Tuesday, 15 June 2021

10 things I love about Against the Darkmaster

Right, it's a listy post. I should mention that I have written an official adventure for Against the Darkmaster, The Silence of Dawnfell, which you can get here. So I wanted to talk about some of the reasons I love the game and why I think it's worth checking out. 

1. Creating a Darkmaster rules

In VsDarkmaster every campaign has a dark overlord (or overlords) in the form of a Darkmaster. The rules allow you to create your own, either through choice or entirely at random. Think Sauron, but it could be an extra-dimensional witch queen who lives at the bottom of the sea. You roll for the Darkmaster's epithet, like 'Horned Champion of Death', the artefact they covet (think the One Ring), their servants and where they reside, along with choosing powers for them. It's suitably epic to randomly create an all-powerful Darkmaster from scratch and a lot of fun. There are even rules for characters who succumb to the dark taint, corrupting their passions and driving obsession with darkness.

2. Magic Resonance

You know when Frodo slips the ring on and Sauron's gaze can see him? This can happen to spellcasters if their magic goes wrong. I love this mechanic - if you roll doubles when casting a spell, you may have unwittingly drawn the attention of the Darkmaster. The more powerful the spell the more likely this will happen. This is modified by whether the caster is in a location where the Darkmaster has power, or if they are in a Safe Haven. The higher the result, the worse the consequences. These could be anything from the Darkmaster being slightly aware so the caster must take care the next time they cast, to the Darkmaster sending out their elite forces to the location the characters are in (like Sauron and the Ringwraiths). This makes magic use tense and thematic.

3. Safe Havens

I mentioned these above, but Safe Havens are basically your Lothloriens or Rivendells. These are places characters arrive where they can rest, be healed and take part in some downtime activities. When things get bleak in the wilderness (and they will - limping around with a crushed knee and broken ribs is no fun) then characters can try to find a Safe Haven, with the difficulty modified by where they are. Finding one is great but getting to them won't be easy, plus they are generally hidden and heavily guarded. Once there, PCs can do anything from learning a new language to honing their skills in battle. 

4. Passions and Drive

Taking cues from games like Burning Wheel, VsDarkmaster uses a passions and drive system to help reward roleplaying tough decisions. Every character has a set of passions, which includes their nature, motivation and allegiance. The rules explicitly says to use metal lyrics to help with these passions, which is such an incredible idea (it even has a table of examples, with everything from Iron Maiden to Manowar). Passion feeds into Drive, which are points players get for using their passions to get themselves into a bad situation. Drive can be spent on rerolls and bonuses. In some games that would be enough, but here for every 10 drive spent a PC gains a Revelation - something outside of levelling that improves them somehow. This is called their Heroic Path and if that PC dies half their Heroic Path will transfer to the new character.

5. Advancement tied to setting

Speaking of advancement, at the beginning of a campaign the group can decide on specific actions and goals that will count towards xp. These Achievements can be tied to the world, but also a specific vocation (class) or passion. This might mean for the Animist they will aim to turn the tide of overwhelming odds in their favour, or a Rogue might trick a powerful NPC. This means no two campaigns will be the same and it offers even more impetus for roleplay.

6. Spell lores and Weaves

The game emulates well a caster's focus on learning new spells and mastering their art. There's a tonne of spell lores, which are categories of spells, to choose from. As PCs advance they unlock new spells within that weave - so someone who has the Master of Animals lore can first just put animals to sleep. Then they figure out how to communicate with animals, until eventually they can control plagues of insects. This perfectly mimics a magic user learning their craft, starting small and logically working up, rather than selecting new spells that are more powerful but completely different from what they already know.

7. Magic item Affinity

I could be wrong but I think this rule was inspired by D&D 4e. In the game there are Items of Power, which are intelligent magic items with their own motivation and purpose. For instance, the Windblade is trying to unite all of elvenkind under a single banner. The wielder gains or losses affinity points based on whether they're acting towards this motivation or not. The more points, the more powerful the item becomes. In Windblade's case it starts to get more balanced and eventually the wielder has access to the Haste spell. Go too low and it becomes a mundane blade and eventually vanishes, seeking a new owner. I remember this in 4e and thought 'damn, this is such an incredible idea for intelligent items' so I'm glad they used it here.

8. The art

Oh my god the art. Artists like Heraldo Mussolini, Andrea Piparo and Tommaso Galmacci have really hit the old school MERP vibe with these incredible black and white illustrations that bring the world to life so well.

9. Travelling and hazards

Epic fantasy is about epic scale, which usually means there's a lot of travelling involved. The game simulates this with rules around hazards that the GM zooms in on while the group travels. There are a series of random tables based on the type of location they're in, from woodland to desert, which offer lots of ways to create complications for the group. Comprehensive rules for foraging and camping mean that their actions while in the wilderness very much count, and with such a brutal combat system it pays to know what you're doing.

10. Lots of optional rules

Scattered liberally throughout the book are various notes on optional rules. This could be advice for changing parrying to make it more simulated, making new cultures, using hordes or creating level zero adventurers. Hell, there's an entire section on optional skills to enhance the game's flavour. It's clear the game wants you to create your own bespoke rules based on your group's preferences. That's awesome.