This is what's known in OSR circles (Old School Revolution) as a retro-clone. A game designed with the intention of invoking not just the rules of the earliest role-playing games but also the spirit and style of play. If you're already a fan of OSR games, you'll likely already know about this game and perhaps this review isn't for you. If you'd like to try an OSR game, here might be a good place to start.
I'm may not the best person to talk about the origins of this game. My first experience with this genre of gaming, back in 1980 was Traveller. The first game I bought was the original Dragon Quest by SPI. I did not understand that game and I didn't care. I just filled in the gaps (deep chasms) by making stuff up. I played Basic D&D, the Tom Moldvay version and a little later, purchased that game and played it for ages. I went on to play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and a long list of others besides.
So Delving Deeper is a painstaking recreation of the very first role-playing game ever published back in 1974. I never played it (at the time). Before I get stuck into the topic of this review I want to mention two other games with that share this goal: Full Metal Plate Mail is available as a free PDF from Lulu but you can buy both a soft and hard cover version; the wonderfully named Seven Voyages of Zylarthen is available in a four-book set as a free PDF or your can purchase the soft cover booklets also from Lulu. To my mind they are very different games. Full Metal Plate Mail is, written based solely on the first three booklets published by Tactical Studies Rules. Zylarthen takes the three original books and adds the miniature rules from the Chainmail game booklet.
The three-book boxed set of Dungeons and Dragons was intended to be used in conjunction with Chainmail since that volume provided the combat rules. The three-book set contained an alternate combat system but it was just a vague outline even though it would become the standard D&D system. I'm not a student of the game so I didn't really understand Chainmail's influence until I read Delving Deeper.
Like Zyarthen, Delving Deeper looks at the three original books together with Chainmail as the complete game to be emulated. This doesn't mean Full Metal Plate Mail is the lesser product, it's just different. Delving Deeper is available as an online hypertext document, three separate booklets (both PDF and DOCX format) and as a perfect-bound digest-sized Rules Compendium from Lulu. I'm reviewing the Compendium which I bought just over a year ago and have used heavily since then. It's still in one piece.
I imagine that many people picking up the original game back in 1974 and later understood it in the same way as I did with Dragon Quest; not very well. To play, they would have made up bits not just to fill the gaps in their understanding but also the gaps in the rules. Just like I did. We've probably all been there.
With Delving Deeper the author, with input from other interested parties on the internet, has pieced together, over a period of years, a completely playable version of that original game. When approaching this game it's probably best for the reader to leave modern conceptions of Dungeons and Dragons at the door. There are elements in this game that never made it to later releases. For example, the three tiers of play: normal (levels 1 to 2); heroic (levels 3+) and super-heroic (level 7+). They are each distinct styles of play.
So, no preconceptions right?
The book, the Reference Rules Compendium is a beauty. It's digest or pocket-sized and weighs in at 130 densely packed pages with exactly three interior illustrations. The cover is magnificent: a black and white underground battle scene between the adventuring party and hordes of kobolds, lizard men and a mighty hydra. Inside we learn a little of the game's origin, a list of required equipment: six siders and a twenty-sided die for the players, the full range of poly-dice for the referee (not the dungeon or game master, just the ref.). Character generation is familiar and brief. You throw dice to determine your basic abilities and use those numbers to get a handle on your new character. Some of those numbers modify game statistics to a greater or lesser effect but in all cases much less so than modern games. A character with low statistics is at less of a disadvantage in this game than later iterations. Character classes are broadly defined with non-humans having some unique advantages but suffering long-term limitations. The character's class defines the six-side hit dice thrown for hit points and after choosing equipment, your new player-character is ready to go.
Before I get to the rest of the game, I want to talk a little about the combat mechanics. This is where I find differences between the original and later games most prominent. Normal tier characters (2 or fewer hit dice) follow familiar rules but should they face a heroic level threat, a monster, or another character with 3 or more hit dice they're in trouble; that foe can make as many attacks agains normal types as it has hit dice (it makes each of these attacks as a level one creature). The normal character can only return with a single blow. However, a heroic-level character fighting a similarly ranked foe each make one attack at the level indicated by their hit dice.
A weapon, is a weapon. In these rules, all attack forms, with the exception of some monster attacks, deliver 1 to 6 points of damage. All game combat systems are abstractions and I have no problem with this. In fact I prefer it. A dagger to the heart will kill you just as quickly as a war hammer smack to the back of the skull. My players are happy with the situation, in fact it means they choose the weapon that seems right for the character rather the one with the appropriate mechanical modifiers.
I like the way the game handles defensive actions – spend a turn parrying and receive a 4-point defensive bonus, if the attacker misses because of that modifier you get to sneak in a riposte. Nice. Brawling or “overbearing” is carried forward from the original game, it's simple and effective: throw your hit dice, if you beat your opponent's throw, you've pinned him. There are the usual complications but the more I play, the more I realise that the system either has the main options covered or obligingly leaves sign-posts for the reader to ad-lib in the gaps. If you're used to rules-heavy games, you might find the experience liberating.
Combat is deadly. Your character has a six-sided hit die, as mentioned above, weapons will hurt. Characters will die. Modern gamers will need to adjust their mindset. Today's games have lengthy character generation routines that produce rounded individuals with backgrounds, histories, love interests and long-term goals. Delving Deeper gives you a dude with a pack full of dangerous stuff and challenges you to make something of him. Your character is put together in five minutes with three of those minutes spent choosing equipment that will keep the poor soul alive for another turn. Getting to level two is either a supreme challenge or a terrible grind (I favour the former) but the path to success is littered with the fallen. Do put effort into your character but wait to see if he survives first.
Don't forget this is a game. You have to play it. The origins of the hobby belong to social war gaming, groups were larger the role-playing part of the RPG formulae was evident but not the primary goal. Your characters have to be prepared: missile weapons; torches; rope; a bag full of caution. Never get surprised, you might not survive the first turn of combat; always be prepared to run – the game won't always throw “balanced” enemies at you. If you survive, brilliant; if not, create the next hero.
The implied skill system of the first game lives on here: firstly if a brave adventurer should be able to perform a particular action, it just happens. If it's a task involving more than the usual level of risk it's successful on a throw of 5 or 6 (on one six-sided die) and if the character should be good at a particular risky action because of his or her class or race, success is assured with a throw of 3 – 6. Simple. Love it.
Magic is interesting. Clerics, just like magic-users get their spells from dusty tomes but like Basic D&D and its clones, your cleric doesn't get access to any magic until he's proved himself and made it to level two. As in the original, cleric spells are detailed to level 5 (6 per level) and magic-users get spells to level 6 (12 per level). All the classics are there but in just about every instance, they're more powerful. Later editions sought to balance every aspect of the game but Delving Deeper sticks to the original raw text and magic is a bit scary. Charm Person last...forever.
So what else do we have? If you include the section on monsters and magic items, two-thirds of the book is aimed at the referee. These sections are both rules and advice. I particularly enjoyed the section on wilderness adventures which was surprisingly large given the game is based on one called Dungeons and Dragons. Detailed sections covering airborne and waterborne exploration and combat are included but the chapter I really enjoyed was the overland wilderness rules. Two small tables enabled me to create a wilderness area and populate it with people, lairs and features in about 15 minutes. After a further 15 minutes the random territory had developed a character all its own; I'd intended to use the tables as a mere exercise but now that region is part of my campaign world. I've seen this sort of thing before but rarely has it worked so well.
The monster index is extensive – seemingly much more so than the original text but perhaps the author is detailing the many critters that were mentioned but never detailed. Magic items are similarly filled out and described succinctly.
Having used the word “succinctly” I'd like to highlight the writing style. This is a text book and the writing is clear and precise but to keep the page count reasonable, the author just tells you once. Some published games (maybe most these days) go all out to make things as clear as possible by expressing rules in different ways with numerous examples. There's no room for that here. For example, in the description of the strength ability we're told shown how a high strength score will allow your character to carry more gear whilst still moving at a reasonable pace; when you come to choose your equipment a few pages later, you won't be reminded again. I'm fine with that but because I didn't leave my preconceptions at the door when I picked up the book, I had to read certain sections more than once. And it was enjoyable to do so.
So to finish up, how does it play? As the referee, the game flows like a dream and has me reliving some of that early wonder I felt playing my very first sessions of role-playing games. Because I wasn't there at the genesis of the hobby and didn't use the original rules I don't feel qualified to tell you how close this game is to that product. However, I do own and I've read the original 3 booklets, the supplements and Chainmail and somehow this game seems...right. I hope you enjoy it.
Find the free PDF, DOCX and Hypertext files here: http://forum.immersiveink.com/viewtopic.php?f=15&t=113
Note: included at this address you'll also find a character sheet and Microsoft Excel file containing every table in the book.
At this site you'll find two amazing adventures and a take on the Illusionist character class that will surprise you: http://forum.immersiveink.com/viewtopic.php?f=15&t=450
To buy a digest-size copy of the book: http://www.lulu.com/shop/http://www.lulu.com/shop/simon-j-bull/delving-deeper-reference-rules-compendium/paperback/product-21911339.html