Monday, January 16, 2023

DNGN Review

DNGN is a Kickstarter that funded on March 18, 2022 and delivered in September. It is published by  Singing Flame and written by Vasili Kaliman. It is for sale on DrivethruRPG. (Singing Flame dropped 2 PDFs, one in spreads and one in pages.) Singing Flame has the risograph copies on their own website. (From their Kickstarter: Risography is a print process that will give the zine a retro, hand-made look and feel. It will also make the zine very collectible. The risograph process will print solid colors on stunning vellum paper, and is an environmentally friendly way to produce printed matter. The company we are working with uses soy-based inks and stencils/masters made of natural fiber.) 

DNGN is written in Old School Essentials, and a beautiful book. Kaliman (he doesn't list a layout person) does a good job keeping each dungeon level and key to 1-1 page layout. His indigo blue and cherry red look beautiful on the vellum. The book does a great job on saving and using space, starting with the inside cover. A 20 entry random encounter chart evokes imagery immediately upon opening the book "19 Carcass Crawler with entrails dripping from its mouth."

A table of contents is noticeably lacking, with the early pages covering:
Title Page
Full page artwork
Pg 3: What is DNGN?
    Old School Essentials
    The Hook & Rumor
    The Maps
    Writing Style
    How to Use This

Then, on page 4, it dives into Level 1. DNGN immediately reveals its nature with a cybernetic corpse in the very first room. The level is also 6 rooms long. And here's the inherent flaw with this layout, system, size and design. A six-room level in a megadungeon feels very out of place. But, the positive is that Kaliman gives just enough to tease the imagination of the DM. 3/10 (The score is due to the lack of size and being forced to 1 page of text per level. More on this at the end.)

Level 2 doesn't feel "mega" either with 7 whole rooms. Room 2F is my favorite of the lot here, with ice that melts into a poisonous gas. 3/10

Level 3 we are up to 9 rooms. The problem with so few rooms is that everything is linear, or dead end. With so few rooms, it is almost impossible to Jaquays the dungeon. 3/10

Level 4 holds 11 rooms. My favorite is the "hourglass room" where an hourglass slowly drains, with a deadly monster appearing when it is empty. (no spoilers here!) 3/10

Level 5 brings the room count back down to 9 rooms. Vasili's first room on this level is 5A > Drunken Nomad. "Nomad (sitting against south wall) with rusty metal wings haphazardly sewn to his back (is drunk and slurs his words) <stat block>"
As an experienced DM of megadungeons, I can successfully run this encounter, but someone who is brand new to the job is going to find it really difficult. I get why stats are included, but the nomad is lawful. The 1-1 page layout really does a disservice to rooms like this. 3/10

Level 6 is again 9 rooms. I find it hard to reconcile the difficulty here with the levels of the characters. Walking down 1 of the two transitions from level 5 to 6, the PCs will immediately walk into a fire elemental battle. (Okay, technically they need to touch a statue . . .) On a typical Level 6 of a megadungeon, this wouldn't be abnormal. But here, the party is probably level 2-3. In comparison, the other two encounters are a doppleganger (125 xp) and 4 skeletons. The fire elemental's treasure (2 crimson gems) doesn't list a gp value either. 2/10

Level 7 is 13 rooms. Encounters are back down to a realistic level (even if difficult like a wraith). 3/10

Level 8 is 8 rooms. There is a room with a shrunken head holding a gold coin in its mouth. Otherwise, a fairly bland level. 2/10

Level 9 is 8 rooms, largely cavernous. Vasili likes severed heads (there's another interesting one on this level). 4/10

Level 10 is 8 rooms, and finishes the DNGN for the book. The most dangerous monster on this level is a gelatinous cube. (In comparison see the fire elemental on level 6 and there's a purple worm on level 2. Yup.) 3/10

There's more to the book, that I will get to shortly. But first I need to address the low scores on all of these levels. Vasili Kaliman has made a beautiful book. And I mean gorgeous. What Singing Flame hasn't done is make a compelling megadungeon. Largely, I think it is the format that was chosen for the layout. They have some really good ideas, but the format does not work for a megadungeon. That said, I have already chosen 3 rooms to steal for my "best of megadungeon" event at Totalcon. And as you will see when I score the book at the end, I think it is a worthwhile purchase and addition. I am really looking forward to issue 2.

Back to the review . . . 

In the vein of Gillespie, Kaliman next adds an (unmarked) illustration section. Jacob Fleming, Huargo, Ken Landgraf, Chris Malec, Diogo Noguera, Stefan Poag, and Andrew Walter all deliver on the art. Again, where the artists use it, the red and blue is a striking visual combination. 10/10

Husk is a separate add-on dungeon, added due to the success of the Kickstarter. @skullfungus did these beautiful maps. They are striking in comparison to the DNGN levels.  The Husk is "A deserted research lab of a cult that experimented with the artifacts of the star gods." Largely, though, it suffers from the same problem as every level of the main DNGN. 4.5/10

A comic follows the Husk adventure, then a Loot the Body table, with the OGL on the inside back cover.

Overall, I really like some of the hidden gems of this adventure. OSE layout is great for some things, and abhorrent for others. This is definitely the later. 

Before I give my final grades for the book, I want to highlight some other pluses. 
#1: Every map has notes on the floor, and there are some unique ones (like covered in wax). The maps also point out explicitly where there are lights.
#2: Vasili is crystal clear on the state of every door in the dungeon.
#3: Even with the limitations on text, there area lot of really neat encounters.

Now my list of negatives. 
#1: No motivations for any NPCs. Additionally, no factions. Singing Flame, you really need to correct this moving forward. 
#2: The DNGN is tiny.  82 rooms in the main dungeon. Bloch gets halfway there in his first (surface) level. 
#3: I have no idea what levels PCs should be where. Everything is low level encounters except for a couple of super-deadly monsters. Now, I don't mind an over-leveled encounter on an upper level of a dungeon. But, the format doesn't allow for telegraphing straight from the text, and this will be a problem for newer players and DMs.
#4: There is no information on the "star gods," why they built the DNGN, nothing making the place an interesting delve. Sure, I can do all of that back work, but there are better dungeons out there with it done for me. 

Even with these negatives, I love this book. Here's my final thoughts.:

Artwork: Singing Flame did an amazing job getting artists for the book. There is not a single art piece that I don't like, and the aforementioned colors really pop. 10/10
 I am going to have a tough time grading this one.  Knowing what style of layout to use is an important part of the job. Overall, the 1-1 layout style just limits a megadungeon too much. We, as customers, lose too much in translation. Every individual level scored low because of the layout.
On the other hand, it is flawless in its execution, and that deserves credit. And I am sure that other DMs will just fill notebooks with the bits begging to be extrapolated. So, while I graded each level low, I am more generous in the actual Layout category. 6/10
Cartography: The maps are flat, but functional. The addition of notes (like door position/state, floor composition and lighting annotation) helps the flatness a lot. @Skullfungus's maps make the main maps pale in comparison however. And the limit on size really damages the exploration and adventure feel. Without playing the adventure, the maps just look like a straight line slog, with some dead ends along the way. 5/10

This time, my final score is greater than the sum of its parts. The presentation of the risograph style gives a huge boost to an otherwise underwhelming book. I hope that Kaliman can upgrade these problems and make a truly spectacular book. Just make sure to get the physical copy, if you can.


A note to Singing Flame. Instead of doing a separate dungeon as a stretch goal, give us some history, factions (and motivations), and the things that make DNGN different from every other megadungeon in existence. You don't have to ditch the 1-1 layout if you can improve your maps and add lore sections outside of the actual dungeon levels.

I can see the genius within the book, but I don't want to do the exhaustive work to make it shine. I will back the next Kickstarter eagerly, but without improvements, I don't think a third would be in the cards. 

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