I am a long time fan of Guardians of Order's projects, and so when i noticed Dungeon on Amazon for 12 dollars and being a few dollars short of free shipping, I grabbed it.
I am glad I did. BESM: Dungeon is fun in that light-hearted that shines through the best of the BESM products. However, had I paid more I am not certain I would have been satisfied. 96 half-sized pages makes a small book and while the layout and writing is superb, it was still short. No space or words are wasted, but many subjects that I would feel to be crucial to adapting japanese computer rpgs to pen-and-paper where never given the consideration I would have liked to see. This is made more painful by how well the books does with what subject matter it does cover.
Art and Appearance:
Guardians of Order, as always, turns out a graphically excellent book. In fact the anime-style art has noticably improved over BESM 2nd edition, ranging from the great to the merely decent. The layout is clear and readable without wasted space, and art is integrated seemlessly and topically into the text. The interior is entirely black and white and there are a few pictures that were clearly origionally in color. However, this does not harm the appearance of the book in the slightest. The dungeon maps themselves are well drawn and have a visually appealing "old time DnD module" retro look, complete with 5' squares. A splendid job.
BESM: Dungeon is (contrary to my expectations) a pure setting book. You will find no new rules here, simply applications of the simple and fast-playing Big Eyes, Small Mouth second edition. In one way this is the greatest strength of the book - 96 pages gives just enough space to present and flesh out the basics of an interesting mini-world, an isolated island suitable for dropping into almost any faux-medieval fantasy campaign. In another way, however, the lack of any mechanical innovations is also its greatest weakness. BESM is certainly fully capable of emulating the characters, stories and settings of japenese computer rpgs. But so can many other systems. It was a personal disapointement that no attempt was made to in any way emulate the unique feel and cliches of gameplay that have become so heavily associated with the genre.
Enough about what the book is not. What it is is a simply fun fantasy setting. BESM: Dungeon is an adaption for a western pen-and-paper rpg of the japanese adaptions in Anime and console computers games of western pen-and-paper rpgs (ie, Dungeons and Dragons). The writing philosophy seems to be wonderfully simple: any cliche that can survive a round trip through different cultures and different mediums must be doing something right. Such a cliche is the pre-made dungeon that takes up the fourth chapter and about 1/3 the book. No DnD veteran would find himself out of place in these 5' by 5' square mapped (purely an artistic wink and nod, as BESM does not use minatures or tactical movement, but it would make the dungeon easily convertable to certain other rpgs) Labyrinths of Lysandra - right down to room-by-room encoutners and level by level wandering monster tables.
It is in the other two thirds of the book, detailing the origins and surroundings of the dungeon and those who delve in it, that the japanese influence and changes become clear. Suggested character abilities and options include not just your basic Badass Barbarians, Mysterious Mages, and Angsty Sun-burned Elves. They also include your powerful yet ditzy Summoners, cute and hyper Cat Girls, imperious Half Dragons, and dimensionally displaced Teenagers. Templates are provided for a variety of backgrounds and species, one of the rare few places in the book in which I think some space could have been better used, though they will be of help to new players or those looking to simply throw together a one-minute character. Some basic advice is also given for forming and maintaining adventuring groups. However, the authors choose, as in all other BESM products, to sidestep with barely a mention two important issues. The first is that of experience, where they simply suggest giving more than normal. This is not a major flaw, as there is a small table comparing certain character point values to certain things called "levels" and, except for some (in-genre) monster who are horribly dangerous for what they are and where they appear (fear the Pokedrake!), it is pretty clear what point values are expected to be tackling what levels of the dungeon. A much greater problem is in their cavalier ("The gm should just say no!") approach to handling combat-focused characters. This is BESM: Dungeon, right? Based on dungeon-delving and compulsive-levelling Japanese rpgs? "Just say no" doesn't cut it for a genre where combat-monkeys are in genre. There is no greater single flaw anywhere in the book, and single handedly lost BESM:Dungeon a point in my substance rating. There simply is no excuse.
From here on, though, the book is nothing but A+. The surroundings and local history, along with characters of interest and note, as described in all the detail you'd expect of a Japanese RPG, except that you don't get to meet that boring guy in the pub or the housewife whose house you just entered to loot for !Bread. What you do get to meet is a wonderful collection of example PCs disguised as NPCs - or, as any player of FF or Chrono Trigger knows, recruitable party members! Also included are several pre-packaged origins for adventuring PCs, from Saint George's Academy for Young Sorcerors and Sorceresses to the not-really-very-mean streets of the village of Noah's Landing. High points include Yuki Yamamoto, a young girl lost across dimensions, one-time obsessive player of console rpgs, now "prophetic" oracle, and the Spider Ninja clan, elitist all-male assassins, now so infiltrated by women that only one young male ninja remains to suffer a sexual identity crisis over strange feelings for his fellow trainees.
The book wraps up with a short bestiary of monsters (those present in more than one dungeon room or in the random monster tables) and a very complete index.
I have little to say here I didn't say in the beginning. This is a fun book, both to read and I would expect to run as a oneshot or short campaign. It could have used a lot more space than it had, but everything that is included is superb. If you are looking for an entertaining diversion from your normal campaign or to throw together something quick for a oneshot or vacation game, this could very well be your choice. Fpr a sustainable fantasy campaign I would buying suggest Uresia: Grave of Heaven before buying this book, but BESM: Dungeon gives exactly what its title promises and a fair bit more, if not quite everything you would want.
A clear 5 for style, and a 3 for Substance. It would have been a solid four, but the complete failure to address the easily solvable but often problematic issues with high-powered combat in BESM is really inexcusable.