Against the Darkmaster is a whopping 550-paged RPG from Open Ended Games.
It was Goldfinger who said, “No Mr Bond, I expect you to die!” and character death is, we’re told, a genuine threat in Against the Darkmaster. Slow the game down when it happens, let the players digest what occurred as the death of a hero should be a highly dramatic moment. Then give the player of the dead PC something else to do, such as controlling an NPC, as the rest of the group must get on with the adventure.
Of course, Bond doesn’t die. He’s the type hero defined by his success rather than, say, the 256th Spartan at the Gates of Thermopylae or the heroic Pheidippides.
If I ever have to run Against the Darkmaster, then I’ll make sure to avoid all plots involving prophecies of the “Chosen” rising against the evil. I suspect the brutal and dangerous default world created by these rules will put that inconvenient prophecy to bed quickly, and I don’t think you can always get away with substituting in a Faramir.
Goldfinger shouldn’t have swaggered and monologed; I would have designed a less braggadocious villain and one of my favourite aspects of Against the Darkmaster is you get the chance to do precisely that. The titular baddie isn’t a particular character. He, or she, is a concept to root the Good versus Evil epic of this roleplaying game around.
Characters in Against the Darkmaster
Characters in Against the Darkmaster can be created with a random stat roll which can result in extremely varied characters, from extremely week to impressively strong.
Fortunately, the system also provides a points buy method.
Open Ended Games, the indie publisher who have so clearly put their heart and soul into this project, recommend the random roll and suggest veteran gaming groups will prefer it. The problem, they say, with point buys are one-dimension characters and min-maxers.
I don’t think that’s right. I deal with min-maxers by not playing with them, and even if characters’ “dimensionality” came from their stats, Open Ended Games system allows for plenty of flexibility.
Against the Darkmaster avoids the use of the word “race” and goes with “kin” instead. There’s quite a choice;
- High Man
- Dusk Elf
- Silver Elf
- Star Elf
- Stone Troll
Your choice of Kin will influence your stats; Brawn, Swiftness, Fortitude, Wits, Wisdom and Bearing.
Next, character generation moves on to picking a culture, and this will help determine starting equipment, wealth as well as a point of view on the world.
Many cultures are environmental; artic, city, deep (underground), desert, hill, pastoral, plains and seafaring. Others are more societal; noble, weald (hunters), woad (nomadic) or marauding (there for NPCs). Lastly, there’s also the Fey culture descended from those who use magical arts to shield their communities.
Lastly, vocations offer more bonuses, spell lore and development points. Players can pick from warrior, rogue, wizard, animist (druid), champion (paladin) and dabbler (jack of all trades).
I’ve listed those vocations in the order that they come in the book. I suspect they come in “most likely to be played” with warrior first, at the forefront of the game designers’ minds, and dabbler last. Against the Darkmaster feels so full-throttle at times I wouldn’t be surprised if ‘dabbler’ was almost a bit of a slur.
Characters are then rounded off with skills, descriptions, backgrounds and other finishing touches.
The final step, though, is assigning some Passion and Drive, and I like this step.
A character’s passions come in three forms; their nature, their allegiance and their motivation.
Nature might be something like “Trust no one and have your sword ready” whereas an allegiance is less a personality trait and more about the community the character feels part of. An allegiance could be something like “My loyalty is to my King, whom I swore to protect”.
Lastly, motivation is what the character’s goals are. They might have sworn to protect the King, but perhaps they’re old school and have a motivation like, “I will wipe out the Orcs that burned down my village”.
I recall the Against the Darkmaster Kickstarter and the influence of metal. You’ll feel it in this chapter with Open Ended Games suggesting some musical inspiration. Dio’s “Stand up and Shout” could be about a character with “I’ll never hide again” as a Passion. At the same time, Manowar’s “Warriors of the World” describes a “United we fight, united we win or die” personality.
Lastly, characters advance by earning experience points. You’ll find old school MERP (Middle-Earth Role Playing) from Iron Crown Enterprises influences here with XP awarded for travelling to or exploring new locations (significantly less county that MERP’s 1xp per mile).
Against the Darkmaster’s system
Against the Darkmaster uses its own system and at the art of it is an Action Resolution Table on which you don’t want to score 4 or less but do want to reach 175 or more.
To see just how many points an action has achieved, players make an open-ended roll and add their skill bonus. In this system, an open-ended roll is a d100 on which a roll of 96 or more means rolling again and adding the two, repeating as many times as necessary. It also means rolling 5 or less requires you to roll again and subtract the second roll, repeating as many times as fate demands of you.
You also have to factor in difficulty, taking time, whether you’re being helped or any tools you’re using. There are no rerolls.
Saving throws are made by determining the right category; toughness or willpower, both are determined by Kin and modifiers and then checking a special table to calculate the bonus for an Open-Ended Roll. The difficulty is determined by calculating the Attack Level of the effect and checking a table.
As with MERP, there are a lot of tables in this RPG. Fortunately, there’s nothing, so immersion breaking as tripping over an imaginary deceased turtle as a critical failure in combat.
However, there are attack tables for edged weapons and blunt, for missile attacks and grappling, for area spells and bolt spells, and another one for beast attacks. Beats also have their own critical strike table.
There’s a table for impact criticals (but not of impacts from charging beasts, I presume), cut criticals, pierce criticals, grapple criticals, fire criticals, lightening criticals, frost criticals and dark magic.
I’m not going to list all the tables save to say there’s are many pages of magic tables, tables for travelling, for camping, for foraging, fumbles, wounds and recovery.
Rather nicely, all these tables are compiled at the back of the enormous book. The data recap starts at page 498 and goes on to page 553. Against the Darkmaster is a game that looks after you if you really want to know how the designer would handle any given situation. You’re rarely left to wing it.
On the other hand, tables aren’t metal. I don’t get the urge to look up small numbers hiding in rows when I listen to Manowar. I get the urge to kick over the chair and sing into my hairbrush. And I’m old.
I’ll touch on this again in the conclusion of the review, but this tension is a problem. My natural instinct and the finely designed engine that is Against the Darkmaster often don’t align. I appreciate the art, but my heart tugs me in a different direction.
Combat in Against the Darkmaster
As you’d hopefully now expect, combat in Against the Darkmaster is precise and tactical. There’s a bit to read once, many nuanced rules to master, but they make sense quickly and are easy to remember.
Combat is broken down into many phases.
- The move phase.
- The spell phase A.
- The range phase A.
- The melee phase (which is sequenced by the types of weapons in use).
- Longest reach weapons (like spears)
- Long reach weapons (long swords)
- Short reach weapons (hand axes)
- Hand reach weapons (daggers)
- The range phase B.
- The spell phase B.
It might sound as if your players will need small Against the Darkmaster manuals to learn all this but, I promise you, the system clicks together nicely.
If you have ever spent half an hour discussing why a turn in any given tabletop RPG system seems not to work for a melee, I suspect you’ll see why Open Ended Games have broken ranged and magic attacks into two and then wrapped them around the meat of the combat. Like a sandwich.
Not only is this combat structure logically sound, but it also gives players plenty to do and keeps the action nice and tactical.
As the title of this review notes, characters in Against the Darkmaster are expected to die. There are rules for that.
When your character dies, half their Heroic Path (their advancement track) is handed on to your next one. Unless that is, the group decides your character died in a particularly heroic way and you’ll avoid the penalty. I can think of no better way to start fights between players and engender bitterness.
“Particularly heroic” is entirely subjective. There’s only one rule I would scrap in this voluminous collection of rules, and it is this one.
Magic and Magic Points
Magic is a bit more complex in the RPG. Characters have Magic Points determined by Kin, Vocation and Level and these are needed to cast any spell that character might now.
Spells can be stacked, warped, concentrated on, overcast, etc and all the detailed, nuanced with well thought out modifiers that Against the Darkmaster is loaded with.
The spells your character knows are determined by their Spell Lores.
My favourite part of magic, and perhaps one of my favourite aspects of the game, is the casting magic and messing with reality might attract the attention of the Darkmaster.
How do you know? Well, yeah, by checking a table.
If you’re unlucky enough, an overwhelmingly powerful servant of the Darkmaster might be sent to investigate what just happened. Fortunately, that only happens when characters try spells of sufficient power; otherwise, low ranked characters might be (wisely) highly adverse to casting magic.
Against the Darkmaster makes good use of its page count. It’s not all filled with magic spells and tables.
There’s a sizable pre-written adventure in the core rules. It’s called Shadows of the Northern Woods, starts at page 423 and runs to page 496 when you add in the cartography, NPC descriptions and their character sheets. It’s the sort of publisher supplied adventure I’d honestly expect to pay $9.99 at DriveThruRPG for.
Before the Northern Woods, though, Against the Darkmaster has pages of helpful advice for GMs. The core rules help you adjust the fantasy level of your campaign up or down, walks you through the sort of preparation your need to do, offers up thoughts on mass battles and war.
I have to wonder whether the writing team of Massimiliano Caracristi, Tommaso Galmacci, Nikola Segoloni and Paolo Vecchiocattivi hung around in Facebook’s RPG groups to see the sort of questions people most commonly asked about games and made sure to answer them. It’s a thorough job, done well.
Against the Darkmaster also has a comprehensive bestiary in it. I’m not saying Open Ended Games won’t write another to sell to fans, but this is certainly not a game that leaves you with a sparsely populated dungeon. An effort has been made to include and illustrate all the fantasy favourites.
Look and feel
My PDF copy of Against the Darkmaster is greyscale and tends to use a two-column format. It’s a traditional approach that, like the book as a whole, has been done well.
Despite the straightforward but thoughtful layout, it’s easy to get lost in the sheer volume of pages. There’s over 555 in my PDF. For example, I always need to remind myself that the treasure rules come before the bestiary but after the rules for mass battles.
The art is impactful. These sketches have precisely the old school vibe I’m sure they are intended to conjure.
In the whole giant book, there’s only one picture I dislike and that’s the desert culture character who looks more like a stereotypical villain with a beak of a nose, a scowl and turban. All the other cultures look heroic. We need to get rid of this stereotype.
I appreciate the time and attention that went into Against the Darkmaster. I know precisely to whom I would recommend this particular RPG too as well. And I will recommend it.
But, Against the Darkmaster is unlikely to become a fantasy RPG to-go for me. Why? I don’t see it as a long-term campaign because I suspect the mortality rate will be high, and I prefer to invest a little more into my characters than that. I don’t see it as a quick one-off because of all the no-longer fresh in my mind tables I’ll have to look up and check.
A hardcore fantasy inspired by metal, for me, would be as quick as it would be deadly. It wouldn’t have a “searching for herbs” table.
Overall? A nicely built machine, but not one that I can see myself taking for a drive very often.
My copy of Against the Darkmaster was provided for review. You can buy it from DriveThruRPG for $24.99.
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