Thursday, 28 April 2016

Dark Souls and the Spirit of Old-School D&D

It seems my girlfriend is twice the man I am: a few weeks ago she finished Dark Souls. In case you were living under a rock and never heard about it, Dark Souls is a cruel japanese dark fantasy rpg where you will die a lot, usually because you suck at combat or you are careless. It's a game I adore, but never started playing seriously because it needs a lot of time, patience, and endurance. I usually lack all three of them nowadays.

Character sheet full of juicy details, and you haven't
seen the inventory screen yet!
But why is Dark Souls so interesting for a Dungeons & Dragons fan? Because the game cannot deny the influence of old-school D&D. Dark Souls is full of spells, items, monsters, game mechanics, and design principles a grognard will be familiar with  - even if some of them are hard to recognise thanks to weird twists and changes to the well known formula. Let's take a look at some of the most interesting and less obvious ones I've found so far. I'll leave out trivialities like "you can be a wizard Harry!", "OMG it has fireballz!", and "you can slay giant rats!" Those are pretty common fantasy clichés no one will be surprised to see in a crpg.

Experience for Gold: In D&D gold and experience are the two main resources needed for advancement. Interestingly in classic D&D most of the experience is awarded for the treasure the player character brings up from below, which makes XP seem a bit redundant. Dark Souls merges GP and XP into a single currency: souls, which are used both for payment and advancement. You can earn souls for defeating enemies, or you can find then as item, which esentially replaces the gemstones and jewelry of D&D. In Dark Souls your character and most NPCs are undead and demons, so it's fitting they use souls to trade and gain power. This is an amazing example about how you can make some weird game mechanic make sense in your setting.

Death Penalty: Every death means losing some progress in old-school D&D. While in Dark Souls you won't lose levels on death, you will lose all your unused souls and respawn at a bonfire. You can recover your dropped souls, but you have to be careful, because if you die again your previously lost souls will disappear. I've seen people lose souls enough for multiple level ups thanks to stupid mistakes.

Importance of Player Skill: Classic D&D puts a huge emphasis on player knowledge and skill. So does Dark Souls. Death is a harsh lesson. If you want to advance you have to learn from your errors. While good luck, improved stats, and quick reflexes are helpful, knowing the attack patterns of monsters, the signs of traps, or the small difference between normal chests and mimics is what will make the real difference between a successful and a bad player.

Familiar Monsters: Even if you ignore classic fantasy tropes like giant rats, giant spiders, dragons, undead, chimeras, hydras, hellhounds, snakemen, etc, you'll still find enemies that feel like gigerian reimaginations of Monster Manual entries. Mimics, myconids, slimes are no-brainers. Pisacas remind me of gricks. Phalanxes are lemures with spears and shields. Chaos Eaters are the nightmarish children of xorns and rust monsters. Chaos Witch Queelag is Lolth. The predecessor Demon's Souls had mind flayers. And there are probably more I didn't notice, yet.

Historical Arms: Unlike most crpgs nowadays Dark Souls has polearms, and they are downright awesome! Speaking of polearms, I've always found it strange how specific Gygax was with their names in AD&D while using only generic terms for the most iconic weapons of fantasy fiction: swords. Thankfully the developers of Dark Souls weren't so ignorant! Besides the generic swords you'll find Estocs, Claymores, Flamberges, Zweihanders, Iaitos, Uchigatanas on your adventures.

Weapons vs Armor: Do you remember AD&D 1st edition's unwieldy Armor Class Adjustement section of the weapon table? The game has something similar with different armor offering different amounts of protection versus each damage type. If you know what you're going to face it might be a good idea to dress and arm yourself for the occasion - unless you are one of those who like dodging around naked or attacking from distance.

Enchanted Equipment: Dark Souls uses the good old traditional plus symbol to mark weapon and armor upgrades, but also introduces different upgrade paths to make the system more complicated. These enchantments need special materials and expert blacksmith.

Looks like a good place to die.
Megadungeon: I've left the most important to the end. Dark Souls' Lordran is a colorful and
immense dungeon with multiple levels. The protagonist's journey goes through monumental castles, moldy catacombs, sparkling crystal caverns, fiery hellpits, gloomy forests, and even abstract places like a city in the past, or a world inside an ancient painting. These areas are not only huge, but they are full of secrets, loops, branches. They are also interconnected, thus the game is everything but linear. To make things even more complicated there are covenants you can join for different benefits and a few memorable NPCs who are far from static shopkeepers and questgivers: they have their own stories, they have goals, and your deeds will influence how they behave with you and even each other, which makes Dark Souls' environment feel alive.

A few years ago I thought Dark Souls was just a grim hack & slash for masochists, but after trying it myself and seeing the adventures of the Chosen Undead I had to realize how close it is to old-school dungeon crawls and roguelikes. It is a game worthy of sinking a good hundred hours into it. Unfortunately before I can do that I'll have to finish like a dozen other games. But who knows, maybe once I'm retired I'll be able to start my journey through the land of the Ancient Lords!

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