The Dee Sanction
Adventures in Covert Enochian Intelligence
The Dee Sanction is the latest roleplaying game from Paul Baldowski and All Rolled Games + Accessories. It successfully funded through Kickstarter in November 2020, a campaign that I helped fund. The game centers around themes I find enjoyable—investigation, hauntings, and the occult. I read and studied an immeasurable amount of paranormal and occult material as a teenager, so naturally, I know of John Dee, the historical figure. Any game that focuses on him catches my attention.
In 1563, Queen Elizabeth passed an “Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments, and Witchcraft.” It made magick used to kill another person a capital offense, consorting with evil spirits, provoking love, maiming another, and other sundry things felonies. The following year, the Queen passed an amendment to the Act at John Dee’s request. That amendment, “The Dee Sanction,” permitted the practice of magick for the defense of the realm’s benefit.
The historical John Dee was an Anglo-Welsh mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, teacher, occultist, and alchemist. He was the court astronomer for, and advisor to, Elizabeth I, and spent much of his time on alchemy, divination and Hermetic philosophy. (Wikipedia)
In The Dee Sanction, players take on the role of John Dee’s covert Agents, women and men, whom by circumstance or perhaps happenstance, are stuck somewhere between conscription and penance for their crimes set in an alternate Europe. It takes its cues from history, adds in supernatural elements, real magick (so says the author), skewed conflicts, and fabricated events. This is the framework of The Dee Sanction.
To play the game, one needs the gamebook, a set of polyhedral dice, a pencil, a character sheet, and an unbloodied deck of cards (any deck will work).
Creating an Agent
Character generation is fairly simple and should remind players of the frailty of their Agent. Agents are first defined by their Resources—Physicall, Intellectuall, and Supernaturall. Physicall is the “…measure of the spectrums of force, manual acuity, and targeted violence.” Intellectuall represents “structured learning and clarity of thought.” Supernaturall is the “attunement to the otherness that surrounds and permeates our world.” Players have twelve “dice steps” ranging from d4 to d12 to assign to each Resource. (e.g., one step is a d4, three steps is a d8, etc.)
Note: All variable options in The Dee Sanction can be drawn from the deck, rolled, or selected.
Agents are further defined by their Favour, Occupation, damning Association, and Focus. Favour represents a once per game low-key magical influence the Agent can exert. Agents choose one of the twenty Occupations, their damning Association, and their Focus. Each provides a short description and several Abilities. Damning Associations indicate who the Agent was affiliated with at the time of their arrest. Focus identifies their type or manifestation of enlightenment. Players must choose three of the eight provided Abilities. Abilities are general areas of knowledge, expertise, or experience—abilities have no specific definition and are applied broadly in-game.
Agents are rounded out by filling in static details. Every Agent starts with 3 Hits and D8 Unravelling (mental damage absorption). They also start with a single Fortune token, which can be spent to force the re-roll of any single throw of the Die (or Dice). Fortune refreshes between Adventures, not between game sessions.
I found character creation to be quick, but… some analysis paralysis set in. With charts having three options—selecting, rolling, or card draws—it’s hard to decide which route to take. Equally challenging is deciding which three of the eight Abilities you should keep. Although they are never defined, the mechanics allow players plenty of latitudes to narratively associate them to a situation. For readers who use Twitter, there’s a Twitter bot that will generate your background for you. Agents’ backstories are far from boring blokes saved from the hangman’s noose to serve their Queen.
The Dee Sanction is a game that focuses heavily on the narrative; there are times when dice will be rolled, and mechanics are in place to govern these times. Only the players roll dice to resolve a Challenge. If they fail—or Falter—the player can expect their Agent to suffer.
Agents are selected by Dee based on their backstories and their network of connections. Tradecraft represents this pool of resources from which the whole group will draw. The team chooses one of the six Tradecraft after being briefed on a mission’s nature. The selection refreshes at the start of each adventure. Tradecraft has narrative and mechanical value with two possible uses. The team of Agents benefits from the value of the Tradecraft as if it is one of their general ability, or can Deplete it to cancel or neutralize a Mark. The latter represents their ability to prepare for the unexpected. Marks are integral to mission accomplishment, each mission milestone having one or more Marks.
Challenges are situations where success or failure is in question. Gamemasters should clearly telegraph the positive and negative outcomes of the Challenge, name the Resource involved, and determine if any Advantage or Disadvantage applies. The player rolls the die associated with the Resource. If the result is a 1 or 2, the Challenge Falters; the Agent suffers the consequence previously telegraphed—always failing forward. Any other result is a success, and the intended outcome is achieved.
When a situation favors the Agent, the Gamemaster can Step Up the Resource to the next higher die, representing the increased likelihood of success. Conversely, if the Gamemaster assesses that the circumstances, conditions, or lack of equipment work against the Agent, they can Step Down the Resource to the next lower die.
The Order of Bloodshed—Combat—is played out in Moments. Moments consist of four stages—Check Initiative, State Goal, Resolve Attacks, and Handle Damage. At the start of each Moment, group initiative is determined; on a Falter, enemies act first. Goals are declared each Moment. Goals are simple and often include an “and” connector. For example, “I move past the guard and snatch the keys.” Agents focusing on one thing do it with greater magnitude. The example given is, “I run as fast as I can.” This Agent will move at least twice as far as someone who moves and does something else. Attacks are resolved as a Physicall challenge, adjusted for circumstances. Players roll for both attack and defense. Successful Attacks deal Damage. Successfully Defending the Agent avoids any harm. On a Falter—The GM rolls for Hit Resolution to determine the harm or Consequences inflicted. Handling Damage is a matter of applying Damage to an Agent’s Hits; at zero Hits, the Agent is “Out of Action” and dying and might yet be saved.
Some situations inflict Consequences. Consequences are conditions that can last anywhere from a Moment (Fallen or Flanked) to situations requiring a doctor or apothecary’s care to resolve (broken arm or poisoned).
Unraveling measures the effects of exposure to unnatural horrors. When tested, a Falter lowers the die to the next lower value. The Agent experiences a temporary shift in their humours—the equilibrium of elements that shapes their personality and wellbeing. A second test is made to determine if there are short- or long-term effects.
These, along with a few other secondary rules, make up the core of the mechanical engine of The Dee Sanction. The rules are full of archaic, Middle English language that may confuse some readers, but don’t get hung up on the language. The rules themselves are simple and elegant in their design despite the archaic terms, propelling the story ever forward, never holding it back.
Resources Available to Thee
There are a whole host of resources within the book to help Gamemasters learn more about the historical and fictional period in which the game takes place. In addition to these sections, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to “GM Tools.” This chapter, in particular, contains all the information necessary to effectively and efficiently run the game.
The Dee Sanction also includes one starter scenario—”Lost in Translation”—to quickly get players into the action. The scenario occurs when John Dee and Edward Kelley are touring European courts in pursuit of occult knowledge, noble assistance, and a greater understanding of communication with angels. The Agents are part of Dee’s entourage. Dr. Dee dispatches the Agents with the challenge of discovering the location of a lost Polish relic. Using an “angelic” guide, they find themselves on a farm on the outskirts of Krakow, needing provisions. Not everything is as it seems, and the Agents will need to work it out.
Several appendices provide additional resources include several tables, an all-important glossary of terms, random names, and a bestiary.
The totality of the available resources makes the Gamemaster’s job easier, reducing the already minimal learning curve. The introductory scenario is well crafted and multi-dimensional, giving players a taste of beliefs once held. It introduces the idea that all are shades of grey and that the right answer is often not the easiest. The adventure intentionally leaves the endgame ambiguous. The potential for a moral quandary is ever-present. It will challenge players’ modern way of thinking in resolving the situation. I found it to be a great foundational scenario to teach players core game concepts and allow Gamemasters to introduce two advanced concepts—Troupe Play and Keeping a Journal.
Factors of Form and Vysual Appeal
The Dee Sanction is available in three formats—digital, softcover, and limited edition hardcover. The physical books are A5 (5.8 x 8.3 inches), with each version having a unique cover and black and white interiors. The books have visually appealing covers, with sparse black and white illustrations used throughout. All keywords are in bold typeface to draw the reader’s attention. While this is normally very helpful here, it has a tendency to become a distraction on some pages that are heavily laden with keywords. The digital version features bookmarks but lacks a hyperlinked Table of Contents.
The Dee Sanction is a game I’m glad that I supported and backed on Kickstarter. It is not just for its interesting occult and quasi-historical themes, but because the gaming community needs more diverse and well-designed games, The Dee Sanction is one such game!
Gamers who appreciate elegance and simplicity will find The Dee Sanction approachable, easy to learn, teach to others, and fosters great stories. Those who also happen to be interested in Tudor history or the occult will also find these themes solidly at the game’s core—not merely an afterthought. Everything about the game’s mechanics further supports its themes.
The publisher has already released additional material, and more is in the works—its long-term success and support seem assured. I’m looking forward to getting this to the table for my regular gamers!
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