Wednesday 31 March 2021

[Review] Delving Deeper V1 Boxed Set

A photo I did this morning because I couldn't
find a proper picture on the internet.
Originally I wanted to end March with something d100 related, like an OpenQuest 3e review or  musings about Hecatomb1, but then I ran into Paul Smith's Random Dungeon Encounters! Kickstarter campaign and got in the mood for some old-school dungeon crawling goodness. So let me tell you about my favourite OD&D retroclone ever: the Delving Deeper V1 Boxed Set!

My first retroclone was Swords & Wizardry. I have fond memories of running sandboxes using Core and Complete, but as I got familiar with OD&D I realized that S&W altered its ancestor in way too many ways I didn't fancy.2 I yearned for something closer to the original, and eventually my prayers were answered. It was probably the ODD74 forums where I first read about Delving Deeper, an OD&D retroclone written by Simon Bull, Cameron DuBeers, and David Macauley. The promise of a more faithful adaptation of the LBBs, awesome Mark Allen art, and kickass boxed set by Brave Halfling Publishing whet my appetite immediately. The pdf version was released in October 2012, the boxed set in December 2012, but it was only in July 2013 when I finally got my hands on it.

Brave Halfling Publishing was ran by John Adams, who mostly published unremarkable OSR supplements, adventures, and an occassional retroclone until his business collapsed thanks to the dumpster fire Appendix N Adventures Kickstarter3. Despite all his faults John does deserve some praise for two things: he loved boxes and had an eye for quality. The Delving Deeper V1 Boxed Set is a proof of both. The game came in a thick cardboard boxed set with a glorious black & white Mark Allen cover. Mark Allen is my all-time favourite black & white OSR illustrator. His thick outlines combined with thin cross hatching and dot shading not only look great, but also evoke the feel of medieval engravings in the same way as Dave Trampier's art does.

While the pdf version of the rules are presented in three booklets, the boxed set split them in six sturdy saddle-stitched digest booklets. Forging A Hero introduces the rules players should know on 28 pages. Codex of the Divine and the Arcane contains the rules for spell casting, spell lists, and even some spare spell worksheets on 36 pages. Index of the Fiendish and the Malign has all your beloved classic monsters on 44 pages. Vault of Treasures covers treasure on 24 pages. Delving Deeper and Blazing New Trails has all the advice, tables, rules the referee needs to run the game on 38 pages. All five of them are pleasing to look at thanks to the lavishly illustrated interior and the tight design. Delving Deeper doesn't overdo highlighting and layout, it keeps it minimalistic, but effective.

That alone would have been enough to make me happy, but the box has a few more surprises! First, it has Rob Conley's Blackmarsh setting as a neat saddle-stitched digest booklet accompanied by a neatly folded hexmap. Second, it also has a pad of 25 digest landscape character sheets. It has everything you need to kickstart a sandbox campaign, except for a few dungeons, dice, and pencil. Ironically, dice and pencil are mentioned on the back of the box, and I remember John Adams promising to ship them in a second wave, but I never got those. If anyone has ever received dice and pencil from Brave Halfling Publishing, please let me know!

"Don't worry, according to the rules
trolls don't rend in this edition!" - said
the brave halfling to comfort his friend.

Of course as it is a product that was put together in a garage by some dude and his family, it has a few faults. Some of the art is blurred or slightly pixelated. The character sheets were printed with a tiny bold font that takes some effort to decipher. The Blackmarsh booklet was printed on a thinner papper than the rest, and while the folded map is neat, it's far from the indestructible accessory that comes with old Judges Guild products or the issues of Echoes From Fomalhaut.

The actual rules themselves are exactly what was promised: it's OD&D cleaned up. While the authors didn't cut anything out of the original game, they did take some liberties with the source material, and made small changes like adding the strength damage bonus from Gygax's house rules, tinkering with the attack matrix, filling in holes in the spell list from supplements, introducing an optional thief class which uses the x in 6 method used for dungeon exploration activities for thief skills, and throwing in some monsters that were mentioned but not statted in OD&D (eg. thouls, robots). The writing is functional: it doesn't have a strong author's voice, but it does a good job at explaining the rules and best practices. I can safely hand the rulebooks out to my players without worrying about if they will understand it. Overall the Delving Deeper V1 Boxed Set hits a sweetspot where I have enough stuff to start a campaign, but I still want to house rule the shit out of the game.4

Alas the boxed set is no longer available, so if you want a piece of this your best options are the digital editions on the Immersive Ink forums and DriveThruRPG, and the print-on-demand book on Lulu. Despite being a retroclone Delving Deeper went through a surprising amount of changes since the boxed set was released. The game is currently at V4, with a V5 seemingly stuck in development hell. Later versions began moving closer to the source material by introducing more Chainmalisms, and dropping some of the added content. If you find all the versions confusing, just pick V4.

In the last decade OSR production values leveled up to epic tiers. Fancy boxed sets, chunky leather bound tomes, coffee table books are not uncommon nowadays. I'm a sucker for them too - my faux leather HackMaster rulebooks are some of my most treasured posssessions, and whenever I visit a friend I take a minute to stand in awe of his silver foil DCC RPG rulebook while thinking about how can I get away with murder. But just as I find low to mid level adventuring the best in old-school D&D, so do I prefer simple, elegant, sturdy rulebooks at my table. The Delving Deeper V1 Boxed Set nailed it with its design perfectly, and if it came earlier than Swords & Wizadry it would be defining OD&D retroclone and not just a sidenote in the history of OSR. Even if the majestic boxed set is no longer available, it's a solid rules reference for original edition roleplaying.

Rules system: Delving Deeper
Publisher: Immersive Ink,
    Brave Halfling Publishing
Publication date: 2012

Format: boxed set
 six digest size rulebooks
 a folded letter size hex map
 a pad of 25 digest size character sheets

Available from:
 out of print, see review for other versions
The closest  a retroclone
ever got to OD&D.

1 Since the name Hecatomb stuck with everyone involved I decided to drop the Project prefix.

2 Some examples off the top of my head: morale, reaction, treasure tables, random encounters with NPCs in the wilderness, et cetera...

3 One of the reasons I rebooted my blog and started writing reviews was that I was pissed off by the Appendix N Adventures products.

4 While gathering my thoughts for this review I found some of my old homebrews for Delving Deeper. There is nothing earth shattering among them, but they might worth a post or two.

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