02 November 2020
A whale of a time?
With its whalebone charms, masked assassins and Victoriana steampunk aesthetics, the world of the Dishonored videogames is certainly a compelling place to spend an evening. Whether this tabletop take will be able to convince players coming back for more, however, probably depends on how deeply they love the setting.
The setting is question is the Empire of the Isles – a land of weird magic, dark intrigues and incredibly fancy coats. It’s a world of opportunity and danger, with plenty of cool steampunk-ish technology and twisted mythology that can stoke the fire of inspiration into an inferno.
Even better, where the videogames restricted their leads to assassins and royalty, the RPG is much more freeform. With a bit of thought you can brew up a team of ex-military mercenaries, a band of thieves or even a mess of relatively normal citizens caught up in the chaos between the game’s dizzying array of factions.
Indeed, Dishonored really has a lot going for it. The world is lavishly intriguing and the rules have a reasonably solid foundation in the 2d20 system, which has been used in many other games from Modiphius including Star Trek Adventures and Conan.
Really, this should all add up to a truly incredible roleplaying experience, but when you get it to the table Dishonored can often feel a shade frustrating.
The issue isn’t that there are too many huge, gaping errors – though there are a couple. Rather, it feels as though the game is fumbling on the verge of genius, grasping at some really rather clever ideas but not quite managing to make them work quite right.
Take, for example, its attempt to introduce the morality system that helped to define the videogames. The idea is that killing people, robbing from common folk and generally being a bit of a villain introduces more and more chaos to the world. This has a handful of consequences, but the most important of them is that it gives the GM a handful of chaos counters, which can be used to inflict mechanical penalties on the players or bonuses to their enemies.
In some ways this is a fascinating idea, one that presents players with an incentive to play heroically and gives GMs the chance to tempt them with cheap, easy victories at the cost of a little bit of chaos. However, it’s incredibly easy for the looming threat of those chaos counters to feel less like a cool new tool and more like a straitjacket binding the players’ willingness to roleplay.
This is compounded by the fact that even combat need not lead to chaos counters for the GM, as killing strokes can turn into knockout blows at whim. Making the decision to stay pure and unsullied might be a little more difficult – and therefore compelling – if there was some risk for leaving dangerous foes alive, but the rulebook is unwilling to nail down when and how unconscious enemies might be roused.
Indeed, the entire ruleset is built on a very loose, do-it-your-own-way style of writing. This can be great when talking about aspects of roleplaying or letting GMs know that they can tailor the game to suit their group, but it would be nice to know some numbers or get some clear rulings here and there.
Yes, it makes sense that the GM thinks about the challenges the players may face before deciding how long a stealth track – an abstract representation of how much ruckus the party can cause before raising the alarm – might be, but the utter absence of any suggested values leaves new GMs completely in the dark. Are four boxes a lot? Are 24?
At time of writing, Modiphius have promised potential updates to the rulebook and have already released some pretty comprehensive errata that address many of the more egregious typos contributing to cloudy rules. However, we can only review what we have in front of us, and right now Dishonored isn’t quite everything it could be.
If you’re a fan of the videogame and have a handful of players who feel the same way, the asking price is easily worth a few evenings spent exploring the streets of Dunwall and playing around with awesome powers. However, if you don’t already have that love for the setting it’s hard to see the game doing much for you beyond some beautiful art and some clever ideas to harvest.
The world is cool and the ideas are clever, but the execution could be much cleaner.
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED: Blades in the Dark...
Do you like rogues? Steampunk? Shadows? All of the above, all at once?
Words by Richard Jansen-Parkes
This review originally appeared in Issue 43 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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