Dark Is Bringing Stealth Action To Tabletop RPGs

Jonathan Bolding | 28 Feb 2014 12:00
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The thief, that garrulous rogue, hero of the picaresque, has been part of fantasy stories for a long time. Heroes like the Gray Mouser or Cugel the Clever date back to the earliest days of 20th Century fantasy writing. Video games, too, aren't without their fantastic protagonists. Thief: The Dark Project was perhaps one of the most innovative games of its time, and fondly remembered enough to warrant a reboot this year as Thief. It's surprising, then, that tabletop RPGs - analog games - haven't ever quite captured that feeling.

Will Hindmarch has been working on changing that. His project Dark - funding on Kickstarter right now - is aimed at capturing the feeling of moving silently. Of being an outsider in an established world. It's a fantasy world where thieves ply the shadows of a vast city, stealing from others for their own ends. He explained it to me: "In a lot of RPGs, combat is the ultimate form of interaction with the game world. Triumphing over monsters or villains is the primary mode of changing the course of the adventure or shaping the story. I wanted to see more RPGs that hinge on other priorities, and stealth gameplay is one of my favorite styles." If roleplaying games are all about exploring a fictional world, reasoned Hindmarch, then isn't the silent observer a kind of protagonist they desperately needed?

To be fair, Hindmarch isn't being shy about who made this style of play really work for the first time. "My love of the Thief and Splinter Cell games is written all over the internet. Dishonored is another recent influence, though my game's been in development in one form or another since before [it] came out."

The power of these games, to Hindmarch, was how they allowed the players to move through the world. Nobody was blundering about being a hero. Nobody was planning the grand assault or convincing the King to go to Gondor's aid. The people of these worlds were just going about their lives until the player comes along. "A trespassing player character gets to see the game world behaving in ways that action heroes don't often get to see," he said. "They get to see the world calm or at rest, scheming or preparing for action - they get to see how characters in the game world act when they think no one's watching or on what they believe is an ordinary day.

"Instead of seeing heroes and villains at their best or their worst, at their most desperate, players get to explore and witness lots of other states and attitudes."

To crown his take on the genre Hindmarch chose to base his mechanics on something less than traditional - playing cards. It's certainly not the first game to use them, as Hindmarch acknowledged. "The first playing-card RPG I played must've been Castle Falkenstein," he said. But it's clear that he's done his research, and is influenced both by the games of the past and the modern surge of deck-building games and "For a long time, like a decade or more, I've been wanting to design an RPG where each players gets their own deck of cards to describe their character. This probably grew out of the great fun I had playing the card-driven SAGA games for Marvel Super Heroes and Dragonlance. We played those a bunch and then I hacked them into different styles and genres for a while."

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