Dishonored's Empire of the Isles would be a truly awful place to live, and the Dishonored roleplaying game shows us why. It's a fascinating deep dive into a world that's teetering on the edge of collapse, and it captures the spirit of the video game series perfectly. A clever word-based system translates the gameplay of its inspiration with ease, heavy consequences follow your actions, and it's stuffed with new details on a grimy, violent setting. This is the perfect example of how to bring a video game to the tabletop.
Although it's not the first IP you might think of for a TRPG like D&D, the Dishonored roleplaying game proves that it's a compelling match. This is a story set during a brutal industrial age, and that helps it stand out in a crowded market of the best tabletop RPGs. Instead of swords and sorcery, we're getting gas-lit streets and boats running on whale oil.
Its mechanics certainly help with that world-building too. The developers have noted that they're fans of word-based gameplay from other TRPGs, and those ideas are put to excellent use here. Magical powers - or 'Void' abilities - aren't just combat-related or a chance to reroll dice, for example. They can be used to change a 'truth' about the situation by immediately tweaking, adding, or removing something from a scene. Making a floorboard come loose to trip an opponent you're chasing, say. It's a neat way of emphasising the supernatural edge of Dishonored. Rather than limiting the Void to flashy combat moves or effects, it's more... ethereal. Sure, you can also mess with time to get extra actions or 'Blink' to travel short distances, but that's just icing on the cake.
Dishonored's 'Momentum' mechanics are equally good fun. Using a 2d20 system, this TRPG combines skills with 'styles' that allow you to take an action Boldly, Carefully, Cleverly, Forcefully, Quietly, or Swiftly. The scores of both are added together to make your target number, and any dice rolls on or below that number are successful. Get more successes than the activity's difficulty rating and you gain Momentum. These can then be used to buy extra d20s for skill tests, to influence a 'truth' (picking up a vase to smash over the head of a goon, for example), or to ask a question of the gamemaster. It's an easy, logical system to get your head around - particularly if you're new to tabletop RPGs or have been out of the game for a while.
What's more, it adds a ticking clock. You can only ever have six Momentum points at any time, and you'll lose one at the end of each scene. Players have to make good use of them as a result, and the developer's intention is to evoke the feel of a fast-paced action movie. It works; there's a sense of speed that melds well with the game's accessibility.
Because seriously, this is the most accessible TRPG I've encountered. It's dead easy to create characters, the pre-made scenarios are very scannable for GMs (and do a good job of anticipating player questions), and the gameplay is straightforward. If you want to get into tabletop role-playing, this is an excellent place to start.
Agents of chaos
The infamous Dishonored 'Chaos' system steals the show, though. Depending on what the players do, actions will cause Chaos points to be built up. These can then be saved or used by the gamemaster to sow trouble at the most inconvenient times, allowing them to shake things up by giving NPCs extra d20s, creating a new truth, or stopping players from changing a truth. It's a clever idea and very true to the games where your actions lead to the city worsening or improving (particularly because you can opt to build up Chaos instead of suffering repercussions for a mistake). This results in a fun tug-of-war between players and the world around them, especially when killing results in yet more Chaos. The Dishonored RPG wants you to find a smarter solution to your problems than charging at them with swords drawn.
You won't mind that; it's a well-described world dripping with character. In fact, this is a treasure-trove for fans. It's crammed with detail on the world of Dishonored, and at least half of the sourcebook's length is dedicated to the setting and those who live in it. There's page after page of location descriptions and details on their inhabitants, accompanied by in-universe letters to set the mood. Then there are story-hooks for each of the above, providing fuel for dozens of potential adventures.
Factions are also well-handled. In a move visual learners will appreciate, your relationship with them - not to mention your stealthiness, health, or general progress - has been 'gameified' via tracks. These tracks are boxes that are filled depending on how successful you've been, giving a clear indication of how close you are to your goal. Or failure, for that matter. Considering the dark, pre-written storylines at the back of the book (including one where you're a political dissident who has to escape from prison), the latter is a constant threat.
Speaking of which, this pre-made campaign is excellent. Set a few years before the first game, it's evocative and original. There's even a section where one of your players is turned into a - well, that'd be telling.
Anyway. Those character are just as cool. Even though the game could do with some pre-made examples for a quicker start, it relies on creative archetypes instead of the classic warrior/rogue/wizard trifecta. You can be an inventor, explorer, entrepreneur, and more instead, each with their own talents rooted in the world of Dishonored. It's the same story with the items and weapons available to you; you can choose from chokedust grenades that disorient your enemies to bonecharms which offer spells.
Sure, some things don't stick the landing. Calling health 'stress' is a little confusing. And the comic that kicks things off is laid out confusingly at first. However, these are small niggles in the grand scheme of things.
As such, it's well worth taking a trip to Dunwall with the Dishonored RPG. Despite the setting's gloom, it's a lot of fun. This game is also much more accessible than I expected it to be. The mechanics are straightforward, and there's no dead weight to speak of.
And if nothing else? Well, Dishonored offers inspiration other games would do well to learn from.