Sunday, March 2, 2014

"Advanced" Dungeon!, or New Rules for an Old Game

Dungeon! is an oldie and a goldie, and a favorite of mine. Originally produced by TSR back in the ‘70s and ‘80s as a light dungeoncrawl game without the heady rules of D&D, it’s recently been reprinted in a new version by Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro in 2012, and another version is expected this year, too. My version is the 1989 version (The New Dungeon!), complete with some dandy plastic Ral Partha adventurers. (Alas, the new version uses card standees instead of miniatures.)

The box cover art for my edition (The New Dungeon!).

Dungeon! is a complex combination of a competitive and cooperative game. Each adventurer is out to be the first to leave the dungeon with a set amount of treasure (it varies by hero type, at least in the Expert Rules, see below). But in order to amass this amount of treasure, the heroes will have to face monsters that in many cases no one hero can defeat alone (at least, not without some really lucky dice). So ideally the game becomes a test of making deals and then backstabbing which is quite amusing for players who can handle that sort of thing.

But it's still rather limiting, and the difficulty of monsters is so high at the lower dungeon levels (there are six total "levels" on the board), so I wanted to shake things up a bit and capture a little more of the classic RPG flavor. My solution— "Advanced" Dungeon! 

Level Up, Level Up

One of the key elements of classic dungeon crawling is the ability of characters to gain experience and improve their abilities, or, in gamer vernacular, "level up." Dungeon! does not have such an element, so I added one! Specifically, I added an experience points system to the Expert Rules in Dungeon! (If you’re not familiar with the Expert Rules, which I am given to understand are not included with the 2012 re-release, try to seek them out. They add a lot of flavor to the game, introducing Paladins with healing ability, magic spells, other varied skills, and different victory requirements, as well as an ambush ability that can become very significant in the endgame). You can see my rough notes here:
Dungeon scrawl. Yeah, you can click to make
the pic bigger, but it won't help you read it.

Since my scrawl, like all good writers, is virtually illegible to anyone but myself, I will translate:

The idea is simple. All monsters are worth the ubiquitous Experience Points (or x.p.). The x.p. value of a monster is equal to the red numbers on the monster’s card (this happens to be the “to kill” value for a fighter striking the monster in combat). Note that the x.p. value is always the red number, even if the hero attacks the monster using a different color. This makes the x.p. system identical for everyone, regardless of the monster’s dungeon level. When a monster is killed by a hero, he retains the monster card. When he reaches a set total (which I decided was equal to his treasure goal, divided by 1,000), he turns in the monster cards and “levels up,” gaining his choice of abilities in either combat, defense, wounds, or a special ability fitting to the hero’s character class, as follows:

The Heroes' Level Bonuses

A Fighter (such as the indomitable Floid) needs 20 x.p. to “level up.” His ability improvements are as follows:
Attack Bonus: Gains +1 to all attack rolls in combat.
Defense Bonus: Monsters must add 1 to their attack rolls when attacking this hero.
Extra Wounds: Each status of “wound” is counted as one less when attacked by a monster. So a “light wound” result is treated as “stunned,” a “serious wound” is treated as a “light wound,” and even if wounded, the hero must be wounded three times in order to be slain, not just twice.

Fighters have no other special abilities, so those are the only choices for improvement for fighters. Bummer. But fighters generally have the best attack dice anyway, and don’t have huge treasure goal (20,000 g.p.), so it’s a pretty decent balance.

A Wizard (like Rast) needs 30 x.p. to “level up.” His ability choices are:
Spell Bonus: Add 1 to all spell attack rolls (but not normal attacks).
Defense Bonus: Same as Fighter
Extra Wounds Same as Fighter
Gain an Extra Spell: The Wizard immediately selects another spell card, and may memorize seven spells at a time, not just six.

A Thief (like Krind) needs 20 x.p. to “level up.” His ability choices are:
Attack Bonus (includes ambush attempts): Same as Fighter
Defense Bonus: Same as Fighter
Extra Wounds: Same as Fighter
Ignore Traps: The thief may ignore the consequences of any trap card, if he wishes.
Steal Treasure (from a monster): Instead of attacking, the thief may attempt to steal any one treasure a monster has. The thief rolls two dice, using the most favorable non-spell attack number for that monster. If the roll is equal to or higher than this number, the thief steals the treasure and immediately leaves the room or chamber, through any exit of the thief’s choice. If the monster has more than one treasure, the thief may take the treasure of his choice. The monster cannot attack the thief, and the monster remains alive and well— and, of course, the thief gains no x.p. from the theft.
If the thief fails his roll, the monster attacks the thief.
Note that if the monster does not have a treasure (such as chamber monster), the thief can instead use the Steal Treasure ability to slip past the monster without fighting— a nice way to elude pursuing opponents (if, for example, you've just ambushed the elf and taken his game-winning 5,000 g.p. jade idol). The thief, however, only moves one space after bypassing a monster, regardless of how much movement he had remaining when he entered the room or chamber.
The Steal Treasure ability does not bypass traps; these take full effect, unless the thief has the Ignore Traps ability as well.

A Paladin needs 30 x.p. to “level up.” His ability choices are:
Attack Bonus: Same as Fighter
Defense Bonus: Same as Fighter
Extra Wounds: Same as Fighter
Dispel Undead: The Paladin attacks any undead creature using the most favorable attack number for that creature— even spell numbers.
Bless: When involved in cooperative combat, the Paladin gains or gives an additional +1 bonus. So if the Paladin is cooperating with the Fighter and the Dwarf, the bonus would be +3 rather than +2. This ability applies whether the Paladin is the main attacker or merely cooperating.

An Elf needs only 10 x.p. to“level up.” His ability choices are:
Attack Bonus: Same as Fighter
Defense Bonus: Same as Fighter
Extra Wounds: Same as Fighter
Range Attack: The Elf may attack through a doorway, similar to the Wizard casting a spell, and thus avoid a monster counter-attack. This ability applies only to the first attack attempt; if the Elf misses, he must enter the room on his next turn if he wishes to continue to fight the monster (it is now aware of him, and avoids the range attack). An Elf can instead leave and return later and attack again using the range ability, but not on the same turn. (For example: An Elf misses his range attack. On his next turn, he cannot simply move a space away and move back and regain his range attack. He must move away and wait out another turn before returning. No, he can’t just sit and not attack for a turn either; as long as he remains outside the door without moving, the monster knows he’s there.)
If the range attack is successful, the Elf may immediately enter the room or chamber and collect the treasure (even if he’s used up his movement). Note that the elf cannot remain outside to get the treasure— he has to enter the room.

A Dwarf needs only 10 x.p. to “level up.” His ability choices are:
Attack Bonus: Same as Fighter
Defense Bonus: Same as Fighter
Extra Wounds: Same as Fighter
Ignore Traps: Same as Thief
Resist Magic: The Dwarf gains a +1 bonus when attacked by monsters who use magic. No, this isn’t stated by the monster cards, but common sense applies— any monster labeled as a “wizard” or “sorcerer” or the like obviously attacks using magic. Also, creatures like the lich, dracolich, and beholder use magic, so the bonus applies. (Honestly, looking at the creatures in the game, this is not very broad ability, but it is very powerful.) The defensive bonus is in addition to the Defense Bonus ability, if the Dwarf also has that.

Only one special ability may be chosen when leveling up, though a character may level up multiple times. Once a special ability is chosen, that same ability cannot be chosen again— a hero only gets one Attack Bonus, for example.

Paying X.P.

The x.p. payment does not “give change.” If a player turns in monster cards with more x.p. than is needed to level up, the extra x.p. are lost. However, a player may also sacrifice treasure cards as an x.p. payment if his monster totals don’t add up enough to level up. Each treasure card is worth one (and only one) x.p. point, regardless of the value of treasure shown on the card. (After all, the point of the game is to acquire treasure, not spend it.) Spent treasure cards are returned to the box, out of play, and do not count towards a hero’s treasure goal. Likewise, all monster cards spent as x.p. are returned to the box, out of play.

Test Crawl

To test the system, I set up a game with one of each character type, and put everything through the paces.
The Dwarf plays Chutes and Ladders, minus the ladders.
(He drew two chutes in a row, moving him from fourth level
to the dreaded sixth level in one turn. Clearly, he needed the 
Ignore Traps ability...) Dwarf is amidst the blue cards.

At first the Elf advanced very quickly— very early on, he had gained three of his four possible special bonuses— a virtual Super Elf. But his attack limit of the white numbers began to slow him down as the remaining monsters became more difficult to defeat. (This elf is no Legolas.)
Super Elf gets caught between two dangerous monsters.
Lower left, in the yellow section.

Surprisingly, the worst advancement results came for the fighter, Floid. But he had lousy rolls throughout the game, and was the only hero to die. Multiple times.
Floid (hallway, green section, center board) has no luck.
After searching for a secret door for three turns, he stares
in amazement as the Dwarf pops through in one.
Floid: "How did you do that?"
Dwarf: "Simple. It's always the fifth stone from the left of the third support block
of the secondary lintel key."
Floid: "Huh?"
Dwarf (gives up): "It's Durin's Day."

I was also surprised to see the Wizard advance very quickly— but then, I made the decision early on to send the Wizard down into the deeper levels, where the monsters are more difficult to defeat, yet more susceptible to magic. (Ironically, for many of the higher level monsters the Wizard was better off just jumping into the room and whacking them with his staff— a green attack— than casting a spell!)

In the end, the Elf and the Wizard were the first to gain their treasure goals. The Thief ambushed the Elf, but got caught among monsters he couldn't get past. Floid, in the meantime, had managed to bounce back from three deaths to gain his own goals. The race for the stairway was on— would it be Floid? Would it be the Wizard with his incredible abilities? Would Super Elf regain his stolen idol? And the noble Paladin, smiting evil— would he gain one last treasure to reach victory himself?
None of the Above— the victor to reach the stairway with his treasure complete was none other than the brave Dwarf. "Of course," he grinned. "It's Durin's Day."

Analysis of a Crawl

In the end, every hero managed to level up multiple times, the most successful being the Wizard and the Elf. And it was a good tactical question as to which bonus abilities to select each time— a greater chance to survive against the monsters, or something to give that "edge" that could win the game. By the end, the Thief was stealing monster's treasures, the Paladin was setting off to smite undead evil in the lower depths, the Elf was shooting arrows through doorways... everybody wound up with abilities they could use, and did so effectively.

I had feared that the level up system wouldn’t work or might break the game, but I found the opposite was true— to me, it made the game more interesting, and while it did offer advantages against the monsters, the simple bonuses didn’t seem to swing things too much in the heroes’ favor at all. The really nasty monsters remained a big risk for solo attacks, especially for the weaker heroes like the Elf and the Dwarf, and the special twists offered some interesting tactical differences among the heroes. I think this system is a keeper.

If you have Dungeon! in your closet, feel free to give my system a whirl, and post comments below!

--- Howard Shirley, aka Parzival, the Wargamesmonger.

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