Against the Darkmaster
In the ’80s and ’90s, Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP) was undoubtedly popular in some gaming circles—enough so to warrant two editions. Some enjoyed the Middle Earth setting and the full Tolkien experience, while others liked the crunchiness of the game’s engine, which was, in essence, Rolemaster. Today, gamers with fond memories of MERP and their time spent in Middle Earth can fill the void left decades after it went out of print with Opened-Ended Games’ Against the Darkmaster.
Note: a review copy was provided by the author to Rolling Boxcars for this article. If you have an item you’d like Rolling Boxcars to review, please visit our Product Review Request page.
Against the Darkmaster is a massive book at 576 pages. Its spine measures a full two inches thick—it will likely dwarf any book on your gaming shelf! Everything you need to play now and long into the future is within, including excellently executed illustrations—some inspired by classic fantasy artists Frank Frazetta. This hefty tome is smartly divided into five “books,” an adventure, and an appendix. Readers should note the book’s title, Against the Darkmaster, is purposely abbreviated VsD, for “Versus the Darkmaster,” throughout the book. No explanation is provided, but this may result from a non-native English-speaking design and development team—although this is conjecture on my part.
Using broad brushstrokes, Against the Darkmaster draws inspiration from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, and Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain. However, Against the Darkmaster does not have its own setting—allowing it to be highly adaptable. The game’s themes remain true to its sources by embedding core elements into its system or, in the words of the authors, “…game where a few, valiant heroes stand together against the seemingly overwhelming power of Darkness; where simple farmers could grow to become the saviors foretold by prophecies; and where forgotten heirs of fallen dynasties could rise to gather the armies of the world under their banner.”
Themes like Good vs. Evil, ruins of ages past, magic is rare and dangerous, gods watch from afar, and heroism and hope are collectively the things that set this game apart from others. The other overarching theme that sets Against the Darkmaster apart is the Darkmaster. The Darkmaster is an evil looming shadow that is immensely powerful, banished eons ago to the formless void where it now exists. It is consumed by malice and an insatiable lust for power. Here it waits, conjuring up evil, twisted schemes, and centuries-spanning machinations, just waiting to break free!
Book One: A Fellowship Gathers
“Book One: A Fellowship Gathers” encompasses 98 pages of character creations and some very basic mechanical overviews. The book opens with an introduction to Against the Darkmaster’s basic dice resolution mechanics. It provides a foundational level of knowledge that is beneficial as players begin the process of character creation.
Dice Resolution Basics
Against the Darkmaster uses a mechanical system called the Open-Ended System. This system primarily uses three types of dice (d100, d10, and d5) to make all necessary rolls, with the most common being the d100 or percentile dice found in a standard polyhedral set. The Opened-Ended System has two types of d100 rolls, Unmodified and Open-Ended, to resolve the four basic resolution rolls. Open-Ended Rolls are used for the majority of the rolls. The basic rolls include Skill Rolls when attempting a task that uses a skill or capability, Save Rolls to resist Spells’ effects, poisons, or other perils, attack Rolls when attacking an opponent, and Spell Casting Rolls for characters attempting to channel mystical energies.
The simplest of the two d100 rolls is the unmodified roll. This is nothing more than rolling a d100 without any modifiers. The Open-Ended roll is a little more complex. This is a d100 roll without any modifiers applied; if the result is 96-100 (Critical), another d100 roll is made, and the two results are added together. This process continues until a roll results in a value of 95 or less, and then all applicable modifiers are applied to the total to get the final result. Open-Ended Roll results of 01-05 (fumble) function in the same way. Another d100 is rolled; this time, the result is subtracted from the first die roll, the result will be a negative number. Here too, this process continues until a roll results in a value of 06 or great, and then all applicable modifiers are applied to get the final result.
Creating A Legendary Hero
Character creation comprises seven time-consuming steps, generating statistics, choosing Kin and Culture, choosing a vocation, completing the background and selecting equipment, calculating derived statistics, choosing passions, and finally, naming your character.
Against the Darkmaster uses six statistics, Brawn (BRN), Swiftness (SWI), Fortitude (FOR), Wits (WIT), Wisdom (WSD), and Bearing (BEA), with two methods for generating—random generation, or point buy. Stat values range from -20 to +35, depending on the method used. The random method produces more varied results, whereas point buy gives values ranging from 0 to +20.
Kin and Culture are two essential aspects of a character. Kin defines who they are. Other games use terms you may be more familiar with, such as race or heritage. Culture defines the physical and socio-economic environment they come from (i.e., Tundra, Urban, etc.). Players may choose from thirteen Kin that defines their character’s general appearance, influences their Stat Values, and convey special Kin-related abilities. Cultures represent a character’s physical and socio-economic upbringing and the tangible things that their Culture imparts. The chosen culture provides unique benefits—additional ranks in specific skills, culture-specific starting equipment, and directly influencing a character’s starting Wealth Level. Additionally, each Culture provides roleplaying tips and also suggestions for writing initial Passions.
There are six core Vocations in VsD: Warrior, Rogue, Wizard, Animist, Champion, and Dabbler. Each of the Vocations fits within classic fantasy tropes. Warriors and Champions are battle-hardened fighters, with Champions aligning to Paladin of other games. The Rogue fills that classic role within the party. The Wizard, Animist, and Dabbler are all spellcasters of some sort. The Wizard is rather classic in its design, the Animist fits the trope of the shaman, and the Dabbler doesn’t quite fit a standard trope. The Dabbler is more of a Jack-of-all-trades with a touch of magic prowess. Each Vocation provides a different series of fixed bonuses to specific Skills, called Vocational Bonuses. When choosing a Vocation, each conveys additional customizable Development Points to buy additional skill ranks. This helps to differentiate one person from another because no two people are the same.
Skills represent specializations developed through experience and training, whereas Stats represent one’s innate abilities. Skills are organized into eight categories grouped together with similar themes or purposes.
Heroes aren’t born in a vacuum. They have a past, often carried with them on their adventures. This may be a trinket, a family heirloom, an unusual ability they were born with, or perhaps traveling with a dear friend—background Options aid players in fleshing out their character’s past. Players use Background Points, provided by their character’s Kin, to purchase either a minor or major tier. The minor tier cost one Background Point, and the major tier cost three, and in rare cases, two. Usually, purchasing the major tier also imparts the benefits of the minor. See the example image for such a case.
Passions represent the reasons and things a hero fights for. Passions take one of three forms, Nature, Allegiance, and Motivation. Their Drive measures how strongly they are motivated and how far they would push themselves to get what they’re after. Drive fluctuates during play, ranging from 0 to 5. Each character begins with a Drive of 1.
Finally, it’s on to the final touches. Calculate the character’s derived stats Move Rate, Defence Rating, Toughness Save Roll, and Willpower Save Roll. Annotate the character’s size, which is used for unarmed attacks. Note the starting equipment for each character, regardless of Vocation, starts with the same standard adventuring gear package (i.e., traveling clothes, belts with scabbards, a sidearm of choice, etc.). This also includes any cultural outfitting equipment gained from their Culture. Lastly, give your hero a name.
Character advancement works like many games, with characters earning Experience Points (XP) for completing achievements at the end of each session. Unlike other games, achievement lists are communally created, not a static list of achievements seen in games such as Mutant Year Zero or Forbidden Lands. Achievements can be either vocation-based or party-based, depending on the group and their specific desires. XP can range from 1-5 for each achievement, with values established when the list is created. Example lists are provided.
Book Two: Trails of Adventure
Book Two covers all the mechanics within Against the Darkmaster. High-level explanations of some of the game’s key mechanics are presented to give readers a better understanding of how the game functions. As you read on, it’s important to keep two things in mind, Open-Ended Rolls are used the most. The higher the total, the better the outcome. (e.g., a result of 140 is better than a 75)
Skill Rolls are used when a character attempts to accomplish a task whose outcome is uncertain and will have a meaningful impact on the current situation. Skill Rolls are made using an Open-Ended Roll, plus the relevant skill and situational modifiers. Skill Rolls are always modified by Difficulty—this ranges from +0 (standard) to -70 (insane). Any total below 75 is a failure. Totals greater than 74 are successful, but how successful is determined by the total itself.
Save Roll (SR)
Saves come in two forms—Toughness Save Roll (TSR) and Willpower Save Roll (WSR). The Toughness Save Roll (TSR) represents a character’s innate resistance to physical threats. Willpower Save Roll (WSR) represents a character’s resistance to attacks or effects of the mind. Every character has a Save Roll bonus based on their level. Like Skill Rolls, Save Rolls use a similar formula to resolve. This time the result must exceed the attacker’s SR Difficulty (e.g., SR bonus) to be successful.
Against the Darkmaster takes a slightly different approach to its magical system. In most traditional fantasy games, magic falls into various schools or spheres—here, they are called Spell Lores. Spell Lores fall into three categories, which determine access availability—Common Spell Lores are open to all Vocations, Vocation Spell Lores are tied to specific Vocations, and Kin Spell Lores are tied to specific Kin. Each Spell Lore has ten Weaves (levels), but only one Spell is assigned to each Weave.
Simply knowing a Spell does not make one a wizard. Characters can only cast Spells if they spend Magic Points (MP) equal to a Spell’s Weave. (i.e., a 3rd Weave Spell costs 3 MP). The amount of MPs available to character varies based on several factors. MPs are recovered through rest and meditation.
Casting Spells differs slightly from other Skill Rolls. There is a litany of situational modifiers that may affect it. If a Spell Skill Roll final result is less than 26, the Spell is successfully cast, and the “Spell Casting Table” is consulted to determine how successful it is. If the Spell requires a Save Roll, that target number is provided on the table.
All magic comes with risks. Magical Resonance is the lingering after-effects of casting magic. Each time a Spell is cast, the Gamemaster rolls and consults the “Magical Resonance Roll Table.” This represents the Darkmaster and their forces becoming increasingly aware of the characters and their actions. Spell Failure is also an ever-present danger. If Spell Roll results in a failure, a second roll is made with Spell Failure modifiers applied. The result on the “Spell Failures Table” determines how the failure manifests.
Travel plays a large part in any fantasy saga. Against the Darkmaster includes rules to address encumbrance, modes of travel, travel hazards, chases, camping, and creating safe havens. Safe Havens are locations that grant characters an opportunity to take short breaks from adventuring so they may tend to their needs or pursue other activities. Safe Haven activities are similar to “Downtime Activities” in other games.
Against the Darkmaster uses an abstract system to manage wealth and social status. Wealth Level (WL) measures a character’s financial means and social status. Instead of focusing on resource management that can bog down a game, Against the Darkmaster allows characters to purchase items and services based on their Wealth Level. All items have a “fare” value. That value is compared to the WL of the character; a simple chart determines if they can afford the item.
- WL>Fare – can afford
- WL=Fare – can afford, but WL drops by one
- WL<Fare – cannot afford
Starting Wealth Level is calculated during character creation (Kin + Culture + Background Option)—Wealth Levels range from 0 to 5. One’s Wealth Level can increase and decrease through the course of a campaign.
When the narrative puts characters into a combat situation, time shifts to the Tactical Round Sequence (TRS), the TRS consists of nine phases.
- Assessment Phase – used to keep track of lasting effects or conditions.
- Actions Declaration Phase – characters declare their actions and intended targets.
- Move Phase – characters move and perform maneuvers involving movement. Movement is simultaneous
- Spell Phase A – first volley of prepared or instant Spells are resolved.
- Ranged Phase A – first volley of loaded and aimed missile weapons, and readied thrown weapons are thrown.
- Melee Phase – combatants in melee range, engage in combat, exchanging blows. Order is determined by weapon length (e.g., longest, long, short, hand); the longer the weapon, the quicker it attacks in this phase.
- Ranged Phase B – any ranged weapons not fired or thrown in Phase A go now.
- Spell Phase B – all unprepared spells go off in this phase.
- Other Actions Phase – a “catch-all” phase for skill actions not covered by any previous phases.
Actions in the TRS can be Full Actions, Half Actions, or Free Actions. Full Actions require most of a character’s attention, and they can normally only perform one such action per Round (i.e., full movement rate, melee attack, etc.). Half Actions are simpler, taking less time, and work in conjunction with another Half or Full Action (i.e., readying a weapon, casting an instantaneous spell, etc.). Free Actions require little to no effort, such as talking or making an Assessment Roll.
There are a plethora of different combat actions that one can take depending on their objective. Additionally, an individual’s condition (i.e., engaged, stunned, etc.) affects what options are available and ultimately how successful they might be.
I’m not going to mince words here, combat is moderately complex and potentially very deadly, but it all seems to work in the end. That is, if everyone is willing to put in the work necessary to learn the combat system and fully comprehend its nuances.
Book Three: Tales of Legend
Book Three is expressly for Gamemasters and contains the tools necessary to successfully run Against the Darkmaster. Consisting of four chapters, it begins with “Preparing the Game,” a chapter dedicated to the intricacies of crafting scenarios and campaigns. Within these pages are recommendations, tips, and tricks for getting it right. There’s an accompanying example that progressively implements the recommendations.
Chapter 18 is dedicated to the “key” element of all scenarios, the Darkmaster. The Darkmaster is not a silent, inactive force lingering behind the scenes. On the contrary, it looms largely behind the scenes and is an active adversary through its machinations, schemes, and minions. This chapter explores who its servants are, the dark magic they use, taint, and much more.
Book 3’s “Tales of Legend” provides practical tips for effectively running a game of Against the Darkmaster. Topics include determining Skill Roll difficulty, how to handle complications from failed Skill and Combat Rolls, and addressing the inevitability of character death and how best to introduce a new character. Other, more optional topics include using battles and wars as part of a game’s theme and the necessary mechanics. Several campaign considerations are presented as food for thought—progressing beyond level 10 and low magic campaigns. The chapter concludes with sections on rewarding players with experience, wealth, and magic items.
Book Four: Bestiary
The Bestiary is chock full of classic and some seemingly new creatures to challenge characters. Creatures, both evil and those more mundane, are arranged alphabetically like all good bestiaries. Entries use a standard format that includes name and description, a variety of combat statistics, specific combat tactics it’ll likely use, and any special abilities they have.
Despite there being some classic Tolkien creatures included, the authors have changed the names. This feels like an effort to further distance themselves from MERP. One such example is the Ent. Tolkien was the first to use Ents in a literary work, and other fantasy games include Ents, but here they are referred to as “Awakened Tree.”
Book Five: Grimoire
The Grimoire contains an alphabetical list of all player-accessible Spell Lores. Within each Spell Lore, the ten Spells corresponding to each of the ten Weaves are presented. Like we saw in the Bestiary, these entries use a standard format that includes Range, Area of Effect, Duration, Save, and a description of the Spell’s effects.
There are some handy definitions for Spell Parameters at the beginning of the Grimoire; this effectively eliminates the need to flip back to Book Two. What is not here is a table of contents listing all of the Spell Lores with page references. The only table of contents is the master table at the beginning of Against the Darkmaster. Players needing to reference the Grimoire would be well served to bookmark any applicable pages or note the page numbers on their character sheet.
Adventure: Shadows of the Northern Woods
Against the Darkmaster includes three short adventures which are intended to be linked together, forming a short introductory campaign. These adventures can be run independently of each other, and advice is provided to accomplish this.
Six pre-generated heroes are provided (also available online – Against the Darkmaster – Ready to Play Characters) to help players get into the action quickly. Alternatively, players can create their own characters.
The “Shadows of the Northern Woods” campaign provides a small regional setting in which to run the campaign. This is the only setting-specific information in the entire book. As far as settings go, it feels rather bland and similar to any other fantasy setting. However, its primary purpose is to be a primer for the adventures, and key locations in and around Willow Lake are nicely fleshed-out, including non-player characters. The level of detail provided for the NPCs was quite unexpected, and it made them seem a little more real and playable.
The Beast of Willow Lake
Designed as the starting point for first-level characters, “The Beast of Willow Lake” pits the heroes against a treacherous murder plot and conspiracy. A man goes missing, and Wulfric (Thane) offers a big reward for anyone who will bring him the head of the beast that stalks the local woods.
Winds of War
In “Winds of War,” the heroes will have to choose between running after Wulfric, the evil Thane of Willow Lake, or saving the town from a Redcap incursion. Surrounded by enemies on all sides, they’ll have to carefully consider each move and will soon realize that their actions could determine the fate of the Nine Kingdoms.
The Island of Mist
In this final part of the “Shadows of the Northern Woods” campaign, the heroes will travel to a mysterious island, face the wrath of a long-forgotten Elven queen, and save the vale from the powers of the legendary Stone of Annwn!
The campaign is interesting and should whet players’ appetites for more. It’s an excellent starting point with an ending left intentionally vague. This allows Gamemasters to create new stories connecting this short campaign to a larger story.
The Appendix contains two things. First, it collects all of the tables and charts presented throughout the book and reproduces them here for quick reference. However, I must admit that with so many tables and charts in the book, it’s not entirely clear how they are arranged here. The first 16 tables are combat-related, then it moves into Skills, Actions, Saves, Magic, etc. The second is a blank three-page character sheet. I can’t imagine photocopying it from such a large book. Therefore, I recommend downloading the form-fillable sheet.
Having already addressed the book’s physicality, I want to mention the digital version (v1.3) is quite lovely and reads well on my tablet. The master table of contents is fully hyperlinked and works beautifully. Unfortunately, the hyperlinked index does not work properly—the entries I tested all sent me to the cover, not the intended page.
Who is this game for? Due to its size and moderate complexity, it’s more likely to appeal to ’80s gamers looking to scratch a nostalgic itch for Middle Earth Role Playing. That’s not to say it won’t appeal to a younger audience. I think it could easily be pitched to any gamer looking to experience MERP or perhaps those seeking a crunchier game experience.
Character creation is time-consuming but not overly complicated. Readers will appreciate the recap on page 110 that walks through the creation process and doubles as a working example. Mechanically, the system has lots of moving parts, and it’ll take some time to fully comprehend and internalize the Open-Ended Game Engine. While there is a lot to learn and understand, nothing is overly daunting, just crunchy.
“Tales of Legend” is a wellspring of good, solid recommendations on effectively writing scenarios, not just Against the Darkmaster scenarios. Furthermore, it’s loaded with good information for a comparatively small section, and I’m happy to see a concisely presented GM’s Guide.
Unfortunately, as of writing this review, there are no other published scenarios for Against the Darkmaster. Having recently skimmed through MERP 2nd edition, the similarities between it and Against the Darkmaster are uncanny. Although it’s unclear if MERP scenarios could be easily adaptable, I suspect they could be.
By far, my biggest issue with the game is not the system but with the writing itself. I found the material logically ordered but at times challenging to read and comprehend. I speculated above that the design team, including the editor, may not be native English speakers. However, It’s unclear if the book was originally written in another language and translated before publishing in English or if it was only written in English. Either way, it is riddled with editing and grammatical errors. I often highlight editing issues with the caveat that I am an editor, and most readers are unlikely to notice the mistakes that I see. That is not the case here! Some of the errors are pretty egregious, while others are less so. The prevailing issue is poorly localized English that resulted in introducing other grammatical errors. Most of this could have been prevented with a native English-speaking editor or post-editing proofreader. The latter seems to have been nonexistent. Again, purely conjecture on my part, but the evidence is in the writing.
As I conclude this review, If you’re able to overlook the editing and English language issues, there is a solid game here that people are having fun playing. Although I have never played MERP or read any Tolkien, I am ready and willing to play Against the Darkmaster!
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