Thursday, 27 September 2018

Review: Dark Places & Demogorgons

This review is part of a series on thematic OSR games (as defined here). Also note that some of the links below are affiliate links (meaning I get a small percentage of the sale without extra cost to you).

The subtitle of Dark Places & Demogorgons is "It's the 1980s and there are strange things happening everywhere!" (emphasis not mine), and it surely is accurate. In this game the players portray teenagers from a small town (the default setting is Jeffersontown, Kentucky), solving mysteries. The game is built on the familiar old-school rules chassis, but the game completely focuses on investigating strange occurrences. There are combat rules, but fighting monsters isn't sustainable for teenagers.


System Summary
  • The characters are teenagers (age 13+1d4). Everyone has a bicycle. 16+ years old characters can drive, but most families only have a single car.
  • Seven attributes (the familiar Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma, plus Survival), determined by "3d6 arranged to taste". Modifiers follow the pattern in B/X. They modify the usual things (although notably STR doesn't affect damage, only attack rolls, similarly to LotFP).
  • Survival is special: you can spend 1 point to re-roll a single die roll (although you must take the second result). Survival points return at a rate of 1 point per session.
  • Hit Points start at 2d6 + CON modifier, minimum 5, and the total increases by 1d6 + CON modifier per level beyond the first. HP returns to maximum after a good night's sleep, plus 1d4 HP can be restored after combat by mending wounds (takes a few minutes, provides benefits only once per day). For reference, a club deals 1d6 and a revolver deals 2d6+1 damage.
  • There are five Saving Throw categories (Courage, Critical Injury, Death, Mental, and Poison), each determined randomly by 4d4 + CON bonus. Checks are the "d20 roll under" type. Each level beyond the first, the player can distribute 2 further points among the five ST values (up to a maximum score of 18).
  • There are 5 classes (or rather class groups), each with 3 sub-classes (these are the actual classes in the popular nomenclature), making 15 options in total (plus there are 3 optional psionic classes described later in the book).
  • Classes have a prerequisite (the Kid Scientist needs 13+ INT, the Break Dancer 11+ DEX, etc.), a few starting skills and abilities, an advancement table (summing up their new skills and abilities from levels 2 to 5), some starting equipment, plus a fitting quote from 80s pop culture.
  • Aside from what classes provide, characters start with 4 skill points, plus 2 per level beyond the first. Multiple points may be spent on the same skill (up to one's level). Also, skills often confer other bonuses, like improved attack rolls or attribute scores (similarly to Rifts).
  • Most rolls are "d20 roll over target number", the average difficulty class being 15. Skill bonuses and attribute modifers are added to the roll. Advantage and disadvantage may be invoked, too (roll twice, keep better/worse result, respectively).
  • Tracking consumables and checking breakage is done with the usage die (roll a polyhedral, usually a d10 on a mint-condition item, decrease its size on 1-3; once reaching d4, it breaks/used up on 1-2).
  • Attack rolls are d20 + modifiers vs. Armour Class (base 10 ascending). Distances are abstracted, although there's a handy guide.
  • There are a handful of adventure seeds, each featuring a different monster (definitely feeling like something from an 80s movie), plus there's an actual bestiary (ranging from thugs and cultists to vampires and medusae).
Things I Liked
  • The game is full of stereotypes. As a game about the 80s, I find it absolutely fitting ("genre-appropriate" is the fancy word). You can really make characters like the in the movies.
  • Courage saves improve against specific threats and situations (I imagine it can get fiddly, but I also like when a glance at a character sheet tells you a story). Also, as the PCs are teenagers, Courage isn't rolled against truly supernatural threats; instead, a simple d20 is rolled against a flat target number (the monster's Terror stat).
  • Critical hits are elegantly executed: if you take half or more of your max HP, make a save; if you fail, you lose all your bonuses and take -4 on all d20 rolls for 12 hours. Harsh but effective.
  • There is a d100 background table, on which everyone gets to roll twice (optionally). The results vary from the beneficial (one of your parents is a chemist, access to chemicals, +1 Science) to the detrimental (unnatural fear of dogs), from the amusing (you're from England, people like your accent, +1 Persuasion) to the horrific (your parents were abusive and locked you in a closet when you were little, still afraid of the dark).
  • Leather jacket, garbage can lid, and motorcycle helmet as armour items (each provides +1 AC!).
  • There are 15 fully statted sample characters. There's also a very short example of play (we get to infer that skills are "d20 roll over target number", too...)
  • There's an extremely amusing (and maybe useful for younger generations?) list called "1980s vs. today", and we are reminded that the 80s equivalent of cell phones were pay phones, people watched MTV instead of YT, there were no online stores but catalogues, and people wore regular jeans instead of skinny jeans.
  • Random tables to generate villains and monsters, plus a d100 adventure idea generator (with page numbers pointing to the relevant monsters stats!).
  • Aside from the title, the logo, and the artwork, everything in the core book is Open Game Content.
Things I Disliked
  • Tons and tons of typos and inconsistencies. The layout is serviceable only because the book isn't particularly dense (circa 41,000 words over 200 pages).
  • Poor use of paragraph headers both in the text proper and the table of contents (there is practically no hierarchy).
  • The effects of attribute modifiers aren't summed up correctly in their section (for instance, neither CON's effect on Saves, nor INT's effect on skill points is mentioned).
  • There is a vestigial alignment system (Good, Neutral, Evil) that is descriptive (rather than prescriptive). Just why?
  • Saving Throws are roll under, while everything else is roll over. So much of the mechanics seem to aim for simplicity that I don't understand why two separate methods are used.
  • The procedures at 0 HP aren't explained well.
  • The basic mechanics are scattered all over the place. Like, really all over the place.
  • There's a rule about using armour and weapons prohibited by class, but there are no such lists in the class descriptions.
  • Natural 20s deal double damage, while natural 1s are colossal failures. These rules should be fine, but I don't think there is need for such "criticals", because there is a different critical rule (although that one isn't described in the combat chapter)...
  • There is no proper preview of the book on OBS (only an inferior quick preview that shows you the table of contents plus explains what an RPG is).
  • Missed opportunity to use a simple but effective downtime system to handle non-adventurous social situations (and no, being too much like a JRPG is not a real argument against it!). As it stands, the game treats its source material the same way D&D treated its (not a bad thing per se, just a fair warning).

Dark Places & Demogorgons is weird. The premise is fun (and to a lot of folks probably nostalgic, too), and the system is easy to grasp as we're all familiar with its bits and pieces. But those bits and pieces are exactly that: bits and pieces, scattered over a big but breezy book. Everything is extremely rough and unpolished (I don't think there's a single page I would leave untouched). It could've been such an amazing little product.

There is so much love in this game (there are actual photographs of the creators and others from the 80s in there!). I genuinely think that if you're interested in the premise, you might still want to pick it up when it's on sale. There are no novel subsystems to steal, only some general concepts fleshed out somewhat that, especially combined with the Jeffersontown Setting Guide, make one hell of a game. There are a handful of new classes (including magic-users) in the Player Options & GM Guide, but other than that it's just a badly executed errata and a huge list of 80s movies and music (nothing you cannot find on the internet in under two minutes). I have yet to check the other sourcebooks (they deal with vampires, werewolves, and UFOs). I would probably run it as a "monster of the week" kind of game, possibly using a grand mystery to tie most things together (but still leaving some of the supernatural stuff as pure enigmas).

Dark Places & Demogorgons was written by Eric Bloat and Josh Palmer and published in 2017 under the flag of Bloat Games. It is available in PDF, softcover, and hardcover formats on RPGNow and DriveThruRPG, as well as on Squarespace.

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