Author’s note: this little gem of a free game was published more than five years ago, but this writer just learned about it last week. For those Gentle Readers who already know about this game, I offer apologies. For those who, like me, haven’t yet heard about Dungeon Squad, keep reading; the download is well worth the effort.
Dungeon Squad is hardly a new game, but it certainly isn’t as well-known as it should be; it is reviewed here for that reason.
In the spirit veteran gamers will remember from the Moldvay Basic Set, the rules for this free role-playing game (RPG) are short, with “short” being defined as five pages, including a sample character sheet.
The precis describing the rules – which can be downloaded by clicking here – reads:
Dungeon Squad is a role-playing game designed expressly for young players with short attention spans who demand action and fun. There is a lot of die rolling and some amusing shopping and number-crunching. Characters can be generated in 3 seconds.
The author, Jason Morningstar, is not joking.
Dungeon Squad makes use of a nearly complete set of traditional polyhedral dice to determine success or failure for heroic activities, only omitting the d20 for reasons that become apparent later. There are no attack matrices, saving throw tables or any other mental gymnastics required to resolve any in-game situation.
The d4, d8 and d12 are connected with character generation, but not in a traditional sense. Instead of defining a definite statistic for, say, a hero’s strength, one of those three dice is assigned to groupings of tasks a character may perform. In Dungeon Squad, there are three skill groups: explorer, warrior and wizard. Each of the three dice must be assigned to one of the skill groups. Whenever a hero attempts something requiring a skill roll, the die for the appropriate skill group is rolled against a target number. Thus, while every hero has some combination of all skills, each is clearly very proficient at one, moderately good at the second and poor at the third, depending on what die is assigned to which skill.
The d6 and d10 are used to designate “stuff,” a term that essentially involves any object a character may use in the completion of a task requiring a skill roll, such as weapons, armor or spell effects. A hero with a 1d6 sword, then, would attack a target number to hit a monster with whatever his warrior die is and, if the attack hits, damage is rolled on the 1d6 “stuff” die the player designated for the sword. A hero with armor gets to roll the designated “stuff” die whenever he takes damage and subtract it from the damage he suffers; in the case of d10 armor, the armor could absorb the entire blow!
The magic system is refreshinly non-Vancian. Like everything else, a hero can ascribe a “stuff” die to one of six specific spells, rolling to use the spells on his wizard die and rolling for damage or other effect on the “stuff” die.
Every hero starts with 15 hit points, which can be reduced by damage, and can be regained with such items as healing potions (which have a die associated with them to determine how much damage is healed).
Character advancement is very straightforward. Each monster has a basic difficulty level, including vermin, weak, average, though or “run away!” The difficulty implies how much gold the monsters should have. Heroes cash in the gold they captured for new equipment, to increase a skill or stuff die by one size, or to buy more hit points.
A secondary Web site, The Dungeon Squad Companion, offers variant character sheets and a couple of short modules.
As always, the proof is in the playing, and the six-year-old and I put the system to the test. We played “The Thief of Red Canyon” scenario from the Dungeon Squad Companion web site, after spending about two minutes to create and equip four heroes. We made use of miniatures and some tabletop terrain we had made for other games, but miniature use is not required by the system.
It took about 90 minutes for us to complete the scenario and defeat the primary villain, but the duration was certainly lengthened due to the fact that I kept asking my son to calculate whether or not each attack hit, how many points of damage each blow inflicted, and how many damage points each target had remaining after each successful attack (he’s working on subtraction in school, and this was great practice).
My son loved it, and I can see using the basic mechanics to create a host of similar games, in much the same way Tim Hartin used it to create Zombie Squad.
While certainly not a replacement for D&D in my own gaming world, Dungeon Squad definitely has a place on my gaming shelf. It’s fast, fun and easy to play and, best of all, it’s free.