What Do I Know About Reviews? King of Dungeons (Archmage Engine)

KoDCoverhasSadly, this review isn’t going to be quite as timely as I would have liked it to have been. I read through this and took notes at the beginning of the year, and in the press of different responsibilities, I never circled back around to finish up the formal review. Now I’m going to rectify that.

Part of what intrigued me about this product is that I’m a big fan of 13th Age. That said, I’ve always felt that 13th Age was better at portraying singular, almost mythic characters, rather than a “smoother” progression of competent, but ever-growing heroes that D&D 5e embodies. However, this product uses the 13th Age Archmage engine as its base, but tries to create a more gritty experience.

What I’m looking at is King of Dungeons, from Grand Scheme Publishing. This was first published about a year ago (July of 2019) as of the time of this writing.

The Ledger

The PDF of King of Dungeons is 138 pages. It has a color cover, and black and white line art interiors. There is a credits page, two pages of legal information, and a table of contents. There is a one-page character sheet, and three pages of rules reference.

The layout fairly large print with bolded headings. Individual pages shift back and forth between single-column layout to dual-column layouts.

The Concept

The product starts with a short piece of fiction that lays out the conceits of the setting. This game models a world of adventurers where it is the norm for adventurers to be organized into official guilds that compete for contracts against one another. The literal King of Dungeons is an adventurer that is ranked ahead of other professionals. The conceptual King of Dungeons is the name for the game facilitator of the game.

While you may have a code and you might have lines you won’t cross, it’s pretty clear from the start that you aren’t playing aspiring heroes. Small company mercenary bands are the norm in this setting, and you are doing “dirty jobs,” and dangerous stunts that your patron needs to have done.

The Tone

One of the most compelling aspects of 13th Age is the commentary in the book, explaining the designer’s thought process during development, as well as divergent practices between the creators. This book also has a more conversational tone, although it’s irreverent and referential in a different way than the 13th Age core rulebook. For me, this made for a more enjoyable read, although it does assume some familiarity with level-based, fame and fortune themed fantasy roleplaying.

Characters

King of Dungeons changes the concessions of what the common ancestries and professions are, regarding adventurers. The game retains the term class for professions, but uses ancestries.

The ancestries in the game include:

  • Human
  • Dwarf
  • Elf
  • Goblin
  • Infernal
  • Draconic

In addition to picking an ancestry, there is a table with cultural twists that can be used to add context to characters. There isn’t deep lore on characters, but there are some broad comments on characterization and how the designer uses the ancestries. For example, humans are compared to insects, dwarves are compared to dogs, elves are compared to cats, goblins are compared to rats, draconics are compared to snakes, and infernals are compared to children.

On one hand, it’s a very broad categorization of ancestries. On the other, it is a quick shorthand of how the designer has categorized the ancestries. It’s a bit of a toss-up, because it can easily be seen as reductive, but it’s also such a quick snapshot that it isn’t deeply ingrained into how the text references the ancestries later in the book.

The classes in the game include:

  • Warrior
  • Rogue
  • Priest
  • Mage
  • Scholar
  • Commander

Each class has a paragraph describing the profession in general, and another paragraph listed after “niche,” explaining how they usually engage with their role in the adventuring guild. Much like 13th Age classes, there are 10 levels, and depending on level, your character has several talents (core class tricks), and special abilities (named by class, and level depending–the higher level, the more effective the special abilities to which the characters have access).

If you have never encountered 13th Age before, the system works a lot like 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, but with the rules tailored to use abstract movement and positioning. For example, instead of covering a described area, the fireball spell affects a number of targets.

King of Dungeons uses the same concept of defenses that 13th Age uses, meaning that in many situations where a character would make a save in other d20 level based games, resolution is actually a roll against a defense number by the acting character.

Ability scores are limited to being expressed by only the bonus score. All damage is dealt in d6s, regardless of the narration of the character, although there are suggestions on what kind of weapons different classes use for which they are comfortable.

Warrior, rogue, priest, and mage cover the normal archetypes that you might imagine from fantasy gaming. Warriors take damage and hit reliably. Rogues are mobile killers. Priests can cast spells to boost allies, heal them, and remove negative conditions. Mages can shut down multiple opponents and have various utility spells.

Scholars learn various abilities that can boost different defenses and give them multiple options in combat. They feel like a “build your own adventurer” option, with those options flavored with the scholar being a student of adventuring best practices. Commanders gain command points that they can spend to boost their allies, and gain command points by playing into their style of leadership.

The game also uses alignments, but not in the traditional sense. Alignment is more about what your character’s motivation is. The example alignments include:

  • Civilization
  • Gods
  • Magic
  • Nature
  • Savagery
  • Thievery
  • Diabolic
  • Death
  • Villainy

While I’m a little leery of over-generalizing ancestries, I have long thought if I was going to design a fantasy setting from scratch with D&D style sensibilities, my “small” races would likely be goblins, so I like that choice. I’m also a big fan of warlord/commander style classes, going back to 3rd edition’s Marshal (no matter how well it worked), and continuing through 4e and 13th Age’s commander.

Guilds

Part of creating the party of adventurers is picking the guild’s style and specializations. Not only does the guild have a type and a specialization, the guild has its own alignment, a way of doing things that is natural for the guild, regardless of the individuals that are part of the guild.

The guild has its own character sheet, and based on some of the statistics picked for the style and specialization of the guild, the group has a special stat that they roll when acting as a group, instead of using the individual stat abilities.

Guilds also have a headquarters, a local pub (important for picking up contracts), contacts, and rivals. Guilds have unlimited access to healing potions, with the limiter being the potential downside of becoming addicted to the healing potion. Once addicted, the potion has a limited effect until the character can go an entire contract job without using one.

The guild grants an expertise die, but they can also come from other sources. These start out at a d4, and can grow up to a d8, and applying more than one expertise allows the character to bump the expertise die up by one. This gets added to checks where the expertise or specialization is relevant.

Resolutions

There are a few unique ways of resolving situations in King of Dungeons. For example, as mentioned in the previous section, group checks use a special bonus based on the guild’s character sheet instead of individual references.

Traveling uses a system similar to one introduced in 13th Age organized play/the 13th Age GM screen, having a player describe troubles they faced, and having other characters determine how that challenge was resolved. 

Distances are:

  • In your face
  • In arm’s reach
  • A stone’s throw
  • Shouting distance

The escalation die from 13th Age makes an appearance in the game as well, however, there is a twist. The bonus is added to character rolls, but it also increases the threat range for fumbles. Initiative is determined by setting a difficulty for the enemies, with characters rolling higher going before them, and characters rolling lower going after them. Initiative is rolled each round, but the stat rolled changes by round. It shifts from wisdom (reading what is about to happen), to dexterity (acting quickly), to constitution (getting worn out from ongoing combat).

The King’s Part

There are sections of the rules that address how to run the game, frame the narrative, and set the tone. One of the biggest suggestions is to have three “agendas” at play. These agendas are as follows:

  • The Charter
  • The Guild
  • (Agenda C)

This is to keep the focus on doing the job, managing the guild’s business as an entity, and having an advancing storyline that is tying the campaign together.

All opponents have a base stat line by “tier,” which are determined by the tiers of the game: Adventurer, Conqueror, and King. These base stats are modified by applying special traits to define the creature. Like 13th Age, monsters have designations as follows:

  • Minion (less powerful than average)
  • Elite (more powerful than average)
  • Solo (a challenge for a whole party on its own)

This affects how much damage and how many hit points the individual opponent has. In addition to these quality designations, opponents also get modified by role. Those roles, again, are similar to the roles defined in 13th Age.

  • Controller (add complications)
  • Lurker (surprise specialists)
  • Artillery (bonus to ranged attacks)
  • Wrecker (more damage)
  • Soldier (harder to take down)

There are also tweaks and kickers, that are used to customize abilities to modify special aspects (like a slow, armored foe, or something with a breath weapon or area attack).

Advancement

Guilds gain bonds and contacts over time. They also gain the use of a crew, which has several specialists that might need to be used for guild activities. Spending resources or using crew to help on an adventure mainly results in gaining advantage or additional expertise dice.

Characters advance (by default) when they complete contracts. That means if all of the campaign’s contracts are resolved in a single session, there may only be ten sessions in the game until the characters reach maximum level.

Easy Contract

I wasn’t sure it could be done, but the streamlining of various aspects of the Archmage engine really does allow the game to feel more gritty and less overtly epic than 13th Age. I think part of this is reducing opposition to several custom-built options, rather than prebuild, described legendary creatures. It’s also accomplished through a few subtle changes to the rules, like implying that the characters get worn out over time when rolling initiative based on Constitution.

Fine Print

I wish there were just a little bit more structure to regularly occurring “guild turns.” While the character sheets and resources do a much better job than many games of emphasizing the established adventurer culture implied by the game’s setting. I wish you had to, by default, deal with a little bit more formalized on the “business end” of the campaign.

I’m almost certain everything mentioned in the game is done in good faith, but there are a few more flippant jokes about addiction, reductive descriptions of ancestries, and hand waving the term gendered term King, that can set a bad tone. None of this is dwelled upon, but it’s there, and in a relatively concise text, they can stick with you. The following is just a personal specter of the past for me: even though I know the terms “Adventurer/Conqueror/King” have their origin in Conan, you can’t escape the use of the term in RPGs, and I’m not a fan of potentially cross-promoting the primary creator of the system in question.


Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.


This is definitely on my shortlist of “gritty fantasy RPGs” that I want to run in the future. I have been a fan of a formalized “adventurer” subculture in fantasy settings since I read the Old Grey Boxed Set for the Forgotten Realms, and this takes that concept and runs with it. 

Much like 13th Age, the conversational tone of the text makes it fun and engaging to read, but unlike 13th Age, I feel like fewer rules are getting lost in some of the text in the middle of that conversational tone. However, some of the conversation feels maybe a little too relaxed in a few places. For all of that easy discussion, there is enough of an assumption of previous gaming experiences that it might not be as easy for beginners to jump on board. 

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