RPG Reviews – Dishonored

Dishonored – Roleplaying Game

So… I’ve played about 30 minutes of the video game of Dishonored. It’s not my fault – I would have happily played through every game in the franchise because they look really cool, but the engine and perspective make my brain try to escape my skull and that’s not a pleasant experience. If you’re not familiar with Dishonored, it’s a stealth game which takes place in a pseudo-Victorian dark fantasy setting, following the disgraced bodyguard of the Empress of the Isles, who has been framed for her murder. There’s intrigue and magic and corruption, all of which prime the setting to be a good tabletop roleplaying game.

Disclaimer: This title has been provided for purpose of review.

Not that you should necessarily be surprised, but the introduction does a really good job of positioning Dishonored. The section that covers what an RPG provides a great summary, the setting overview gives you a distinct image of each of the four islands of the Empire, other media inspirations are listed, and the style of gameplay – that of a grim and merciless world where exceptional characters take control of their destiny – is very clear.

I especially like how the themes of the game are discussed. It’s helpful for GMs to aid in running the game and achieve the specific feel of Dishonored as well as for players to understand what they’re in for. The themes are:

  • Order and Chaos: what side do you support, how do you achieve these goals, and what are the consequences of your actions?
  • The Abbey and the Cults: Dishonored features conflict between religious doctrines. The Abbey of the Everyman which aims to save the souls of humanity in the face of the supernatural, and the Cults of the old ways, who consider the Abbey an oppressive tool.
  • The Rulers and the Meek: Social class conflict and institutional reinforcement of societal strata.

They’re basically perfect themes for an RPG. Characters have goals they can achieve and conflict baked into the setting, all ready for players to step in and throw into disarray.

I always love seeing how each new incarnation of the 2d20 system is structured. When the outcome of an action is in doubt, players roll a pool of 20-sided dice to determine success or failure. As the name states, these are at least 2 dice, but can be more. The goal is to roll equal to or under a target number – each die that does so achieves a “success”, which determines the degree of outcome, along with some other elements of gameplay.

Dishonored goes in a more narrative direction than some other 2d20 games. The character attributes that determine the target number for Action tests are divided into 6 Skills (Fight, Move, Study, Survive, Talk, Tinker) and 6 Styles (Boldly, Carefully, Cleverly, Forcefully, Quietly, Swiftly). You add your chosen pairing and try to roll equal to or under that number on your dice. While most routine tests have a difficulty of 1 required success, greater feats require more successes. A roll of 1 on the die generates 2 successes, and if a die rolls below your relevant Focus rating (an area of specialization, like Lock-Picking) you also generate 2 successes. Rolls of 20 create Complications, which are narrative challenges, or add to the GM’s Chaos pool (points they will use to make your character’s life more difficult.)

Unlike many other games, by using “Styles” Dishonored emphasizes how you do what you do rather than on inherent capacity (physical strength, inner charm, etc.). Personally, I like this because it’s easy to narrate the effect of an action and it adds a lot of flavor. Carefully Tinkering with a lock creates a far different narrative result than Forcefully doing it. It allows characters to play to their strengths while reinforcing the consequences for their actions.

One of the cores of the system involves generating Momentum. Surplus Successes can be stored and spent as Momentum, which can be used to gain extra dice on a roll, create or remove narrative Truths about a scene, or gain information about the world. These points can be saved and used by the whole group, not just the player who generates them.

Emphasis is given on the function of Truths in Dishonored. If you’ve played games like Fate, these bear similarity to Aspects, and act much like descriptors. Wounded can be a Truth that describes a living creature and a protruding edge of a building can be a Truth that allows your character to reach a rooftop they would not be able to otherwise. This concept has been present in other 2d20 games but is described very succinctly in Dishonored, helping to support the free flow nature of gameplay.

I mentioned Chaos before – it’s the GM equivalent to Momentum: a pool of points to be spent against the players, but typically generated by their choices and actions. It represents the consequences of their risks.

The book uses comic book pages as their examples of play, which I really like – artwork depicting the events with panels showing the players making their choices. It’s fun, descriptive, and useful to illustrate how mechanical results should appear in play.

The Action in Dishonored revolves around Combat, Stealth, and Intrigue with challenges falling into one of those spheres. Combat is very interesting as frequently it is resolved with a single Action test – success means you’ve defeated your opponent; more powerful opponents (notable and major NPCs) take damage in the same way as PCs. The game uses Tracks to determine the duration of these challenges and once one is full the challenge is completed. This can allow for physical damage, being perceived while acting stealthily, progress in a social conflict or your reputation with one of the Factions in the world, or can be just used to track progress towards any goal. I enjoy this method – it works for combat obviously, but is great for tracking non-combat efforts. It helps players feel they’re achieving something and helps GMs with pacing (“one box left, next session this comes to fruition – what will be the consequences?”)

Character creation is fun and simple. You begin by defining two personal Truths about the character, one an innate core trait and the other a problem they struggle with. Next you select one of thirteen Archetypes from Assassin to Entrepreneur to a scholar. These determine bonuses to starting Skills and Styles, give you Focuses, Talents (special abilities that aid in challenges or certain circumstances), belongings and Contacts. Using Archetypes may seem restrictive but they both assist in reinforcing the core themes of the game and make it very quick to whip up characters. It also shouldn’t be all that hard to create your own Archetypes, if you feel something’s lacking.

The Equipment section is perfectly suitable. It’s not extensive but covers specifics on the most relevant gear for the setting and how to upgrade it, which is fun – love some crafting rules. It also makes a point to discuss gear as character development and allow narrative utility.

With the rules and methods of play covered, we get to the setting, of which I knew very little when starting the book. Beginning with the supernatural, it briefly discusses the nature of the Void – the will outside the world that bleeds into the reality of the setting and manifests in various ways, among them the being known as The Outsider. The Outsider marks chosen individuals and grants them exceptional powers. Some are traditional physical enhancements or mind-affecting elements, others summon swarms of animals, some enhance your artistic and creative talents (which I think is especially cool). Other ways the Void manifests in the world include bonecharms, runes, and artifacts, all bestowing powers upon their possessors.

If you’re unfamiliar with the world of Dishonored, it’s set in a pseudo-Victorian dark fantasy world, with all the class conflict and lopsided social structure that existed in ours (though less racism). The primary setting is the Empire of the Isles, a conglomerate of united lands and the capital city of Dunwall – a former whaling city now Imperial capital. Reminiscent of major cities of our world in that era, it is its own entity full of industry, social conflict, religious extremism, and overcrowded streets teeming with masses of people.

It’s easy to get a good sense of the world. It seems more than likely that games will take place in an urban environment, so the city of Dunwall gets a lot of content. Each district is presented with a brief overview of the locations, sights, and sounds, then “the truth” behind what goes on there. Rounding the entries off with two or three story hooks gives you a veritable city of adventure. The various factions your characters can become part of (or run afoul of) are also presented in a similar style, which means more specialized plot hooks and campaign information. Especially appreciated is the guide to portraying Dunwall, which includes advice on how to turn a regular rpg action and result into something that evokes the squalor of the city, how to make sure your group sticks together, and group concepts around which to frame your game. Of course, if you’d rather play outside Dunwall, there’s plenty of detail on the various lands in the Empire, again with story hooks, factions, and intrigues in which to involve your players.

There’s a very robust adversary section. NPCs can be summarized in very short statblocks, which I greatly enjoy. Those included in the book further illustrate the setting and both the generic adversaries and the named signature characters of the video games receive plot hooks on which to base stories. It looks like there are spoilers to the plots of the games here, so be mindful if that matters to you. My lack of experience with the video games does make it difficult to gauge the NPC stats relative to the game protagonists – some are roughly equal when I’m reading they perhaps shouldn’t be? Personally I don’t care too much but can understand why others would. It’s a relatively easy fix though.

The sample adventure is nicely written. It takes good advantage of the setting and helps both veteran gamers and those new to this game by helping tie the characters together as part of the adventure introduction – even implying character creation be done using these hooks. As an example of the system it does a very good job presenting how Styles and Skills fit together when rolls are necessary as well as exhibiting the other features of this incarnation of 2d20.

If you’re a fan of dark industrial fantasy, smooth high action and adventure gaming, and a strong narrative angle then you should check out Dishonored. It’s a very nice take on the 2d20 system, once again showcasing its versatility.

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Amazon (Print)

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