Dark Is Bringing Stealth Action To Tabletop RPGs

Jonathan Bolding | 28 Feb 2014 12:00
Tabletop - RSS 2.0

JB: Some recent games, like, say, Torchbearer, have a mechanical feel that's closer to a finely crafted co-op boardgame than an RPG or Story Game. Where do you think Dark will sit in relation to those kinds of works?

WH: Dark offers some pretty specific rules and mechanisms for handling play that can help the GM make dramatic choices or in-character decisions without being adversarial or steering play with too heavy a hand. That helps individual situations - sometimes whole scenarios - unfold just by playing out the interactions between the PCs and the game world and its NPCs. In my experience, though, as the players' characters develop over time and the game world gets further customized with rivals and villains and allies throughout play, the game's inherent rhythms sort of relax. Dark is an inherently episodic game, on its own, but play can emerge from that to expand campaigns from something mission-driven to something that feels more like an open-world game.

In other words, my aim is to provide enough structure to hold up whole campaigns, but as characters and histories and narratives build up, they can become load-bearing structures. After that, it's not necessary to rely on only the structures I provide.

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JB: In Dark, the GM rolls dice to determine outcomes while the players use cards. There's something special about the players using soft, whispering cards and the GM rolling large clattering dice. I'm not sure if this is a question, but, thoughts?

WH: Playing cards give the players a different kind of decision-making power during the game and allow a degree of nuance and risk that feels different from a single roll of a volatile die. There's a certain amount of competence built into each player's deck that helps each character feel capable and fun to play. If I have bought up a few cards to be worth a lot of points, I know those cards are in the deck, waiting to come out, in a way that I can only hope I'll eventually roll a critical hit in other games.

(Admittedly, I have terrible luck with dice as a player. I've seen many characters diminished because of bad die rolls and GMs who felt the only way to express those rolls was to blame the character. So that informs my appreciation for the cards.)

The GM's dice, meanwhile, still allow for the breathless tension of the occasional random result. Rather than put that on the PCs, though, Dark puts the randomness on the NPCs, which increases the volatility of the game world, absolves the GM of certain decisions, and shifts the occasional bad-luck roll onto less vital characters. The dice can help the GM make some impartial decisions, too, which helps diminish some of the adversarial dynamics that might develop at the table - without completely declawing the GM when it comes to populating the game world with fearsome opponents.

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JB: How do Dark's mechanics lend themselves to the theme? One strong example will do here.

WH: One of the simple things Dark does is to describe NPC behaviors as part of their game statistics. Each NPC has a numerical rating in three behavioral stats - Tolerance, Vigilance, and Bravery - that act as a kind of guide to playing that NPC. Those numerical ratings get backed up by a short line of text describing what that number means for that NPC. So the brave palace guards might be sworn to protect their queen, believing their fate in the afterlife depends on it, while a similarly brave butler might believe his job is to protect the royal scepter for the sake of the kingdom's continuity of power. They might both be rated at Bravery 5 but they'll react differently to actions taken against them or the queen.

These little descriptions are simple details but they help the setting come alive and, just as importantly, they help the NPCs and the game world feel like it existed before the players' infiltrators ever intervened. This way the GM has a little more to go on when portraying these characters. The interaction between the players' characters and the game world gets informed by more than just drama or gameplay challenge alone.

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