Friday, January 15, 2021

Let's Look At: Dungeon Bitches

Emmy Allen (Esoteric Enterprises, Gardens of Ynn, Stygian Library) asked me if I'd like to do a preview-review of her upcoming game Dungeon Bitches. I said "yes" very swiftly, she sent me the pdf, and so with such disclosures out of the way, here we are. You've seen my love for her other books, presume blinding positive bias.

A General Forewarning 

Dungeon Bitches is full of sex, violence, body horror, abuse and trauma. Graphically so.This leads directly into my second and perhaps primary point -

Knowing Exactly What the Fuck You're In For

The title page of the book features the following sentence:

"A game in which disaster lesbians get fucked up in dungeons."

A few pages later we get:

"This much is taken as assumed. Your PC is:

  • Female
  • Not straight
  • With no place in polite society"

This does not leave much quibble room as to what the game is about, and that is very welcome indeed. Give me an honest game and you'll find me an engaged reader, and an honest game this is.

Mechanical Summary

It's a PbtA hack, and a lightweight one at that. Full disclosure, I have no experience playing or running a PbtA game of any stripe, so I'm judging this aspect from the outside.

The moves are straightforward and there's very little to keep track of (Your Bonds with other characters and your own character's Hurt, and that's basically it.) Everything is named sensibly and straightforwardly. The means and methods of play are presented in easy, low-jargon language. I find it significantly easier to grok than other PbtA games I have read, so ironically it gets some bonus points for being approachable in that regard.

The Bitches

There are ten character templates in Dungeon Bitches (referred to in the book as "deals") - Wounded Daughter, Lantern Girl, Amazon, Beast, Corpse Doll, Firebrand, Banshee, Runaway Nun, Witch, and Disgraced Princess. Each one is framed around how the world has fucked them over, and how they then process that. The Amazon does violence, the Firebrand sacrifices herself for others, the Lantern Girl is confused, the Corpse Doll remakes herself in the un-life, and so on. Mechanical components of the deals are secondary; everyone's got some leading questions to shape a background, relationships with other PCs, their unique moves, etc. The meat of the deal is in the concept itself, which is going to be the make-or-break part of roleplaying in this game. More on that a bit later.

The Safety Section

It's quite extensive, covering setting expectations beforehand, maintaining  a sense of safety and player-control during the game, halting trouble before it gets out of hand, and then settling down afterwards. There's a full 12 pages devoted to this in the book, and that's an appropriate level of thoroughness for something like this. Subjects like trauma and sex have their own sections and their own guidelines, and all combined it's not only good advice for keeping things enjoyable for players at the table, but a good way of guiding referees towards what they should be doing - here are the safety tools, you should be running a game where they are used because if you're not, you're either going to make players miserable or bored.

Building the World

If you've played Esoteric Enterprises, this will be familiar: toss a bunch of dice on paper and check them against the provided tables. It is much more concerned with the microscale, practical parts of building - here's the dungeon, here's the town, here are the important things and potential threats.

Important note here is that, in violation of normal dungeon-crawling conventions, the town is dangerous. A different kind of danger than the dungeon (and the book will explore this difference), but still very dangerous. The world is not built for Bitches, and it tolerates them only inasmuch as one tolerates something that they hate. It will not take your side when trouble brews, and trouble will brew. In many ways, you are safer in the dungeon. A giant spider is just hungry and territorial. Someone in town hates you in particular.

Other Assorted Bullet Points

  • The art by Sarah Carapace is excellent. It's grotty and gory and a couple pieces (Wounded Daughter in particular) made me actively recoil, which is high marks in a game meant to be uncomfortable - and then there's the one piece in the downtime section that bucks the trend, thereby driving home the importance of those rare quiet moments. A+.
  • There's a sidebar for alchemical reagents used for characters undergoing transition. This is honestly worth swiping for any other fantasy game. You should do that.
  • The general attitude of the townsfolk towards the Bitches is pretty appropriate for other grotty fantasy games too.
  • "How a character reacts after violence is committed is generally more interesting than the act itself" is some fantastic advice.
  • I am very fond of how the encumbrance system is "there isn't one, use your head". This extends to other resource management aspects as well.
  • Setting-building aspects take up the smallest part of the book, which is a smart move - they would have unbalanced the entire thing if they took up any more space. Much more weight is carried by the deals and figuring out how the world has shaped and harmed the PCs.
  • The dichotomy between the Wounded Mother / Hollow Men is a brutal and bleak bit of cosmology worth more in four pages than multiple entire setting books. 
  • The referee advice encourages brutality when the situation calls for it...and it's tempered by the conventions of PbtA's more player-centric mindset. An interesting combination there.
  • For a short list of monsters with only a few brief words each, the bestiary has some great material. Hyena-sphinx, for example.
  • There are multiple NPCs that are giant predatory spiders in disguise. Lot of spiders in general, honestly. It fits.

Would I Play This Game?

For a while I was uncertain if I would, for a variety of reasons- that I'm not a queer woman being the primary one, and right on its heels the assorted worries of not being able to (or being afraid of) making the emotional connections that the game asks -  but as time passed during the reading of the book and the writing of this review, I felt that trepidation breaking down somewhat.

I found myself drawn to the templates for Runaway Nun and Lantern Girl because they were familiar to my own experience. I lack the experience of a queer woman, but I do have the experience of someone who has had to wrestle with religious repression of self (external and internal) and being entirely in over the head wrt self and sexuality. If I'm going to play a game about queer women and emotional vulnerability, I ought to take the approach that I do have experience with, so as to engage with the game in as good a faith as I can.

This is probably the strongest part of Dungeon Bitches - my choice of template was not rooted in mechanics or aesthetics, but specifically which ones I felt an emotional connection with, to the exclusion of the other options. This has never happened before for me in an RPG. This is good, I like this.

I still don't know if it would actually work for me in practice, mind - I haven't played the game, it might still get too real for me at the table even among friends. But it got me to buy in to the idea, and many, many, many games fail at accomplishing that.

Final Thought

There are games and settings out there that are pizza cutters - all edge with no point. (Hey there Degenesis how're you doing?)

Dungeon Bitches is a hypodermic needle. It's all point, it hurts, but it's probably got something good for you in it. Or hard drugs. One or the other. It is a very personal, idiosyncratic game. It is difficult to wrangle on purpose. It's messy. It has thorns. It uses the bones of mechanical and thematic convention but eschews the easy imitation of its forebears.

Hell yeah.

Addendum A

My girlfriend asked me what I was working on while writing this, and after telling her about the game her response was "I'm intrigued", followed by "I'm even more intrigued" when showing her the art, and for a complete cold open that's a good sign, I think.

Addendum B

If this whole shebang interests you, the Kickstarter may be found here.

5 comments:

  1. The pizza cutter analogy-pun remains one of the most useful turns of phrase in English.

    ReplyDelete
  2. A good point, well made! Dungeon Bitches is injecting you with things that are good for you, mixed with hard drugs. It's weird - I've roleplayed as demigods, fire-breathing lizards, ravenous demons, yet somehow, DB has thrown me for a bit of a loop, and this absolutely fascinates me. It's the Art+Literature that a lot of other games think they are, but actually succeeds in it.

    Also: AAAAAAA.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Very excited for DB and this only made me more excited

    ReplyDelete
  4. It's a fascinating concept, but it's really not my kind of game- I have a very low tolerance for body horror, and I prefer running/playing more lighthearted settings.

    ReplyDelete