With the thwack of a well-place arrow, the final ghoul slumps to the ground before your feet. You look to your companions, not quite able to comprehend the frenzied attack that just took your group by surprise. The night is long, and the minions of the Darkmaster are everywhere, but you didn't expect an attack like this. You're frightened and tired, but you've made a promise to yourself: you will reclaim your family's ancient sword, stolen by one of the Darkmaster's lieutenants. The road is long and weary, but your companions put a hand on your shoulder. "It's time to move on," they say, "The Darkmaster waits for none." Welcome to the big, bold, and deep world of Against The Darkmaster, a new tabletop roleplaying game by Open Ended Games.
Against the Darkmaster is an utterly massive new RPG system, clocking in at over 550 pages, that serves as a one-stop shop for everything players and a Game Master need to dive into the game. Inspired by old school RPGs, and full of tables to roll, this game blends storytelling with technical specificity in a way that feels entirely new. In Against the Darkmaster, no matter what shape your adventure takes, you'll always have looming on the horizon the existential threat of the Darkmaster — a vile villain the game group creates together, who pulls the strings from a distance, slowly impressing their evil will onto the world of the game. And having a common enemy to fight against really gives this game a special feeling that sets it apart from so many others in the fantasy RPG genre. I really like the way the book itself explains Against the Darkmaster, so I'll lay it out here:
"Against the Darkmaster is not a game about exploring underground labyrinths and slaying monsters for gold and coins. It's a game about becoming heroes by making hard choices, following your Passions despite the dangers, and standing against Evil no matter the cost."
So... we know who the villain is, and we know the general vibe of the game, but who are you, as a player? As with other fantasy RPGs, Against the Darkmaster allows players to play as many different kinds of people. Called Kins in Darkmaster, players can select from classic fantasy options like Dwarf, Halfling, Man, Half-Orc, and Orc. But there are also a few surprises in here as well. Elves, for instance, are divided into four different Kins: there are the sturdy Half Elves, the seabound sailing Silver Elves, the wild and free Dusk Elves, and the ancient and noble Star Elves. There's also the Kin of High Man, a taller "descendant of the forefathers of man." Add to that the nature-loving and mysterious Wildfolk, the monstrous and powerful Stone Trolls, and the huge and imposing Firbolg, and you've got a cast of playable characters that both refers to its RPG predecessors and reimagines them at the same time.
The game also asks the player to select a Culture that they're from, which along with heavily impacting their backstory, indicates a character's starting equipment and Wealth Level. Some of our favorite culture options (there are 13 available options) include the frozen hardiness of the Arctic culture, the mysterious and magical Fey culture, the peaceful Pastoral culture, and the Weald and Woad cultures, which show two sides of living in the wild (on the borders with Weald, and deep into the dark wild for Woad).
Unlike other RPGs that offer up most of their character customization and specialization through "Classes," Against the Darkmaster puts most of its character emphasis on Kin and Culture. The options for "Vocations" as they're called in this game, are more straightforward: Warrior, Rogue, Wizard, Animist, Champion (they mix of magic and might), and Dabbler. There's also a huge list of skills to specialize in, and a wide range of Backgrounds to help round out your character. All in all, this is one of the most robust character creation systems I've ever played with, allowing players to truly sculpt a character that's not just unique, but unique as supported by the rules. In other words, you're not just playing an Arctic Firbolg with the hands of a healer for flavor, you're playing that character with bonuses, stat bumps, and special abilities informed by those choices.
One of the core mechanics that really moves the game along is the idea of "Passions and Drive." As you create your character, you also describe their passions. When building your character, you choose up to three statements that your character lives by, such as "I will defend the deserts from all who would defile them," "I'm loyal only to my friends and comrades," or "I will do whatever's necessary to reclaim my ancestral throne." When a character moves the story forward by acting on their passions — whether that means putting themselves in danger, getting themselves into trouble, or moving the story in a different direction — they gain a "Drive" point, which can be spent to gain tactical, dice-on-the-table benefits. This is one of the most savvy ways I've ever seen an RPG balance storytelling and mechanics, and this interplay created, in our playtests, a bouncy back-and-forth feeling that left us excited to drive the story forward and spend our points to crush our enemies on the battlefield.
So, now that we understand the main aspects of building a character (and there's plenty more to add flavor and detail we won't go into here), how does the game actually work? The core mechanic in Against the Darkmaster revolves around players rolling a D100 and adding their relevant skill bonuses and any modifiers when they want to attempt to accomplish something that could fail. That roll is then checked against an Action Resolution Table to show how successful (or pitiful) the dice roll was. What I love about this system is how it goes beyond "Success or Failure;" you can of course succeed or fail, but you can also fail so badly you break a piece of equipment. Or succeed so spectacularly you gain more information than you'd ever hoped to find. And there's a space in the middle, you can partially succeed. This, like so many other aspects of Against the Darkmaster, just adds to a feeling of flexibility and balance between rules and story.
Spellcasting works similarly, with various modifiers that can be applied situationally to any spell being cast. But there's an added ripple worth calling out here because of its sheer ingenuity. Like Sauron in Lord of the Rings, the Darkmaster is constantly searching for those who would oppose it. And as such, the use of magic is never completely safe in Against the Darkmaster. Anytime a player rolling a D100 to cast a spell rolls doubles (i.e. a 22, 77, etc.) it triggers a magical resonance, which can attract the attention of the Darkmaster. The magic caster must then roll on a Magical Resonance Roll Table, with results ranging from the benign (just a feeling of darkness passing over the players) to the disastrous ("The caster has been located and deemed worthy of the Darkmaster's attention. A small band of servants will be sent to kidnap or apprehend the caster and their allies").
There's so much more to cover in this massive book, from combat rules to travel, hazards, healing, a robust grimoire of magic spells, and a bestiary full of terrifying creatures and foes. But I wanted to take some time here and really talk about what it feels like to play the game. This is a game where every choice matters, because every decision you make should be rooted in the wants and needs of your character. A character's Passions are so central to the theme that if you're not working together to help each other accomplish your goals (and any group goals you have), then this game won't run for you. If you're looking for a dungeon-delving, slash-em-up gold-fest, you won't really find that here. This is a game where every die roll matters, and while it's not as punishing as a game like Dungeon Crawl Classics or Hackmaster, death is never too far off the table.
I also want to take special note of the art in this book, which you can see scattered throughout this review. The black-and-white artwork throughout perfectly punctuates and illuminates the energy and tone of the game. This is high, high fantasy. This is wizards with long white beards and necromancers with skull necklaces. It is, in essence, side-of-a-mini-van artwork (and let me be clear: in my book that's a huge compliment).
While my group of newer players needed to adjust a bit to the heavy reliance on tables (you roll on a lot of different tables throughout the game), we found a happy medium. Some tables we didn't consult, while others (like the Magical Resonance Table mentioned above) we cheered and screamed to with each and every roll. It intentionally slows the pace of an average game, which in its own way allows the storytelling to open up and breathe.
The Bottom Line
I'm enamored with this heavy, hulking book. It does something really well that I've been looking for forever. I love super-crunchy RPGs, I want to roll on a table to tell me which table to roll on. But I often feel like the sheer weight of a game, and its complexity, leaves little room for character development. So, in that case, what is the game? Who am I in this shared experience? By focusing so strongly on character creation, background, Passion, and development, Against the Darkmaster answers that question. It says: you're the hero, now roll on some tables and go out there and fulfill your destiny.
Want to try Against the Darkmaster out for yourself? Download the Quick Start Rules!
Get This Game If...
- You, like me, are looking for that perfect blend of story and crunch
- You're into that old-school RPG vibe
- You want to play a character with a fully fleshed out background
Avoid This Game If...
- You're looking for a lighter play experience
- You're the Darkmaster, and don't want anyone against you
The copy of Against the Darkmaster used in this review was provided by the publisher.