Dishonored: The Roleplaying Game
By Modiphius Entertainment
A copy of the Dishonored RPG was provided by Modiphius for this review.
Sweet Arfur wandered through the Dass Granary with all the heir of the expert he was pretending to be.
“I’m a self-made entrepreneur,” Uriah Dass said.
“Of course,” Arfur said, rolling his eyes. “Was there much competition when you started up here?”
“Not much, an old place which was pretty much out of business when we arrived.”
Marika’s granary, who hired Arfur for this mission after the Dass Granary scalped any suppliers. Lilah Dass couldn’t help but watch Konnor as he muttered to a sack of grains.
“Please ignore him,” Arfur said. “He’s something of a savant. A ‘grain whisperer’. He, erm, took a few blows to the head from a horse a few years ago. He’s not good for much, but an expert when it comes to grain. He’ll be able to assess the state of this place and report back to my benefactor.”
Lilah ran ahead to join Arfur and her husband. Unnoticed, Konnor pulled a dead rat out from his bag and looked for a good hiding place. When no one was looking, he spotted a nearby machine and tossed the rat inside, ready for Arfur’s “inspection” to circle back to it.
Dishonored is a roleplaying game based on the video game series of the same name. In that game, you play Corvo, an assassin and thief on a noble mission. Or if you’re me then you make a good attempt at stealth and then flee when you inevitably bang into something too loudly or run out of sleep arrows and have to knife a person in a blind panic. I’m pretty bad at it. I also haven’t finished it, so if I make any kind of Dishonored-based faux pas, then I apologise in advance.
In this game the group will play ne’er do wells in the world of the video game. It’s a grim and grimy Victorian-era world lit by electric lights from whale oil. Now, if you’re me, you’re suddenly realising where a lot of the Blades in the Dark world elements might be inspired by. I knew just about enough about the world of Dishonored to feel like there was no need for this RPG because we already had Blades in the Dark, which was about as close as you could get without the branding, and a beloved heist game. There was also Dusk City Outlaws which is a good romp, although I’ve not had much time with that.
So what does this book bring? Well, first of all it’s the latest in the 2d20 System by Modiphius, which has been used to reflect diverse licenses like Conan, John Carter and Star Trek. I’ve only played a little of it with Conan, but I’ve got friends who rate it highly. Each game has made changes to better fit the tone, so we’re looking at more than just the d20 System era where a game would reskin itself but still ultimately be D&D, and less than PbtA which is a design philosophy to be ripped apart and made to fit whatever game. It’s kind of in the middle ground, and never more so than in Dishonored.
The book itself is gorgeous. Like the game, it’s detailed, ominous and kind of beautiful in a steampunk brutalist way. The early chapters have scratchy comics which help teach the basics of the system to people unfamiliar. I found them a little jarring, stylistically, but a GM friend loved them.
You play as an Archetype, as you can’t all just be Corvo. These give you some modifications to your starting stats and some talents to help you stand out. The list is: Assassin, Commander, Courier, Duellist, Entrepreneur, Explorer, Guide, Hunter, Inventor, Sharpshooter, Scholar, Scout and Miscreant. They’re all pretty much what they do on the tin, description-wise.
You have a set of Skills, which are the things you can do, then Styles, which is how you do them. These mix and match so you can Move Boldly, Move Swiftly, Talk Carefully and so on. When you do something risky, you add one to the other, as well as a Focus you might have, and that’s your target number. You then roll 2d20 (hey, that’s the name of the system!) and try to get equal to or below that number on as many of the dice as possible. It’s fairly basic, but it’s different from the usual Attribute + Skill you get in a lot of non D&D traditional systems.
The thing is, difficulties for actions go from 1-5 successes, which is tricky if you’re only rolling 2d20, so there are a few things you can do to mitigate this:
Unlike a lot of games where a GM can wait for the player to roll and make up the difficulty accordingly (I’m sorry players, but that’s often what happens if we don’t care about the difficulty), you have to say how many successes are needed. If the players exceed that amount, they build Momentum, which they can use to buy extra dice, ask questions or add Truths (more on those later).
You can offer the GM some Chaos, reflecting the desperation in your actions. Chaos can be used like Momentum right back at the players. They also earn it with chaotic actions like making a massive explosion, or if they murder someone, reflecting the risks in the game.
Finally those Truths. People have Truths, as to locations. These can be tagged in like Fate’s Aspects, in order to lower a difficulty or give narrative permission to take actions. If you make your target at ease, then you can tag that in to make persuading him to show you his blueprints easier. Similarly the GM can tag a Truth to make the difficulty harder if you’re navigating a brightly lit street. Or maybe it’ll just not be possible until someone takes action to change or remove that Truth.
If everything goes wrong, you can use Void for rerolls or to make a change to a Truth which doesn’t have to relate to a skill roll. It could be that rats chew through the light, for instance. Those pesky rats!
The book is clear in clarifying the differences between the Skills, Styles and Focuses which is great as there were several times where we needed to be sure with edge cases for the difference between Forceful and Bold actions.
Combat doesn’t really use initiative, but that’s fine as you really don’t want to get into a fight. Characters are squishy, with a Stress score which refreshes each scene, but if it ever goes to 0 then you’re dead. You can take Truths to reduce your injury by one Stress, which might stick around or take actions in the fiction to remove. Damage in the 2d20 system often uses funny d6’s with different symbols, but this uses flat rates, which makes it a bit quicker and easier to use. It’s also a game where you need to plan, you need certainty. In a way having that flat rate helps you feel that. There’s a gear section which is fine, although (and I never normally say this) it feels a little sparse. I skimmed for ages wondering how much a carriage ride or a horse might cost and ended up fudging it. The book covers the essentials but you’re going to need to make up a few things, especially if you’re littering a heist location with items for the group. There’s some magic, either that which you can take as a Talent in order to use Runes, or Bonecharms which are to be seeded in sites much like in the game. They give good, minor effects, have some good descriptive elements to them and make your players go, “OH NO!” in the chat when they find them. At least, that happened with us.
For people like me who played two hours of Dishonored a few years ago, there’s a timeline of events and detailed information about Dunwall (the city in the game) and a few other places in the world. It’s got some good flavour for locations including several hooks. Similarly, the NPC stat blocks have a few plot hooks for how they could be used as well.
Finally there’s a mini-campaign which claims to be four sessions. I’m writing this at the time of the Coronavirus pandemic and lockdown, so we’ve been playing online and I admit this may have extended things. Also my group saw several side quests and much like players of a video game, decided to do each one to get as much content out of this as they can. At the moment we’re six sessions in and almost at the end of what the book says is ‘Session Two’. It starts in a fairly linear way, although you can still have fun with that, then once Session Two hits they’re given a lot more to do and a lot more agency over where things go. It’s still fairly basic and requires some buy in from the group, part of which is covered in the start of the campaign as the characters were all part of a failed worker’s uprising in Morley and get sent to Coldridge Prison in Dunwall before the game even begins.
First of all, spoilers for The Oil Trail. I thought I’d try out the campaign in the book to see how it went and avoid copying any of my moves from my last Blades campaign. For a trad game, this had a stated theme, which is cool. That theme was ‘Class Struggle’ and in this day and age, this felt like it’d be cathartic to explore.
As I said, this was an online game, so I created a Character Keeper after being inspired by The Gauntlet’s keepers for many indie RPGs. We kept character details there, as well as photos the group found for the cast:
Vinnie played Sweet Arfur, a kind of ‘Del Boy’ style entrepreneur.
Mark played Dr Dat, a befuddled inventor.
Wade played Jackey D, a miscreant and self-described giant angry testicle of a man.
Lee played Konnor, a toff and duellist who fought against the Morley Insurrection but had a change of heart.
They were all part of the failed uprising for different reasons, and found themselves on a prison ship bound for Dunwall, where they would be worked to death harvesting whales. The first roll was to resist the demoralising effects of the jailer’s monologue about how they’re never getting away and everything they fought for has been taken over, destroyed or hung for treason. None of them succeeded, so they gained a Truth to reflect it. Over the next few week or two they found themselves making friends among the prisoners and getting involved in a scheme to escape. They also were visited by The Outsider, although they all refused his help, then decided to make a different plan to escape than the one the existing prisoners had. It was cool and they put the work in, so I ignored what was in the book and let them blow their own way out of the prison.
Once they escaped, the group joined the other Morley refugees as one of them had a contact in the Distillery district who could give everyone shelter. Marika kept them all safe in a granary and pointed them to a place of work who would accept people from Morley, who were commonly discriminated against in the city (especially after the insurrection). The group got their papers but ignored the workplace. Fortunately they got in contact with the main person they needed to meet there, as he was the one to sort out their papers and give them the main quest of the campaign. The owner of the lightning oil refinery and the prison warden were exploiting the Morley refugees and living well on the backs of the poor. Specifically, they kept the Bottle Street Gang and the Hatters at each others’ throats. The contact enlisted the group to help take them down, but first, to unify the gangs.
This is where things opened up with six side quests, each of which lower the difficulty for the peace talks between the factions which in retrospect feels a little easy at four, if the group are doing them all. My group enjoyed the first couple of quests enough that they did more, and explained that they want to do them all. Each quest will bolster the gangs and provide long term help in the fiction for them. These six quests are just a paragraph each, but the book’s resources helped me quickly flesh them out, as did quick googling of Victorian blueprints and Dickensian name generators.
The first quest was taking down a granary who were taking all of Marika’s suppliers from her. Going back to that theme of class warfare, I decided this was run by the self-made son of a rich noble. He and his wife were starting out with nothing but their entrepreneurial smarts and daddy’s purse strings. It was satisfying to pretend like their supplies had spoiled and to ‘con’ Marika in buying their wares for a fraction of the price.
The second quest was taking part in a fight club for the Bottlers. I didn’t know which quest the group would do, so I had no prep time and had to make up fighters on the spot. Jackey D fought Bloody Beatrice, Two-Finger Terry and The Gut. It was brutal and the group managed to impress the Bottlers’ bosses. I also made sure to start asking the group what their next mission would be.
The third mission was to find a home for the group and their refugees, which would impress the Hatters but also give them a headquarters for the rest of the campaign. The group had done a little research and saw the owner of the lightning oil refinery had an apartment building which he’d bought, not fixed up and was waiting for the market to change before making it into fancy flats which folks from the district couldn’t afford. The group broke in, aware of a couple of grubby squatters already in there, but still ended up catching a surprise bullet in the back from one of them. The squatters were actually paid both by the owner to keep others out, and by the Dead Eels gang to spy on the Hatters. Oh, and I played them as pretty much Steptoe and Son.
Where we’re at now, we’ve just finished the fourth mission which is their first proper heist. They needed to steal some lightning oil extractor blueprints from a Dr Warren in the Draper’s Ward, which is in the middle of a gang war between Hatters and Dead Eels. Worse, this mission is for the Bottlers, so neither side would be of use. The group spent a long time making and discarding plans before getting Dr Dat booked in for an appointment to see Dr Warren. There had been a foiled burglary which had scared the doctor, and he’d hired some ex-City Watch thugs to protect him. There were hints the thugs had staged the burglary to get themselves hired for this job, especially when the heist proper started and Konnor spooked the thugs. They’d not expected any real burglars and Sweet Arfur managed to quickly knock one out, then mislead the other who ran out there. He added a Truth about a pre-arranged escape plan and helped the guards work on that. Dr Dat had put Dr Warren at ease, then promised to look after the blueprints while Dr Warren went to make sure his family were safe. He took the required blueprints, some extra ones for equipment upgrades and a bone charm which was singing to him. They’re got out successfully with only one minor injury as Jackey D was running interference and annoyed a guard early in the heist.
We’ve still got two more side quests to go, and then the final chapters. It does feel a bit video-gamey with the group enjoying the scenario enough to want to get everything done before we move on, as they may not be able to go back if we get to the peace talks.
Just to read this book, Dishonored fans will get a lot. It’s a flavourful world and my brother who no longer roleplays but has played Dishonored 1 & 2 several times was excited to hear about what’s covered in the lengthy section on the game’s world.
The 2d20 System is crunchier than I normally go for, but this version of it has been good at using a lot of narrative flavour and elements from more indie games. There’s even a mention of the X Card, which I’m pleased to see in a more mainstream game. I have resisted comparisons to Blades in the Dark during sessions, with a couple of slips here and there. The prep for the heist took a couple of hours before anyone did anything and I had to push a hard deadline for their plans as they kept making one, scrapping it, making another one and so on. They also felt like they could have carried out more research, which they were fine without but would have made them feel more secure. In Blades, you start at the start of the mission and back-fill any prep with flashbacks. In Dusk City Outlaws you have a slightly more systemised prep phase where everyone get a limited amount of actions to take place before the heist. I prefer both of those approaches, but this might be a style which suits other groups.
I normally close a review by making a comparison, ‘if you like X, then you’ll like this’. For a licensed game it’s a bit more obvious. If you like Dishonored then you’ll definitely like this, but then with the ensemble there’s definitely an air of Hustle and Leverage, just with more weird technology and class warfare. We’ve enjoyed our time with this game and will see the campaign through. I think I’ll probably default to Blades in the Dark, although it’s tempting to use that system in the world of Dishonored at some point, as this book has enough detail for that to work really well. If you are used to and like the 2d20 System then this will feel fun, familiar and like a sped up version of those mechanics, something I can see doing well in convention play.