Dark Fantasy Basic (2017)
Eric Diaz (Chaos Factory Productions)
Disclaimer: sponsored content.
The concept of burden of proof is important in philosophy and requires you to support an assertion with sufficient evidence. I prefer to think of new retroclones in terms of burden of proof as opposed to market value. In order for a retroclone to be worth your time it must A) improve or alter the game it was based upon and B) the alteration must be of such size and effect that playing the game is a measurably better or different experience then the original, a sort of threshold effect. Dungeon Crawl Classics attempts a sort of hyper-oldskool genre-faithful emulation, Labyrinth Lord is just a cleaned up version of Basic in a time when the books were unavailable.
I was contacted by Eric Diaz, asking me to check out his Dark Fantasy Basic, a 45-page retroclone based on DnD Basic with a hefty dose of 5e (or so I think) thrown in. I gave it a read but unfortunately it did not win me over, and I will attempt to explain why as I cover various sections.
Dark Fantasy Basic is meant to be a ‘dark fantasy’ retroclone with more customization option that one usually sees in an oldschool game. It proceeds to pull the Lotfp gambit of proclaiming it is dark fantasy without providing mechanical support or any content for the emulation of dark fantasy and thus leaves us with what is essentially half 5e, half basic. In addition, the writing is unclear at times, making the text hard to get through despite its brevity.
The layout is alright and given its 45-page length it will not be hard to find information on DFB. The art is all public domain medieval art, which put me in mind of Dark Albion (though the art seems a bit more haphazard in this case).
Conventions: As a nod to more S&S tropes DFB at least points out you just have to roll a new character if you die, following conventions of almost any other game and DCC/Lotfp in retroclone land. In addition, DFB states that everyone starts at level 3 since 1st level characters are wimpy and die too easily. Da fuq DFB? I thought you were all gritty and low levelly (the level cap on this game is 10).
Basic modifications: Stop me if you have heard this one before. Instead of throwing under a target number like some disgusting nerd, you must roll against a DC of something with d20 + ability modifier+relevant modifiers based on level+miscellaneous modifiers and voila. The game also uses the advantage/disadavantage (i.e roll twice and use highest/lowest) convention of 5e for some reason. Saving throws have been entirely stripped out and are now just ability + level checks, which is fine I guess.
Character generation: The game begins by pissing me off and using 21 – 3d6 yin-yang for character generation. All characteristics have fixed links, meaning a high score in one ability will yield a correspondingly low score for another, and thus limiting the number of possible character types drastically. It also means that if you start the game with 18 Cha, your Con is automatically 3. To compensate for this ridiculous artifact, you can either change one score to 8 or your highest score to 17 (i.e cockgarglingly high), and THEN SWAP AROUND YOUR ABILITY SCORES PROVIDED NO MORE THEN HALF ARE SWAPPED.
Irritating and why not just use regular rolls? I suppose there is some sort of balance to the rolls but why, you can always just use point buy if you care about balance. Faaaah! I’ll roll up a char and see what I get. I took the darkest most goffik character name I could find because this is dark fantasy.
Enoby Darkness Dementia Ravenway (Lvl
1 3 character)
11 17 (+2) Int 10
8 13 (+1) Wis 13 8 (-1)
Con 14 (+1) Cha 7 (-1)
Uh change Strength to 17, switch Wis and Dex and there we go. Character.
After this we must select a character class. The game uses the holy quadrinity of Fighter, Thief, Wizard and Cleric. Each class gets feats so there are plenty of options for customization (e.g the fighter has a selection of abilities that make him a defacto paladin/barbarian/ranger or whatever, and the rest has pretty much the abilities you expect if you are somewhat familiar with either Basic or 5e). It needed some new abilities. The introductions attempt some badassery but fall lamentably short.
You might call yourself a knight, a barbarian warrior, a soldier or a ranger, but it makes no difference: your main skills are violence and murder. Handy skills to have in this
Needed just a bit more oomph. This is how I would have done it.
You call yourself knight, ranger, soldier. There is no difference in the end. You are a killer, a reaver, a breaker of horses-and-men. A profession all too common in this wicked world.
Just imagine the Darkest Dungeon Narrator Voice in your head whenever you read over it and you’ll get it right.
You have one new character class, the Hopeless, which starts with regular vanilla 3d6 in order and if your total modifer is higher then +1, you must change your highest ability score to 12. Also you have no starting feat, your starting level is 1 and you start without money or equipment.
Okay, so we select a fighter. Next up comes skill selection, sort of inspired by 5e I think. Almost all activities, including spellcasting and combat in DFB are treated as skills. There are three skill ‘tracks’ based on level, primary (bonus equal to level), secondary (2/3rds of level) and tertiary (1/2 level). Primary tends to be fixed for all but the Nameless class and you can never get new skills after character creation. Fuck it, we selected Fighter so our primary skill is Combat, our Secondary skill must be Atheletics, leaving us with one secondary skill and three tertiary skills of our choosing.
Enoby Darkness Dementia Ravenway (Lvl 3 Fighter)
Str 17 (+2) Int 10
Dex 13 (+1) Wis 8 (-1)
Con 14 (+1) Cha 7 (-1)
Skills: Combat (Primary) +5, Spellcasting (Sec) +2, Athletics (Sec) +4, Perception (Ter) +0, Persuasion (Ter) +0, Thievery (Ter) +2
Feats: Battle Master, Extra Attack
Alright, this game uses a similar approach to spellcasting as Dungeon Crawl Classics, meaning spellcasting is in fact a skill (though the awesome spellcasting fumbles/successes of that noble Retroclone are absent) and you roll against a DC. In fact, this is one of the few distinctive elements in Dark Fantasy Basic, anyone can learn to cast spells, and anyone can learn a spell at the cost of a feat. Fuck it, we pick spellcasting (Int) as a secondary skill, and Perception, Persuasion and Thievery as tertiary skills. Now would be a good time to mention DFB makes ZERO mention of handling procedures when a character attempts an activity (such as, say, Persuasion or Athletics) without having the requisite skill.
Feat selection is up next. We get the Battle Master Feat as a Fighter, giving us 1 extra hp per level and +1 damage per die. You get one starting feat and then the option of a feat for each level thereafter (I assume, even though you start at level 3, you don’t get any feats for levels 2 and 3 right? Not answered). You have a pool of general feats (e.g Alertness, Leadership to raise morale and gain more followers,) A feat that gives you an extra skill/language, and a metamagic feat that allows you to do stuff with range, number of targets etc. at the cost of lowering your roll but its described in such vague terms and the admonition to use common sense feels like a cop-out. In fact, you will see the (GM’s Discretion) sign pop up throughout the game, not necessarily a point in favor of a rulesystem. Back to the review, every class also gets their own feats, and Enoby is a ferocious warrior and we have many ridiculously overpowered warrior feats to choose from. Extra Attack at -2 to both attacks you say? Reroll all attack rolls with a category of weapons you say? Extra Attack Bitch!
The Wizard and cleric abilities are a lot less powerful (i.e use Cha instead of Wis for spellcasting, reroll 1’s on damage dealt (okay that one is great)) and they are double fucked because every time you want to learn a new spell that takes a feat. The thief gets a bunch of thief-acrobat, bard, assassin like feats but whatever and the Hopeless is probably the toughest character in the long run since you can select feats from EVERYWHERE and you start at level 1. I.e you immediately take unarmoured defence and parry as soon as you can.
Incidentally, this would have been an opportunity to diverge from the formula of the works before it and go in a brave new direction by including some brand all new feats to give it that Dark Fantasy vibe but here Dark Fantasy BX remains maddeningly conservative.
I thought the option of a feat each level would make your characters horribly overpowered but since it must be balanced against an increase in ability scores or a new spell characters in DFB aren’t going to be that tough.
HP and combat is handled resoundingly mediocre. All hp is averaged, allways, so no hit dice and only the Fighter gets more hit points. Uh…If you get knocked down there is a sort of Death’s Door rule where you can either get knocked unconscious, start bleeding out but might recover, get disabled or you get up again. No YOU DIE result. Weaksauce. Excess damage after 0 hp is subtracted from Con points, and presumably you die if you run out of those. A Science skill check allows characters to bring downed characters back to 1 hp, but the Con and HP damage must heal over time. One heals other effects a lot faster or (GM’s discretion). Urgh.
DFB recognizes Law, Chaos, Neutrality and the Unaligned. Neutrality represents a conscious decision to uphold the balance, whereas Unaligned just means you don’t care. The universe is portrayed as a Moorcockian (or Andersonian if you want to be chronological about it) battle between the opposing forces of Chaos and Law. There is no moral component and the game makes it clear you have both heroes and villains on each side. A brief glimpse of unique setting material here as the game mentions the Lawful but dangerous Ironweb Spiders as well as the implacable and merciless Stone Angels, which are not explained any further. A pity. I would probably be a lot more tolerant of DFB if it came with its own setting, as it stands, the Basic/5e remix is just not winning me over.
On the one hand Enoby is totally on board with overthrowing the narrow-minded Church of Law but on the other hand caring about the Cosmic struggle for good and evil is for preps so we shall make her Unaligned, the best kind of aligned.
Another glimpse into the implied setting of DFB is the languages section. There is a decaying Empire tongue, as well as languages for Angels, Demons, Fae and the usual common/thieves cant/magic language/trail sign. Gaaaah give me something new! Everyone knows 3 + Int modifier languages, making everyone a polyglot, but the game is smart about it by at least making Reading and Speaking two seperate things so it all evens out.
Enoby speaks and reads Vulgate as well as Runo so she can cast magical spells later in the game.
I know 5e uses backgrounds with mechanical benefits but this game just lists 10 general words with three specifications. I.e Artist: Wandering Minstrel, Wandering Actor, Circus Freak. You automatically succeed in “doing anything that would be easy for anyone with a similar history, without a roll.” Uh okay, just give us a random background table for each class next time. And why is my background without mechanical benefit?!?
One ‘innovation’ is an encumbrance system based on your strength score, with weight expressed in abstract units, and multiples of your encumbrance generating increasing skill and movement penalties. DFB uses the silver standard and everything is handled very abstractly, i.e dull but quick. Armour is divided into light, medium and heavy, weapons deal damage based on their size and get a few special categories like spears, swords, axes/mace, missile weapons and so on, which are given size indicators. I am not sure if this is the best way to convey the information.
You will be pleased to know Exotic weapons “always have some sort of unique drawback” and act either as double weapons or as maces that ignore shields.
Same goes for the misc. equipment section. An entry labelled light tools is just an alphabetical listing of stuff with the same weight and the same price for everything (occasionally the price is doubled for rare items) and so on. Again we have the “”specialised skills will often require tools. Improvised tools give disadvantage. Some tasks will be impossible without tools (GM’s discretion).” I get what they are going for but is this even technically a rule?
Anyway, we roll 3d6 times 10 for starting cash and buy some stuff. 120 Silver nets us a medium Axe (20 S, d8, +1 to hit), a Dagger (5 S), Light Armour (40 S, +2 AC), A Heavy Shield (24 S, +2 AC), a week of fresh food (7S), rope 20 feet (5 S), a backpack (5 S) and a 10 foot pole (S) and we keep the rest in cash.
XP requirement doubles each level. Anyway, you know the drill, Silver for XP, monster HD squared times ten for a kill and two new awards, you get a 10% XP boost if you make it to Death’s Door and survive and another 10% allocated for “doing great things,” which can be anything from forging an Empire to building a Castle, as long as it is suitably impressive.
Ability score increase is possible if your level is higher then your total ability score modifier times the number of feats, you can opt to either take a feat (aha), or add 1 or 2 points to your ability score. Uh yeah. DFB has some balancing mechanisms hardwired into its DNA but was not the whole point of the OSR that the sort of gritty randomness of older games is far superior to the bland, antiseptic wasteland of perfect balance? If the goal is to remove imbalance wherever it rears its ugly head, the game succeeds.
One thing DFB introduces is the concept of an heir. An Heir inherits all the money a PC left (minus 10% tax), and receives 10% of its total xp value. The game then proceeds to add (confusing) possibilities such as the wealth being stolen by an impostor, the possibility of doubling your XP value if you donate the money to a cause of the original PC.
The strangest part is that upon a players death up to 50% XP also gets ‘donated,’ as determined by the fucking GM, to various groups. If the PC sacrificed himself for anything that person gets a share. XP can be distributed to Organizations, people who have sworn oaths on the deathbed of the PC can get shares of it, and some can even go to his ‘Alignment,’ though there are no notes on how exactly an organization or Alignment will use this XP and what they will do with it. An interesting idea with vague execution. An NPC or even PC (how does that work) Nemesis can even get XP if the PC is killed, allowing an NPC to ‘level up’ essentially.
As previously mentioned, in DFB, anyone can learn spells. You set the DC yourself, based on the spell-level (in this case the power of the spell, i.e you set the CL yourself) and a success means you cast the spell. If you miscast you take the spells level in HIT POINT DAMAGE. Uh…okay, so magic is really dangerous. Whiffs of DCC mean if you roll a fumble you either lose the spell from memory and have to rememorize it (wizard) or the gods are displeased and you can’t cast it until you pray or whatever. If you roll a second fumble you “might invoke a spell catastrophe, whose exact effects are left up to the GM.’ Are you shitting me? How about the classes are left to the GM too?
Okay, clerics learn spells from deities/powers while wizards learn spells from grimoires. I thought one interesting new rule was that studying a wizard’s spellbook means you get saving throw advantage against his spells, and you can “cast” spells from someone’s spellbook with Disadvantage if you have the spellbook on hand”. Important note! If you choose to do so, after a random number of times the spell automatically worms its way into your brain and you MUST spend a feat to learn the spell (but you must copy it into a grimoire if you want to get rid of the disadvantage).
The book mentions rituals but of course any single detail must be determined by the GM. Gee. How about you give us some guidelines instead since money is being charged for this book?
The actual spells are all familiar units from the canon of DND spells and there are only about 8 spells per class. An opportunity to do something interesting or introduce some flavor is missed, a shame.
The game starts out with some decent retainer rules, offering rough guidelines for hiring NPC party members. Long story short they respond to your offer randomly with a Persuasion test modifying the results. The game does provide rules for normal hirelings and mercenaries later on in the supplement, but the assortment is characteristically vague. It is content to give you general rules on hirelings only.
The game uses AD&D 2e conventions for handling additional retainer morale, meaning that as you succeed in more adventures their morale will rise, whereas abuse and frequent deaths will lower it.
Dungeon adventuring and overland adventuring is handled pretty much the way it is in any other version of Dnd, with the exception of starvation (somehow games always manage to get them wrong). You can actually go without food for quite a while in DFB; 2 Con damage per 4 days without food is pretty generous, and you get a saving throw to halve the damage! Poison deals Con damage per minute and only a successful save (on Con) will stop it, so its pretty lethal. Falling damage can be reduced with a successful Dex and Con save, up to 1/3rd, which is weird. The game also adopted the Three Strikes rule originally proposed in 3e’s Epic Handbook, a decision about which I am decidedly neutral.
Initiative is weird. PCs roll against a DC set BY THE GM and based on the creature’s movement speed (Mv 120 is DC 12 for example). If they win they go first in the first round only, after that, it doesn’t matter and the monsters go before the PCs every round. Why?
Actual combat probably makes sense but the text structures it so it seems baroque. Every round your PC gets a Move Action, a Main Action, a Bonus Action, a Free Action and a Reaction. The line between what constitutes a Bonus Action and what constitutes a Free Action is very slim, particularly considering a PC gets both of them in a single round. If you follow the rules as written, you could theoretically draw two weapons in a round, move and attack an opponent. The Reaction is from WHF and anyone should be familiar with it by now.
The combat section is kind of what you’d expect from a 5e/Basic hybrid. The game defines a Defensive Stance but states it is a Main action, allowing everyone to basically become invulnerable as long as they move (You won’t be able to run, but running means you only move twice your movement speed anyway so fuck that). Might I suggest adding the Full Action to the growing taxonomy of arbitrary slices of turn that seem to be populating this Retroclone?
Critical hits and fumbles are, again, handled arbitrarily. The game gives you an extra attack if you roll a natural 20 (I should point out Swords already have this feature on a natural 19) but then pedals back and states that a 1 doesn’t usually mean a fumble since your PCs are competent enough to avoid looking stupid at every fight. Now I agree with this sentiment, in terms of narrative description I favor circumstance or the trickery of the Enemy above PC incompetence (Making your PCs look like bumbling incompetents usually requires no random chance nor biased GM description).
The game gives two optional rules for melee combat that I actually dig, though they make the game more heroic and LESS gritty and dark. Anyone can attack multiple opponents in melee provided they are of lower level and the PC takes a penalty equal to the number of combatants (max 4). There is a called shot rule that allows you to divide your BAB by half and get an equal amount of points on damage. DCC did it better.
Grappling rules are provided but they make no sense since action use is not covered properly (a bonus action to maintain a grapple, okay, what do you use your other actions for then?). Grappling is only worthwhile if you roll a Critical hit or another nebulous “Gm discretion” condition occurs. This probably made sense to Eric Diaz but I don’t know what to fucking do with it. Also, I think as written, grappling just gives you disadvantage on all rolls (even your escape roll?) and you must use ‘an action’ to get free. Grappling rules are a mess man.
The game ends with a page of conversion notes, at least taking the time to give SOME (though by no means sufficient) advice on importing feats, spells, races (they note racial abilities should be given as feats, then notes its okay because humans can surpass them later, though no mention is made of the means behind the mechanism).
Dark Fantasy Basic did not do it for me, and it suffers from problems of concept as well as execution. Anyone else seeking to publish a retroclone should take this into account.
Thematic coherence: If you are going to label something as Dark Fantasy, it then follows that the game should contain some sort of element to help one emulate this DARK FANTASY. If not, write a GM section on how to evoke that dark fantasy atmosphere, or talk about what even is a dark fantasy.
Burden of Proof: Dark Fantasy Basic did not convince me that it is superior to either Basic nor 5e, and I am having trouble seeing the use of a game that seeks to unify the two philosophies. 5e already is a grand unifier of different play styles that seeks to harmonize the character optimization wankathons of 3/4 with the more oldskool styles of 1 and Basic.
No setting: There is a shitload of competition in RPG land which has caused many publishers to just throw out their core rulebooks for free. Fucking Stars Without Number has a free edition involving a complete sandbox set and a setting. Labyrinth Lord is free. Swords and Wizardy is free. Lotfp is free.
If you are going to put out a retroclone on a market that is literally flooded it had better be the damn spiffiest most awesomemest rule-set ever created, if not, it needs its own setting or it is doomed. Dark Fantasy Basic is 5.00$. Core rules need to be free, setting deserves money, this is just a remix of rules everyone knows and has already seen before with some decent houserules thrown in.
Gameplay: As written, I am not even sure if spellcasting is worth it (hit point damage on a failed spell fam? That’s bollocks!), combat is just a more muddled version of WHF/DnD, more customization does not a better game make and the calls are coming from inside the house.
Clarity: Editing is hard and this pdf is probably fine if you just put it together on your blog so people can check out your totally awesome houserules but for a for realz product it is too sloppy. The game assumes everyone knows how to play a roleplaying game and relies on GM’s discretion in lieu of rulings. That’s fine but why do I have to pay you money so I can decide how to arbitrate my game?
Distinction and Memorability: If I wanted to describe DFB to anyone else in relatively short terms I would just use a cross between Basic and 5e. That’s not exciting. A retroclone needs to either fill a conceptual niche that was previously unoccupied (such as Zweihänder), or it needs to do something original with the systems that came before. I can’t for the life of me figure out what DFB wants to do and why it wants to do so.
Pros: Some good houserules. Seeks to balance 5e and Basic.
Cons: Vague descriptions. Clip-art. Relies on GM’s-discretion the point where I am unsure whether I am even buying a game. No setting. Did the world need another retroclone?
I love yelling at games but I hate doing so when someone takes the time and effort to send me their shit so I will close this off with a recommendation: Consider either A) incorporating the setting into the game so it becomes distinct or B) making the game free and relying on the setting to sell it. Also edit for clarity. Unless you have Daniel Fox levels of marketing skills, DFB is just going to be another faceless entry into an endless conga-line of retroclones. 2.5 out of 10.
On the other hand, I understand Chaos Factory is also putting out some comics, hopefully to tie in the two?