Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Unofficial Delve FAQ

Here are the questions I have had while reading the rules or playing, and the answers I've come up with for my own play. I'm sharing them for the benefit of others, but they are in no way endorsed by the creator of Delve.

Awww. Ain't he cute.

Q: You get 5 soldiers at the start, in your entrance square. Is this square a kind of Barracks? If so, is its limit 5? Or will the soldiers move to the first Barracks I build? 

A: Unclear in the rules. I treat it like a free, first Barracks with a capacity of 10.

Q: When do I shuffle the cards I've drawn back into the deck?

A: Page 4 says "After you've resolved a card (e.g. drawn the discovery on your map, and dealt with any combat) shuffle it back into your deck." This could mean every turn and maybe more. That's kind of ungainly, so my ruling is that I only shuffle the deck at the end of a turn in which I have drawn an Ace. Note that I also use the deck for the d2/d4 "rolls" instead of rolling dice. So I go through a lot of cards. 

Q: When Exploring, do I have to build a corridor to get to an adjacent cell? 

A: It is a little unclear, but my impression is this, from reading pages 3 and 11 primarily: all adjacent cells on the same level (row) are implicitly connected. All cells above or below are not connected, by default, and require stairs. Stairs and corridors are free, but you can only build one per turn and it takes up the time you would have built a room (so it's stairs OR corridor OR room). So why would one even build a corridor? Well, on page 9 it says a corridor or drawbridge can be built over water, so you could use it to bridge a space. A corridor takes up a cell, BTW. 

Q: Can I build in a cell I haven't explored?

A: Yes? Apparently that's how it works. You can build in an empty room or cavern or in an empty cell. I got this (still get this) wrong a lot and think I have to have an empty room to build in, but the rules indicate you can build in an "unexplored space" that "you haven't drawn in" and which "connects to at least one adjacent explored space."

Q: Which units can I recruit at the start? Which things need a special room?

A: The answer is, ALL units that you might recruit require a room to be built (or sometimes found) first. (The exception would be if you treat the initial cell as a free Barracks.) Here is the correlation:

  • Soldiers and Gunners need Barracks
  • Hounds need Kennels
  • Clerics need a Shrine or Temple
  • Mages need a Library
  • Prisoners need a Prison (duh)
  • Alchemists need a Lab
  • Golems need a Golem Forge (which you find, not build)
  • Cannons need a Forge
  • Skull Dwarves need a Crypt (which you find, not build)
Note that most rooms have a max capacity. You can only "recruit as many units as you are able to house and afford."

Q: How do I calculate enemy unit STR? Are the terms Unit and Troop used interchangeably?

A: As I understand it, a unit is a singular thing you recruit, e.g. 1 Soldier or 1 Cannon. A Troop is a group of units moving together. The card draw tables will tell you how to calculate enemy STR (sort of). Sometimes the STR is fixed, sometimes it is by the size of the room they are found in. But you always add Level x 5 STR. If a "Hive" is 10 STR  x 2 grid cells, that makes it 20 STR. Except that, if it is found on level 6, the Hive would be (10 STR x 2 cells) + (5 STR x 6 levels) or  50 STR. That's how I read it. The rules aren't super clear, but I think it would be a little weird to add the level bonus first, e.g. (10 STR + (5 STR x level 6)) x 2 cells = 80 STR.

Q: Cleric shields have a range and are "per cleric," but what about Temple-generated shields?

A: On page 8 it says that "Clerics can only apply shields to units/Troop that are in the same grid space or directly adjacent." It also says they can do one shield per cleric. My assumption is they can stack. A Temple says "A Temple of Protection allows you to pay 5 Trade Goods (Diamonds) and place a Shield with 20 STR on a unit or Troop" (page 15). Later it says, on the same page, that Temples need at least one Cleric to activate their effects. So, can I activate that effect multiple times if I pay the 5 TG multiple times? Can I only do it as many times as I have clerics, even though I only need one to activate the power, and/or as many times as I have units, and/or as many times as I have troops? And since it's implied that the temple (not the cleric) is generating the shield, does it have to go on a unit in an adjacent space or can it go on any unit/troop? My ruling has been that there is no range. You need 1+ clerics to activate the temple and it can place a 20 STR shield on any troop for 5 TG. Can it do it multiple times? I've played it different ways, but let's say "no." I think it's more fun if it only works once per combat. The upside is that it can go anywhere. I suppose if you play it just like clerics (with a range of 1, IOW) you could move your troops adjacent to the temple, get the blessing, and then ship out. In which case you might want some rails leading to your temple! Also, the extra clerics could stack on some 5 STR shields that way. IOW, 3 clerics could apply 30STR (20+5+5) of shields to a unit that way. 

Q: If a unit is wounded but doesn't die, what happens? Or, what do I do with leftover damage that isn't enough to kill a unit?

A: It's clear that if an enemy takes damage but isn't killed, the damage sticks. A 50 STR horde of goblins climbing over a 20 STR spear wall comes out the other side as a 30 STR horde of goblins. Let's say that same 50 STR horde moves through a troop of 10 soldiers that each have a 7.5 STR because of a nearby Kitchen. The combined strength of the soldiers is 75. The goblins die, and in the process reduce the soldiers STR to 25, which at 7.5 per soldier means there are 3.333 bodies remaining. The rules say (page 8) "if the damage would be enough to defeat a unit in that Troop (i.e. 6 damage in a Troop of soldiers), then a unit is defeated." The implication and letter of the text there is that since the damage was enough to kill 6/10 soldiers in this case and not enough to kill 7/10, then that "third" of a soldier walks away to fight again as a whole soldier. And that's the way I play it. Note that in the example given by the book, assumed soldier STR is 5 per. So 6 damage on 2 soldiers (10 STR total) kills one and leaves one.

Q: Does combat take place all in the same turn?

A: Yes. At first I thought the rules might mean that units move one space every turn, but the term used is "combat rounds" (not turns). You play out the combat in rounds, but all within the same turn. Round movement mostly just determines where the battles take place and how many/which rooms a unit moves through. I also use a round in which one of my troops can move to activate things like Temples and Pumps. More on that below.

Q: Is there a limit to the width/depth of my hold?

A: Apparently not. Per page 9 though, the play grid supplied is 10 cells wide by 8 tall. 

Q: Are barricades relative to a cell's wall?

A: I asked this question because of an oddball comment on page 9 under Burrowing. It says "barricades can be built horizontally over openings like these or to close off stairs." Which made me wonder, if I used a barricade to seal off a room of gas to the "left" of a room, does that mean monsters could freely travel through the room north to south? Or could I place the barricade in front of the stairs and allow monsters to move freely in all directions except up the stairs? Sounds like I could. I place barricades relative to a specific wall or walls. I pay the same no matter how many walls/exits in a cell I want to cover. It doesn't come up all that much.

Q: Liquid and gas flows up to 2 spaces sideways, just at the beginning? In one direction or both?

A: I've read this different ways at different times, but the let's start with a simple answer and then explain why the question is worth asking. Identify the source of liquid or gas. Have it go up (gas) or down (liquid) as soon as it can. If it needs to move one or two spaces to do that, then have it flow in the direction of the nearest point of escape. Once it flows up or down, it doesn't move laterally anymore. If it can't go up or down, even after flowing two spaces left or right, then just roll a d2 to see which way it flows (black left, red right). We are assuming that no ground or ceiling is perfectly level and slopes slightly toward the nearest drop or ascent. So, up/down as soon as it can, and laterally up to two spaces beforehand if it can't.

Having said that, there are lots of ways to interpret the movement described. You could, for instance, have it go laterally up to two spaces in either/both directions as well as going up/down. Or you could have it go one space laterally, then fall or rise until blocked, and then have it flow another space laterally, and then ascend/descend if possible. Some might read it as flowing two spaces and then rising/dropping and then flowing up to another two spaces, etc. 

Q: How do monsters move during a takeover?

A: I have them move one cell at a time, as per normal combat, and determine direction randomly when progress toward the entrance is impossible. This will matter if you have troops that can get to the monsters and defeat them. If you don't, you can just shorthand this and have them move through all the rooms they are going to eventually claim in one go.

Q: The rules say Hospitals revives one troop of your choice on the same level after combat, is that really a troop or just a unit?

A: Good question. I think the rules may have meant to say unit, not troop. IOW, if you had 10 soldiers in a troop and they all got wiped out, does the hospital bring back 1 or 10? You can make your own call. One is seemingly too weak and the other might be too strong. You pay 10 hearts and 10 diamonds for a hospital (so 15 diamonds if you covert the hearts/resources). That's the cost of three soldiers. A hospital would only be worth it if there were more than three battles on that level involving soldiers, if you take the conservative "unit" view. But what if a hospital could bring back a singular 30 diamond cannon unit? Can a hospital heal a cannon? Let's say this - hospitals can't heal constructs, but they do in fact restore ALL of the units in a single living/breathing troop on the same level at the end of a combat.

Q: Are Museums worth it? 

A: My math says no, though there is definitely a cool factor. You could spend 50 hearts and 50 diamonds, then wait to defeat an enemy, and THEN you get to build a statue that gives you a measly +10 STR against them in future combats? Nah. Note though, that this should/would apply to multiple troops. If an enemy for which you have a statue just happens to pop up a second time and goes through a troop of soldiers and then a troop of cannon, that +10 STR would be applied to both combats, I think.

Q: The Overseer's Office doubles any diamond card in its column, is that before or after the level bonus?

A: Since it doubles the card, I read that as before the level bonus. Say you draw a 2 of diamonds on level 8. Normally that would be worth 10 TGs (2 + 8). With an overseer it would be (2 x 2) + 8 = 12. If you read it the other way, it would be (2 + 8) x 2 = 20. 

Q: Shrines can work as a level 3 trap and are much cheaper, am I missing something?

A: Good question. Yes, a shrine of defense costs 20 hearts (same as a L1 trap) but counts as a passable level 3 trap - AND you can recruit a cleric with it AND you don't need a mason to build it. The rules don't say if this is a stopping or damage trap, so one would presume it's your choice. Also, what does "passable" mean - that you can pass through it with troops unlike other L3 traps (page 17, bottom) - or that it "passes for" a L3 trap? I guess since you need the cleric to activate the trap it's more like 28 hearts for that trap. But a L3 trap built by a mason effectively costs 60 hearts plus the cost of the mason (though he can build more than one). Hmmm. It's a loophole, exploit it to your heart's content.

Q: Stockpiles and Treasuries (page 14 and 15) say they "increase your maximum" and under the Rune of Greed rules (page 39) an effect applies when you have more TGs "than the capacities of your Treasuries." Do you have a limit on resources and trade goods? What is it?

A: Yeah. I don't know. I read this at first as adding 50 hearts (Stockpile) or TGs (Treasury) to your pool. But I think it means increase your maximum by 50. But I haven't seen anywhere that tells you what your original maximum was. Let's assume it is 50. So increasing it by 50 doubles it. 

Q: How do Temples work? 

A: See the question above about cleric shields. 

Q: When do you activate drawbridges, pumps, temples, and other stuff you can activate. Do you need a unit there to activate them?

A: I say you do it on a turn in which you could move a unit, but no, you don't have to have a unit there - unless the room description says you do. IOW, you need a cleric at a Temple of Defense to throw up a  20 STR shield but you can open up a pump to flood an area without any unit in the room. In most cases having a troop there would defeat the purpose. For instance if a unit was in the room with a pump, it would die. If a unit was activating a drawbridge in a square where an enemy was, they would immediately fight (before the drawbridge is activated?) and the unit would either die before closing the bridge or the enemy would die in which case there is no point in closing the bridge.

Q: Elevators give a speed for monsters ascending, can troops descend in them too? How fast? At the same time?

A: Enemies take 2 rounds per cell to ascend. I say troops ascend or descend at normal speed (1 cell per round) and that, yes, they can do that while an enemy is ascending. However, these elevators are open (no sides) so if/when one enters the square of the other a fight breaks out. Otherwise, they would just pass each other by! And that's no fun.

Q: Pumps are pretty great aren't they? Do they cost anything to reset?

A: Yes. Yes they are. They can become a really easy way to defeat an enemy. So here is what I say. First, you have to pay 5 diamonds to reset the pump (like a trap). Second, you have to drain the room first. You also have to drain any other room it flooded if you want it dry again (it costs 5 diamonds, per page 5). Stop your crying, you killed a dragon with it, right? Also, pumps follow the flow rules I set above. The water drops as soon as it can and stops flowing sideways when it does - but until it drops it can go up to two cells toward a drop or just sideways in one direction or another (random if no drop is closer than another).

Q: Are Breeder rooms worth it?

A: Probably not, but consider the cool factor of having your own mini-dragon. 

Q: The book says that Damage and Stopping Traps "start at level 1," is that the dungeon level?

A: Nah. This was a poor word choice. Trap and barricade levels are kind of like "ranks." A level 1 damage trap does 10 STR damage. A level 3 trap does 30 damage. They do this damage regardless of what level of the dungeon they are on.

Q: Do defensive barricades damage units?

A: I don't think so. It's just a kind of wall. Once the unit is strong enough to bust through, it does, without taking damage.


Post them below!

Delve 3, in progress

I think it may be safe to say I'm a little obsessed with playing Delve (see earlier posts). In fact, my next post is going to be a more in-depth look at the rules as a kind of FAQ.

For now, let me tell you about my current hold. 

Day 1 journal entry: Today's Delve is going well. An hour in and no show stoppers. Although the lich-queen came very close to ending my digs for good. Experience is starting to count. I built a temple early and was ready for that damned Demon Portal that I always seem to draw. I've had some good luck too. That crystal cave put out trade goods for a huge number of turns and both times I ran into gas pockets, they were blinding (only), not toxic. I definitely wasted money on that drawbridge though. Didn't know I was going to hit an underground lake.

Day 2: The Delve continues... So what happened today? I got most of the gas cleared up. But while trying to expand my first level I ran into magma that wiped out my Mason and Forge. Lots of monsters vanquished, including a crypt of Skull Dwarves, Fraxilector the Golden (a dragon), and a hive of Black Wasps. Mostly by flooding. Again, I think pumps might be overpowered or rather that more things should have immunity to them? I dunno. I also had to sac another cleric to close up a second demon portal. I've uncovered two wishing wells and a buried temple and haven't had the guts to use either - I'm afraid of bad magic. The biggest item of note was running into an ancient monstrosity in the form of Metus - Dancer in the Dark. Luckily? He immediately disappeared (Mastermind) and will come back the next time I draw a King card. I also have a sleeping dragon, Dranigar the Surly, on my hands. I've stolen from him twice and gotten away with it. I can't resist those 20 diamonds! Treasuries are low 34 hearts and 32 diamonds. But they've been lower. Stopping for today to think about building more defenses.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Delve: a very short play example

Today's Delve didn't last long (maybe 15-20 minutes). 

I built up a small unit and went down to level two. There I hit giant ants. 

After defeating those I ran into a well that I was too hesitant to use. Then a demon gate that I had to seal (after fighting the first round of spawn that came out of it). Sealing it took building a shrine near the grave site of my dead soldiers, recruiting a cleric, and then convincing that cleric to sacrifice herself (along with a ton of diamonds). 

Depleted in both soldiers and coin, I foolishly opened up another room on level two. Shit. An XXL monster village. The goblins there were strong (50 STR) and worked their way up, defeating my remaining 6 soldiers (45 STR with the Kitchen in play), and overrunning my hold!

I'm going to start naming my Dwarf Holder and maybe even the soldiers, clerics, etc. That way it will hurt more when I lose them. 

FYI, the only rules mod I'm using right now is that I redraw only at the end of a turn on which I drew an Ace. That puts more variety in the game and reduces shuffling time.

Cheap fixes for 2d6 random tables

Random encounter tables using two dice are heavily peaked toward the median. Sometimes that's good. For instance if you want the weather in a region to be fairly predictable are trend strongly toward a specific result. But sometimes that median result becomes tedious when rolled repeatedly. This is especially true in encounter tables, where the "most boring result" is often stored in the middle. After you have fought that random, roving band of goblin guards three times, do you really want to chance rolling it again?

There are some cheap, fast, and easy fixes.

1. Cross out the result you are tired of getting and write in a new result. Goodby "d4+2 Goblin Guards," hello "Bugbear looking for the latrine."

2. Just ignore the dice when you get a result you have already gotten and choose a different result. I recommend shifting up the table one result at a time until you hit something new.

3. Instead of using the result you get (yet another run-in with those gobba-guards), insert a sign from the most dangerous thing on the table. The party turns the corner to see a huge pile of dragon poo!

4. Swap out the two like dice for two unlike dice. For instance, change 2d6 into a d8+d4! This flattens out the curve, as seen in these graphs (courtesy of Note that the chances of the extreme results don't change that much, but the middle flattens out dramatically. 

You can mess around on AnyDice and see how different combinations of dice that produce the same number of results and the same top and bottom numbers affect the curve. For instance, look at 2d10 vs. d8+d12. Realize though, that this can easily become a mini-game that is no longer "fast and easy." Find your favorite alternates and stick to those so you don't enter some processing loop at the table or try to look at the curves in AnyDice in the middle of a game! 

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Delve: a short play example

Here is a quick example of play for Delve (see my last post). I didn't track my cards and expenditures, I'm just going to kind of tell the story of what happened as I remembered it. 

At first the digging was easy. With some lucky draws and the starting funds, I built a Barracks, Kitchen, and Forge. 

Digging down I ran into an underground lake that flooded the level. I drained it and installed a pump. 

Digging away from the lake I ran into an ancient library which released evil magic. It opened a portal to some kind of demon circus. Twice the demons clowns spawned and twice I flooded them out with the pump.

The Hold, at the end of the first session.

It was at this point that I had to make up/add some rules about pumps. The rules say you can activate them in flood mode. And water goes up to two spaces in either direction, and as far down as it can. The rules don't say how/when you activate the pump in this mode or whether it is useable again. So I made up the following rules. To activate a pump you need a unit there. They may retreat one space after activating it (so they don't die from the resulting flood). You can't activate a pump in a room with enemy units. Afterward you have to pay 5 diamonds (per the rules) to drain the room and 5 hearts to reset the pump (as if it were a trap).

Knowing that the next time the demons spawned they would get to the pump room ahead of me, I went back to the first level and worked sideways, building a shrine and recruiting a cleric. The cleric immediately sacrificed himself (and 20 diamonds) to seal the hell-circus. (Later I recruited another one, just in case.) That problem dealt with, I tried to go down on the right side of the digs.

On the right side, I kept hitting magma. Sigh. Back to the pump room. I dug down and hit a goblin village. I had 10 troops (total STR 75 because of the kitchen nearby), so that wasn't a big problem. Then I hit a golem forge, and a magma tube. And then a purple worm.

I dug down at that point and hit the Lich King's chambers. It and/or its army of undead was huge - 120 STR points because of the size of the room (5 x 20 STR) and the level (+20 STR for L4). My troops were depleted from the goblin fight and it looked grim. So in the ensuing battle I reversed the pumps, causing a flood. 

The flood went down into goblin town, over into the golem forge, down into the Lich King's hall. Problem solved.* I wasn't really thinking about gravity though, so I actually had the water run over two spaces. 

Which meant the flood waters ALSO fell down the magma tube. What happens when a flood of water hits magma? My guess was gas. I used the random table for one of the gas rooms to see of what type it was, and it was, of course, toxic. 

The gas rose and filled level 3 (left side). Then level 2. Then level 1. Where it wiped out my remaining troops.  At this point, I spent my remaining money clearing a few chambers of gas and water, and decided to quit for a while. 

* Ok. Per the rules a flood defeats any troops. Should it defeat undead? I don't know. Maybe the force of it scattered their bones. I suppose I could have ruled that it didn't affect undead, in which case I would have lost the fight and the Lich King's horde would have reached my stairs to the upper realm and caused my hold to be a failure. 

As you can see, this game requires some adjudication from the player. I wasn't totally comfortable with the rhythm of the game at first to trust my judgment in these matters. Was I being too hard on myself? Too easy? Was I missing stuff? After a few sessions (no void crystal yet), I'm getting the hang of it. I can see how it work better on a 1" grid, as suggested by the author, but I like playing in my digest-notebook. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Delve by Anna Blackwell

Well. This little solo-mapping-adventure game was a surprise. I've bought and played a number of solo games over the years. They often come in small formats, like zines, pocket-mods, or a few printable page spreads. Some are more workable, intuitive, and/or fun than others. I put this one at the top end of the ones I've played. After I've had my say on this one, I'll talk about a few comparable products. But before I go on, I don't want to forget to say that you can buy Delve and some of Anna's other games at Exalted Funeral Press


Delve is a 44-page game by Anna Blackwell. You can play it for a few minutes at a time, but a complete game will take hours to complete. It's very compact and satisfying in that regard. You just need some cards and pencil-and-paper (preferably gridded or dotted) to play. Anna suggests some tokens as well. I didn't use them because I was in a rush and wanted to get playing, but it would indeed be helpful during the combats.

But, let me back up and begin again with a top-down explanation. You are a the Overseer of a Dwarven Hold. Your king, the "Under-King," has tasked you with exploring the depths of the earth to find the fabled Void Crystal. The game proceeds in turns of 5 phases. 

1. In the first phase, you explore. This means you draw a card. The suit will tell you whether you encounter more resources, trade goods, or encounter a natural wonder (often dangerous) or remnant (usually some kind of monster or other threat). 

2. Once you resolve the card, you go into combat with any remnants uncovered. This only happens about 1 in every 4 turns and is resolved quickly. Your units move one chamber per turn, as do the monsters, heading for your hold entrance. (Sometimes the book will tell you that they do other things.) If you meet them in battle, you basically do attrition damage to each other, the winning side being reduced by the power of the losing side. There's nuances to that, but as a general description it works. And in play, it works. I kind of enjoy not rolling dice. As the Overseer you are managing a small army of soldiers and specialists. You can recruit more (see step 5). If the monsters make it to your entrance, your hold is a failure. You basically lose. 

3. The third phase involves converting resources into trade goods or vice versa to set up for turn 4. 

4. This is the phase where you build stuff. You get to build one room from a long list of rooms (barracks, forges, cannon outposts, hospitals, temples, etc.). You can only build one per turn, which is an important restriction. I often had enough resources/goods to accelerate things, but couldn't because of this turn-by-turn development. You also use this phase to make repairs to rooms that are damaged, build barricades and traps, etc. Again, all of this is spelled out. You look up what you want to build and the book tells you how much it costs, what its strength in combat is (if any), and how it works.

5. Finally you recruit units. Some units require you to build special rooms first. The book isn't always clear about this. For instance, I didn't see any where that you needed a special room to build cannons, but you need to randomly encounter a Golem Forge, and beat the golems there, before you can build golems.

There's also kind of a phase 0 where you do upkeep on special rooms you have encountered. For instance, I had a crystal cavern that yielded trade goods each turn (for a while). I also, unfortunately, encountered a spooky carnival that made killer clowns after a run in with some "Bad Magic."

Why is that in quotes? Because you either earn or encounter magic in the game by recruiting clerics or running into things like magic wishing wells. Often you randomize what family of spell you get, good or bad, and then randomize which spell happens out of 13 (Ace to 10 + J, Q, K as a table). It's good fun.


The first time through I started playing immediately, as I was reading. I had fun, but I was sure I was making a few mistakes so my first map has about 21 rooms before I felt comfortable enough with the basic concept to stop and really read the book. There's about 18 pages of actual rules. They are fairly simple and procedural in a way so that they don't all crowd in on top of each other. The rest of the book is tables and such you will use during play, with a few sections of rules that trigger off when you get deep into the dungeon. 

Honestly, while the rules are largely clear, and it's easy enough to work around what you don't understand, the organization isn't always great, some small bits of information are missing, and there are a few small things I would change. But by in large it is playable and REALLY FUN. I've been at it for hours now. My second map -- above -- is developing. I'm going to have to add pages, probably to get to the void crystal. I think the replay value is going to be pretty high. 

One other minor complaint I have is that it seems pretty easy to stay alive. This may be intentional. Anna says it is supposed to be relaxing. And indeed I found it to be relaxing and fun, emphasizing exploration and discovery over other game modes. Still, I might read through the rules one more time to see if I'm making my troops more powerful than they should be or missing something about the strength rating of foes. 

If You Like Delve...

First of all, I don't know that Anna has seen or read How to Host a Dungeon by Tony Dowler, but this game is similar and really stands on the shoulders of HtHaD. I've not played the 2nd edition of Dowler's game, but my gut says I like the process of Delve better. That being said, HtHaD has been around for years and is an incredible game. As far as I know it was the first game of this type, developing a setting/world/adventure through procedural, randomized drawing prompts. You should take a look at it. In HtHaD there is no winning or losing. "You" are not a character, but rather an observer of the activities of surface races digging deep into the earth for treasure. You root for the "good guys" (sometimes!), but you are not "one of them."

In contrast, Four Against Darkness by Andrea Sfiligoi is a dungeon-exploring, drawing game where you are the party. (Not just a character, but a party of four.) Whereas Delve you theoretically play until your hold fails or you get the void crystal, and HtHaD you play until you have gone through all the "ages" of the dungeon, in FAD you get a strong push-your-luck mechanic. Your play sessions are about getting in, getting enough experience to level up, and getting the hell out before you die! It's a punishing game (in a fun way). 

Last Thoughts

Buy this game. It's a cool, fun thing to play if you like to doodle or if you like designing dungeons or if you like solo games. I you like two of these, are all three, it's pure gold. 

Monday, March 15, 2021

Cairn by Yochai Gal



This zine-sized "NSR" game (we'll unpack that in a minute) is published by a friend of mine, Yochai Gal. Yochai is a solid thinker and experienced player, and it shows in this publication. You can get an e-copy free at DTRPG and find various means to order a print copy at Yochai's website.

Let's break the book's 24 pages down into bullet points:

  • Cover and Credits (interior front cover)
  • Design Philosophies (1) - a half page explaining the designer's goals
  • Principles for Wardens (2) - essentially great advice and focus points for GMs/refs
  • Principles for Players (3) - same for players
  • Character Creation (4-10) - one page of process, the rest are inspiration tables
  • Rules (11-14) - a typical, but clean and tight set of rules used in playing the game
  • Bestiary and Creating Monsters (15) - a few samples and a process
  • 100 Spells (16-18) - punchy spell descriptions in roughly 10-20 words each
  • Character Sheet (19) - gorgeously designed
  • Rules Summary (20) - not needed, but nice to have, one-page summary
  • Illustrated back cover, inside and out

Layout and character sheet

First, what is NSR? A kind of cynical view would be to say it's a movement for rules that pay respect to old school simplicity but attempting to shed some of the "yuck" in the OSR environment. But really it's just about a strong set of principles for design that don't hold to any notion of tribalism or history. Yochai explains it clearly here.

Now for the book itself.

I really appreciate getting the design goals up front. Those and the rules summary (along with a glance at a table or the spell list) really tells you everything you need to know about the game: classless, fiction-first, three abilities, etc. You may recognize Cairn's lineage as coming from Into the Odd and Knave.

What to say about the Principles for Wardens and Players...? Well, as an experienced player they really speak to me. But they are, in my opinion, pretty advanced and may be a little hard to follow for new players. It's the kind of advice that, if you haven't already internalized it, you may not recognize the value of it (and may even think some of it is contradictory) until you have experience a lot of gaming, good and bad. It's well intentioned, a bit like mentor advice to try to save you some of the pain. I'm not sure that's possible, but hey, it's good to try.

The rules, and the way they are presented, utilizing creative tables heavily, are exactly how I like them. If I were writing my own rules light game it would look a lot like this. Especially the slot-based inventory that also serves as the holding pen/limiter for things like spells.

Two last things I want to talk about: the spells and the character sheet/rules summary.

The spells are a marvel. 100 cool spells in terse, clear sentences. Here is a run of four as an example:

I think those speak for themselves. If you are the kind of player who is immediately frustrated because there is no endless description of examples by case, this probably isn't the game for you. Where necessary, the spells list a radius in feet or a duration. But no more details are given than necessary so that the spells remain powerful and flexible.

The 1/2 page character sheet is brilliantly designed, very attractive, and includes the rules summary on the back. My copy came with two of these two-sided sheets, so basically what would be printed on one letter page and then cut in half. 

Overall, I'd say I have a very positive reaction to this game. The rules are solid. The design is really nice. (Not sure I'm in love with the cover, but it's at least attractive and to some extent evocative.) The layout is clear. The organization is useful. My only complaint might be placing so much text up front. Reading through the goals and then the principles means a lot of front-loading before one gets to the rules. I might either move the principles to the back or give readers a nudge to skip over them if they wish in their first reading.