Abstract Dungeon (Review)

abstract-dungeon

In my last post I wrote an actual play report about Abstract Dungeon, so if you are interested in seeing how the mechanics work in solo play, check it out here. Today I will review the game.

What do you need to know?

Abstract Dungeon (AD) is a lightweight fantasy role-playing game by indie publisher Sneak Attack Press. The game was crowdfunded via Kickstarter. I remember it seeing it but it didn’t grab my interest at that time.
You can buy it as PDF or print+pdf at Onebookshelf (aff). If you want to have the (optional) monster cards, you can buy a bundle (aff).

The strength of AD is that it is very fast and flexible. It is a bit abstruse in the same sense as Fate Core and thus differs from traditional role-playing games with wargaming roots: Players build their dice pool from different abilities, traits etc. and roll them at the beginning of play. During the session they overcome challenges by spending their dice. As a result, the game plays pretty quick and uses a resource management system build on the narrative.
In my experience, it doesn’t favor highly tactical play with grid maps, positioning or more “realistic” gameplay. Instead it is a more loose free-flowing game with an emphasis on story.

From the players’ side

Character Creation

After talking to the group and the GM about what kind of game you want to play you have to go through some easy steps.
Every character has four basic Abilities: Toughness, Agility, Intellect and Spirit. These ares similar to most other games, so that’s pretty intuitive for seasoned gamers. You allocate dice into these pools: one is your primary ability and gets the most dice, the others get gradually less.
Toughness covers physical strength and endurance/constitution. For instance, you can use it to hack’n’slash but also for intimidation.
Agility serves as a catch-all for speed and dexterity related tasks. You use it for ranged attacks but also to dodge and evade.
Intellect represents knowledge and cleverness and is used for solving puzzles, clever argumenting and casting magic spells.
Spirit covers charisma, willpower, empathy and your ability to connect to the spirit world. Thus, it is used for negotiating, casting holy magic and druidic magic, inspiring allies etc.
Next up is Traits. These are freeform attributes like “motives: world domination”, or “physical: build like a brick wall”. A beginner character has three traits.
Finally, your alter ego has one Bonus Die which you can use at any time of play.
Afterwards, you should flesh out your character with a bit of background story, personal appearance or personality.

Magic is a curious sort. There is no separate magic system, spell casting either uses Intellect (Sorcerers, Mages) or Spirit (Druids, Clerics). The game offers suggestions for spells but there isn’t a limited list. You can either decide which spells you can cast before play or you can make it up spontaneously. Mechanically, magic works like everything else.

As you can see, chargen is pretty simple. It eschews the classic class-based approach for the more loose trait system.

As a bonus, there are charts and tables for random character creation. I’m so happy to see that. You can get funny characters out of it and that’s totally zany.

Basic Mechanics (and there aren’t any other)

Every player rolls his dice at the beginning of play and now has a die pool at his disposal. The dice are tied to the different abilities, traits etc., so they should be separated.
The GM will set challenges for the players. These challenges are everything from mere obstacles like jumping over a chasm, negotiating a surrender or an epic fight against several monsters. There is no difference between physical, psychological or social conflicts.
Every challenge will have a difficulty which you need to overcome. The GM rolls her dice for the challenge (see more below) so you’ll have a number of die rolls to beat.

Players make the first move and can spend dice from their pools to bring down the opposition. The most important thing is that you need to narrate how you spend your dice. You need to beat the number of enemy dice whose total is equal or less than the total value of dice spent. That sounds more complicated than it is.

For instance, at the beginning of the game you rolled a 3 for Toughness and a 2 for your Trait: Strong as an Oxe. The GM rolled several dice for the challenge, one of them is a 5. In your turn you can spend your Toughness and your Trait dice to beat the GM’s 5. So you’ll explain how you swing your mighty ax down in a devastating arc on the foe and nail him to the ground (or something like that).

Some monsters are resistant or vulnerable to your antics and thus you may add or substract from your dice.
If the players couldn’t knock down all the enemy dice they take damage. The challenge has a damage score which you subtract from your own dice pools. For example, a physical attack from a monster will most likely damage your Toughness or Agility (your choice).
You may divert damage to other abilities but that will cost you more. Additionally, you may opt to take damage for a friend. That nicely models a fighter who defends his party member.

If one of your abilities gets exhausted (you don’t have any dice left and take damage) you are defeated. The rules explicitly say that there are many ways how that plays out in the narrative, it’s not necessarily death.

So, throughout the game you spend your dice to overcome obstacles. What happens if you are low on dice? You can initiate a refresh and re-roll all your dice. However, a refresh will reduce your experience points. The GM can grant you a refresh, too. That might come in the form of a story reward, for instance a pond of healing water.

The game contains a simple system which grants experience points for completing adventures. Leveling up means you’ll get an increase in dice pools. For example, at Level 3 the pool of your primary ability increases.

The Verdict

Generally, the rules are very easy to understand. It helps that the game uses a unified task resolution so there are no special loopholes to keep in mind. Character creation is fast and easy and I like the option of having a randomly rolled up character.
As this a lightweight game the character customization options are limited. Personalizing can be done through choosing where your primary ability lies and by choosing traits. However, as the traits are freeform there is some leeway. Most likely the distinction between characters will come from the narrative: personality, backgrounds, quirks etc.
The four abilities are recognizable to role playing gamers and intuitive enough.
Gameplay is insanely fast because of the minimal dice rolling. I really like the concept of narrating your dice pools. Some players might be put off by the idea of not rolling dice during play. Justifying a certain ability or trait for an obstacle can be sometimes a bit difficult and might lead to frustration if you have dice pools you can’t use. On the other hand, it requires you to think your your feet and to be creative.
Magic doesn’t differ from using other abilities so a fighter and a magic-user are totally on par. I really like the simpleness of that.
Players can be clever by diverting damage or choosing dice pools carefully so they won’t get knocked out. The resource spending mechanic adds a bit tactical depth.

From the other side of the screen

Interestingly, the game starts with Game Master Basics which mostly deals with how to create adventures, campaigns, improvising, preparation for a game and improvisation. It also comes with examples and a simple plot hook generator.
This section is written well and full of valuable information. Of course it is pretty basic (as the header suggests) but it’s a good starter for newer GMs and inspires confidence.

The next chapter, Running Abstract Dungeon goes into the nitty-gritty of how to build encounters and obstacles. As a GM I appreciate that the basics are fairly easy but that you can scale up the difficulty by adding some advanced rules. That makes this a very newbie-friendly game.
For instance, you can divide conflicts into zones and terrain features. Or you might want to add “hindering obstacles”. These don’t deal damage but still impede the PC’s actions. For example, a Rune of Protection prevents physical attacks so players will need to remove it before continuing the conflict.
Additionally, this section of the book offers advice on experience points and how to make the best out of traits for your campaign world.

Chapter 5 adds some Optional Rules: different die types, a way to track sanity, an initiative system and more.

In chapter 6 we learn about Treasure. There is a list of sample treasure, explanations about money and a random treasure generator. Mechanically, treasure also gives dice (like traits and abilities). It is divided into single-use and permanent. Money is single-use per default so you can use it to bribe someone or impress with your wealth.
The sample treasures list a whole lot of familiar magic items. To give you some examples: vorpal blades, dwarven plate armor, the potion “Gaseous Form” or a staff of healing.

Next up is guidance on Monsters and Other Challenges. This chapter explains the monster stat blocks and comes with standard fantasy monsters. Luckily, the game mechanics stay simple. After you get the hang of it you can easily reskin the monsters or make them up on the fly. For a GM, this game is very good for improvising.
For monsters, the game distinguishes between those of the normal variety and boss and super-boss monsters (oh, those old Nintendo times…). Mechanically, the idea behind boss monsters is quite clever. They have a higher dice pool than the average joe and may also spend dice (like PCs) to make special attacks. This way, a Frost Dragon may spend a 3 out of his dice pool to create an Aura of Fear which targets multiple PCs.
Other challenges are also handled by the base mechanic, so environmental hazards, social conflicts etc. have similar stat blocks.
Of note is the distinction between “challenge” and “obstacle”. Obstacles hinder the PC by exhausting their dice pool but they don’t do damage themselves. This models situations like finding a hidden item or picking a lock.

Finally, the book offers a sample campaign setting and three (!) adventures. They are written in a humorous tone and are a good fit for new players.

The Verdict

The advice for a GM is very good. There are a lot of suggestions on how to tie PCs into the game world and some good starting points on how to build adventures and campaigns. This sections is very beginner-friendly and well written.
The chapters about encounters, treasure and monsters are equally valuable. I really love how scalable the game is. The basic mechanic is totally simple but you can add some tricky stuff as soon as you are ready. As AD is very abstract a lot of things fit into the conflict mechanics and the focus stays on the narrative.
Sometimes it can be a bit tough so find the encounter difficulty because it depends on your players’ dice pools and also on which abilities and traits they favor. After an adaption phase this shouldn’t be a big problem, though.
The monster and treasure sections give you enough information to get started right away but as the system is so uncomplicated it is very easy to reskin them. Mechanically, the game is very forgiving for a GM.
Prepping a game is equally easy. You can concentrate on prepping situations and ensuing encounters with appropriate difficulty.
One of the more challenging tasks will be to adjucate when players are allowed to use their abilities or traits. Sometimes players will stretch so they can shoehorn in some dice. This will depend on the group of course but should be solvable with some discussion and explanation. Other games have the same dilemma.

Appearance

The cover features a ridiculous looking adventurer group. I’m not sure why the author chose this picture as AD isn’t a wacky or immature game per se.
The PDF is electronically bookmarked and indexed and comes at 150 pages total.
It is a simple looking product. AD uses a one-column-style layout with a wide sidebar for examples. The artwork is black and white and looks good. Still, the whole offer still feels very amateurish to me. For instance, the character sheet looks functional but a bit crude. I’m not sure why but the presentation rubs me the wrong way. It just fails to excite me and it isn’t a book where you leaf through and are instantly inspired to run a game.
Well, the most important thing is that the text is easy to read and understand and AD accomplishes that.

Additional Material

You can buy print-and-play cards for monsters here (if you don’t own the core game check out the bundle).
There is also a freshly realeased Class Traits document which explains how to tailor traits for fantasy classes.
The author also has two Youtube videos about character creation and sample play.

Some final thoughts

I like how the author addresses the game’s strengths and weaknesses in the introductory chapter and he is quite spot on with this. You immediately know what you get.
The product is written very well and very beginner-friendly both for the GM and for the players. It’s amazingly fast because the mechanics are so simple.
AD is also versatile because it doesn’t get bogged down in minutiae. I absolutely love the broad-strokes approach but obviously it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. As all conflicts use the same rules the main focus of the game should be on the narrative and on spending your dice pools. A fight is as interesting or uninteresting as social conflict etc. That means that there are no special rules for strategic positioning or similar. The author clearly states that the game doesn’t do verisimilitude well. However, as it basically hinges on a resource spending mechanism clever utilizing of dice pools and diverting damage can be rewarding and fun. The game is not without a tactical component.
Furthermore, AD can be easily reskinned to other genres with the caveat that the characters are very heroic. The basic mechanisms are more or less genre-neutral. The monsters are flavored towards fantasy but a conversion to, let’s say, sci-fi or modern should be uncomplicated.
It should be mentioned that the product is very complete and offers everything you need. Personally, I’m not too fond of the character sheet and the visual presentation of the book but that’s a small nitpick all things considered.
Overall, I’m very surprised about this book as it totally fits my preferences of an abstract story-focused game. I’d never have thought that as I skipped the kickstarter because it looked unappealing to me. Boy, was I wrong.
Abstract Dungeon clearly delivers on its promise of a fast and flexible system.


Links:
Abstract Dungeon (PDF/print) (aff)
Bundle with game + cards (aff)
Kickstarter

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