Dishonored: The RPG review - video game’s world soars while its gameplay sags
Rat swarms, murderous machines and complicated rulesets lurk in the shadows.
The Empire of the Isles - which encapsulates both the known and unknown locales of Dishonored - is a filthy, nasty and dreadfully corrupt place. It’s a world where its poorest inhabitants fight one another for a crumb of bread, whilst its rich elite gorge off the blubber created by recent industrialisation.
From bitter rivalries between celebrity scientists to a constant battle with disease thanks to overcrowding and poverty, every aspect of the Victorian era has been pushed to a creative extreme in the Dishonored video game series’ alternate history, making for a world that entices and disgusts in equal measure.
The Empire of the Isles is a filthy, nasty and dreadfully corrupt place.
This vivid experience has been faithfully carried over to the Dishonored tabletop RPG. Based on the 2d20 system used in RPGs including Star Trek Adventures, the Dishonored: The Roleplaying Game is the latest video game adaptation from Fallout: Wasteland Warfare and Elder Scrolls: Call to Arms studio Modiphius.
Given how common tabletop adaptations are these days - with everything from Dune to My Little Pony getting its own RPG - it’s very easy to be skeptical when opening the Dishonored RPG. However, its tabletop debut is anything but a cheap cash-in. In many ways, Dishonored: The Roleplaying Game cares too much for its own good. It’s an incredibly ambitious and impressive rulebook that’s nevertheless weighed down by needless details and a flawed roleplaying system.
The striking presentation of the rulebook does wonders to envelop the reader in Dishonored’s vicious and elegant world. As well as images taken directly from the video games themselves, such as character models - which admittedly look a little odd in a rulebook - there’s plenty of stunning concept art and illustrations spread across each chapter. The Dishonored series has always had a fantastic art style (the in-game paintings that hang on the walls of various estates are especially amazing), but having it included here is reason enough to pick up a copy.
It’s an incredibly ambitious and impressive rulebook that’s nevertheless weighed down by needless details and a flawed roleplaying system.
The look of the book isn’t the only element of the Dishonored RPG that draws you in. Its contents provide a thoroughly detailed look at the Empire of the Isles: its people, culture, politics and geography. Before the lengthy discussion of rules and gameplay mechanics, the Dishonored RPG is first and foremost concerned with setting the scene. From major influences and key themes to an overview of the different regions and even a short comic strip depicting what a game of Dishonored might look like, this rulebook’s priorities are clear from the offset: to immerse players.
Some aspects of the world are given more coverage than others, such as the city of Dunwall and the history of the Kaldwin family - understandable considering that many people will pick up this book because of their experiences with the video games. However, the rulebook also provides what might be the most comprehensive look at the areas of the Empire not featured in the video games.
The rulebook provides what might be the most comprehensive look at the areas of the Empire not featured in the video games.
I now know much more about the fishing island of Morley - with its green hilltops, rebellious history and stories about terrifying eel monsters - and the frozen north of Tyvia, renowned for producing fine metals and tales about clever princes, than I ever did while playing Dishonored and its sequel. Tabletop roleplaying typically lends itself better to lore than video games do, with a game master likely to comb through sections on setting and themes while looking for inspiration for a campaign or session. After all, what would be the point of setting a session specifically within the Empire of the Isles rather than any other generic steampunk setting, if you have no idea what makes the world of Dishonored special?
There’s a lot that makes the world of Dishonored feel unique in a sea of steampunk settings, too. Particularly how it takes some of the key tropes of the genre - such as advanced technology in a period setting and a dystopian political landscape - and turns them on their head by making it impossible for the players to remain morally clean. Two major religions of the Empire of the Isles - the Abbey of the Everyman and the cult of the Outsider - are built upon rivers of blood and there are multiple plagues riddling its streets. Even the main characters of the video game series are in positions of extreme wealth and power that make it hard to sympathise with them. In a world so mired in corruption there aren’t any moral extremes or certainties, making for a refreshingly complex setting that forces its players to think carefully about their role in the whole sordid affair.
For fans of the series, reading the RPG’s rulebook should feel like uncovering a bushel of fascinating secrets, while for newbies it serves as an effective gateway into a rich setting that’s stuffed to the brim with details. For example, the rulebook outlines the historical development of whale oil as the world’s primary power source, as well as providing a detailed description of every single district in Dunwall, from the gang-infested Distillery District to the High Overseer’s quarters at Holger Square. At no point does the rulebook assume its reader is already familiar with the world of Dishonored but, at the same time, there’s more than enough here to keep even the most learned of fans paging through.
At no point does the rulebook assume its reader is already familiar with the world of Dishonored.
Even the sections on the game’s rules aren’t entirely devoid of set-dressing, particularly the mechanics of chaos - inspired by the video games’ own tangible element of chaos, which changes the world in response to the players’ actions - and momentum.
As in the video games, chaotic behaviour in the Dishonored RPG - such as murdering indiscriminately - is likely to bite players in the arse if it happens too often. Should the GM decide that players are acting chaotically, they gain their own resource of chaos which can be used to make things more difficult for players in the future. I really like this mechanic because it makes so much sense; not only does it resemble the actual chaos mechanic from the video games, it forces players to accept that there will be consequences to their actions.
Aside from describing their characters’ actions and speaking their words, players primarily interact with the world of Dishonored by performing skill checks. As in other 2d20 system games, players make a skill check by rolling at least two d20s. A success is any result under the target number, and the overall difficulty is determined by the number of successes needed. A one is a critical success - counting as two successes - and 20s are critical failures. Should a player pass a skill check by more than the required successes needed the party is gifted with a collective pool of momentum, which can be used to lessen the difficulty of a future skill check or add additional dice to a roll.
It translates the satisfyingly fluid movement of the series in a way that is unconventionally effective for making the player feel cool.
This feeling of ongoing success as you gather momentum is akin to expertly weaving your way through a level in the Dishonored video games - landing an incredible sleeping dart shot before sliding behind the eyeline of several guards. It translates the satisfyingly fluid movement of the series in a way that, whilst not completely accurate, is unconventionally effective for making the player feel cool.
It’s not all quite so cool, though. The target number for a skill check comes from the total number of whatever skill and style stats the player character is using to perform their desired action. For example, a player might attempt to leap over a gap between two rooftops by using their move skill - rated at a four - and their boldly style, rated at a six. These two numbers together make a target number of 10, and the player might need to get two successes to succeed. However, the difficulty scale, set between zero and five, feels vague and doesn’t provide enough guidance on what constitutes as being an appropriate difficulty for any one task. Nobody expects the writers of the Dishonored rulebook to take every possible player action into account - the beauty of being a GM is having the freedom to run a campaign however you want to. But whilst the system provides plenty of freedom for both the game master and the players, it puts a lot of pressure on the GM to balance how challenging an encounter is going to be.
In the campaign I ran with the Dicebreaker team, I would decide the difficulty level for a scenario on the fly only to have players express frustration when they were unable to pass the skill check. No RPG should ever feel like a player versus GM situation - in fact, Dishonored takes great pains to lay down a collection of rules regarding positive player and GM behaviour, but it’s hard not to feel like you’re being mean when the difficulty range isn’t wide enough. Sometimes it’s either too easy or too hard. A good difficulty range should ideally be more of a spectrum, one that provides enough options so that the GM can give their players a fairer challenge. Without enough difficulty levels for the GM to choose from, the Dishonored RPG lacks a consistent way of judging and rewarding characters’ skills.
The vague difficulty scale doesn’t provide enough guidance on what constitutes as being an appropriate difficulty for any one task.
The lack of flexibility in skill checks contrasts the ample opportunity for characters in Dishonored to go beyond broad strokes. Creating a character is still very straightforward: you choose your archetype, edit your stats accordingly, choose a few extra bits and bobs, and you’re pretty much done. But players can make characters that have their own quirks and personalities, somewhat based on the different kinds of people you might meet whilst travelling across the Empire of the Isles. Each of the archetypes enable players to lean into having certain advantages, such as the Entrepreneur and Scholar - who have multiple contacts they can call-up whenever they need information or assistance - or the Dauntless talent held by the Miscreant which allows them to better resist being intimidated.
Crucially, character creation shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes or so, because they start out with very little in the way of abilities - characters are intended not to be powerful. The simple system effectively emphasises player vulnerability, particularly in a world such as Dishonored’s where wealth inequality, corruption and plague cause life to be very difficult for the average person - making the fact that the restrictive skill check system doesn’t fit with the nuance of character creation that much more frustrating.
But whilst some elements of the Dishonored RPG are incredibly well realised - particularly the depth of its world and characters - other aspects, such as Void powers and Truths, feel greatly underutilised by comparison.
In Dishonored, the Outsider is a god-like figure who exists within another dimension called the Void, and has gifted people he deems worthy with supernatural abilities throughout the history of the Empire of the Isles. These gifted figures include the protagonist of the first video game, Corvo Attano, and one of the optional protagonists in the series’ second entry, Emily Kaldwin, who use their powers to right the wrongs done to them.
Void powers almost feel so underutilised by the game that it might have been a better creative choice to not include them at all.
I appreciate the fact that the Outsider and Void powers are not shoehorned into the tabletop RPG, which could have been a tempting proposition considering it’s a major aspect of the video games. Those marked with magical powers by the Outsider are incredibly rare and it would feel very unbalanced to have every character in a party be able to stop time and teleport. However, Void powers almost feel so underutilised by the game that it might have been a better creative choice to not include them at all. Though characters with Void powers get their own section in the rulebook, players with the Marked by the Outsider talent feel out of place when compared to the other options for character creation. I would have preferred to have player characters interact with the Outsider from a purely - pardon the pun - outside perspective, with NPCs being capable of being Marked by the Outsider. It would make the RPG more distinct from the video game series, and avoid Void powers feeling like a set of sidelined add-ons that don’t fit with the other character talents.
Truths is another mechanic that feels at odds with the rest of the Dishonored RPG. Truths are facts about the world and its people that both players and the GM can create; whilst the GM is almost constantly telling truths, players are able to pay momentum in order to tell their own truths and alter a situation to their advantage. For example, a player could say that an unstable paving slab lies behind the heels of a guard that’s pursuing them, creating an obstacle that the NPC must overcome using a skill check. Despite the potential, no-one used the ability during my campaign - I wonder whether that’s simply because momentum can be used to acquire more useful and less complicated advantages, such as additional d20s. It also didn’t help that the rulebook’s explanation of the Truths mechanic was confusing to read - even for someone experienced in playing roleplaying games - which could put newer players off attempting to use them.
A major issue with the Dishonored rulebook is that it's too darn complicated.
Here lies another major issue with the Dishonored rulebook: it’s too darn complicated. Amongst the wonderful examples of worldbuilding and genuinely instructive sections on how to run a session, there are pages and pages of unnecessary rules. Factions players can gain benefits from if they adhere to their set of codes. A towering pile of tracks designed to measure everything from player health to stealth to intrigue. Multiple styles of stealth, with each one resulting in a different player approach and NPC response. None of these feel like they add all that much to the game, only making it more of a chore for the GM to get to the bits they actually need.
The sections on how to break a campaign down into different scenes, the enormous catalogue of readymade NPCs, advice on ensuring that players feel comfortable with the themes of your campaign - all of these elements are fantastic and show the devil in the detail of the Dishonored RPG. But it’s hard to see the benefit of clogging up your rulebook with unnecessary elements when it’s clear that some of the game’s core mechanics such as skill checks and Truths still need a lot of work.
What you end up with is an RPG with some excellently developed ideas, some noticeably underdeveloped ones and a whole lot of pointless stuff. Dishonored: The Roleplaying Game will seamlessly transport you to another world in the blink of an eye, only to have you crash into a brick wall of needless jargon the next.
Dishonored: The RPG is available as a digital PDF now. A physical edition is due for release in mid-August.