Grell Review: Dungeon World

Dungeon World is a fantasy roleplaying game published by Sage Kobold Productions. The game is Powered by the Apocalypse, meaning it runs off of a modified Apocalypse World engine. I’ve played a few PbtA games, but full disclosure: I’ve never actually played Apocalypse World. I digress. Anyway, Dungeon World is PbtA, but its design goal was to emulate old school fantasy games, such as AD&D, but with modern rules. And I think it does this well. More on that in a moment. A friend introduced me to Dungeon World, though oddly enough I played it before he got the chance to. Anyway, let’s get into that great Grell stuff that keeps you coming back… to this third blog post… a year after the last…

What Pleases the Grell
There are a lot of things I really like about this game. I will start by saying that it has a specific game model in mind, and it does it well. That is, it seeks to recreate the fun and wonder of old school games. Not the mechanics, but that sense of fun and wonder we felt when we were younger. Not too long ago I dusted off my AD&D books. I got that feeling I got when I was a girl, that giddiness. The smell of the book. The art. I started reading, plotting out all of the fun things I was going to do. And then I hit the mechanics. And the wonkiness. And the… well… AD&Dness of it all. And I remembered why I stopped playing the game that introduced me to table top, the game that used to inspire me like no other. But Dungeon World takes that nostalgia factor and adds simple, elegant rules. The muddy bookkeeping is gone, the fifteen minute workday is gone. But the sense of wonder and excitement is there. It feels like AD&D used to, even if it runs nothing like it.

It’s important to keep in mind that DW was made for a specific game style. There aren’t a plethora of races, and the ones there are have class restrictions. The classes are somewhat linear, though they are customizable enough. The game’s level based, and has the normal D&D stat range (strength, dexterity, constitution etc.). The game, however, doesn’t have the illusion of customization that similarly inspired games like Pathfinder have (I may write a blog about that later). This doesn’t sound like a plus, this sounds like negative things, is what you’re thinking. Probably. But the thing is, because DW is supposed to feel like old D&D games, these are actually big pluses. They go a long way toward facilitating that feeling. Like, when I open the book, look at it, it feels not only like AD&D, but it immediately recalls other fantasy things I loved when younger (and still do), like Slayers and Record of the Lodoss War. Like, if I want to run a game that feels like that, I am going to run Dungeon World. Elves do elf things, dwarves do dwarf things, and all kinds of tropes that I otherwise hate in games. But I love them in this game.

So, systemwise, it’s pretty simple. Roll 2d6+relevant stat. 7+ is a success, 10+ is usually like a critical, 6 or less is a fail. If you fail you get 1 exp and the GM gets to use your failure against you somehow. There are a bunch of moves, and generally you roll on whatever move is closest to what you want to do. There’s an SRD you can check out, so I am not going to spend too much time going over mechanics. The core book is inexpensive, and a little over 400 pages, most of which is game stuff. There are a plethora of monsters, as well as all kinds of tips on making your own. In fact, there are tips for making your own everything. One of the other stand outs to me is that the book either addresses the reader directly, or when not referring to a specific character, used gender neutral pronouns. Honestly it’s such a small thing that has a huge impact. I think anyway. Also, I enjoy the fronts mechanic, which are kind of just simple note taking mechanics, but they’re pretty helpful. And the little easter eggs. Like James Ninefingers. I mean, that’s just amazing. I couldn’t even when I read that.

What Displeases the Grell
This game is up front with what it is, what it wants to accomplish. And honestly, because of that, I can’t think of anything that really displeases me. Like, it’s not my go to for roleplaying, or even fantasy roleplaying. It is my go to for wanting to do like a classic D&D game, where the world is fresh and ready to explore, and there’s action and drama and comedy and weird stuff going on. Because the game tells you what it is, and doesn’t masquerade as anything other than a game that wanted to be D&D PbtA, there isn’t a lot I can fault it on. It’s laid out well, things are explained. There’s a lot of transparency, and it’s really a riot to run. I haven’t really gotten to be a PC yet, but that looks fun too. I mean, there are even muscly orc women in there! So yeah, I guess the closest thing to displeasure is that it’s not universal and it’s not meant to really feel like anything other than what it is? I wouldn’t run a gritty sword and sorcery game with it, but you’re not really supposed to anyway, so that’s not even a fault.

The Grell’s Verdict
If you want to play AD&D or any other oD&D but you don’t want to dust those books off, remember how THAC0 works, or wade through a bunch of unnecessary encumbrance rules, this is likely the game for you. Like, it feels like I am playing D&D and Slayers and just… for the job it sets out to do, it does it with no complaints from this Grell!

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Grell Review: Fantasy AGE

For those who do not know, Fantasy AGE is a role playing system by Green Ronin. The Fantasy Adventure Gaming Engine first made its appearance in the Dragon Age table top role playing game also by Green Ronin. (Dragon Age, Fantasy Adventure Game Engine. Fantasy AGE. Get it? Huh? Pretty clever).

I tired out Dragon Age when it first came out, the table top version, when a friend of mine got it and wanted to try running it over Roll20. At first I was a little skeptical, especially since the game only came with the first five levels. The system was simple enough, though. And also I wanted to play a game. I’d played Dragon Age Origins, Awaking and II by that point, so I knew the world well enough, so it was just a matter of learning the table top version. Soon after, I got a copy of the first installment of Dragon Age, and ran a few sessions at home. The AGE system was pretty good overall, we all liked the stunt system after kind of getting used to it, and so I started thinking about stripping the Dragon Age from it. I soon found out I didn’t have to, because GR was coming out with a streamlined version. I immediately ordered it from my local game store. The owner never bothered putting the order through though, because why would he? Me and my Girlfriend had only handed him hundreds of dollars for superfluous gaming merchandise since he’d opened earlier that year. I digress. Anyway, after a trip out to another city for funzies, I had myself a copy of not only the core book, but also TitansGrave, which I had also been eagerly anticipating, because Science Fantasy. But enough story time, let’s talk system!

What Pleases the Grell
So, the game comes with no implied setting, but a kind of implied world. Not like D&D, but like in that the core rules, the classes, races, are kind of set up to give you a sense of generic Eurocentric fantasy. Which is understandable, given that it comes out of not only Dragon Age, but also the legacy of D&D and similar fantasy RPGs. But the system is easy enough to adapt with little to no effort, either just by reflavouring, or taking a relatively short amount of time to create home brewed races. However, just looking at the implied fantasy tropes present, it is cool that they did not treat orcs as Tolkienesque caricatures of black people. The rest of the races in the book are familiar to anyone who’s played D&D or similar table top games. Elf, dwarf, halfling, gnome, and of course human. Half-races are represented in a really clever way, where the player mixes the racial modifiers of the two parent races, which has allowed not only for ubiquitous half-elves, but also half-elf half-orcs, half-human half-dwarves, and in one TitansGrave game I ran briefly, a half-elf half-saurian (lizard people introduced in the TitansGrave: Ashes of Valkana book). So that is a nifty departure from, say, D&D.

When it comes to classes, what I really like is the lateral leveling. So, it is a class based game, with 20 levels. The three classes are Mage, Rogue and Warrior, which sound exactly like what they are. At first level, a character is outfitted with decent stats, enough gear and hit points to not die in a single encounter, and at least one talent. The system itself is 3d6+stat (skill), so everything is essentially a stat check using one of the nine stats, and then if you have the focus, an additional +2. Stats increase every level, and a character gains focuses each level as well, but the system mitigates where and what you can take in such a way that the character doesn’t become overburdened with skills, or underwhelmed with them either. Initial hit points are high, but subsequent HP gained isn’t. Mages use spell points to power their spells, but don’t gain an unwieldy amount. At least, not in the actual play I have done. It doesn’t feel like any one class outshines any other. A character’s class and race can be used to do some initial optimization, but there’s not like one race that is best for one class over another. So it kind of curbs choosing a race simply to make the best out of your class.

Anyone familiar with 3e D&D, Pathfinder or any iteration thereof will quickly be familiar with the Talent system in Fantasy AGE. Each talent allows the character to break the rules, so to speak, or give them added options that they would otherwise not have, and each comes in three levels which can be taken consecutively. But otherwise they are mechanically similar. There are probably as many combat related talents as there aren’t, but I am not going to count right now. The magic system is something I really like, and works similarly to the talent system in that a Mage takes magic talents to gain access to their spells, allowing for a character to focus in a few types of Arcana (essentially schools of magic) and mastering them, or for the Mage to dabble in many Arcanas at the cost of not gaining the highest level spells. Although the core book doesn’t have too many Arcanas, maybe 12?, it is cool that a character isn’t railroaded into only taking a certain kind of spell, or forced to wait until very high level to gain access to those high level spells if they don’t want to. Also, on that note, there is no such division of like Arcane and Divine magic, for example. Mechanically, magic is magic is magic. There are also specializations, which are pretty much class specific talent trees that allow a character to focus their class in a certain direction, like becoming a powerful healer or a swashbuckler. Mechanically they are the same as talents, though.

The stunt system. This is what definitely sets Fantasy AGE apart from its spiritual predecessor D&D. So, the mechanics are 3d6, right? One of those d6s is a different colour (or size or whatever) from the other two. If you roll doubles on any of the three dice, you look to the stunt die to see how many stunt points you generate (provided you pass the test, of course). These points are used to do all kinds of nifty things, in and out of combat, such as gain extra damage, attack an additional time, lower the spell point cost of a spell, give an initiative boost and so on. And in actual play, rolling doubles comes up like 40% of the time, so a lot more than I initially thought (someone did the actual math, but as we all know Grells are bad at math, so…). So the stunt system is kind of a really cool added level to combat, in that maybe not only did you hit your opponent, but you devastated them, or flung them across the field or something like that. It adds a real cinematic element to combat, while providing a simple but game changing system mechanic. I wasn’t sold on it on my first play through of Dragon Age, until like half way through the session, when I was like “okay, this is cool”.

What Displeases the Grell
Okay, so some of the things I don’t like. Well, for one thing, the editing was rushed, and there are discrepancies between the PDF version and the hard copy (I go by the hard copy always, because it favours the players). Some things aren’t explained well, like the Novice talent from the Mage Hunter Warrior specialization, which makes a mage hunter’s chosen weapon considered magical. No explanation of what that does, it doesn’t seem to confer bonus damage or anything like that. The astute GM will find that that comes in play with a few monsters, like the Ghost, which is only harmed by magic attacks. I feel like there was more they wanted to say with this, but either didn’t have the time or accidentally forgot? Another example that comes to mind with the specializations is the Sword Mage specialization, which allows a Mage to use a melee weapon as a casting implement, provided it’s a one handed sword. I get the one handed thing, but it only being a sword seems an unnecessary layover from games like D&D. It’s a simple enough fix, though, and I have had one Axe Mage.

I think that when it comes to the equipment chapter, a little too much space was dedicated to mundane items, like the cost of a bed frame. I know that some players might like this, and that if a player came to Fantasy AGE without having first played another fantasy game, such tables probably have some merit, but given that the game flat out tells the reader that there is no need for specific smithing skills, because it’s an action RPG before it is a simulation RPG, what amounts to two pages of mundane gear seems counterintuitive. Not a huge deal, though.

Though I really like the talent system, I feel like there is a lot of room for more stuff that seems like it should have been basic? And some of the specialties are underwhelmingly generic, but then I guess they’re supposed to be. But, like, some of them don’t fit? Mage Hunter comes to mind, in that it assumes the campaign uses black powder weapons, but also gives the suggestions on how to make it not that? It’s kind of a minor complaint, I guess, but seeing as the Dragon Age game has more specialties, I don’t know, I was kind of like “eh” when I saw a lot of the Fantasy AGE ones. I guess I feel they played too safe?

The bestiary in the book is pretty limited. Now, I will concede that for space reasons they surely didn’t want to overburden the book. They give some examples of how to modify and tweak monsters, and each monster has its own entry, and even its own stunts (these are all good things), but what I don’t like is that they don’t give much in the way of designing your own. Veteran GMs aren’t going to have any issue coming up with their own monsters, though. Maybe the Fantasy AGE Bestiary will have more info, but I don’t have that (yet. Come on Christmas!). But like I said, it’s not difficult for a GM to come up with their own.

The Grell’s Verdict!
To be perfectly honest, even with four paragraphs, all of these dislikes are completely minor. I mean, editing is whatever, a minor annoyance. Mundane gear is handy to have sometimes, and it’s easy enough to make balanced monsters and specializations. I’ve already made a few (I might even share them). These are all small things that are easily overlooked. Overall, the Fantasy AGE book is more of a toolkit than it is a complete setting and game.┬áThe AGE system is being used not only for Dragon Age and Fantasy AGE, but also TitansGrave and Green Ronin’s romantic fantasy setting Blue Rose (I am super looking forward to Blue Rose, BTW. We backed it and I’m getting two copies of the core book!) The system is simple, elegant, but diverse enough that it can handle multiple genres (Dark Fantasy, Generic Fantasy, Science Fantasy, Romantic Fantasy so far) while not feeling like the same game every time. I really like it, it’s a joy to run, and I have a feeling it’s going to be around for a while. I recommend playing it, and picking it up if you’re so able. Even if you don’t play it, there is a lot of good information and gorgeous art, so it’s definitely worth space on any table top gamer’s shelf (or hard drive).

Anyway, that’s it for my first game review. I’ll probably do more. Thanks for reading!