Sunday, 4 January 2015

Dark Souls 2: in light of B/E Dungeons and Dragons

I wouldn't be running a Lamentations game if it wasn't for Dark Souls. I wouldn't be running fantasy at all - it would be Supers or Grimdark or Steambots or fucking in the apocalypse. No dungeons, no random result tables, far less giggling from behind the GM screen.

Dark Souls lit a fire, then branded me. It's an S&M kind of game. I've written about it before. It took ninety hours of my life and made every other kind of fantasy - that is, fantasy with hope, with answers, with concessions to the participant - seem hollow and wan. Now, belatedly, I'm playing the sequel.


You need to explore Dark Souls, because I can't tell you or show you what makes it so beautiful. But it has these features and they are ones I constantly fail to realise:

Vistas. God the vistas. You can see for miles. More even in DS2 than the first. Oceans crash against ruined coastlines. Mysterious lakes open underground in a forest of infinite fossilized trees. Hell gapes. The ruined thrones of Gods fade, still magnificent, buttressed against decay but sliding downwards still.
Deep, dark, dank. Dungeons are filthy, miserable, oppressive, terrifying, deep, dark, down, down, pits, filthy pits, filthy murderholes, hopeless tombs, inescapable tombs, charnel holes, horrible, horrible, nightmare, horrible. Death Frost Doom comes close, followed by any other dungeon module after I remind the players that if all their torches go out they will inevitably die trapped in a cave beneath the earth.
Infolding. Spaces in Dark Souls are puzzlebox complete, wrapped around themselves in snake-knots. Progress is, in part, a matter of solving the space. Physical awareness is necessary and also challenging. In DS1 whole levels connect to each other through hidden shortcuts. That's missing in DS2 and the game feels weaker for it - DS1 is a mega-dungeon, DS2 is a series of modules connected by fast-travel.
Verticality. More so in DS1 (so far) than DS2, levels rise and plunge. You are climbing towards heaven or descending through hells without end. Fortress walls and deep culverts, the walls of gullies, stacked halls and basements and sub-basements and caves and tombs and mires and mud and hells. The best DnD module I've read in the last year is Deep Carbon Observatory, and this is one reason why I love it.
Tease. You see something shine on the far side of a locked grille. You see a chest in the middle of an open room. You see a trap, laden with cheese, and the game says "surely no-one could be fast enough to get the cheese without getting caught." What now you see, soon you will climb or descend. Teasing is much, much harder in pen and paper, because players have things like rope, spiderclimb, and crowbars. I'm still working out how to do this properly.


You need two sets of skills in Dark Souls. One is mastery of the combat systems. The feel of twiddling a joystick obviously doesn't translate to the feel of rolling dice, but the aesthetic quality is something that carries between - combat is nasty, brutish and material, based around the reality of steel clattering from stone when a swing goes wide.

The other skill is awareness. I'm finding DS2 much, much easier than DS1. Part of that is that my combat skill is far higher after ninety hours playing the first game. Much more of it is that I have spent the last year designing dungeons that reward careful (but rapid) consideration of the environment and punish thoughtlessness. This is how Dark Souls gets you. Some fights can't be won - so run from them. Some ground is bad for making a stand - so abandon it. When an arena is surrounded by archers you must circumvent them, find a way around behind, stab them in the spine. Is a target obvious? Watch for enemies coming from behind, or above, or from another angle you didn't predict. Don't take the built environment at face value. (So there's a cage-elevator - can you stand on the roof instead of inside it? Do you really want to be inside a cage?)


Dark Souls does not care that you aren't ready for it. The challenges put before you do not follow a neat progression curve from simple to complex; evaluating when you are outclassed is part of the challenge. Get it wrong and you'll die. It also doesn't care if you find a way to abuse the environment, your skills, your abilities. Within the scope of what the game simulates everything is permitted; your ability to exploit that is also part of the game. These are two faces of the same coin. This is DnD.

Experience and progress

The XP system is DnD. Killing monsters earns you their souls, which you can cash into stat improvements when you return to a bonfire save-point (in DS2, you can only cash them when you return to "civilization"). Souls can also be spent buying equipment, a kind of reversal of the Moldvay system that XP is derived from the amount of treasure recovered.

An element I didn't notice when I played DS1 is that progress between stats and acquiring and improving equipment is ambivalent - an investment of a certain quantity of souls into equipment is worth as much to your chances of success as an equal investment into improving your stats. It breaks the sense that there is a strict linear progression to make a character more potent. I wouldn't have noticed this if I had been playing a more "balance" minded DnD system (which is perverse, because DnD 4th states explicitly that progressively owning more powerful magic items is a necessary component of character progression). The OSR vibe seems to reject the notion of an objective measure of power for a character - Carcosa is a great example of this, where 1st level characters can potentially kill Cthulhu if they get their hands on a sufficiently powerful laser tank. The use value of a power, upgrade, item or whatever else a character might pick up is what we look at to determine how much of an improvement it is for a character, not numerical values associated with it, and its use value is in part a function of the player's ingenuity.


There isn't one world in Dark Souls, though in DS1 the thing that stands in for it is called Lordran and in DS2 the thing is called Drangleic. It is a Viriconium, materially inconsistent but held together by metaphorical and thematic gravity; it is also a world unwinding, spooling down, decaying. In both you are undead, sentenced to an eternal return, fumbling through never-to-be-explained mysteries in a twilight world. There is a sense that you have arrived far after the point at which all the great battles have been fought - you are vermin in the rubble. (If Athas had a more evocative past it would be almost as interesting as Lordran.) Time and space are put together wrong, worlds slide over one another - this is part of the game system, with players able to summon allies into their game from other worlds, or unexpectedly invaded by savage murder bastards. If you attempt to reconstruct the game's continuity you will discover that characters have arrived in this part of the world from different points in time relative to one another.

Again, experience it. Watch some YouTube videos if you can't play it. The feeling is of a world larger than you, a world that is entirely indifferent to your success. In DS1 there is a prophecy that, technically, you might fulfill - or not. In DS2 you are adventuring for purely selfish reasons. These worlds do not pander. They do not accept you. You are an interloper. If there's one thing I'm pretty happy with in my DnD-ing (and which I think Basic promotes while, say, Pathfinder does not) is the sense that you are a small agent in a large world.

The other games

Dark Souls is at least three games. The first is the belt-sander of fantasy horror that you press up against while playing solo. The second is the co-operative boss-fighting mode, a design a bit like Monster Hunter or MMORPGs. In both games there are bosses that are functionally unbeatable without assistance from online allies - in DS2 these come really early. You can practice against bosses by making yourself available as an ally for another player in their game, and beating bosses is also the most effective way to regenerate your humanity, a status you require in order to summon allies to your game. And while visiting other player's worlds you will transfer tactics, secrets and ideas like gene transfer between bacteria.

While this is the closest to playing in a "party" that Dark Souls gets, it feels very little like the adventuring party in DnD. There's no conversation; parties are short-lived groups of players coming together with characters who exist in entirely separate worlds. Maybe the drop-in play of Flail-snails games or Pathfinder society resembles. The joint-play experience foregrounds combat and repetition - while it is very helpful to have another player join you to help explore, they are essential for boss-fights. As far as RPGs with satisfying placement and target-selection based combat goes this is more like DnD 4th or Iron Heroes than Basic.

The third game is one I haven't experienced yet and probably won't. The PvP elements that make much of the solo game a nightmare metamorphose into a competitive duelling mode. High level players seek out worthy opponents to fight with their max-leveled characters. This is transcendence of the fighting system out of the base fundament of the game - the people who play this way are resolute masters of the systems that make up the game and they are using it as a playground, a stage.

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