When Dark Souls: The Roleplaying Game was announced last month, responses were mixed. On the one side were fans of the video game franchise who were excited to find out that their favorite fictional universe was being ported to the tabletop. On the other side were fans of tabletop role-playing games who were shocked to find that the game would be based on the open-sourced version of Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition rules.
I decided to run a little experiment: I gathered up some Polygon staff with lots of experience playing Dark Souls video games, and some Polygon staff with lots of experience playing D&D. Then I dialed up the game’s co-designer, Richard August, and had him run us all through a game. I played as The Deprived, armed with only a wooden club and a shield and with naught but a scrap of cloth to cover myself. I tried to hang back as best I could, and just sort of see what everyone else did during the game. The result? A weird and wonderful experience, one that was thoroughly enjoyed by diehard fans of Dark Souls and D&D alike.
Ultimately, the Dark Souls TTRPG isn’t all that deep, but it is a hell of a lot of fun to die horribly alongside your friends at the table. Here’s how it works.
The biggest deviation from bog-standard 5e here is the implementation of a new kind of resource, called position. In the Dark Souls TTRPG position functions as both a player’s pool of hit points and as a resource they can spend to pull off special moves. It is, in effect, an imperfect abstraction of how various mechanics in the original video games work. As a stand in for the moment-to-moment combat decisions of a Dark Souls video game, the position mechanic works fairly well.
Players can use position in a number of different ways. Do you really need to smash that Black Knight right now with your fancy new polearm? Then spend position — as much position as you want — to increase your to-hit roll. Need to land a little more damage once you connect? Then spend up to five position to do up to five more damage. Need to move just a little further back to get out of range of his greatsword? Then spend another position to gain another five feet of movement.
Position also serves as the fuel for certain player abilities, many of which have limitations tied to either a long or a short rest. Players are only able to take a long rest if they can locate a bonfire. In fact, the number of bonfires on the map are closely linked to how hard or easy an adventure is.
There are other clever accommodations as well that help to swing the balance of power ever so slightly back toward the players. You can bank your souls at a bonfire, for instance, which simply isn’t a thing in the Dark Souls video game universe. Just take a long rest and move some of your hard-won experience points off your person and into a nebulous bucket to be used later. That removes the prospect of your night of gaming spent making corpse runs to get someone’s level-up back.
The most notable tweak, I feel, is that the initiative order has been greatly simplified. Monsters come with a fixed initiative score. They’ll never roll for initiative, making encounters against multiple mobs of similar enemies more of a known quantity. Players roll their own initiative dice before combat begins, of course, but they are only rolling to determine if they are “fast” or if they are “slow” — that is, whether they will attack before or after the enemy. Once you have everyone sorted into fast and slow groups, it’s up to players to determine the order that everyone will take their actions in. That gives folks plenty of time to come up with clever strategies that require timing, precision, and teamwork.
Getting back to position, its value can also fluctuate wildly between long rests. You’ll roll some dice before heading into combat, which can help to top off your position before a battle. But in our game, few of us were able to come anywhere near our starting position once we threw hands at that first Hollow. That ups the tension considerably.
Additionally, bosses are incredibly difficult to beat. Their stat blocks function more or less exactly as they would in 5th edition D&D, with plenty of powerful actions that map to their video game counterparts. Bosses have bloodied abilities – meaning that they change the way they look and fight when reduced below half their starting hit points. They can also use position just like players do, giving game masters some extra tools to focus their attacks and take player characters down one by one.
And that’s just as it should be. Dark Souls: The Roleplaying Game is remarkably faithful to its source material, a grimdark and exhausting slog through oppressive and curious landscapes. It uses the guts of D&D not because it’s free and easy, but to make itself relatable — just as the video games use the visual and mechanical language of the action-RPG genre to create something that feels very different. The Dark Souls TTRPG elevates the most popular modern tabletop role-playing game, turning it into a common language that players of all experience levels can use to make sense of things at the table.
Could Dark Souls: The Roleplaying Game have used another game system as its foundation? Of course it could have. But when you’re throwing players into such a miserable, confusing, dimly-lit world as Lothric then you may as well do it with a system that at least someone at the table is likely familiar with already.
How much mileage is your gaming group going to get out of this game? If you ran screaming from 4th edition D&D because it felt too much like a video game, well then you might want to look elsewhere for your fun. Also, you probably won’t want to spend an entire month there, plodding through intricate combat scenarios and gathering loot. Co-designer August admitted as much in the debrief after we were all done playing.
“It’s strongest feature is either a series of one-shots,” he said, “or as a kind of limited campaign.”
But I can’t think of a better way to bring in fans of the Dark Souls franchise to the art and craft of tabletop role-play. Most importantly, folks need to get used to the idea of D&D’s rules being used in other settings. There are a ton of new products coming out this year that rely on 5e rules, including one by D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast. And there are more players in the world familiar with using those 5th edition rules today than at any time in the history of the game.
Pre-orders go live on Feb. 16, with Dark Souls: The Roleplaying Game running $49.95 for the 500-page core book. There’s a limited edition collector’s version as well, with gilt edges and a simulated leather cover, available for $99.95. A full line of miniatures is on the way as well, no doubt inspired by the sculpts already found in Dark Souls: The Board Game.