored and only the modifier is used, so you will end up with Strengh +1 or Intelligence -1, for instance. Abilities range from -3 to +3 and an array of set scores is offered as an option.

Races comes next and covers Ability Score Bonuses, which are added directly to the Ability score, If a Dwarf, for instance, has a +1 Con, it's racial bonus of +1 would bring it to a +2. There are no negative modifiers from the Races presented, which are Dwarf, Elf, Human, and Kobold, which are "small spirit-forms", and not the dragon descendants or dog-people of editions of DnD.

The next chapter are the Classes, which feature the classic four, Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard. Each class dictates your Vitality, which is a small pool of hit points that replenishes very quickly, to give you an idea starts with 4+Con. Characters also have Wound points which equate to traditional hit points and heal much more slowly, Fighters start with 6+Con. You gain a flat bonus to each, modified by Con, each level. Their totals are much smaller than recent editions and once again, I feel that they are rooted in the OSR.
   Classes also give options for what equipment you start with and any skill bonuses you start with, what weapons and armor you are proficient with, and saving throw bonuses. DDBB uses Fortitude, Reflex, and Will saves and each class gives a bonus to just one of them, by 10th level a fighter has a +3 to Fortitude, once again you can see the bonus economy is reduced compared to 4E or 5E. 
   Clerics don't use the standard spells per day by level, instead they have Favor from their god, that starts equal to their Wisdom. Also, a Cleric's Spells and Domain abilities come from their Talents. Some Talents cost Favor to use and some can be used as long as you have at least 1 Favor. You may also regain Favor by making a sacrifice to your god.
   I find this system well thought out and immersive, a welcome change from standard Vancian magic. Additionally, because some Talents work as long as you have one Favor, granting things like Resistance, it requires a bit more tactical thinking on how to use them.
   Additionally, Clerics can Rebuke Adversaries, instead of Turn Undead, essentially your god determine what types of creatures are affected, and from reading this is left up to you and the DM to work out.
   Wizards, like Clerics, do not use Vancian magic either and their spells come from Talents, as well. Wizards have Mana and when casting a spell they spend a random amount of Mana and if they run out, they can tap into Vitality and Wounds, as well. Mana can slowly be replenished with short rests and resets after you sleep. Spells may also be sustained with a flat cost of Mana. Additionally, they can use Detect Magic and Magic Missles at will, though the latter doesn't automatically hit.

Leveling Up comes next, DDBB only goes to 5th level and the XP required is fairly low, required a total of 250 to reach level 5. When you level, your class gains certain specific things, generally Talents, you gain +1 to a skill you know or in a new skill, and your Vitality and Wounds increase. Finally, at 5th level, you gain a +1 to an Ability.

The Skill chapter is concise and is very similar to DnD 4E, with eighteen skills in total available. Personally, I liked 4E's skill selections and think it's perfectly serviceable.
   Crafting is a special kind of skill, at 1st level you can forego a skill bonus to be proficient in Alchemy, Armorer, or Weaponsmith. After character creation or improve your mastery of a craft skill, requires time, money, and a teacher. However, craft skills do not require a die roll and as long as you have the time and money work. Most projects can even be set aside and returned to. While, I don't use a lot of crafting in my games, it's a very well thought out and straightforward system and I can see many group enjoying this part of the rules being available to them. With craft skills you can make weapons, armor, and alchemical items.

The Adventuring chapter covers ability checks, standard difficulty classes, taking 10 or 20, climbing and falling, opening and finding secret doors and excavating locations. Pretty standard fare.

Combat is next is each character has a Move, Standard, and Swift action, and Reactions are presented. It also covers, resting, dying, lingering wounds (there is a d100 table for these and you roll upon it when you are stabilized or awakened), and conditions.

The Game Master chapter gives advice on how to run your game, playing fair, handling NPCs and monsters, designing dungeons, and rules for building encounters. It also calls out using Charisma and it's skills, which I think is important to help DMs and players remember that it's not a dump stat and it even has a reaction table. The section is short, but useful.

Monsters and Traps, present twenty-nine monsters for your party to face off against. It also presents a good set of guidelines for creating and converting monsters. I love making monsters, games like 13th Age make this deliciously fun to use, games like DnD 5E, in my opinion, provide rules, but I sometimes question them, while games like Pathfinder, make my eyes cross. I'd rate this as about half-way between 13th Age and 5E, which is a good thing.
   The trap section is brief, but covers detecting, triggering, and disabling a trap and details four sample traps.

The book closes with the Treasure chapter and presents tables for handing it out and five pages of sample items.

DDBB has been released under the OGL.

The more I read this game, the more I like it. It's a neat solution for groups who want a more modern approach to magic, a unified system, but a lower power level, and about as much complexity as B/X DnD. The art and layout are excellent and I really can't recommend this game enough. I will be finishing a campaign soon, and while I've been planning on running a B/X game, I'm seriously considering changing my plans. DDBB offers options for your character, but doesn't overwhelm you and it provides some new innovations while remaining true to the roots of the genre.

You should buy this game.




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