Dungeoneering by Grinning Rat Publications is one of the most enjoyable TTRPGs I’ve reviewed. It’s easy to play and full of fun, off-kilter, hijinks that are a perfect fit for me and my players when we are taking a break from our bigger games. However, I’ve found it difficult to write a review for it. The game is short, even for the traditionally rules-lite games of the Old School Renaissance. It’s more of a collection of tools and advice than a full-fledged system. That’s ok though. Not every game has to be a tangled knot of overlapping systems. Having Simple rules and lots of friendly advice for new game masters makes this game approachable for people looking to get into the OSR.
Dungeoneering is better defined by the rules that aren’t printed in the book. There are no levels or experience, and gold is only used as “points” for the party to keep score with. There is no expectation that your game should include stores, towns, NPCs, or anything else you could put on a map of the overworld. It might come as a surprise, but the game called Dungeoneering only cares about things that happen inside of dungeons.
The core mechanics are flexible and intuitive. There are only 4 stats and players make the same roll whether they are attacking or trying to use some other skill. Instead of setting a target number for each skill check, a player’s relevant stat determines how likely they are to succeed. Combat is easier to keep track of for DMs because players roll to attack and defend from enemy attacks. Additionally, the stat lines for monsters are simple enough that is easy to come up with new monsters on the fly. Out of combat, it is easy to resolve any crazy thing that your players are trying to do. Just have them make a roll and check against the relevant stat.
One critique I have of the book is that it is a little disorganized. The rules are divided into two sections with character creation in between. This makes it challenging to locate information that should be in the same place. For instance, instructions on how to make an attack are on page 9, however, attack damage is on page 20. It doesn’t make sense to flip back and forth across character classes in order to figure out how attacks work. I find this design to be confusing and inconvenient as a game master.
It would be better if the author presented relevant information more cohesively. Alternatively, a clean one-page reference sheet could help readers quickly find the information they need. Also, the absence of any mention of gear or magic items in this section is surprising. Given that they are crucial elements of gameplay and character advancement. The players must turn to a table buried in the back section of the book to get that information. It would be easy to skip over if you weren’t looking for it.
Dungeoneering comes with four classic party members: Fighter, Thief, Wizard, and Priest. However, there is an expansion with more classes. Each class feels good at its specific role. Fighters are the strongest and toughest of all the classes. They are also the only class that gets to make multiple attacks every round. Thieves are less combat capable but focus on utility and preparing traps pre-combat. Interestingly, the casters are balanced by giving spells strange side effects. The Wizard can accidentally warp the fabric of reality in unexpected and dangerous ways. While the Priest can accidentally anger her gods and bring their wrath down on the party.
It might be against modern game design philosophy to deliberately give your players drawbacks like that. However, it’s done in good spirit here. In my experience, the downsides of caster spells add an element of excitement and unpredictability to the game, and not just for the other players. Casters themselves are often eager to discover the strange and interesting side effects of their spells. Everyone gets moments to shine in the dungeon. Each class feels like it does something different from all the other classes, so no one ever feels left out or underpowered. While it’s possible to analyze and potentially create imbalances between the classes, doing so would go against the essence of this type of gameplay.
Dungeon Master Tools
The DM section of the game focuses on building and running dungeons. It’s a combination of the philosophy of old-school games and a bunch of tools to help you quickly flesh out an exciting dungeon for your players. It also includes an example dungeon to show how all the parts of the game come together. The design philosophy seems to be: Get everyone into the game and let your imaginations help you generate all the weird and interesting content. I don’t think there is anything groundbreaking here necessarily, but I am happy to have a game that is fun and accessible, while not being a huge burden for the DM to set up.
Building a Dungeon
The section called “Building a Dungeon” has a ton of different tables to help you build and stock your dungeon. I love random tables and there are a whole bunch of good ones here. It’s too much stuff to go over in detail, but I especially like the descriptions of different rooms. You can use them like dungeon tiles to quickly sketch out the shape of a dungeon. I’ve used this section multiple times when my players take an unexpected turn and I need to quickly come up with a small adventure to bridge the gap between two sections of the story.
The section on loot for your dungeon is also very good. There are a lot of good descriptions and plot hooks, as well as gear and magic items. Since players don’t level up or have many intrinsic abilities, items are going to define what your party is capable of in a big way. There is a lot of good equipment here that incentivizes interesting styles of play and gives players much-needed abilities. However, these tables are at the back of the book and are easy to miss entirely if you are skimming the book. This is a problem because magic items are crucial to how characters advance in the game, but there isn’t even a reference to using them in the core rules.
Overall, I highly recommend Dungeoneering by Grinning Rat Publications. While it may not be an in-depth system, it’s a great toolset for anyone who wants to dive into dungeon crawling without a lot of fuss. The mechanics are flexible and intuitive, and the classes are well-balanced and interesting. I appreciate that the game focuses on what’s important for dungeon-crawling, without bogging players down with extraneous details. Although the book could benefit from better organization, the DM tools are fantastic and provide everything you need to create exciting dungeons quickly. If you’re looking for a fun, accessible TTRPG that captures the old-school spirit of adventure, Dungeoneering is definitely worth checking out.
You can pick up Dungeoneering, the expansion with new monsters and classes as well as other games on the grinning rat itch.io page: https://grinningrat.itch.io/
More OSR Stuff
If you are looking for a published setting to place your OSR campaign in check out my review of Planar Compas, An ongoing Zine filled with pirates and adventures on the astral sea!