With regard for full transparency, I was asked if I could take a look at this system and give it an honest review, after I had already planned to and purchased this myself.
It's important to note that this is a working prototype that is being actively updated and responding to praise and criticism. While some things will change, the quality of the concept of the cold, black heart has been evident from day one. I look forward to watching this grow and emerge the horrific monster of a game it clearly is. If you like horror and delving into the macabre madness and desolate darkness, you owe it to yourself to give this a shot.
Reading the concept gave me a genuine wicked smile at the sheer wretched darkness of the game! There is something wonderful about inflicting horrors and trying to survive maddening my serious monstrosities when you are but a simple soul, rather than a her; lacking might and having a far greater fear of the unknown. This emphasis on "hopelessness, dread, darkness, and inhumanity" really set a wicked tone that definitely caught my attention, and doesn't that just sound like the ingredients for a pleasant afternoon?
It should be noted that this is a game of extremes horror and dread, and even more than others will need to be discussed and understood by the Players and Overseer (Game Master). This is not for the faint hearted and I would thoroughly recommend using Safety Tools and having ways out of scenes and topics/ things that are off the table (this is addressed directly in the Overseer section of this supplement), so everyone is playing with sheer, oppressive doom for fun and not to trigger a breakdown. To be clear it's not actually malicious, harmful or obscene, but when you're dealing with psychological and spiritual trauma in game, you don't want to be stoking anyone's issue out of game. This is covered in detail in the Overseer section on Session 0.
Please note that my understanding of the rules may not be entirely correct and I apologise to the author and any reader if I have gone off at a tangent and end up blathering about nonsense. But I will endeavour to go through, explain and review to the best of my abilities. It's also worthy of note that while I have played a bunch of different systems, I'm most offay with and currently playing D&D5e. I can see myself being drawn into comparisons and understanding the game through that lens, for which I apologise for, but I can only do what I can.
This is just a simple bugbear of mine as a non-binary person, but in the Glossary the Overseer (GM) is referred to as "he". It would be preferable to have a gender neutral 'they' or 'the one' for greater inclusion. This is more of an issue with games and rules as a whole and not the sole issue of this -- This has been addressed by the author as something that will be rectified in later drafts and is the result of translation.
A comprehensive script of an example game with some creepy cool descriptions, which I'm sure will be very helpful, but being before the rules there was some confusion on my part - - This made a whole lot more sense and was really illuminating after reading the rules!
I absolutely love the idea of the Dramatic Roll (DR), the main rolling of four dice to perform an action or reaction in the game, rolled against the appropriate Aptitude (Skill). Only one success is needed, equal or lower than the Aptitude used, with further successss allowing the player to expand on their action, with an additional sentence of description/ explanation and the the Overseer (GM) using Complications (failures) to hinder or complicate the action, but not negating them.
This is huge and the inspirational black heart of this game! Every time you roll the bones there are organic opportunities for the Players and Overseer to elaborate and enhance the action/ story in bizarre and interesting ways. This truly fosters and encourages the collaborative storytelling, which is the radiant soul of tabletop roleplaying games! The conversation and back and forths sprout from the dice in a variety of ways as the Players and Overseer add their elements of Successes, and the scene plays out. I think this is something that takes something like a skill check from D&D5e, which are often presented as a question from the Player and an answer from the DM with more or less occurring/ being divulged, etc depending on DC, with extreme caveats for critical successes and failures, and naturally builds more smaller caveats into every roll with the answers coming from both the Overseer and Player; the onus on both of them to describe the scene together. Rather than question and answer, there is more of a flowing dialogue with the Player given greater agency and engagement with their actions.
This is something that from now on I will definitely be thinking more about no matter the game I'm playing, even if I can't mechanically work it in, it's still a great prompt for Players and Overseers/ GMs to bring the world and action to life together.
I found the wording a little confusing, but I understand that Successes and Complications can cancel each other out, with the player using a success to negate a Complication, but failing the action if there are more Complications than Succeses/ Successes used to cancel out some but not all Complications. In the books words:
"The player can decide to negate one Complication with one Success, that way it’s possible to fail an action and get a negative outcome."
I'm taking this to mean, if I roll 3 Cs and 1S for reaching up to a creepy portrait by standing on a rickety library ladder, I could spend the 1S to remove 1C, hopefully mitigating the risk by one level. If I understand correctly, this puts the decision in the Player's hands; do you want to take one success, perhaps noting the tortured artist's signature, with the possibility of the 3Cs, losing balance, falling off the ladder and getting buried in an avalanche of books or tearing the portrait of the wall and landing with your head piercing the canvas, becoming one with the macabre masterpiece.
The Aptitudes work as a combination of Attributes and Skills paired back into five Aptitudes, each encompassing a number of ways they can be used, my favourite being Larceny, because why not!? With an average and max human score. This Aptitude covers all physical crimes, from stalking to stealing and beyond and encapsulates more and simply has a more fun name that Sleight of Hand.
The difficulty (DC) of Dramatic Actions undertaken using Aptitudes are judged by the Overseer and applied using the Character's deemed Proficiency. This system determines whether additional, automatic or contingent Complications are to be applied to a Dramatic Role. The Proficiency can be mitigated by the Character's Traits, which are the advancement system I will discuss later.
The nature of the game, set up in Arcs, self-contained story akin to a chapter, containing several Scenes, and these Scenes being broken up between Narrative and Dramatic scenes, is another clear expression of the baked in collaborative story telling. Narrative scenes progress the story "at the whims of the players" truly giving them agency over the story in a new and dramatic way. Dramatic scenes on the other hand, action, combat, etc shrink into every action and reaction requiring a Dramatic Roll as things come thick and fast. The pacing between these varies, but there's something enjoyable about a lugubrious, meandering narrative, suddenly becoming an intense encounter where every action needs care and speed.
The Actions and Order of the Dramatic Scenes will be familiar to those with TTRPG experience, with your move, run, ready weapon, parry, etc. One thing I did particularly note is a Reaction can be used after other Character's Actions, allowing for greater interaction between players as they try to con ke together a plan and build they story.
The survival/ Living elements of the game cover the Character's radius of Sense, the effects of Lighting, as well as very simple but specific rules for eating, drinking and sleep. These elements, particularly the need for sustenance and rest bring an extra dimension to the potential suffering and stress, as the Characters have to see to their needs in the midst of the horrors they find themselves in.
Health and Damage are handled in a graded a three tiered system of wound severity and negative effects acquired against a Character's three separate health elements: Physical, Mental and Spiritual. This potential for Pain, Panic and Corruption portent threats to the Characters more often than not, beyond the mundane, attacking their minds and spirit as well as their physics being.
Healing these various types of wounds can take anything from simple bed rest, counseling, and meditation and purification rituals, meaning different wounds will last until the downtime can be found to check yourself into hospital or spa. This means the wounds suffered will be longer lasting and weighing down the Characters and effecting the in many malevolent ways over the course of an Arc, adding to the desperation and hopelessness. The super hero of yore, your character is not, you will feel the pressure and pain of these malignancies adding to the tension an horror.
Morality is handled in a similar manner and marked off on the severity of the Character's actions, which was can cause them to lose their very humanity. I can see a great deal of fun and diabolical deeds, not least of which because the Statuses caused by damage, making them act in various bizarre and wicked ways. Will the damage to your mind, body and spirit lead you down a path of destruction and callousness, damning your tattered soul on the way to the grave? It will certainly be 'fun' to find out.
Combat alway takes place during a Dramatic Scene and is a frenetic fare of Melee, Unarmed and Ranged attacks. Unarmed and weapons have symbols denoting the damage they deal, the potential damage it can be raised with additional Successes and the damage type. This quick and easy system allows for speedy combat and easy referencing of the damage types.
For a greater expression of the Character's Health, beyond the damage levels, Statuses/ conditions gained from taking damage "describe the character's health in a better detail then Health does". These range from Pain to Dehydration and Damaged Limb/s, and effect everything from applying more complications to Dramatic Rolls, taking a character out of a scene as the konk out and need some Zzzs or taking damage from hunger and thirst.
Character creation is explained thoroughly with examples and prompts at every stage, along with the recent addition of an example Character to make the process as simple as possible. I just want to touch on a few of the elements that make characters in this game so unique and twisted. I just want to touch on a few of the unique elements that really stood out to me, Goal, Chains, Fear, comfort and Darkness, which are the core of a Character in Domains.
Goal: This is the personal goal of the character, which will often and is encouraged to be at odds with the rest of the party. I love the conflict and strain the Characters in Domains have on them and this Goal is another stress, their guiding purpose, pulling them away and isolating them fekmtnhe party. From the manual, "This goal will make the character stray away from the group."
Chains: These are the Character's reasons for remaining in the setting of the game and staying within the 'story'. It's encouraged with examples to make these reasons interesting and real. In many way these are a much smarter and natural way to lay tracks, but have no need to actually 'railroad' Players (as an aside I'm not particularly convinced about railroading, there's merits to a GM/ Overseer preparing an session/ Arc and wanting Players to play it, while also letting players have agency and so their own thing. This is for another time...). With the Arcs and Scenes being set in smaller, more Claustrophobic, settings in Domains, it's important to have a reason for the Character to not run screaming as far away as possible, and they will want to! This adds another stress and additional feelings of hopelessness as the Characters are Chained to their places of torment.
Fears: This is so loving described as, "what makes the character’s heart race faster, his palms sweat, last meal of noodles spewing out of him once the horror starts." Fear is the main thing that causes...fear in the characters, a central all-consuming dread, that should be something that will be encountered often enough in the campaign, with lots of interesting suggestions that give the impression of phobias. It's actually recommended that the Overseers tailor the game around these Fears to keep the Characters unsettled.
Comfort: This is something to let off steam and work out some of that stress and can be anything from kittens to drinking and violence, so don't say the game doesn't give you anything nice to play with...
Darkness: Now this is the crux of a Domains Character and something that sets both character apart from many others, described as, "a disturbing personality quirk." This is something that caused the character to have an innate tendency to act in some inhuman way, whether it be a hankering for a little human flesh, collecting macabre trinkets or venerating some ancient, unspeakable entity, there are many ways for a Characters darkness to manifest. This sounds so much fun and rather cathartic to be honest, but this is another area where frank and open discussions are had to keep to trauma to the table.
There are different ways to spend attributes and kit out your Character, but the above are the character creation and options that I wanted to get into for the moment.
Character progression is handled using a Growth system consisting of points awarded to each Player by the Overseer at the end of each session. These come from attendance, furthering individual or group Goals, as well as the opportunity for each Player to make a case for their Character learning something significant relative to their Attributes, and finally, the Overseer has the option to hand out points for Characters making good use of their Aptitudes. I like that this system rewards Players turning up (we all know how hard that is) and playing using the significant aspects of their character. Adam Koebal has been using a system not too dissimilar for this in his D&D5e Jace Beleren Must Die campaign to great effect. Having this end of session review and reflection can really shine the light on motives, intentions and things that are missed.
Points can be spent to gain Traits, which are capabilites that aid Characters in their hellish excursions. These Traits are split into, Survival, covering physical and bodily elements Awareness, covering navigation and perception, Larceny, for the shady and criminal, Knowledge, both academic and practical, Social, helping Characters seem less sociopathic, and finally, Universal Traits, unrelated to any specific Aptitude.
After certain number of points are collected Abiltites can be obtained, these are nifty actions and reactions. Abiltites are divided into Determination, aiding survival, Eldritch, granting some cool magical abilities including whispering to spirits for information, Story, enabling "cheats" in the form of having a hunches and gaining clues or exerting their will on NPCs and being able to tell if they're being told fibs, and finally Corruption, which allow a greater edge in Aptitudes, but a dark price, such as morphing your body into weapons and armour or tearing the life force from another to maintain physical health at the cost to your mind. and/ or soul.
I think the Growth system certainly seems sounds and I look forward to trying it out, but I personally find understanding advancement more clearly when tables and/ or diagrams are included, and I think this might make things a bit easier to comprehend for some.
There are an extensive array of items, clearly referenced and expanded upon, with everything you might need for exploring, investigating and surviving.
The spells, rituals and artefacts contain a number of well known examples, as well some strange and creepy cool toys, including a sickle that injures the Spirit as well as the body, and has the potential to split limbs and release a Character's Darkness.
The Overseer section outlines and details their responsibilities for the game, beginning with an in depth look at Session 0, emphasising discussion with the group and catering the game to their Character's Fears. As mentioned before, this is a game of extremes and the considerations for things that Players may find too uncomfortable in the game are handled deftly by the concept of Lines and Veils. Lines are things the party agree will never be discussed or a part of the game and Veils are things that will agree to be aluded to in the game, though not roleplayed. This is a much needed and I think rather simple, thoughtful and elegant way of discussing and ruling out problematic topics, situations, etc.
The Overseer section goes on to discuss the Tone and Theme of the game, beginning light and ratcheting up the tension, being sure to know the Characters, knowing what makes them tick and how to bring their Chains, Fears, Comforts and Darkness into the game for maximum effect. This is followed by taking the Overseer through using a pregenenrated world or creating their own with areas of various levels of risk, generating Threats relative to the number of players and how to introduce them, and Complications for the various activities Players can get up to and how to bring them to life. NPCs and Monsters, and the handling thereof as active elements in the game, as well as passive elements of placing the Characters in harms way by using Perils to damage the mind, body and soul, if things are going to well and the game needs a quick injection of stress.
There are comprehensive instructions and advice about running the game, NPC and Monster creation. Monsters come with an extreme warning:
NOTE: MONSTERS ARE INTENDED TO BE OVERPOWERED AND CHARACTERS CANNOT WIN AGAINST A MONSTER IN A STRAIGHT UP FIGHT. THIS SHOULD BE KEPT IN MIND WHEN THE OVERSEER DESIGNS MONSTERS IN THE FIRST PLACE!
Monsters have three Aptitudes of their own in their ability to Slaughter, Manipulation and Darkness. These being the ability to cause Physical, Mental and Spiritual damage, as well as a whole range of nasty abilities, interesting Traits and foul Gifts, allowing for a veritable menagerie of foul creatures to stalk the Characters, rend their flesh, tear at their sanity and eviscerate their soul.
All in all this is an incredible and truly horrible (in the best of ways) game and system for some truly unique and horrifying games. I am blown away by the quality of the mechanics and the emphasis on collaborative storytelling, while constantly putting the Characters and hopefully the players under tremendous amounts of stress and distress in the most fun and rewarding way. There is room for some improvements in editing and the addition of more art and content in the form on introductory and example adventures, but these criticisms are already being noted and addressed by the author, with a clear plan for updating and implementation.
The fact that this is a crowd funding release of the full system at an incredibly low price point with the clearly stated intentions for exactly what the money will be used for and that by buying this version of the game, you will be getting updates when they are available all the way up and including the full release of the game, is an absolute steal. During the course of writing this review an updated version was posted and I have been given a sneak peak at the beginnings of the introductory adventure, which has me excited and confident about the future of this game.
I have thoroughly enjoyed going through this system and can't wait to actually get to play it. I look forward to more updates and enough people giving this a try and seeing for themselves that this is something special, a truly horrific horror roleplaying game with a heart of darkness and a system so clearly worked on with Infernal love and eldritch craftsmanship to bring the ultimate experience of dread. Now doesn't that sound fun!?
[5 of 5 Stars!]