The Tone of Against the Darkmaster
Because of the ongoing game in which I am playing, tone in Against the Darkmaster (VsD) has been on my mind. You may have noticed some of my shared experiences here
. But, not expressed in that post, I also have been observing some of the actions of my fellow PCs. And some of the reactions of their players in response to specific game mechanics. I intend not to comment on those, whether they be in or out of what I favor, but establish a little more of what I think Against the Darkmaster intends to accomplish through narrative and tone. And why I like it, of course.
It’s no secret that VsD is one of my “nostalgia” games, perhaps my chief nostalgia game, because it emulates, in part, my very first rpg: Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP). VsD’s open-ended d100 core mechanic comes right out of that (which again, comes from Rolemaster, which is a percentile system ultimately derived from AD&D and anticipating, by many, many years, the “Difficulty Class” and “skill system” presented in 3.0). But another reason why VsD is so nostalgic to me is because, with an arguably more refined sensibility than its antecedents, VsD seeks to do what that very first roleplaying game did for me. At age 12 (at least I think it was at age 12), I picked up MERP not only because I was obsessed with all of Tolkien’s works (I read The Fellowship of the Ring at least fourteen times before I finished high school) but because I was looking for some way to, as much as possible, enter into Tolkien’s subcreated world.
I will try to make this clear. Of course I was interested in experiencing a story very much like Tolkien’s, but I was even more interested in simulating what it really would be like to be in that world. That was the challenge of the game. Not only were, say, Balrogs narratively exciting to encounter, but they were damn frightening, because they will kill you. If a character in MERP encountered a Balrog and survived, that not only was a cool story but a highly notable achievement. Surviving such an encounter simply defied the odds. It was a thrill. Of course, most people didn’t survive, and this is why it’s important to be ready to run! Or…
In my current VsD game, I have seen player expectations slightly out of alignment with game and fiction expectations. My character Ganga Wyrmleaper has twice survived an encounter with a dragon – but I, Ganga’s player, in no way expected Ganga to survive! Yet I have seen other PCs likewise oppose that dragon, and I have sensed some strident player frustrations with how their attacks have been utterly ineffective, glancing off the dragon’s scales like raindrops off rooftiles. Because that’s a dragon.
(Note: Someone in Discord recently asking what is the appeal of “exploding” or open-ended rolls. On the topic of dragons, I claim that a system like VsD is able to emulate Bard’s miraculous shot into the one vulnerable part of Smaug with his Black Arrow. This was accomplished with an open-ended roll and probably no small number of Drive Points. But, even then, VsD puts limits on exceptional results, i.e., every weapon has a max attack value in reference to the Attack Tables.)
This kind of play is simulationism, and I admit that VsD probably is not the most ideal game for simulating “reality.” I expect Chivalry & Sorcery or HARN are much better choices. And I own those and I am deeply interested in them. I just need to form a community around them and give them a try.
But VsD and its core mechanics are in my bones. It’s one of my nostalgia games.
So, to reapproach, I claim that VsD emulates its source fictions by being a punishing and hazardous game also while, perhaps paradoxically, expecting the PCs to act like heroes. Because that’s what heroes are. Anyone who has researched Tolkien will have encountered Tom Shippey’s books and a prime ethic in Tolkien’s fiction that is borrowed from northern culture and, specifically, Beowulf. It is this: Heroes oppose the Darkness not because they have any hope of winning – for they do not – but simply because it is the right thing to do.
So let’s establish some expectations here:
Some characters are “supposed” to die, but they should experience a heroic death
Not all hope is lost, but there is some “force” willing to aid the hero, and this is represented via Drive Points
There are other, ancient forces in the land, personifications of Good, whom the heroes might discover and make use of by discovering Havens
Combat is deadly; if one does not want to die, or if there are not some Passions at stake, it is best to avoid armed combat
This last point may be understandably paradoxical to some, and this is because the most lavishly detailed rules in the VsD Core Book is Combat. (Actually, maybe Magic is, or at least it is a close second.) I propose that these detailed combat rules are not meant to suggest that this is a “combat-heavy” game but that it is a “simulationist” game, that it wants to present, as closely as possible, and while continuing to support “gamist” considerations, what would “really happen” in armed combats.
And to that end, let me try to highlight some important differences and considerations between VsD and, in general, Rolemaster combat from the more pervasive d20 systems.
In most d20 games, armor is value often called “AC.” Quite simply, it goes like this: the better your armor, i.e., plate, the less likely you are to be hit by enemy attacks. This is not necessarily true in VsD. First, it takes time and training to be able to fight effectively in heavy armor. In VsD, this is represented by building up one’s Armor Skill. Only high Armor Skill can offset the penalties to movement skills and – most importantly, in this context – even Combat Skills that the heaviest armors provide. Second, a character in Heavy armor is more likely to be hit. What??? Yes, VsD granularizes combat. Its design is that heavier armor restricts the movements of characters dressed in it, so the characters tend to get struck more often and more easily, but that the armor, being armor, likewise protects them from the most dangerous wounds.
In d20 games, a character’s “movability” typically is wrapped into AC, i.e., a highly dexterous character enjoys another point (or, depending on the edition, two or three or more) in its Armor Class. In VsD, however, this feature is removed from the actual use of armor – to a degree. In VsD, characters have something called Defense (DEF) that is a total of their Swiftness modifier and any shield that is being used. Heavier armors actually limit how much Swiftness can be applied to DEF. So, during any VsD attack, the attacker rolls d100 (open-ended), adds his or her Combat Skill, then subtracts the target’s DEF. This resultant value then is referenced to a table according to the armor being worn by the target. Again, if the target is wearing Heavy Armor, the target is more likely to be hit (but usually take only a few Hits of “damage”). If the target is wearing No Armor or Light Armor, the attack is more likely to miss (the character has more flexibility of movement, hence is more “dodgy”) – but if it does hit, ouch!
There are a few ways that characters can increase their DEF, but the most effective – and most frequently overlooked by new VsD gamers – is Parry. To Parry in VsD, the player declares how much of the character’s Attack Bonus is not going to be used to attack but to defend. This defensive amount simply is added to the defending character’s DEF for that round of combat.
I have said that a character in Heavy Armor is more likely to be hit but to “merely” take Hits. In VsD, actual Hit Points appear to be abstract values of endurance, bruising, and bleeding. The more deadly attacks result in rolls on Critical Hit Tables. These results are more capable of Stunning characters, Bleeding characters, Injuring characters (usually a modifier to all Skill rolls, i.e., the “death spiral”), and outright Killing them. In VsD, it’s much more likely that a character will surrender or beg for mercy long before actually being killed outright. Even when a character surrenders or is given reprieve, that character very well may die anyway, from untended Bleeding damage, or be bedridden for days or weeks. The most that straight Hit Points can do to a person is Bruise them (-20 to activities at half HP) or render them unconscious (at 0 HP).
I have attempted to show how deadly, “simulationist” combat contributes to what I consider the tone of a “real” and “dangerous” adventure environment. But I want to back up just for a moment to point out a character or roleplaying feature that I didn’t find occasion to cover while looking at character creation.
VsD is a “high fantasy” game. As such, it offers a number of “demi-human” Kins for the GM to adopt into her or his campaign. I often find, in other games that contain demi-humans, that these characters “really” are just humans with special abilities. Now, to be clear, VsD can’t avoid this play tendency. But I think it has mitigated it, to a degree, with a rule that actually comes right out of MERP.
In VsD, anyone playing an Elven Kin has to put (according to the type of Elf) one of the character’s highest three attribute bonuses into Bearing. This is meant to represent Tolkien’s high, lordly, and charismatic Elves. Some people might see this as a tax. I see it as a worthy trade-out for the already-prodigious benefits the Kins enjoy. And it also, hopefully, serves as a reminder that this character is not “just a human with pointy ears” but a different type of being and one that should be roleplayed accordingly.