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Reviews: Donjon
by Merwin

Donjon coverDonjon
Written by Clinton R. Nixon and Zak Arntson
Published by Clinton R. Nixon/Anvilwerks
80 page PDF, includes sample scenario and character sheet

Donjon Excursion
On my last gaming day of the 2002, I brought a stack of games over to a friend's house. Among them: Ebola Monky Hunt, Monkeys on the Moon, Citadels, Drakon, and WizWar – all tried-and-true quality entertainment products to be reviewed at a later date. And just in case anyone felt like they had to roleplay, Donjon was in my briefcase.

They picked Donjon, the only game I hadn't actually played -- though I was mostly up on the rules. So I passed around character sheets and the fun began. Our first job as a group was to decide what the mood of our game would be. Of course, the players felt compelled to set the ambience dial to Monty Pythonesque Fantasy. I was pretty sure I'd regret this, and I wasn't disappointed.

We went over the basic system mechanic: Roll a number of d20s equal to your relevant Attribute + Ability vs. a number of d20s based on a difficulty set by the GM. Identify who has the highest non-tied roll. That person wins the roll, and all dice higher than the loser's highest non-tied dice are considered successes. Each success lets you state one fact about the current situation, or provides you with a bonus die on an immediately contingent action.

To build characters, you choose/invent your own Class or Race. As we discovered, it doesn't really matter what you call yourself. The Class (restricted to Human only) or Race (can be anything) is simply a way to give your character some identity, and to help tie your Abilities into a coherent framework.

The names of the six Attributes are quite pretentious, but can easily be translated directly to standard d20 stats. I mean, honestly, Cerebrality (what Donjon calls Intelligence) isn't even a word!

Additional traits include Provisions, Wealth and Flesh Wounds, which refer to stuff, money, and hit points, respectively. Unlike most games, there's no equipment list. Characters may only retain one weapon, one armor item, and one miscellaneous possession per their experience level at the beginning of an adventure. Other than that, they have to make a Provisions test to recover items from their person, or a Wealth test to purchase it from a town. And at the end of the adventure, they don't get to keep anything except for the items allowable by level. I thought this was a particularly keen mechanic that bypassed a lot of unnecessary bookkeeping.

Lastly, you've got mental and physical saving throws, one Main Ability, and four Supporting Abilities. There's no set skill list, so it's up to the players to come up with whatever Abilities they have. Your Main Ability is pretty flexible and useful. Supporting Abilities are constrained by target, environment or situation, depending on how it's phrased. For our group this is pretty much where everything went to hell.

My three players basically blew the readout on the mood dial. One chose to be a gigolo with persuasive skills, sexual prowess and a bullseye tossing skill. I guess it made some sense that he could aim well (*ahem*). Another player chose to be a slime goblin with the ability to scrounge, slither out of people's grip, eat muck, and deliver a disgusting, mucus-laden touch. The last was a genie in a bottle. That's right – in a bottle. He could come out and cast spells, but only when commanded to, and he obeyed the wielder of his bottle. We decided the goblin was the gigolo's "it"-servant, and that the genie's bottle had been scrounged up by the goblin pre-game.

The premise of the adventure involved a contract for "Fast Eddie," the gigolo, to, um, "service" the Lady Deleres in her mountain keep above the riverside town of Figgles Green. On the way, they encountered an overturned wagon with an unhealthy potato, a black grizzly bear in a field of potatoes, the keep's moat, the Lady's husband, a bunch of corpses, a well of wine, a puppy, and the Lady herself, who was ready, willing, and geriatric. That's really all you need to know. Trust me.

The real question is how well the game played and whether or not everyone had a good time. To the latter, our group gives a resounding affirmative. To the former, well. . .

Gameplay Issues
We had some trouble seeing how any game with this structure wouldn't deteriorate into a humorous escapade when players possessed narrative control. Like many narrative games, Donjon sets out clear guidelines for establishing a player/GM contract before play starts. Unfortunately, with hardened traditional gamers, it's difficult to get anything but blank stares when you ask them what they want to do next. The slime goblin, when confronted with having just successfully searched the wagon, decided his character found a potato. He could have found gold, magic items, helpful pygmies, a cow wandering in the forest, ANYTHING. And he chose a potato, which he subsequently wolfed down without sharing with the other characters. It gave him a bad case of gassy indigestion when he failed his Saving Throw and, uh, it got worse from there.

Traditional plot-driven players need a mission laid out for them. To accommodate this need, there is a metagame "switch" that allows the GM to turn player narration off, converting all successes into subsequent bonus dice automatically. We didn't use this rule because while it would have been pretty handy for plot advancement it would also have defeated the attempt to experiment with player narration.

We had trouble figuring out whether you started with your one permanent item of each type per level, or whether you had to purchase or find your initial items after the game began. Donjon isn't clear on this. I finally opted to give everyone one of each type of item with a Worth cap of 2 per item. After all, we were testing out the rules.

The genie grumbled a bit about having to make a roll to gather magical power (collect Spell Dice) and then having to make another roll to actually cast a spell. Ultimately, it really wasn't much different from rolling to hit and then rolling damage. Presto: problem solved through rational thought! The genie had other problems, like having Summon as one of his words, which let him use his Magic abilities as a secondary Provisions attribute. Oops on me as the GM. In retrospect, I should have made the summoned items disappear in a few rounds, or at the end of a scene. Fortunately, the genie didn't abuse his power, and the other players didn't encourage him to abuse his power.

All in all, the game played smoothly, and perhaps most impressively, contests and issues not covered by the rules were surprisingly simple to define/improvise. The most dangerous thing about Donjon is the amount of player control it offers. Without full buy-in at the beginning of the game, and (relatively) mature players, it'd be easy to get into trouble.

The game is ideal for one shots. I can't see running this game in a fully improvised campaign. Things would get too crazy too quickly. What it's best suited for, if you're interested in long-term play, is a largely predefined world that all the players are fairly well-informed on. That way, when players get narrative control, things will generally stay within mutually agreed upon limits.

Donjon is not a tactical game. It relies on creative use of the abilities you've given your character, and the spontaneity of both players and GMs when interpreting dice roll outcomes. You play Donjon when you want to break out of the box and not worry about range and facing and other wargame-like considerations.

For $10, Donjon helped end the gaming year for our group with quite a bang (sorry). Split five ways for four hours of entertainment a person, that's $0.50 cents per person per hour. We'll be playing again sometime, which will only lower the PPPH cost.

Go buy it. It's a no-brainer.


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