Chromatic Dungeons Review

In this post I review Chromatic Dungeons, an OSR game that pays homage to the roots of D&D while freshening things up. In the OSR community, if we are to continue, we need to try some new things. Chromatic Dungeons is a game that respects the past, but takes steps toward what the OSR could do to remain relevant now.

I love old school gaming. It is a significant guiding force in all the games that I run. Yet, I sometimes feel like the OSR is stagnating by just reproducing yet another woodgrain/white box “collector” set. I am 47 years old and I was born the year OD&D came out! Continuing to market to people in the 50-70 age range is not a long term path to growth and prosperity in our movement! We can’t keep looking back, we need to look forward to see what new ideas or twists we can use and apply them to excite the youth into trying out the OSR style of play, for it is great fun! Put another way, time didn’t stop in 1974 (or 1984), there have been improvements and innovations to the game throughout the 90’s, 00’s, 10’s, and as we enter the 20’s.

Chromatic Dungeons is an OSR game that is firmly rooted in the past, but also happily brings in new ideas and gives them an OSR spin. As the author Roderic Waibel states in the preface: “I am trying to capture the feel of gaming in the 70s/80s without necessarily copying the mechanics of that era, whereas most clones are almost near copies of both presentation and rules. Some rules are important to capture the feel, sure, but only when necessary. We have decades of lessons learned since then, and the FEEL of the game is more important than any sacred cow.”

I am glad Waibel is taking some chances to explore new areas in the OSR. Let us look at what he keeps from the 70s/80s and what new ideas he has introduced below (my review will begin with the 330 page hardcover that serves as the core book. I will discuss the two softcover Basic Rules books afterward).

Classic and Modern Features Compared and Discussed:
Broadly speaking, Waibel tries to make use of the simplicity of 1981 B/X Basic D&D, with some 2E improvements, and the aesthetic of 1E. It is a combination of 70s and 80s D&D. This has been done before with games like Basic Fantasy, but when bringing a variety of old systems together you have options in how you do it. Here are some examples of what Chromatic Dungeons does:
Alignment: Chaotic, Neutral, and Lawful. A throwback to B/X Basic. Some monsters have an alignment listed (dragons and giants are frequently chaotic), but many other monsters have N/A listed (humanoids such as orcs, goblins, kobolds, etc., are listed as N/A, although the author makes clear – like any OSR gamer knows – if you want chaotic (evil) orcs, then by all means do so, it is your game).
Race, Ancestry, and Heritage. The term Race has been replaced by Ancestry. I remember asking in the 90s why the term ‘race’ was used in D&D as it didn’t seem to make sense to me even then. It took a few decades, but gaming is finally making some changes in this area (think Pathfinder, or recent 5E third-party creations), and although I don’t always agree with some of the changes that have been made, I always look forward to seeing what the latest attempt looks like since I am slowly transitioning away from race and into ancestry in my games. The innovation that Chromatic Dungeons takes is to divide things into ancestry and heritage and move attribute bonuses into something a character gets based on the class they choose.

So, for example, a dwarf’s ancestry would include their size and weight, movement rate, infravision, and their ‘solid build’ which reduces the damage they receive. You then chose your dwarf’s heritage (the background, culture and region where they were raised). Was the dwarf raised in the desert? Then they would get immunity to heat exposure and half damage from fire. Were they raised as a hunter? Then they get +2 to stealth checks and +1 to attack rolls with bows. Were they raised in mountains? Then they would get cold resistance and half damage from cold attacks. I like the versatility here. The whole race/subrace categorization that has existed for so long can be a bit boring – why do ALL high elves ALWAYS have the same abilities? Surely the background and region where they live would play a role. You get that here. There are ancestry tables listed for a variety of non-traditional creatures as well, such as bugbears, gnolls, hobgoblins, etc., when you then pick a heritage for them, you have some great varieties available to freshen up and broaden out your characters and monsters. Finally, demihumans and humanoids have some variety. I like it.
Classes and Class Categories. Classes are placed in groupings like we found in 2E (i.e. Warriors encompass Fighter, Berserker, Ranger, and Paladin). Moreover, it is your class that determines your attribute bonus. Are you a fighter? You can choose to give yourself a +1 to your Str, Dex, or Con (depending on what type of fighter you want to be). Paladins get a +1 to Charisma. Rangers can choose either +1 to Wisdom or Dexterity. I like this and want to give this a closer look. As I mentioned above, your ancestry provides your height, weight, and movement rate, your heritage or region provides specific resistances, and your class training provides the attributes you have focused on. This make sense to me. I think it is intuitive. I am surprised this hasn’t been done before (at least I can’t think of previous examples of this as I type this).
Experience Points. Experience points follow a single table that represents the path for all classes (like we’ve seen for post-3E D&D). I have to admit I am not a fan of character classes all advancing at the same rate. It is easier on book keeping to be sure, but I want an occasional dose of realism in my games, and there isn’t any way that a fighter that trains and learns things in barracks and on the battlefield learns and advances in an identical way to the wizard that spends their time in libraries and academies engaged in abstract metaphysical speculations, along with the rogue that spends their time in back alleys and guild halls learning secrets. These are distinctly different pursuits with very different skills sets. But of course, with so many OSR options out there, you could always just grab something like the AD&D or Castles & Crusades advancement for individual classes if you wanted (assuming you agree with my reasoning above, if not, then you have nothing to worry about!).
Ability Checks. Most skill resolutions are accomplished by an ability check. This keeps things broader than nit-picking with an overly detailed skill systems. But, being old school, you succeed on an ability check by rolling under your attribute.

Chromatic Dungeons Basic Rules
I’ve very briefly touched on the 330 page hardcover book. But what if you want something even simpler and in softcover? Well, there are also Basic Rules available (in an 86 page Player’s Book and a 58 page Monsters & Treasure Book). Everything here has been stripped down. The classes you can choose from are simply Fighters, Rogues, and Wizards. Dwarves, Elves, Halflings, and Humans are all summarized on roughly one page. It is simple and to-the-point. If the hardcover is a creative mixture of B/X, 1E, and 2E with a few modern innovations, then these softcover booklets simplify things to a genuine Basic level. I like when OSR games do this. BlueHolme, Labyrinth Lord, and Old School Essentials all have simpler and more elaborate – or ‘Advanced’ versions – and it is nice that Chromatic Dungeons does the same.

Finally, when I supported this Kickstarter I had the opportunity to get some small (25-30 page) zines called The Gnoll Sage that cover specific topics in each issue such as an Animist class, a Psionicist class, or the Ecology of the Orcs. Looking through these I am very happy I got them. The Animist class is very simple and playable and I may incorporate it into my Castles & Crusades game. The Psionicist class is also very well done in its simplicity. I am still leaning towards importing the Amazing Adventures Mentalist class into my C&C game, but this Psionicist class is now sitting in second place. The Ecology of the Orcs has, wait for it, pig-faced orcs! I can’t tell you how weary I am of seeing yet another World of Warcraft-style orc, or something clearly copied from the Lord of the Rings films. The Gnoll Sage has some nice old school pig orc art! So, even though Chromatic Dungeons brings up the idea that orcs do not have to be chaotic and/or evil, if it is something you want, you can get it here, for there is one heritage trait where one orc clan eats the flesh and drinks the blood of the defeated and gain hit points from it. Flexibility. That is what the OSR constantly prides itself on, and in Chromatic Dungeons you get it. Want blood thirsty orcs? You can get them. Want orcs with diverse alignments/moral outlooks? That is available here as well.

Final Thoughts.
The cover of Chromatic Dungeons is an homage to an art piece by David Trampier in the 1E PHB. The interior layout is normal paper and black and white art with charts that resemble AD&D. I love this. I wish more gaming books stepped away from full color art on glossy pages (I am almost at the point that if a book has glossy pages I won’t buy it, they are just too difficult to read and you can’t write notes on glossy pages). This book looks and is filled with a lot of classic old school content.

But this game is not stuck in the past. It mixes and matches old school systems – and importantly – provides space to move away from old, tired tropes that have had their day and open itself up to modernity. It is traditional, yet fresh. It embraces so many features of the past, and yet realizes that you can’t continue living in the past, for eventually you will be left behind and will have nobody to game with since you will be out of touch and have made no effort to reach out to the newer generation of gamers. Chromatic Dungeons allows you to soak up the nostalgia of late 20th century gaming, and yet shifts into the present and assists you in finding ways to share your love of OSR game play with modern gamers of the 21st century.

6 thoughts on “Chromatic Dungeons Review

  1. Pingback: Two New OSR Kickstarters Worth Looking Into. | The World of PhilosopherZeus

  2. Now I want to have this. Thx for that. šŸ˜‰

    Can you tell me were to find it? Or is the fullfillment of the kickstarter still going on?

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    • Hm, just noticed that the author ist arguing pro Critical Race Theory in his blog. I just don’t like this because this “theory” is just further dividing people in the US as well as western and middle Europe. Instead of bridging the breaches in society it is further enhanicing those gaps.

      I agree with your statement that the OSR has to capture new ideas. Get out of the past and up ahead in the future. But I don’t think that this is something about inclusiveness or diversity.

      I had my headaches with reading that he wanted to add more diversity to D&D was one of the main focuses for Chromatic Dungeons. I allways thought there was no hobby more including and progressive than D&D in the 80’s and 90’s – a time, most of those kids criticizing the game today not even existed.

      Don’t think I wand to give my cash to people that proclaim some kind of guilt for the history of my country or western countries at a large. From people that actually don’t know shit about history (excuse the language). Or slave trade during the middle ages and beyond. Or the philosophy of the old greeks, the not so old french or Hegel and Kant. Too bad. But I just hate modern politics in my games.

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      • RPGs have always been products of their time and have – intentionally or unintentionally – incorporated those views in their products (women in chainmail bikinis, different stats for males/females, only white people appear in the artwork and other races/ethnicities are portrayed stereotypically, etc.). RPGs have never been politics-free, they have always reflected the politics and stereotypes of the time reflected in the game mechanics and imagery.

        This designer acknowledges the past and is trying to be more aware of the present. The game he presents opens things up. But being an OSR game, he makes clear you can take or leave whatever you want. Want all orcs to be evil – do so! But if you want an array of orcs on the moral scale, then there are ways to do so. The rules in the Chromatic Dungeons books I’ve seen are a creative twist on OSR ideas. Do some “modern” politics appear in the books. Yes, I have seen instances. But in all cases, he is very clear about it, explains why he did it that way, and then leaves it up to you if you want to use it or drop it (if only game designers with their “old” political views were as aware and transparent about it as he is).

        In the end, though, if you don’t want to support the author due to views they’ve expressed on their blog, I understand, I also don’t support some game designers due to the politics they share on their blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and social media.

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      • I tend to disagree. If some media active people start complaining that orcs are a copy of some african tribal culture or that alignements are racist than it’s not the problem of rpgs of the 80’s or the 90’s (or 00-18) but a problem of those people and their missing ability to read whats there instead reading what may or may not be said between the lines. And by changing your rpgs to fit into this perspective is to agree with this mess – instead of making it clear that this is just total nonsense.

        But I don’t want to start a discussion here. As you said in your last paragraph just like you I started to select which designers I support and which I don’t. I allways saw myself as a liberal person. And I supported alot of designers with different (mostly far left) views. But with the canceling culture holding root in our hobby (mostly against liberal to right) in the last 1 1/2 year that’s over. Whoever supports banning people from cons, banning products (that do not violate publishing rules as written) from pdf platforms or who supports canceling other desginers from forums and discord groups won’t get my money anymore.

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