Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Sourcebook Review : The Delve 2e Companion Expanded

Review: The Delve Second Edition Companion Expanded

Cover Art: Delve Second Edition Companion
©2020 Feral Gamers Inc. 
: Monochrome Monkey
Publisher: Feral Gamers Inc.
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG
System: Delve 2e

The Delve Second Edition Companion Expanded is a book of additional rules and materials for Delve 2e. Delve was the first TTRPG I chose to review on this blog because it had a few clever innovations, but had gained practically no attention on the Internet. Almost to the day from when I downloaded Delve 2e, they released the expanded version of the Companion. It felt like coming full circle to make it my first review of year two of Welcome to the Deathtrap

Delve 2e aims to take the best of Wizards-era Dungeons & Dragons and fuse it with some of the best parts of the early Editions of Warhammer Fantasy. It then takes this strange hybrid and accentuates survival, placing it on the desolate and ruined island of Cragbarren where the PCs are castaways. It adds detailed rules on equipment degradation, unstable light sources, thirst, hunger, scavenging and an economy based on salvage and barter. I find Cragbarren reminds me of the video game Path of Exile

The Companion originally adds some more elements and options for players. It offers backgrounds much like Dungeons & Dragons 5e's system. Each background offers a few additional skills for a character. It also offers two new playable races Gnomes (that feel much like Dragonlance-style Tinker Gnomes), and Goblins that feel rather like Pathfinder's playable Goblin race: a race where a minority have given up Evil to try to live in the society of humans and Dwarves, but are prone to falling back on criminal activity. 

It also adds two new subclasses a Cleric subclass for Fighters and a Bard Subclass for Rogues, as both had been previously not included in Delve 2e. The classes that did not previously have spellcasting ability also now have spell progression and spell lists.

The Companion also adds a number of monsters 

Its April 2021 re-release as an expanded version includes all adventures published for Delve to-date, which include a few additional rules:

  • The Dungeon of Gark the Everdead
  • Lost Tower of the Unholy Shroud
  • The Hunt for the Many-eyed God
  • The Ruins of Wind-torn Manner
  • March of the Dead
  • The Orcs are Restless 

What I Loved

Stress Rules

The Ruins Wind-Torn Manner and March of the Dead are both set in dark and dangerous locations that are full of strange monsters, minor hauntings, and wild magic. They both include rules for stress and psychosis as the characters are exposed to sanity-blasting events. 

What I like about these stress rules is that stress comes with mounting penalties: as characters become more stressed, they get flustered and become less competent. The game includes no rules for removing stress, leaving it to the GM's discretion. I might consider stealing stress relief rules from Mothership to complement them

Most sanity rules in TTRPGs are entirely on/off: either you are fine or you are insane. In reality, stress erodes your attention, focus, mood, and effectiveness in an increasingly destructive fashion. I like seeing a rule set that reflects this.

Design Philosophy

Delve2e's adventures are designed to be easily re-used. Several of the include empty rooms with random tables to add special effects, strange encounters, door locks, and puzzles. This means that it will never be the same adventure twice. 

Random Tables

The Companion includes updated random encounter tables to include new monsters. It has tables for random salvage on Cragbarren's infamously shipwreck-prone beaches. And like the core book, includes random scars and deformities by race for Goblins and Gnomes. 

The Adventures include amazing random tables of traps, puzzles, supernatural occurrences, etc. Which I will go into with more detail below. 

Punk Rock Aesthetic

Something I love about Delve in general is the humor and the voice. It feels as if the whole book was written while listening to the Sex Pistols and The Ramones. Villains are often called "gits." 1970s and 80s punk & working-class culture jokes are everywhere. The game refuses to be pretentious or cerebral, and often deflates pompous characters. 

This inscription is found under the prison of the Lich Gark the Everdead:

"Here sits what remains of a git, do not listen to anything he says and never lend him money. "

And then there is this bit in the middle of the introduction to March of the Dead

Harod glances around the tavern where many of the patrons, who had heard this tale before shook their heads. ‘In reality the young man was but a novice, could barely do a card trick let alone face the gods and their machinations…’

‘Eh?’ someone shouted.

‘Machinations’ repeated Harod ‘Schemes’ he continued.

‘Well bloody say that then!’ Came the reply. 

‘Anyway’ Continued Harold... 

I got a lot of laughs out of the Companion


Not content to take the wind out of the intellectual pretenses of TTRPG culture, Delve is happy to tip some of the sacred cows of Dungeons & Dragons as well. Gark the Everdead as a character is clearly a mockery of Acererak, and The Dungeon of Gark the Everdead is filled with pointless treasures, excessive curses, and ridiculous traps in a clear spoof of The Tomb of Horrors

The Hunt for the Many-Eyed God ends with a battle against a spoof of Lolth and the whole dungeon sends up The Demonweb Pits. While at the same time being built very clearly like a classic Lamentations of the Flame Princess-style screw-job.

The Ruins of Wind-Torn manner has a ridiculous premise about a choking dragon falling on a Necromancer's fortress during a siege in a series of bizarre coincidence, and a temple turning it into the basis of a religion. It turns heroes, religion, and the way dragons are handled in D&D into the butt of an elaborate joke in a dungeon that otherwise takes beats from The Last Unicorn, the adventure Better than Any Man from Lamentations of the Flame Princess and includes The Human Centipede as a boss monster.

The Orcs are Restless mocks Tolkinian elves mercilessly as sad, prissy, bourgeois icons to great effect while playing with the idea of evil races that has become a cause celebré among a certain set in the online discourse around TTRPGs. 

All told, like Delve 2e itself, the Companion's adventures are a pop-culture saturated pastiche of Dungeons & Dragons and TTRPG culture in general that recalls games like HōL and Violence with all the same wicked humor. 

Art & Layout

Delve 2e favours a more modern aesthetic, with D&D3e style borders and parchment background. The artwork is full-color and tends towards characters posed dramatically.  It feels like a punked-out Pathfinder book. The art is high quality work, and characters the dramatically ornate feel popularized by Pathfinder and later Final Fantasy games.

Overall, the visual quality of the Delve Second Edition Companion Expanded is excellent, especially for a small-press passion project. 

The Adventures - The Good

I am going to break adventures into good and bad sections and Gove a brief analysis of each. Adventure's best and weakest points respectively. 

The Dungeon of Gark the Everdead: This short dungeon is heavy on traps, curses, an swarms of zombies. Very much a shortened spoof of The Tomb of Horrors, it has little treasure and traps that ought to be obvious to every player either by design or context. As far as it goes this is a dungeon that will reward players who stick together and are not too greedy or foolish. Characters who feel the need to steal unimportant objects, meddle with obvious traps, split the party, or refuse to learn from mistakes will get slaughtered. Those who do not mess around we'll have a few close calls with traps, fight a few zombies and skeletons, and be richly rewarded with a large treasure. 

The final two rooms include the slumbering skull of Gark the Lich, and his treasure hoard. If players disturb the skull, it will get to re-enact the classic Tomb of Horrors TPK, facing down a lich that is way too powerful for them. The treasure hoard is magnificent, and the characters get to roll randomly for a high-level treasure each round they spend plundering, however, within the first round the hallway behind them begins to close. Those that get too greedy will be forever trapped inside the treasure Vault. 

Skaven Rat Ogre miniature
design from Games Workshop
The Lost Tower of the Unholy Shroud is a lore-rich dungeon with scattered journal entries and set pieces that tell a story of treachery, greed, and just desserts. It has a mirrored structure with a tribe of goblins led by an ogre above and giant Rats Guarded by a Warhammer Fantasy classic monster: a rat ogre. 

This adventure uses scattered diary entries to build lore, give players hints about a critical secret door, and offer hooks for future adventures. 

The Hunt for the Many-Eyed God is a labyrinthine spider-themed cave. It uses vertical entrances, looping passages and ambushes to create a dungeon where it is easy to get lost and fall into ambushes. The dungeon design makes a simple set of encounters far more terrifying. 

The Ruins of Wind-Torn Manner is a massive dungeon with 36 labelled rooms spread across five floors, and has as many unlabeled rooms with random generators to fill them with strange events, puzzles and thematic encounters for an undead-themed dungeon. It also has a funny backstory and some truly Grim pop-culture references. It is also the adventure that introduced the stress and madness rules now included in the Companion

March of the Dead has the PCs raiding the Catacombs of a ruined church to head off a zombie apocalypse before it is unleashed on Wreck Haven. It has one of the funniest adventure introductions I have ever read, and is full of dark humor throughout, including a random tombstone table that got more than one chuckle out of me. The Dungeon has a fantastic set of puzzle locks, magical obstacles, and strange events on a random table that are rolled as PCs approach or explore rooms to make sure the dungeon is never the same experience twice. It features a class against an entire army of the dead that will make the PCs definitely feel Heroic, if they survive. 

The Orcs are Restless is an adventure in two parts built around rescuing a group of Elvish slaves from a band of Orcs. The first part, getting through the Orc lair can be done peacefully, through stealth, by turning factions against one another or by combat, if the players are clever tacticians. The second part, a mine is a relatively short dungeon with a large part hidden and not necessary to resolve the main plot; it rewards PCs for exploring. 

Growth Points


I found several of the maps in the adventures are often difficult to use or unappealing, and often for different reasons. 

The map for The Dungeon of Gark the Everdead is from Dyson Logos's Commercial Map Archive and I can definitely cannot fault Monochrome Monkey for using Dyson's maps: they are gorgeous. The map for The Lost Tower of the Unholy Shrine is another Dyson design and is very well used. As is the map used in The Hunt for the Many-eyed God. I will offer the criticism that Dyson is not credited for cartography. But it appears that the boilerplate for all of the adventures were accidentally omitted. 

The Ruins of Wind-Torn Manor is difficult to follow. The adventure only uses half of the map. Around the balcony area it can be hard to tell how the whole thing connects. Some additional markers would have been very welcome. The map has a number of passages that stretch off to the sides of the map, or come in off the edges with no indication as to where they go. It can be frustrating to make the map and the areas described match up in your head.

March of the Dead is created in a tiled fashion using the same tools as the maps seen in the core book, which are unfortunately low-information maps. There is nothing in these maps except room shape and numbers. Given that the dungeon is partially randomized, this makes sense, but I would love to have some sense of the fixed parts of the dungeon. 

The Orcs are Restless uses two maps, the village map is made with Inkarnate using assets that make it look uncannily like a custom Warcraft II map. It is easy to use but sparse and tonally it feels strange in contrast to the rest of the book. The mine map is from Elven Tower, and is gorgeous, apropos, and easy to read, but a bit underused, as I will explain below. 

Fighter & Rogue Spells Change the Game

Some time ago I suggested that Dungeons & Dragons was moving towards a singularity where every character is a battle-ready furry spellcaster. It was hyperbole, of course, but I do believe that as more characters get access to magic, the roles of characters become less valuable and distinct. If everyone can cast spells, use every skill, and wield a weapon well, you might as well drop classes altogether. They aren't necessary, and games like Knave are better for discarding them. 

In the Companion, the non-spellcasting classes are given spell lists and numbers of spells known by level. On some levels, I think this detracts from the game: Magic is less interesting when everyone has it.

But then, I am definitely a grognard, and this is a matter of taste. I like to have characters who are not magical, and don't need to manage spells to be awesome. I doubt a new school gamer would find this a problem. 

And, it is noteworthy that Rogues and Fighters do not begin with a spellcasting skill. This offers a really interesting possibility that a non-casting character might pick up the rudiments of Magic, and then develop spells in line with their own skills and worldview. 

You could also replace magical-feeling spells with ones that are more like special moves that suit the archetype: fighters could have "trip", "disarm", and "hamstring" spells. Rogues could have "smoke bomb", "hidden knife", and "poison you blade" spells. 

With its "watch and learn" mechanic, Delve would work quite well as a classless game, in any case. Having a separate skill for each spell list would be all you need to handle a lot of the needs supplied by classes. 

The Cleric is a Detrimental Addition

I loved the fact that Delve 2e did not use Clerics. Healing came from witches who mastered dark arts to get their made Cragbarren feel literally God-forsaken and bleak. The Hunt for the Eight-Eyed God suggests that "gods" in the world of Delve are often merely supernatural monsters, magicians committing a con, or cult leaders. The Church of Percival detailed in The Ruins of Wind-Torn Manor reinforces that impression. As does the tainted, undead-filled Cathedral in March of the Dead. Adding Clerics gives us the idea that the gods are watching and protecting the people of Cragbarren, which compromises the bleak, despairing feel.

If you want to have a dark, godless fantasy game, by the way, Delve 2e, The Castaway's Guide to Cragbarren, and this book - minus the Cleric - combine to make a great template for what it could look like. 


There are a lot of small errors peppered through the Delve Second Edition Companion Expanded, that mostly are homonym mistakes missed by spell check, or appear to be voice dictation interpretation errors. They are frequent enough that they catch attention, but a minor gripe. 

What is more noteworthy are places where the editing has let the manual down. The table of contents does not include several of the adventures. The stress rules are repeated in two adventures where they might have been better served moved to an earlier section. We are missing valuable boilerplate information for each adventure.

In general, the whole thing feels copy/ pasted together. Moving the stress rules, updating the credits, and tidying up the contents would make it feel more  easily read and referenced. 

The Adventures - The Bad

The adventures in the Companion are flavored to help build the world of Cragbarren and do so well, but often use the same notes: giant spiders, necromancers, oozes on the ceilings, and hoards of zombies figure heavily across the adventures published for Delve. As do groups of goblins. I hope that future modules might focus on mad hermits, wild animals, sea monsters, ghosts, brutal weather spirits, or giant insects. 

Otherwise, I shall treat each adventure independently. 

The Dungeon of Gark the Everdead is a pretty fun adventure. It definitely rewards old-school style play and paranoia. Players learn damned fast (and with fair warning) that everything in this dungeon will try to kill them and greed will do it fastest. It suits the themes of Delve to a tee. It is a killer dungeon and does not pretend to be anything else. 

The Lost Tower of the Unholy Shroud is a dungeon that tells a story through notes and journal entries. I might have liked to see some other devices used, but as far as clichés are concerned, it is well-deployed. The module teases a tunnel and an escape to another island, and a magical artifact hidden somewhere on Cragbarren, but we get no follow-up. If ever there was an adventure in need of an "Aftermath" section or a follow-up adventure, this is it. 

The Hunt for the Many-Eyed God is a screw-job. There is little in there but fear, pain, and poison. I don't think that is necessarily a problem, after all, most of the best adventures for Lamentations of the Flame Princess are screw-job, and good ones; they suit Delve nicely, but GMs should be forewarned that the game will bring a lot of mistrust and paranoia to the table. Screw-job always do. 

I would also love to have a follow-up encounter with the merchant that led the PCs there and a sense of why. Was he hoping to loot their bodies? Did he worship the Many-Eyed God? Was that an clumsy assassination attempt? This might bring some extra satisfaction to the adventure. 

The Ruins of Wind-torn Manor is too small an adventure for the near-megadungeon map it inhabits. Half the dungeon must be randomized, which feels excessive. And often the map includes spaces that need some explanation. We have multiple corridors that go off the map to nowhere, for example. Those would have been best photoshopped out or some idea of where they go explained. Even a spatial distortion that leads the PCs from the South edge of Map 2 to the North would have been a cool, lazy solution. 

I found the explanation of the balcony and altar area confusing. A few characters on the map would have really helped. 

Also, the journal in the dungeon mentions model pirate ships made of bone.; these would have been good treasures to include. Also, if the necromancer had an obsession with Pirates an pirate ships, trapped pirate ghosts, treasure maps, rooms of salvage, collected figureheads, and the like both would have enhanced world-building, gave the villain  character, and taken up more of the spaces in the dungeon. This was a big missed opportunity. 

March of the Dead's randomization was not space-filler, it exists mostly to add interest and replayability, and I love it, but I wanted more. Those charts could stand to be much bigger to serve the purpose they serve. Otherwise, a pretty solid adventure. I might like to know more about the villain and his purposes, though. 

The Orcs are Restless is probably the best adventure in the book. It is open at first, the PCs can try and succeed at their goal any way they please and that fosters great creativity. Choosing to make the later half of the dungeon hidden behind a secret door is an odd choice, however. It means the PCs are likely to miss out.

Making it instead a passage at the bottom of the Pit that can only be reached after the PCs free themselves from the mind-control of the cocoon might make sure the adventure has a big payout. 

The dungeon ends in a door to an ancient Dwarven Vault, but leaves what is behind it up to the GM. I might have considered making it a passage to the lost Dwarven city detailed in the core book, or maybe add a second floor smaller full of traps. Or even just included a suggestion that this might lead to a lost city to be covered in future adventure modules. As is, it is a frustrating close to a fantastic Old-School adventure. 


Delve 2e never fails to offer me ideas and inspiration.

Is any of it perfect? Absolutely not! Delve is very clearly a D.I.Y. passion project that has a lot of rough edges, and doesn't really worry about them. It is interested in one thing: sharing a bunch of cool "what ifs" about how Fantasy Roleplaying Games could be played differently. It flows like an excited, caffeine fueled late-night monologue from a guy who grew up on punk and enjoys annoying the normies at the pub. And that is a big part of its charm. If you want polish, you have come to the wrong game. 

And some of it is brilliant. 

When it comes to this book in particular, I don't think, that the new races, spells, or subclasses of the original Companion section add much to the game as such. I liked the salvage table and will use it, and new monsters are always welcome. The best part of the Delve Second Edition Companion Expanded is by far the adventures. The Orcs are Restless is going on my Hex map, and I am pillaging March of the Dead mercilessly. The Lost Tower is in my list of Dungeons to break out in an emergency, and I will be tinkering with these stress rules. I think that the unique way Wind-Torn Manor tells the PCs that the gods just don't really care is being adapted for my next Grimdark game.

It is an ideal book if you want ideas to steal, some flashes of virtuoso game design, a few short adventures, and a laugh. Which is exactly what I have come to expect from this line. I am going to continue to keep an eye on Delve 2e products with those in mind. 

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