Friday, December 7, 2018

Review: The Dark Eye

In the United States, the dominant tabletop role-playing game has basically always been some version of Dungeons and Dragons.  In Germany, however, the dominant game is and has been one of the five editions of Das Schwarze Auge, or in English The Dark Eye ("TDE").  The story is that a German game publisher was looking to license a German-language edition of D&D in the early 80s, but decided to make German language D&D clone instead and use the royalty fees to market the game.  This proved to be a wise decision, as TDE took off, spinning off an enormous number of tabletop RPG supplements and a number of computer game releases.  While the first edition of the game looked a whole lot like D&D, the game since diverged from its original inspiration, both in terms of rules content and in terms of tone.

The current custodian of The Dark Eye is Ulisses Spiele, the folks behind the new edition of Torg: Eternity.  As part of their English-language push, the 5th Edition of TDE and its associated product line has been released in English, beginning with the Core Rules in late 2016.  There is a lot to like about TDE and its product line, and there are some things that are going to make certain players and groups run away screaming.

Let's begin with the positives.  First off, for a product line that is basically a series of translations from German, the writing is excellent; you would not have any reason to believe that the text was originally written in a different language.  That may sound like damning with faint praise, but translations are extremely hard to pull off well, and the seamlessness of the translation is a significant achievement.  To me, it shows that Ulisses Spiele is serious about being a presence in the English-speaking tabletop RPG market, rather than just trying to grab a few extra bucks on top of their German base.

Second, the books are visually spectacular.  The cover of the Core Rules is one of my favorite pieces of fantasy art (I would love a print of it to hang up in my place), and it continues throughout the product line.  What I like about the art style of TDE is the way that it walks the line between realism and surrealism, giving everything a fantastical but grounded sheen.  I like the art in TDE more than the art in 5e, and much more than Pathfinder.  The internal lay-out is clean and very readable.  The books are extremely well made and high quality, up there with anything made by the major tabletop producers.  I should also point out that the primary books are available in affordable softcovers in digest size, and that's awesome. My only presentation complaint is that my PDFs are slow to load and crash often, for reasons I haven't been able to identify.  But, otherwise, everything is top quality.

But the real selling point of TDE is the setting--the continent of Aventuria.  Aventuria is very much an alternative Earth, with very clear real world parallels.  And they don't hide from that--in the Aventurian Almanac, there is a paragraph in the description of each country or region listing the real-world inspirations.  As I mentioned in the Midgard review, I know that some people don't like this kind of parallelism, but I do, and it is very well done here.  As you might expect, medieval Germany is a major inspiration--one of the two primary powers is "the Middenrealm," which feels very Holy Roman Empire-esque, both in name and in tone.  But pretty much all of Europe gets a showing, along with a couple of different Middle East inspired areas and some southern jungles that seem to be Africa/SE Asia-flavored.

There are a couple of reasons why Aventuria is compelling.  First, it has a very distinct feel from your standard D&D campaign setting.  For one thing, it feels much more "low magic," while still coming across as fantastical.  This is done, quite simply, by putting hard caps on the power of spellcasters.  Each spell or prayer must be learned individually, spells often have long casting times, and your mana points are a fairly limited pool that recharge fairly slowly.  As a result, starting spellcasters feel more or less like low level D&D spellcasters, but the power curve is far more shallow than in D&D, and TDE casters simply don't have access to the kinds of world-breaking abilities that are fairly common in middle and high level D&D play (at least, not in the Core Rules).

Another distinctive of the magic is that it is tied pretty closely to classical, folklore-based depictions of magic and spellcasters.  There are fantasy-style wizards in the form of "guild mages," but there are also druids and witches, and they feel more like druids and witches of fairy tales than druids and witches of tabletop games and computer games.  In service of this feel, the names of some of the spells (especially guild-oriented spells) are in pseudo-Latin a la Harry Potter, so you have "Ingifaxius" as opposed to something like "Firebolt."  In sticking close to folklore touchstones, it provides a low magic setting has some dark shadows, but avoids the (in my opinion) tired and performative "grimdark" of many low fantasy settings (*cough* Warhammer *cough*).

There also seems to be a deep focus on making the world feel "lived in."  D&D campaign settings tend to function primarily as platforms for adventures first and actually coherent worlds second--Greyhawk, the grandfather of D&D campaign settings, explicitly developed this way.  Aventuria feels more like a world-building project that also works for a setting for adventures.  The Aventuria Almanac has an extensive chapter on trade and trade fairs, as well as a chapter on all the plants and animals that live in Aventuria.  Along those lines, Aventuria has a continuous, updating metaplot that has been developing since the original edition of the game.  Want to know the latest events in Aventuria than might affect your campaign?  There is a biannual newspaper that you can get online; just read about the latest events.

Now, there is a school of thought, especially those influenced by Dungeon World and other indie games, that this sort of deep lore is actually an impediment, and that all this background stuff should emerge through play.  But as much as I understand the rationale of these arguments, I'm a sucker for deep lore and world-building, and this has it in spades.  If you haven't picked this up, I really, really like Aventuria and its sense of place and depth.

So, what's the problem?  TDE is a crunchy, complicated game.  This complexity is purposeful--there is a rationale for each element and a clear benefit to game play stemming from the element.  But the sum total of all of these elements is a lot, and more than I suspect that many people are not going to be willing to take on.

The complexity comes in three primary places--the resolution mechanics, character creation, and combat.  The basic resolution system is an attribute check that works much like attribute checks worked in pre-3rd Edition D&D--you roll a d20 and try to get equal to or under the relevant attribute (of which there are eight--basically D&D Dexterity is split into Dexterity and Agility, and D&D Wisdom is split into Courage and Intuition).  Because you want to roll under, the normal d20 systems are reversed--a "1" is a potential critical hit and a "20" is a potential critical failure (which you have to confirm a la 3e D&D).  That will be an adjustment for folks used to the d20 system, but it's not crazy.

But things ramp up when it comes to skills.  Each skill consists of three linked attributes, which in some cases can be the same attribute multiple times.  So, for example, Riding is Charisma/Agility/Strength.  If you think about it, this makes sense--you have to be able to relate to the horse (Charisma), have the balance to stay on the horse (Agility), and the strength to control the horse (Strength).  Likewise, Seduction is Courage/Charisma/Charisma--you need the Courage to shoot your shot, but otherwise it is all about your personality and attractiveness.  To make a skill check, you must roll an ability check for each of the three linked attributes and pass all of them.  You also have a pool of skill points for each skill that you can use to bump down the rolls to get you to the target number on a one-for-one basis.  If you pass the check, any left over skill points are read on a levels of success table, which has individualized outcomes for many of the skills.  Oh, and there are 59 different skills--to give you a sense of the granularity involved, "Treat Wounds," "Treat Disease," and "Treat Poison" are three different skills.  And, for the record, each spell is a skill, so the magic system works on the same three-roll basis.

Again, there are benefits to this level of detail.  One of the more interesting elements is how you can narrate failure in a more specific way.  If you fail a Seduction test because you rolled very poorly on your Courage attribute, you chickened-out; if you blow one of the Charisma rolls, the object of your affections was just not that impressed with your game.  The linkages between attributes and skills is completely logical and sensible, and makes attributes very important and meaningful.  But it is slower than a single d20 roll (even if you roll all three checks at the same time, which you should), and, while it's not calculus, having potentially three different target numbers for each check and doing the mental math of how many points you need to spend to drop the rolls down to hit those target numbers requires a bit of doing.  Will it get easier the more you do it?  Of course.  Is it still pretty complicated?  Yes.

Then we come to character creation.  It's full-on point-buy--each level of an attribute or skill, along with a set of advantages and disadvantages, has a cost, and you spend your pool of points to buy what you want.  This is nothing new--GURPS carried the torch for point-buy for a long time, and other games have had similar systems.  And there is a very clear and cogent argument in favor of point-buy--you can make the exact character you want, and characters tend to be relatively balanced (and it's easy to fix balance problems by adjusting the cost of particular character options).  But point-buy systems, almost invariably, make character creation a time-intensive, laborious process.  Point-buy systems also will exacerbate any option paralysis that a potential player might have, because you are released into a sea of options.  To be fair, there are a series of race and profession packages that make the creation process a little more modular, but no matter how you cut it there is a lot of heavy lifting involved.

As I was making a character, one thing I struggled with was translating the mechanical pieces on the paper into the vision of what the character could do in the world and in the game.  Obviously, having six in a skill is better than four, but how much better?  And what sorts of challenges could my character be expected to accomplish with six in a skill as opposed to four?  There is a mathematical answer to this, but the skill mechanics are such that it is hard to figure out without a differential equation.  Thinking about this points to one of the virtues of 5e that I hadn't thought about--the transparency of the math behind the game.  In a d20 game, a +1 increases your chances of success by 5%; if you have a +5 in some ability, you will succeed at DC 15 tasks 55% of the time.  You don't need a complex equation to figure out how the numbers on your character sheet relate to outcomes in the game, whereas with the TDE the mechanics are much more opaque in the way they translate into results.

Finally, you have combat.  Here, unlike with skills, your combat skills (divided by weapon type) require only a single d20 roll, which is opposed by a defense roll (either a dodge or a parry).  Not to beat this theme to death, the parry mechanics are pretty logical, in that it becomes harder to parry second and subsequent attacks.  Combat in general is pretty lethal--you have a relatively small number of Life Points (i.e. HP), and as your Life Points go down, you take increasing levels of the Pain condition that reduce your combat effectiveness.  So, combat is much less cinematic than what you get in D&D, in keeping with the lower-powered tone, and combat is slightly but meaningfully slower as a result of the opposed rolls.

So, TDE is at least one standard deviation more complex than 5e D&D in basically every dimension, which is going to be its primary competitor in the US in the fantasy space.  Is it more complex than 1st Edition Pathfinder (or, from what we have seen so far, 2nd Edition Pathfinder)?  Probably, but the complexity is distributed differently.  Pathfinder's complexity is found primarily in the options that are available, making character creation and optimization require a high level of system knowledge.  TDE, by contrast, is more complex in its core mechanics, but lacks the sprawling character creation and combat options that bog down Pathfinder play.

To be clear, this complexity is not necessarily a bad thing.  It is true that the zeitgeist in tabletop RPGs is toward simpler game systems, but that's not some sort of inviolable rule.  TDE is not really any more complicated than the median TTRPG in the middle 90s, and is actually complicated in a similar way to many of those games.  In a way, I think part of my hesitation about diving into TDE has to do with expectations set by more modern games.  If you are used to fitting monster and other opponent stats on a index card (which, while tough in 5e, is routine for something like 13th Age), being confronted with a page long stat block for a relatively basic opponent feels overwhelming, even if that used to be normal and unremarkable.  TDE feels "old school," in the sense that it feels like it has a different set of design influences and touchstones than what you see with many of the recent US games.

If you are looking for a true D&D alternative (as opposed to a variation on the theme) while being recognizably European fantasy, are interested in (or at least OK with) a lower magic and more deadly combat system, and are looking for a compelling, highly detailed setting, then The Dark Eye provides a very attractive package--provided you are willing to dig into a more complex and more deliberate game engine.  That last part, I suspect, is going to be a major hurdle for many people.  If you are someone who routinely plays GURPS or Shadowrun, then nothing in TDE is going to phase you.  But if you are accustomed to 5e or modern indie/indie-influenced games, then you will be taking a major leap in complexity by getting in to TDE.  But the rest of the package is compelling enough that someone on the fence about the rules complexity--like me--might be willing to give it a shot.

So, my bottom line is that if you have any interest in what TDE provides, you should check it out, because it is an excellent execution of the things its is trying to do and trying to be.  But you should know what that thing is.  No game is for everyone, and this one in particular is going to be something that many people are not going to be ready for.