This review consists of the following parts – feel free to skip to the part that you feel interests you the most as I do tend to ramble:
Part 1 – Ramble On
Part 2 – PDs Social (What it looks like)
Part 3 – PDs Mind (The rules)
Part 4 – PDs Body (How it plays – 1 playtest under my belt)
Part 5 – PDs Soul (Conclusion)
Part 1 – “Gonna ramble on, sing my song. Gotta keep-a-searchin' for my baby...”
I picked up Polyhedral Dungeon (PD) at RPGNow purely by chance. As it happens I visit the site once a day to see what’s new in the world of RPGs and pick up the odd game if its premise takes my fancy. Alas these days that often means it has to be cheap (not always but I do have strict instructions from she who must be obeyed to reign in my spending habits). I’m an old school gamer (been playing since 1980) who grew up with Basic (Blue Box) followed closely by AD&D (Looking back not bad for an Australia – maybe not such a backwater place now but it sure felt like it then). But I digress (as usual). So I am naturally attracted to games that state or imply they have that old school feel.
So I saw PD and thought to myself nice premise, great cover, um …. Nah – I have bought a few (OK all) lately that won’t see the table I hold back on this one. But then my regular (and only) gaming group (all 3 of us; me and 2 “not my” brothers) had one guy going to the states for 3 weeks so the other brother asked if I wanted to try one of the many new rule sets (a running joke now how many games I buy). Initially I offered him 5E (our current system) with Dungeon Delves “No Laughing Matter” (I had heard good things) or maybe a new one I had my eye on. Surprisingly (to me) he choose the new one so I bought PD and I’m so glad I did.
I have physical copies of Dungeon World, 13th Age, Torchbearer (3 copies) and many, many pdf’s of various osr clones but none have given me that “OK I’ll do it” like PD did (DW came close). You see, one brother is happy to try any system but doesn’t see the point of trying new systems. History: our group played together many years ago but reformed (albeit in a smaller capacity) a few years ago. We started with what was familiar (3.5), tried 4E (my fault), tried DCC (me again – good but too random), S&W (one brothers favourite and fine by me) but 5E gave everyone a bit of what they wanted. It certainly does a great job of recreating those AD&D days for me with new and improved features but I constantly find myself forgetting rules, and knowing they are in there somewhere I go looking for them. Then along came PD … it won’t replace 5E for our group (alas) but for me it’s the bees knees – I love it!
Part 2 – Social = d10
If you gonna sucker me into a game you gotta have great artwork and PDs cover nails it for me. Its clean and simple, has a dragon sleeping on a pile of loot, immediately starts my imagination running, and having read and played the game captures th feel of PD perfectly. Man, even the font used to write “Dungeon” is crazy good. But what’s inside?
In 50 pages, there are 15 (16 as one is repeated) pieces of artwork including the cover. Of those I adore 3 of them (4 as one is repeated) and most of the rest are fine. To me the ratio of art to pages is just right. Each is perfectly placed, cover – draws you in, part of 4 at character creation, party of 3 at a dungeon’s entrance, a battle field at the combat section, a pickie of each class and race, a treasure chest and coins (I’ll let you guess), and a skeleton warrior to start the monster section. All pieces are black and white. This is small press after all but the author has chosen wisely. Being pickie, the class/race illustrations are the weakest but are very old school and some I like, it’s just the Halfling that seems out of place being a different style (but that’s just me).
Otherwise, organisation is top notch, rules as written just flow (despite character “creation” being after the main rules). There’s no index, but being 42 pages of actual rules you don’t need one (even with my aged memory cells). There are a lot of tables and even they appeal. So much so I adopted a similar appearance for an Operators Manual I’m currently writing at work. I reckon the boss is going to say “What the” (tempted as I was I didn’t use the font nor red) but honestly the tables shine which is good as there are 68 (my count) of them – which includes the stats for the Giant Badger on page 4 (nice touch).
The one page character sheet has everything. Clear, concise, nice font choice, and the same standard three colours used throughout the rules, red, black and grey. I have just realised have to ask the author why the attribute d4 is coloured grey … When you buy the pdf you get a choice of black (& grey) and white, or the colour (adds red option). It won’t be taxing on the printer either way but I plan on buying a softcopy (or two) when they are released.
We’re up to version 1.3 of the rules but the author is finalising that as I write. Because of the early release and having an active Google+ community it’s been a community effort to ensure the rules are error free. Not that there were many to begin with but the approach I think has ensured we get a quality product.
Part 3 – PD Mind = d10
Rules, are they old school? No, but they definitely capture the feel of old school. There are 4 attributes (I hope you guessed Body, Mind, Soul, and Social) that cover all the bases but it’s not 3d6 (or even 2d6) a “polyhedral” represents the attribute (aka Savage Worlds or Cortex). Not only that, in the Basic Rules (what I’m reviewing) you don’t even choose what attribute gets what. Nope, choose your race/class (Cleric, Dwarf, Elf, Fighter, Halfling, Magic User, Rogue – that’s old school) and that determines your attributes (initially ranging from a d4 to a d8, and can be improved with experience make that brownie points). What you do get to choose is you starting 3 Talents and 200 coins to buy equipment (but even equipment selection is semi-predefined if you choose).
Talents? They’re like edges, feats, or spells. Spells? Yes, no half you basic rulebook taken up with spell lists here. A Magic User for example can choose from detect magic, familiar, invisibility, light sprite (light) lightning bolt, magic armour, sleep, speed, and summon monster. What? That’s it? Yep. But, each Talent can be improved with experience brownie points which breaking right down means it gets better. In the advanced rules there will be more Talents (and spells) but honestly you can simply make you own. This is again where despite being modern, PD Basic is very old school – if you want something, just make it. So long as you have some familiarity with tabletops RPGs, you could come up with any Talent (spell/power) and it will be fine. You want break a thing trust me. You may tweak it but it won’t be broken. This is one of the part of the magic of PD, don’t like it? Change it. Want more? Add it. You’re encouraged to do so. It’s part of its design and it’s designed well. The other races/classes have their own Talents//Powers, and some can choose from other races/classes, so it’s not just magic, everyone one gets their selection of “things”.
This simple/fast character creation system makes it perfect for one shots. The rules are truly so simple that so long as the one person running the show has a good grasp on them, no else needs to know diddly squat. At the very lowest level, choose a race/class and 3 Talents (non-human races get 1 or 2 predefined choices), here’s you equipment and we’re off (in 15 minutes). But how do I play? Simple, choose an attribute that is appropriate to what you are trying to achieve (e.g. Physical combat = Body, Detect someone sneaking = Mind, Convince the bouncer to let you into the club = Social) and roll that die vs your opponents die or a difficulty assigned by the DM/GM (e.g. Easy d4, Nearly Impossible = d12) and highest roll wins. If its combat, roll you damage die (based on weapon used) vs. armour die (based on armour worn) and a positive is the number of wounds a character takes.
Unlike D&D HP system, PD has wound and strain. I won’t go into the details but each wound and strain means a -1 to your roll. This means as soon as you are wounded or strained (stress, fatigue, etc.) you can’t do things as easily as you once could. It has a spiral effect, so a key to survival is avoid or remove wounds ASAP. The four stats even without further explanation would cover most bases, but the author has included rules that cover actions, movement, encumbrance, advantage, communication, help from others, multiple cations, sneaking, opening doors, searching, falling, damaged items, poisons, paralysis, elemental damage, disease, followers, and alignment in 5 pages! And it makes sense!
What about long term campaigns? Well PCs get those experience brownie points which can be used to save their skin (re-roll, add one to a roll, negate a wound, etc.) or can be saved to improve an attribute, an existing talent, or learn a new talent. The advanced rules will give more options but it seems easy enough to come up with your own and or steal ideas from other games.
There are 7 pages that cover Gear and Loot which includes magic items (17 of to get you started) and 6 pages covers monsters. Two of these pages summarise 40 monsters in a table (one row) per monster which are all familiar to any old school player. Then there’s a short table that presents monster Talents. In these few pages you can easy make any equivalent monster from any old school module. Not only that, there is good advice on Boss monsters meaning even veterans of the game will never know what to expect. You an even give them brownie points (recall – re-roll, negate wounds, etc.) something normal monsters can’t do.
Part 4 – Body = d10
I took a pdf copy of B2 Keep on the Borderlands (RPGNow purchase), converted it to PD, and ran it with one player maintaining 4 characters. I could have done the conversion as I ran it – honest. Look up monster in table – done! OK, being familiar with poisons/acid/paralysis stuff would help but really it’s so easy just to jump in and do it. I did actually do some prep, and of that the most useful was a GM screen, homemade, cut and pasted from the pdf, but I looked at it maybe once? In 2 to 3 hours we introduced the characters, the campaign, mingled at the keep, and made a foray into the Caves of Chaos that finished with 5 physical and one social (leave or we’ll kill you) encounters. The rules are so simple (yet cover everything) you don’t even notice they exist.
It’s a game that encourages you not to look it up, but make it up, and does it so well. I’m in a pit how do I get out? With rope roll body vs d4, without its body vs d10 (10 second decision). The kobold is behind cover what’s the rule? There is one but given I allow you to hit when you roll equal to your opponent, because he has cover you will now miss (Not in the rules as written, but worked, and took what? 10 seconds). What’s the range of lightning bolt? I dunno, but given you can see him that’s fine be me (5 seconds).
Part 5 – Soul – d10 (edging a d12)
Overall I give PD a d10 out of a possible d12 (d20 reserved for monsters after all). Depending on your need, once the Judges Guide with examples is out, not to mention the advanced rules and the extra options to be found therein, I can see this easily being a d12. It absolutely smashes one of the design goals of being one shot suitable whilst providing all the old school troupe. On top of that it can easy succeed as continuing campaign suitable in its current (Basic) form with characters able to improve attributes and talents, and learn new talents. This can only be enhanced with the author’s future plans involving advanced rules, different settings (e.g. modern) that will be designed to be interchangeable.
Is it perfect? No, but its close. My playing group for example is not going to replace 5E with PD. But I will introduce it to them whenever I can and that’s the beauty – after x months they can’t recall the rules. After 10 minutes, it will be what rules? In fact my pan to introduce my son to RPGs with S&W or AGE has now been compromised. PD is my game of choice.
I should point out that despite my praises, I think initially it might hard for a RPG noob to pick up PD and run with it. After I bought it I read it, then read it, then went o Google+ and asked the author a few questions, then read it again, asked more questions, more reading, and more questions. Then during the play test my friend asked questions I hadn’t thought of! It’s not that the rules as written are bad. They explain everything just the way they are written. In my case I just had to do away with preconceived ideas and what I was used to before I got it. Your mileage on that will vary.
What does help is the fact it’s a 50 page rule book (including character sheet, cover, and some blank pages for house rules and campaign notes). If you are not sure read it again, but once you have it you won’t forget. The biggest assistance to the refactoring of my preconceived ideas was discovering PDs Google+ community. The author to date has answered all my questions on a daily basis. He is a one man show, with a day job, yet still finds the time to answer my questions which if I simply read what was written I needn’t have asked in the first place. Hats off to (Roy) actually James but I have a Led Zeppelin theme going here. Once the Judges Guide is out which will contain among other things examples of play, I/we should be able to leave James alone to get on and produce more. Given what I/we have in PD, that’s what I want (Please Sir, may I have some more?)
Do I need to add a disclosure at this point? I don’t know the author from a bar of soap (he’s answered every of mine on question on Google+ though) and I never got a free copy for this review. I do however intend to buy all future PD publications. PD Basic has wet my whistle and I hunger for more.
"Leaves are falling all around, it's time I was on my way. Thanks to you, I'm much obliged for such a pleasant stay. But now it's time for me to go.”
PS – If you like this review I’m happy to ditch my day job and write more, I just need to feed the family is all, so …
[4 of 5 Stars!]