Sunday, June 28, 2020

Game Review: Dungeon Bright

Dungeon Bright CC-BY Game Icons
Game Review: Dungeonbright

Author: Ben and Jessica Dutter
Publisher: Ben and Jessica Dutter
Marketplace:, DrivethruRPG
Engine: OSR / d20 -derived

Caveat Majora: This is a review of v0.1 of Dungeonbright. I have a lot of crtiticisms of this game, many of which may be addressed later on. I hearby promise that if TTRPG Twitter does not send me fleeing to the hills to become a hermit, I will review vers. 1.0 when it comes out and link it here.

Dungeonbright is a self-published small RPG with a lot of big ideas, some of which are pretty damned cool. There are things I want to try with ideas embedded in Dungeon Bright. But I am not sure the engine is workable. 

The game, as what is essentially an open beta should, begins with a list of design goals. I am going to cite them here for the sake of assessing where the game meets of fails to meet them:
Dungeonbright’s design goals were:
• Mechanized GM fiat
• Completely in-fiction or diegetic
• Unified and coherent mechanics
• Rewarding player ingenuity
• Evocative, flexible characters
• Content and dungeon compatibility
The tentpole elements of the game are:
• Say yes, or roll the dice
• Almost everything is a d20 check
• GM has 100% control over all DCs
• PC abilities permit or give options
• Pair two PC attributes per roll
• PCs are weird and wield magic
• All magic is utilitarian and “chunky”
My critique, as always, is intended to be fair and offer growth points. Given the stage of the game's development cycle, I am hoping that it will be of great value to the Duttons. I am also hoping that I can create some hype so that this game can get some love and support, because I see great potential tangled up in there.

Charactes have three base Abilities and three Fields that are randomly generated between -2 and +3. Abilities (Body, Mind, Spirit) represent raw natural potential, while Fields represent training and personal development (Combat, Expertise, Magic). Characters also have three Stats (Vitality, Clarity, Will) that represent a characters ability to endure physical, mental, or mystical injury. They also have a list of skills, gear, talents, and traits that are non-numerical.

Often, when a die roll is called for, characters roll a d20 + a relevant Ability + a relevant Field against a DC set by the GM. Advantage and Disadvantage are used similarly tp D&D5e; roll 2d20, take the result you prefer. 

There are also "Passives" a threshold derived by taking an Ability + Field + 10. This makes for a character sheet with 6 values between -2 and +3 creating 9 Modifiers between -4 and +6 and nine Passives between 6 and 16. If a character has a relevant skill or equipment and a roll DC would be under their passive, a character is automatically successful. Passives are also used as saving throws that a character must roll under on a d20.

In fact, automatic success is the way in which Dungeonbright attempts to create a game that is wholly narrative. Characters are expected to automatically succeed at anything when: 
  • They have a clever idea.
  • They have appropriate gear.
  • The characters describe their approach in detail.
  • They have the relevant skill and a Passive Modifier higher than the DC.
  • They have a talent or trait that makes narrative sense to help them.

What I Loved

Dungeoneering Focus 

The key assumption of Dungeon Bright is that a hellish supernatural darkness has consumed the world. Where there is no light, evil things manifest and stalk the living. The characters are brave scavengers looking to bring back valuable magic objects lost during the apocalypse.

Dungeonbright is totally focused on the dungeon crawl. It is not interested in complex intrigue or exploration play. It does well in building mechanics that facilitate that aspect of play specifically.

Character Development Engine

Characters have a level and a class like in most D&D / OSR games, but levelling is handled very differently from most games: there is no experience point system. Instead, in Dungeonbright you have a goal established by your class such as "Trap a terrible monster without anyone getting hurt" or "Evade a deadly captor through a combination of evasion and cunning." Once you have done that described deed you level up.

A character who levels up picks a class: either their current one, or a new one. Each time they take a level in a class they choose or roll one new skill, add +1 to a designated stat, gain a new skill, spell, or weapon proficiency, and choose or roll one of six special talents unique to that class. The class you chose determines the goal for your next level.

This is clever. You get levels by doing something exceptional that is congruent with ypur characters current focus. Levels come from accomplishments, not a grind of collecting treasure or killing monsters. The incentivised gameplay for players thus becomes "play your character's abilities to the hilt."

Light Effects

Dungeonbright is a game where supernatural darkness breeds monsters the DM rolls regularly against a slowly diminishing DC to determine random encounters. If the PCs have good, bright lighting from lanterns or magic, that roll has disadvantage. If the PCs are gropjng around in the dark the random encounter roll has advantage.

This means the longer you are in a dungeon and the deeper you go, the more likely the dark will coalesce into some horror. And if your lights run out, then the darkness is likely to grow teeth. And the darkness will make it hard to defend yourself.

Characters are all human in dungeon bright; there is no darkvision to bail you out here...

Cool Magic

Like in Knave, magic is not used for damage.  Instead, spells are levelless and utilitarian, letting you  do things like create light, conjure zip lines, create bait to distract monsters, or talk to animals. Almost every character knows a few spells to help them survive. Spells can be cast slowly for automatic success or cast rapidly. If you cast rapidly and fail the roll the magic goes wild, causing a described mishap and makes the spell unusable again until the PC performs a ritual that recharges the spell.

The recharge requirement for each spell reminds me of something out of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone's SORCERY! books. They are weird little rites like feeding food to burrowing animals, hanging coins in spider webs, or burning wet mushrooms. Very strange and evocative. My only gripe is that the hsme at present only has 15 spells.

Player-Facing Combat

The rules are vague here, but combat appears to be designed to be player-facing. They are not parsed out enough for me to be certain,  however. If my read is correct, players always make a general combat roll against a DC based on whether they want to hurt, kill, intimidate, etc. On a success they accomplish their goal, while on a failure they get hurt or the monster uses a special power. If this read is correct, then combat is rather like a stripped down Powered by the Apocalypse game like Dungeon World.

Combat in this set up is tense and fast but lacks the granularity of most D&D based games, and so might not be to everyone's taste.

Growth Points

The Mechanics are Far from Unified

While certainly light on rules, Dungeonbright uses both d20 style roll-over mechanics for active tests, and roll-under for saves. Which brings back haunting memories of 7th grade and players asking before every die roll "Do I want high or low?" It is unnecessary,  when a default DC can be set for saves instead. A monster's ability might use it Hurt DC for a save, for example. Traps might be handled with a trap DC.

The Power of Darkness Needs Expansion

Light and darkness are the stars of the show here. They could use some more importance to the actual game. Obviously, I would start by overtly pointing out in that most rolls players make are going to have disadvantage whrn groping around in the dark, as well as making random encounters more likely..

I'd consider a few of the following possibilities for options in the core design or as optional rules:
  • Bright lighting grants advantage to detecting secret doors.
  • Dark lighting gives monsters regenerative powers.
  • Bright lighting grants advantage to using talents or spells.
  • Dark lighting grants disadvantage on spells and talents.
Or, as a really radical option, take away some of the PCs automatic successes in the Dark.

I would also consider using an optional usage die mechanic, like in Delve 2e for light to add significant tension to the game.

"Rulings, Not Rules" Still Needs a Complete Ruleset.

Dungeonbright includes some very well-considered rules, like its Encumbrance system. In other places it is woefully underdeveloped.  For example the character "Traits" is an interesting table,  but no guidance is offered on how to use it. The same is true of the monster ability notes: we have mention of blinding, paralysis,  infection... but no clue how to use them.

I am not looking for a massive cross-indexed tome with a thousand terms to menorize here. I mean, it hurts my brain to try to read  Pathfinder2nd Ed., but Dungeonbright expects DMs to look at lonely words and improvise mechanics on the fly. Some compromise needs to be made.

Perhaps a description of some of the more common monster effects

Confusing Language

Dungeonbright has some places where the language gets confusing. The Combat section in particular needs some clarification. In several places we see highlighted terms like "down" that have no definition.  There seems to be an expectation that a GM will simply adjust the narrative to incorporate a deliberately vague idea without guidance on how that should be reflected. If an item is important enough to be boldface, it probably needs some further exploration. 

No Character Death

We have two states caused by injury in Dungeonbright: Wounded and Down,  if a character depletes one of their Stats. Wounded applies disadvantage ro rolls, but what down means is, ad mentioned above, left to the DM. There is no state in which character death occurs as a part of the game's consequences.  Presumably a character left behind in the Dark when "down" or having the whole party downed is the end of them.

I would suggest that multiple wounds causing a character to die is a good simple rule that mirrors how monsters appear to work.

Pointless Tag Syndrome

In Dungeon World, weapons come with tags that describe what sets them aside from a bog-standard heavy stick. Most of those tags are defined in an appendix with other a mechanical or recommended narrative impact. After Dungeon World became incredibly popular, there was a spate of games that started incorporating weapon tags into their design like ICRPG Core 2e.

The weakness of weapon tags in Dungeon World is that they constantly require checking the back of the book for the meaning of the tags.  Some developers decided to include the tags without any rules or context, assuming that GMs would find ways to incorporate them narratively. Generally this does nothing other than add higher cognitive load for the GM, or leads to the weapon tags being ignored altogether.

Dungeonbright incorporates weapon tags in a new way. All characters can use any weapon, but have a list of weapon proficiencies. When a character uses a weapon they are proficient in, they can use the effects of the tags. However, the tags are, again purely narrative. Some tags, like blessed seem to have little to do with the training in a weapon type. Other tags like cursed and fragile don't seem like something you'd need special training to make part of the narrative, nor something a player might wish to have imposed as a penalty for having spent their proficiency slot. It also seems odd that you would need to be proficient to take advantage of the fact that a weapon is blessed.

Rewarding Player Creativity Needs to Include Mechanical Methods

Rewarding player creativity is a tentpole of Dungeonbright's design. This is mostly handled by insisting that most tasks be resolved narratively; i.e.: by narrating results without the use of dice. Players that have a "good idea" are supposed to automatically succeed, just like a character with the right skills or gear.

The problem is, often PC ideas are closer to "so crazy it just might work" ideas that are exciting precisely because they give the players an edge, but still might fail. Or that give them a shot at achieving the impossible. Having your players jump up and shout "I can't believe it actually worked!" is a rare, wonderful part of the RPG experience. And a reward for creativity,  too.

A way to mechanically reflect characters creating a long shot at the impossible, or getting an edge, but not automatic success from a cockamamie idea would add more dimensions to the rewards offered for creativity. (Even if just through the advantage  / disadvantage system.)

Implied Rules

There are a few implied rules in Dungeonbright that desperately need to be made overt. One of the big ones is the value of trying to hurt rather than kill enemies. There seems to be an implied rule that once a creature is Hurt it is easier to kill. That either rolls to kill it have advantage or that successfully rolling to hurt it a second time will kill it.

Causes for character death, the method of performing surgery, how to detect or evade traps, and how to select random encounters are all implied, rather than stated.

OSR Compatability is not Plug-n-Play

While there is certainly plenty of debate over the specifics of what makes an "OSR" product one relatively consistent quality is a game that can be used to run adventures and easily and swiftly import items and spells from editions of Dungeons and Dragons before 3rd edition. And this is definitely one of Dungeonbright's main claims.

Unfortunately, Dungeonbright is just not "there" when it comes to OSR compatibility. They have a guide to give you approximate Hurt and Kill Dfficulty Classes for a few classic monsters and a guide for determining those two things for more enemies, it is not a very faithful conversion. After all, what defines a D&D monster is its special abilities, not jus its hit points. This is something that simply cannot be handled with one word tags without at least a little more work offering effective rules for common monster abilities.

Converting traps is not handled in any meaningful way at all. If I were to suggest a mechanic, it might be to mirror monsters with one DC to discover and disarm, and another higher one to evade, Give it a damage value. For OSR conversion, possibly make the Discover / Disarm equal to the recommended level for the adventure +5 and evasion that level +10. Damage should match the average monster in the dungeon.

Dungeonbright recommends removing spells that foreshorten travel, make supplies easier to manage, or deal damage entirely from material. Magic weapons get circumstantial narrative bonuses. For many older adventures, this could be a significant trimming process. And the suggesting of converting other magic items to folow the "spirit" of their design, while essentially good advice, adds a pile of work into the already tricky business of conversion.

I cannot see just grabbing Dungeonbright and a copy of Palace of the Silver Princess,and getting down to play without an hour of note-taking first. Although that might be a worthwhile timed project.

Ideally, I would like to see an expanded bestiary and list of magic items and classic spells redesigned for Dungeonbright. I understand why they have kept that down to a dull roar, as it allows them to avoid adding the OGL to the product. Perhaps as an OGL supplement to Dungeonbright to use alongside the open-source core game?


For a version 0.1 of a role-playing game, Dungeonbright offers an interesting twist on OSR game play. Where it works it offers a smooth, fast playing game with minimal dice rolling. here it doesn't it requires a lot of staring at the rules and trying to divine what was meant.

Because we have the design aims available, I am going to go over them and assess where they are.

• Mechanized GM fiat - Good.
• Completely in-fiction or diegetic - Very Good.
• Unified and coherent mechanics - Poor: Brings back many of the mechanical confusion that D&D3e resolved from AD&D.
• Rewarding player ingenuity - Moderate: Player creativity for good ideas is resolved with automatic success, but there is no mechanical reflection for creativity in the
face of the otherwise impossible.
• Evocative, flexible characters - Very Good
• Content and dungeon compatibility - Poor. Conversion of OSR products requires heavy front-loading by the GM, especially with many spells and magic items being incompatible with the intent of Dungeonbright, and monster special abilities being minimally supported.

Dungeonbright is a fascinating experiment in adding more narrative flow to the OSR experience while staying closer to a d20 and avoiding the pitfalls of Powered by the Apocalypse. The concept of turning every dungeon into a mythic underworld and the cool character advancement tools are definitely worth pirating. The magical effects of darkness is absolute genius.

Before it can reach its design goals, however, the game needs to reduce some of the load placed on the GM by parsing out its rules, and offering more overt examples along with a broader range of content in the manual.

Overhauling the passive save system wil go a long way to reduce the problem of consistency.

No comments:

Post a Comment