Game Review: Tiny Dungeon 2e
Tiny Dungeon 2e cover art
by Michael Leavenworth,
©2018, Gallant Knight Games
Author: Alan Bahr
Publisher: Gallant Knight Games
Engine: Tiny D6
I first heard about Tiny Dungeon 2e through Bundle of Holding, when it was featured with a bundle of other rules-light indie games ("Indie Cornucopia 6"). I was immediately attracted me by the cover and the description:
Powered by the TinyD6 engine, with streamlined mechanics that utilize only one to three single six-sided dice on every action, characters that can be written on a 3x5 notecard, and easy to understand and teach rules, Tiny Dungeon 2e is great for all groups, ages, and experience levels!
This was when I first looking for a fast and easy game to replace D&D5e. While nothing else in that bundle appealed, Tiny Dungeon kept calling to me. I picked it up and was immediately taken with its clean, simple mechanics, and clever flourishes.
I ran a trio of short adventures for my wife the day after I bought it, and after she said: "I like it. In fact, this might be the system I finally DM." Within a week, I'd ordered a POD hardcopy. Then I bought the Space Opera game Alan Bahr had written on the same engine, Tiny Frontier Revised for myself, my best friend, and my brother who loves TTRPGs, but works closely with people from WotC, runs games for his office, and makes D&D-based video games, so won't do fantasy games on his off hours.
In other words, I like it. I've run a couple of short campaigns with it, and it goes in the backpack for short trips. I even used it to teach my son the rudiments of dungeon crawling fantasy games.
The engine, Tiny D6, is very simple. If your character needs to make a check because the outcome is uncertain roll 1d6 if the odds are stacked against you, 2d6 if there is no extenuating circumstances, or 3d6 if you have advantage or it is one of the four things your character is good at. If you roll a 5 or 6, you succeed. Hit Points is based on Race, weapons do a flat 1hp damage, distance is handled by zones, and gear uses depletion dice mechanics. That's it. There are optional rules galore to make it crunchier, of course, but they are relatively few.
What I Liked
Fast, Simple, and Enough
My first playthrough with the system completed a Torchlight-imspired five-room dungeon in 30 minutes. To say it plays fast is an understatement. It took my wife all of two combat rounds to master the system.
Tiny Dungeon works well so long as you follow the basic principles of OSR and minimalist play:
- Make consistent and logical rulings instead of worrying about rules.
- Only roll when it matters.
- Reward player description, narration, and ingenuity with success.
- Hack in rules as you need them.
- Be consistent.
For most of what you are going to do with it, Tiny Dungeon doesn't need more than what is in the book. As long as the players trust the GM to be fair, and the GM tries to present a well-thought-out adventure you won't need much more.
Tiny Dungeon 2e showcases the power of a good minimalist design in the fact that you are invited to try almost anything. No mechanic or item in the manual locks you in to one way of Play, and it is relatively easy to add new mechanics as needed. It is fairly simple to adapt another fantasy game's adventures or setting to work in this engine simply by using the table on page 45 to set a new hit point total forvenemies, and then downgrading monster attacks and traps to do 1-4 damage as appropriate.
Tiny Dungeon shows off this flexibility with its "microsettings" section...
120 pages of the 207 page manual are dedicated to providing nineteen very different fantasy worlds ranging from the Ghibli-esque Skies Over Rocét to the grimdark Chosen; from "Game of Thrones" style intrigue of the Land of Roses and Thorns to The Conan-inspired The Savage Seas of Zhakara.
Each setting is written by a different author, and in a slightly different style, but each provides ideas for characters and several plot hooks. It makes it clear that the Tiny D6 engine is robust enough to cover a massive range of possible fantasy stories with the right GM.
There is a ton of inspiration here, even If you decide not to use Tiny Dungeon as your game's engine.
The Adventure Generator
Tiny Dungeon 2e includes a very innovate random adventure generator tool created by Gregory Israel. Using five rolls of 2d6 on a series of tables, you will in the blanks of a an adventure plot hook. The hook includes enough data to create a 5-room dungeon adventure on the spot, or more with just a little thinking. It is an amazing tool!
Enemies Mainly Just Bags of HP
For the most part, my biggest complaint about Tiny Dungeon 2e is that the system has almost nothing but flavour to differentiate between monsters. Often the abilities that they do have are little more than extra damage or a few specific things the monster gets 3d6 to try to achieve or something that does more than 1hp damage st a time. Challenge is almost entirely determined by a monster's HP total. After awhile things can feel dull and repetitive if the DM does not mix it up with timers, environmental hazards, and strangeness.
The Art is Heavily Recycled
I love the art style of Anthony Cournoyer throughout the book; it reminds me of action-heavy Saturday morning cartoons from the 1980s. Unfortunately, it suffers from two flaws.
The first is that most of the images are static character portraits or landscapes of dungeon entrances that have no dynamism or action to them. Sure, we know what an Eldritch Horror looks like, but In would have liked to see what it does.
The second is that the same image often repeats in multiple places in the book. Some images appear over and over again, feeling like place-holders for other art. Often the image has little relation to the text. While the Art is sufficient for the monster section, It definitely does not make the best use of the art-space.
Not Ideal for One-on-One Play
I play a lot of one-on-one games, or small party games. I have found that small group play is one milieu where Tiny Dungeon 2e is less useful. Tiny Dungeon characters all do four things really well, described by Traits chosen from a list. These things have a high (66%) chance of success. Everything else, by default has a 50% chance of succeeding.
The traits are constrained in such a way as to make each character only useful in a fraction of th non-combat situations a character might run into. The game definitely assumes the character is one part of a party of 3-5. PCs. In many situations this is a strength of the system: you need teamwork to win. The minimalist structure of The game means that there is no easy way to tweak or optimize a character to play well on their own. Adventures tailored to a single character in this engine could easily become one note. DMPCs or sidekicks become a necessary evil.
Better for Short Games
Tiny Dungeon 2e eliminates practically all sense of class or level from the game. A small band of kobolds or an overwhelming Frost giant are both challenges within reach of the player character. Characters automatically feel, at least within their narrow scope, highly competent, not to mention tough and deadly. Tiny dungeon characters are certainly more resilient than most OSR characters.
In a way, this is something worth applauding. Leveling up and class are both Concepts that create their own play problems. I certainly have praised projects like Knave for eliminating class and ICRPG for eliminating levels. In practice, however it is difficult to create a sense of narrative cohesion. It is clear that the character hasn't come from nowhere and is not a beginner and what they do. You can't help it feel like you're missing the "origin story," and because of it, much of the character Arc.
This feels perfectly fine for a One-Shot game. But when you get into a campaign, starting off at Super'heroic levels and not budging an inch can feel frustrating. It's like being forced to start at the second book of a series of five, and then never receiving the fifth book. The game itself is well aware of the fact that it isn't optimal for playing long campaigns, and discusses that matter in the section offering optional character advancement rules.
These character advancement rules to make it feel like the character is improving as they go, but they hardly need it. Rather than feeling like you are getting better at what you do, your character feels like they are branching out into new fields instead.
The Magic System is Underwhelming
The one part of Tiny Dungeon 2e that I particularly dislike is it's magic system. Without any optional rules, characters can learn magic by taking one or both of two traits: Spell Touched, and Spell Reader. Spell Touched gives your character the ability to create minor changes in the world around them. The rules and the scope of this are left entirely up to the GM. In the second, Spell Reader allows a character to cast spells off of a disposable scroll. It suggests that the character should be able to buy Scrolls in their down time, or create them. This creates a world where pop-fantasy / manapunk trappings like magic shops becomes something of a default. With no example spells, and no notion of how much they cost, Spell Reader feels a little useless.
The optional prestige traits include a trait called Archmage, which requires you possess either Spell Touched or Spell Reader to take it. Once you take Archmage, you may select a school of magic that your character has mastered. Each school contains four thematically related spells that your character may use at will. The selection of powers is alright, but misses a great number of fantasy tropes, such as teleportation. I found myself rapidly writing a half-dozen magical schools to make use of this option in a way that I was happybwith.
For such a critical part of building a fantasy setting, magic feels like it gets short shrift in Tiny Dungeon.
Tiny Dungeon 2e is really good at what it is designed to do: Provide exciting, freeform Adventures to be played in short campaigns or one shots. Even the physical manual is designed to be easier to carry around as digest-sized book. (Mine lives in my "long bus ride and waiting rooms" backpack)
I use this system heavily to entertain my oldest son (currently 4), because it is really easy to learn and can be tailored to his attention span. I also use it to create impromptu one-shots for family and friends, because it requires very little hard data to make my weird, unique monsters and magic items work.
If you are an OSR-oriented GM, you might find this system matches your play style very well; it requires a lot of logical adjudication and demands a lot of participation in the narration by players.
Tiny D6 has a community content program, Tiny Trove through DrivethruRPG, and has, at a glance, pretty solid community support. Gallant Knight Games also releases a regular zine of community content, Tiny Zine.