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Dark Fantasy Basic - Player's Guide
Publisher: Chaos Factory Books
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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