April 15th, 2020

Modiphius have been hitting it big with many big-name franchises in recent years. One by one, IPs like Conan, Fallout, Star trek, John Carter, The Elder Scrolls (more on that at a later date…), and now Dishonored have made their way into their catalogue in one form or another - mostly as RPGs or skirmish-level miniature wargames.

The subject of this particular article is a video-to-tabletop-game adaptation, a game with a loyal following of which I myself was a part of when I still had the time to get two or even three full playthroughs of a game in over just a couple months.

Those were the days of high adventure!

Bear in mind that I’ve yet to run a full session of this RPG at the time of writing. Most of my thoughts stem from comparing the system in the review copy I’ve managed to get my hands on to others I’ve known, played, or GMed over my RPG endeavours during the past twelve years or so. I’ve been doing character creation and setting up introductory adventures with friends to get a feel for the way the thing works and I think I have enough of a handle on it to share some feedback.

For the record, my absolute favourite system to this day, of the dozens I’ve experienced, remains West End Games’ Star Wars d6 (and I’m quite keen on the Zorro reskin, as well). I’m always one to take a theater-of-the-mind approach to minis and scenery, though I don’t skimp on premium tactile stuff when it comes to a campaign ender or important encounter. I’m also very fond of handouts, art, maps, physical puzzles, and any other similar ancillary items that may help build the universe of a game and draw players deeper into the experience.
I also prefer freeform characters and mechanisms to outright action point allocation or standard moves in a game. I feel like it encourages roleplaying in its truest form and brings out the best in both people and stories in general.

Now that the boring history lesson is over, let’s dig in...

Dishonored has found its way onto our tables, for a decent price point, and it brings with it something both something borrowed and something new.

The core engine behind the game stems from the established 2d20 (rolling 2 twenty-sided dice and adding modifiers, then comparing the results to a set target in order to determine the outcome of your actions) system powering the Conan roleplaying game, for instance. As such, the main flow of the game should be familiar to anyone stepping into this new setting from a place of knowledge.

The novelty comes in the form of the lead design team, made up of Federico Sohns, Virginia Page, and Nathan Dowdell, trying to bring as much of the atmosphere of Dishonored into the pages of this line. And the result was successful, but something tends to get lost in translation, I believe, and I’ll try to explain why that is.

Taking a step back to have a look at the book itself, you’d be hard pressed to not feel like you’re staring into something straight out of the game’s universe. Be it cues that help build environments, iconic art pieces, references to the Victorian times the IP is based on, colouring, smoky-dark backgrounds, instantly recognisable symbols and characters, or even plain page framing and design, it’s all very much what I was expecting to see.
The one slightly dissonant aspect compared to the rest of it, on a visual level, might be the short comic strips used to depict some relevant events and play examples. Then again, those aren’t intrusive and only pop up a couple times across the entire book, so they’re not that big a deal.

But there is something bothersome that kept creeping up on me with every new page I flipped through - a thoroughly depressing feeling is emanating from the entire thing.
Don’t get me wrong, the world of Dishonored was very much depressing as a baseline with only spikes of colour and positivity splattered about just so you didn’t completely lose your last shivering sliver of hope while slipping in and out of the shadows, but… there was something majestic, enticing, and spectacular about it.

That doesn’t really transpire here. The book and every element that was chosen to put it together gives it a solemn, grim air that, while appropriate to the theme at hand, doesn’t really help make things easy or exciting to read through.

Still, the artwork that was chosen to line the pages of the core book is engaging, evocative, and really helps bring the whole thing alive. I just wish there was more (much more) of it to go around.
I know a core book is supposed to give you quick information and line every possible page in archetypes and skills and story cues, but as stated before, I do enjoy some eye candy now and again, and I found myself wanting for more while going through this particular one. Even with the equipment chapter, barely a couple objects are thrown in there, which I think is a wasted opportunity for the artists to really let loose on putting some cool items together.

I wouldn’t ask for this from something like a generic RPG book, but since this is an IP that stems from a primarily visual medium, and a focused one at that, I thought this was worth bringing up. And yes, you may argue that the game is already out there and any assets from it may be used to further build the environments, characters, and objects that populate the world, but I’m for a more unitary take on art whenever roleplaying as I feel like it helps set the common ground from which everything can evolve in every player’s individual imaginations.

P.S. moar rat artwork, pls. Thank.

Going back to more nuts-and-bolts-related things, the book is structured into 3 main parts: an intro on rules and the universe at hand followed by the main expansion on the concepts, mechanisms, and archetypes, all of it capped off with a 4-session introductory adventure called The Oil Trail.

The middle part is where I think the book thrives, but let’s take it all step by step.

If you’ve played Conan 2d20, you’ll be familiar with a particular mechanism that you’re either going to love or hate, most of the time: doom. This is a resource that is passed among the players and the GM and used by either to trigger impressive events and turn otherwise helpless situations on their ever-loving heads.
Personally, I tend to emphatically despise any sort of gimmicky resource/pool of items/series of rolls that allows either side of the players in a RPG to trigger set actions or sequences of events.

That’s because whenever you unleash a game on an audience of thousands, they will undoubtedly find ways to go above and beyond what that system allows in terms of mechanical contrivances, no matter how well thought out the designers’ plans were. The same is true of other superficial gimmicks such as dice with symbols on them instead of numbers (looking at you, FFG Star Wars, you overpriced lump of toss).
Yes, the GMs and players are always encouraged to use the rules as a set of guidelines on which to build, but then if they’re going to go beyond the well-established system and abstract it, I don’t see the point of it being there, in the first place.

The same is true here, with “Chaos” being brought in as the excuse why a mechanism of this sort exists and why it’s presented in the form of a resource that both players and GMs may use to trigger various effects. Much of the same can also be said about players being able to save “Momentum” (bonuses to roll) for use later on in the game/session and how this is a shared pool for the party.

Don’t get me wrong, a strong baseline structure is needed in order to run a successful campaign. That said, the more “crutches” are brought in to have people lean on them when their imagination fails, the more those people who wouldn’t try to force their imagination alive in the first place will rely on them as a safe bet.
These sorts of system aids (that could also work in capital letters…) are only useful when slowly easing someone into the genre. I firmly believe they prevent people from thinking out of the box in favour of “oh, yeah, I’ll just use the three pieces of quark essence we’ve been saving for three sessions and avoid certain death, s’alright!” and should be discarded from anything that isn’t a RPG/boardgaming hybrid.

Another thing that caught my eye, this time in a big, positive way, is the emphasis put on experience and how it should be allotted and awarded. Too many games offer up automatic XP gains following quests, events, encounters, and sometimes even just showing up and being railroaded through a series of actions you have little to no control over.
Dungeons & Dragons 4e, with its videogame-like style, did this a lot and used bloated XP values (think thousands of points) to emulate that MMO feel and give an air of “holy shit, I am SO advancing!” to level progression.

Here, things are much more level-headed and GMs are encouraged to only award XP when the players actually achieve something truly worthwhile or go out of their way to roleplay their character in a given situation. More so, failure and adversity are rewarded (something not enough systems do), and - even though still gimmicky in execution and related to the previous idea - players who make things hard for their characters and achieve something are rewarded for their efforts.

This, in turn, makes level advancement a blast and gets players to push themselves and their characters further in logical and oftentimes spectacular ways in trying to achieve that next oomph to their skills.

Speaking of, there are six skills that come into play (Fight, Move, Study, Survive, Talk, and Tinker), that coupled with your character’s two truths (moral code and previous hardships), and styles (Boldly, Carefully, Cleverly, Forcefully, Quietly and Swiftly) make up a wonderfully unique actor that is ready to jump into this world and get TPKed at the first sign of trouble.
Just kidding, only save TPKs for when you really can’t stand your players, which is hopefully never.

Skills and styles range from 4 to 8 in rank, with 4 being the most inexperienced one can get at any particular thing, and focuses (Acrobatics, Brawling, Wilderness, stuff like that) are further added to a character’s sheet, alongside any Void related abilities (which have their entire dedicated chapter), archetypes (there are thirteen of these in the book, ranging from Miscreants to Scholars) to further fine-tune their genetic, moral, and psychic make-up.

This looks and feels like a fairly robust system and one that can easily be expanded upon (which I’m sure it will) with further expansions and sourcebooks. The styles in particular are a very fun, quick way to determine how a character might act in a certain situation, and the archetypes are varied and different enough to keep a party of several going for a good while with only just this book at hand.

The way everything fits in with the social interaction/combat/stealth system (killing people breeds chaos, so watch it) is smooth and doesn’t create an overabundance of double checking and cross referencing, at least in my current experience.

The middle point of the book delves into the setting and its composing parts, be it lands, people, legends, rumours, or factions.

This is where I think this book pulls in its weight in gold because there are TONS of hooks and adventures that can spring off of any single paragraph on any given page. Anything from societal classes to timelines, notable events, the history and districts of Dunwall and any of the myriad factions thereof start out this blistering bit of content.

Add to these about the same amount of content for Karnaca and Tyvia and a whole boatload of navy and seafaring stuff and you’ve got yourself an overflowing horn of abundance from which to pen storylines even before reaching the actual introductory adventure.
All three main areas specified above come with maps, handouts, and textual cues that can either be used altogether to build a narrative or peppered throughout a homebrewed one to spice things up and keep them canonical.

There is also a good amount of NPCs, contacts or otherwise, and archetypes of various danger levels for players to meet on their journeys. Many, if not all of them, just burst with personality and opportunity for growth and evolution. And yes, main game characters are able to make appearances, but it’s the no-name ones that I’m more interested in, to be honest.
Half of these random fucks look and sound like they’re recurrent villain material straight out of the box.

This is by far the greatest achievement the core book has going for it, and the main draw the Dishonored franchise can bank on years after first coming to light: its vivid setting.

The book is capped off by a four-session adventure (that can be stretched into 5 or 6 at the rate I see it going and the way I’m dying to use more of the stuff from the world-building chapters), with a focus on class struggle, set in 1827 Dunwall.

The adventure limits what players can do with their characters, but since it’s an introductory bit, it’s good to have people build a connection with the system on a faster note rather than spending hours churning through the book and sending dozens of PMs to the GM til midnight on weekdays and even later on weekends...
No, I’m not miffed at all, why do you ask?

The scenes that transpire from the very get-go of the adventure are harsh and bleak, as they should be, and without spoiling anything I think it’s a decent way to get anybody’s feet wet as far as the universe goes, GM and player alike.

All in all, I think this book and the system are worth the buy-in if you can get past some hiccups that mostly pertain to personal preference. The mechanisms are a bit more gimmicky than I’d like them to be, but once you get going, the atmosphere and content you can easily bring out of the book help smooth that pesky crease and set up a very faithful rendition of a Dishonored game in tabletop form.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, my PMs are blowing up over having to explain why a single swarm of rats can’t possibly devour a half dozen beached whales that may or may not have been herded there without much thought given to the “and then...” side of things.

Thanks for reading, and have as nice a day as you deserve!

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Tags: Boardgames, Costin Becheanu