Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Delving Deeper Week, Day Six: The Actual Review of the Delving Deeper Rules Compendium

A few weeks ago (well, maybe a month by now), +Simon Bull asked if I would review Immersive Ink's new Delving Deeper Rules Compendium. He would even provide me with review copies. Before I agreed, I let him know that, despite all of that stuff, I wanted my review to be thorough and that it would be based on the actual content of the book, not my preexisting predisposition in favor of the Delving Deeper rule set. Simon said he would expect any less and we got to chatting, with the end result being what you've read so far from Delving Deeper Week. Simon has a few more bits of info for you all, but I thought it was really about time that I got to the actual review of the material that Simon asked for in the first place. 

The Delving Deeper Rules Compendium is a print version of the most recent iteration of the Delving Deeper rules. Those rules were originally published in a fairly convoluted manner, with three publishers involved in the game's short lifespan so far. Here's how Simon tells the history:

While Brave Halfling Press might be a genuine company (I'm reasonably sure John either employs--or has employed--people to do BHP work in the past), Immersive Ink and Wobbly Goblin are really just the publishing labels of individuals rather than companies. Immersive Ink is me, Wobbly Goblin is Cameron Dubeers. 
The more detailed history of it is as follows (from my recollection--others may recall a slightly different angle on it): 
The Delving Deeper project as a whole predates my involvement, but insofar as I'm aware the project was a Brave Halfling initiative. John (BHP) wanted to build an 0e publishing platform for BHP and so established the original DD team including Cameron Dubeers (WG), David Macauley, Mark Allen, and others. In late 2010 John began posting samples of the (then in progress) proto-Delving Deeper on his blog.  In Feb 2011 I contacted David Macauley with concerns about the way in which Elves were being presented in this material. This, and other conversations, eventually led to David later endorsing me as DD editor. In November 2011 I responded to John's public call for DD proof readers, and put an "unanticipated" amount of red ink on what was probably then thought to be "almost print ready" version of DD. This led to John inviting me (with, I believe, David's endorsement) to join the DD team as editor in December 2011.
From there the DD team took some serious hits.
 
David Macauley had to minimise his participation, and then withdraw entirely, owing to health issues. John also suffered a series of personal setbacks--culminating with the loss of a child!--and was effectively AWOL from the DD project for most of the next year. During that time, I think it is fair to say that I drove the DD project forward and, in consultation with Cameron Dubeers (author of the original DD draft), we hammered out the text of DD. I couldn't really work directly on the BHP boxed set in John's absence, so I did a production of a minimal set of "Reference Rules" instead, and by October 2012 we had the DD Ref Rules V1. John returned to action around that time, and built the BHP DD boxed set off the DD Ref Rules V1. I went on to do an errata sheet (which John also included in the BHP boxed set), and then a V2 of the Ref Rules which integrated the errata into the booklets. 
Alas, John was still experiencing some issues with fulfillment of BHP's DD pre-orders, and eventually decided that DD was growing in a direction he hadn't foreseen. So in March 2013 John officially passed stewardship of DD to me.  
Since then I've done a major revision to Ref Rules V3, the Ref Rules V4 compendium, and the Ref Rules V4 hypertext versions. All "in preparation" (if you like) for the hardback edition.
I'm not going to comment on the Delving Deeper boxed set. If you have one, good for you. If you haven't gotten yours yet, know that you are in good company. Please do not let the history of what's gone before with the brand sour you on the current iteration of Delving Deeper; it's out of Brave Halfling's hands now, and firmly within the capable hands of Mr. Bull and Immersive Ink. To prove it, they put it in print. Let's take a look at what II has done with the Compendium.

At First Glance

The Delving Deeper Rules Compendium is a 5.5" x 8.5" (half-letter) sized perfect bound softcover book that weighs in at 130 interior pages. The cover features new art by Timothy Ide, which shows off a pretty darn cool fight between retreating adventurers, laiden with treasures, and the lizard men tribe that's pursuing them, backed up by a hydra. Ide's art is very evocative, feeling close in spirit to the best that the oldest of schools had to offer. It tells a good story, and that story is the story OD&D has been telling since 1974. 

After the show-stopper of a front cover, I was really surprised to discover that the back of the book was blank aside from a bar code. The back of the books is prime real estate for the author/publisher to tell us a thing or two about what we can find between the pages, a "bullet points" collection of what the book contains. As it stands now, there's not really much to differentiate the Delving Deeper Compendium from any other book that might be on the bookshelf of your FLGS. (Yes, I know that this book is only available from Lulu.com, but this thing deserves to be on the shelf of FLGSes everywhere, so I'll hold out hope.) 

Inside, the book is really similar to the V3 pdfs, with their noteworthy departures from the V1 & V2 Reference Rules. Mark Allen's great art remains, but the Reference Rules covers have here been repurposed as interior art, which works well. I really enjoyed the fonts used in the V1 & V2 and I was sad to see them left behind here for more standard fare. There are some problems with rendering the "1/2" character correctly, and other people have made a big deal about this, but it's not that big of a deal to me. I've seen Lulu screw up other stuff far worse (I'm still salty about Lulu blaming printing problems on the pdf formatting of its authors, such as with +Richard LeBlanc's excellent d30 Sandbox Companion). 

Between The Covers

Regular readers of Dispatches know that I've been sold on Delving Deeper for some time. I started my Quasquetherion/Hyperbarbaria campaign using the V2 version of the rules because I liked their simplicity. While the Rules Compendium brings Delving Deeper to it's V4 iteration of the rules, all of the things I loved about the original are still here, with some notable changes that only improve the game. Some of these took me a while to notice, but it felt like they should have been there all along. 

Delving Deeper wisely avoids much of the "this is roleplaying" stuff that starts off most RPGs. Instead, the text discusses the history of D&D and how Delving Deeper fits into that history, before moving straight into a glossary, a section that previous versions of the text were sorely missing. This glossary helps us parse out such OD&D- & Chainmail-isms as "normal type," "heroic type," and so on. This section and the explicit Normal/Heroic/Super-Heroic tier system in play in Delving Deeper are probably the biggest changes in the V3/V4 iteration of the rules and has repercussions throughout the rest of the book.

What we end up with in Delving Deeper is a game that closely models itself after not merely OD&D, but also after Chainmail and, as Simon has demonstrated, the basic game math that informed both. It's OD&D stripped back to its roots and made clear without unnecessarily altering those early rules. Every edition of D&D that was designed for clarity's sake (starting with the work of Dr. Holmes) incorporated at least some of the changes made by later supplements, whether it was Greyhawk's alternate hit dice or damage dice by weapon type or what have you. Delving Deeper stays truer to the original 3 LBBs of the 1974 white box than any of them and is written for straightforward intelligibility. Yes, it's streamlined. Yes, it's easy to use. And yes, it leaves all of the room for interpretation that launched a thousand house rules, game supplements, adventures and imitators back in the 70's,

The spell selections, as Simon commented the other day, flesh out the ordinary white box offerings with  stuff from The Strategic Review, or at least their simulacra. Monsters get a similar treatment, supplementing the original material with the sort of Appendix N-inspired foes as robots, androids and a smattering of mythological beasts ignored by the white box. If anything, it feels like, when in doubt, Simon asked himself "What would Appendix N do?" For example, over half (probabilistically) of the magic swords out there are intelligent to one degree or another, which is all shades of Elric-y. 

After all is said and done, the Delving Deeper Rules Compendium is a great guide to white box-style gaming that is exhaustive without being exhausting. The rules are clear, easy to understand and, frankly, interesting, which can often be difficult when your goal is rules clarity. Delving Deeper is eminently playable, expandable, hackable, reconfigurable, house-rulable. It's not the answer to every problem your group will encounter, but it does provide a great framework that you can build your answers out of. 

What makes the whole thing even better is that Immersive Ink isn't going to try to bankrupt you to get you to play their game. The V3 pdfs are available for free from the Immersive Ink website, while the V4 Rules Compendium is available at Lulu.com for the remarkably low price of $4.95. Immersive Ink doesn't really make any money to speak of from the print version; he's gotten it as close to free as he could. 

Final Word

For as much as you're getting for the $4.95, I feel like we're all ripping Simon off. Realistically, I could see this volume going for $10 and still thinking it's a value. By comparison, the Swords & Wizardry White Box -- which is shorter than Delving Deeper -- goes for $9.95 on Lulu. The game's layout is straightforward and flows easily from one topic to the next, with rules finding themselves in reasonable places that are easy to find. Not that there are a lot of rules. Which is a strength here, just like it was for OD&D in the first place.