Dungeon Fantasy Designer’s Notes 3: Fighting (and Other Activities)

Steve Jackson Games
4 min readSep 15, 2016

By Sean Punch

Work-In-Progress Cover For Dungeons

The real test of a roleplaying game is what it lets you do. Players can ask to try any crazy thing, and GMs can hand-wave — but however many rules there are, the only law seems to be “There will be rules lawyers.” Peace at the gaming table often depends on being able to point to a book and proclaim, “It says so right here.” For the Dungeon Fantasy Roleplaying Game, the master rulebook is Exploits.

Just as Adventurers starts with the GURPS Basic Set: Characters, adds content from the GURPS Dungeon Fantasy series, and removes anything irrelevant to hack ’n’ slash, Exploits starts with the Basic Set: Campaigns and then adds and subtracts to support the genre. It focuses on tasks and situations that arise when well-armed fortune-seekers fight monsters, swipe treasures, and return to town to show off.

Exploits kicks off by describing the basic systems for resolving outcomes. To attempt a task, make a success roll: throw 3d6 and try to roll lower than the score governing the activity. When you meet people who aren’t sworn enemies, the GM makes a reaction roll: throw 3d6, higher is better. And that’s it — though specific circumstances make rolls easier or harder through bonuses or penalties, some feats require particularly good rolls, and facing off against someone means rolling better than your rival. All this will be very familiar to GURPS veterans, but there’s a lot of streamlining, including simplified Fright Checks (rolls to avoid freaking out when facing unspeakable horrors) and using plain-English descriptions to assess modifiers. In addition, several Dungeon Fantasy­-series concepts are core rules here, notably complementary skill rolls (combining multiple skills to tackle a task).

Much of the rest of the book is about using those systems to resolve particular deeds. There’s a whole chapter spelling out the rolls and modifiers needed for almost any task adventurers might undertake: trading and shoplifting, travel and exploration, athletics, circumventing locks and traps, and looting . . . among many, many things. These rules are carefully coordinated with the skills in Adventurers — answers to “Why learn this skill?” or “What skill do I need to do this?” are right there on the page.

The most beloved activity of adventurers, fighting, gets its own chapter. However you like your violence — frontal attacks or ambushes, armed or unarmed, melee or ranged, on any battlefield — it’s covered. So are related feats, such as swinging from scenery and taunting foes. The rules come from GURPS, meaning combat is mapped and turn-based, and accords players great freedom to maneuver, target body parts, defend, and so on. But the system focuses on fantasy conflicts involving monsters and magic while omitting irrelevancies like firearms. A few subsystems GURPS fans don’t like — *cough* slams *cough* — have been cleaned up, too.

The book isn’t just about tasks. Dungeons and fighting are dangerous, and a chapter on Bad Things addresses this. It provides detailed consequences for combat, disease, environmental hazards, poisons, traps, and other perils. On the flipside are rules for recovery. Everything is adapted and simplified from GURPS, and adjusted to account for the conventions of adventure fantasy — especially healing magic.

Then there’s the chapter devoted to treasure. This answers questions about coin and gems and precious commodities. It tackles the topics of magic items and unique artifacts. It isn’t a big table of stuff, but rather a GM’s guide to awarding valuables, using the gear described in Adventurers as loot, and assigning properties to high-end magic items.

The closing chapter is probably the most interesting to GMs. It explains how to run a hack ’n’ slash game: How to construct a dungeon filled with obstacles and dangers. How to balance combat encounters. How to pace the action. How to engage players and settle conflicts. How to manage character advancement. It’s all here.

The book closes with an appendix that gathers all the important modifiers and tables in one place. The Dungeon Fantasy GM Screen might be more convenient, but having the information here lets the GM hand Exploits to the players so they can look things up.

In brief, Exploits is complete, anticipating common fantasy needs and providing rules or at least guidelines for handling them — something full-fledged GURPS often leaves to the GM. It’s also streamlined relative to GURPS, reducing lookups, rolls, and on-the-fly math, and eliminating improbable special cases. And because of those first two things, it’s optimized for the genre — because while a generic system like GURPS has its place, sometimes it’s too much game!