Dungeon Fantasy Designer’s Notes 1: What, Who, When, Where, Why?

By Sean Punch

The Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game Boxed Set

Steve Jackson Games launched the Kickstarter campaign for the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game on September 1, and I’m credited as the “designer.” Yet there are as many definitions of “game designer” as there are game designers. Does the designer have to provide the vision alone? Most of the writing? All of the writing? Does repurposing an existing game count? Is physically designing what the customer sees — components and graphic elements — part of the job?

I don’t know! What I do know is what I planned and wrote, so let’s start there.

After releasing the GURPS Basic Set, Fourth Edition in the summer of 2004, several staff members (Paul Chapman, Andrew Hackard, Steve Jackson, a couple of others, and myself) were discussing how the title was a legacy dating to the true sets of the First and Second Editions — boxes containing rulebooks, dice, Cardboard Heroes, and so on. We contemplated the possibility of a standalone boxed set covering fantasy (the hands-down champion among RPG genres), but after the multi-year slog that was publishing Fourth Edition, we lacked sufficient resources and were forced to shelve the idea. In early 2014, we dusted it off as a potential 10th-birthday product for Fourth Edition, but this time the necessary assets were tied up in other major productions, like the Discworld Roleplaying Game. In 2015, we revisited the prospect yet again, as a way to celebrate GURPS’ 30th birthday. As the saying goes, the third time’s the charm — we finally believed we could make it work!

Creative and marketing minds alike agreed that any such set would have to be self-contained — a standalone fantasy RPG consisting of combat maps, Cardboard Heroes, dice, and of course rules. The rulebooks became my responsibility, and I outlined a set of five in January 2016. Adventurers and Exploits would strip down the GURPS Basic Set: Characters and Campaigns to what’s essential for hack ’n’ slash fantasy, and integrate the professions, races, abilities, equipment, and assumptions of the GURPS Dungeon Fantasy series. Spells would streamline GURPS Magic with similar objectives in mind. Monsters would catalog almost all the creatures in the Dungeon Fantasy series at that time, and add a few new ones. And Dungeon would be an introductory adventure.

My outlines were approved and I was sent off to write, with instructions to make the rules friendly to GURPS novices— and even to neophyte gamers! — while keeping them compatible with GURPS. And write I did. I spent early February through early August doing little else. Turning a generic system into a fantasy RPG, converting content laced with page references into a standalone game, simplifying everything, and ensuring that it was all self-consistent at the end . . . well, it was so much like designing a new edition of GURPS that I figure I’ve earned the title “designer.”

The results came to roughly a quarter-million words. That only seems long. The five manuscripts contain approximately as many words as the Basic Set: Characters (despite adapting the entire Basic Set, plus Magic, and cramming in a ton of Dungeon Fantasy content and an adventure) — and the books will stack up to only slightly more pages than Characters, mostly thanks to end matter. Still, the project turned out to be larger than we had anticipated, more than in part because character templates, monster write-ups, spell descriptions, and so on need a lot of space to be readable.

Which brings us to the Kickstarter campaign. If we’re going to release our first boxed RPG in over two decades, we want it to be worth our while and yours, with solid content, good-quality components, and attractive, full-color art. Therefore we have no intention of compromising by omitting important professions, gear, spells, critters, combat rules, or anything else — or of squeezing things in using tiny, hard-to-read typefaces and cheap layout tricks. Which leaves us filling more pages with more words and art than originally budgeted for. Which in turn means going to you, the loyal gamer, for the backing to do things right.

If you’re like most gamers, you’ll want to know what “solid content” actually means — what rules, abilities, and items I deemed “important” — before you back the Kickstarter. I aim to please, so watch this space for further Designer’s Notes articles on the four core rulebooks: Adventurers, Exploits, Spells, and Monsters. (I’m keeping Dungeon a surprise, though . . . I don’t want to give away its secrets to players! It suffices to say that an inn and giant rats are involved.)