The Problem with a Dark Souls Tabletop RPG

So Steamforged recently posted a first look at the mechanics in the dark souls roleplaying game. While I’m going to wait until the game fully releases before voicing my thoughts on it, I’ve been trying to capture the ‘magic’ of dark souls into a tabletop game for years – and I amdefinitely notthe onlyone.

When you ask someone what their favorite part of Dark Souls is, you can get a huge variety of answers, such as:

  • The combat – where a basic enemy can severely hurt or kill you if you’re careless, but if you’re smart you can get through the entire game without getting hit once.
  • The exploration – where areas that seemed totally separate in location and aesthetic linked back to each other in coherent ways, and every corner was a potential mystery to be uncovered.
  • The boss fights – against ruthless enemies, seemingly impossible at first, and yet ultimately conquerable through honed reflexes and determination.
  • A specific area – be it Blighttown for some or Anor Londo for others, the areas have such variety in appearance, layout and overall design that there is often one area for everyone’s tastes
  • The implied storytelling – most dialogue in the game is either vague, ominous, or deceptive. The closest thing to unbiased information in the game are the item descriptions. For those that want to investigate the complexity in the story, it’s there. For those that don’t care for story, it’s not in the way. And for those inbetween, there’s always Vaatividya.

This formula has (mostly) been around since the release of Demon’s Souls in February 2009, and (as linked above) people have been creating rpgs about it for years. So what is the problem?

One-to-One Conversions Don’t Work

Especially when it comes to Dark Souls.

Taking a look at the fan-made Dark Souls ttrpgs, many of them try to do exactly what the original game did. Same stats, same equipment, same everything. The problem is, without a computer to track and calculate those stats for you, it can often feel quite math-heavy and slow the game down. This is the same system, but it feels different.

Even harder, the intense timing-focused combat system of Dark Souls has basically no probability in it, so using probability-focused dice doesn’t feel the same either. Even when ditching the dice, I’ve tried to make a combat system using a turns-on-a-clock with actions having wind-up and cool-down and it ultimately felt clunky. It would fit a board game (and someday might), but not a roleplaying game.

Boss fights similar to dark souls, where they often have multiple phases and large avoidable attacks, could work quite well in a ttrpg and aren’t dissimilar from Paragon Monsters described here. But by themselves that’s not enough.

The rest of the stuff listed above? The exploration, the areas, the storytelling? That’s not usually part of a tabletop roleplaying game system. That’s part of a campaign

The Proof is in the (Actual) Play

The Sunfall Cycle is a game where the PCs are exploring a once-great capital city, now fallen to ruin during the potential end of the world. They respawn when they die, they can find and recruit NPCs to their ‘base camp’, they frequently fight interesting multi-phase bosses. It feels like Dark Souls.

And it is all played using Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition.

Leveling up may work a bit differently, but the rest of the mechanics are basically RAW D&D. And yet it has a dark gothic setting, filled with complex interlocking areas and compelling mysteries. The majority of what makes dark souls special to so many people is right here and it’s using the most popular roleplaying game system in the world.

Some Parts of Dark Souls Just Don’t Work in an RPG

Fighting the same encounters repeatedly as you run through areas over and over again, learning the enemies and their patterns, would be horrible in a roleplaying game. Defeating an enemy in dark souls takes seconds, but most combat-focused rpgs would have the same encounter take minutes or sometimes hours. If you want to keep the dark souls concept of respawning enemies and mostly-static areas, then you need a way for PCs to skip, bypass, or quickly overcome encounters that they’ve already defeated.

The vague and implied storytelling is much tougher to implement when you can actually talk to NPCs. It would also be difficult to justify most NPCs not giving the PCs answers, as they’d have to be either clueless or uncooperative.

The same freedom applies to navigation. A simple locked wooden door won’t stop a PC from getting through if they have a crowbar, and a wall won’t stop someone with a rope. You can still have these obstacles present and conquerable through standard rpg tools like Strength checks, but if you want a door to truly be locked you need to use your imagination. Perhaps the door is enchanted to be locked by a high level spell, or something unseen keeps cutting the rope you throw over the wall. Be sparing with using these restrictions though, as it can feel artificial and ‘railroad-y’ without careful application.

So If You Want to Make a Dark Souls RPG

Ask yourself

  1. What parts of Dark Souls do you want to emulate?
  2. How would those parts actually work in play?
  3. Which parts of Dark Souls do you want to avoid?
  4. Ultimately, would it fit better in a system or a campaign?

I asked myself these questions for years, and I have finally come up with my own project’s answer.

Palace of the Clockwork Sun

Palace of the Clockwork Sun is a campaign I am working on, one that I hope to release some day in a pre-written form for others to play. It is primarily inspired by Dark Souls, but also has elements from Sunless Skies, Outer Wilds, Darkest Dungeon, and more.

This adventure takes place in the isolated city of Zenosyne, built long ago among snow-covered mountains far from the roads of the empire it once ruled. In the center of Zenosyne stands Sonder Palace, with a central golden spire that rises beyond the clouds and blossoms into a platform. Upon that platform, rests the Clockwork Sun, which is pulled across the skies each day by the empire’s airships. The old sun was cruel and brutal with its crimson flame, and was slain long ago in the great war.

This game will take place over a 1-hour 6-segment loop, during which the palace and area around it will change and alter in significant ways, then reset. It still needs a lot more writing and playtesting before even the first complete draft is done -complex area and encounter design is tough. But I’m still very excited to share it, and I will be talking about what I’ve learned so far in upcoming posts.

The system will use DND 5th Edition, with a list of suggested (but not required) tweaks to it to fit the adventure better. This should make it comfortable for most players to play without much learning necessary.

Depending on encounter complexity and importance, combat will take place either in theatre of the mind, using zones, or using full battle maps.

This adventure will run from levels 1 to 10 (probably, though it might be up to 12), during which the PCs will explore the interconnected areas within Zenosyne and try to overcome a seemingly-inevitable end.

This adventure still needs a lot of writing and playtesting, it will be years before it is ready, but I am working to one day release it proudly for people to play.

I don’t intend this to come across as self-promotional, there’s nothing public to see or purchase after all. Instead, I want to show that everything I said above comes from what I realized about my own past designs, to show how it informed my future projects, and hopefully can help yours as well.

In the future I’ll be sharing everything I’ve learned creating this adventure, from conception to (once it is finished) completion.

One of my inspirational pictures for Sonder Palace

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