What Do I Know About Reviews? Tales of the Dungeon (Talisman Adventures)

Picture2The Talisman Adventures RPG occupies an interesting space in current RPG design. To capture the feel of the boardgame, it attempts to capture a specific setting that, at the same time, uses broad storytelling conventions that draw from both fairytale stylization and epics. For example, The City has specific traits, but it is The City. The most closely analogous setting for an RPG that I could come up with would be the Dragon Empire of 13th Age, but even that skews a little bit more “specific” than wholly “legendary” in approach.

If you want a look at the core rules of the setting, you can find them here on Gnome Stew. And if you want my first impressions of the playtest rules, you can find them right here on this blog.

Today, we’re going to take a look at Tales of the Dungeon. In theory, this is meant as a supplement for dungeon delving in Talisman Adventures, but many of the additions to the rules are broad enough that this is effectively a companion to the core rules.

Disclaimer

I was provided the playtest document and the core rulebook by Pegasus Spiele for review, and some good friends of mine have worked on this game. Tales of the Dungeon was my own personal purchase for purposes of a follow up review. I have not had the opportunity to run or play the game.

Content Warning

Most of the contents of this book deal with fantasy violence in a broader sense, not unlike how you would see violence presented in a fairytale or in broad strokes in an epic poem. There is a playable vampire ancestry, which opens all the potential issues with someone whose existence relies on predation of sapient beings.

Additionally, the sample adventure gets heavy in some places, including the loss of family members and descriptions of a torture chamber and some broad references to the implements therein. There is a section warning GMs about the inclusion of this topic and the level to which it should be engaged.

Switchbacks and Passages

This review is based on the PDF version of the book. This PDF is 130 pages long, including a credits page, a two-page table of contents, a five-page short story, three pages of random encounters (including monsters, strangers, and followers), two pages of rewards, and three pages of unkeyed maps to go with the dungeon detailed in the book.

The Dungeon Key

The book is broken up into the following sections:

  • Famous Dungeons of the Realm
  • Ancestries and Classes
  • Strangers and Followers
  • Dungeon Adventuring
  • Dungeon Gear and Rewards
  • Designing Dungeons
  • The Halls of Darkness

While there is some general logic to why they land in this volume, much of the material introduced is of use outside of a dungeon setting. For example, there is nothing that requires you to limit minotaur or vampire player characters to dungeon delving, and while tomb robbers are well suited to exploring dungeons, necromancers are a broad addition to the classes available.

Because characters may take followers into the dungeon, there are new followers. Because characters are likely to find rewards in dungeons, there are new magic items. Because there are dangerous things in dungeons, there are new traps and monsters.

Famous Dungeons of the Realm

This section describes some locations that can be considered well known, well established dungeons in the setting of the game. Each of these locations has story seeds to help provide context for why characters might adventure in these locations. While the dungeons aren’t fully developed, the history, types of threats encountered, and any primary villains in these locations are also addressed. These categories include:

  • Beneath The City
  • Beneath the Realm
  • Laughing Caverns in the Chasm
  • Pits of Despair Beneath the Black Tower
  • Smuggler’s Cove
  • Vault of Sorrows

The various locations include sentient rat-infested abandoned sewers, old burial vaults watched over by the undead, faery mounds, dungeons in trees, sinkholes, draconic realms, sea caves, and vaults that hold magical abominations locked away from the world. While these dungeons are tied to the setting of Talisman Adventures, as noted above, the setting has a sort of faery tale disconnect from proper names, and it’s fairly easy to take inspiration from these dungeons and use the descriptions and hooks in other settings and games.

Ancestries and Classes

I’m going to say this up front. One of the fantasy ancestries that always captures my imagination is the minotaur. So this chapter piqued my interest. In addition to minotaurs, vampires join the list of player character ancestries, and tomb robbers and necromancer join the list of PC classes.

Like the previous ancestries introduced, both ancestries have a random list of three traits that they might have, representing a range of different backgrounds within the ancestries. These introduce ability modifiers, but these modifiers are tied to a specific cultural path that the character has taken previous to their adventuring.

Characters also have special abilities, such as the minotaur’s ability to use their horns as weapons, and their ability to find their way out of mazes, or the vampire’s ability to regain life by drinking blood, turning into bats, hypnotizing others, and resisting final death. Like previous ancestries, one of these abilities is emblematic, and is gained by everyone with the ancestry, and the other is picked from a list of variable abilities, meaning that individuals with ancestries can have some variety between their backgrounds and their chosen powers.

Vampires have an additional section to their ancestry entry, called Curse, which presents the downside to being a vampire. For example, you take extra damage in sunlight, suffer when seeing a holy symbol from an alignment other than your own, and you might drain one of your followers dry occasionally when you feed, which makes other followers a little reticent to continue their employment. I like that these reinforce some traditional vampire tropes without making the vampire unplayable. Sunlight = bad, but not instantly dead, as an example.

Necromancers are an arcane spell preparation class, which means they can gain spells from the arcane tradition. They can also enthrall undead, which, yeah, that makes sense. If you have looked at the previous classes in the game in the core book, these follow the same format, where you make a “subclass” decision between two options. Once you pick this option, your features are constrained to half the list of overall abilities. In this case, the necromancer chooses between being more of a “spirit” necromancer or a “reanimator” necromancer. Some of the abilities the necromancer gains involve using their own Life to power their spells, as well as damaging the living around them in a certain radius, which starts to give me some ancillary defiler vibes.

Tomb Robbers choose between two paths epitomized by the abilities Grovel and Skulk and Boast and Swagger. Grovel and Skulk tomb robbers are good at not getting noticed and appearing too non-threatening to worry about. Boast and Swagger tomb robbers rely on luck and gain special abilities regarding avoiding traps, as well as more proficiencies with weapons. I’ll admit, this immediately made me think of the dichotomy of Benny and Rick in the 1999 Mummy.

Strangers and Followers

If you haven’t had time to check out the core rules, strangers are NPCs that aren’t directly affiliated with you, and aren’t directly aligned against you. However, Talisman Adventures does seek to model the boardgame wherever possible, which means that strangers provide a benefit that they can extent to PCs, sometimes after doing something specific or paying a specific price.

What this means is that if you model an NPC with a Stranger, you will have specific rules telling you what the PCs can gain from that character. In a lot of ways, it’s kind of what I wish other games could implement in a contacts system, i.e., if this person counts as a contact, you can always reliably count on X set of rules that you can access through them.

The new followers in this section introduce a concept not found in the core books–the cursed follower. Cursed followers have a specific section detailing their curse, when it triggers, and how. For example, some followers might be loyal followers providing benefits until they enter a certain location, when they suddenly switch and betray the PCs. Other followers, like the Jinx, must be kept safe and healthy or else they adversely affect the player character to which they have become attached.

Strangers and followers are elements I enjoyed in the core rules. I like the simple adjudication of what followers give as benefits, and I like the idea that you know that if you go to X, you can get Y. I feel like this additional layer of gamification would be a great help to newer GMs trying to determine why you would take the time to include other characters in the game beyond adversaries, and the options listed for them free up some of the computing space the brain might otherwise use for things like “what does the merchant have for sale?”

Dungeon Adventuring

This section delves (ha!) into what adventuring in a dungeon looks like. This means providing rules for navigation, traps, and hazards, but also includes insights into where and when you should use various elements, and what they say about the dungeon.

This section starts out with applying the rules navigating during an extended trip and applying them to a dungeon. What this means is that if there are massive caverns separating sections of your dungeon, or your dungeon is a lost, ancient city that is miles across, the exploration rules allow you to model that time in the larger sections of the dungeon the same way you would an overland route, but with unique elements to the role results.

I particularly like this, because I can understand the draw of a mega dungeon in concept, i.e. a massive structure like Moria, but I don’t really want to go room by room, hallway by hallway in such a giant structure. Essentially this allows you to fill in the gaps more broadly between those clusters of rooms and corridors where you have very specific things planned.

While there are several pages of traps and hazards in this section, often four to a page, what I like about this is that the “notes” section usually mentions if a trap is meant to be dangerous on its own, why someone would use it, and in what context it might exist in the dungeon. Effectively, this gives you more information on the story utility of traps and hazards, beyond just basic information on how to avoid it and how much damage it does.

Dungeon Gear and Rewards

Like the rest of the book, some of this material is specific to dungeon delving, and much of it is an expansion of what is available from the core rules. New lanterns can help in your underground explorations, and disarming tools can help with traps, but you also have new gear like cheater’s dice or makeup kits, which are going to see much more broad use.

The list of weapons and armor gets some logical additions, like breastplates, bucklers, claymores, and javelins. Also, every fantasy game with granular weapon rules always ends up with the atlatl. We have reached atlatl inclusion with this volume.

Many of the magical weapons and armor rewards presented are tied to specific NPCs of legendary status, meaning that their inclusion in a dungeon can serve as a means of tying that NPCs story to the dungeon location the player characters are exploring. There are some flavorful rules interactions, such as Souldrinker’s Pay the Price, which may just kill off a follower or drop an allied PC to 0 health. These are fun story elements, but they are going to be the kind of thing you want to discuss with your group when they play out.

Designing Dungeons

This part of the book gets into the concepts behind dungeon design, and how to push past simple “gotcha” moments of placing traps and monsters in different locations, but also about how a natural cave will look different than a faery mound, and how both of those differ from abandoned dwarven halls. This also includes discussions on story beats, the types of encounters to include, and working with character goals.

The Halls of Darkness

This adventure looks at a three-level dungeon that is the home of a major NPC villain in the campaign world. The three levels of the dungeon include a goblin warren, the hall of a goblin king, and finally, the level where Oblivion Cultists serve the Lord of Darkness.

In some ways, reading an adventure in this setting can be more difficult because of the affectations of the setting. That’s not because it’s hard to read or understand, but just the opposite. Because the setting is striving to be archetypical, sometimes it’s harder to hang on to the adventure elements long enough to reach the storytelling elements. It’s very easy to see “goblin raiders,” and shut down a little bit.

In this case, the goblins are being pushed to raid the nearby lands as cover for the Oblivion Cultists in the lowest levels. While this means that the goblins aren’t the primary villain, and characters can slowly pick up on this as they adventure in the first two levels, there isn’t a lot of meat to roleplay the goblins as anything other than pawns that still aren’t very nice creatures in their own right.

The second and third level have some nice “room dressing as storytelling” elements, spooning out elements of the last days of a fallen kingdom, a king, his heir, and some other members of court. Since the dungeon includes a load bearing boss, there are some sections that address alternate escape routes and “how much treasure can you stuff in your pockets on the way out” adjudication.

Fame and Glory

I appreciate that this is written in a conversational tone that directly addresses the reader. It feels more like a discussion of best practices rather than handing down the rules on dungeons from on high. The minotaur, vampire, and necromancer are all going to be strong, broad additions to the game. The Tomb Robber is more specialized, but points for being more up front about the job description than in some products, and for reminding me of The Mummy.

For anyone that hasn’t spent a lot of time thinking of the psychology of dungeon building or how to present story through dungeon stocking, I like the very deliberate explanations of what different elements contribute to the whole. There is one specific element of the sample dungeon I wanted to call out. Due to how it is presented, a character you encounter finds out what happened to his companions when you reach a specific location, and I feel like the emotional elements in this section was well written.

Curses

While it’s definitely thematic and tied to the board game, I’ll be pretty happy if I can avoid seeing any more references to the Toadify spell for a while. It gets used a lot in this book. The charm of the Talisman setting can also be a detriment, depending on how you feel about the tropes that get a workout in the book. While the book does a good job explaining the context in which you might use different tropes, your level of exposure to those tropes may make some of the material less exciting beyond the conceptual level.

Qualified Recommendation–A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.

If you are already a fan of the Talisman Adventures RPG, I think picking up this book is a much easier recommendation. It’s an expansion of elements that all fit well into the core rulebook’s concepts, and most of them work extremely well across a wide range of adventures.

Even if you aren’t playing Talisman Adventures, there is a lot of solid dungeon building advice. Much of this advice is useful beyond the rules assigned to the elements in the book. Knowing the context in which traps work best, and what you want them to communicate, is important to anyone that’s building out dungeon adventures that they wish to be compelling.

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