Tag Archives: Dark Souls

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.

Monster design

Gus just posted about trick monsters, focusing on special attack modes (attacks that rust PC equipment, poison, and so forth). While I think attack modes can be a useful device to distinguish monsters, and can add to the puzzle nature of enemies, it is weaknesses and attack patterns that truly add distinctiveness to an enemy. Special attack modes can increase the danger of an opponent, and reward players for learning to avoid the attack (such as fighting poisonous giant spiders only from range), but can also make monsters more of a hazard to be avoided rather than a puzzle to be solved. This is not necessarily a bad thing–I certainly think pure hazard monsters have a place–but there are other opportunities available in monster design as well.

First, let’s review some weaknesses present in classic monsters. The basilisk can be petrified by its own gaze, though few guidelines other than requiring light at least equivalent to a torch are given. The bulette is AC -2 in most places, but only AC 6 under its raised crest and AC 4 at its eyes. Presumably those areas can be targeted using called shots. Chimeras have variable AC based on front, side, and rear. Dragons are vain, covetous, greedy, and vulnerable to flattery. Surprisingly, there seem to be few elemental vulnerabilities. Salamanders, which are fire based monsters, take an extra point of damage per die from cold attacks, and there are a few other cases like that, but, for example, while frost giants are immune to cold, they do not seem to take any extra damage from fire attacks. Many (all?) undead take damage from holy water. Rakshasas are killed instantly by blessed crossbow bolts. Puddings and oozes have a nice collection of reactions to various attack types that are too complicated to list here but have some interesting effects on gameplay. Giant slugs are not actually vulnerable to salt.

Many “vulnerabilities” are actually just the only way to damage a monster that is otherwise immune to attack. Lasting damage can only be dealt to a troll using fire or acid, for example, and wights can only be damaged by silver or enchanted weapons. This penchant for increasing monster danger by making them impervious to everything other than a few carefully chosen attack modes is appropriate for some creatures when easily intuited (ghosts being immune to physical blows, fire elementals being immune to fire, and so forth), but may not be the best approach in all cases.

Attack patterns are rarely seen in traditional D&D monsters, and this is a shame, because they potentially allow players to learn about monsters experientially in addition to via clues and rumors. 4E has a few nods in this direction, though they are more often phrased as capabilities and concerned more with balancing numbers than they are with encoding combat dynamics (the 4E approach to monster weaknesses was more about the four different defenses, which unfortunately are more about monster level than anything else). Giving some attacks a “recharge” limiting its ability to be used sequentially is a nice, usable mechanic, however.

I have been playing a lot of Dark Souls recently (more on that later in the form of a massive upcoming post), which has exceptionally good monster design. So as an exercise, I will stat up the Asylum Demon. Minor spoiler warning here I suppose, though this is only the first boss in the game. It is really part of the tutorial level, so I feel justified in potentially exposing some secrets. Now, this should be a massively punishing encounter if faced head-on, but should be possible to defeat, even for a basically equipped first level party, if approached intelligently. I added some touches of my own to help migrate from the video game to the tabletop context. I chose this monster in particular because it is essentially a physical beast that does not rely in its design on vulnerability to specific energy types or similar things and effectiveness fighting it should depend primarily on tactical decisions. Numerical scale assumes OD&D but would probably work okay in B/X or AD&D as well, with slightly lessened difficulty.

Here is a good video of the fight against the Asylum Demon.

Asylum Demon

Asylum demon gonna step on you (source)

Asylum demon gonna step on you (source)

HD 10, AC as chain (5/14), movement as encumbered human (lumbering walk and awkward flying). Any human not lugging a chest or similar oversized object will be able to outrun the asylum demon.

Asylum demons are horrific, bulbous, brutal demons. They are often guardians unable to range extensively from their post.

Several enemies near: horizontal weapon sweep attack, +10 vs. AC, 1d6 damage, compare one attack roll to all nearby enemies.

A good target at reach: hammer slam 2d6 damage, save (vs. stone?) for half.

No enemies near: fly awkwardly up towards biggest cluster of opponents and attempt to position for good attack next round. Any opponents that do not scatter additionally subject to stomp next round for 1d6 damage, save (vs. stone?) for half.

Weak in the mouth, back of neck, and rear shank. Called shot to the mouth is possible with reach (if adjacent or climbing/grappling) or missile weapons at -4. Accessing the back of the neck requires either jumping from above or climbing first. Successful attack against the mouth or rear shank deals +1d6 damage and to the back of the neck deals +2d6 damage (other additional backstab damage may also apply).

Immune to ranged attacks from human scale missiles such as arrows, bolts, or hurled spears. They “stick it its leathery hide ineffectually.”

Clues: it roars periodically, “exposing pink, fleshy mouth skin.” Anyone behind the demon should notice the “mottled, unprotected rear shank” (though note the demon will never expose this area unless proactively flanked). Consider including balconies or other high vantage points nearby to allow for jump attacks and make sure to mention them when describing the area initially. Asylum demons are huge, lumber brutes and their heavy treads can generally be heard though several walls.

Salvage: asylum demon hide is useful for making leather armor that is particularly protective versus piercing attacks (as plate versus piercing, 1d6 suits worth per demon skin). The weapons they carry are quite fearsome, but may require superhuman strength to wield effectively (yeah, this depends on some other subsystem or ruling that I am not going to get into here).

Is this too much text for a single monster? Perhaps. It is always hard to gauge for yourself how useful a writeup will be to others since, as the author, you already have a good idea in your head of what it is you are going for, but I think this compares favorably with many published monsters, and I think the trigger/action format, with important points emphasized, would be easier to use at the table.

The 2E monstrous manual presented foes as a collection of common game stats (AC, movement, HD, THAC0, etc) along with sections on combat, habitat/society, and ecology. While there are nuggets of useful game info buried within these page-long entries, and some creative world building, for purposes of running encounters it seems like some other categories might be more useful. Triggers for different kinds of attacks, clues to weaknesses, and guidelines for placement, as shown in the asylum demon entry above, are all candidates. Also, fears, hates, and desires. Some such things can often be derived from common knowledge (such as wild animals or carnivores being able to be distracted with rations or livestock), but other details may merit a mention (for example, the wraiths in the Vaults of Pahvelorn will often not molest intruders if they are brought sacrifices to drain). I clued that with remains of previous sacrifices.

All D&D examples in this post were drawn from the 2E Monstrous Manual because it was nearby.