For a tabletop RPG defined so definitively by the two D-words that make up its title that it’s simply known as D and D, there’s one D-word that Dungeons & Dragons rarely deals in for many players: Death. But there’s a new roleplaying game on the way that promises not to shy away from players’ mortality - and it could end up teaching D&D a lesson or two.
A Dark Souls tabletop roleplaying game was recently revealed to be in the works at Steamforged, maker of both the board game and card game based on developer From Software’s acclaimed series of punishing video games.
While hard details on the Dark Souls RPG remain sparse for the moment, any half-successful tabletop adaptation will be unable to avoid the importance of death that sits right at the heart of the series.
Roll your dice beside the bonfire and link the flame— Steamforged Games (@SteamforgedLtd) December 22, 2021
Dark Souls: The Roleplaying Game is coming. If you, too, would like to learn what lies in the heart of Lothric, add your name to the ranks of the Unkindled! https://t.co/H5cJHLEaWl pic.twitter.com/vYdY9hyCEh
Dark Souls and its Soulsborne relations - including Demon’s Souls, Bloodborne and this year’s upcoming Elden Ring - have become infamous for their punishing difficulty, summed up in the original Dark Souls’ pithy tagline: “Prepare to die.” Whether it’s being stabbed by skeletons, flattened by boulders, turned into a pincushion by arrow traps, cursed by ghosts or simply yeeted off a cliff into the abyss, players - both new and old - die. A lot.
The live-die-repeat cycle is crucial to Dark Souls. The video games set out to actively punish players for easy mistakes - and, sometimes, simply because they don’t know there’s a deadly knight stood around the bend until they turn the corner and find out. Exploring every nook, learning what lies ahead and dying and trying again until you succeed is all part of the experience. There’s a satisfaction to getting one over on the game, because the game is out to get one over on you with every step you take. Players start as weak, helpless punching bags and become slightly less weak, slightly less helpless punching bags who at least know to give that treasure chest a whack first in case it decides to get up and chomp their torso.
While Dark Souls follows the familiar arc of many RPGs, with players gradually amassing enough experience points - souls that can be permanently lost by dying before you collect any dropped by your last demise - to bump up their stats, the game crucially doesn’t become a cakewalk in its later stages. The enemies get bigger and badder, and new tricks are deployed to avoid the player becoming too familiar. Progression is hard-earned by death after death, but the difficulty curve never really flattens - it’s more a case of learning and accounting for your constant vulnerability as a milquetoast fleshbag than growing into a superhuman hero.
It’s a notably different experience to the likes of Dungeons & Dragons, in which players’ characters typically start out as fairly capable fighters. Even first-level characters have a well-stocked arsenal of skills, spells and equipment at their disposal, and only get more powerful and capable from there. By the time you hit level 20, you’re effectively capable of attacking and dethroning God(s), as long as you roll well enough.
While characters can die in D&D, it’s rarely something that most players have to worry about. Death saving throws give a chance of stabilising after the worst attacks, and encounters are typically built for the party of adventurers to emerge victorious. If the absolute worst does happen, D&D doesn’t have a specific way of handling character death outside of casting a resurrection spell or rolling up a fresh character - something that’s so much of a hassle mechanically and narratively that many dungeon masters and players will often work to explain away a character’s miraculous survival instead.
With little threat of death and characters equipped to succeed from the off, many D&D games become a power fantasy. Characters quickly develop into unkillable machines of monster destruction, with failure too often a dirty word in D&D’s dictionary. Completely biffing a roll leads to awkward moments where the idea of characters being unable to do something to at least some degree of success falls between gaps in the rules, putting pressure on the DM to explain why Sir Buffly the Brilliant-at-Everything, slayer of immortal demons and unworldly dragons, finds herself unable to open a slightly sticky jar of jam.
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. A number of D&D campaigns and adventures have garnered a reputation for racking up more TPKs than a rack of Scrabble tiles. Yet it’s because they stand out as so contrary to D&D’s typical ‘The Players Win Again’ setup that they’ve become so notable. It’s not a problem exclusive to Dungeons & Dragons, either - plenty of tabletop games indulge in pure power fantasy - but D&D is among the most prominent games for pumping players full of easy-won satisfaction.
The Dark Souls tabletop RPG could stand as a much-needed remedy to the laissez-faire handling of death in Dungeons & Dragons and other power-fantasy RPGs, and make character death an important - and unavoidable - part of playing. Not only could dying play an important part mechanically - making characters pay for their incredible skills and abilities at the cost of their life - but used right it could be an important part of the narrative told by the players, as characters wrestle with the existential weight of their (im)mortality and the experience of living (or not) through extreme situations.
Rather than being sidestepped or hand-waved away, death should sit at the heart of the Dark Souls RPG, just as it does in the video games. With the right system and a knowing approach to adapting the soul (cue groans) of the series, the tabletop RPG could turn out to be as groundbreaking as its source material. At the very least, it’s quite funny to be punted into a bottomless pit by a bone giant one minute, only to find yourself toasting marshmallows on a bonfire the next.