Early Dark

[Let’s Study: Early Dark] Part 6: Conclusion and Review

When Anthropos Games said that they wanted to come out with something unique, they weren’t kidding.

Early Dark is one of those games that is very hard to describe. The setting is dark and gritty and thick with lots of flavor. Each of the civilizations presented is fully realized and the legends of each people is a joy to read. The game actively encourages playing heroes of myth as opposed to the usual wandering band of adventurers common to fantasy gaming.

Characters are built well within the context of their civilizations, coming out as fully realized members of this society rather than “some dude with a sword.” It’s different from most other systems, and I appreciate the effort that they took to try and integrate characters into the setting as much as possible. Many games tend to overlook this, and player characters have to be encouraged by the GM to come up with hooks that tie them with the setting.

The combat is on the higher end of the complexity spectrum, with a system that actively brings up the need to make decisions that work both within the context of the story, and the mechanics of a character’s strengths. While there aren’t any grids or tactical movement, Early Dark doesn’t skimp on the need to make relevant choices in a fight, and players are able to switch tactics based on what kind of opponent they’re fighting.

That said, the game isn’t the most accessible to new players. There’s the occasional bout of page flipping involved, and while the diagrams and examples helped, I took a bit of time to finally come to terms with the all the small nuances and terminology fo the system. I can imagine that teaching this might take a while, and I highly encourage a test skirmish or two to get players used to the game before running a campaign.

Early Dark is a very good first effort from Anthropos Games, and I feel that they’ve mostly hit all their objectives. It’s a solid, crunchy, fully-realized game that caters to a very specific sort of setting and playstyle and does it well. So for those who are looking to try something different, while sticking to the dark fantasy sword & sorcery genre, then you should definitely give Early Dark a shot.

Early Dark is available on PDF from DriveThruRPG for $16.95 or roughly Php 731.00

[Let’s Study: Early Dark] Part 5: Manual of Artistry

Today we take a look at Early Dark’s Arts.

Arts is the catch-all term for Early Dark’s powers. Defined as bodies of knowledge possessed by the characters, I find it very interesting (and appropriate) that both mundane skills and magic involving the Arcane and the Loom all fall under this category. Considering the fact that these civilizations are are fairly young, and it was a time where transfer of knowledge was nowhere near the level it was during the Renaissance era, simply knowing the tricks of a given trade may seem at par with magic already.

As you can imagine, the Arts in Early Dark are segregated into three primary categories: Mundane, Arcane and Loom.

The Mundane arts range from cultural forms to early sciences and martial skills. Each of them allow for the practiced use of a given skill set bestowing associated perks as the hero grows in proficiency and granting access to special Talents and Masteries unique to the Art.

I’m glad to see that the Mundane Arts focus on noncombat as much as they do with combat skills. In the mythic setting of Early Dark, characters that are known to be cunning tricksters and wise sages definitely need to have a place and the game makes sure that there are Arts that reflect that.

The Arcane arts are one of two magick systems in Early Dark. Working on the basis of the game’s pre-history and metaphysics, the Arcane form of magic is the one that is inherently disruptive. It works against the Loom in the sense that it twists things into “unnatural” forms. That said, Arcane art aren’t inherently “evil” by any stretch. There are seven different Arcana in the game:

  • Protagony – magic designed to assist allies
  • Antagony – magic designed to deal damage
  • Summoning – magic to call the spirits and beings of another world
  • Manipulation – mastery of trickery and deceit
  • Blood Magick – magic that twists and transforms the body
  • Enchanting – blessing and blighting of objects
  • Kinesis – levitation and movement of objects and/or people

Loom Magick on the other hand is the reverse of Arcane Arts. This is magick that works with the loom, following it’s currents and being able to enact changes without disrupting the flow of nature. It’s effects are at times more subtle while sometimes being more spectacular.

While having a single magickal paradigm underneath everything is good for rules consistency, I feel that Early Dark missed a great opportunity here to tailor fit certain spells for certain Civilizations. Given that many of the historical cultures exhibit different belief systems when it comes to magic (Chinese alchemy vs western alchemy as a basic example) it would have been nice if the Arts were somehow either subdivided between the civilizations to show which peoples were more attuned to a given form of magick.

As is the magicks feel less flavorful as everyone (regardless of their civilization) can do the same things assuming they have the same Talents. After all the work in making the civilizations feel as real as possible in the setting, having this kind of treatment with the Magick section is a little bit of a disappointment. Still, there’s nothing wrong with the spells themselves, they’re functional and neat in any rpg, but it does feel like there was a missed opportunity for more flavor.

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

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.

[Let’s Study: Early Dark] Part 3: Census of Heroes

Today we look at Character Creation in Early Dark. It’s an interesting chapter that deviates at points from the usual methods of character creation found in other games but does introduce a few neat ideas in the process.

Step 1: Roll Scenario

The first part of a game of Early Dark involves rolling a Scenario. This determines the Region that the game starts in, the Local Culture where the story is set and the Scenario, which is a the premise or snapshot that acts as a prelude for the events of the story.

This is an interesting sort of way to get a group running. I’ve not tried anything like this before, and it does make things interesting even for the GM. That said these rolls are only made once for the entire group.

Right, so let’s give that a shot, I roll 3d10, one d10 for each of the following and I get

Region: Kuludo, Home of the Anu Lords
Local Culture: Lowland Wetlands, the stilt-borne cities of Kapix’tul
Scenario: A caravan of merchants parades through the streets after a journey, while a guild of assassins launches a very public attack.

I’d like to note that the book does say that the whole roll scenario thing is something that can be optional, I do find it as a nice touch. Having this sort of dynamic entry into a campaign kicks things off at a nice and high level, one that doesn’t end up with the usual “You all meet in a bar”.  Furthermore, with this scene in mind, the players then get to build their characters based on what fits this particular opening scene.

Step 2: Milieu

At this point we move on to select a social circle or Milieu, and make selections on characteristics such as Gender, Age and Heritage, all of which impact the Aptitudes of the character. Furthermore the player chooses one of six different Alignments, which set your place in the story. It sound pretty vague at this point but let’s got through it all one by one:

Given that our Scenario is set in Anu, I figure I might as well try my hand at being an Anu as well. Going over the Anu Milieus, I opt to pick Citizen, perhaps as one of the workers that were part of the caravan of merchants that was attacked.The Citizen Milieu gives me 1 Thrive

  • I select the Male Gender that gives me 4 Move
  • I choose to be Young, which gives me 2 Fight
  • I opt to be part of a non-Thun heritage, gaining 5 Cunning
  • As a worker for a merchant, I opt to make my Alignment into Patronage to work for a given Merchant House.

Step 3: Aptitudes and Traits

Right, so now that we have those values, what do they all MEAN? Well, Early Dark is built around Eight Aptitudes, these represent what a person is good at. These Aptitudes are:

  • Cunning – creativity, intellect, memory, ingenuity
  • Fight – combat, melee, spirit, tenacity, aggressiveness
  • Relate – socialize, empathy, bond, charisma, presence
  • Guile – stealth, trickery, feign, hide
  • Thrive – willpower, resolve, change, grow, adapt
  • Touch – awareness, sensitivity, feel, finesse, artistry
  • Labor – bulk, productivity, inertia, stubbornness
  • Move – flexibility, speed, balance, agility, reflexes

At this point I have 12 points to distribute on my Aptitudes, but I CANNOT touch the ones already set by my Milieu, this insures that I will have a 5 and a 1 somewhere in my stats. So upon spending on the rest of my Citizen’s Aptitudes, this is what I have:

Cunning 5
Fight 2
Relate 3
Guile 4
Thrive 1
Touch 3
Labor 2
Move 4

Now onto Traits. Traits are derived from the Aptitudes plus any Augments that the character may have. Starting characters don’t really have Augments to speak of so the Traits start off equal to the related Aptitude. After checking the chart These Traits values for my citizen are:

Tacks per Turn (TPT) 5
Damage per Die (PDP) 1
Upkeep 0
Guard 15+
Initiative +2
Ground 6
Rolls per Round 3

The secondary Traits are Vest Capacity and Total Capacity, which are essentially Encumbrance values. My Citizen has a Vest capacity of 6 (equal to my Ground value) and Total Capacity of 12 (or twice my Ground value).

Step 4: Dice & Arts

Starting characters begin with a series of Arts which grant access to a large body of knowledge that enable all sorts of things from attacks to skills. They also start off with Domain Dice, which are used for the other facets of reality: the Loom and the Arcane.

My citizen begins with:
4 Raw Arts
2 Talents (Mundane or Arcane)
4 Wounds
3d10 Guard Dice
A Fighting Style (Light Aspect)

and the following Distribution of Domain Dice:
Mundane 9, Arcane 4, Loom 4
Blood 8

For his 4 Raw Arts (and Talents), I selected:

  • Raw Martial Arts (Fight-Move) with the Disarm Talent
  • Raw Grift (Guile-Relate)
  • Raw Clamber (Move-Thrive)
  • Raw Canvass (Guile-Touch) with the Fallback Talent

Step 5: Choose Starting Epithet

Epithets are names, titles that your character earns as his legend grows. These aren’t chose from a list per se, but are named by the player. Each Epithet also has a single Art increase and other benefits to reflect that stage in their lives.

for my Citizen’s case, I’m raising Grift and Martial Arts to a Low Art for 20 Renown each, and getting Hacking Blade as a Raw Art for 10 Renown.

for a name of the Epithet, I’ll go with “Ineffable Rogue”

Step 6: Starting Equipment

Here we start with whatever equipment suits your character concept. Given that I’m playing a mere citizen with some proficiency in Martial Arts, I’ve opted to leave him with nothing but some rations, and the clothes on his back. I’m pretty sure this will be rectified sooner or later with a little judicious application of his Grift and Canvass Arts as well.

Character creation in Early Dark is complicated and perhaps a little confusing the first time around. That said I expect that things will get easier with practice. The authors have a lot of good and original ideas here, with the Aptitudes as opposed to Attributes and the use of a Scenario to set the context of the game among them.

The early copies of the PDF had a few issues with lack of references, but I’m glad that the latest pdf addressed those quickly. There’s still a little bit of page-flipping back and forth, but nothing that anyone who lived through the 3rd Edition Legend of the Five Rings can’t endure.

For those who prefer a more thorough treatment of Character generation, do check out the Early Dark Character Creation Companion for free over at DriveThruRPG.

Tomorrow we look at the Mechanics for Early Dark and find out how the game handles conflict resolution.

Calvin from Anthropos Games was kind enough to send me a copy of my sample character’s sheet to help serve as a guide to those following the article. You can find them below:

Click to enlarge!

Click to enlarge!

[Let’s Study: Early Dark] Part 2: Atlas of History

To say that this particular chapter discussing the entire history of the world of Early Dark is expansive would be an understatement.

The approach taken by the authors to introduce the setting and histories of each of the Five Civilizations of the game is an interesting one, and certainly one that doesn’t shy away from page count concerns. Furthermore, any concerns people might have about the usual “Monoculture” complaint that most fantasy games have are immediately dispelled by the fact that each of the civilizations is given thorough treatment as to their beliefs and norms.

The chapter is divided between eras of history, mainly:

  • Histories and the First Age, which discusses the secret pre-history of the setting, and introduces the nature of reality as a great Tapestry. Fey creatures and beings from the Fray (the chaotic reverse-reality that lies beneath the Tapestry) are also introduced here, as well as the concept that some magics rend the Tapestry and allow creatures from the Fray to enter into the world. Mankind’s earliest days and civilizations are also mentioned, including the great First Empire that fell into ruin.
  • Age of Migrations, which detail the earliest days of the Five Civilizations, and the events that led them to settle in the area.
  • Age of Structures, wherein the Five Civilizations take root and begin to gather strength.
  • The Second Age, heralded a time when the Five Civilizations truly began to network through trade (and conflict). Magick begins to return and along with it come the Fey.
  • The Six Front Wars, detailed the largest scale conflicts that the Five Civilizations had seen among each other in their histories.
  • The Present Day, presents a snapshot of society as it is in the time of the Player Characters.

Each of these sections is further divided between each of the Five Civilizations, told in the form of legends and stories of their heroes. This approach might not be as precise as a more academic form of presenting the information but it does wonders in being able to communicate the mood and tone of each of the civilizations. The book also includes callout boxes that contain other related information, whether a small section on the Anu gods, or game mechanics that relate to the items being discussed in the stories.

One thing I will note is that this is a pretty involved read. One can’t simply just skim through this and wing it. The societies and histories presented are all very complex and nuanced, and I would highly advise anyone looking to GM this game to take his time in going through this chapter. My regret in this part of Let’s Study is that I can’t go into too much detail on each of the Civilizations as there’s a lot to go through that requires actually reading the legends to understand.

Tomorrow we take a peek at the character creation rules for Early Dark as we try to create an inhabitant of this fascinating, and detailed world.

[Let’s Study: Early Dark] Part 1: Prologue

Early Dark is one of those games where I found it extremely helpful to read up on the assumptions, motives and strategies involved with the Author’s choices in game design. Perhaps it is due to the sufficiently unique take on fantasy presented in the game that you can’t just jump into the setting right away.

And so we start from the very beginning, taking a peek at the Prologue of the book to see what they have in store for us.

Right off the bat, Early Dark states its objectives as a game. What they’re looking to deliver include:

  • Tactical Crunch – Not in the sense of having a ton of charts to look up, but having interesting options when it comes to maneuvering and strategizing to get the upper hand.
  • Flexible Encounters – Early Dark strives to grant a measure of customizability to every encounter. An encounter with any given creature is rarely the same the next time that the players run into another like it.
  • Deadly Combat – This is pretty self explanatory. This game isn’t about to hold back when it comes to combat. I imagine we’ll be seeing more of this when we start studying the Combat chapters.
  • More Than Hit-or-Miss Outcomes – The game looks to try and make it so that even Missing doesn’t mean you’re ineffective for your entire turn. This should be interesting to see when we start checking out the mechanics involved.

These are admittedly pretty lofty goals as far as the game is concerened. I’m looking forward to see how Early Dark delivers.

The Prologue continues to discuss the thinking behind the World of Early Dark. Alternate History is one way of defining the world as the authors are taking real-world ancient civilizations as the seed for Early Dark’s own, but with an interesting twist. They took one “good guy” civilization and one “bad guy” civilization from popular history and mashed them up to come up with the five cultures in the game. It’s an interesting methodology, and the results are definitely not the kind of civilizations I had expected in any game.

One of the most important points made here that I felt bears repeating is to focus on the idea that the world of the Hara Sea is set in the equivalent of 600 BCE to 600 CE. This timeframe is far outside the traditional Renaissance and Medieval periods and can help dispel any stray expectations as to what Fantasy “should” look like.

The Five Civilizations

Here’s a quick summary of the five unique civilizations presented in Early Dark, as well as their roots in our real-world history:

The Vayok civilzation are a Clan-based society of survivors and warriors who are used to a tundra climate. They are a blend of the Norse culture and the Inuit.

The Anu are perhaps one of the most intriguing for me as they are a mix of Han Dynasty China blended together with the Olmec culture of Central America. Being of Chinese descent myself, I’m curious to see how they mix these two cultures together.

The Alagoth take the Persians and mash them up with Celtic. This is another interesting setup for me given how little I know of these two parent societies. I’m coming from a zero-knowledge perspective and I’m eager to see what will come out when we get to studying each of the civilizations in turn.

The Neferatha are perhaps my second favorite, as they are a blend of Egyptian motifs with Indian epics. It’s an interesting blend and a strong counterpoint to the Anu. I’m curious to see how the two relate to each other.

The Edish are the last of the Five in the book, and cover a civilization where the Native American culture blends with the later end of Greco-Roman culture. It’s another difficult civilization for me to grasp, but I’m looking forward to seeing what the Early Dark authors do with them.

It’s pretty clear to see that the authors of Early Dark really like their setting and are willing to take risks on interesting elements that aren’t immediately “cool” in popular culture. It’s not an easy one to communicate admittedly, and rewards those who are willing to put some effort into understanding the inspirations behind it.

Tomorrow we take a look at the second chapter: Atlas of History, and examine the setting and histories of the Five Civilizations and how they get along.

[Let’s Study] Early Dark Wins The Vote!

Now that’s a landslide if I ever saw one. Early Dark by Anthropos Games wins by a stunning lead, making it the topic of the next “Let’s Study” series of articles here on the blog!

I first ran into Early Dark by Anthropos Games during their Kickstarter funding period. I was looking for a different sort of Fantasy RPG to check out at the time, and the premise of this one in particular intrigued me.

Those who have been following my blog for a while are aware that I enjoy seeing Cultural flavor in the games that I run. I feel that having it just adds so much more depth to the games I run and helps give my players a sense of  place.

The introduction of Early Dark as a game that steps away from the standard Tolkien-esque western fantasy genre was what caught me. Add the fact that Anthropos games was looking to come up with interesting mash-ups of real world historical cultures and I knew I had to pledge to this project.

Now I’m here to sit down and really pick apart at what Anthropos Games has worked hard to come up with and see what makes it tick. Like the other Let’s Study series I’ve done before, we’ll peek at the setting, mechanics, character creation, combat, antagonists and other interesting bits that we run into as we go along.

On Monday, we kick off with an overview of Early Dark, and check out a few of the Author’s notes in the Prologue that can shed a lot of light on the nature of the setting and the specific time period that we’re looking at.

So, here’s hoping everyone’s willing to join me as I tackle this ambitious Dark Alternate History Fantasy Setting head on in Let’s Study: Early Dark.


In acknowledgement of the guys who rallied for the other two games, I figure it would be a good idea to extend this particular round of Let’s Study Articles. We’ll tackle the other two games after Early Dark. So don’t worry. We’ll get to Wu Xing and Dark Harvest soon enough!

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