I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Monday, November 02, 2020

10 OSR Lessons from Darkest Dungeon (part I)

Darkest Dungeon is a fun and addictive PC (and video-) game. It seems strongly inspired by OSR-style RPGs (or at least has similar influences). Playing Darkest Dungeon (DD) reminded me of several interesting principles for my own OSR games. 

Of course, the interesting thing about this game is not only the mechanics, but the Gothic atmosphere and the amazing visuals, which go very well with the "dark fantasy" motif. If you want that "feel" in your games, you can try my "Dark Fantasy" line

Anyway, here are some "lessons" that occurred to me when playing DD.

1 - Expeditions. Many modern RPGs are organized through sessions, adventures, campaigns, "milestones", etc. Some even use terms such as scene, episode and season, or divide events into minutes, hours and days. Darkest Dungeon, like some old school modules, is divided into expeditions.

The structure of the expedition is as follows. You start at your "headquarter", the village - a somewhat safe place, where you can buy weapons and supplies, recruit helpers, rest, etc. Then you set out to explore a "dungeon" - a dangerous place, where the possibilities for resting or obtaining useful resources are limited. Finally, IF you survive, you return to the city with some treasures and perhaps a few missing members in your group.

Most 5e D&D campaigns do not make this structure very explicit, but the two I played most recently could certainly benefit from this perspective. Try applying this "expedition" mechanic to Curse of Strahd and Tomb of Annihilation, and you will see some interesting results. 

2 - Resource management and encumbrance. Managing the resources that will be carried into the expedition becomes a essential part of the game. Your carrying capacity is limited, you need to bring torches to avoid being surprised by monsters in the dark, enough food to keep you from starving, etc.. In addition, you need to bring shovels, antidotes, bandages and other useful tools. But carrying too many things limits your ability to carry treasure (and, in old school games, also slows you down). 

This aspect of the game is all but lost in modern games like D&D 5e, in which encumbrance is too generous and gold is too light.

3 - Time limits. Gary Gygax famously said that "YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT" in page 37 of the original Dungeon Master’s Guide

A similar idea applies here. Although there is no explicit "ticking clock", the longer you stay in the "dungeon", the more stress you accumulate and the more food and torches you spend - increasing your chances of dying alone in the dark or going crazy. That means: time, along with torches and food, is a scarce resource that must be managed.

In fact, the stress meter from DD is an EXTREMLEY useful and versatile tool. Although this is not common in old school RPGs, it fits this "limited time" concept very well. I think it deserves a post of its own (on how to integrate this into your RPG games). Stay tuned!

BTW, the problem with stress in DD that it causes some significant amount of stress in real life, lol. Not an easy game!

4 - Mundane items. As you can see, mundane items (torches, rations, shovels) are very important. It is not about accumulating powerful magic items, but managing ordinary objects. 

In "old school" games, which have much broader possibilities than video games, ordinary items (such as a rope, shovel or 10-foot pole) can always be used in many creative ways to overcome obstacles, although consumable items (torches and rations) lose some of their importance when the characters reach the highest levels

5 - Underground Nightmares x Gygaxian Naturalism

Since the beginning of RPGs, dungeons have been built in two different (and somewhat antagonistic) structures. 

In the first, the dungeon is a dreamlike and almost inexplicable place, containing dragons bigger than the tunnels would allow and creatures that have no obvious ways to feed themselves - as if they came from a nightmare. In the second structure, the dungeon was created for a reason, and the creatures that live there are part of a (somewhat) coherent ecosystem ("Gygaxian naturalism").

In DD, the dungeons fit into the first model, but the game makes some concessions to the second, with aquatic creatures in the most flooded environments and mushroom-men living in the caverns. 

The lesson here is that even in the unexplainable environments of a nightmare, having some thread of rationality is useful in giving players some chance to prepare themselves adequately to face the challenges that lie ahead. If there was no predictability, a huge part of the "preparation of resources" phase would be lost, since there is no way to choose the best tools if there is no clue as to what is to come.

Well, I think this is enough for today. I'll have the second part soon - explaining some characteristics of the characters in DD and OSR games.


  1. I would think that a stress bar isn't necessary if you keep health (and recovery) along with resources rather limited. So instead of 'Create Food and Water' or 'Goodberry' you have a multiplicative effect on base resources to make food last longer. So your druid/ranger would travel with a bag of dried seeds to make goodberries with, while the cleric would do the same with dried trail rations. This still makes resources important, but gives the party a means to flex it a bit.

    Perhaps one only recovers hit dice if they are at full health (and only recovers HP otherwise) along with the above changes to resource management to make a built in clock to the system as far as dungeon crawling goes. Resource management can be simplified with the idea of a Rations unit (along with the Light units you wrote on a while back) to add the resource management without complicating the system overmuch.

    Nightmare vs Naturalism is more of a table specific feel that probably varies from table to table that I cannot really comment on outside of having some system in place so that your players can properly interact with it.

    1. My point about the stress bar, I think, is that it can replace many of existing rules (optional or not), such as level drain, insanity, fear, maybe even spell slots etc.

      I agree about resources, including health and rations. I think powers such as Create Food and Water should make these things easier, not completely absent.

    2. Lumping all of those things into the stress bar is such a cool idea.

  2. Very cool post. Extremely glad I stumbled into this today. Can’t wait for the follow-up. Bringing DD to the tabletop has been something I’ve been wanting to do for some time, but can’t get over the idea that DD’s expeditions take a bit of player agency away (expedition yesterday, expedition today, expedition tomorrow). Though I’m sure this is mainly an issue if you try a 1:1 clone, but a clone would probably work great with an open table/west marches set up.

    1. Probably giving the players a benefit for following the safe expedition structure rather than a punishment for not abiding by it might help. I'm thinking if you spend the time between sessions in a safe place, you can have your characters do stuff without you there to look after them, develop their abilities, craft items etc.

    2. Thanks for the kind words! There is no loss of player agency, the way I see; like Spwack says.
      Expedition is just a way of framing the "narrative", and the PCs can go where they want, when they want.
      West Marches is a great example.

  3. How would you set up CoS as expeditions? I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this. But an example, even simple or incomplete, would help.

    So many adventures are driven by an implied storyline, CoS included. DD kind of has one. But it’s more excavating what has already happened through expeditions.

    Example: Ismark wants to get Ireena to Vallaki. Is that an expedition? And where does it go from there? What expedition would follow if the party fails and Ireena is taken captive that early in the campaign?

    Maybe I’m too hung up on the milestone structure of the railroad-ish story in CoS?

    1. I've been thinking about that, and I'll write a post on the subject; but my gut tells me that the travel BETWEEN cities must be treated as expeditions, and PCs must secure places to rest. resting outside is unsafe. The cities become more or less safe with time.

    2. Interesting. I’ll look forward to that post!