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Dungeon Delve: When First Rooms Are Last

Passion and tenacity. That's ninety percent of seeing projects like this through to completion. I'm nothing if not determined, so to that end, I organized yet another playtest of my head-to-head skirmish rules for dungeon crawling (earlier playtest and game design discussions here and here). I started the rules in late 2016, completely revamped the core mechanics in early 2018, and feel as if I've been perpetually tinkering with both the rules and the content of the initial scenario, "The Crypt of Mighty Lord Thule," up until earlier today. I presume I'll know what finished looks like when I see it, but I'm not there yet.

In this past weekend's game, we limited the delving parties to just two this time, which is actually what the game best accommodates (we've tried a couple of times with three separate parties making the foray, but that results in a bit of downtime for one team). Rich McKee and I divvied up the characters for the Stank Gang while Zach Howard, Scott McKinley, and Jared Smith took Felonious Fist & Co. into the tomb in search for treasure and glory.

The wife was under the weather, and so she made but a short appearance to say hello to the gang and get the pizzas she ordered for us stowed in a warm oven until we resolved the current turn and took a short break to put chow down (after mindlessly gorging on peanut M&Ms and Utz pretzel nuggets the prior two hours). Alas, Ellen's absence means the combat photography is sparse and shot by my far inferior hands.

Click any photo to enlarge.

Lots of wound markers to go around in this tightly packed melee against a group of animated statues encountered in the very first room explored after the entrance chamber.

The other side of the dungeon from which our rivals, Felonious Fist and team, entered.

The sorceress might have had a better time of things if her offensive spell wasn't fire based, making it less than effective against killer statuary.

While definitely a playtest, the rules were tight enough to not get in the way of folks having a good time (I hope). (left to right: Scott and Zach)

 (left to right: Jared and Rich) Arrayed along the side table in the background is a menagerie of beasties that didn't make it into play.

Although we eventually managed to take down two of the four statues, by this point in the game my team had lost both our cleric and sorceress. In fact, a critical miss by my sorceress while casting her FlameSpray spell resulted in a fatal backfire and self-immolation!
Hope was definitely receding for the Stank Gang merely one room into the dungeon. 

Felonious's gang was faring better on the other side of the dungeon. They had lost their wizard in an encounter with two clay Golems, but they at least managed to best their foes (an incredible critical hit by their monk punched a hole straight through one of the lumpy constructs). The next room had them facing off against a Fire Elemental emerging from the embers of a pit in the center of a crematorium. 

My thief, Grouse Stank, knew he stood little chance standing toe to toe against the statues, and so in the first round he bolted to the far side of the room to take shots with his bow at the slow moving monstrosities. He sat by the a door ready to fling it open to make an escape route for his allies, but they sadly fell to the punishing blows of the magical statues first.

Most of the Stank Gang had now met a grisly end.

The unholy altar guarded by the Golems yielded nothing of use to the adventurers, so they moved in for combat with the Fire Elemental, preparing to gang up on it as it entered the chamber door.

The three brave glory seekers eventually reduced the Fire Elemental to dusty cinders. Alas, the hour was late, and the rest of their tale remains untold... 


Jared has made the delve three times now, and though he's becoming a veteran of Thule's crypts, he's still seen less than half of the possible rooms, encounters, traps, etc. To my mind, that bodes well for replayability, but it also speaks to how long it is taking in each game to explore the crypt. And as Jared pointed out, in only one playtest have we ever actually had the adventuring parties eventually cross paths with one another and fight it out in the crypts, despite each game going for about four hours. That definitely is moving me to think about ways to speed up game play.

One area of the game that definitely needs refined is the strength of the encounters. I had given the statues the highest possible A.C. rating, which at first blush made sense--they're made of stone!--but it also made it nearly impossible to kill them. Pitting four adventurers with combat dice ranging from d4 to d8 against foes with A.C. dice of d12 ended up a no-win situation. As a result, Rich and I literally never made it out of the first room we explored. (For those curious, the thief who had stayed out of melee did manage to grab some loot form within that room and scurry past the statues back out of the dungeon alive...a Pyrrhic victory, to be sure.)

Ironically, just before sitting down to the game I had lamented that no adventurers had died in any of the previous playtests. On this run through, half of the total of eight adventurers comprising the two parties died in the very first rooms they each explored. This seems like an irrefutable signal that I need to do a much better job balancing the stats of the foes in the Room Encounters deck. I definitely want the real possibility of fatalities in this game, but barring tremendously poor luck, the adventurers should ideally be able to get through the first room without dying!

I introduced a number of mechanics this time that I generally liked, including the possibility of reviving characters knocked to zero hit points back from death's door (albeit with mounting uncertainty and the likelihood of handicaps for the rest of the game). I also introduced critical hits and misses for all sorts of attacks (melee, ranged, and magical). I need to smooth out the results tables a bit, but I think they added some fun drama to play (if you call wizards blowing themselves up with critical misses fun...which I do).

I definitely need to work on the damage multipliers, too, by codifying that no die roll, even after modifiers, can ever be less than 1, and I think I'll also cap non-critical-hit damage to a ceiling of 3 H.P. (most of the pre-gen adventurers are coming in with 3-5 hit points).

Scott made a valid observation that, while it was good fun to play your own party as well as your opponent's encounters, there's little currently in the game that keeps you from playing your opponent's encounters as if they were highly intelligent, with near-perfect knowledge of their opponents. On the one hand that doesn't bother me too much--I intentionally wanted a system in which the monsters aren't confined to some pre-programmed set of moves. They should be unpredictable and wily and challenging. But I do think there is a real opportunity that I haven't exploited enough to guide monster behaviors a bit. I could see adding stipulations in certain encounters like "the statues will not follow the party out of this room," or "the golems will target spellcasters last." Even simple things like, "gnolls will gang up on the weakest foe" or "closest foe" could help ameliorate a little bit of Scott's concerns, and it's an idea I like in the right circumstance. I've thought about it in the past in terms of some of the future scenarios I want to design, in which racial enmity could come into play (e.g., goblin archers will always target dwarves first, etc.).

Rich echoed a concern expressed by John Sears in an earlier playtest that the combat dice mechanics might be more complicated than necessary. When a game stretches on for as long as some of these playtests have (averaging about four hours), I definitely need to think hard about what variables are shaping the pace of play. Yet I confess that I really like these combat mechanics and how they help differentiate character stats; to me it feels just gritty enough to not be a variation on any of a dozen board games in the dungeon crawl genre. That was one of the real impetuses for me in creating this game: I wanted something more sophisticated than, say, recent board games like Descent or the D&D board games (e.g., Legend of Drizzt, et al.). I had purchased a good number of those over the years, and they all fell short of capturing the exploratory fun and tactical immersion I'm chasing with these rules.

I'm hoping that recalibrating a lot of the encounter cards will resolve some of these issues and speed up overall play a bit. That seems like the place to start before fundamentally rejiggering the core rules yet again.

All in all, though, I believe everyone enjoyed the evening, imperfections and all...and that's a success in and of itself!

Thanks for playing, fellas!


  1. Where did you get those brown dungeon doors?

    1. The large double doors are from the Mantic game Dungeon Saga; they sell packs of spare doors separately. You can find those Dungeon Saga doors from a variety of sellers (e.g., eBay, Amazon, wargaming stores, etc.) The smaller pre-painted doors with the iron bounding strips are by Legendary Realms Terrain (

    2. Good report Joe! Reading through your thoughts, one thing jumped out to me. You mentioned the stone statues being unkillable. I've been trying to incorporate a 'consolation prize' in my rules. Even if you fail at a task, you get a little something to take the sting out of it. Maybe a failed attack on the statues could create a crack in them (for example). For each crack, the players gain a bonus on subsequent attacks making the statues tough early on, but eventually killable. Just a thought!

    3. John, that's a really great idea with a lot of merits. Not only can adding such twists and details give each encounter some unique flavor, but it's also an organic way to speed up the combats (e.g., minions fleeing when the leader is killed, a group of monsters being afraid of fire, etc.). I really appreciate your reading my ramblings and giving such useful feedback!

  2. Joe, do you plan to publish / make these rules, cards and stuff donwloadable when you are finished? Because this thing looks like EXACTLY the kind of dungeon crawling ruleset I'm looking for. :)

    1. I do, indeed, plan on publishing these rules, card decks, etc., perhaps in a little boxed set once I get them finished. I'll probably run a simple Kickstarter just to cover the costs. Not looking to build a new business out of this project, but would like to share it with folks who might enjoy it.


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