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Sunday 1 September 2019

The King is Dead, Long Roleplay the King!

From Castles & Crusades, OSRIC, and Labyrinth Lord to Swords & Wizardry, Left Buried: Cryptdigger’s Guide to Survival, and Classic Fantasy: Dungeoneering Adventures, d100 Style!, there is a retroclone to fit your desired style and tone of Old School fantasy roleplaying. So the question is, why bother with The King of Dungeons, a retroclone of a retrovlone? Published and written by Baz Stevens of Grand Scheme Publishing—co-host of the UK podcast, The Smart Party—following a successful Kickstarter campaignThe King of Dungeons uses the Archmage Engine, also used in 13th Age Glorantha, and first seen in Pelgrane Press’ 13th Age. Since 13th Age draws from both Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition and Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition for its mechanics, thus making The King of Dungeons a retroclone of a retroclone. What The King of Dungeons uses though, is a streamlined version of the Archmage Engine, to essentially present the Basic Dungeons & Dragons equivalent of 13th Age—but that is not the selling point of The King of Dungeons. No, the selling point of The King of Dungeons is that it corporatises the dungeon bash.

Before that though, it turns dungeoneering and adventuring a la Dungeons & Dragons-style into a profession. Then it has those professions join a Guild (rather than be in a party), which sets up a Guild house, perhaps with staff or a library or an alchemist’s lab or… And Guilds are recognised entities which can lobby for Charters—or missions—which typically involve going down dungeons. This recognition is due to the political influence of The Adventuring Party, a group of adventurers who retired, went political cross-national and cross planar, helped unionise the Guilds and in return for granting each Guild a licence, had them sign up to the Adventurer’s Code. These bylaws govern Guild activity, such as ‘The Law of Unity’, which states that may never split the party, and ‘The Law of Vengeance’, which states that no member of the Adventuring Party—and all Guild members are also members of the Adventuring Party—can willingly or by omission cause the death of another member of the Adventuring. Which means that rival Guilds cannot fight each other, although they may feud or compete for Charters, though what happens down a dungeon... 

Within a Guild, adventurers do not Level up, so much as get promoted until such times as they are wealthy enough to take on other adventurers and train them up. Then perhaps, those newly recruited professionals can go off and undertake Charters assigned by one of the senior adventurers. In other words, once a player character has got to the point where he cannot adventure, his player can start refereeing Charters for the new junior adventurers, as can the other players with senior adventurers.

As written, this feels more like the set-up for an American television series about a law firm, with junior associates being given minor cases to litigate or take to court, their continued success leading to them getting promoted to senior associates and on track to become partners in the law firm. Of course, instead of taking on cases and fighting them out in court, in The King of Dungeons, the Guild is taking on Charters and fighting them out in dungeons, successful completion of Charters means that in due course the adventurers will be promoted, take on bigger Charters, start bringing in Charters to the Guild rather than clients coming to them, begin hiring junior adventurers who will be assigned Charters of their own, and so on.

If there is one American television series that The King of Dungeons felt like in reading this, it was The Good Wife. And low and behold, when turning to the section for the ‘King of Dungeons’—as the Game Master is known—it is the exact television series that the author has based the structure of the roleplaying game on. Yet, the author goes even further in applying that structure. Not just in the set-up of modelling a Guild upon a law firm, but also in the types of play and agendas. So where in a series like The Good Wife, there are scenes dedicated to court, to the case, and to the law firm, in The King of Dungeons, there scenes, or time, dedicated to combat, to the adventure, and to the Guild. Then in The Good Wife, there are plots dealing with the case, the cast, and the law firm, in The King of Dungeons, there are agendas, specifically, Charter agendas, adventurer agendas, and Guild agendas. A Charter agenda might last a session (episode) or two, an adventurer agenda several sessions (episodes), and a Guild agenda a whole campaign (season).

Guilds then are The King of Dungeon’s innovation. In play, a Guild is set up at the same time as adventurer creation. The players choose or roll for the type—military, thieves, dilettantes, preservers, missionaries, and band—and then concept, Guild house, and pub, the latter the drinking hole where the Guild meets up to unwind and hold a post mortem on its just finished Charter and conduct assessments and appraisals on it adventurers. They also roll or choose the Guild’s Speciality, but together decide on its Alignment.

Our sample Guild is Roister Doister Boys, made up of third or fourth offspring of local nobles who have turned to adventuring rather do whatever it is that their parents want them to do. Not get married, not take up a commission in the army, or join the church. They had tried blackmail and robbery and assassination, not all together, but individually, and unlike adventuring professionally, there is less of a chance of their being arrested and executed if they were instead a legally sanctioned Guild. Plus if they can make some money along the way, what better way to stick it to their parents (and pay for their drinks).

Roister Doister Boys 
Type: Band
Concept: Gang
Guild House: Back of a Pub
Pub: The Marquis Club
Speciality: Exploration
Alignment: Pater’s a duke, you know?

The Guild will also be given its own character sheet, complete with stats like an adventurer, which come into play when the adventurers want to act like a group rather than as individuals. Examples include chases, diplomacy, investigation, and so on. Lastly, a Guild should ideally have one of each of the six Classes in The King of Dungeons as an adventurer. If they lack any one of them, then all rolls made with the stat associated with the missing Class are made at a disadvantage. So for example, if a Guild lacked a Rogue, whose associated stat is Dexterity, then all Guild stealth checks or rolls to climb a tower would be at a disadvantage. 

An Adventurer in The King of Dungeons is defined by his Culture, Class, stats and their associated tell, alignment, expertise, and lifestyle. Culture is the equivalent of Race in other roleplaying games, the six given being Draconic, Dwarf, Elf, Goblin, Human, and Infernal. These can be the classic fantasy interpretations of such races, but a table is included which can provide a twist to each Culture should a player want to create a different interpretation. The six Classes in The King of Dungeons are Warrior, Rogue, Priest, Mage, Scholar, and Commander. The first four of these are the classic Classes of the Old School Renaissance, but the Scholar brings knowledge and insight to the completion of Charters, including both research in the library and the field, whilst the Commander brings leadership and management skills to both the completion of Charters and Guild operation. The King of Dungeons uses the classic six attributes—Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma, instead of being on the three to eighteen scale, each is measured between zero and five, essentially the stats’ bonuses rather than the stat values themselves. The best two and the worst two stats have tells, phrases that make adventurers stand out from each other. Again, Alignments are not the classic Alignments of the Old School Renaissance, but beliefs in concepts like civilisation, magic, thievery, and so on, as well as the gods. There are also three dark paths in terms of Alignment—Diabolic, (un)Death, and Villainy. For NPCs only, of course (unless that is how your adventurer or Guild swings…). Lastly, every adventurer has expertise in five areas. Three of these are already decided in a player’s choice of Culture, Class, and Alignment, but the player is free to select the last two, ideally inspired by the adventurer’s backstory. Lastly, an adventurer’s wealth is reflected in his Coin, Kit, and Lifestyle. One of these the adventurer will have the advantage with, another the disadvantage with.

Creating an adventurer is a matter of choosing or rolling—if there is a table to roll on—all of these elements, and then selecting the various abilities from the chosen Class. So Warriors get Talents like Heavy Metal, which reduces damage taken by half once per combat, or Power Attack, adding extra damage to an attack once per combat. They also get Exploits, Like Brace For It, which when triggered by any missed attack, means that until a Warrior attacks again, any critical attack is taken as a normal attack instead, or Make ‘Em Flinch, which on any natural even miss, lets the Warrior inflict damage equal to his Charisma. Every Class has Talents of its own, Rogues get Schemes as well as greater weapon damage because they are trained killers; Priests make Prayers, either to Take Confession and cast on one recipient, or to Deliver a Sermon to affect more recipients, but to lesser effect; and Mages get minor spells or Tricks to cast as well as a full range of spells to choose from. Scholars have Theorems and Insights to give advice to and support their Guild, typically delivered in a rambling monologue. Many Theorems and Insights have ongoing effects which need to be maintained with a successful Save and an extra effect when brought to a finale or Exclamation. For example, the Theory of Skirmishing needs to be maintained with a Save, requires a Charisma-based attack to be successful against several targets, inflicts 5d6 plus Charisma damage, and as long as the Scholar continues making a successful attack from turn to turn, continues inflicting damage. If the Save is failed or the Scholar decides to end the Theorem, the attack is made one last time, but on a miss, it inflicts half damage. Lastly, Commanders have Commands which require Command Points, and Tactics which do not. So with the Command, Try Again, which costs two Command Points, an ally is given the advantage on an attack and if a twenty is rolled on the attack, the Commander gains a Command Point. Whereas, the Tactical Strike Tactic can be done at will, and grants an ally a free attack with the Commander’s Charisma as a damage bonus, but requires a Save to reuse.

Otinaar Dreched
Culture: Draconic (Hunted to the brink of extinction by Dwarves)
Alignment: Civilisation
Class: Scholar Level: One

Hit Points: 30
Recoveries: d8

Fortitude 14 Reflex 14 Will 14

Strength +0 (Emaciated with work and worry)
Dexterity +2
Constitution +5 (Wiry for his frame)
Intelligence +3
Wisdom +4 (Assured in his knowledge)
Charisma +1 (Scholarly shabbiness)

Expertise: Guerilla Fighter, Tomb Delver

Coin, Kit (Advantage), Lifestyle (Disadvantage)

Clippers, scale wax, mirror, map, heavy breathable clothing, laden with stuff, scroll tubes of notes and maps, astrolabe.

Like other Archmage Engine roleplaying games, The King of Dungeons is limited to just ten Levels. Once an adventurer has reached Tenth Level, he is eligible for retirement. And just like other Archmage Engine roleplaying games, the Levels in The King of Dungeons are broken int0 three tiers—Adventurer (First to Third Level), Conqueror (Fourth to Seventh Level), and King (Eighth to Tenth Level), each tier determining numerous factors throughout the game. So the effects of Class abilities, the value of adventurers’ Expertise dice, standard skill targets, how many dice rolled for damage, and so on. Unlike 13th Age and other Archmage Engine roleplaying games, The King of Dungeons does not use the ‘One Unique Thing’ which separates every player character from every other.

Mechanically though, the core of The King of Dungeons is still the d20 System. So rolls of one are fumbles and twenty are fumbles and situations where an adventurer has the advantage or disadvantage, two twenty-sided dice are rolled, the best result being kept when he has the advantage, the worst when he is at a disadvantage. After this, there are a lot of tweaks. So fumbles also earn the Guild Bonds, which can then be spent to gain Advantage in a roll and all Saves are rolled on an six-sided die—a standard Save being four or more, Easy two or more, and Hard just six. Instead of skills or Backgrounds as in 13th Age, an Adventurer has areas of Expertise, drawn from his Culture, Class, and Alignment as his two Expertise skills, represented by a die type rolled and added to any die roll. The die type rises from Tier to Tier, as do the standard Target Numbers—fifteen at Adventurer, twenty at Conqueror, and so on.

There are further tweaks to combat. Initiative rolls are made against an opponent’s Initiative rating. Fail and the opponent acts before the Adventurer, succeed and the Adventurer acts first. Initiative rolls are made each round, but in the first round, they are made using Wisdom, the second they are made using Dexterity, the third and subsequent rounds using Constitution. This is model the effects of fighting over several rounds as the combatants become increasingly tired by their efforts. Melee attack rolls are made against an opponent’s Fortitude, missile attacks against an opponent’s Reflex, and most spell attacks against an opponent’s Will. Damage is dealt out in six-sided dice—or eight-sided dice for Rogues because they are vicious killers—the number rolled increasing as an Adventurer is promoted. Of course, The King of Dungeons being an Archmage Engine roleplaying game means that it uses the Escalation die, the six-sided die which sits in front of the King of Dungeons and goes up by plus one each round after the second, the players adding it to their adventurers’ attack rolls as it rises. And as with other Archmage Engine roleplaying games, many of the various abilities of The King of Dungeons’ Classes are keyed to the state of the Escalation die.

For the King of Dungeons, the Dungeon Master, there is advice on running the game, setting up agendas and charters, creating monsters, and bringing both the authorities and rival Guilds. Overall, it is good advice, but the section on Charters feels undeveloped, almost as if the author is writing around the subject rather than about it. The concept is that the King of Dungeons can take any dungeon adventure and either use all of it or particular excerpts from it as a Charter, but the advice on how to do that could have been stronger and more helpful. Of course, the designer knows how to do this, but not every new King of Dungeons will be because a Charter is different. If there is anything missing from The King of Dungeons it is a sample Charter.

What is interesting about The King of Dungeons is that it is not about setting, but about structure. Indeed, there is no setting given, but together, adventurer Professionalism and Guilds provide both reason and framework. Reason to go down dungeons and undertake missions and for freelancers such as adventurers to exist and framework to explain adventurer promotion and to give something upon which to hang the larger story or campaign. Of course, it is a light framework, one that does not quite hold together when too closely looked at, but that does not prevent it from working.

Physically, The King of Dungeons is a decent book. It is illustrated with a range of character illustrations and maps which are not always as sharply presented as they could. The book does feel as it could have been better organised in places and sometimes as if the author is writing around the subject rather than about it. Another issue is that perhaps the core concepts could have been more strongly presented, especially about the corporatisation and the running of a campaign of The King of Dungeons as television series.

There is a pleasing simplicity to many of the changes made to the mechanics by The King of Dungeons. So the new Save mechanic, the variable Expertise rolls, the Initiative rules, and so on, are understandable, and even logical, changes. Changing to them is another matter since in many cases players are used to playing a Dungeons & Dragons-style roleplaying game in a certain way. This is not say that making the change is insurmountable—far from it—but it does require an adjustment. As does having different values to roll against when making an attack, but for all that, there is a complexity to The King of Dungeons, one that it cannot escape given its use of the Archemage Engine. This complexity lies in the different, often asymmetrical abilities for the six Classes in The King of Dungeons, and as much as they bring interesting tactical options to play, there is not a pick up and play quality to them. There is a learning curve here… Nevertheless, the designer should be praised for simplifying the mechanics around the abilities, if not the abilities themselves. 

The King of Dungeons is not amazing, but it is clever. Its set-up of the Guilds and the interactions around them are undeniably rife with story and roleplaying potential as much as the Charters—or dungeons—are rife with action potential. This is the selling point to The King of Dungeons and what sets it apart from other retroclones.

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