I am shocked that I’m not seeing any buzz over this awesome upcoming title. Let’s remedy that.
Against the Darkmaster is a game that started out as a clone/house-ruled version of Middle Earth Role-Playing and Rolemaster but has evolved into its own game. The authors list various inspirations from books by Tolkien, Brooks and Goodkind to movies from 70’s and 80’s like Dragonslayer and Krull. They even have an extensive Spotify playlist of heavy metal music and really you should just go look at their God-damned awesome looking website.
The game is due for a Kickstarter in 2019, and in the mean time they offer a “Quick Start” playtest copy of the game. There’s also a 30-page adventure and premade sheets of iconic characters to play. You do have to sign up for the website to download the materials — something I’m perfectly OK with but know others may be put off.
The current draft of the Quickstart is admittedly rough — 109 pages including covers. Only artwork is on the front. No bookmarks. There are some typos and small formatting errors throughout. That said, the tables, columns and font choice are perfectly readable. I was able to do a quick glance through and then a full read with no problem.
I’ve never played or read MERP, and it’s been the better part of a decade since I ran Rolemaster. I recognized the concept of the “open-ended” percentile mechanics — this is a d100 game where you try to roll high, and rolling 94% or higher means you get to roll again and add it up. This is also a game that uses crit charts for various types of attacks — cuts, piercing, bludgeon and even fire. This is the breaking point for a lot of folks, for many dread consulting charts for combat results. Here I’m finding the tables simultaneously interesting and easy to parse. They are color coded, and they are brutal. We’re talking details like cutting your opponent in the neck, and if they’re not protected there they’re stunned and will bleed to death in eight rounds. Or a piercing shot to the chest piercing a lung and killing a target within 6 hours.
It’s visceral, and very punishing, but it also delivers a detail to combat beyond “I hit it with my axe for a few points.”
Character Creation in the quickstart has plenty of options, as you’ll be choosing from typical Tolkien-inspired Kins (races), 6 vocations (classes), Cultures, Background abilities, and Passions (statements of why your character is adventuring in the first place.) It’s meaty but I feel I’d be more confident in creating a character for Against the Darkmaster than I would Runequest or Warhammer.
Combat, admittedly, I’m probably going to have to read over a couple more times to feel confident running it. It’s not because the writing is bad (far from it) but that there is quite a bit to take in as this system emphasizes tactical play. Rounds are broken up in a Tactical Round Sequence in which intent of actions are declared and then movement, ranged attacks, spells and melee attacks are handled in a phase order. I know for most modern gamers this sounds exhausting, but with an invested group I can find this style of combat fun.
There’s lots more covered in this Quick Start — adventuring, grimoires for both the animist and wizard vocations, weapon tables, and more. No formal bestiary chapter, but there is a full table with creature stats in the Appendix. It’s nice, by the way, to see a “crunchy” game where a Wyvern ‘s stat block can fit on a notecard. Large monster stat blocks have become a pet peeve of mine.
Obviously more is coming, but do know there is enough to work with and take the game for a spin.
I do want to bring attention to The Beast of Willow Lake, the free adventure provided on their site. What I love about it is within its 30 pages, you get more than a single adventure. It’s packed with locations, creatures, and NPCs that can serve more than just a plot point or encounter along the way. It’s an adventure laid out for you to build on, a place for players to explore and be able to do more than follow the bread crumbs to the goal. The maps are wonderfully illustrated, and there’s quick stat blocks at the end for the NPCs for easy reference.
In short: if the game system itself proves to be too much, I implore any fantasy gamer to at least keep an eye on this line for the adventures. There is an excellent execution here that can be used with any system with minimal effort.
One final note: the pregen characters are awesome. You get a full page illustrstion, a page devoted to their backstory, and then a filled out character sheet. The sheets are organized well, and I think anyone who has played a fantasy RPG can navigate it fine.
The Fellowship has caught our attention here at The ChaosGrenade, and we’re definitely looking forward to more material, playtests, and we’ll be counting our coppers for the Kickstarter. In the mean time, you can follow their development on G+,
Facebook, on Twitter, and their website https://www.vsdarkmaster.com/