Dark Souls The Roleplaying Game: A Turn Order Review
In the wake of my dead board gaming group (You can check our Oath review Oath review for a bit about that), and the continuing pandemic, I found myself at a bit of a gaming crossroads. I’ve always enjoyed Table Top RPGS, but I’ve rarely had a group to play them with, and in person meetings for those sorts of things with new people was a… Situation I didn’t really want to engage with. COVID-19 didn’t really help with this, except in the odd way of making play over Discord a lot more palatable and accessible, and so I actually turned to that. Frankly, interacting over voice, text, and without cameras/personal interaction made TTRPGs a lot more palatable to me, so when one door closes, you try to open another one with a roll to dexterity.
Sorry. I won’t make another joke like that.
So, anyway, with that, my TTRPG collection started to flourish. It wasn’t a focus of my hobby, but now it actually occupies about equal space with board and video games, and my time with miniatures is actually so slow that I’d say the ratio isn’t even 33% across, but somewhere like 45%, 45%, and 10%.
So, when Steamforged Games offered us a chance to review the Dark Souls RPG, I asked a few of my group mates if they’d like to test it with me. When they said yes, we enthusiastically jumped into the game that was provided to us. For the sake of review clarity, I wanted to provide a few notes: 1) we were given the game by SFG, and 2) my experience is based off of a campaign with myself as DM and 3 players, and 3) our copy is the misprinted one that SFG has mentioned will be replaced before US release. The 3rd point, frankly, had very little influence on our review.
Adventures in Dying Creatively
Dark Souls, if unfamiliar, is a series of Action-RPGs from Japanese developer From Software. The series proper is comprised of Dark Souls 1, 2, and 3, although the ‘family tree’ of Dark Souls is quite complicated, with the most ‘recent’ parent being that of Demon’s Souls, creepy cousin Bloodborne, and newborn baby Elden Ring, following the marriage of Dark Souls and Open World gaming. Further back, the games are heavily influenced by From’s library of titles like King’s Field, and draws heavily from dark fantasy influences, such as Kentaro Miura’s manga opus Berserk.
It is also, frustratingly, home to a cadre of gamers who have some of the most annoying discourse possible about game accessibility, difficulty, lore, challenge, and arbitrary nonsense. The repellent factor of Dark Souls and its brethren is fairly large, which is sad, because the games are beautiful, weird, funny, and reward contemplation, experimentation, and trial and error. In a lot of ways, the Souls games are exceptionally good solo-RPGs, where the story is less about what is happening around your character, but more about how you, as your character’s ‘brain’, perceive and interact with the world. Why not kill that annoying NPC? Who cares? It’s your game! Why not be a mage, or a pyromancer, or a naked man with dual katanas and a pot on your head? The world is quite literally your oyster.
An oyster that grows legs, opens its mouth, curses you, and then causes you an hour of grief trying to regain your lost soul collection and progress. But, anyway, a lot of what makes Dark Souls charming is not the false idea that it is an arduous mountain of difficulty–frankly, Dark Souls games difficulty is overblown–but it is instead your solo character’s weird journey through a dying, decaying world in which there’s nothing left but the crying. Your character is not a glorious hero here to save the day. Your character is not even really functionally important, except as a witness to the end, a solo vessel that happens to have a weird quirk that will not save everyone, but will let you witness, and choose, the ending the world gets.
The key word here, though, is “solo”. While you can summon NPCs and other people to aid you, these are fleeting. Your partners are ghosts, spectres summoned from other worlds to help you in a transient state. You are not an adventuring party or band of heroes on a quest. You’re a shivering, scared STR/VIT Quality Build who summoned your Gigachad Mage friend to one-shot a boss you got stuck at for 2 hours. This means that, again, as far as a “narrative” goes, a lot of it is in your head, and your character’s mute reactions to things in game help let you write out what’s going on in your head.
With that in mind, alternative versions of the Souls “Series” have tried, and mostly failed, to translate that experience outside of the videogame sphere. There are numerous Bloodborne board games, a Dark Souls board game (also from SFG), some very bad comic books about Bloodborne and Dark Souls, and now, the Dark Souls TTRG. Or, and perhaps this is giving away some of the review, the “Dark Souls 3 TTRPG That Includes Artorias Because Everyone is Horny for Artorias”, otherwise known as “This is Probably the Prototype for an Elden Ring TTRPG Because Dark Souls Doesn’t Work Like This”.
1 is a Party, 3 is a Crowd
Before going much further, I do want to state that my party and I really enjoyed our time with the Dark Souls RPG. This is not a judgment of quality, but a statement of fact: we enjoyed what we did with Dark Souls TTRPG, and my group said they’d consider playing it again. Because frankly, that’s what really matters, but from the ‘objective’ standpoint of a review, and whether you should buy it, I am very…divided!
The main issue is that this RPG is, frankly, a 5E styled RPG that skins Dark Souls on top of it. The theming is all Dark Souls, but the gameplay is fairly familiar to anyone who has ever played D&D, and honestly, I think having some experience under your built is kind of a necessity to get something out of this. Being familiar with TTRPG storytelling, conventions, and character development go a long way into cramming your characters into the world of the Unkindled.
And yes, you read that right. Unkindled. See, despite the name ‘Dark Souls’, this game is entirely themed around Dark Souls 3. The naming conventions, classes, spells, items, and enemies are all taken from the Dark Souls 3 world of Lothric. It features, in its bestiary, some return visitors from Dark Souls 1, specifically the Artorias of the Abyss DLC: Kalameet, Sif, and Artorias himself are the only ‘visiting’ bosses. The bestiary has a few monsters taken here and there, but this is entirely a Dark Souls 3 game, with some fanservice attached. Frankly, this was my least favorite part of the design of this game. It felt like it wanted too much to be a ‘Dark Souls’ game, but then either only had access to Dark Souls 3 or 1, and so went with 3. I’m not really sure: if I can be honest, while Dark Souls 2 has an odd (and unfair) rep, it has some of the most ‘human’ enemies in the series, meaning a lot of them could have made for interesting boss encounters.
This also limits worldbuilding if you are not careful to try and go outside the bounds of what the game offers, and is also further limited by the fact that Dark Souls 3, as an editorial take here, has some of the most boring and ‘empty’ lore of the trilogy. Anyway, your band of Unkindled will set forth for whatever adventure you set them on, with one big, weird, obvious issue:
People don’t really talk to one another in Dark Souls.
Walking a Lonely Road
Something my group and I (as the DM, and thus, the creator of all NPCs) had to wrestle with is that this property is a game based on solo, lonely adventuring. You meet a random person, interact with them in a bizarre and unclear way, and then maybe you see them again. Maybe you kill them. Maybe you just find their dead body somewhere. But Dark Souls is not a game about bands of adventuring heroes. So, very early on, there is a major flaw with this game that my group and I had to surmount to enjoy it. It might be too much for you, and that is this:
This is, essentially, a 5E Module Themed Around Dark Souls, rather than Dark Souls, the RPG.
For us, we muddled through it and sort of ended up playing a Dark Fantasy RPG that is Sort of Based on Dark Souls, rather than a “Dark Souls” RPG. It is Dark Souls Flavored. It tastes, fondly, like Dark Souls, but is a little off, like a new company bought the recipe and changed the sugar for corn syrup. It emits hints of Dark Souls, sort of like seltzer water makes you think of a flavor before forgetting what taste is. Which is funny, because the book itself is lovingly put together with great art and lore from the games, but the actual on table experience is not Dark Souls.
My group and I spent a few weeks traipsing around Lothric, and what emerged was, at first, a somewhat stern and serious attempt at playing the game, and then it devolved into what Dark Souls is when you roll deep with a summon squad of your friends: a complete stomp of challenge and ridiculous nonsense happening in a serious and dreary world. The combat system isn’t overpowering on purpose, but even the (what feels like) baked in challenge to make it DARK SOULS: YOU DIED, HAHA, the TTRPG, doesn’t work. My party never once felt in fear for their safety, and I scratched my head on how to do so in combat, and so instead we started to focus on problem solving and questing for random things. And, at the end, we sort of thought: What did any of that have to do with Dark Souls?
Our campaign ‘ended’ when the group, by agreement, decided to try and turn this dark again by having the band of adventurers come to the realization (one by one) that there can only be ONE Lord of Cinder, and there were 3 of them. They attempted to kill one another, but, being Unkindled, just came back. In the end, our campaign ‘ended’ with the 3 PCs agreeing to simply just wait out the end of days by causing as much chaos as possible, and I watched in somewhat interest as the ‘happy ending’ for our game was 3 people devoting themselves to becoming Mound Makers, Dark Souls 3’s weirdest and worst working Covenant.
It felt kind of fitting.
Prepare to Buy Edition?
Well, that’s more a joke than a suggestion. Frankly, as niche as the audience of Dark Souls wants to pretend the series is, in the wake of Elden Ring especially, Dark Souls is generic gamer fuel that prints money. Most people already pre-ordered this book as soon as they saw the name and SKU go up. It doesn’t really matter if I tell you if this is the worst RPG or the best, what matters is that it says DARK SOULS on the cover.
Frankly, I’m actually just hopeful for a potential Elden Ring RPG. This book already feels very much like a set-up for that, as a 5E version of this game but with Elden Ring would likely work far better. For starters, there are a lot of actual talking humans and ‘normal’ people still alive in Elden Ring, and second, the idea of an ‘adventuring party’ works a lot better in that world, even if it is still on the precipice. (it is also explicitly stated that the Tarnished are a group, of which you are one, rather than the idea that your single character in Dark Souls 1, 2, and sort of 3 are somehow unique and different from the rest of the riff-raff). But that isn’t this book, not yet, so we need to talk about if you should buy THIS book.
If your group is very, very into TTRPGs and also very into Dark Souls, there’s probably enough in this book to give it a go. The sad thing is though that there are just better Dark Fantasy TTRPGs on the market, that work better for groups of players and the types of storytelling that TTRPGs are known for. One such title is Mork Borg, and I will be lying to you if I said I did not occasionally go to it for some ideas of how to run this campaign over the actual Dark Souls book itself. I think that, as far as licensed TTRPG books go, this one is kind of 50/50; my biggest problem is price. For the price ($50 US), there are probably other books I’d suggest if I had to choose. If, however, you want a videogame-y romp through familiar territory, then Dark Souls: The RPG is a good choice. The book is filled with art from the series, and a lot of faithful attempts at implementing the game’s systems and identities are here, it’s just that they don’t… always work out. But sometimes, it’s the journey, and if you have a band of TTRPG fans who would froth at the chance of fighting Artorias or the Lothric Twins by chucking dice at them, then you’ll find something to love here, even if as a passing diversion.