Monday, January 18, 2021

Game Review: Alan Bahr's Tombpunk: Low-Fi Roleplaying

Tombpunk Cover Art by
Nicolás R. Giacondino & Jeremy D. Mohler,
©2020 Outland Entertainment LLC
Game Review: Alan Bahr's Tombpunk: Low-Fi Roleplaying

Author: Alan Bahr
Publisher: Outland Entertainment
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG
Engine: Custom d12

Alan Bahr's Tombpunk: Low-Fi Roleplaying is a roleplaying game designed for a very specific style of play: quick and dirty gaming that is going to happen for a few sessions in a row. It's the sort of game you would play on a family vacation, a long road trip, or while camping. It's rules are minimalistic (as I would expect from Alan Bahr), and designed to work with practically zero planning by the GM. It is probably best played totally off the cuff looking at a randomly generated map... Or just making it all up as you go along. It has mechanics to help you know when a specific improvised adventure is ready to wrap up if the room is giving you no indication.

The premise of Tombpunk is simple: you play characters in a gritty fantasy world where poverty and overtaxation have forced your character to give up a hand scrabble peasant life for the dangerous and dirty work of clearing haunted dungeons for the treasure that the monsters bring with them from the underworld.

The engine is light: characters have three stats rolled with 1d4+4 to get a value of 5 to 8. When players want to try something where success or failure is involved roll a d12 and get under the appropriate stat. If an NPC attempts to affect a PC, the GM rolls 1d12 and tries to get over an appropriate stat. For example, a PC trying to walk a tightrope might roll a d12 trying to get under their deftness. If a monster throws a dart at a PC, the GM rolls a d12 trying to get over the same deftness score. Mitigating circumstances may result in Advantage or Disadvantage, rolling twice and taking the better or worse result, respectively. 

Characters have three other resources rated 1-6, including an abstract measure of wealth ("coin") , ability to stand in the face of fear ("courage") , and the ability to resist magic and remain sane in the face of mind-warping horror ("will"). Using these effectively requires a roll-under with a D6, and they may deplete under certain conditions. These are determined by character class.

Combat is handled by having PCs roll initiative with a deftness check; those that succeed  go before the enemy, those that fail go after. Attacks are made with ability checks and damage is rolled based on character class, then reduced with armor. Characters and monsters have hit points (called "Lifeblood"). Attacks may be modified by weapon tags reminiscent of ones used in Dungeon World

Monsters have Lifeblood, a listing of whether or not they attack with advantage, normally, or with disadvantage and how much damage they do, plus notes on special abilities. 

The game includes two micro-settings built around mentors, patrons, rivals, and a larger conflict that gives the PCs additional reasons to Delve the local dungeons. 

When I asked Alan if I could review Tombpunk, he lent me a copy and asked me, if I liked it, to buy one from Outland. I think it is the best endorsement that I can give that I felt it was worth putting my money down. It is a game with a particular niche that it handles very well.

What I Loved


I had to be careful about how much detail I went into in my opening summary of Tombpunk; the rules are so lightweight I could have made buying the book less appealing by giving it away by accident. The game is deliberately designed to be just enough to sit down and play. The GM is expected to wing much of it. It is a true Alan Bahr take on OSR play:

You can jump into Tombpunk in about 3 minutes, and still have a satisfying game. 

The Dungeon Economics System

Tombpunk offers a great motivator to drive the PCs: poverty. Every month an NPC is responsible for paying 1 Coin in taxes, 1 Coin to feed themselves and earns 1d3 Coin, meaning that they often need to save to survive and stay out of jail on bad months, and will, on average, be living hand-to-mouth.

A PC is responsible for an addional 1 Coin in adventuring tax, but the surviving party earns 1d3 X 1d3 Coin per adventure. Two dungeon delves in a month and the PCs are likely in the black. 

Tombpunk also has a system of determining how stocked a dungeon is. Each dungeon has a Darkness rating that starts at 4-8. The party has a Light rating equal to the party size. For each encounter the GM makes a light check on a d8 behalf of the party. If successful, the darkness decreases. When it hits 0, the PCs have cleared the Dungeon and found treasure. 

Dungeons regenerate Darkness at a modest rate, meaning PCs can choose to cultivate several Dungeons to keep themselves fed. 

 Between the limits of Treasure, (max 9 Coin),  the needs of an adventurer (at least 3 Coin a month) and the Darkness and Light system, there is a clever balancing act. Big parties of 5 or 6 PC will clear a dungeon quickly, but need to do 3 adventures per month or more to make sure everyone can pay their bills. Parties of 3-4 will have to work hard to clear a dungeon, with longer, more grueling delves, but can be sure to meet their Coin needs more quickly. Above 8, extra PCs offer far less benefit. Parties of 1 or 2 may not be able to clear a dungeon before their resources give out. 

This system can keep a campaign rolling swiftly as PCs race against the tax man to keep themselves fed and equipped. 


I am not at all surprised that Tombpunk is a very pretty book. Outland Entertainment produces graphic novels and some of the coolest clip art compilations on DrivethruRPG. They did not disappoint with a gorgeous layout, easy readability and excellent Art by Nicolás R. Giacondino is very evocative and has am engaging graphic novel / 80s cartoon vibe I really appreciate. 

The book starts with a four-page comic book style story that sets the tone for the rest of the game: a dark story about desperate adventurers trying to make their lives better by risking their lives in the Dungeon. Again, with art by Nicolás R. Giacondino. 

The quality of the .PDF is frustratingly marred by several unfortunate returns where you must flip a page to read the last two lines of a paragraph... Often where it was 100% avoidable had they reduced large amounts of the whitespace around chapter headings. The book needed one last proofread at layout to fix those errors, as it could have made it feel like a lot tighter product. 

Built for Improv

Even in a dungeon crawl, I make a lot of stuff up on the fly. I have BSed an entire 24-room dungeon into existence, complete with traps, tricks and treasure hoards before with not so much as a map. But it wasn't easy, as games like WotC-era Dungeons & Dragons are built with a lot of planning in mind. 

Tombpunk is made for that kind of play. The Darkness and Light systems, especially with regenerating Darkness, means that you can play Tombpunk completely off the cuff and it will flow well.  Add in a random encounter table and a map generated by Donjon, or perhaps play it while generating the map live with Four Against Darkness and you will be far ahead of the curve. 

The game is deliberately incomplete, and Bahr exhorts you to Hack the game however you see fit to fill in the gaps that you need to fill. Making it ideal for a lazy OSR oriented GM. 


I find that the game as is feels really playable. It is simple enough and complete enough that you can read it in a few minutes, dive in, and not really run into any complications that will require you to stop or slow down, it's a very robust and user-friendly system. 

Growth Points

Flip' Tone

While a stated goal of the game is to keep the rules feeling conversational, in truth, the tone of Tombpunk can come off as a bit flippant. As Bahr says himself, this was not his main project: it was a thought experiment that he couldn't put down until it was fleshed out and put on paper... Thoughts that won't let you get on with your main project:

I know the feeling. Many of the pamphlet modules I created were ideas so fun that I had to play with them, even if it means my bigger, more important modules are left waiting for attention. 

But, if something is worth doing, I prefer doing it with care. It is, after all, going to carry my name. So, I found the tone of the game at times off-putting. There are places, like the typesetting and typographical errors that show a lack of care that this pretty damn cool idea deserves. 

Non-Magic System

I had this gripe with Alan Bahr's game Tiny Dungeon 2e as well: the magic system in Tombpunk, such as it is, is insufficient. The Ritualist characters can Cast spells, and we have a single example, but there is so little depth to it. We don't even have a suggestion as to what the scope of the magic the Ritualist can use ought to be. You can let PCs make up spells on the spot... But that doesn't entirely jive with the idea of poor peasants trying to make their lives better; your magic can't be either limitless or entirely improvisational, or you really would not need to worry about having enough Coin to keep the Wolf from your door.

If you want magic spells to work at all in Tombpunk, you need to hack something in. Personally, as a hack, I would permit the Ritualist start with their Grit score in level 1 & 2 B/X D&D spells, and let them tearn any they see used or written at a cost in Will. 

Or better yet, I might steal the Pact Magic system from either Pacts and Blades or my own Homebrew

The Weapon Tags Add Complexity

If there is one point where Tombpunk is needlessly complicated, it is in the inclusion of Weapon Tags. Now, I am not a fan of Weapon Tags as a tool in general, as I have said in more than one review, but at least in Tombpunk thay have clear mechanical functions. 

Tombpunk includes 13 weapon tags, most of which are relatively intuitive. Piercing let's you ignore Armour, Two-handed means it cannot be used with a shield, etc. However, others are a little more esoteric, like Sanctified.  When characters pick a weapon, they choose a number of tags, and that is what defines it. Warriors get to spontaneously add tags in battle to whatever weapon they use. 

This is the only spot where I would have to open the book and check the rules in play. And I would probably have to do so quite a few times before I locked them in. It is also the on, y matter in which I might have to stop to go over them with PCs in character generation. It is thus the only real spot where you are going to see possible slow-down. I think, as damage comes from you class, not your weapon, it might have been better to just offer a few Warrior-specific options and offered only simple rules on ranged vs. one-handed vs. two handed weapons and been done with it. 

Honestly, I play games more complex than Tombpunk where I wouldn't even notice this, and so it is a point perhaps in favor of Tombpunk that it is the biggest hiccup in the design. 

Glaring Typos

There are several points in Tombpunk where there are glaring typographical errors that require some time and reasoning in order to suss out. For example, Grit and Courage obviously used interchangeably early in the game's design, because some places use the term Grit where Courage is obviously meant, such as in the Ritualist class section. 

Another major one is that the beginning of the section on Dungeon economics says that player characters must spend one Coin per week rather than one coin per month to avoid starving. However, this makes survival Impossible gor peasant NPCs and does not jive with the final summary at the end of the chapter. (A summary which does not include the adventuring tax mentioned in the body of the chapter.) 

Will vs. Courage

Will and Courage are not very distinct in how they are described; courage lets characters "resist terror" but will let's you somehow handle "horrific scenes" and "Occult nightmares" without any real explanation as to what the difference might be. Courage, however, has a mechanical effect on a warrior's combat performance, while will allows a PC to self-heal once per day. It is a puzzle left to the GM. 

Get Ready to Grab a few other Games

You can play Tombpunk on its own without too much trouble, but it there are a few reasons why you might want to consider having some other TTRPG books on hand when you play Tombpunk

  • First, it offers no random encounter or room content generators, which are going to be invaluable if you are going to play to the game's strengths and wing it. Having a manual with a few tables is a good idea Or at least be ready to hit up Donjon on your phone. 
  • It sits somewhere between AD&D and D&D3.5 for the HP and damage output of monsters. One can easily grab a few creatures from an OSR game and plug them in at close to max hp, and get fair results. 
  • The game is without a magic system. It will probably be easiest to steal one from some other setup. 
  • The micro-setting Dirty-Hand Haven includes a lot of mention of traps, but the game offers no inspiration, just a handful of rules. A list of cool trap ideas might be highly valuable. 

I think having Labyrinth Lord or Old School Essentials on hand could be invaluable to running Tombpunk if you find yourself stuck for ideas. 

Tombpunk is meant to be hacked. 


With that last note you might be wondering *Why not just play Labyrinth Lord or Old-School Essentials, then?*. And the reason is this: with its no-leveling, lightweight system, Tombpunk is easier to pick up ad do something with in short order. It makes no-prep play easy... And the players are not going to expect anything different.  Everything about Tombpunk is geared towards encouraging players to dive in and play right now, and never mind the fine details, it sets a very different expectation.

And it is also an invitation to hack: the system is light and robust, just about anything can be fine-tuned to fit into its very simple d12 paradigm. And quickly. It is a great test lab for  trying out new ideas before you push to create mechanical depth for another system.

The title is not kidding when it claims to be "Low-Fi.* this game is simple, lightweight and perfect for a pick up game with 10 minutes notice. 


  1. Alan recently updated the rulebook, and corrected several of the problems you noted. The new version is available on DTRPG for download.

    Interesting statistic: The average dungeon will have 16 encounters/rooms, no matter how many characters are in the adventuring party.

    1. Thanks for letting me know! I will check it out, and make corrections.

      Mostly my remark about the speed at which a dungeon is cleared mostly comes down to how often you will have to run away and heal up; a Party of 2 doesn't get to accomplish much before they need to back off and rest unless they are a pair of lucky devils.

      But you're absolutely right! the number of encounters doesn't change much.

  2. So I’m talking about playing Tomb Punk with my group and my players wanted to know how I was going to handle magic. Thought this might be useful to others here or perhaps you have suggestions to refine my idea or your own way of doing it.

    Three Principles
    1) magic is deliberately free form.
    2) avoid power creep
    3) use what we are given.

    In practice this looks like this.

    A Grit test to do a bit better than normally possible by mundane means. Grit with disadvantage to do about twice as much. (This is based on the one example we are given and principle 2)

    How it looks is a special effect.

    Some examples we spitballed follow but the idea is not to prepare a list of spells but adjudicate on the spot.

    A magic dart might be a Grit test to do 1d10 instead of the classes 1d6.

    To haste twice as far as you can run Grit with Disadvantage.

    To turn into a frog Grit to do 1d6 ‘transform’ damage.

    Say I describe a chasm as being twice as far as anyone could jump (30ft?) a Grit with Disadvantage would allow you to disappear in a puff of smoke and reappear on the other side.

    1. I am a huge fan of free-forming your magic. I had some doubts about a Ritualist being able to do it, because it is hard to reconcile bounless problem-solving ability with poverty, but I can think of a few ways Ritualist might be in the same boat as everyone else.

      This looks like it will flow pretty well. I like having a consequence for an abysmal failure on a test for spellcasting to make magic feel strange and dangerous. But for Tombpunk that might be a but cruel.

      In my playtest of Tombpunk I stole the magic system from Knave. It worked, but it just wasn't meaty enough for the high-octane feel we were going with.