Originally posted here: http://theotherside.timsbrannan.com/2018/06/review-survive-this-dark-places.html
I'll start off my week-long look at Survive This! Dark Places & Demogorgons with the core rulebook. A little bit of background thought first. I love the 80s in the way a true child of the 80s only can. Everything about the decade still fascinates me, fills me nostalgia and is a creative well I keep going back to. In truth, I had better decades. The 90s were particularly good to me and the 2010s are also really nice, but the 80s hold my interest more, especially when it comes to gaming.
Dark Places & Demogorgons (DP&D) taps into all of this in such a deep and profound way that it pisses me off me to no end. Pisses me off, because I wish I had come up it myself!
A few things upfront. DP&D owes a great deal to Stranger Things (which in turns owes a lot to D&D), but as fantastic as that is, that is not enough to sustain a game. DP&D draws on deep 80s culture as well. And deep I do mean shallow! Nothing here about the Cold War, or USA for Africa, or the 84 Olympics, or the home computer revolution. This is about what was going on in YOUR small town USA and how it felt like it was the strangest place on the planet. All that "important stuff" is just background noise to what is really important; what are we doing Friday night and who's going to drive around cruising? That of course until your friends start to disappear.
Dark Places & Demogorgons (DP&D) is a 200 page 5"x9" book with color covers and black & white interiors. The art is a mix of new art, some art purchased from collections and (my personal favorite) some photos of the authors and friends from some 80's high school yearbooks. I am reviewing both the physical book and PDF. Both of which were purchased by me so no books were contributed for review.
The book is divided into an 80 page Player's Section which includes the Classes and Basic rules, and a 120 Page Game Master Section.
The Players section introduces the concept of a Role-playing game and what you can do. We also get a little background on the town this all takes place in, Jeffersontown KY.
We go right into building a character. Now while the book tells us that this is a version of the same game played in 1974, there are more 21st Century rules here. The rules feel like a Swords & Wizardry variant with some Basic (Holmes in particular) thrown in. There are multiple types of saving throws (ala OD&D, Basic, an on up) and ascending AC (S&W, 3e). In short though if you have played any sort of OSR game in the last few years you will pick this up fast. If you have never played before, well you will still pick this up fast.
Unlike its progenitors, this game has Seven Abilities. The new one is Survival. At first, I was not a fan of it, but now I see how it works in the game it makes more sense to me. Much like how another seventh ability, "Luck", works in The Heroes' Journey.
I mentioned there are new saving throws too, Courage, Critical, Death, Mental, and Poison. Courage works a lot like a Fear/San test and there is even a terror table.
Where DP&D takes off though are ways you use to describe your characters. We start off with Backgrounds. You can roll randomly here in true 80s style, or choose. Rolling seems better. These include things like "Parents are never home" or "Bratty Kid Sister" and they have in-game effects. Not having your parents home makes for your house to become the natural HQ of your monster surviving endeavors, but having to watch your "Strawberry Shortcake" obsessed little sister is going to slow you down.
After that, you can decide on what your Class is going to be. Classes work here like everywhere else really. They decide your skills, they let you know where you fit in the world and they provide a role-playing guide. The classes in this book are largely based on 80s High School stereotypes. There are five main classes with three subclasses each (similar to how 5e does it) You have The Brain (Kid Scientist, The Nerd, The Geek), The Athlete (The Jock, Extreme Athlete, The Karate Kid), The Outsider (Break Dancer, Goth, Metal Head), The Popular Kid (Preppy, The Princess, Teen Heart Throb), and The Rebel (Bully, The Hood, the Punk Rocker). That pretty much covers everyone in a small high school.
Each class gets 5 levels and new abilities and/or skills each level. So the Karate kid gets new moves and martial arts, the Princess can affect others and so on.
Skills cover the things you can do. You can get some via your class or be improved by your class. Others you can pick. Combat is a skill and if you want to be better at it then you need to take the skill otherwise you are just a kid with a +0 to hit.
Character creation then is largely rolling up Abilities, picking a Background, a Class, some skills, determining your saving throws and finding out how much cash you have in your pocket. Then you are set!
I recommend a Session 0 for character creation and concept. Sure it is not in the rules and certainly not old school, but it better than everyone showing up for the game playing all playing "The Bully" or "The Nerd".
Lastly, you come up with your age, Alignment and various combat-related stats (AC, attack bonus). DP&D is not a combat focused game. You are kids and the monsters are, well, monsters. You might score a hit or two, but that is it. Otherwise, run!
XP and Leveling are a little "easier" then and there are other ways to gain levels.
We end this section with some sample characters, examples of play and a quick breakdown of the 1980s vs. Today.
The Game Master Section is next and this is where the fun is!
Here the advice of not making this a combat heavy game is repeated. This is a game of mystery, investigation, and deduction. From the book:
This game draws inspiration from movies like The Goonies, ET and The Lost Boys and T.V. shows like Stranger Things, Eerie Indiana and Scooby Doo.
Talk about hitting me where I live!
The rules might say 1974 on the tin, but they are much easier than that. Nearly every rule is simplified and straightforward in a way we never would have tried in the 80s. Among the "new" rules are Difficulty Classes (circa 3e) and Advantage/Disadvantage rules (circa 5e). It makes for a very fast-paced game and the rules will fall into the background.
We get some weapons and explosives, but not a lot.
There is a nice section on magic and the occult which include some really nice Psychic classes. In case you want to dial your game up to 11 (see what I did there!).
The fun part of the book are the Adventure Seeds. Some are familiar to anyone that watched movies or TV in the 80s. But others...well I can only conclude that these must be local legends and myths from the author's own home. Which reminds me how much all these little towns are really the same, just the details differ.
Replace the Pope Lick Monster with the Mobil Monster and they could have been talking about my old hometown of Jacksonville, IL. We even had giant cats, giant birds and bigfoot. But if you know what is good for you stay away from Magical Mystery Lane (if you could find it) or the glowing "things" out by Lake Jacksonville.
The book also has a bunch of monsters in Swords & Wizardry format (more or less). You could add more, but be careful. Just because I have the stats for a Manticore in a S&W book that would work with this there had better be a good reason to include it.
There are stats for animals and various types of NPCs. There is even a table of random monster generation. Delving into more game specific tables there is a table (1d100) of basic adventure hooks.
We also get a small guide to the setting, Jeffersontown, or J'Town (I grew up in J'ville. AND we used to call it a "Sinkhole of Evil" YEARS before anyone ever said the words "hell mouth").
The guide is great, not just for use in the game but for the sheer nostalgia. It read like someone had taken a fictionalized version of my old hometown. I think that it is also flexible enough that an lot of people reading it will feel the same way.
We end with a nice solid appendix (the PDF is not hyper-linked here) and their own "Appendix N" of movies, television, and music. Music was too important in the 80s for there not to be a list like this.
We end with a copy of the character sheet.
Wow. Where to begin.
Ok first of this game is very nearly perfect and I hate it so much. That's not true. I hate that I didn't come up with it and publish it sooner. But in truth, I am not sure if I would have done the same quality job as Eric Bloat and Josh Palmer. Plus the inclusion of their yearbook pictures and own background made this book for me. I LOVED reading J'Town because I could see and feel my own J'Ville in it. I would not have been able to do that if I had written it myself, so much kudos to them.
This is a work of art and I love it.
Everything feels right about this game, to be honest. I even have a potential "Series" in mind for it.
Can't wait to do more with it! I would love to get some of my old gamer friends from the 80s and have them play versions of themeselves in a "Stranger Jacksonville" or more to the point the Jacksonville we all WISHED it was.