Author: Anvilwerks (Clinton R. Nixon)
Reviewed by: Wulf Corbett, 2003-04-07
Donjon is a rather ordinary seeming RPG with a very odd effect on normal RPG gaming. Stating its intention to reproduce good old-fashioned dungeon crawling RPG play with a new twist, it does so admirably. However, actually coping with that twist may take a bit of work for players and DMs alike.
Donjon is sold as a downloadable PDF for $10. For that you get the main book, 83 pages (although only 72 are the game itself), in two forms, a print version and a screen viewable version, plus colour covers. The print version prints up very well, but the decorative (and very nice) border to every page does mean you use up a fair bit of ink! The screen version is a nice touch, and certainly far more readable on-screen. Art in the book is variable. Some is very good indeed, some is, well, good amateur. I LIKE it, it suits the game, but it's very cartoon-like, so may not suit those who prefer the more detailed realistic art of expensive works. Personally I think a game that only costs $10 SHOULD look like it's been produced on a shoestring by people who care about it, rather than by hired professionals with no connection to it other than cold hard cash. Of course, apart from the cover, it's all black and white.
Character creation is one of the very old-fashioned looking bits. For a start, your character has a Level (so does the environment, the Donjon Level defines the danger factor, level of monsters, etc), he collects experience points, and he has a race/class. Six attributes are rated between 1 and 6, either randomly rolled or assigned from points. The attributes have strange names, like Cerebrality and Adroitness, but really they're the good old fashioned stats in disguise (Intelligence and Dexterity, in those cases). The next stage in character creation is to choose a race or class. Note, that's race OR class. Non-humans don't get a class - apparently this is a homage to OD&D where this was also the case. Sorry, folks, I started with AD&D.. That's OK though, since there's no list nor limit on either - you just make one up. Mercenaries, Adventurous Archaeologists, Light-Fingered Collectors, Lesser-Spotted Purple Trolls and Winged Monkeys are all possible. The only thing they do is provide a background from which to define your character's skills. They come in handy at times too, for instance, as DM I could rule that only a Cleric could use a Holy Symbol, and that a Dwarf couldn't lend a human his armour. Now, you split a further 20 points amongst your character's Flesh Wounds, two Saving Throws (vs. physical and mental attacks) and five skills. Like class and race, you make up the skills, just choose a good name, one wide primary skill, four, more specific, secondary ones. You could have 'Dodge anything' as a Primary skill, but a Secondary would have to be 'Dodge melee attacks', 'Dodge missiles', etc. You also get a Wealth and a Provisions score. No counting coins or shopping for rope, spikes, rations, etc. Wealth covers your purchasing power abstractly, Provisions covers the tedious Donjoneering trivia likewise. So, already we have a mix of the old (recognisable old attributes, randomly rolled) and the new (make up your own skill names and assign values from points).
Now, all these 'points' are really dice. This is a dice pool system, you roll a lot of dice (a LOT of dice. A whole lot. Loads.) and compare yours to his - every die you roll that's higher than any he rolled is one success. You decide how many dice to roll by adding the governing attribute and the relevant skill. Then the Donjon Master (usually I greatly dislike inventing new terms for 'player' and 'referee', but in this case it fits the intent nicely) rolls his, either from the opposition's attributes and skills, or from a resistance calculated from the Donjon level and task difficulty. But then there's the twist in this game. Each success can be used either as a 'carry over' die to add to the next roll, or as one 'fact'. If the player defines the facts, the DM narrates them into the game, and vice versa. There is always a shared level of authority. This 'Law of Successes' is the important bit, I'll come back to that later.
Magic is the other important feature. Magic is one of the skills that can be chosen during character creation. You get magic 'words' along with the skill, and use them to make up spells as you need them. Roll to gather magical power, use successes to define facts about the spell (reducing the gathered magic 'pool'), then cast it with another roll adding remaining carryover from the gathered 'pool'. Targets resist as appropriate (those Saving Throws mentioned above). Magic is powerful. Simple spells can have a lot of dice in the attack, and complex spells can have many effects that are resisted separately. The major limitation is the need to define a spell from a limited number of magic words defined at character creation, four of them if Magic was a primary skill, two if it was secondary. Later, in higher Donjon levels, the resistance to gathering magic will become a factor, so this is a game where you actually start off powerful in magic, and have to put an effort into staying that way (by increasing your skill with experience).
Improvement is straightforward enough, you collect experience for killing monsters and defeating traps and problems, then, when you reach the appropriate total, you increase by a level, and get extra dice to improve or add to existing skills, etc.
This game sets a very different challenge to the DM. There's no point in creating a detailed map, the players might redraw it at any time with their successes. There's equally little point in the players drawing a map, unless they cooperate in producing a sensible layout (or delight in 'non-euclidean geometry'). Likewise, the DM must be ready at any time for the players to add in corridors, rooms, items, creatures or NPCs of their choice. Adaptability, adlibbing and quick-thinking are required. A selection of prepared encounters, a bestiary of creatures and NPCs (a supplement available from the author gives you a start), and an overall plan ("The High Mage promises you riches if you find and return the Sceptre of Fraintell, lost for centuries in the deepest Donjon") are the essentials.
Creatures are created according to Donjon Level, balanced against PCs by level and number. They are fairly simple to create, but to do so completely on the fly during a game would slow things up. Traps and other hazards are likewise rated for danger. Overall, there's less setup required, but just as much thought and even more imagination, than for most games.
Oh, and there's treasure. That's just strange... After defeating an opponent, characters can make looting rolls. The player states what the character is looking for. If the dice roll in his favour, he finds it... No more hoping for that +5 Holy Avenger to just show up in a dragon's hoard, just find an opponent powerful enough (looting resistance is governed by the lootee's level) and defeat him... Again, no DM setup required, but you have to be willing to adapt to the presence of a lot of magic items! This is alleviated by rules limiting how many items the character may keep from one adventure to another. They're assumed to squander most of their stuff (but strangely none of their Wealth - presumably that's where the stuff goes!) between adventures, on living the high life.
Let's run though a few simple contests. I want my character to "Sneak along the corridor and try and find any ambushers". Now, here's another new idea. With that stated intent, if I win the die roll, there WILL BE ambushers. If I tried to find a secret door, and succeed, there IS a secret door. It doesn't matter if the DM had placed either beforehand. Again, no point in preparing too much detail beforehand, but a real need to collect ideas to make encounters interesting and non-repetitive. It's almost like the old D&D random dungeon creation tables, except the players decide just how 'random' things get. This can worry many DMs, but there's more...
The Sneaking character could have accumulated the success dice. She could have listened for noises - Discernment plus Sharp Ears plus the accumulated dice -, then added successes to sneaking up to where the noises came from - Adroitness plus Sneak Around in Shadows plus accumulated dice. Potentially, a beginner character could be rolling 15-20 dice without undue strain.
Anyway, sneaking along that corridor, I have a character (really, I do) who rolls 9 dice to find those ambushers, Adroitness 6, Sneak Through Shadows 3. The DM decides that's a medium difficulty task, and so adds the three dice for medium difficulty to the current Donjon level (let's say 1). 9 dice vs. 4, let's just say my character wins the rolls by 4 successes. Now, I use the rule of 1 success = 1 fact. I, as player, use three of those successes to declare
1. There are goblins ahead (remember, there ARE ambushers, simply because I succeeded at all)
2. They aren't paying attention
3. They're trying to open a treasure chest.
I have 1 more die to add to my next die roll, maybe a sneak attack on the goblins, or eavesdropping on their conversation, or whatever.
Look at how powerful that is. I, as a player, have defined an encounter wholly without the DM's cooperation. Donjon Masters quake in fear, cower behind your screen, for your control is slipping away! Aha, but that's OK, because I have NOT defined quite a few things - how many goblins, how tough they are (two goblin war commanders and a goblin shaman coming up!), and what's IN that chest (traps, anyone?). This is the adversarial nature of the game mentioned above. Most people agree that a good RPG is played with some degree of cooperation between players and DM. Really, that's still true here, but it's the nature of this game that, rather than a collaboration, this is a competitive game, where the fun is in the play and the winner is applauded by all. The DM can set the number and strength of opposition according to level restrictions, the player can define it as weaker, but then gets less benefit from it.
This is what interests me in Donjon. I've spent years feeling slightly guilty over telling my RuneQuest GM exactly what I wanted for my character, knowing that's not how the game was written to be played, knowing that my plans might not suit, and would not equally benefit, the other players. Sure, any game should provide players with this, but there's always the feeling that you've been handed something, rather than fought for, and won, it. In this game, you can get what you want, with luck and dedication. The achievements are more short-term (it's hard to find a situation where you can say 'Fact: I get elected King'), but you are legitimately in charge of them.
Combat is a major part of the game, in old-fashioned style. Initiative is rolled on Discernment + Level. All those dice are rolled, and everyone can act once on each number, counting down. One run through Initiative phases is called a 'flurry' rather than a 'turn' or 'round', and is undefined in time. As a veteran of re-enactment and combat-oriented Live RolePlaying, I applaud that. A quick thrashing around is followed by everyone standing back, panting a bit, and wondering what to do next. An action to attack is made with Adroitness + weapon skill (or something similar) and a defence is either a free roll of Adroitness + any dodge skill (which cannot damage the attacker, and can be rolled any number of times once each against any number of attacks), or, if the defender surrenders a future action, by Adroitness + weapon skill, the winner damaging the loser. This is called a 'Parry', for some reason, surely a 'Riposte' or even 'Exchange' would have been a better term? Anyway, any successes in attack can be used as facts ("I knock him over", "I knock the sword out of his hand", etc) or added to damage. Damage is rolled by Virility (that's Strength, one of the more confusingly-named attributes!) + weapon damage + any damage skill (like Deal Heavy Damage) + carryover, vs. Wherewithall (Constitution) + damage resisting skill + armour. Successes reduce Flesh Wounds or attributes as the attacker decides. The rules make it easy to finish off monsters, and extremely hard to kill characters, by a blatant, and quite welcome, discriminatory rule. PCs just get better rules. Being able to damage attributes as well as Flesh Wounds is a good idea, especially as attributes directly contribute to abilities. It reminds me of one of the better ideas in Traveller, damage being dealt directly to attributes.
The separate attack & damage rolls add to the old-fashioned feel, but at least it doesn't use Armour Classes! Armour, instead, adds to the damage resistance roll, a single die for leather, four for plate.
First of all, you need a lot of dice. This was my first experience with a large-dice-pool game. We decided from the off to use D10 rather than the default D20 (we just didn't have enough D20). Any dice could be used, but the larger the fewer ties there will be (ties are adjudicated by continuing to compare until you reach a non-tied roll). We found this a problem later, as the number of ties frequently meant one-shot kills or excessively large carryovers, but we just didn't have that many D20!
Once characters are created, the DM starts the proceedings with the hook. As player I played the sample adventure from the rules, so the hook was "Go get the stolen Emerald of Cissila back from the thief in the Crimson Forest". As DM I have used a similar hook, "Go retrieve the Golden Hawk of leadership from the dead Wizard's tower in the forest". It doesn't have an enormous effect on play, in fact, other than telling the players what sort of environment they should be thinking of.
Right from the off, the odd resolution mechanics put you off-balance. We spent a long time figuring out what was, and what wasn't, a 'fact'. For instance, once you hit someone, you can't just say "Fact: the blow killed him". When you have just found someone, by sneaking up on them, for instance, you could say "Fact: they're already dead". The DM is fully at liberty to attack you with Zombies, and of course you don't get experience (and can't loot for treasure) already dead opponents. "Fact: there is treasure in the room" is an obvious player shortcut, but I adjudicated such treasure, unless I had a situation prepared, would only be one die worth of treasure per fact used.
Actually rolling all those dice, and comparing them, takes time. You might think that reading dice was easy, but counting down, sorting them high-low, comparing them, and deciding on the result, takes time. Donjon is not a fast game, at least at first. We lost quite a bit of time just gathering up rolled dice - frequently one player, with a beginner character, was rolling 18 dice for spell effects...
But it doesn't have to be fast. It's just... exciting. At one point, as player, I defined a whole encounter, opposition, numbers, status, then treasure. I was creating the game, AND playing it, something no other game, excepting soulless computer games, had allowed. But it wasn't an easy fight. We discovered that 9 dice just wasn't as many as it seemed... frequently losing 9 vs. 5 or worse. 18 dice, on the other hand, was plenty, and the players in the game I have DMed are finding quite the opposite problem...
I've had much more experience as a DM than a player now. I made a few mistakes in starting off, mostly through generosity on character creation. As a result, I have too many magic items in player hands (I allowed skills like "Find Treasure" which aid looting rolls), which in turn means players are rolling too many dice against the opposition. The rules state that characters will have difficulty in dealing with monsters of (level+3) power, but this lot are chewing through multiple level 4 or even 6 monsters with level 1 characters! The real problem is balance. Creating monsters (by which I mean any non-PC encounter) is a balancing act between making them hard to hit, hard to damage (the easier they are to hit, the more dice go to damage, but weapons add to damage after the to hit roll, so resistance to damage is more important) and capable of hurting (or affecting in some appropriate way) the PCs. My monsters have tended to be too easy to hit, but hard to damage, and with effective, but inadequately damaging attacks. One secret may lie in the Looting rules. You can give appropriate monsters armour and weapons, but that means the players can get them without a looting roll. Which is fine, if they get weak armour and mundane weapons instead of magic ones! This is a problem (and it is a problem as players are finding inadequate challenge in the game) produced by the freedom the rules grant, and the lack of detailed guidance given. The Donjon Bestiary now available gives monsters balanced the way the author intended, and I'll be studying it closely to figure out where I've gone wrong. I've always said a Bestiary (including NPC examples) was vital in a combat heavy game, and this makes me even more convinced than ever.
Of course, it's also essential that the DM challenge characters outside their specialities. It's relatively easy to create a combat specialist, but pointless for the DM to keep setting combat challenges for him, without dealing with his weaker aspects. And he WILL have weaker aspects, there are only so many dice to allocate amongst initial abilities. Cerebral or Social challenges will probably be more difficult. Remember, this is a competitive game, the DM is MEANT to trick and trap the characters!
We also had too much magic flying around, but this was anticipated and the rules suggest an easy fix, making gathering magic an average, rather than easy, roll. That cut magic pools down quite acceptably.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, this is a game that needs a lot of DM planning, or, more accurately, forethought. The players' power over map, encounter and opposition mean the whole thing can degenerate into the old D&D "open door, fight monster, take treasure, repeat as necessary" formula. The DM should be ready with interesting, and challenging, situations, and be prepared to shoehorn them into situations described by players. He should also figure out encounters, and use creature skills, creatively. "I sneak through the woods and see if anyone is ambushing us", for instance, is an excuse to use a creature with a good ambush skill to pit against the PC. The DM MUST challenge players, or more competitive players will soon figure how to play for the win. You don't have to kill characters though, hit points are not the only currency of success here. The most challenging creature I set on the players as a DM was a Rust Monster. It also dealt with the excess of magic items...
This is an exciting game. Not a jump-up-and-down cheering sort of game, but an enlightening, mind-expanding game. It's a fully cooperative, yet competitive, game, where players and DM really DO create the story between them. Most times this is said, what's actually meant is that the DM creates the story, and the players improvise their parts, or, at best, the GM creates a story around the player's actions. Here, everyone gets to write a part of the plot, dynamically, line by line. Now, that creates a problem. Without an overall single line of thought, it's hard to create a coherent, logical story. It's also an immense temptation to drift into parody and clichÈ. And why not? The dice mechanics would make an excellent cartoon game, with giant mallets conjured out of mid-air, people running off cliffs and not falling until they look down, and drawing doors on a wall and opening them to step through all possible with successes traded for facts. There is advice on this, but basically it comes down to this: This is a great game to have fun with. It's harder to tell a gripping emotional tale with it.