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How the Dark Souls RPG differs from 5th edition D&D

If you miss the tactical combat of 4th edition, this could be your jam

A render of the Dark Souls RPG light by a bonfire. Image: Steamforged Games
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

When Dark Souls: The Roleplaying Game was announced last month, the response among fans was mixed. It all sort of depends on what exactly you happen to be a fan of. Like Dark Souls? Then you’re likely pretty hyped for a tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG) based on the original video game. Are you a fan of TTRPGs? Well, then you’re likely a little more blasé about yet another sourcebook for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons.

Perhaps sensing that indifference among TTRPG fans, on Wednesday developer Steamforged Games let out a few key details about what makes Dark Souls: The Roleplaying Game different from bog-standard 5e. They show a game laser-focused on tactical combat. It even uses a key term from 4th edition D&D, one long since abandoned by the modern version of the game.

That’s right kids: Bloodied is back.

In 4th edition D&D, player characters or monsters that were bloodied — that is, reduced to less than half of their maximum hit points — gained access to new abilities. Monsters in particular became more deadly, lashing out with new and more powerful attacks. That sounds like just the thing to help recreate a battle against Dark Souls’ Ornstein and Smough, a video game fight that changes dramatically halfway through. According to Steamforged, players get some benefits from being bloodied as well. “It’s not much,” they add, “but it might keep you going that little bit further.”

Even more useful to players, it seems, will be a wholly new concept called “position,” which Steamforged has ginned up as a corollary to Dark Souls’ stamina. And no, it’s not just the flanking mechanic ported over from 4th edition D&D. From Steamforge’s blog post:

5e doesn’t have anything resembling stamina — and introducing it would require an awful lot of bookkeeping for players and Game Masters (GMs) alike.

Instead, we decided to amalgamate the two into a single value. We call it Position.

Position measures your character health, but it’s also a resource you can spend to tweak a dice roll, or to use special abilities gained from your character class or equipment.

Position goes up gradually, as you increase in level, but it’s always finite, and generated randomly at the start of a battle. Using it allows you to do some pretty amazing stuff — but it also makes you vulnerable. Spending it is a big decision, and mastering its use is extremely difficult. Just as it should be!

Next, it sounds like Steamforged is completely gutting the casting system from 5th edition in favor of something very different. They describe the new system as “flexible” and “drawn directly from the video game.” Magic users have a finite number of attunement slots, with various spells taking up different numbers of slots, so you can’t just roll around dungeons carrying powerful magic abilities like Doomguy carries long guns. Individual spells also have a specific number of casts before they are exhausted. Steamforged said there will be plenty of synergies with the new position mechanic, but we’ll have to see it all in action to know more.

Finally, you’re going to die a lot in Dark Souls: The Roleplaying Game since there are no saves against death. Hit zero hit points and you’re dead. Players will respawn at a bonfire, just like the video game. As a penalty, players will lose a portion of their humanity. How that plays out in role-playing terms we’ll have to wait and see.

Dark Souls: The Roleplaying Game goes up for preorder on Feb. 8. You can sign up for the mailing list at the Steamforged website.

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