A hack of a game that doesn’t exist – Dungeon Nobodies

Tl;dr

I made a thing. It’s a hack for a DnD clone that doesn’t exist, written in an alternate 1970s. It’s also a playable OSR ruleset. Check it out:

Introduction

This is my longest post so far, because I have (hopefully) an interesting story to tell.

I really like experimental games. Games that push the boundary between player and text, that rethink the dynamic between GM and player. I also like games with a history, games that build on other games, games with a genealogy and a lineage. I like games with stories associated with them, where their influences are written on their sleeve. I like them even more when the stories are written intentionally as meta-narrative.

That’s a very long way to say I really, really like the concepts behind stuff like Mazes and Minotaurs and Encounter Critical. So I wanted to make my own. But how to start?

Being a project where multiple levels of meta-narrative overlap each other, I felt it was important to have a good idea of the final product before getting confused by all the layers in between. So I started with a simple idea: an OSR style game about little people, the nobodies and the henchmen. The idea was actually gifted to me as a part of an entirely unrelated conversation on the OSR discord server with @jrlewis, in which he proposed playing as torchbearers with terrible lovecraftian gods whispering in our ears. I liked the “nobodies with secrets” theme, and so I decided to call my game “Dungeon Nobodies”.

Making Dungeon Heroes

The next step was to determine the start of the meta-narrative. Dungeon Nobodies, being a game about playing henchmen, seemed an apt fit as a hack for an imaginary game, a hypothetical game whose henchman rules were ripped out and repurposed as their own title. This game would become Dungeon Heroes, a “classic game of Adventure, Glory, and Heroism”. I quickly hammered out a cover, deciding that it would be a power-fantasy style game to give it some extra irony.

Cover of Dungeon Nobodies
The original cover, before I adopted the name “J. C.”. Manchin and Kimberley make “Manch-kin”. Sidenote: the origin of Miles Gloriosus (Warning: TV Tropes!)

In creating the cover, I then had to ask myself the question: what was Dungeon Heroes as a game actually like, before all the hacking? The answer was immediate: a fantasy heartbreaker, a game created by a small team based only on playing old school D&D in the late 1970s that was printed with the creator’s money and languished in obscurity ever since. The old school-esque origins gave me access to the basis of the OSR hobby, making it more likely that a “hack” would retain some of that old school spirit. This also gave me free rein to lift ideas from OD&D without them seeming out of place, so long as I gave them a sufficiently heartbreaker-style “rewrite”.

Thus, the first page I wrote (the Table of Contents) became a tongue in cheek prodding at all things OD&D, with eight stats, elemental attack matrices and “Local Non Thaumaturgic Armour Class”. In keeping with the heartbreaker aesthetic, almost everything in the table of contents was a slightly reworded and complexified mechanic from some aspect of the original game, mashed together with characteristically amateurish style. This backstory also gave me a clear way to introduce a self-contained henchman system: Most fantasy heartbreakers had some clear element of original thought within them, making them more than mere rip-offs, and Dungeon Heroes would have the same, designed in a fit of pique to differentiate itself from its clear “inspiration”. Now I needed to explain to readers what exactly they were reading.

The Framing Narrative

The framing narrative is a device in literature, a story used to act as a lead in to another story. For example, a tale of haunted tragedy might start with a circle of guests at a dinner party each telling a ghost story of their own, or a (perhaps more familiar) heroic narrative might begin with the hero, old and retired, sitting down to tell their grandkids all about their time in the Depths of Desolation…

It was clear that, if Dungeon Nobodies was to be more than a confusing muddle of text, I would need a similar framing narrative for the beginning of my piece. This came in the form of a note overlaid on top of the original introduction, which would have been more or less useless fluff, and would now instead be used to communicate vital backstory and “lore”. I kept it simple – The game was a homebrewed hack made by a kid who played with his friends, and was now selling his copy of the original Dungeon Heroes (homebrew included) to the friendly local game store (FLGS) along with his minature collection since he no longer had time for the hobby.

The framing narrative provided several elements: time (Sometime after 1985), a in-universe reviser/hacker (J.C.), a reason for the game to exist (fantasy heartbreaker), and a reason for this version of the game to exist (homebrewed hack). It even allowed me to add in the rationale for the henchmen rules to be different: one of the creators had an argument with Gary Gygax (presumably about the deriviative nature of their game) and decided to add the rules to more clearly separate themselves from TSR’s product line. With framing narrative complete, it was time to… actually make the game.

Scrawling over your own paper

To make Dungeon Nobodies, one must first make the Henchman section of Dungeon Heroes. Most of the elements would carry over, but obviously some (hiring rules, morale rules, rules for henchmen running away) would be dropped. I needed a strong core mechanic, and I had one that I had been toying with ever since Passive Perception: The game. Namely, the idea that the entire skillset of a character could be tied to two things: the skills you knew, and your proficiency which you rolled under whenever testing a skill you knew. The idea itself was a merger of D&D 5e’s proficiency bonus (which added a flat number to everything you were trained at) and another microgame where you had to-hit as a stat whose name I have since forgotten. Here Proficiency would serve as your all stat, and each class would give you skills to apply the all stat to. Classes became bundles of skills with starting equipment and one ability added later on.

Once the core rules were set down, other rules such as HP, treasure and armour I would lift and modify from games such as OSE (to preserve the historical D&D clone “feel”) and Into the Odd (to preserve maximum simplicity). This model had several benefits:

  • Classes could be easily produced, making it very hackable
  • Characters were easy to make and run
  • Very limited bookkeeping while in play
  • Clear method of mechanical progression (+1 to Proficiency)
  • Preventing skill dogpiling (one of my big gripes with 5e)- whether you could try or not was strictly binary

Now I needed to communicate all of these rules in a manner that fufilled four goals simultaneously:

  1. Resemble a rule supplement to an overly bloated clone of D&D
  2. Be an actually playable, minimalist ruleset
  3. Show the evolution of this ruleset over different playtests
  4. Be readable and comprehendable to an actual reader picking it up

This would be achieved through a four layer process:

  1. An “original” version of the rules that emulated a scanned rulebook (version 1)
  2. A “initial revision” crossing out some of those rules and adding notes in the margins and or spine designed to resemble handwritten notes (version 2, layered on top of version 1)
  3. A “rules cyclopedia” version collating these homebrew rules and additions into a readable format, designed to resemble a typewritten zine on crumpled paper (version 3) that would be usable by any actual readers
  4. Handwritten addenda to the version 3 rules that added spells, monsters etc. designed to resemble notebook or paper pages collated by the original writer (J.C.) and his friends

One note I would like to make is that I wanted to preserve at least some idea of the original game, even though it was purely imaginary. To do this, all of the henchman classes were given several narrow skills along with one or two broad skills, which represented one of the eight ability scores in Dungeon Heroes (Physicality
, Fleetness-of-foot
, Endurance
, Memory
, Quick-wittedness
, Luck
, Charm
, Analytic logic). This vestigial remnant of a primary attribute system from an earlier stage in the hypothetical class design process would have given them at least one domain of broad applicability in the original game and thus worth hiring even if their other skills were lacklustre. As balance, where classes received multiple primary/useful broad skills (such as the Pack Mule with Physicality and Endurance), their other more specific skills would be reduced. Their roles were also meant to reflect NPCs easily findable in any village and thus easily hireable for PCs looking for hirelings, aside from a few more humourous inclusions such as the “pacifist monk”.

Having talked about the game in general, I’ll next talk about some of my design decisions behind the combat system and the magic system respectively.

Discouraging Combat

One of the main ways I discouraged combat in this ruleset was by making combat a question of incomplete skillsets. “Normal” combat in Dungeon Heroes was a cumbersome mess of attack matrices and local armour determination, whereas the combat in Dungeon Nobodies, if all parties were properly trained, would function like a more player-centric version of ItO combat: Players could make evasion rolls against monster attacks, and player attacks automatically landed if they had the appropriate skill (mainly, swordfighting and its subsidiaries). The critical changes from the norm, then, were that players very often did not have evasion or swordfighting as skills. They were nobodies, not adventurers, and this lack of adventuring prerequisites reinforced that.

What this essentially created was a broken system weighted towards monsters- monsters would always get a chance to evade while players took automatic damage. Only 4 classes out of 14 could evade, and of the classes that could evade, only one had some form of combat skill (the Hunter), and one was explicitly pacifist (Pacifist Monk). The mercenary, the only combat-centric henchman, was removed from the rules cyclopedia version presumably for reasons of overt player favouritism. Thus, the very prospect of combat became an unenviable one, and problem solving using the player’s repetoire of other skills becomes much more important.

Designing the Magic System

The magic system in Dungeon Nobodies has been compared to basketball (by someone else) and setting up a spike in volleyball (by me). It was another offshoot of the idea that nobodies were weaker versions of adventurers missing the “full set” of abilities that defined an above-average hero: your blacksmith doesn’t know how to swing a sword and shouldn’t, even if they know how to make one. Thus, it also made sense that the full list of abilities needed to cast magic (memories, comprehend, cast) would not be available to a single character as well. The answer was simple- characters would need to work together and make multiple skill checks to cast a spell.

The main effect of this was a carte blanche to make spells more powerful. If casting a spell was a team effort, it could very well be a good spell. This also made the fact that spells were complex magical formulae in this world more clear, since it was now a group endeavour rather than a single person’s fire-and-forget.

Final Notes

I’ll include the full basic rules here, alongside a page of spells written by a secondary character called Damien whose story is entwined with J.C.s as one of the players in his group. I hope you enjoyed reading this and will enjoy the rules, since they were a lot of fun to make!

Depending on how certain arrangements pan out I’ll also make a few monsters, but this game should be broadly compatible with ItO monsters and just about anything else that has hp and does damage. It’s also probably simpler than most other retro rulesets, while remaining compatible and (I hope) mostly feature complete. If you have any comments or suggestions, let me know, and I’ll probably publish some more addenda later anyways.

Thanks to:

@Kahva (OSR) @marsworms (OSR) @diogenes (OSR) @imagical (OSR) @awkwardturtle (NSR) @Tam (NSR)

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