Dark (First Thoughts)

At the end of January a Kickstarter went live for a new rpg, Dark. You can see the Kickstarter page here (it’s over now).

As soon as I saw it I knew that I had to have it. Having a stealth-action sort of rpg is something I’ve long wanted and it sounded like Will had found a really cool way to do it.  When the Kickstarter finished up he released a beta kit that included an introductory adventure and some pre-made characters along with enough rules to get through the adventure. I finally had the chance to read through all that a couple times over the last week.

First off the game primarily uses standard playing cards, including jokers. One deck per player. Initially a player’s deck is made up only of both jokers and the ace, 2, 3, & 4 cards from each suit. Everything else has to be unlocked with experience. Face cards have more powerful abilities depending on how they come into play. Aces are worth a single point initially, but can be bought up to be worth 1 or 11.

Each of the 4 suits represents a different natures/styles. Hearts for Mettle, Diamonds for Guile, Clubs for Force, & Spades for Finesse. The black suits are more physical while the red suits are more mental/internal. Hearts & Clubs represent more overt actions while Diamonds & Spades are more covert.

So, each player has their deck. They also have their play area, where they play cards down to perform actions. They also have their hand of cards, where the hand size is determined by the Stealth Level of the room they’re in. So, for example if they’re in a completely or nearly so dark room, the Stealth Level might be 6, so a player gets 6 cards to choose from when taking actions. Whereas if they’re in a well-lit room, the Stealth Level might only be 2, greatly limiting their options.

If a guard’s suspicion gets raised by something that’s happened their chance to detect a character is based on the number of cards in their hand. Also, NPCs have a tolerance level, which has to do with how much has to happen before they begin to get suspicious and maybe start looking around or maybe even going to get back up. Tolerance is compared to the number of cards a player has played down. So, if they’re taking too long or playing too many cards, then whatever they’re doing may raise too much suspicion.

Also, when playing cards down players can play cards face down. These can be used for edges, which can be used for bonuses. Maybe +1 in a fight or -1 suspicion or maybe +1 stealth level if they narrate going around putting out some candles/torches.

Each player also has a disguise area where they can play face-down cards as part of a disguise. So if they’re making use of that disguise instead of skulking around they can make use of those cards instead.

The last part of a player’s play area is a discard pile, where cards go after being played. When discarding it’s up to the player to decide in which order to discard cards. The top-most discard is called the “trailing card” and there are circumstances where the GM can capture that card which could possibly used later as evidence the player left behind.

Last are jokers, which always mean bad news at some point. They don’t get discarded or used for disguises, they go to the GM. Those jokers can later be used for complications, like introducing a twist or capturing the trailing card.

In addition to how a player builds their deck, they also have a number of skills they can train. Knowledge skills can provide a bonus when looting a room and also to get free information from the GM if it’s applicable. There are also a number of social skills which a PC can be used to talk their way into or out of things. And then there are physical skills which generally provide a flat bonus of some sort. Like a tick in combat would be 1 extra damage, a tick in traverse allows a PC to climb a single story without using up an action, etc.

When it comes time to perform an action the GM will declare a single suit as being suited to the task. So, for example, sneaking across a room without being noticed would be Spades for Finesse. The player can also offer a second suit if it seems obvious another suit could be useful in some way. Sometimes it may just be the one. At that point the player can play a card face-up. If it’s suited to the task, the player can play another card, otherwise their turn ends and the GM can describe what’s going on the world.

The first method of playing is called “fast play”. As long as you’re able to play cards suited for the task you can keep going until you’re ready for the action to trigger. The second method is “slow play”, possibly only playing a card at a time, taking your time about a specific action.

There aren’t necessarily any mechanical advantages for going one way or the other and sometimes you’ll be forced into slow play depending on your cards. Though slow play does lead to more narration from the GM, so if something takes too long that could be bad for the player, of course. Either way once the action is triggered the values of the cards are compared to a difficulty that the GM has determined to see whether the player is successful or not. Note: this number is secret and not revealed to the player. The GM, through narration, should try to describe the world around the PC and give an idea of how difficult what they’re trying to achieve actually is. And it’s up to the player to judge that and play cards until they’re confident they’ve one and hope to not raise the suspicion of any nearby NPCs.

That’s the gist of it, at least from the beta kit. There’s some rules/guidance on coming up with difficulty numbers and how to use NPC stats and the like, but the flow of play generally revolves around the GM giving a clear picture of the world and the players moving around in it. There hasn’t been anything about the mysterious Inspector figure, which I assume comes more into play between missions, but I imagine the basics of that are that the inspector is out to catch the PCs and create trouble for them. So the question is how exactly that will work in play, which I’m excited to find out.

Speaking of NPC stats, one thing I really like is that NPCs aren’t just a block of numbers. They’re a block of numbers with some description to give you an idea of how they should behave. Two NPCs might have the same exact numbers, but with different descriptors meaning they have some pretty different worldviews and will react differently in the same situation. Makes it more interesting than just passing up generic guard #1, then guard #2, then guard #3. Also, even just looking at their numbers can bring out some interesting things like a guard with a low tolerance and high bravery might draw a sword and start looking for trouble if he becomes suspicious, but a guard with the same tolerance but low bravery might run off to find backup first.

One last cool thing about the game is that it can be done one-on-one  or with multiple people. I’d really like to try running the beta adventure both ways to see how different it feels.

I really like how the cards are used in the game. There’s a lot of really clever stuff going on with the different suits for different types of tasks and things. Even the deck-building is kind of interesting and I’m not even a fan of deck-building games, but I like the idea of buying up different cards to include in the deck and being able to choose special abilities for face cards. There was also a lot of cool information dumped in a number of kickstarter updates with some setting information and such. I’ll be really excited to see more of that as well as whatever guidelines there are for creating missions and such.

I’m very excited to get my hands on the full game once it comes out, but until then I’m looking forward to running the beta adventure at least once (hopefully more). Once I do I’ll follow-up with an AP of how things went.

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