Tag Archives: Dark Souls

Fight off, dodge, or block

Some Dark Souls dude

Some Dark Souls dude

The combat system for my Stonehell Dark Souls game has drifted steadily away from traditional monster attack rolls toward monological combat (in short, players always roll, similar to Apocalypse World and Numenera).

Brief recap. In the initial December formulation, players chose between blocking or dodging (resolved using ability checks but also risking running out of stamina) or having the ref make a traditional monster attack roll versus character armor class. The trade-off was between relying entirely on ability scores or pitting character armor class against a monster’s potentially high attack bonus.

Making rules stick. In the past, I have sometimes had trouble getting combat house rules to stick because it is so easy to fall back on a familiar procedure, even when new rules result in more engaging outcomes and are advantageous to players. However, from the start of experimenting with the Dark Souls inspired active defense options, and across several groups of players with varying levels of tabletop roleplaying game experience, the active defenses seemed to remain top of mind. During the most recent session, players only ever defended actively, never letting the monsters make attack rolls, even with the risk of running out of stamina, which is punishing. I draw several lessons from this experience.

Choice prompts. First, the explicit choice prompt is an effective and low-maintenance way of communicating formal rules without needing non-referee players to read any rules (“zero homework” requirement). This is huge. Making such prompts habitual . This does place some constraints on potential rules, since the procedure must be fluent enough to survive being deployed all the time. That opposes complexity bloat which is positive more often than not.

Active options. Second, active options, assuming equal player effort requirements, have an advantage over passive options (such as submitting to a monster attack roll). Risking overgeneralization, I suspect this is universally true because players prefer a sense of control keeping all other factors constant.

Proposal. What follows is the procedure I am now considering, with parts that have not been play-tested in bold. Previously, armor class was a traditional passive defense score, but the approach below requires damage-reducing armor.

Resolve Monster Actions

  1. Determine actions for each monster.
  2. Match groups of monsters with defenders.
  3. Resolve defenses.


When monsters attack, to the defending player ask:

“Do you fight off the attack, dodge, block with a shield, or react in some other way?”

Resolve as specified below or by using the most relevant ability check.

Fight off. To defend using a melee weapon, roll the weapon’s damage and add the result to armor rating this turn, then suffer monster damage. In effect, this defends by comparing damage potential between player character and monster.

Shield block. To defend using a shield, make STR check (success → suffer no damage, failure → suffer ½ damage) and CON check (failure → out of stamina).

Dodge. To avoid monster attacks, make DEX check (success → suffer no damage, failure → suffer monster damage) and CON check (failure → out of stamina).

Suffer Damage

Add the damage from all monsters threatening a player character together, subtract armor rating from the total, and then suffer this amount of damage.


  • The fighting off procedure uses one roll per adventurer no matter the number of monsters. This means that the fight off option is more easily overwhelmed by multiple monsters, since the player character damage roll opposes multiple monster damage rolls added together.
  • Not needing to make tons of attack rolls for a host of enemies is a nice added bonus.
  • To simplify presentation for this post, I left out one small step, where player characters can intercede to block for an ally assuming the positioning makes sense fictionally. This can happen during the matching of monsters with defenders (step 2).
Playtest results

Playtest results

Scavenge Dungeon Move

The playbooks inspired by Dark Souls that I am developing for my current Stonehell game do not include traditional attack bonuses derived from class and level. Ability bonuses do contribute to attack competence, and ability scores do improve with advancement, but the scope of bonuses is the stingy B/X +0 to +3. To fill the game role of the attack bonus, Adventurers may enchant weapons. I envision a mechanism similar to that of Dark Souls, where players gather item drops such as titanite shards from monsters and then pay smiths to improve weapons using those resources.

Scavenging and Moves

To gather Monster Parts as resources for later use, Adventurers can use the Scavenge Dungeon Move if there are monster remains available (such as following successful combat). In the Hazard System, Adventurers take Dungeon Turns to make Dungeon Moves. Some example defined moves are Climb, Explore, and Search. This is similar to the various traditional D&D X in 6 checks, though more formalized. In practice, players often need not declare Moves explicitly (though they can), but, for example, the referee will naturally interpret moving from one dungeon area to another as the Explore Move and call for a Hazard Die throw. Making Scavenge a Move means that players expend dungeon time in exchange for weapon improvement resources.

Monster Parts as Incentives

Such resources also provide an incentive to engage monsters, though not necessarily directly. Since one can scavenge the corpse of a trapped monster killed from afar just as easily as one slain in a fair fight, and with less risk, players are rewarded for clever stratagems. Hunting monsters for parts also requires taking care to not damage the goods in the process. Unlike in traditional D&D, in my games Adventurers do not get any XP for blasting an enemy to smithereens with a fireball. This incentivizes player creativity much like rewarding experience points for treasure spent, though the best strategies may differ. (I am also rewarding XP for treasure spent.)

Monster Parts and Improving Weapons

Monster Parts can lend additional properties to weapons, such as fire enchantment from fire monsters. Improvise Monster Parts properties using common sense. There is no need to preemptively design a complicated taxonomy. For example, assuming traditional monsters, Monster Parts Scavenged from giant centipedes might be Poison Monster Parts. To increase the difficulty of improving weapons, have only uncommon or rare monster corpses supply useful Monster Parts. I think allowing brutal weapons or creepy upgraded weapons to be built out of common orc or skeleton parts could be fun though. I generally prefer to make just about all possibilities open to low-level characters so I plan to follow the second route (making all monsters provide Monster Parts).

For simplicity, do not differentiate between monsters with regard to quantity of Monster Parts available. One Adventurer Scavenges Monster Parts from one monster with one Dungeon Move and that exhausts the monster carcass. Specific or unique monsters may be exceptions to this rule. Six parts per Gear Slot seems like a reasonable default for encumbrance, though this is also something that can easily be adjusted by situational ruling. Maybe dragon Monster Parts take up a full slot per part.

Determining Degree of Scavenge Success

I am planning initially to make Scavenge success depend on a Wisdom Check. Make the check, gain 2 Monster Parts. Fail, gain 1 Monster Part. Critically succeed, gain 3 Monster Parts. Critically fail, spoil the remains. A critical success is the best result from the d20 or success by four or more.This follows my general approach for d20 partial success, based on the OD&D purple worm swallow mechanic. In shorthand, gain degree of success +1 Monster Parts.

Alternatively, substitute some system other than a Wisdom Check to determine Scavenging effectiveness, or just grant a unit of Monster Parts for spending a turn and enduring the roll of the Hazard Die. A simple d6 roll would work, avoiding the influence of ability scores, as would an Apocalypse Engine 2d6 roll with success thresholds at 7+ and 10+. Time passing and resource attrition are the important trade-offs.

Since enchanted weapons are powered by the Adventurer’s soul, improving weapons early in the game need not flood the fictional world with glowing +1 swords.

How many Monster Parts are required to upgrade a weapon and how much does it cost? That seems like a topic for another post and will probably require some experimentation and adjustment during play testing. This post has gone long enough. To end, have a formal rule in the Hazard System style.

Dungeon Move: Scavenge

To Scavenge the corpse of a defeated monster, make a Wisdom Check, scavenging Monster Parts equal to the degree of success + 1. Note any special Monster Parts properties, such as poison, slime, or fire.

Stonehell: Prepare to Die blocking and dodging

Knight blocking (image source)

Knight blocking (image source)

Blocking and dodging are an iconic part of Dark Souls combat. While I do not want to model Dark Souls combat entirely, I do want to inject some of that feeling while maintaining the randomness necessary for engaging B/X combat and also not changing the core combat engine or making it significantly more complicated.

The Shield Block and Dodge reactions replace the monster attack roll and so must be declared prior to throwing the monster attack roll dice. When a monster attacks, the referee should say to the adventurer player (paraphrasing): the monster is attacking you, do you want to block or dodge? and then proceed with the appropriate procedure.

The approach outlined below in essence allows the player to use strength or dexterity as their defense stat, instead of armor class. This also eliminates the effect of the monster attack bonus, and so will often, especially for particularly fearsome monsters, be probabilistically advantageous. The downside is that blocking or dodging risks running out of stamina, represented by a constitution check. This trades chance of near future danger for immediate benefit.

Knight dodging (image source)

Knight dodging (image source)

Characters that are out of stamina are sluggish and do not fight as effectively. They may not block or dodge and make all physical rolls, including attack rolls and ability checks, with disadvantage.

Blocking is more effective (even when the strength check result is failure the adventurer suffers less damage) while dodging consumes an adventurer’s per-turn movement allowance.

Some attacks are difficult to block (strength check success → half damage, strength check failure → full damage) or impossible to block (suffer full damage no matter what). Players must discover which attacks are able to be blocked through play. In general, this should follow common sense; don’t try to block a giant’s club.

Reaction: Shield Block

To block an enemy’s attack, make a strength check. On success, suffer no damage. On failure, suffer half damage (round up).

Also make a constitution check to avoid running out of stamina.

Playbook cue:
Make STR check (failure → ½ damage) and CON check (failure → out of stamina).

Reaction: Dodge

To avoid an enemy’s attack, make a dexterity check. One dodge can avoid multiple enemy attacks if fictionally reasonable.

Also make a constitution check to avoid running out of stamina.

An adventurer may not move after dodging on a turn during which the adventurer dodged.

Playbook cue:
Make DEX check and CON check (failure → out of stamina). Avoids multiple attacks.

Action: Recover Stamina

To recover stamina, spend a combat action.

Playbook cue:
Spend combat action.

(2016-12-08 Edit: recovering stamina used to require a successful CON check but I think that may be too harsh.)

Condition: Out of Stamina

Make all physical rolls with disadvantage.

Blocking and dodging are impossible.

Stamina recovers automatically following combat.

Summoner and Pyromancer playbooks

Here are Summoner and Pyromancer playbooks. The playbooks include instructions for creating an adventurer along with core rule cues. Below are slightly more precise spell rules.

This summoner is a tightened up version of the OD&D summoning rules I posted a while back.

As a reminder, intelligence checks control how many times an adventurer can cast a spell. After casting and resolving a spell, the adventurer makes an INT check. Failure means the adventurer looses the spell. Spells refresh during downtime.

Summoner Spells

To cast summoning spells or use magic, adventurers must have a catalyst in a hand slot.


Bind a neutral or friendly creature as a minion.

Hostile creatures and creatures of higher level than the summoner get a saving throw.

Minions resist commands that are suicidal or anathema.

Compel resisting minions with a CHA check. Failure breaks the charm.

Previously charmed creatures become hostile when liberated.


In a puff of smoke, a monster appears. Determine monster randomly.

Choose: careful, reckless, or named.

Careful results in a monster with level not exceeding the summoner’s.

Reckless could summon anything, even a duke of hell.

Named summons a creature by true name, which must be known.

Optional: choose a minion specialty. Summoners with a specialty may opt to summon minions of the chosen type during any particular summoning occasion. When summoning in this manner, determine specifics of summoned creature randomly within desired type. Once chosen, the specialty may not be changed though summoners may acquire additional specialties through play.


Draw a boundary, either circle or line, on the ground with a catalyst.

Summoned or extra-dimensional creatures may not transgress this boundary.

Pyromancy Spells

To cast pyromancy spells, adventurers must summon a pyromancy flame.

Adventurers knowing pyromancy spells may summon or dismiss pyromancy flames as an action.

A pyromancy flame occupies a hand slot.

Pyromancy flames are fist-sized, hovering, smoking spheres of dim pulsing fire that smell acridly of sulfur and seared tar. They shed about as much light as a dying ember. The odor makes concealment difficult.


Deal 1d6 + (1d6 × Level) damage (save for ½) to all in an area.

Flaming Weapon

Ignite a weapon. Weapon deals +1d6 damage and damage is magical.

The enchantment persists as an expiring resource during exploration.

Stonehell: Prepare to Die weapons

Dark Souls zweihander (personal photo)

Big sword from Dark Souls 1 (personal photo)

Combat house rules are hard to remember in the heat of the moment, so these are designed to augment traditional B/X procedures. If players do not learn the options or forget to use them, the game will not be much harmed. Applying these procedures should help create the feel of Dark Souls tactics to the degree permitted by traditional tabletop RPG rules. The final playbooks will also include reminder cues to help players. I tried to keep new rules to the absolute minimum required to support basic Dark Souls actions.

For now, shields just grant the standard traditional +1 AC. A Dark Souls emulator deserves better than that, but I also do not want it to slow down combat or make adventurers too tough. I do not like rules that allow adventurers to sacrifice a shield to avoid a hit.

Starting Weapons

All playbooks provide an initial melee weapon proportional to starting strength. Some provide a missile weapon as well, proportional to initial dexterity. The instructions section of each playbook includes available initial weapon choices. See below for a compiled list of starting weapons.

Two-Handed Weapons

Adventurers with an ability score high enough to use a weapon may wield it one-handed. Some weapons may be used two-handed to deal extra damage. When using a melee weapon two-handed, roll two damage dice and take the larger result (that is, roll damage with advantage).


Adventurers may wield a weapon in each hand, allowing two attacks per combat turn. However, dual-wielded weapons are limited by the lowest of both strength and dexterity. For example, an adventurer with strength 14 and dexterity 10 wielding two weapons may only use weapons that deal 1d6 damage or less. Further, dual-wielding prevents using a shield or any other off-hand item. When dual-wielding, both attacks must be rolled at once. Combatants may not save one attack for a potential parry (see below).

Critical Hits

When a critical hit occurs, players can choose to inflict either double or full damage. For double damage, roll the weapon die twice and then apply any other modifiers. For full damage, do not roll damage but rather use the highest potential result of the weapon die. For example, a critical hit with a longsword (a 1d10 weapon) will inflict either 2d10 or 10 base damage, according to the player’s choice. Natural 20s inflict critical hits, as do strong attacks, parrying counterattacks, and sneak attacks (see below).

Strong Attacks

Successful strong attacks are critical hits. However, strong attacks leave the attacker open to counterattack, reducing the attacker’s AC to 10 (unarmored) temporarily unless the strong attack reduces an enemy to zero hit points, in which case AC is unaffected. Because of this, strong attacks are best used finish off enemies. Reduced AC from a strong attack persists until the adventurer that made the strong attack acts again.

Parrying Counterattacks

Rather than attack, a combatant may try to parry and counterattack. This requires waiting for an opponent to attack. Resolve a parry with opposed attack rolls rather than static armor class. If the parry is successful, the combatant parrying inflicts a critical hit for taking advantage of an opponent’s opening. Parrying is only possible against opponents wielding weapons.

Sneak Attacks

Concealed adventurers may make sneak attacks with melee weapons. Sneak attacks are made with advantage and inflict critical hits. Melee weapons used for a sneak attack are limited by both strength and dexterity. For example, an adventurer with strength 14 and dexterity 12 may use weapons dealing 1d8 damage for a sneak attack. Following a sneak attack, successful or otherwise, make a dexterity check (with disadvantage if base AC is higher than 12) to determine if the adventurer remains concealed. Concealed combatants may not be targeted directly.

Blunt Weapons

Blunt weapons (for example, caestus, club, and mace) are more effective against some enemies but are also more clumsy than other weapons. Exactly what clumsy means must be ruled situationally by the referee but may include occurrences such as striking after an opponent with a more agile weapon.


(This upgrade system replaces the attack bonus rule described in the previous post.)

Upgrade weapons during downtime by bringing special resources, along with personal essence freely given, to a blacksmith or enchanter. Weapons may be improved up to +5 and can be infused with other magical powers. Enchantment bonuses apply only to attack rolls, not damage rolls. Elemental enchantments modify the type of damage inflicted and can sometimes augment amount of damage.

Special resources may be explicit external treasure but can also be harvested abstractly from defeated enemies according to the magical principle of similarity. For example, the essence of a monster that breathes fire would be useful for a fire enchantment. Record abstract essences in HD or level terms. Such monster essences do not occupy item slots.

The process of improving a weapon links it to the wielder’s soul. Because of this, the original wielder suffers any damage the current wielder takes, making it unwise to lend your enchanted weapon to another. (Yes, this means that stealing an enemy’s linked weapon and cutting yourself is a strategy. Good luck with that.) The improvement process uses the personal essence to create the link between living soul and item. Such personal essence can take many forms. For example, blood, hair, or valued secrets. The details of the essence affects the weapon’s physical manifestation.

Since enchanted items draw their power from living souls, such items rarely persist beyond the death of their original wielder. Rarely, a wielder’s power and personality are so strong that an enchantment is permanently burned into the item. Such legendary items are unique and sought after.


A bleeding combatant suffers one damage per combat turn. Bleeding is easily staunched after combat. Some weapons, such as katanas, cause bleeding.


Poison of the common variety inflicts one damage per dungeon turn and can only be cured by consuming an antidote. Uncommon and rare poisons may have other effects. Most poisons allow an initial constitution saving throw to completely resist the effect.

In game design terms, bleeding and poison are fast and slow hit point attrition effects.

Melee Weapons

1d4 caestus dagger broken straight sword
 caestus  dagger  broken-straight-sword
1d6 club hand axe short sword
 club hand-axe  shortsword
1d8 broadsword mace scimitar
 broadsword mace scimitar
1d10 battle axe longsword spear
 battle-axe long-sword spear
1d12 bastard sword greataxe halberd
 bastard-sword greataxe halberd

Missile Weapons

1d6 shortbow light crossbow
 short-bow  light-crossbow
1d8 longbow heavy crossbow
long-bow heavy-crossbow

Crossbows can be used with a single hand but take an action to reload.

Bows must be wielded with both hands.

Weapon images are from Dark Souls 3.

Stonehell: Prepare to Die playbook overview

Adventurer playbook determines starting ability scores, starting HP pool, starting gear, and starting spells (when appropriate).

Initially, I am developing four playbooks based on Dark Souls classes and one custom playbook. The four playbooks inspired by Dark Souls are Bandit, Deprived, Knight, and Pyromancer. The custom playbook is the Summoner and is based heavily on the OD&D summoner I posted before.

Playbook HP Pool Str Dex Con Int Wis Cha
Bandit 1d10 16 12 12 9 9 9
Deprived 1d4 9 9 9 9 9 9
Knight 1d12 14 10 14 9 10 11
Pyromancer 1d6 10 10 10 12 10 9
Summoner 1d6 9 12 10 13 10 12
My first Dark Souls dude, with a shield

My first Dark Souls dude, with a shield

Similar to Dark Souls, all adventurers sharing a playbook start with identical ability scores, as shown above. Players differentiate adventurers primarily through advancement choices during play though there are also a few choices per playbook regarding starting gear.

I chose these 5 playbooks because they include a damage-oriented melee class (the Bandit), a defense-oriented melee class (the Knight), a damage-oriented ranged class (the Pyromancer), and a hard-mode class (the Deprived). The Summoner provides a magic-using class that relies on minions.

The full list of potential playbooks includes Bandit, Cleric, Deprived, Hunter, Knight, Pyromancer, Sorcerer, Summoner, Thief, and Warrior. The playbooks of next-highest priority to me are the Hunter (for a non-magical ranged class) and the Sorcerer (for a more general magic-user).

Most adventurer capabilities are determined by ability scores, which also have approximately the same bonuses (and meanings) as in traditional B/X. Ability scores are also used for traditional roll-under (<=) ability checks. Disadvantage, as in fifth edition, means to roll two dice and take the least favorable result.


Strength and dexterity determine which melee and missile weapons (respectively) an adventurer my use without penalty, categorized by damage die, as shown in the table below. For example, an adventurer with strength at least 10 may use melee weapons that deal 1d4 or 1d6 damage. Adventurers may use weapons with greater die sizes, but make attack rolls with disadvantage when doing so and do not add ability bonuses.

Score Die
8 1d4
10 1d6
12 1d8
14 1d10
16 1d12


Constitution, in addition to adding HP to the HP Pool and functioning as an endurance or fortitude saving throw, limits the adventurer’s max AC. For example, an adventurer with constitution of 14 may wear armor that grants up to AC 14. Adventurers wearing armor granting AC higher than the constitution score make all physical tests (ability checks and attack rolls) with disadvantage. Unarmored AC is 10 (including for the Deprived, even though the Deprived begins with constitution of 9).

Attack Bonus

Edit: the weapon upgrade rules replace the attack bonus.

Adventurers have an attack bonus (determined by level). Add the attack bonus to attack rolls made when using a weapon that does not exceed ability score damage die limits. For example, an adventurer with strength 10 that attacks with a 1d10 weapon does not add the attack bonus (and in fact makes the attack roll with disadvantage, as described above). The attack bonus is calculated as level divided by two, rounded up, plus one (or consult the following table).

Level Attack Bonus
1 +2
3 +3
5 +4
7 +5
9 +6


HP Pool

Potential adventurer HP is recorded as a dice expression plus the constitution bonus. At first level, this will include one die (and possibly a bonus, depending on playbook). For example, the knight begins with an HP Pool of 1d12 + 1. An example of a higher-level HP pool is:

1d12 + 1d6 + 1d6 + 1

Adventurers recover by re-rolling their HP Pool when resting in safety.

Carrying Capacity

Adventurers may equip several location-specific items (head, torso, left hand, right hand) and have an additional set of item slots equal to the strength score. Some items may be bundled, such as throwing knives. Such items require only a single item slot up to the bundle limit. Bundle limits are determined by specific items. For example, the bundle limit of throwing knives is 6.


Intelligence determines number of spells an adventurer can know (intelligence – 10, min 0). For example, an adventurer with intelligence 13 can know up to 3 spells. After casting a spell, an adventurer must make an intelligence check. If the adventurer fails this check, that spell may not be used again until the adventurer rests in safety. This makes the number of spell uses uncertain, but never less than 1.


Charisma determines number of minions an adventurer can control (charisma – 10, min 0). For example, an adventurer with charisma 12 can control up to 2 minions. Commanding minions requires charisma checks in some circumstances. The charisma bonus applies to minion attack and damage rolls.


To gain a level, spend coins equal to level multiplied by 1000. For example, to advance from second to third level, spend 2000 coins worth of treasure. Merchants are only interested in coins, gems, and precious artifacts. The focus of these rules is not on scavenging curtains and furniture from dungeons (not that there is anything wrong with that). Adventurers may advance in level wherever they can spend treasure, including deep within a dungeon, assuming the can find a merchant to deal with.

When gaining a level, adventurers add 1d6 to the HP Pool, choose one ability score to increase by one point, and increase the attack bonus (for odd levels). The maximum adventurer level is 10. Ability scores may not be raised above 18.

For moderate niche protection, I set playbook starting ability scores so that non-magical classes must dedicate one level of advancement to increasing intelligence before they can start learning spells. That is, advancing intelligence from 9 to 10 requires a level but does not grant any spell slots (since 10 – 10 = 0). The adventurer must then spend another level (increasing intelligence to 11) to gain the first spell slot. Advancing from 9 to 10 is not totally without mechanical benefit, even though it does not grant a spell slot, since saving throws versus magic use intelligence checks.

Ability Bonuses

The strength bonus adds to melee attacks and damage. The dexterity bonus adds to missile attacks and damage (but not AC). The constitution bonus adds to the HP Pool. The wisdom bonus adds to miracle effects (to be discussed in a future post). The intelligence bonus adds to spell effects (such as damage). The charisma bonus adds to minion attack and damage rolls. All other resolution systems use simple ability checks. For example, reaction rolls are handled as charisma checks. Ability score bonuses follow the traditional B/X schedule of tiers made up of 13-15, 16-17, and 18.

Score Bonus
13 +1
16 +2
18 +3

Stonehell: Prepare to Die


  • Use a chassis similar to B/X
  • Use a published dungeon and structure the setting around the dungeon
  • Reinterpret dungeon elements using a Dark Souls filter


On the frontier of the central kingdom, the High King Vollrath built a fortress in the mouth of a dusty box canyon. Though billed as a borderlands fort, the location was not strategic. The extensive excavation and heavily loaded provisioning caravans were out of all proportion with a mundane outpost. After completion, visitors slowed and then stopped. One day the gates closed and did not reopen. For months, lights and guards were still visible on the parapets, and then those too vanished. Years passed, and parts of the wall fell into disrepair. Nature began the gradual process of repossessing the edifice. Then, the High King was defeated in battle and unified kingdoms fragmented again. Locals assumed that the distant civilized Central Kingdoms had forgotten the fortress.

A generation ago, those dwelling near the fortress began to behave strangely, gripped by unnatural passions. Many had nightmares. People regularly had bouts of uncontrollable rage or crippling fear. Settlers abandoned homesteads, soldiers sent to garrison outposts deserted, and trading outposts gradually became ghost towns. Soon, industry ceased.

Most people that linger are mad or catatonic, though a few have managed to retain their selves. Even the sane are plagued by nightmares with uncomfortably similar details: dark tunnels, shriveled men scurrying on all fours like roaches, and glittering treasures. Drawn by rumors of wealth, some fortune hunters regularly trek from the now divided Central Kingdoms, assuming the dangers superstition. None enter the nearby frontiers without being changed. Even those not driven mad suffer tremors and strange uncontrollable emotions that intensify with distance from the complex, growing into an obsession with the abandoned fortress. Until they return, colors are dimmer, food tastes like dust, and nothing seems to satisfy. All return, many to die in the depths or to a madman’s cracked blade.

Next up: B/X style playbook design inspired by Dark Souls starting classes.

Training bonuses

dark_souls_swords_by_bringess-d7bebkw copy

Dark Souls swords by Bringess

This is an idea for weapon training that I had which is probably too fiddly for online play, but might work in person. To gain more than a +1 to attack or damage (whether from attack bonus, strength, or wherever bonuses come from in your system of choice), a combatant must train with a given weapon. Each weapon is rated with minimum stat requirements and maximum bonus potential. Mundane weapons might be, for example, min +0 and max +3/+3, meaning that anyone without a penalty can use them and they can support at most a +3 to attack and damage. Insisting on using a weapon without the minimum stat imposes some large penalty (-4 or 5E style disadvantage).

The constraints would need to be tracked for each weapon along with training level, which could default to starting scores for starting weapons initially (representing background training). For example, consider a first level Labyrinth Lord fighter with 16 strength, which grants a +2 to attack and damage. A first level fighter in this system also has the equivalent of a +1 bonus to attack. Assume further that this character starts with a battle axe and dagger. Under skills, the player would write battle axe +3/+2 and dagger +3/+2. This is the character’s initial training. If a sword is picked up, it will be wielded with +0/+0 until the character can train with it.

How does training work? As a downtime action, the character can pay for training in a weapon. This costs some set amount, maybe based on bonus to be unlocked, say 500 GP per target plus (so, moving from +1 to +2 would cost 1000 GP). This raises either the attack or the damage by one point, assuming that is supported by class attack bonus or ability scores. Thus, that example first level character above can gain no more bonus points in battle axe until ability scores or attack bonus increase.

The benefits are that it gives fighters something to do during downtime actions, somewhat restrains bonus progression, makes special weapons more valuable without needing to resort to magic weapons as treasure all the time, and allows fighters to ease in to using crazy weapons like the Berserk dragon slayer sword or the asylum demon’s great hammer which might make their use feel a bit more special (and also more fictionally justified). It would also allow weapons to be numerically defined on dimensions of finesse and brutality. For example, a big club might be +1/+4 in potential, making it a good choice for a character with low skill but high strength (assuming such is possible in the base system).

This would would particularly well with a system that has regular stat increases, such as this adventurer class or Green Ronin’s Dragon Age, but should also be functional with a regular attack bonus.


Dark Souls magic

Almost all of the Dark Souls rules are somewhat applicable to the tabletop context, but the magic systems seem especially so suited. There are three magic systems: pyromancy, miracle, and sorcery. There are “classes” associated with each, but any character can level into the various kinds of magic by increasing the appropriate stats. Each magic requires a characteristic implement be equipped in order to cast spells of the given type. Each interacts with PC stats in a slightly different way, and the number of overall spell slots, which must be divided between all types of magic, is controlled by the attunement stat. Spells must be prepared (“attuned”) at bonfires, which is the equivalent of downtime or recovery in D&D, and may only be used a limited number of times before resting again.

Pyromancy is the simplest type of magic. There is some intimation that it is more primal and less sophisticated than sorcery. It is often associated with swamp dwellers, symbolic of exclusion and the primitive. There is a similarity here to the distinction WotC D&D makes between wizards (pseudo-academics) and sorcerers (wild talents, magic by lineage). Pyromancy power is not affected by any stats, other than the slots from attunement needed for spell preparation, and their power is dependent only upon the strength of the pyromancy flame used, which is the characteristic implement.

A pyromancy flame can be upgraded independently by spending souls, which, remember, function like both GP and XP. Most pyromancy is simple attack magic, fireballs and so forth, though there are also a few defensive spells, such as iron flesh and flash sweat (which increases defense against fire damage). From a game perspective, pyromancy gives players a way to get access to magic damage by dumping souls into an upgraded pyromancy flame and a few pyromancies without needing to increase level at all, assuming a PC meets the (very low) attunement requirement to be able to prepare any spells at all.

Sorceries are more academic, and higher precision. They often have intelligence prerequisites, and spell power is affected by intelligence. A character that wishes to be a competent sorcerer must dedicate a number of levels to the sorcery-oriented stats. The characteristic implement is the catalyst, often depicted as a wand or staff. Unlike pyromancy flames, or weapons, catalysts cannot be upgraded. You must find better ones.

Though there are several attack sorceries (such as soul arrows, which are basic “magic blasts” that also have the useful function of tracking enemy movement to some degree), there are in addition many utility and misdirection spells, such as aural decoy (which lures enemies away by creating a sound elsewhere), fall control (as feather fall), and hidden body (basically, invisibility). I have been playing a warrior and have only dipped lightly into sorcery so far, so I do not have much direct experience with these spells beyond soul arrows, but for a combat-oriented action RPG, there are a surprisingly large number of spells that seem to enable non-combat creativity.

Miracles are the province of the cleric, and are mostly, by default, as in D&D, defensive or restorative. However, the miracles a character has access to depends on which covenants are formed. For example, if you join the gravelord servant covenant, there are miracles that call giant phantom blades to attack your enemies. This is a fascinating system, reminiscent of “clerics of specific mythos” in 2E D&D, but much more dependent upon action during play. Further, a covenant comes with clear, objective factional duties and restrictions. I do not fully understand exactly how this affects gameplay, but what I have seen of the periphery makes the covenant system one of the most interesting aspects of Dark Souls design, and one that has been highly influential over my conception of clerics as servants of immortals in the world of The Final Castle. Beyond this contextual aspect, miracles work similarly to sorceries, requiring attunement at bonfires, and dependent upon the faith stat for power. The characteristic implement, which must be equipped to call a miracle, is the talisman.

This system design engenders several different kinds of trade-off. First, there are the advancement decisions about which stats are increased during level up. While strictly speaking it is possible to grind souls and increase everything, in practice this is tedious, and further unnecessary to be successful*. If you are just playing the game to explore and overcome challenges, you will naturally need to choose between physical capability and the various kinds of magic. This mode is also more applicable to the tabletop context, where grinding dynamics are minimized or nonexistent. Second, there is the cost and availability of various spells. Third, when you set out from a bonfire, you must divide your available attunement slots between spells. If you have four slots, for example, two could be miracles and two could be sorceries.

Fourth, and most importantly in terms of the gameplay experience, you must wield the appropriate implement to cast a given spell. While encumbrance rules do not prevent you from carrying everything with you (an aspect of the game I find somewhat strange), they do prevent you from equipping more than a few items, and switching between items that are not equipped during combat is asking for a quick death. In practice this means that you have a primary and secondary equipped item in each hand that is east to switch between. The left hand is usually occupied by a shield and either ranged weapon or tool (such as the skull lantern). This leaves the right hand for (likely) a melee weapon and magic implement. The final result of all of this design is that it is impractical to ready more than one kind of magic on a given excursion. Fifth, and finally, casting a spell has a more or less lengthy animation and thus requires a trade-off consideration in terms of when you start to cast a spell, as enemies may take advantage of that time or your vulnerability.

* At least in single-player mode. If you are into PvP it is likely different. The fact that grinding souls might make a big difference in the viability of character power is part of the reason I have little interest in PvP.

Dark Souls preliminaries

Channeler (source)

Channeler (source)

Dark Souls has captured my attention like no other video game before. The basics of the game are relatively simple. You have a set amount of resources, including health, a number of healing potions (called estus flasks), and perhaps some spells depending on your advancement and equipment choices. You set out from a bonfire to explore an area, collecting souls as you go. Souls are acquired by (mostly) killing enemies and (occasionally) found as treasure. If you rest at a bonfire, resources are replenished and all recurring enemies respawn. Bosses and mini-bosses (for lack of a better term) stay dead once killed. If you die, you lose all souls that have been gained from killing enemies (though not those found as treasure, which remain in your inventory until you convert them to actual souls that can be spent). You can reclaim any souls lost if you return to where you died before you die again. Souls can be used to level up (increasing your choice of any one stat) or as currency to purchase items.

These dynamics should seem extremely familiar, because other than a few nuances, they almost entirely replicate the OD&D game approach of recovering treasure to gain XP using a limited number of resources, such as HP and spells, which replenish between excursions. Every action you take is a balance between risk and reward. Do you want to go a little bit farther, risking the souls you have accumulated, or do you want to return to a bonfire to replenish resources (and perhaps level up)? Is now the time to challenge a boss, which, if defeated, will permanently alter the game world, perhaps opening up new areas?

Pinwheel (source)

Pinwheel (source)

The twin factors that make Dark Souls so remarkable are extremely tight gameplay and an aesthetic sensibility that manages to be both restrained (in an almost classical manner) and wildly creative. The style is primarily brooding European gothic, with plate armor, visored helms, western dragons, gargoyles, and so forth, but, as with many Japanese fantasy games, there is also a smattering of East Asian gear and many of the creatures have a vaguely Shinto demeanor.

Being primarily* a one-player, action RPG, combat is the main element of gameplay, and almost all PC capabilities and equipment are geared towards combat efficiency. That said, running away (or past) enemies is often a viable strategy, and, in addition, many dirty tricks are possible, such as knocking enemies over ledges or into the path of traps. Dark Souls combat is real-time and highly positional, though minimal reflex is involved. Combat is paced, almost languid. Almost all actions have very explicit animations, allowing the player to predict and react to enemy attacks and maneuvers once they are learned. This also extends to PC actions, such as drinking a potion or casting a spell. The time taken often exposes you to enemy attacks, meaning that every choice must be carefully weighed and could potentially have consequences. The game rewards careful approach and intelligent tactics far more than quick reaction times.

The regions (stages?) are topologically relatively simple, sometimes almost linear, but the connectivity between regions provides a much more vivid sense of extended world than many more open games, which often contain large amounts of open expanse that feel blank and under-detailed. Further, the connections between many areas are somewhat concealed, requiring careful investigation (though no pixel bitching). There are several areas, including some near the beginning of the game, that I did not discover for a long time due to oversight. Finding a new area to explore always felt like a major accomplishment, either by coming across a hidden path or defeating a gatekeeper boss.

Skeleton wheel (source)

Skeleton wheel (source)

Though the difficulty of Dark Souls is overstated (I am not very good at video games, and have been able to make considerable progress, though I have not yet finished the game), it does not coddle the player. I can imagine that this might feel frustrating to some people, but I have found it refreshing. There are no undo mechanisms, not even a way to reload an earlier saved game. Once you make a change to your character or the game world (such as by choosing which stat to increase during a level up), it stays changed. If you accidentally kill a friendly NPC (as I did with the first merchant I met), it stays dead. Congratulations, you just made the game more difficult. (In my case, I was unable to buy crossbow bolts until reaching a significantly distant area). Because of this design, defeating a difficult enemy or finding a way around a devious challenge feels all the more satisfying. Personally, I have maintained a strict embargo against looking up strategies online (with the exception of some mechanical issues, like figuring out how to aim the longbow), and would highly recommend this approach, as it makes investigating the world far more engaging.

Titanite demon (source)

Titanite demon (source)

This game is so amazing that this only scratches the surface. I would particularly recommend those interested in traditional D&D, especially OD&D, to give it a spin. Many elements will be recognizable, and, in addition, the design decisions that are different have been (for me) quite fruitful in inspiring ideas for tabletop games, both in terms of setting and game mechanics. You will need some patience to begin with, as you get used to the dying in order to learn how things work, though that passes relatively quickly. Don’t worry too much about which class you start with, as you will be able to level any character into any abilities. My current game (still the first and only character that I have created), is up to around 130 hours. It is the only video game that I have played where I expect to make a new character immediately after finishing the game to see how it plays with other advancement choices and perhaps tackling regions in a different order.

* There are some online features that allow other players to leave signs within your game or assist during fights, but I have not used them and based on my understanding they do not seem important to the experience of play.