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Dungeon Soul

Dungeon Soul is a beautifully clear-sighted set of rules for conventional fantasy dungeon crawling and is also a satisfying complete package unlike many mini-rule systems.

The core mechanic is a dice step hierarchy that will be familiar to those who know Black Hack. What is important though is that the mechanic is invoked not to see if an action is successful but instead to see if a narrative risk is avoided.

Advantage and Disadvantage rules apply according to whether the Referee thinks a task is hard or easier. The basic die is d6 but this is stepped up by attributes and skills, attributes can also apply a penalty as can injuries. The dice roll is then compared to a fixed table of results. Six or more is success with higher rolls being "better" (which is a little ambiguous).

A 1 or 2 is a Disaster with the risk being realised and the character potentially being injured or killed. Any other result is a Setback, a kind of partial success (although it doesn't sit very easily with the idea of avoiding risk): a deadly risk is reduced to near death, wounds can be avoided if the character gives up on the course of action that led to the risk, or alternatively wounds can be accepted to complete the intended action.

Equipment mostly interacts with the small rules set. Healing potions move your character up through the four health states. Armour allows you to ignore a number of strikes during combat.

Combat

Combat works differently from the main game loop as your character is aiming to make checks (aiming to hit six or more on your dice). Weapons are slightly odd as part of their description talks about needing a check to inflict damage which is at odds with the rest of the system. As a nice touch peasant or improvised weapons do Wounds but martial weapons take a victim to near death with a single "blow".

Combat is probably the most disappointing element of the system as it doesn't follow through the logic of "risking" combat.

Magic

Supernatural abilities come in spell, prayer and psionic flavours. Spells are based around controlling elements and players can construct their own spells from the spell components offered (element affected, extent of affect and a verb). Spellcasting downshifts your spellcasting die until the next day which is an elegant limitation. Casting spells also contains the inherent risk of miscasting although the effects of miscasting are entirely down to the Referee.

Prayers are organised into categories based on what the supplicant is asking for. A prayer check is made on each prayer, on a disaster the supplicant will be ignored for the rest of the day. Setbacks are misinterpretations of the prayer (or perhaps interpretations that are more what the divinity wishes rather than the supplicant). I like the idea of asking what you want of gods rather than picking from spell lists.

Psionics are a little bit lame as written, characters have a one in 12 chance of having latent abilities that can be awoken later. If you awaken the ability you subtract one from your strength score and get a d8 or d10 specific ability in negotiation with the Referee. Compared to the other two systems this feels a bit token. It also feels less integrated with the setting.

Setting

The setting draws heavily on the "Soulsborne" computer games but for me it paints a full picture of a world with very few words and a few well-crafted random elements.

The Light has been lost to the world and now the Lesser Gods squabble amongst themselves while the world-spanning Kingdom falls into decrepitude and dissolution. The players are meant to take on the role of those who wish to arrest this decay and defy the Darkness that lurks all around them.

The booklet finishes up with a two-page dungeon that is evocative and complete while being compact. The "dungeon boss" is surprisingly hard to defeat but again that's marking some of the atmospheric territory the game is trying to invoke. I also appreciate the inclusion of Hooks for the dungeon to indicate why people might be interested in going to a remote, dangerous place.

The game also has some general advice about using random rolls to keep the game flowing by seeing whether trouble or signs of trouble arrive. It's a weird mashup of wandering monster tables and Dungeon World's Fronts but like a lot of things here it is a finally balanced economy of design.

Advancement

There are actually two advancement systems, one a bit more procedural and best on levels that are obtained when the group sets campaign goals that the group set for themselves. The mechanical benefits are a bit so-so but I do like the idea of explicitly trying to organise the group around shared goals for the game.

The alternative method puts a lot of the onus on the Referee to create opportunities for characters to learn secrets or acquire abilities, skills, mutations or enhancements. These opportunities must be seized in the narrative. This seems really interesting but it would be good to have a bit more design that incorporates player ideas without it being wish-fulfilment.

Conclusion

It is a little hard to guess what the game might be like as a player from just reading the rules but I think this is one of the best minimal rulesets I've read and does a great job of invoking the key elements of its creative inspiration to get the reader into the right frame of mind. I'm excited to give it a go when I have the chance.

I also enjoyed the physical version of the zine with its restrained use of typography to give an atmospheric but readable zine.

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