Project: Dark beta run

I backed Will Hindmarch’s Kickstarter campaign for his first-person sneaker RPG, Project: Dark. It’s an RPG in the way of computer games like Thief, Dishonored, or say, the sneaky parts of Metal Gear.

Though the full game won’t be done for a few months, Will pushed out a beta kit to backers after the end of the Kickstarter campaign. I was unusually excited for this game. In reading rules snippets, it seemed to capture the feel of a PC sneaker well. You have limited resources. You need to stay hidden. Your main job to get your objective and get out alive.

It’s easy to say that’s how you want your game played. But if the mechanics don’t back it up, then players will probably just treat it like D&D. Dark delivers.

I duly read over the beta kit and printed out the assets. It wasn’t as clear as one might have hoped for, but a G+ group sprang up to answer questions. Then we played it.

It went well enough. But we probably won’t get back to it unless I really push it. I think that says more about us than it does the game.

How It Works

Each player has a set of playing cards as a personal deck and builds that deck based on character abilities. Your final deck might be 20ish cards, most of them low. I might have a 6 of diamonds in my deck, but the best you have is a 4 of diamonds. But you have a jack of spades with a special power that I don’t. That’s nice.

Your hand size is based on the Stealth Level of your environment. The darker it is (on a scale of 2-6), the more cards you get and the more options you have to get stuff done. Where it’s bright, it’s tough to sneak, so you get fewer cards.

The gamemaster never tells the players the difficulty number to succeed. Generally, it’s a number between 2 and 12, hovering around 7. The gamemaster tells some details about the obstacle and opposition and lets players make judgment calls from there. They won’t know whether they’ve been seen until they’ve been seen.

After a stumbling trip through the basic mechanics, someone asked, “How do we fight?” And I explained that combat is a bad idea. And it is. But even when they’ve seen how the machine works, players still want to take it outside and open up the throttle. End of the night, only one character made it out alive, and he was one hit from death. I stopped using the mechanic to complicate their lives. They didn’t need more complications.

A lot of improvisation necessary. A lot of sensory narration required. A little more than the normal amount of group trust needed to play well.

What Hummed

The card mechanics. Clever and reflective of the genre. You only have resources to do one or two big actions before you need to take a moment and refresh your hand. The game makes you dart from shadow to shadow because you are not capable of more.

Mid-game Q&A. An important NPC was introduced in the second act. Before meeting him, I asked the players a series of questions about their characters’ relationships with him. For some reason, this roleplaying beat took. Maybe it was because they didn’t have to do it all on the fly. Maybe it was because the questions were more  compelling than “What, specifically, do you do to sneak?” Regardless, once one PC knew him for a long time but didn’t quite trust him, and one PC had a cousin married to his sister-in-law, and one PC had worked a job with him that went sour… suddenly, character ideas popped up like mushrooms after the storm. A++ would buy again.

Good first adventure. I bet writing good adventures for Dark is a process. The rules in the beta kit were sketchy in places, but the adventure was thorough. No player took knowledge skills during chargen because they wanted to spend points on cards. But skills would have paid out, and the adventure took pains to specify where and how that happened. Unlike most RPGs, Dark rewards you for taking Craft or Religion or Culture.*

What Clunked

Set your power fantasy to “low”.  Dark is not our group’s favored style. We are unapologetically not-Indie. Whatever the term is for that. There must be a term. We’re that. Our roleplaying is limited to what my wife charitably calls “just acting like yourselves.” It’s more involved than that though. We act like ourselves with super powers and our ethics filed down. That kind of play gets you killed in the climax of this game. Possibly earlier.

Eavesdropping. Several exposition bits are provided in the form of “eavesdropping” scenes. While the characters lurk in the shadows, they overhear people talking to each other. It’s provided as a handout, but you shouldn’t hand them out. It draws players to huddle around the prop and make fun of the dialogue. The alternative is for the gamemaster to haul out all his stock NPC voices and talk to himself for a minute. Which game stopper will you choose?

Players are cornered into narrative. You’re encouraged… no, goose-stepped… into providing narration for you character’s actions. There is no, “I sneak over and open the door.” You’re meant to describe how and why you sneak over. There’s palpable let-down when you don’t.

People who produce these sorts of games seem to think that overt narrative is an unalloyed good. But not only is it not everybody’s thing, it’s not most people’s thing. This is why people name their MMO characters “Elfchick69.” Not only is immersion not their joy, it’s in the way. Most of us want to share relationships more than we want to share pretend movie scenes. So damn many smalltime RPGs insist on “color” and “detail” and every one misses roughly 80% of the audience with that kind of talk. Fellas (and ladies): it’s a niche hobby to start with. There’s a lot of you scrimmaging for that 20% and only one of you is Jason Morningstar. Think it over.

High anxiety. Not knowing your target number leads you to overshoot your card play just to be safe. Any time you come close to 7, you start to sweat it. That’s fun at first. And then, catastrophically, it’s tiresome.

In Conclusion

I like Dark a lot. It does what it set out to do, and it’s fantasy without being heartbreaker D&D. High fives for that alone. The mechanics are novel and play is tense.

Our group will probably never get back to it. In the post-game analysis, it was generally agreed that Cortex is our preferred forced-narrative system. But none of us is clamoring for that either.

I wish Hindmarch the very tip-top best with this game. He’s got my attention for whatever he does next as well.


*I’m reminded of a Call of Cthulhu campaign I played in with Bruce Cordell. His character was a vulcanologist, and Bruce put just a really unsupportable number of skill points in Vulcanology at the beginning of the campaign. Never came up once. We all knew that would happen. But it would have been nicer for that not to happen.


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