Dark Is Bringing Stealth Action To Tabletop RPGs

The thief, that garrulous rogue, hero of the picaresque, has been part of fantasy stories for a long time. Heroes like the Gray Mouser or Cugel the Clever date back to the earliest days of 20th Century fantasy writing. Video games, too, aren’t without their fantastic protagonists. Thief: The Dark Project was perhaps one of the most innovative games of its time, and fondly remembered enough to warrant a reboot this year as Thief. It’s surprising, then, that tabletop RPGs – analog games – haven’t ever quite captured that feeling.

Will Hindmarch has been working on changing that. His project Dark – funding on Kickstarter right now – is aimed at capturing the feeling of moving silently. Of being an outsider in an established world. It’s a fantasy world where thieves ply the shadows of a vast city, stealing from others for their own ends. He explained it to me: “In a lot of RPGs, combat is the ultimate form of interaction with the game world. Triumphing over monsters or villains is the primary mode of changing the course of the adventure or shaping the story. I wanted to see more RPGs that hinge on other priorities, and stealth gameplay is one of my favorite styles.” If roleplaying games are all about exploring a fictional world, reasoned Hindmarch, then isn’t the silent observer a kind of protagonist they desperately needed?

To be fair, Hindmarch isn’t being shy about who made this style of play really work for the first time. “My love of the Thief and Splinter Cell games is written all over the internet. Dishonored is another recent influence, though my game’s been in development in one form or another since before [it] came out.”

The power of these games, to Hindmarch, was how they allowed the players to move through the world. Nobody was blundering about being a hero. Nobody was planning the grand assault or convincing the King to go to Gondor’s aid. The people of these worlds were just going about their lives until the player comes along. “A trespassing player character gets to see the game world behaving in ways that action heroes don’t often get to see,” he said. “They get to see the world calm or at rest, scheming or preparing for action – they get to see how characters in the game world act when they think no one’s watching or on what they believe is an ordinary day.

“Instead of seeing heroes and villains at their best or their worst, at their most desperate, players get to explore and witness lots of other states and attitudes.”

To crown his take on the genre Hindmarch chose to base his mechanics on something less than traditional – playing cards. It’s certainly not the first game to use them, as Hindmarch acknowledged. “The first playing-card RPG I played must’ve been Castle Falkenstein,” he said. But it’s clear that he’s done his research, and is influenced both by the games of the past and the modern surge of deck-building games and “For a long time, like a decade or more, I’ve been wanting to design an RPG where each players gets their own deck of cards to describe their character. This probably grew out of the great fun I had playing the card-driven SAGA games for Marvel Super Heroes and Dragonlance. We played those a bunch and then I hacked them into different styles and genres for a while.”

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Hindmarch isn’t a new face in the RPG scene by any stretch of the imagination. He worked for years on Vampire and ran a successful kickstarter for his game Always/Never/Now. He has the chops to pull this off and the success of his Kickstarter campaign, now closing in on its last few days, reflects that.

I had the opportunity to speak with Hindmarch about Dark and discovered one of the most well thought out roleplaying games I’ve heard about in a while.

Jon Bolding: Where does Dark sit on the spectrum between stealth and stealth action? Between heroic, protagonist centered and cold, uncaring world?

Hindmarch: Each of the game’s settings [Dark, Dark|Net, and Dark Planet] assumes a slightly different spot along that spectrum. In the fantastical core setting for Dark, player characters can move pretty freely between stealth and action (for varying definitions of “action”) depending on the individual adventure. The game can be approached in lots of different ways, from one adventure to another, and without a save feature or the ability to reload a level, that was important to me. Sometimes an adventure goes sideways and becomes about running and dodging swords or bullets. Other times it can be about blending into the game world and going unnoticed until the time is right.

Dark‘s different game worlds take somewhat different philosophies to the question of heroism, though. In the fantasy setting, the game doesn’t make many assumptions about the characters’ motives. Maybe they steal to adorn their lairs with gold. Maybe they want to change the world for the better. Maybe they want revenge. Maybe they start off thinking one thing and change over the course of play.

The game worlds address those questions in different ways and I hope different adventures and campaigns drill down into the subject in different ways. I mean, each of these game worlds is pretty harsh, filled with villains that provide essential contrast to the players’ characters as infiltrators, trespassers, and thieves, but are these stories of heroes or antiheroes? Are the players’ characters forces for good or are they merely the lesser evil in the campaign? Those are choices the players get to make.

JB: Talk to me about Dark‘s mechanics. What does it do that is new?

WH: In Dark, the cards draw together a number of mechanical features. The better hidden a character is, the more cards her player holds in hand at once and thus the more options she has. This helps the environment inform the player’s decisions and gives some weight to the character’s interactions with the game world. At the same time, the player gets a certain amount of information that the character might not have, but which the player can characterize if she likes. A lot of players look at their hand of cards and interpret that for their character as an instinct to run, or an idea for how to lie, or a hankering to fight.

Honestly, though, I think a lot of Dark‘s mechanics are more evolutionary than revolutionary. Everything’s been calibrated to emphasize the interaction between the PCs and the environment or the NPCs in ways that provoke and reward a style of play and then, over time, become a descriptive language for portraying the campaign that unfolds from that kind of play.

JB: Some recent games, like, say, Torchbearer, have a mechanical feel that’s closer to a finely crafted co-op boardgame than an RPG or Story Game. Where do you think Dark will sit in relation to those kinds of works?

WH: Dark offers some pretty specific rules and mechanisms for handling play that can help the GM make dramatic choices or in-character decisions without being adversarial or steering play with too heavy a hand. That helps individual situations – sometimes whole scenarios – unfold just by playing out the interactions between the PCs and the game world and its NPCs. In my experience, though, as the players’ characters develop over time and the game world gets further customized with rivals and villains and allies throughout play, the game’s inherent rhythms sort of relax. Dark is an inherently episodic game, on its own, but play can emerge from that to expand campaigns from something mission-driven to something that feels more like an open-world game.

In other words, my aim is to provide enough structure to hold up whole campaigns, but as characters and histories and narratives build up, they can become load-bearing structures. After that, it’s not necessary to rely on only the structures I provide.

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JB: In Dark, the GM rolls dice to determine outcomes while the players use cards. There’s something special about the players using soft, whispering cards and the GM rolling large clattering dice. I’m not sure if this is a question, but, thoughts?

WH: Playing cards give the players a different kind of decision-making power during the game and allow a degree of nuance and risk that feels different from a single roll of a volatile die. There’s a certain amount of competence built into each player’s deck that helps each character feel capable and fun to play. If I have bought up a few cards to be worth a lot of points, I know those cards are in the deck, waiting to come out, in a way that I can only hope I’ll eventually roll a critical hit in other games.

(Admittedly, I have terrible luck with dice as a player. I’ve seen many characters diminished because of bad die rolls and GMs who felt the only way to express those rolls was to blame the character. So that informs my appreciation for the cards.)

The GM’s dice, meanwhile, still allow for the breathless tension of the occasional random result. Rather than put that on the PCs, though, Dark puts the randomness on the NPCs, which increases the volatility of the game world, absolves the GM of certain decisions, and shifts the occasional bad-luck roll onto less vital characters. The dice can help the GM make some impartial decisions, too, which helps diminish some of the adversarial dynamics that might develop at the table – without completely declawing the GM when it comes to populating the game world with fearsome opponents.

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JB: How do Dark‘s mechanics lend themselves to the theme? One strong example will do here.

WH: One of the simple things Dark does is to describe NPC behaviors as part of their game statistics. Each NPC has a numerical rating in three behavioral stats – Tolerance, Vigilance, and Bravery – that act as a kind of guide to playing that NPC. Those numerical ratings get backed up by a short line of text describing what that number means for that NPC. So the brave palace guards might be sworn to protect their queen, believing their fate in the afterlife depends on it, while a similarly brave butler might believe his job is to protect the royal scepter for the sake of the kingdom’s continuity of power. They might both be rated at Bravery 5 but they’ll react differently to actions taken against them or the queen.

These little descriptions are simple details but they help the setting come alive and, just as importantly, they help the NPCs and the game world feel like it existed before the players’ infiltrators ever intervened. This way the GM has a little more to go on when portraying these characters. The interaction between the players’ characters and the game world gets informed by more than just drama or gameplay challenge alone.

JB: What’s unique about Dark‘s default setting, and where does that intersect with both the rules and with Dark‘s own modularity?

WH: One the defining features of Dark‘s core fantasy setting is its societal contrasts. The religions, the politics, the geography, the magic of the setting are all designed to frame the core activities of play. In the eyes of the landed gentry and pious rich, for example, sneaking into the homes and palaces of one’s betters isn’t simply illegal – it’s dangerously profane. It goes against the cosmology honored by some, depicted by the game world’s “Tree of Civilization.” Likewise, if you believe in the genius loci – the spirits of especially powerful and ancient buildings – then buildings themselves may turn against trespassers and those who disrupt a place’s peace.

In comparison, the Dark|net setting is a sort of post-collapse quasi-cyberpunk world where half the world’s gone off the grid and lost electricity because that gives the GM more flexibility and freedom when devising adventures for that world. It provides a wider array of new environments with built-in reasons for not using laser grids, motion sensors, or even electric lights. Plus it throws the social order into disarray in ways that allow for characters to break laws without necessarily being either outright villainous or gallant Robin Hoods.

So each setting is built to put the activities of the game into different contexts, with different imaginary trappings.

JB: How do you feel about Dark as a generic system? How do you feel about the idea of setting modularity in modern RPGs?

WH: It’s probably more apt to say that Dark is built to use three settings in particular and that those settings are built and presented in such a way to make it easy to devise new settings for the game. Dark is flexible but it is by no means a generic system.

How an RPG interacts with its setting is a question each RPG gets to address in its own way, according to the designer’s vision or ambition. System matters to me but a system can portray anything from a broad philosophy of dramatic stakes and consequences to the unique physics and material realities of an imaginary world. Some games take a character’s dramatic importance into account when determining what a sword’s edge does to that character while other games only care about the kinetic energy a weapon coldly applies to the flesh and bone of that same character.

Personally, I’m thrilled that we’ve got such a varied array of different RPGs reaching audiences right now. Players and GMs have an incredible amount of options when deciding how to model their visions for adventure, whether they’re trying to explore an existing property or not. Whether you’re playing a game crafted specifically to portray your favorite TV show or you’re adapting a setting to a system that asks the dramatic questions you want your campaign to be about, options abound.

JB: Your prior Kickstarter was for an essentially finished game, how does the Dark Kickstarter feel different for you?

WH:My first Kickstarter, for Always/Never/Now, had more writing done in advance but a smaller range of playtests, so when I saw how successful the campaign was, I sort of freaked out and put the game back into playtesting to make sure it would live up to expectations. That took a while. Plus I got bitten by shipping rate increases and numerous other classic first-timer problems with Kickstarter. My mistakes.

Dark is something I’ve played a lot more of over the years. I just wasn’t sure how many people out there wanted to play a game like this. I thought maybe it was just me. Learning that I’m not alone? Seeing that this game will find happy homes all over the world? This is a profound thrill.

You can find Project: Dark on Kickstarter. It is scheduled for release in August 2014.

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