Political corruption. Disease running rampant. Empty city neighborhoods. Duplicitous allies turning on you at the worst possible moment. Nope, I’m not talking about 2020, I’m talking about Dishonored. Modiphius Entertainment has released the latest game in the 2d20 line, the Dishonored Roleplaying Game, based on the video game series of the same name.
Disclaimer: I was sent a copy of the PDF for the Dishonored Roleplaying Game for review purposes by Modiphius.
Although I tend to go on murder sprees in stealth games, I enjoyed Dishonored, and I have been running a regular Star Trek Adventures game, so I’m interested to see how the 2d20 system is adapted for a setting with a much different feel than Federation space.
This review is based on the PDF version of the Dishonored Roleplaying Game. The PDF is 308 pages, including a character sheet, city map endpapers, and a two-page index. Because this is an RPG based on a video game franchise, there is a lot of game-based artwork throughout the book.
In addition to the artwork from the game (with dual page spreads introducing new chapters), several multi-page comic strips illustrate example adventures in the game. This is an interesting shift from the short fiction that many games use in similar locations, but makes sense given the visual media of video game storytelling.
The chapter headings are formatted similarly to the opening screens of the video game, with slanted “ribbons” introducing the topics of the various chapters. In keeping with the formatting from the text screens of the video game, the book is presented in single-column layout, with wider gutters on the pages than the Star Trek Adventures or Conan Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of core books.
Before I dive into the contents of the book, I wanted to discuss safety and this book. In the Running the Game chapter, a few paragraphs are spent on making sure everyone is comfortable at the table, and discussing the use of the X-Card. It does not reproduce the standard text for the X-Card, but does explain the concept of removing content when the X-Card is touched.
I am very happy that this is included. That said, there are a few individual topics that come up in the book that I wish were more directly addressed. For example, there is a section of the book that discusses the racial tensions between people from different areas of the Empire, suggesting ways to add tension in those scenes using mechanical effects. There isn’t any discussion on how this might touch on uncomfortable real-world societal interactions.
Additionally, because we are in the modern era, and modern troubles are what they are, the various adventure hooks, location descriptions, history, and even character abilities reference disease, poverty, social injustice, labor struggles, and other class struggles in a manner that at least somewhat resembles the real world, so I wanted to disclaim that upfront before we get further into the content.
Into the Isles, Playing the Game: Core Rules, Action and Intrigue, Running the Game
The first section of the book starts with a comic strip depicting a creepy infiltration mission in black and white, then moves on to a more traditional “this is what the setting is” description. This section also details the themes that the game wants to explore, mentioning Order and Chaos, The Abbey and the Cults, and the Rulers and the Meek.
For anyone not familiar with Dishonored’s setting, it is a grim, industrial era world, but that industry is slanted a bit towards alchemical process rather than our own world’s industrial revolution. There are guns, factories, and even mechanical soldiers and electrified walls, but much of it runs on whale oil. And whales are not quite what you would expect. The Outsider is a god who likes to grant supernatural powers to people that will effect change, without regard to morality. You are just as likely to gear up with magical trinkets as you are weird mechanical gear. Political factions screw each other over constantly, and the Empire of the Isles has lots of internal strife. If you are familiar with Blades in the Dark, but never knew where some of its inspirations came from, Dishonored is the origin of many of the tropes, but in a setting that is slightly less nihilistic.
The next section explores the core rules. Interestingly, there is a section on gamemaster responsibilities, player responsibilities, and everyone’s responsibilities. Of particular note is that it is everyone’s responsibility that the table is fun and safe for everyone, and that everyone feels welcome, and it is the player’s responsibility to play their character so that that character’s motives are transparent to the GM, if not the character being transparent to the game world.
Characters have skills, styles, and focus. Adding your skill plus your style generates your success range on a d20, while your focus generates your critical range (where a success counts as an extra success). If you have seen any other of Modiphius’ 2d20 systems, this should be familiar. You roll 2d20, and try to roll under your success range, with each success counting against whatever difficulty the task might have (0 to 5).
The game also uses a system of aspects or traits called Truths. If a Truth would make a given task easier, it may lower the difficulty of a roll. If it makes a task more difficult, it may increase the difficulty of the roll. Characters with more successes than needed for a task may generate Momentum, which can be used to purchase more dice to roll on skill tests, or to state a Truth for the scene.
In keeping with the gameplay of the video game, the GM currency in the game is referred to as Chaos. Compared to Star Trek Adventures, which has some very specific situations where Threat is generated, Chaos flows a bit more freely in Dishonored. Performing criminal or destabilizing acts generates Chaos. Killing someone generates Chaos, but killing someone and not taking care to hide the body generates even more Chaos. In some ways, Chaos acts as a sort of Heat mechanic in a game that involves crime and insurrection.
Characters also have Void points, which can be spent to generate automatic critical successes, to reroll dice, or to trigger Void Powers. You can only spend one Void point per turn, unless you are triggering a Void Power, and you regain them by playing into your Faction Codes, accomplishing significant story beats, or accepting a voluntary failure without rolling.
There is another comic strip that introduces the Action and Intrigue section of the book, and that comic strip intersperses players around the table engaging the game rules with an illustration of the actions the characters are taking, which is one of my favorite ways to illustrate an example of play these days.
While the core rules of the 2d20 games are similar, the flow of narrative currencies and the means of tracking endeavor progress is often where the differences lie, and that is definitely true of Dishonored. While Star Trek Adventures uses different procedures for gated skill checks, work tracks, and the scientific method, Dishonored uses fairly straightforward progress tracks to measure everything from stress, stealth, intrigue, reputation, and progress.
A stealth track might get filled in when characters fail in their rolls to infiltrate a compound, alerting guards when the track is full. An intrigue track may fill in as PCs convince an authority figure that a social rival is untrustworthy. A progress track might be filled in to show how far a character has come in their work on modifying or inventing new gear.
As with other 2d20 games, stress is your measure of the character’s ability to participate in the scene, and a character that is pushed past their stress track is taken out. If a PC chooses to kill an NPC, that’s going to generate Chaos.
The chapter on running the game has a prominent side-bar that mentions using the X-Card for games of Dishonored, and how content that is X’d should be removed, no questions asked. Preceding the sidebar on the X-Card, there is a discussion on making sure the table is comfortable. As someone that thinks that safety needs to be a regular part of the discussion in game rules, I am very happy about this, I just wish this wasn’t the primary section where safety is discussed in the book. A few paragraphs are good, but there are specific topics brought up later that could have used a tailored discussion.
This section includes a lot of practical game advice, like setting stakes and framing scenes. There are also some optional rules introduced, like using the Chaos pool to determine the level of general unrest in the city to set the next session’s starting point, and spending Void points on general supernatural scenes not tied to using powers.
There is also an optional section on rewarding XP for customized, personalized play, and while I get this, I’m less and less of a fan of one person getting XP when the rest of the group doesn’t, outside of very well defined triggers set up before play. To me, its often asking for players to feel slighted when a GM doesn’t recognize their personal contributions to story arcs, and can become overly subjective.
I like that, because of the subject matter, there seems to be more of a discussion of active safety tools in this game compared to the other 2d20 games I’ve been exposed to. I’ll be honest and say that while I enjoy running Star Trek Adventures, the extra step of adjudicating the d6 rolls is one of my least favorite aspects of the game, and I’m glad to see Dishonored streamline past the d6s, and to present more straightforward progress tracks. I also think the free flow of Chaos works well for this game, just as the more specific means of determining Threat works for the orderly mission-based structure of Star Trek Adventures.
The Protagonists, Dressed to the Nines, Into the Void
The next section of the book details character creation, gear, and Void powers, starting with how to build a character.
Unlike Star Trek Adventures or Conan Adventures in An Age Undreamed Of there is no lifepath version of character creation. Characters have a certain number of points they can spend on their skills and approaches, and then they can pick out Focuses. There are charts showing what the numbers mean in a practical sense, i.e. what rating means you are competent, and what rating means you are one of the best of the best.
Characters pick archetypes, and those archetypes grant them access to different talents (rules that let you bend, break, or modify other rules in the game). The archetypes available are:
In addition to giving you access to talents, these archetypes will also modify your stats, determine your starting equipment, and give you a contact. If you want to start with supernatural abilities, you can take a special talent to gain access to the supernatural instead of taking one of your available archetype talents.
In Dressed to the Nines, we not only find out what equipment is available, but how to procure it. Wealth is tracked by Coins, which aren’t literal, but just a measure of assets that can be readily accessed to buy items. In addition to buying items with coins, items may have a rarity, which will require the character to search for those items to buy them.
If characters want to modify items, they need to pick up blueprints of schematics of those items. Upgrades get more expensive the more extra tricks are added on to the item. While the means of adjudicating the roll is different, all of this feels somewhat reminiscent of a simplified version of the gear rules for FFG’s Star Wars Genesys games.
The Into the Void chapter not only introduces supernatural powers that a character might pick up, it also looks at Bonecharms, Runes, and Artifacts. Bonecharms are similar to other gear, except that their benefits are supernatural, and a good number of them have negative aspects as well as positive. Runes impart information about the supernatural, so learning new powers requires a character to find a specific number of runes. Artifacts are more complex, enduring supernatural items that often have extra powers attached to them.
The bonecharm drawbacks are great setting flavor. While having a drawback that the bonecharm only works at night is good, what I like even better is the bonecharm that slowly reverts into a living thing and then just quits functioning once it’s a living thing again.
One thing that is a little trickier to wrap my head around is the Rune based parallel advancement. Giving supernatural characters a wider bag of tricks to pull from is likely going to be a goal of a player that takes the supernatural route, and finding runes is in keeping with the source material, but having characters that advance by XP and runes versus players that advance with just XP feels like it may get unbalanced.
I would almost be tempted to hand out XP to players without access to the supernatural whenever a supernatural character finds a Rune, just to keep things a little more even.
On the Banks of the Wrenhaven, The Jewel of the South, Beyond These Shores
The next three chapters are gazetteers of the world of Dishonored, or at least the corners that have currently been revealed. There is a chapter for Dunwall, Karnaca, and “everywhere else of note.” Dunwall and Karnaca are set at specific times, based on the starting and ending points of the two games and the DLC release for them.
There are adventure hooks everywhere in these chapters. The cities have timelines, entries for districts, and entries for factions active for the time period being portrayed. All of the locations, as well as the factions, have story hooks associated with them. In a few cases, especially with the factions, there are opportunities to interact with the NPCs that come directly from the video games.
While the locations in Beyond These Shores isn’t as detailed as the cities, there are still folklore, conflicts, sample campaign outlines, and contacts listed for various locations.
Depending on what ward and what city you are in, you might be embroiled in organized crime wars against other criminal groups, organizing labor uprisings, acting as spies or assassins for the movers and shakers of a region, or working for or against either the Abbey or the Cult of the Outsider. Many of the adventure hooks include a sticky twist making a straightforward job less straightforward, and angles for approaching the job from multiple employers (and also allowing you to show the PCs what’s in it for them if they flip allegiances).
What I like is that I’ve seen a lot of gazetteer sections in licensed products that just take a breathless dive into the lore of the property, without coming up for air until the end of the chapter. What Dishonored Roleplaying Game does is what I want from a TTRPG look at a licensed property: a discussion of what your characters can do with the different aspects of the setting that are introduced.
Because this section is very table ready, these are easily my favorite three chapters in the book. That said, most of the hooks assume characters that are either lower class, and fighting against oppression, or agents of the movers and shakers of the setting. I think all of that works great. A lot of the flavor of the story hooks feels true to the political maneuvering of the video games.
That said, the Mark of the Outsider isn’t all that common, and it generally is given to people that are going to make a BIG difference in the setting. Not good or bad, just big. I wish there was a little more guidance on how having someone with the Mark “ups the game” from being agitators and agents to being on the big stage.
Between that potential change of scope, and the parallel advancement from rune discovery mentioned in the Into the Void chapter, supernatural characters do start to feel like they have a little bit of the “Jedi in a party of regular people” problem from Star Wars. I don’t think the system makes them feel more powerful, but the idea that they are playing with toys in the system that no one else is may still give that impression, and none of the story hooks add that extra layer of “How Does This Change if Someone Has The Mark of the Outsider.”
Ironically, there are some faction-specific story hooks that deal with the Outsider, but they aren’t so much tied to having the Mark of the Outsider, as having contact with Outsider affiliated NPCs.
Of Street Urchins & Masked Aristocrats, The Oil Trail
Of Street Urchins & Masked Aristocrats is the chapter that gives stats for all kinds of NPCs and beasts found in the setting, and The Oil Trail provides an introductory adventure in multiple parts. The stats are divided by Common Folk, Gentry, Savage, and Notorious (including NPCs from the games), while the adventure is divided into Voice of the Voiceless, War Within a Breath, Ashes of the Fall, and Sleep Now in the Fire.
As with the locations and factions in the previous chapters, most of the stat blocks also provide story hooks that involve that character, or that type of character. I appreciate having even more story hooks to work from in this chapter.
Other than noting that there is a good variety of character and creature types in this section, the only other thing I can say is that I’m not always a fan of stats for the “names” of a licensed property. That said, having story hooks associated with those “names” goes a long way towards telling me how the game expects me to interact with the movers and shakers of the setting, instead of just providing the stats in a vacuum.
While I like the overall tone of The Oil Trail for explaining what a group of PCs might do in the setting, the adventure itself has a couple of issues from my point of view. There are a lot of “cut scene” elements to the adventure, where PCs are just kind of told that a long time passes, even if they may have their own ideas on what they want to do in that time period. Several jumping-off points feel like the PCs are being told X, Y, and Z happens, and then they get thrown into a decision point.
Despite the earlier rules discussing how styles can be used to accomplish a similar result, and how the GM might adjudicate this, the adventure specifically calls for proscribed skill + style combos in several places. Between this and the “cut scene” framing to get to various decision points, this feels less like a satisfying campaign and more like an extended game demo to get the players used to the idea of the setting and the way the rules work to adjudicate situations. I love the overall story and the themes it introduces, I just wish it had a little more wiggle room for player agency.
Trophies Between the power groups and the adventure hooks, the game does a great job of letting you know what gameplay in the setting is expected to look like.
As much as I enjoy my Star Trek Adventures game, I have to admit, I like the implementation of the 2d20 system without the interplay of the d6 mechanics in STA or Conan a little bit more. It feels more streamlined and has more even pacing in adjudication
Between the power groups and the adventure hooks, the game does a great job of letting you know what gameplay in the setting is expected to look like. There are hooks everywhere to help ignite the imagination.
The game touches on some deep themes, and provides a lot of tools to engage those themes, but more specific guidance on issues that dovetail on real-world issues would be appreciated. The game does a very good job of providing guidance for protagonists that aren’t quite shaking the halls of the mighty, but the video game usually assumes people with the Mark of the Outsider are going to touch on major issues of the day, and there isn’t quite as much direction for that level of play.
While the starting adventure is very atmospheric, the actual structure of the adventure is very linear, and feels like in many places its just walking characters to a handful of decision points that still tend to resolve in a pass/fail manner.
This review is based on the most recent PDF release as of the posting of this review. The original version of the PDF was missing some of the information added in the updated PDF. In addition to the missing information, the bookmarks for the PDF currently do not function. Even in the updated version of the PDF, this is still an issue at the time of the writing of this review. I’ve tried them with multiple PDF readers as well as multiple browsers.
Tenuous Recommendation–The product has positive aspects, but buyers may want to make sure the positive aspects align with their tastes before moving this up their list of what to purchase next.
If you like Modiphius’ other 2d20 systems, and want to see how it is tweaked to produce a gritty, stealthy setting, you will likely want to look at this product. Additionally, since it is a more streamlined implementation than some other versions of the 2d20 system, this may serve as a good introduction to the system for someone already familiar with the video game.
If you are a fan of the Dishonored setting, the gazetteer and historical information should be enjoyable, and as a general city setting with lots of adventure hooks, the product does an admirable job of presenting a table ready setting.
I just wish the book provided a few more guidelines on major political maneuverings, and better advice on handling real-world issues that are mirrored in the game’s setting. Missing those elements makes this core rulebook just a little bit less fine-tuned that I would have liked.
What other video game properties would you want to see make the transition to tabletop games? What kind of mechanics would you need to see in a tabletop game to mirror the action of your favorite video games? We would love to hear your answers in the comments below!