Montag, 12. Mai 2014

Review: The Dark Eye Basic Rules

It's 2003, and after almost 30 years, the biggest success in German RPG, is translated to English, by the same company that was successful with BattleTech and ShadowRun. The game is a success like German Boardgames are, because it has certain features RPGs in the US tradition lack.

Only that didn't happen. The game was a dismal failure, and people barely know it existed (unless they are into obscure games, or they know that the Drakensang series of computer games is based on the same game world -- except the Drakensang MMO).

How could a game that once captured tens of thousands of Germany's RPG audience -- actually built that audience to boot, fail so miserably?

To be honest, I don't know. Maybe, as +Jürgen Mayer did point out in my Plus post on the German RPG Community, it is because it was released the same time D&D 3E was released, which had a big catalog of background material to start with, and the backing of WotC financially. But I wanted to take a look at the book and figure out if it could have stood by it's own had it been released a year earlier or two years later, to get decoupled from the 3E splurge.

First, the physical: Hardbound book with full color cover, 180 pages on thick creamy paper, black-and-whitr internally with illustrations of various quality that are  above average of typical RPG illustration quality across the board.

Second the content: 10 pages trying to explain what an RPG is, a quick overview of the game rules on another eight pages, 70 pages of character creation (the brunt of the book), 40 pages combat rules (with basic and advanced combat rules), 10 pages magic system, 20 pages game world description, game master and player tips, some archetypes for immediate play, an index, a map, a double sided character sheet.

It looks like all the elements are there. But reading the book you get a strange mixture of things being incomplete yet at the same time overcomplex. Here are some examples:

The world of Aventuria, which the rules are inextricably intertwined with (that is to say, while you can play on Aventuria with other rules,  the rules aren't well suited for other game worlds),  has a rich history from 30 years of publication and a tacked-on play-by-post game did offer players some input into the game world for a long time, and on 180 pages you can only present so much. For example, of the twenty or so human cultures littering the continent, only three are presented in the books (the pirate-viking Thorwalians, the desert-faring Tulamides, and the pre-renaissance Middenrealmers), and the variations on Elfs and Dwarfs are also left out for one sample. This simplifies the choices in character generation, but of course fails to convey the depth and complexity of the background. This is but one example for the incompleteness, which you will also find in the rules: Only a very short subset of the magic system is reflected in the rules, and almost all the rules for clerics (called deonts where mentioned) are left out except for a fragment about the power used to fuel their miracles. Likewise the combat system explanation starts with telling people what' s left out and will be expanded in later supplements.

Nonetheless, the game system seems overly complex, or at least complicated. The character generation system is a prime example of this. On the surface it looks simple: Buy attributes, choose race, culture, profession, customize with advantages/disadvantages. But the reality is: You build your character with Generation Points which spawn Talent Generation Points and possibly Spell Generation Points which are used to buy talents (skills in other systems) and, if you're a magic user (i.e. human or elf),  spells (which work like skills talents mostly). There's also a whole slew of advantages/disadvantages, some of which modify the cost of other generation points and/or generate more, more than a handful of secondary attributes that have fun ways to compute them (like add Courage, Cleverness, Intuition and divide by five with mathematical rounding). So, even with the simplification of the initial choices of race and culture and profession, the amount of point juggling and customization and secondary computations seems daunting; mostly because a lot of the choices seem opaque and unrelated to the way the game is supposed to be played.

The complexity in character generation is not about Rules Mastery like it was in 3E. I don't know what it is about, but it may have to do with the idea of Fantastic Realism. To quote from the book:
Fantastic realism means that even the fantastic and the iraculous seem logical within the frameworld of the world and that the world's fantastic and realistic elements are closely intertwined. Thus, while a single magician will not have the power to incinerate a city, an entire circle of suicidal evil magicians or a wrathful imperial dragon might well be able to do so. Said dragon might be able to fly, but still needs to tend to wounds at times and always requires sufficient amounts of food (such as an ox every few days).
I guess that this is  the same idea as Gygaxian Naturalism, but in my experience the outcome is about the exact opposite: Where Gygaxian Naturalism seems to uplift the mundane into a fantastical environment, The Dark Eye's Fantastic Realism idea is often used to provide an upper bound to the fantastic and as such makes the game world more mundane despite magic and dragons.

Another point I want to note is that the game examples and tips to play are textbook examples of shirking the players and making sure the GM (inexplicably called Highlord in this game; including the intro game example where the Highlord is a woman but not a Highlady) is in control of what happened. Here are but two examples (emphasis mine):
Star Trail (Cleverness 11, Charisma 12) wants to put a Tulamidyan guard to sleep by means of a sleep of a thousand sheep spell (spell prowess 5). She assumes that the timeworn veteran may not be easy to enspell, thus she invests an additional 8 ASP to decrease the difficulty of her Test by 4 points. The guard has [magic resistance] 5, which is quite respectable for a soldier; due to the additional 8 ASP (a 4 point bonus) Star Trail invested, however, this drops to 1. Star Trail now needs to succeed at a Test +4 (spell prowess 5 minus magic resistance 1) and rolls 7, 1, and 8. This would have been good enough to pass the Test even without Forcing it. The guard immediately drops as if dead instead of slowly snoozing away, and when he wakes up, he will certainly know that he didn't simply nod off, but was most likely enspelled (emphasis mine).
So the character invested extra to have a good chance of success, and by rolling very well, gets a result that will punish them later? This attitude is found in more examples, and I don't like it very much. If you think I'm over-interpreting, let's check out some advice to aspiring Highlords:
Never count on your players to follow the adventure path you have in mind. Players simply don't do this. Whenever possible, they will do something you didn't expact or plan for. That's fine, since spontaneity is one of the great strengths of role-playing -- but it may force you to react to unexpected behavior. Slowly but surely, try to get the heroes back to the adventure you've scripted. Don't let this faze you. There's always a way of getting things back on track (emphasis mine).
So we have fantastic realism, book examples where good effort by players to achieve something will bite them in the end (another example has a character going high up in the tree because she thinks she gets the best apples there and it's not enough that it's a normal apple, no, it has to have a worm in it to boot -- yes, that mundane, and still), and an explicit call to get players back onto a script when they dare have unexpected ideas.

So, would TDE ever have a chance for success in the US market? Maybe! Bad or clunky rules are no deterrent to people; house rules exist everywhere. But the game's true qualities lie in the depth of and investment by players and GMs alike into the ever-evolving background. And here is where it probably makes sense to have a detailed character creation process: It helps you find your character's place in that detailed work through generation, instead of through play, which might be more appropriate to a game world painted with broader strokes than Aventuria. It also explains why you might want to get back to the "scripted adventure" (to an extend that good players know where the plot is and go there): If you deviate too far (and for some, at all is too far in this regard), you will lose touch with the future installments rich published background (which has a quarterly periodical and yearbooks and so on).

I want to end this little excursion with a caveat: The people who did DSA/TDE eleven years ago, mostly aren't involved. Some of the newer material looks much less paternalistic, the upcoming fifth edition's character creation is very streamlined (yet still lengthy), the basic rules blocks haven't changed too much, but the game world is still there and exudes it's European Renaissance Fairy Tale charme which might just enspell me again.

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