In light of the news that the upcoming roleplaying game based on the Dark Souls series of video games will use the D&D 5E system, we decided to search the RPG space for games that will give players and games masters that Dark Souls feeling they crave, but without all the 5E rules.
As a video game series that’s known for challenging its players, both in terms of their skills with a controller and their understanding of its mechanics, a TRPG that wants to evoke Dark Souls needs to push its players to make difficult decisions whose outcomes may have devastating results. The world of Lothric is a dark and unforgiving one, where those who might have had good intentions at one point have since fallen to darkness – whether literal or figurative. A Dark Souls-inspired roleplaying game should feature these themes of lost glory, hardship, inevitable doom and inner turmoil, ideally within its gameplay mechanics as well as its aesthetics.
All of the RPGs included on this list touch on at least some of these all-important themes and concepts, most importantly through their gameplay and rules. Whilst many of the elements in the entries on this list are very obviously inspired by Dark Souls – such as revival after death or the temporary nature of equipment and progress – others simply intend to create an atmosphere that’s similar to the video game series. Either way, here are five tabletop RPGs to play if you like Dark Souls, but not D&D 5E.
1. Sword & Board
Keep your brain’s equip load light with this easy-to-play Dark Souls-inspired TRPG
If you’re after a Dark Souls tabletop RPG that captures the spirit of the video games without feeling as heavy as a set of Havel’s armour to play, Sword & Board offers a rules-light alternative to the likes of D&D 5E.
Designer David Lombardo’s Dark Souls-inspired hack of John Harper’s popular Lasers & Feelings system draws directly from the Soulsborne series – including both Dark Souls and Bloodborne – in its character classes, which each have a unique ability and starting loadout. You can set off on your journey as a sneaky thief, hard-hitting warrior, fire-casting pyromancer or something else entirely, taking a random starting gift – also pulled from the games – with you.
There are plenty of nods to the Dark Souls trilogy in Sword & Board’s handy GM tables for generating adventures, locations and bosses, providing an entertaining remix of Dark Souls’ fondness for ominous-sounding adjectives and quests. Whether you’re seeking four Lord Souls in the Dragon Shrine, linking the fires of the Upper Undead Ruins or ringing the Bell of Awakening in the Duke’s Lands, Sword & Board is about as faithful a Dark Souls tabletop RPG as you’ll find when it comes to capturing the broad strokes of the series.
The RPG keeps combat a little lighter than other Dark Souls-inspired RPGs, focusing more on the evocative storytelling and world-building of the video games. In keeping with Lasers & Feelings’ beginner-friendly rules, players only need to roll a single d10 to calculate either their 'sword' - broadly covering strength and aggression - or 'board’, which represents defence and reflexes. Even so, the Souls games’ advanced use of poise makes an appearance as a set of points that can be earned by spot-on rolls and spent to use characters’ special abilities and boost their dice rolls.
If you’re after something light in rules but still soaked through with Soulsborne vibes, Sword & Board is a fabulously fast and thematic tabletop RPG for Dark Souls fans.
Download Sword & Board for free from Itch.io.
2. Print Weaver
You’ll need your hands, as well as your brain, to tackle this dark fantasy RPG
Palm reading – or palmistry – isn’t exactly the first thing I expected would be combined with Dark Souls, but Print Weaver is an indie roleplaying game that does just that. Whilst the palm reading aspects are mostly focused on the character creation aspect of the game, with players reading their own palms and comparing their results with a table to determine what kind of character to make, the Dark Souls inspiration is everywhere in Print Weaver. From its dark fantasy setting – in which players are controlling monster fighters who are compelled to hunt due to their need for beast blood – to its gameplay mechanics involving moving between shrines for safety.
The monster blood that players collect from their foes is used to prepare their characters for future hardships, in much the same way that players require souls in Dark Souls, and is essentially a never-ending goal that the characters must pursue for however long they can. Death results in player characters being reborn, but without the crucial equipment, weapons and armour that they’ve likely used precious monster ink to imbue. Similarly to Dark Souls, players in Print Weaver can choose to head back out to the place of their death in order to reclaim what they’ve lost, but there’s the added danger that enemies can use dropped equipment themselves – thereby increasing the risk of reclaiming.
Another unique danger presented in Print Weaver are the Printless. These are Travelers – a role that the player characters also adopt – who have been given the final death, only to rise once more in search of rivals who are worthy enough to slay. An echo of the difficulty and danger held by Dark Souls’ boss enemies, the Printless present an additional challenge and threat in Print Weaver as they are the only opponents who can kill player characters.
Weighing up risk and reward is a major part of the Dark Souls experience and Print Weaver does a fantastic job of translating this into a tabletop RPG. For familiar gameplay mechanics and a sense impending dread, give Print Weaver a go.
Download Print Weaver from Itch.io.
3. Dice Souls
Git gud or prepare to die in this tabletop RPG take on Dark Souls’ exploration and combat
In Dark Souls, every victory is hard-earned. Players can die dozens of times before finally overcoming a boss – or even just a particularly nasty corridor packed with skeletons, slimes or traps – through a mixture of repetition, skill and luck. Learning what lurks around each corner and how a boss behaves before turning that acquired knowledge on the game is part of the appeal – death isn’t failure, it’s a learning opportunity.
The appropriately-titled Dice Souls puts this idea at the heart of its tabletop RPG spin on Dark Souls’ gameplay. The act of replaying sections of levels in Dark Souls becomes a clever ‘replay’ mechanic in Dice Souls, with players’ ability to overcome failed rolls and character death increasing as they face the same enemies time and time again.
Dice rolls are largely reserved for fights, with exploration of the ruined world taking place in conversations between the game’s two players. (Solo play is also possible.) The world itself is randomly generated by more dice rolls, spawning creatures, traps and places for players to encounter as they set out from each campsite – Dice Souls’ bonfire-like checkpoints, which can also be used to increase their strength as they collect souls from defeated enemies.
The challenge of Dark Souls’ greatest foes is captured in Dice Souls’ inventive ‘narrative telegraphing’ during boss fights, which give players the chance to learn how to counter each of the boss’ attacks based on the given prompt from the GM. As players face each boss and die, they can acquire new insight into overcoming its threats, proving a satisfying loop to the climactic battles.
Dice Souls manages to capture Dark Souls’ tough difficulty and live-die-repeat spirit, while also providing plenty of opportunity to tell stories in its atmospheric setting. A clever balance of gameplay and theme, it lives up to its name.
Buy Dice Souls from creator Chris Bissette on Itch.io.
4. Swords Under the Sun
A Forged in the Dark RPG that challenges players’ resolve with darkness and fear
Besides Dark Souls, Swords Under the Sun – an RPG built on the Forged in the Dark gameplay system, which is also used by Blades in the Dark – cites the likes of Bloodborne, another From Software video game series, as well as the disturbing novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Ian Reid and its recent Netflix film adaptation by Charlie Kaufman, as its major inspirations. This should already give you a good idea of what to expect from Swords Under the Sun, a tabletop roleplaying game that features a setting that’s soaked in religious imagery, with mortals and monsters both suffering under an intense sun that threatens to burn everyone.
Players take on the role of a collection of straightforward RPG archetypes – such as the stealthy rogue and stalwart fighter – who are fleshed out through their relationships with the world and each other. Every character in Swords Under the Sun will have access to their own selection of potential actions that they excel at, like being proficient at charming people or building things, as well a set of equipment. Characters will also have to find a purpose to fulfill and a reason to keep fighting. The narrative in the Dark Souls series is notoriously vague and open to interpretation, with players often challenged to find their own reasons to continue their journey through Lothric. Players in Swords Under the Sun are challenged in much the same way, with the rulebook presenting every archetype with a series of questions to answer regarding their motivations behind their quest to stand against the sun or push back against the darkness.
Additionally, Swords Under the Sun features a bestiary that’s comparable to anything found in a Dark Souls game, from broken knights to angelic horrors capable of shapeshifting into more terrifying forms. Whenever the game master is about to introduce a monster, they are encouraged to take time to describe its entrance, what players notice and what it may have once been. Paying such attention to establishing a monster’s presence, beyond its specific abilities, further cements Swords Under the Sun as a Dark Souls-inspired tabletop RPG, considering the video game series’ reverence for its boss monsters. If you have enjoyed Forged in the Dark games in the past – or want to try one out for the first time – why not try Swords Under the Sun?
Swords Under the Sun is available from Itch.io.
5. Mörk Borg
Like most of Dark Souls’ settings, Mörk Borg’s world waits for apocalypse in a state of anxious undeath
Mörk Borg writes that the end of the world should be met with bright, open eyes, and only cowards seek an early death. Designed by Ockult Örtmästare Games and Stockholm Kartell, the smash hit Swedish RPG invites players to explore a damned continent full of misery and those who wish to profit from it. Kingdoms exist the same way a skeleton persists after skin and viscera have rotted away. Civilisation clings desperately to any nook, often shepherded by cults, doomsayers, charlatans and fools. It is a time of wicked, inescapable prophecies with no room for humanity.
This place sounds eerily like a Dark Souls game. Often, players arrive well after the death of the world. The player characters – both in Dark Souls and Mörk Borg – aren't a figure of destiny or power fantasy stand-in - they’re coincidental pieces of trash that happened to catch a twisted wind. Their successes or failures might seem personally monumental but work little change in the world at large. They, too, are waiting for a death that finally sticks.
Mörk Borg is not a difficult RPG to learn, by design. Three stats govern dice roll contests for anything that might lead to violence, harm or consequences. Characters have less HP than will ever feel comfortable and drawing weapons or summoning magic means accepting the likelihood of death. The rest of the rulebook concerns itself with lore – places and names that all sounds like hearsay and thrice-filtered rumours. This also fits the pseudo-mythical feeling of Dark Souls, where nobody speaks plainly and even the item descriptions read like odd bits of cryptic scripture.
It might treat character death with grave finality, but Mörk Borg checks enough of the same aesthetic and thematic boxes to warrant exploration if Dark Souls’ dour fantasy, crumbling ruins and solemn dramatics rank high on your list of favourite attributes. Hell, it’d be extremely easy to port over all of Lordran’s decaying courts and hollowed out royalty without missing a beat.
Mork Borg is available to purchase from Free League Publishing.