GameCentral previews the latest Dark Souls game: a tabletop role-playing adaptation that uses Dungeons & Dragons as its foundation.
Death isn’t a regular occurrence in Dungeons & Dragons. The tabletop role-playing landscape is changing for the darker though and there’s none of the usual magical shenanigans to save you in the forthcoming Dark Souls tabletop role-playing game. It went up for pre-order last week from Steamforged, who have already produced a board game and card game based on developer FromSoftware’s Dark Souls franchise, and we got our hands on a preview copy to let you know what to expect.
Elden Ring is certain to give gamers a run for their money in the difficulty stakes and that’s what you expect from the Souls franchise and its punishing live-die-repeat cycle. The idea that you need to become familiar with what’s round the corner, to plan its demise instead of yours, means tentatively exploring the environment step by step.
Traps and enemies punish unwary travellers and there’s no such thing as an easy opponent. This sense of exploration and adventure fits the Dungeons & Dragons campaign mould well, even if dying doesn’t. And though there are still some questions about how well Dark Souls suits the Dungeons & Dragons 5e rule-set a full campaign is still an enticing prospect.
Most Dungeons & Dragons campaigns are based around a co-operative levelling experience, where players’ characters typically start out with enough spells and equipment to get by and then attempt to increase their skills over time, until, years later, they might hit level 20 and be able to tackle a medium sized dragon or two. Here there is no chance to thrive and prosper, as the spectre of death is ever present as you play. Used to choosing chaotic good? Lothric is a world of moral ambiguity, so there’s no alignment here – just strangeness and fragments.
In Dark Souls everyone plays as Unkindled but you get to chose what kind when you start, with the character creation section of the sourcebook including pages that suggest backstories, memories, and driving forces. Did you seek to be a great Lord of Lothric before you died, your last memory that of cheering crowds? Or perhaps your drive is to earn redemption and cleanse yourself before restoring the first flame to life.
Invoking these three core character elements gives you roll bonuses such as a save roll or a reroll when things get tough. There are also four origins which give you your initial stats at the start of the campaign – The Brute, The Fencer, The Jack of all Trades, and The Caster – and these determine your specialities and your special bonuses.
There are 10 bespoke character classes, including the familiar Warrior and Thief or the blank slate of the Deprived – a character class who starts with absolutely nothing. Your last memory acts as the starting point for your story. Each time you die, you feel parts of yourself being whittled away, as you risk leaving yourself a mindless husk. But while Dark Souls has made it its business to focus on stripping your humanity away and breaking apart your party there’s some exciting new mechanics that can swing things in your favour.
The Position mechanic is the biggest change from the standard 5e ruleset. The health and stamina bars seen in the video game have been combined in a single easy-to-keep-track-of value called Position. It can be spent like stamina to allow a reroll or tweak special attributes of equipment or skills. Position increases as you level up but it’s always finite and, just like stamina, using it recklessly can leave you exposed. And guess what, enemies have Position they can spend as well.
Another new mechanic is Bloodied, where as enemies get to half health the more powerful ones can get extra attacks and bonuses, just like the games. Luckily, your party will also get some bonuses, so your battles aren’t completely bleak affairs. But if during combat, half of your party dies, then the whole party fails. Pray for a lucky roll as you’ll need it. When you respawn by a bonfire you’ll have lost all your collected souls and maybe even a part of your humanity, as there are no death saves in the Dark Souls RPG. If your Position reaches zero, you’re dead for good.
Magic is at the core of many Dungeons & Dragons campaigns and while the Vancian magic system used in 5e has been binned there’s a flexible new system that makes more sense as something inspired by the video game. Magic users have attunement slots, and each spell takes up a certain number of slots. If you have enough Position you can use it to cast impressive spells, blessings, and pyromancies.
Dark Souls is a compelling kingdom of the damned for any Games Master to build a campaign in. Lothric is a world of danger, blood, and trepidation as you journey from the cemetery of Ash to follow the Road of Sacrifices onto the Profaned Capital. Along the way you’ll have to fight Yhorm the Giant and the Nameless King, all with Bloodied abilities that can end your game in an instant.
As you open your copy of the Dark Souls RPG you are met with a page that just says, ‘You Died’ – to act as a reminder that that’s why you’re here, and it’s probably how you’ll end up. The only limit in a tabletop role-playing game is your imagination and the roll of the die, so in that sense the meticulously designed world of the Dark Souls video games seems a poor match.
The board game may be closer to the original mechanically but the magic of From’s storytelling is that everything is left purposefully vague, so that you can create personalised explanations for what’s going on in your own head. That though is the essence of tabletop role-playing and by expanding on that element the Dark Souls role-playing game becomes a more successful adaptation than you might imagine.
By Lucy Orr
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