The Dark Earth System

Hi everybody,

This is my world-building and RPG blog, but also a launchpad of sorts for my nascent game system (and accompanying setting), Dark Earth.

I am a younger gamer, in my 20s, and I got my start with RPGs with a strange mix of systems, including Palladium’s Robotech, the Alternity system, and D&D 3rd edition.

I have played a number of systems in addition to those, and comparative game design has become a kind of hobby of mine.  A while back I discovered ACKS, and through it the whole “Old School Renaissance”, which hearkens back to a time that I wasn’t actually around for.  In short, I was deeply impressed.

Looking into the OSR through the lens of ACKS gave me insight into the lasting appeal of D&D.  There are some elements to this kind of gaming that I particularly appreciate:

  1. The emphasis on a kind of existential “thrownness” and fairness-through-randomness. (epitomized by rolling 3d6 down the line for attributes)
  2. Simplicity in design, user-friendliness. (quick character creation = replaceable characters!)
  3. Baked-in risky rewards/motivators (gold = XP, monsters love gold)
  4. A sense of autonomous behavior of the world itself, allowing sandbox play and enabling a DM to better avoid railroading.

When designing my own game system, I wanted to include and emphasize these elements, while incorporating design elements from other games that I also really like.

Dark Earth is thus a “Franken-system” of various game content, and exists primarily to streamline the implementation of various changes to the basic d20 system.

It uses six familiar attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Endurance, Intelligence, Perception, Charisma). These are rated on a scale of 1-10, with 5 being the human average.  Their full value is used for various skill rolls (d20 + DEX to Sneak, d20+INT to Pick Locks, etc), and half of their value is used for various derived attributes (Melee & ranged attack bonuses, Toughness, etc)

There are no skills.  Any humanoid character can do anything a humanoid character can reasonably do, and their basic proficiency at these things is shown by their six abilities.  Importantly, some characters are significantly better than others at certain things, by means of Specialties and Proficiencies (see below).  There are no classes.  At least, not exactly.  (Existence precedes essence: you are a human magic-user, not a mage)  Dark Earth does use levels, because even “level-less” systems are point-based progression at the bottom, and +1 is simpler than +5-6.

There are no hit points, because I prefer a system of abstraction for injuries with higher informational content.  The current version of DE uses basically the same damage/toughness system as Mutants & Masterminds 2nd edition.  Weapons have a fixed damage, and this determines a Toughness save DC.  Your margin of failure determines the actual results of the hit, from a mere bruise to d20’s familiar “dying” condition.

There are hit locations! This might turn out to be too clunky after play-testing, but as it stands, injuries have a location/type.  There are bleeding wounds, and also wounds that negatively effect each of the six attributes.  Characters can make “called shots”, adding a layer of tactical depth.

Like skills, everyone has access to combat tricks.  Wanna try to trip someone?  Go ahead.  Wanna wind up your attack for extra damage, at the cost of telegraphing it, as with d20’s Power Attack feat?  Just tell the DM before you roll.

Besides their attributes, characters are primarily differentiated by “specialties.”  As it stands, a holy trinity of them: Fighting, Magic Use, and Expertise.  You pick one of these each level, arguably making this a “modular class system”.  Proficiencies further differentiate characters. These function roughly as in ACKS, but they are all available to any character, and can be chosen on every odd level.

Dark Earth is, and should remain, a simple game: a 1st level character needs to roll their attributes, choose a specialty, and choose a proficiency.  Like M&M 2nd, all rolls use a single d20.  So far, all relevant character information can fit on a single sheet of paper (I am doing my best to keep it that way).

It is intended as an engine for perpetually gritty, low-magic campaigns.  Simplicity serves the dual purpose of enhancing accessibility and easing the transition to a new character, as mortality should remain high by default.

Monsters in Dark Earth function more like their horror-film counterparts than their D&D equivalents.  Goblins are terrifying abhuman man-eaters, Ogres are wrathful, hulking murderers of literally skull-crushing strength, and Dragons work as one would “realistically” expect a giant, flying, armored, fire-breathing lizard to work.

The only problem with just running away from them is that they’re always standing between you and something you want.

The only problem with staying to fight is how attached you are to those nice stats you rolled.

More to come soon, including game mechanics.

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