[Let’s Study: Early Dark] Part 4: Grammar of Rules

Posted: June 21, 2012 by pointyman2000 in Articles, Early Dark, Let's Study, Roleplaying Games

Today we look at the mechanics of Early Dark, starting from the basic resolution system to any other permutations covered by the system. Much like its setting and character creation, Early Dark has a unique set of rules that can handle some pretty interesting situations.

Let’s start with the basics. The primary mechanic that powers Early Dark is rolling pools of d10’s as determined by a character’s Domain, against a difficulty set by the particular Footing chosen for the task.  Once rolled, these dice are then sorted out into various Tacks, or subsets.

Every creature in Early Dark has ratings in three Domains: Mundane, Arcane and Loom. These ratings determine the size of the dice pool being rolled for a given action. The Mundane Domain is for “normal” actions, while Arcane and Loom ratings are used for magical actions.

The Footing of an action is the sum of two Aptitudes that are relevant to the task at hand. This is often determined by the GM, though I believe that the player has leeway to negotiate on how exactly his character is performing a given action, influencing which two Aptitudes will be used to determine Footing.

Tacks are subsets of your roll. Once you’ve determined the number of dice to roll, and what target you’re gunning for, roll the dice and sort the individual dice into sets that are less than or equal to the Footing value. The more dice you can cram into a given tack, the better. Any excess dice left over are then used to form more tacks. Those dice that roll over the Footing value are discarded. Take note though that zeros count as zero for the purposes of building tacks.

The number of dice in a tack is used to determine the Force of the roll, which is what is compared directly to the difficulty of the check.

So to summarize, roll Domain Dice. Sort out the rolled dice into tacks, keeping under the Footing value. The more dice you can cram into a single tack, the better.

Checks & Saves

The Difficulty of basic checks ranges from 1 to 7 with 3 being the “Uncertain” level that most characters will be rolling against. As such the Force of a roll should meet or exceed the Difficulty value to succeed.

Saves work in pretty much the same way. When there’s a hazard, roll against it and try to score a Force higher than the hazard to succeed.

One of the more interesting mechanics is the presence of Complex Saves, which are essentially a reaction to multiple simultaneous threats, each with their own difficulties. For example, if a player character is forced to leap between two spinning blades (one at head height and a second at knee height) at the same time, each blade counts as it’s own difficulty.  The player then has to roll against both, using two tacks of the same roll to overcome the hazards.

I don’t see this sort of thing very often, but it’s good to have just in case I have something that requires this kind of complexity and granularity with success.  Perhaps a better example would be a tactician trying to secure multiple objectives with a single strategy. Each objective would have it’s own difficulties and the tactician will have to prioritize those depending on how well he rolls.


Conflicts between characters in Early Dark are called bouts. When a bout occurs, both characters roll off against another in a double blind manner, where neither contestant is aware of what the other’s tacks are like. This allows for all sorts of nuanced tactics to take place.

Furthermore, when both rolls are revealed, they are reduced, meaning that Tacks cancel each other out on a one-to-one basis. 4-tacks cancel each other out, 3-tacks cancel, and so on.

Whatever is left is the resulting values that both players have to work with. Sometimes this means that it might be a better idea to distribute your dice across a great number of tacks, while in other times it might be better to gun for one big Primary tack for damage, and just have a few tacks left to mitigate whatever tricks your opponents might be planning.

This isn’t to say that smaller tacks aren’t worth anything. single-die tacks are known as “Advantages” in the context of a bout and can be used to leverage the situation against the opponent without dealing actual damage. Two-die tacks on the other hand, are used to activate Talents, which are special situational rules that come into play. These Talents are learned from a Character’s Arts, and can be special maneuvers or other tricks.

While combat is expressly detailed in this chapter, the book does mention that the Bout resolution system could easily handle social conflict as well. I can see ways in which it can work, though I do wish that there were more examples of non-combat conflict in this section.


The combat system is interesting and very involved. There’s resource management, lots of opportunities for combat maneuvering, and setting up an opponent for a teammate to take down. It’s complex, no doubt about it, but it might be very well suited to a team of players who are not afraid to take their time to think through combat. I think it’s also important to note here that every bout in a fight is a chance for both parties to get hurt if they’re in close combat. Just because it’s my initiative doesn’t mean you sit there and take it. Chances are you’re clawing and cutting at me as well.

There’s a fair amount of thinking involved in combat, to the point that “I attack it” is the least of your worries. The idea of assigning tacks to achieve different combat objectives is an interesting one, and I can certainly see how fights are both about brute strength as much as it can be about team play and tactics. Early on in the prologue, the authors mentioned something about teams of people trying to take down a mammoth, and the system certainly does support that sort of scenario.

Early Dark’s combat hits a unique blend of tactics and roleplay and while it may take a while to get used to and execute (in fact, I highly recommend getting your playing group to try a few test battles first) it can be very rewarding in play.

Tomorrow we take a look at the Arts, and conclude this week-long series of posts on Early Dark with a few thoughts towards running the game.


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