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What is it?

Pencilquest is a tactical dungeon-crawl. It's solo and print-and-play. You'll select a party of 2, 3 or 4 heroes, equip them with potent abilities, and guide them through a dungeon filled with vicious monsters.

You crawl dungeons with a pencil?

Yep! Like my other games, it pushes the envelope on what can be simulated with paper and marks on it. Pencilquest is my take on dungeon-crawling. It's all-in on the medium - you draw your dudes, draw the monsters, and erase things as they die (and move).

So what's the game like?

The gameplay is tactical, grid-based combat. You plan and execute deadly combos, react effectively to elite rolls, and carefully shepherd your limited Vim pool until you reach the next Fountain, which restores all your heroes.

Those heroes have strong, role-defining class identities, which gives it a bit of an old-school MMO feeling - you want the Warrior taking most of the hits, the Priest heals well but does little else, and you're quite likely to wipe if the Rogue takes aggro.

The end of each map has an exceptionally difficult challenge which will require careful planning and skilful execution to overcome.

Each map has a push-your-luck style choice to make, in the form of Heroic Feats, which change how the map must be approached, and grant you additional success bonuses if completed.

As you unlock more hero abilities, you'll discover completely new approaches to the various challenges the maps offer. Building clever hero-ability compositions, and tailoring them to each map, is a kind of 'deck-building' meta-game on top of the tactical dungeon-crawling.

Show me the dungeons!

While simplifying a dungeon down to rooms (as opposed to tiles) is a great way to slash complexity, you lose out on the tactical puzzle of positioning your units. I really like the "where do I put my dudes?" puzzle, so Pencilquest sticks to the grid.

The systems work hard to keep full grid-based gameplay from slowing things down. They're so tight that a deep game is baked into extremely simple representations: two-stroke symbols for heroes, and numbers or single letters for monsters.

The maps are also filled with a modest spread of RPG-ish interactables: fountains, doors, levers, traps, and so on.

Your brave/foolish adventurers

Each hero has a unique, Chess-like movement pattern. This makes traversing each part of the map a spatial puzzle, beyond having to get rid of the bad dudes in the way.

Abilities are your heroes' bread and butter. They mostly hurt monsters or help allies. They might cost nothing but the action spent to use them, or they could draw on your heroes' Vim (which is also what they lose when their blood is spilled). Very powerful abilities also draw on the extremely limited Nerve pool.

The easy route to balanced heroes which feel distinct is keeping customization really light. This comes at the cost of the player's creative expression, so I found it unacceptable.

I gave each hero a unique list of wildly varying abilities. From these, you select a handful to "equip" on each adventure. This means that you get to meaningfully character-build each time you play.

Hmm, what if I run the Rogue without Backstab, but with both Longbow and Shortbow? This gives her strong flexibility at range, but lowers her overall damage output a bit.

A given hero can play fairly differently from run to run, depending on how you change their abilities up, but class identity is preserved, as heroes' ability pools are designed around a flavour. Rogues have mobility and melee, single-target damage; Warriors have mitigation and melee, multi-target damage.

Finally, since you're building a party, you can exploit synergies across heroes. Want to make the Wizard a powerhouse glass cannon? Give her only vim-spender spells, and make sure your Priest is stocked up on multi-target heals!

The lurking nasties

Monsters usually behave traditionally, moving toward their target and then attacking it. They have extremely simple behaviour, selecting the closest hero as their target, which makes monster turns quick and easy.

Elite monsters make sure that encounters remain dangerous and exciting. Each elite has its own table of 6 special abilities, from buffs to other monsters in their pack to once-off powerful attacks. They roll on the table each round of combat, bringing an element of unpredictability to each fight, which you must adapt to overcome.

Trading blows

Hitting stuff has always made up the bulk of play-time in dungeon crawls - as it should - but I wanted to make sure I'd done all I could to make it as slick as possible. I didn't want the interesting puzzle of ability, target, and position selection to be overshadowed by hours of dice rolls and small-number maths.

I wanted more of the game, as well as more exciting tension, to land in the heroes' turn, so each offensive hero ability involves a roll. But that's all there is to it - you roll a d6 and you hit if your roll's good enough. Roll higher to hit stronger monsters. No maths!

Monster turns are less exciting for you, the player, so they're as minimalist as humanly possible. After the elite monster's roll, the non-elites attack. They do a fixed amount of damage, automatically. A 1 hits for 1, a 2 hits for 2, and so on. Non-elite monster actions take seconds.

Still two pages

As in Pencilvillage, gameplay happens over two US Letter sheets, which is great for portability. You still need the manual with you if you want the story which goes with the map, but it's optional.

What do you need to play?

You need a pencil, an eraser, two printed playsheets, and two six-sided dice. The manual is recommended, as it contains the story for each map. You can optionally track hero Vim with dice or tokens instead of pencil.

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Reviews (0)
Discussions (4)
Customer avatar
Dave S February 23, 2022 1:51 am UTC
The rules state that one character must use all his three movements before switching to another character, but in the example video, you broke that rule in the first sequence of moves. Which is correct?
Customer avatar
J. W August 24, 2020 7:05 pm UTC
I like the idea, but it feels like the maps having pre-positioned mobs limits the replayability of things. I get that the party & rolls are going to vary but ... the environments feel like they are going to get stale.

Separately I think the rogue & priest symbols are way too similar ... lazy folks are going to have trouble keeping track of the two ( even in your demo, one of the first times you drew your rogue to explain attacks & advantage, you pretty much drew a + ... right in the middle. Maybe tilting the rogue dagger to one side ? ( making it more x like ).

Anyway ... I love the concept.
Customer avatar
J. W August 24, 2020 7:17 pm UTC
Additionally, in your example combat ( in the video ) ... you show your #1 creature which is diagonally next to the rogue square, and 2 squares away from the mage & warrior, but you state them all to be equidistant ... I don't quite understand that.
Customer avatar
Kyle M January 19, 2020 4:47 pm UTC
Awesome solo RPG gameplay! Mechanics and overall execution is well done. Thank you for including a walkthrough on your site too.

(Maps do print a little dark - make sure to adjust accordingly!)
Customer avatar
David P January 10, 2020 10:22 pm UTC
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