Despite its immense popularity in other entertainment mediums, police procedurals are a relatively-untapped genre in role-playing games. Sure, there’s the old stalwart Call of Cthulhu, but hacking that horror RPG into a game that can emulate a TV show like True Detective, or a movie like Silence of the Lambs can feel a bit awkward. Enter Darkly Through the Labyrinth to fill that dark, criminal void in your RPG collection.
Abstract Nova Entertainment’s new roleplaying game brings two interesting assets to bear. One is the game’s setting. Darkly, as written, is designed to take place in 1980’s America. Anyone who was alive in that era can instantly see the storytelling potential there: the country was rife with paranoia about Satan worship. The public’s fascination and fear with cults and serial killers was immense. From a gaming perspective, the 80’s is a great setting for psychological thrillers as well: modern enough to be understood by anyone, but before such game-changing technologies as smartphones or the internet. This means a group of PC’s in Darkly are going to have to hit the local libraries, scan newspapers, and literally chase down leads.
The other asset Darkly has is its incredibly small footprint. The entire game only costs five dollars for the pdf. At a total of 68 pages, an RPG vet could scan this game and be ready to run it in about an hour (with a little winging necessary to create a mystery on the fly.) The rules are light but comprehensive, revolving around rolling a die for your applicable skill or trait versus a die reflecting the difficulty of the task at hand. Various skills and specialities can bump your die up, or the difficulty die down. Other mechanics for handling the emotional and mental strain of working these gruesome cases, interrogating suspects, and conducting research are all represented here, as well.
Perhaps most interesting is the game’s handling of criminal profiling. The classic technique by which investigators extrapolate the character of their suspect through observing crime scenes is handled as a simple roll. Success allows the players to make assertions about the suspect that are true. This means a GM facing a skilled group of players doesn’t even need to make up a background, personality, or appearance for his criminal mastermind; the players will do it for you!
The game is written clearly and concisely, with plenty of examples of nearly every rule. Helpful “how to play” and “how to GM” sections, combined with the specific, relatable setting, make Darkly a very good choice for a beginning tabletop RPG gamer. For that reason alone, Darkly is worth purchasing just to have on hand for potential new gamers not necessarily into swords and dragons. I immediately thought of my wife as I read through Darkly. She being a huge fan of True Detective, I know I could get her to the table for this game at least once.
There are a few symptoms of You Get What You Pay For Syndrome here, however. The text is redundant in spots. Some sections actually seem like word-for-word copies of sections that appeared just a few pages ago. In a 300+ page tome, this retreading might be welcome, but in a book that’s well south of 100, it feels a little like padding. A dozen or so pages could easily be trimmed off this already slim role-playing game without losing any of its clearness, and that space could be taken up with something more useful, like, say, an introductory adventure.
Though the writers clearly know their stuff, name-dropping famous murderers and FBI investigators of the 80s throughout the text, there are no sections clearly outlining who some of these big players are. Indeed; a “bestiary” of famous real-life serial killers would not only be useful for GMs looking for inspiration, it would make for a fascinating read, as well. I’m disappointed that Darkly did not do all the heavy lifting for me to deliver a role-playing game that could not only stand on its own as a game, but could also serve as a great sourcebook for running this genre in other games, as well. There are other books out there that do this…2001’s GURPS: Cops, considered by many the bible of law enforcement source material, immediately comes to mind…but that book is long out of print (although still available in pdf), and with no contemporary equivalent out there, Darkly Through the Labyrinth comes off as a missed opportunity.
Still, though, if the chief criticism of this game is “I want MORE!” then at least it’s doing something right. For the cost of a quarter pounder with cheese, Darkly Through the Labyrinth gives you a complete roleplaying game with a compelling setting, workable mechanics, and enough potential to be investigating its depths for years to come.
My copy of Darkly Through the Labyrinth was provided for review.