How to Host a Dungeon
- A premature postscript
- About the writeup and game version
- Supplies needed to play
- On the game’s unusual system of measurements
- Overview of a game session
- The main Ages of the game
- The Primordial Age
- End of the Primordial Age
- The Civilization Age
- End of the Civilization Age and the Great Disaster
- The Age of Monsters
- End of the Age of Monsters
- The Age of Villainy
- End of the Age of Villainy and the game
- Extra rules
- World templates
- Minor features
- Using the dungeon in an RPG
- What do you think, Andy?
- Final verdict
A premature postscript
2020-01-07: ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? Barely 3 days after this review was posted, a new edition of the game was uploaded to DriveThruRPG. I'll try to update this review with the new edition (and differences) as soon as I take it out for a spin and play a few games. Here’s all the relevant links:
- The original link, now a dead link to the old product that doesn’t exist anymore in the DriveThruRPG store,
- How to Host a Dungeon, 2nd Ed., according to the blurb: «This is an updated version of the game with more environments, monsters, and civilizations as well as a streamlined ruleset.»
- How to Host a Dungeon 2nd Ed., Free Version, completely playable, according to the item’s description,
- Civilization cards for How to Host a Dungeon which «Includes the Aliens, Demons, Deep Elves, Dwarves, Magicians, Empire, and Horde.»
- Monster cards for How to Host a Dungeon
1 Equal parts drawing, game, mapmaking, storytelling, roleplaying
How to Host a Dungeon is a solo game where you create and map a dungeon in the style of Dungeons & Dragons. Your dungeon will start as a few bare caves beneath the earth, but it will grow through ages of underground civilizations, monsters, villains, and heroes. Your dungeon may vomit forth evil to devour the Earth, or bold heroes may plunder it and leave it empty. When you finish the dungeon, you will end with a map of your creation «How to Host a Dungeon § About this Game»; Tony Dowler; 2017
How to Host a Dungeon is a pen-and-pencil game about creating a world of fantasy, like any of your typical D&D characters might have wandered through. With the aid of dice, pencils, markers and a few counters you will see (and partially guide) an unknown land through the eons, learn of its primordial dangers, treasures, and monsters. With a bit of help, this can be used as a city/dungeon/kingdom setting in your favorite roleplaying game.
The adventure begins here…
1.1 About the writeup and game version
The game was created by Tony Dowler. This writeup is based on version 1.5 of the game; published May 2017 by Planet Thirteen; bought at DriveThruRPG (order #19955749). Its layout is by Ben Lehman, edited by Philip LaRose. It has 25 pages, including the title page.
I won’t delve too deep into how the game is played. Even though it’s not a complex game by any means, there are nuances here and there that I will omit to make of this a short(er) writeup. My aim is to give a general sense of how the game is played, hoping to entice someone to buy it (and/or for someone else to create a competitor)
1.2 Supplies needed to play
The game book suggests the following:
- Paper, several sheets,1
- Writing implements of different colors,2
- Colored beads or tokens, in at least 2 colors,3
- Polyhedral dice (namely, a d4, d6, d8, d10, d12 and d20). You can use a non-physical random number generator, but you’ll have to alter the game just a bit,
- A pad of tracing paper,
- Transparent tape4
I would also add:
- A large enough surface or table that will allow you to rest the whole paper comfortably,
- A small ruler,
- For larger games, small paper stickers to keep track of which tokens belong to which faction (will be explained later),
- An hour or two for your first dungeon, while you get the hang of things,
- A childlike sense of wonder and a healthy attitude of disrespecting the rules whenever they would make a game less interesting
- If you have or can build one, a lightbox
1.3 On the game’s unusual system of measurements
How to Host a Dungeon is a game that centers around drawing and creativity. Sometimes, measurements are needed, but those are given as approximates. The measurement units are:
- 1 thumb (the width of your thumb)
- 1 bead (a circle or polygon big enough to surround one bead but not much bigger5)
- 1 finger (the length of your pointer finger)
After several plays, I realized that following these units with high accuracy only led to slowing down the game. I recommend using them as an approximate guide and let fun triumph over consistency.
Another measuring element of How to Host a Dungeon is the bead system. In general, you will be using beads (or some kind of small tokens) in two colors. The «black» beads are denoted with a black circle ⚫ and usually represent inhabitants of the dungeon—adventurers, monsters, or pretty much anything considered to be alive—while the «white» beads are denoted with a white circle ⚪ and represent treasure.
My personal recommendation is to get some kind of token that can easily pile onto itself, because sometimes you will be managing groups of 3 or more beads at the same time and it’s a lot neater to keep them in a stack so you can move them around and keep track of whose treasure is whose.
2 Overview of a game session
The game consists of several «(st)Ages». In every Age you will develop your land according to some rules. Once an age is over, you lay a new "strata" (sic) over it (generally, a sheet of tracing paper); and continue on to the next age.
The four main Ages of the dungeon are:
- The Primordial Age A time before time, when the land is still young and only the most ancient forces of nature exist.
- The Age of Civilization A long, long time ago, when Civilizations emerged, flourished and went extinct on The Great Disaster
- The Age of Monsters A long time ago, when evil powers coalesced into physical beings, taking advantage of the ruins of those who came before. It’s also the time when groups of daring adventurers started to plunder the wonders below ground. Some even made it back.
- The Age of Villainy The present time.6 The evil is so abundant that its Great powers now clash over territory and treasure. What will be of the common folk that live peacefully?
Every Age has its own set of rules on how to progress and when to advance to the next one. Generally speaking, once a new Age starts, you tape a new sheet of paper over the last one and start drawing there. Everything that happened on a previous Age is still there, but hidden or forgotten. Those features will only be relevant if they are somehow discovered (even by accident). Then and only then will they be re-drawn in the current strata (don’t worry, this will make more sense later).
3 The main Ages of the game
3.1 The Primordial Age
During this Age, some fundamentals of geography and Very Very Very Old Things™ are laid out. You begin with a blank sheet of paper in landscape mode (i. e. horizontal) and draw a line about 2 in from the top edge. That is the surface. Most of the dungeon is (duh) underground, but the surface will serve some purpose later.
Once you establish this, you roll 1d10 on the dungeon map. Yes, you read that right. In this game, the dice roll serves a double function: both the value and position of the dice matter in the creation of the dungeon (hence why it’s better to play with physical dice rather than prayers to RNGesus)
As mentioned before, you roll 1d10 on the map7 and consult a table of Primordial events to draw. In this age, most of these events have to do with the geology of the underground.
- You roll a 1. This means that wherever the dice landed, you will draw a lump of mithral ore, one finger in diameter.
- You roll a 6. This means that you will draw a natural cavern of four rooms, connected to each other with lines.
For each room, you will roll 1d6 and consult another table to determine whether the rooms have treasure, beasts or are flooded
3.2 End of the Primordial Age
The Primordial Age ends naturally after 4 events (that is, after rolling, consulting and drawing 4 times). After rolling the above examples you’d be halfway through the Age itself.
3.3 The Civilization Age
During this Age, an ancient civilization somehow «arrives» in the dungeon; thrives and eventually goes extinct. You roll 1d10 to determine whether your dungeon will be home to either:
- Deep elves
- Other (insert your own)8
Once you have your civilization, you play out and draw on the map how they progress. The main loop for every civilization is the same:
- Set up the main «hub» of the population
- Play a turn, divided into Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter
- Check whether some special condition triggers the end of the Civilization Age. If there’s no such condition, return to Step 2.
- Finish the Age
Let’s take for example the Dwarves. They set up camp above some underground treasure and dig down until they find it.
During a regular Dwarven year:
- During the Spring they gather up all treasure and are generally merry in each other’s company. Population grows.
- During the Summer they mine and expand towards new treasures.
- During the Fall they build for the ages.
- During the Winter, they mourn their deceased and expand their tomb as necessary.
All of those actions require you to roll some dice, draw new rooms and tunnels here and there, put new dwarves and treasures on the map as beads and generally expand on the map.
At this point it’s important to restate what I mentioned earlier: the Civilization Age is drawn on a new sheet of paper over the Primordial one. The elements on lower strata are still there, but have been forgotten through the eons. The civilizations can still interact with them if found. For example, during the Dwarven summer, the tunnel may lead them to a natural cavern created during the previous Age. At this point, you can re-draw the old cavern on the new sheet of paper and continue the game.
3.4 End of the Civilization Age and the Great Disaster
At some point in the civilization’s life they will encounter some sort of obstacle or great event that marks the beginning of the end for them. When that happens, the Civilization Age ends and a Great Disaster happens.
A new sheet paper is taped on top of the stack and a dice is rolled to determine exactly what is it that gives the final blow to the great civilizations of yore. It could be a massive earthquake, a fallen star or something else!
The Great Disaster brings with itself new changes to the landscape, and so the terrain itself may change drastically. After the necessary redraws, the next stage begins.
3.5 The Age of Monsters
During this Age the underground is crawling with monsters big and small, as well as adventurers trying their luck at getting fame and fortune from the wonders below. The main groups in this Age are:
- Delving groups,
- Breeder groups,
- Alpha predators, and
Except for the adventurers, every one of these groups is further sub-divided into factions with different rules. For instance, the Delving groups include Antlings, Dusk elves, Darrows, Druegar, Dwarves, Earth Devils…
This is perhaps the most time consuming Age of the game, due to the fact that you will be managing several different factions, their movement, their territories, their loot and aggressive encounters between them. In general, this Age happens in turns called years, just like in the Civilization Age. Generally, in every year the following may happen:
- A new group enters the world,
- A special feature is placed9,
- Adventurers do adventuring things,
- The different factions loot, expand their territory and battle each other,
- All of the above
3.6 End of the Age of Monsters
With every passing year, the dungeon accumulates more treasures, more corpses and more territories. Once any one faction holds 6 loot ⚪⚪⚪⚪⚪⚪ the Age of Monsters is over.
3.7 The Age of Villainy
During this Age, a Great Evil casts a shadow over the land, while the kingdoms of men try to survive in a world full of perils. One of the monster groups of the previous Age will become the main Villain of this Age.
In general, this Age plays again in years, with the Villain taking the first turn before any other monsters and adventurers. As the Age progresses, the Villain advances towards their particular goal of domination, while the adventurers get better and better at fighting.
3.8 End of the Age of Villainy and the game
The exact rules for every Villain are different, but in general the Age ends when they get enough power to take over the world or are otherwise terminated by adventurers. Since this is the last Age of the game, once it’s over, the game ends.
4.1 Extra rules
The game includes extra rules for those who wish to increase the complexity of the game and narrative. The main additions are:
- Named treasures,
- Floods and flooding rules,
- Cthonic and Aquatic monsters
4.2 World templates
The game provides you with 12 world templates, some of which have special creation rules and may lead to exotic narratives
4.3 Minor features
The game provides an additional rule for creating special rooms and dungeon features every time a monster dies. This adds flavor to the narrative of how the Dungeon ends up being the way it is
4.4 Using the dungeon in an RPG
The game provides a sort of conversion between the dungeon created in How to Host a Dungeon and other role-playing games.
5 What do you think, Andy?
5.1 The bad
Let me get the bad stuff out ASAP.
- While it’s true that this game has a big creativity component, the rules are not very helpful for someone picking up this game for the first time. Maybe it’s because of the way it’s written, but the dungeon “connecting”, the creature “moving” and other critical actions are not clear.
- Related to the point above, I feel that the game could use a few example illustrations of how to “perform” the actions described above. I get that the game aims for minimalism, adding a page or two of examples would do wonders.
- After 3 or so groups, managing them becomes a bit of a chore. In my first games I ended up having to make notes on a small notepad and sticking post-its to the map to know which group is which.
- The combat system, while flavorful, can also bog down the Age of Monsters, since you need to check both the win condition of the winner and the lose condition of the loser. If I had a magic wand, I would create a simplified combat system and win/lose condition and keep the current system as an appendix
- The first time around, the game does take quite a lot of time.
5.2 The good
- It’s novel. The idea of manually “generating” a dungeon and all its history is appealing and I wish there were more games on this vein.
- It’s creative. Even with my complaints above, the game lends itself to creative play, eschewing the rules in favor of interesting flavor and storytelling.
- It’s cheap. 5 USD for a small, creative game is a steal. I’ve paid more for worse experiences.
- It’s social. I’ve found that this game can be played on a larger sheet of paper—tabloid is awesome—with two people. This greatly speeds up construction and managing, while also having the benefit of joint worldbuilding.
- It’s customizable. Several stages of the game are open for interpretation and innovation.
- It’s modular. I’ve read accounts of people wanting to pay only a subset of the Ages for speedier play and having a wonderful time.
- It’s relaxing.
- It’s lovely, it’s fun.
- It’s adaptable to other games. The end product has a dungeon, monsters, lore, history and some geology all rolled up in a few sheets of paper.
6 Final verdict
Get this game—for a great time by yourself. Get some friends for a nice rainy afternoon. Get your kids to play it and build a world with them in a nice, analog space. Get your prospective RPGamers to create the lore of your next campaign.
Get the game and give it a go. Really, there’s worse ways to spend your time and money. Don’t let my convoluted review scare you off this wonderful little game.
A ReQuested writeup
Andycyca recommends letter or A4 size at the very minimum.
Andycyca recommends a good pencil and pens or markers that can mildly bleed through the paper, more on this later.
Andycyca recommends something that can lay flat and stack on itself, like poker chips. If you can find something like that but smaller, go for it
Andycyca recommends Scotch! Now a word from our sponsors…
Here’s why I don’t like poker chips as beads: you end up creating massively large rooms. But I believe this to be a minor setback compared to its advantages.
As in, it’s the «present time» in your typical D&D campaign
The current version of the game mentions 1d8 on the text, but the table it references has results for numbers 1–10. I believe this to be a typo
The game continually encourages the player to make up new elements for the game. I don’t have enough time to plan out rules for every civilization, so I usually reroll.
These include massive structures, large geographic features or supernatural events.