Initial thoughts on DURF
My group's UVG campaign is ongoing, and I've been reading through another system in anticipation of what we'll try next (more on that later), but I had an out-of-town weekend lined up, so I decided to take a break from both of those and bring along a much smaller-scale game for a quick read-over: Emiel Boven's DURF.
What initially drew me in was Boven's tone and art, particularly on “Lair of the Gobbler,” an introductory “dungeon module” released alongside ver. 2.0 of the core game. Having now read through both, I'm toying with the idea of running DURF between long campaigns of other games. There's a breeziness to the style that makes it appealing as a palate cleanser, and the rules lend themselves to running fast-paced, single-session adventures. The core rules provide virtually no procedures for play outside of dungeon-crawling, and at 12 A5-sized pages, even the dungeon-crawling is comparatively bare bones.
Hit Dice may be the most interesting detail of the system. (D&D also has a Hit Dice procedure, used mostly for character creation and downtime activity. This is different.) Rather than track diminishing HP until it reaches zero, characters add up their wounds and attempt to roll over that number with their HD. Given that a failing throw results in death, you could understand Hit Dice as simulating the odds that any given wound will be fatal — minimum 1:6 for a newly created character. Boven lists “risky combat” as one of the elements he designed around, but if a random chance of dying on the first hit seems like a touch too risky, there are caveats. Characters take no damage until they've exhausted any Armor points their equipment grants. Characters can add Buffs to their rolls at the cost of Stress. And GMs can give the option of rolling a saving throw.
Hit Dice also stand in for the traditional character levels: Accumulate 1,000 times as much XP as your current HD and you add another die to your character's pool, up to 12, progressively lowering the odds that any given wound will prove fatal. Advancement also allows characters to increment their attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Willpower) or learn a news spell, but that's about as far as character-building goes. The emphasis stays narrowly focused on the action.
In fact, the core DURF book spells out practically nothing of a world beyond some weapons and spells, mostly in the conventional mold of medieval fantasy. “Lair of the Gobbler” expands the setting a bit, but the module is so self-contained that you likely won't catch tell of borgles and rootkin without it, and may not ever encounter them again. There are a few references to the setting beyond the dungeon where the action takes place — just enough to frame that action, really — and virtually no explicit opportunities to play them anyway. The writing and illustrations evoke the broader genre with a cartoonishness that's more playful than smirking. As a result, the humor avoids self-deprecation. This, is seems to say, is all in the service of fun.
That I find all of this appealing might seem a little odd, given the frustrations I've expressed about Dungeon World. It's easy to make too much of the similarities between the two games. Both are presented as high fantasy dungeon-crawls. But DW is over-designed for the sort of quick-and-dirty adventuring DURF affords. Its more extensive rule set and DM guidance is geared toward supporting collaborative world-building and elaborating characters with complex narrative relationships. I'm willing to stick with DW because the promise of that sort of play exerts a strong appeal. My frustrations with it stem from how little the setting helps distinguish it from a narrative space that feels somewhat gerrymandered.
DURF, by contrast, charts a very streamlined trajectory toward swords-and-sorcery, one not characterized by all of that scaffolding for holding up emergent narrative. It invites players to play fast and loose within the tropes of high fantasy goofiness, and is very direct in how it goes about fostering that.