“Your world will fall unless you risk it all. Are you ready to collaboratively design a world you must defend? Create powerful characters destined to fight the ever-present Darkness? Solve challenges, fight battles, and risk death and injury to save the realm? Heroic Dark is a build-your-own setting game about heroes defying the forces of darkness that threaten their world. The GM and players work together to tell a one-of-a-kind story about danger, sacrifice, and hopefully victory.” The odds are against you. The ending is uncertain. But if this opening pitch catches your eye, then you might find yourself one of those brave enough to fight the good fight in a setting of your own making with Heroic Dark!
Brought to us by Will Power Games (the same publisher behind Sythnicide) Heroic Dark is actually currently in its Early Edition. That means it’s not quite reached its final form . . .although you could be forgiven for not noticing that just by glancing through the PDF. It’s got a solid layout, good editing, and even art, all on top of the fact that the game seems fully playable. As far as pre-release games go, it’s a cut above the rest.
So where is all this Darkness-fighting taking place?
The book goes over core rules first once it’s past the intro chapter, but Heroic Dark is billed as a build-your-own setting game, so I want to go over this first. Part of the appeal of Heroic Dark is that while the concept of heroes defying overwhelming Darkness is always going to be the point, the fight could be taking place in virtually any genre or setting; some proposed ideas include Medieval, Colonial, Modern, Futuristic, and Fantastical. Note that these aren’t ready-to-go settings, just some ideas to start with. At this point you’ve got to do the work yourselves.
The game has a setting/campaign sheet, and the first thing the GM and players are going to do is fill it out in a collaborative effort. The start of this can be taken care of by answering a series of questions to help define the world. What genre elements and themes are going to be included? What’s the scale (city, country, planet, galaxy, multiverse)? What actually is the Darkness (ghosts opening internet portals and possessing people, perhaps)? How do the heroes fight back? How long has your team been fighting together? What strange thing has become common (emails from dead relatives), and what important thing has become rare (ghosts aren’t great for cell reception)? There’s a moral quandary to fighting the Darkness to make things more conflicted and difficult (some of those dead relatives are actually really nice).
The world-building continues, and starts to get a little crunchier, with the three societies. One is afraid (spiritualists and mediums who don’t want to tangle with the ghosts), one is oppressed (your average citizen just wanted to check their Twitter and now the walls are bleeding and their head’s spinning like a top), and one is in denial (the government doesn’t even believe the Darkness exists). Then you have to define an Institution for each society; each has three, but you only need to define one at the start. A Great Mystic Lodge, good ol’ Middle America, and the Pentagon to square out the book’s example of digital spectres. Each Institution, even the undefined ones, then get assigned a Health Score. We’ll dig more into those later, but suffice to say that a high score is good and a low score is really quite terrible. The afraid Institutions are set at 7, 6, and 6. The oppressed Institutions are at 3, 2, and 2. Finally the denial Institutions are at 5, 4, and 4. These are public scores, so the players and player characters always know where the worst fires to put out are. How do they put those fires out, though?
The core of the mechanics for Heroic Dark are pretty simple: whatever it is you’re doing, roll 5d6 in the hopes of getting ‘hits’, here defined as a result of 6 on the die. You can get an additional automatic hit if you have a rank in a relevant skill, and a second automatic hit if you have a relevant specialization (such as Speech and Persuasion). Where things get interesting is when it comes to your Attributes (Might, Agility, Focus, Influence, and Senses). Attributes are ranked 0-5, but they don’t add extra hits or extra dice. Instead, after rolling your 5d6 and setting aside all the dice which already have a result of 6, the Attribute related to the action you just took tells you how many of the failed dice you get to reroll.
HD did a bit of math for us to show how having ranks in an Attribute change the odds in your favor: with no rerolls your chance of getting at least one hit on the dice is 60%, while at rank 5 your chance is 84%. A pretty solid improvement, which makes choosing which Attributes get your limited ranks at character creation a very important one. There doesn’t seem to be any rule for what happens if you don’t roll any failures but have ranks in an Attribute . . . but even without skill and specialization hits, five hits is enough to conquer all but the almost impossible challenges. There is a rule for rolling more hits than you need, however: those extra hits are referred to as Lead, and depending on how much Lead you have you can gain all sorts of additional effects, including character growth. More on that in a bit.
After Attributes and Skills the third core facet of a character are their power moves. These unique abilities ‘allow your character to do something a normal character could not.’ All of the powers use the same formula (which, coincidentally, allows for the creation of custom powers quite easily): use a skill/specialization to do what you want (referred to as a ‘cue’ by the game) by [insert cool method of doing so here]. The cheapest are referred to as Traits and increase things like mental and physical health, damage reduction, and your pool of Energy Points that fuel some of the more powerful moves. The most expensive can be things like Multiattack, Group Powerup, and Enemy Debuff. One thing I found particularly nice was that while some of the example powers were definitively magical in nature, many more were usable in mundane and magical ways. Group Powerup, for one example, does require magical tools at short range . . . but can also work with ‘believable’ tools at medium range. This makes more powers than you’d expect more widely usable across the different settings you might be playing HD in.
Speaking of character growth, Heroic Dark takes the ‘do it to get better at it’ approach to experience points, but still manages to do something different along the way. For every session, you get 4 XP. During the course of that session XP can be assigned to an ‘attribute pool’ any time you roll Lead or failure using that specific attribute. You can’t assign XP to the same attribute twice (if you rolled Lead on two different Might rolls one XP would go to Might and one would be assigned elsewhere), and any leftover XP gets put into a ‘power move pool’ instead. In between sessions XP can be spent on Attribute ranks (from a corresponding pool), skills/specializations (from an attribute pool ‘reasonably associated’ with the skill), power moves (guess), and a few other handy doodads.
There are a few more mechanical nexus to worry about – initiative is determined by way of playing cards, the GM has ‘Dark Points’ they can spend to force rerolls or otherwise ruin everyone’s day – but that’s the core of it. Overall, I think it does some very interesting things. My personal favorites are that character growth can be pretty easy to plan ahead for – you know how much XP you’re going to get every session, now you just need to get those points to go where you want them – and that increasing Attributes and gaining skills/specializations both offer something very useful but very unique instead of just being different ways to get another +1.
Heroism and Darkness
Alright, so we know that we’re playing heroes fighting back the Darkness in whatever form it takes, and we’ve got the gist of the mechanics we’ll be using to do so. So . . . how does that fight go? Well, first of all, remember how Institutions have Health Scores? Those Scores determine their status in the ongoing conflict: 0-1 means they’re a Darkness Stronghold, 2-7 is neutral ground (perhaps better described as actively contested, instead of some sort of no-conflict zone), and 8 makes for a Heroic Stronghold. Heroic Strongholds are able to lend their aid to the wider cause; Darkness Strongholds are pretty much death traps. Player character activity is one of the primary ways that these numbers are going to go up or down as they succeed or fail on missions and complete objectives . . . but that’s not the only way.
The Darkness is everywhere, including where the heroes simply can’t be right now. At the end of every session a mechanic referred to as Dark Decay kicks in. First, does a society have more Darkness Strongholds than Heroic ones? If so, that society is under Dark Influence. Second, the GM counts how many objectives were involved in the session (completing objectives is how you get scores to improve, but this shows that trying too many can backfire). The GM then chooses an equal number of Institutions to decay – the Institution that was featured in the session cannot be chosen – and reduces their scores by 1, 2 if they’re under Dark Influence. Third, the GM can spend Dark Points to spread the decay to more Institutions, one of the nastier uses of the meta-currency. Fourth and final, if the heroes have to take a long-term break between missions to recover, the GM can decay every Institution except for the last one visited by 1 every in-universe week that passes.
Our heroes, then, are tasked with pushing the sand back into the top of the hourglass while standing in the bottom. No wonder the book includes advice for replacing fallen characters, up to and including entire parties. That leads us to the ending.
There are two 22-point tracks on the campaign sheet, one for a Heroic Ending and one for a Dark Ending. After Dark Decay kicks in, progress is checked. If the heroes increased an Institution’s score they get a point, plus another two points if they made an Institution into a Heroic Stronghold, plus one more point each for any other Heroic Strongholds that are still standing. Once we’ve done that we check in with the Darkness: one point each for failing a mission, an Institution decaying into a Dark Stronghold, and for every other Institution with a Health Score of 0.
When a track gets within two points of being completed, the stakes have never been higher and the Darkness pulls out the stops, mandating that the objectives the players are trying to accomplish have a hard difficulty. If a track gets actually completed, the game has come to an end – and the GM and players narrate together how heroism triumphed over shadow or how the Darkness consumed everything.
Now, as mentioned at the start, Heroic Dark is currently in its ‘Early Edition’. Ongoing playtesting and feedback from players may end up changing the shape of the final product. What this means is that in terms of getting a copy of the game there’s a print-on-demand B&W softcover version available for $9.00, but the Early Edition PDF is completely free! So if anything that you’ve read here sparks your interest, there’s really no reason you can’t get a copy and check it out for yourself! I checked in with game designer and co-writer Dustin DePenning (who wrote alongside Alexis Roy for Heroic Dark), and the current plan is to Kickstart a final version of the game this coming March, complete with a ready-to-play setting, to be published later in 2020. Plenty of time to make your own Heroic stand.
Will the heroes win, or will Darkness reign supreme? What world will you struggle to save? Find out with Heroic Dark!
Thanks to Dustin for reaching out and bringing Heroic Dark to our attention!
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