Game Review: Delve, Second Edition
Publisher: Feral Gamers Inc.
Game Engine: Custom (d100-based)
OverviewDelve 2e appeared in my "recommended for you" section of DrivethruRPG back in in the middle 2019 and caught my interest thanks to its sales pitch:
You awaken on a beach surrounded by the debris from a wrecked ship, you are not alone as others seem to be also awakening from their ordeal. You had no time to pack and all you have is what is in your pockets or what you can find amongst the wreckage. This begins your adventures on the island of Cragbarren.
It advertised itself as being quick and easy to learn: both high priorities for me. I added it to my wish list... and then forgot about it.
When the COVID-19 outbreak suddenly had me entertaining my family full time, I decided to hunt for some fresh material. I logged on to DrivethruRPG and discovered that Delve 2e was being offered for free temporarily, and snagged it. I read it in an afternoon, took some furious notes, and I was glad that I did. This is a game with a lot of good tools to pirate.
The Delve 2e is a fantasy game that is a hybrid system between Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer Fantasy.
It uses classes and races that are clearly D&D driven. The three D&D classic races of Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling are present, with a gritty twist, along with half-elves and half-orcs. The three classes available, Warriors, Rogues, and Magic-users, are divided up into two subclasses each that have distinct flavours and abilities. It effectively gives us something a midway point between classic AD&D with limited class options and 5e, where each class has choices to be made to customize a character. PCs have 5 stats that are derivative of the D&D core stats.
Like Warhammer Fantasy, characters have a fistful of skills that combine with a stat number to give a percentage chance of success; a d100 is rolled to get under the skill + attribute percentage number to succeed. A range where a die roll counts as a critical success or failure. Nearly all character action s use this d100 roll, including atracking, saving, and casting spells. Use of magic is limited by a magic point resource.
The theme of the game is survival end exploration, and the setting has a dark tone with a bit of a British Punk aesthetic subtly woven in. Characters start with nothing but a few randomly chosen items in their pockets and salvaged from a shipwreck, and must build or salvage what they need, or barter with NPCs using a system that focuses on the value of an object for survival.
The game reminds me a lot in aesthetic, theme, setting, and art of the video game Path of Exile. Fans of POE will likely find a lot to love about Delve 2e.
Good PointsThere are three mechanics in particular in Delve 2e that I found really praiseworthy: Light, Armour and Barter. I am also impressed with the setting.
LightDelve uses a semi-random timer mechanic to detetmine when the lights go out. Different sources of light use a different counter die: d10 for an oil lamp or d6 for torches and candles. Each starts at its higest increment. Every 2 turns, roll the same die. If it is below the current counter value, deincrement the counter by 1. If the roll is above the counter value, the light is expended and goes out.
This means lanterns can last from 40-200 minutes and candles and torches 40-120, and PCs never know exactly when they will be left in the dark. Magical light sources are resource intensive, and no one starts with the ability to see in the dark.
Light is correlated to distance zones (Close, Near, Far), and some discussion about the problems of using candles as a light source are discussed in a way I had not considered before.
I use this tool in almost every game I currently run.
ArmourArmour not only grants an AC bonus, but has its own hit points. When characters take damage, they can offload it to their armour, causing the armour to degrade and eventually become useless. This allows characters to make a devil's bargain: "I can avoid getting hurt now, but it will be easier to hurt me later, and repairs will be costly."
I have used this as an inspiration for a houserule in my DCC RPG game that I call "Let the Mail be Rent."
BarterThe survival theme carries over into the game's economics. In the Delve's setting, most of the population are focused on survival in a harsh environment. They don't care about coins, save as a source of metal. Instead of a coin value, most objects have a barter index based on how useful it is for survivors. Oil, fuel, cloth, and rope are far more valuable than a gemstone or jewelled object.
The barter system is tied to the crafting and tinkering system in the game. Resources such as wood, bone, stone, hide, cloth, and metal also have a raw value in trade as well as being used in the crafting system.
If I were running a game in a survival setting this book's barter and resource trade rules would be invaluable.
SettingCragbarren is a compelling setting: a rugged island at the edge of a sea lane used by sailors to avoid a frightening Eldritch Mist. Having little in valuable resources, surrounded in perilous shoals, and infested by monsters, no larger civilisation has colonized Cragbarren in centuries. Shipwrecks are common enough that a village, Wreck Haven has formed near the island's most perilous beach, but does not signal its presence for fear that orcs or pirates might find it. Survivors have to make their way through a dangerous cave complex to reach the village's lookout.
Once in Wreck Haven, PCs must struggle to make a place for themselves. Dangerous monsters prowl the island, even making it to the last surviving town of the island's native population is a heroic feat. Earning the resources to have the gear necessary for such a trip can last several adventures.
Before Delve became free (and now PWYW) it was bundled with a document entitled The Castaway's Guide to Cragbarren. This book also appears in game as a gift to the PCs, and is meant to be most of the lore available to the inhabitants of Wreck Haven. I am hoping to be able to review it seperately later. Material in the 'Guide is referenced in the Delve 2e Corebook, leaving the reader of the Corebook only feeling like they haven't got the full picture.
Even without The Castaway's Guide to Cragbarren, the setting is compelling, and you won't have much trouble taking the tidbits mentioned and using them to flesh out your own Cragbarren.
Growth PointsDelve is stuffed full to the gills with creativity. From acronymous stat names, to cool art, to a narrative intro to the system unlike anything I've seen elsewhere, to a setting that, even in the small glimpses you get in the core book seems like a fun, punk-rock take on D&D. Unfortunately, Delve 2e's virtues are also its vices. The places where it is most inventive and original are often inconsistently executed, poorly edited, or difficult to use.
File QualityDelve 2e's art is colour and fairly high quality (if sparse) in a style reminiscent of Pathfinder or a video game like Path of Exile. It uses an attractive page template as well. Unfortunately, the file is not well compressed, which makes the otherwise attractive layout a liability. It does not load quickly and often takes a minute or two to load new pages in Adobe Reader for Android. This means turning over more than a few pages at a time leads to long waits. Without a detailed file bookmark system, finding specific material in the book can take ages.
Update: As of April 12th, The Delve 2e comes with a print friendly version of the .PDF the loads swiftly, making this complaint mostly moot.
Inconsistent Introductory ExperienceDelve 2e tends to turn its virtues into vices. The book opens strong with compelling fiction that leads into character generation. You read about washing up on the shores of Cragbarren, then use random tables embedded in the narrative to search your pockets for possessions, and salvage goods on the beach.
From there we enter into character generation. The game offers two character creation methods, but walks you partway through one generation method using a point buy system before offering you the option to use a quick creation system that uses rolled attributes instead.
The character generation section also has conflicting information about the percentage number for each attribute with page 11 saying stat x3 and page 12 saying stat x5. Given that the two methods would create radically different power levels of PC, that makes a certain sense, but whether that was intended, rather than a typo, it is unclear.
Once through character generation, the narrative continues, with the PCs as a band of castaways trying to leave the beach and the wreck behind by exploring some caves.
This would be a perfect opportunity to teach players the rules of the game by doing. As a built-in tutorial adventure like in the Mentzer boxed set I started playing D&D with, or as an introductory module for new players and GMs alike. Instead, the journey through the cave complex is an example of play with PCs completely unrelated to the PC who was just generated as part of the narrative.
Once the sample characters escape the caves, the narrative returns to the viewpoint of the PC, as if they had just completed the same cave adventure. This is both a confusing shift of perspective and player engagement - and an opportunity lost. The PCs are then guided to Wreck Haven, and pointed to the major businesses and PCs in the village.
This is where the PCs and players alike are supposed to recieve The Castaway's Guide to Cragbarren, but if it is not available to the group, as it is no longer bundled with Delve, this is a bit jarring.
Each location in town is also where the rules are introduced: magic rules are explianed at the Mage's guild, barter and resource gathering at the trading post, equipment crafting, durability, and repair at the blacksmith.
I think that combining a tutorial, character generation, and the introduction of new rules into the game in this narrative fashion has great potential. It could be an exciting and immersive experience. Changing perspectives, switching to passive reading during the first possible action, and switching between PCs and sample characters makes it into a confusing jumble that instead makes for a frustrating read.
Tortured AcronymsThe character stats in delve are Dexterity Endurance Learning Vitality and Empathy, to spell D.E.L.V.E., but the names are a bit misleading, with Endurance also being an analogue to the Strength score, but with some of the functions of Constitution in traditional D&D and having confusing overlap with Vitality. Basically you have two Con scores, with one also being Strength, and one influencing hit points and resistance to disease, while both descriptively are supposed to reprsent stamina. The desire to have the acronym seems to have been more impotant thsn well-defined stats.
Making a Strength score called Vigor might have been less confusing.
Equipment DegradationBecause Delve is focused entirely on survival in a place with few resources, it makes sense to have clear rules about equipment being worn, damaged, and degraded over time. However these rules are a mish-mash of mechanics from armour having hit points to weapons having a modifier based on repair, to gear having quality tags. All of which means there are a lot of different moving parts to keep track of, many of which only show up when the player elects for them to, or critical hits or fumbles appear. This needs unification.
Lack of Sample AdventureDelve 2e clearly emphasizes low-level play focused on survival. However, the only fleshed-out adventure location is The City of Stench, which is intended for high-level characters. The manual even suggests that low-level parties will likely experience a TPK while trying to enter the city. The City appears to be a sort of endgame scenario presented as the place PCs will go to find piles of gold and jewels once based in a city that values such things. (A city called Gnarling is mentioned repeatedly as a probable mid-point base of operations for PCs throughout.)
Delve 2e is a work of incredible creativity, and does a great job at paring down D&D's magic and mechanics to make a survival story possible, while adding enough to make that survival story viable, and presenting itself with a setting that makes that style of play engaging.
If you want to run a game where the PCs start with nothing, build, salvage and steal everything they have, and where starvation and getting lost in the dark are as lethal enemies as monsters, there are some incredible resources here.
The problem is that this book was an army of one project from a passionate creative mind. Where the ideas are coolest and most original, the game desperately needed some extra eyes and helpful feedback to live up to its full potential. We are rarely critical enough of our own most exciting ideas.
With a little work, I believe Delve could step out from the crowd and shine, especially with sone retooling of the way the game is introduced.
I doubt I would run Delve as a stand alone game, but I would happily steal Cragbarren for a game of DCC RPG, Knave, or ICRPG, and I have already stolen its best mechanics. I would recommend Delve as a purchase for anyone looking to run a survival game for those tools alone!