Dunjon Playtest Review by Dan Geyer on 10/11/02
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
Like D&D, Dunjon is (at least by default) largely about stomping around in the dark, slaughtering innocent (okay, perhaps not so innocent) monsters, and running off with their loot. But unlike D&D, all the players (not just the DM) are responsible for directly narrating the adventure and deciding what happens. The result is a really interesting blend of the traditional dungeon crawl-type adventure with narrative storytelling techniques.
Author: Clinton R. Nixon
Page count: 73
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: no
Playtest Review by Dan Geyer on 10/11/02
Genre tags: Fantasy
If your experience is anything like mine, you can probably recall the excitement of having practically unlimited options the first time you roleplayed. I vividly remember feeling amazed that something as open-ended as roleplaying could actually exist, and fascinated by the fact that virtually anything might happen. Well, as Clinton R. Nixon (the game’s designer) says, Dunjon is all about recapturing those feelings of awe and excitement.
Before I go any further, I should make my bias clear. As the author of a humorous fantasy game setting myself, I have some reason to appreciate a game like Dunjon. But Dunjon isn’t just a funny setting — it adds a mechanic to create humor based on interaction between players and the GM. This is something I’ve rarely seen in gaming, and have never seen in fantasy gaming. (To be fair, I should also add Dunjon isn’t necessarily humor fantasy, although I think that that’s the easiest way to play the game.)
Like Dungeons & Dragons, the game to which Dunjon owes is basic setting, Dunjon is (at least by default) largely about stomping around in the dark, slaughtering innocent (okay, perhaps not so innocent) monsters, and running off with their loot. But unlike D&D, all the players (not just the DM) are responsible for directly narrating the adventure and deciding what happens. The result is a really interesting blend of the traditional dungeon crawl-type adventure with narrative storytelling techniques.
I’m not going to get into all the specific details of the game (there’s already another review of the game on RPG.net that goes into that in some detail), but to give the basics: as I implied above, the basic and most important concept behind Dunjon is that the players have almost as much control over the story as the gamemaster. Success on rolls garners the ability to determine facts about what’s happening. The most important rule in the game, the Law of Successes, states that for every “success” you score on a roll, you can state one fact about the situation (or gain a bonus die for another action). If, for example, you search for a secret door and you succeed, then you find a secret door. Or you find something else — it’s really your choice, and the more successful you are, the more control you have over what you find. Although certain aspects of this require a significant bit of thought and some practice to get the hang of it, the result is a game concept I really wish I had thought of myself, and that instantly got me and my players thinking about all the possibilities.
One of the best things about Dunjon, in my opinion, is that it takes advantage of its medium. Usually, one of the biggest disadvantages of a roleplaying game (as opposed to, say, an audiovisual medium like film or television) is that it’s very difficult for a gamemaster to continually describe succinctly entire scenes in vivid detail. In Dunjon, however, this (usually) annoying limitation actually becomes an advantage. For example, you might start out in what seems like a nondescript room. However, after a combat scene, you learn that all along in fact the room contained a pool teeming with pirhannas, a heroin-addicted goat, a giant bucket of slugs, a pit with poisoned spikes, and a thousand banana peels stapled to the ceiling. Like with any roleplaying game, imagination is the limit — but now you’ve got as many imaginations working together as you’ve got players.
Mechanically speaking, one or two aspects of Dunjon’s system are obviously modeled after original D&D. All six of the attributes directly parallel D&D attributes (Virility stands in for Strength, Cerebrality for Intelligence, and so forth), and your class and race aren’t distinct from each other (although in Dunjon, “class” is more akin to “character concept” than what most games call class). Despite these basic similarities, though, Dunjon is not meant as a parody. Also despite the initial similarity, Dunjon mechanics are pretty different from any incarnation of D&D.
A lot of Dunjon is rules, but they’re good rules, either because they’re funny or innovative, or both. An example of the former is damage, which (in true “Monty Python” tradition), is handled with “flesh wounds.” An example of the latter is the way provisions are handled. Some (though not all) of your possessions are generic and temporary. Rather than writing down boring stuff like “rations” on your character sheet, you make a Cerebrality and Provisions test to see if you thought to bring any, or if you thought to bring that rabid weasel.
The first time we played Dunjon, we had some difficulty sorting out some of the details of how this was to work. Specifically, it was sometimes difficult to determine what constitutes one fact as opposed to two or three. Is “you see an ogre in the dark with a giant axe” one fact or two? Another logistical issue is just what sorts of facts your successes allow you to determine. When you succeed at holding your breath, can you use the successes to determine that (unrelatedly) there’s a gorilla dancing the cha cha nearby? Sorting out these things slowed down our game somewhat, and more advice on logistics here would have been helpful.
Our party consisted of a cowardly elven thief, a song-happy bard, a green-faced witch, and an obscenity mage whose magic words (these are necessary for Dunjon’s innovative spellcasting game mechanic) are better left unspecified. Things got off to a bizarre start as a number of people were transformed into giant amorous salamanders, and by the time we finished, one of my players described the game (aptly, I thought) as Monthy Python meets A Clockwork Orange.
Another difficulty we encountered ultimately turned out to be one of the game’s strengths. Almost from the moment we started playing, the players kept going straight for the adventure’s jugular. We played the adventure presented in the manual (groaningly titled A Fungus Among Us) where the players are trying to find the Mushroom King. Of course, since players in Dunjon can determine their own facts, they kept seeing signs of the king they were trying to find everywhere. Doors with toadstools, the smell of mushrooms, and the king’s henchmen were everywhere. It was all I could do as a GM to keep them from bypassing all the planned encounters and heading straight to the climax! Perhaps I should have warned them not to do this from the beginning. But I didn’t know any better, so we diverged from the planned encounters almost immediately as the players took off in their own direction. As the GM my energies (and my successes) were spent trying to stop them from wrapping up the adventure without going through any of the encounters.
It soon became apparent, however, that this conflict of interest between the GM and the players (in which they worked to make the next scene the one in which they found the mushroom king and I worked to thwart them) ends up driving the game forward and keeping things exciting. For example, my bard decided to find a wish-granting genie, which he made appear with his successes. However, when I added to his facts that the genie had to grant at least one wish, and that the wish was necessarily malevolent toward him and his companions, he was singing a different tune.
Like any heavily narrativist game, Dunjon requires some maturity from players to work. Too much powergaming opposes the interests of having a coherent story. On the other hand, like I said above, a certain amount of competition between the GM and the players actually makes the story more interesting. The players strive to get their characters to the goal, while the GM tries to foil them. The game works better, too, if the players are aware in advance that they their own goals (have an amusing and interesting story) are not the same as their characters goals, which could be anything.
Dunjon can be serious if you want it to be, but my players and I being who we are, the results were pretty silly, and we spent a lot of time laughing. The unusual storytelling method requires some work from players, but there’s no doubt that Dunjon expands the boundaries of gaming, which is what new games should be doing — and do all too infrequently. It’s also great fun, and the initial concept by itself is worth the price of the book (the PDF is $10.00).