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Dark Fantasy Basic - Player's Guide
by Daniel W. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 01/12/2019 10:17:01

(Cross-posted from

Dark Fantasy Basic is an excellent system but that excellence is somewhat subtle. Superficially it looks like a heavily house-ruled mix of B/X D&D and modern-era D&D in a rules-light package. What distinguishes it from a typical house-rules mess is that it carefully balances the various rules and uses skills and feats in a quite ingenious way. Both skills and feats act much differently than in 3rd edition or 5th edition.

There are five basic classes: the classic four of fighter, wizard, cleric, and thief, plus the Hopeless, a generic class that starts with no attributes higher that 12, but otherwise can grab skills and feats from any class. Skills and feats are the only things that differentiate the five classes in the game -- everyone gets the same HP and can use any equipment -- so the Hopeless is a clever way to incorporate skill-based characters, like in Call of Cthulhu or Traveller, into the class-based D&D system. It's a human-only system by default, but race-as-class or race and class would easy to tack on.

Characters have one primary skill, two secondary skills, and three tertiary skills, which are chosen at character creation. They grant a level-based bonus to related actions, so that for example at level 5, the character has +5 to use a primary skill, +3 to use a secondary skills, and +2 to use a tertiary skill.

Players choose their character's skills at creation and to some extent are restricted by the character's class. Fighters must take Combat as their primary skill and Athletics as a secondary skills, but is otherwise free to take any skills. Magic-users must take Spellcasting as their primary skill, Lore as a secondary skill, and Combat as a tertiary skill. These requirements elegantly maintain the standard class archetypes: Combat is similar to base attack bonus, so a Fighter will always be much better at hitting things than a Magic-user.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of freedom in the system to make distinct, flavorful characters of the same class. A Fighter who takes Spellcasting as a secondary skill could be a good battle-mage, while a Fighter who takes Thievery as a secondary skill could be a good rogue. This way of doing skills is great!

Feats are also turned to new purposes somewhat. Each class gets a starting feat and a list of feats to choose from on leveling up. These completely replace any class-based abilities. For instance, the Thief can take the Reflex feat which gives advantage in all intelligence and dexterity checks but does not otherwise have saving-throw superiority built in.

This use of feats again allows a lot of customization, but I'm not sure it is as balanced. The Fighter can take an Extra Attack feat (once only thankfully) at any level by default, while the Magic-user has to use a feat to change Spell-casting from int-based to cha-based, replicating the sorcerer.

More novel is that spells are now feats. Clerics and magic-users each have a list of 20 spells, and start with one. Spells themselves do not have levels, but the caster decides what level to attempt to cast the spell at, with higher level spells requiring a more difficult Spellcasting check but also being more powerful. For instance, Magic Missile generates 1 missile if cast as level 1, 3 missiles if cast at level 3, etc.

Therefore Magic-Users and Clerics will be using most of their feats to accumulate spells. Other classes can use feats for spells too, but without Spellcasting skill are going to find it difficult to use the spells.

Again, this is an inventive use for feats.

Those are the two largest system changes but the author manages to fit in a bunch of other more minor rules changes and additions as well. For example, in addition to the standard XP sources, a character surviving Death's Door (getting to 0 hit points) or "other grave dangers" adds 10% to current XP. Another nice XP touch is that when a character dies, the GM distributes up to 50% of that character's XP to people connected to the death, such as another character that the dead character lay down his or her life for.

Finally, it would be remiss not to compliment the art work in the game. It is all public domain art, mostly sourced from older books, but the selections are really well done. A lot of care and attention went into the art and layout, and it shows. The rules are clearly written for the most part, with the exception of how many feats a character has being buried in the section on Leveling Up.

Despite the minimal page length and stream-lined skill system, I wouldn't say that Dark Fantasy Basic is a simple game. My metric for simple is whether I can easily play the game with my kids with me walking them through all the mechanics, what to roll, and so on (both B/X and simpler d20 variants pass this test). The trouble is that feats are player-facing and are fundamentally kind of complicated, both if terms of making feat choices and in many feats introducing special rules that you need to keep track of. If I were going to run it for my kids, I think I would have a default feat progression for each class. You could design a bunch of subclasses and offer them to players, I guess. Come to think of that, it might be fun to design a bunch: treat Dark Fantasy Basic as a cool class-construction toolkit to play around with in addition to being a complete game in itself.

[5 of 5 Stars!]
Dark Fantasy Basic - Player's Guide
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Dark Fantasy Basic - Player's Guide
by Timothy B. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 07/28/2018 16:26:33

The Dark Fantasy Basic Player's Guide offers a blend of old-school feel with mechanics that will look familiar to players of 5th Edition D&D. The overview on the product page as an old-school game with modern influences. I would actually turn this around and call it a modern game with old-school influences. That's not a bad thing, by any means, but the mechanics are closer to 5e than to B/X D&D, and I think that should be clear to any potential buyer. But that streamlined core doesn't have the same feel as the more heroic, high-magic standard that 5e offers by default. Instead, we have a very different feel here, which is much closer to many OSR and classic D&D games.

This game's introduction was particularly helpful. I appreciated that it offers some insight into the tone the designer is going for and the philosophy behind several game mechanics. This provides a clerer understanding of how the game is inended to be run and why the rules are what they are. I thought it was especially interesting that while the game is grittier and more dangerous than 5e D&D, this is somewhat offset by the default rule that PCs will start at 3rd level (with the option to start at 1st level). This helps with the conversion of old modules and OSR adventures into Dark Fantasy Basic, allowing levels to align, without having PCs die in a fight against a house cat (the example provided in the book).

The game is based on standard DCs that range from very easy (DC 5) to legendary (DC 30). When rolling to meet or exceed the DC of a challenge, you roll, add your attribute bonus (which is on an old-school scale) and your skill bonus. The skill bonus is similar to the proficiency bonus in 5e, but instead of either being "on" or "off," you either get the full bonus, 2/3 of the bonus, or 1/3 of the bonus, depending on if the skill is a primary, secondary, or tertiary skill. It's important to note that Combat is a skill, as is Spellcasting. Only the fighter can take Combat as a primary. Clerics and thieves take it as a secondary sckill, while magic-users take it as a tertiary skill.

Classes have the same XP and HP progression, which is another break from OSR games. There are no demihumans, which will lead to a different feel than the B/X games that are cited as the influence for this game. In the conversion notes at the end, there's a suggestion on how the special abilities of other races could be modeled using feats (see below), but no examples of what this would look like in practice. I would've appreciated seeing what dwarves, elves, and halflings might use as racial feats in the conversion notes.

Feats are more like class abilities than what we've come to call feats in most games. There are a handful of general feats that any class can select, but the rest are class-specific. This allows you to build a character who is mechanically different from other characters of the same class.

Hit points essentially have two pools, similar to vitality and wounds in d20 Modern. These are the character's hit points and constitution. The character isn't dead when their hit points reach zero, but they're at death's door, and are likely to still be on their feet fighting. However, if they take any additional damage, it comes off of their constitution, which leads to a fast death spiral. Natural healing is as slow as you would expect from an old-school game.

Alignment is on the Law-Chaos axis, with the option of being Unaligned, which is different from the balance-focused Neutral alignment.

The economy uses the silver standard. I couldn't get used to the dollar sign ($) used as short hand for prices in silver pieces. I had to remind myself that this should be "10 silver" when I read it in my head, rather than "10 dollars." It's a minor complaint, however.

Because PC death isn't uncommon in the game, there's a section dedicated to rules that cover new PCs inheriting both material and immaterial benefits from deceased PCs. This would remove at least some of the sting when you have to re-roll a character.

Spellcasting is based on spell power rather than Vancian spell slots. Characters can attempt to cast higher-level spells, but the DC goes up accordingly, and there are some dire consequences caused by spell mishaps. The Spell DC scale is different from the one used in the skill section, so you'll want to keep both handy during play.

Combat draws upon much of 5e's structure and language. Characters take an action including movement and a bonus action, and may take a reaction and one free action per round. Attacks can be made with advantage or disadvantage. Crits are possible on a natural 20 if it also exceeded the target by at least 5, or if you exceed the target roll by 10 or more, regardless of what's rolled. Fumbles are possible for other types of skills, but not for Combat, which is an interesting twist.

I often don't pay much attention to public domain art in RPGs, but the selections were particularly appropriate in this book. The author did a nice job of finding pieces that were thematically appropriate for the section they were included in. I should also take a moment to note the cover art, which I like. One nitpick, though: the cover and the piece on page 29 appear to suffer from what appears to be dithering. There are speckles or lines going through the gray portions of the art that don't look like they should be there. I doesn't take away from the product as a whole, but it would be nice to see an update with these images fixed.

There are a few formatting issues that I spotted. The Encounters section header on page 39 is written in a calligraphic font, but in all-caps, making it tough to read. The Athletics skill isn't bolded when defined on page 12. There are several examples where it's hard to spot a new paragraph, because the previous paragraph ended near the right margin for the column, and there's no indentation or additional spacing between paragraphs.

In summary, I like many of the ideas presented in this book. If you don't like how heroic characters are from the start in 5e D&D, and you want magic to offer more risk vs. rewards, but you enjoy modern D&D mechanics, Dark Fantasy Basic is worth checking out. There are more mechanics than B/X D&D or related retroclones, but if you like a bit more of your game codified, and you're seeking easy conversion between a moern game and old modules, this could be a great choice for you. There a few minor formatting issues I'd like to see fixed, and I would prefer to see demihumans offered as an option. However, this is nothing that a GM can't fix pretty easily.

[4 of 5 Stars!]
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