Tabletop Review: Early Dark RPG

Early Dark Role-Playing Game
Publisher: Anthropos Games
Authors: Calvin Johns and Chuck Wendig
Page Count: 400
Release Date: 7/10/2011″¨
Cost: $36.95 (PDF)
Get it here: DriveThruRPG

Early Dark is the first game released by Anthropos Games, an Austin, TX-based outfit headed by Calvin Johns. Currently only a PDF version of the core book is available, but the hardcover will be available this Fall according to the website. Those who funded on the appropriate level via Kickstarter will be receiving a hardcover copy as soon as Anthropos can get them shipped out, but the rest of us will have to either buy the PDF or be content with waiting.


How to explain Early Dark? Imagine if sitting down to learn a new game system is like sitting down to a meal with several courses. Alright, now I’m going to put a chicken drumstick in front of you, but it’s going to taste like sourdough bread. Next, here is a cabernet, but it tastes like orange juice. A chocolate cake that tastes like lemon cake… you get the idea. Early Dark looks like another RPG in the traditional fantasy vein, but upon actually sampling this game you will find some things that are quite unexpected. The description on the DriveThruRPG site states that, “…ours is a world of magick, yes, but not a world of fantasy”. Well, I’m sorry but the format fits the fantasy genre: magic, heroes, medieval model of society, typical fantasy monsters (and some not-so-typical ones), strong resemblance to other fantasy games…just accept that it’s fantasy, but different.

I will give Anthropos a lot of credit for trying to buck the stereotypical model of a fantasy role-playing game. They have made some interesting choices that truly make Early Dark something different, and I really appreciate that.


The core book focuses on five main cultures: the Vayok, the Anu, the Alagoth, the Neferatha, and the Edish (though it mentions that others existed in passing). Each culture/race is presented as an amalgam of two (or more) well-known peoples that exist on Earth. For example, the Alagoth blend elements of Persian and Celtic peoples, trying to form this new culture that is an interesting, fresh hybrid. The designers ask that the term “race” not be used to describe these peoples, but that “heritage” be used instead, which has the connotation of something more cultural than genetic; everyone in these heritages is human. The next section will involve the interaction of these heritages over the history of the Hara Sea, which is the world of the game.

No sooner have you finished reading the introduction, ready to set off on uncovering this 400-page tome, than you step one foot into the Atlas and plunge headlong into over 150 pages of setting information. If you plan to read this section, and I think both myself and the designers hope that you do before you can really understand the world, get yourself comfortable because you are looking at the equivalent of a shortish paperback. This section is broken up into large sub-sections (eras) and those into smaller headings depicting important leaders and events, as well as general information about geography and the peoples mentioned above. There are also sidebars and great illustrations to keep it interesting. Fans of deep setting information will love this, those who just want to cut to the game or want to start playing right away will be annoyed by this, and those who like their setting information “on the side”, like myself, will simply skip it until they are ready.

Character Creation

Character creation is a curious mix of the very old and the very new. The first thing you are supposed to do is roll (with a d10) to determine the setting of your adventure, everything from geographical area right down to the opening hook. Does that seem a little backward to anyone? Maybe the designers know that their system is new and people aren’t going to be designing their own adventures right away, or maybe they just don’t like to think up a whole story to play to and instead just roll a starting point and go from there. Either way, it’s a bit odd, and I can’t see a lot of experienced GMs following it, but that’s how character creation starts out. One of the reasons stated by the book for this is so that players can base their creation choices on the background of the adventure. Still, the background is usually the GMs baby, so it feels a bit odd no matter how they justify it.

Ah, now the next item is something we are all familiar with: alignments. Wait…I don’t see “chaotic good” or “true neutral” anywhere! Early Dark uses the term “alignments” but it is not the same as that well-known, traditional RPG. Instead, alignments are something like your current source of purpose in the world. What is driving your character right now? Is it a quest? A job? Funding from a patron? Those are three of the six you have to choose from. Next up you choose a Milieu, or social group that you associate with. This can be anything from merchants to trash pickers, and are highly dependent on the heritage of the character. The choice you make will decide some of your “aptitudes” which are used in every tested action in the game.

Aptitudes are an important part of what makes Early Dark different from other games, or at least what puts a twist on what you are used to. Every action that is tested (i.e. rolled for) is going to be based in two aptitudes, which is called the “footing”. For instance, if I want to push the heavy pirate I am fighting off the side of a ship, I am probably going to roll using Fight and Labor (the syntax is to hyphenate them so they become like this: Fight-Labor) as long as the GM agrees that my manner of action agrees with that footing. There are eight aptitudes and every significant action will be based in a combination of two of them.

Next the player gives his character an “epithet”, which is a title of some sort that represents what the character has accomplished thus far. This is because of the attitude of character creation that focuses on “finding” a character that exists in the world instead of making one up out of thin air that might have no connection to it’s surroundings. Your character might be “Bringer of Ale” or “Washer of Many Faces”, or perhaps something a bit more heroic. After a suitable title is given, players determine other assorted attributes, pick some equipment, and, of course, think of a name.

Mechanics and Gameplay

Early Dark uses d10s exclusively, for all rolls from character creation to random encounters (an old-school favorite). This makes things easy, but all the other dice in your dice bag will be lonely [insert sad face]. RPGs in the last ten years or so have tried to put all sorts of twists on the die roll mechanic, but I think Early Dark has really found something different and intriguing. For starters, you don’t simply roll to see if you get higher or lower to some target number, at least, not directly. You take however many dice you rolled and form what is referred to as a “tack”, or a collection of rolled dice whose results fit inside of a “limit” (the sum of the two aptitudes you are using for the test). For instance, if your limit is 7 and you roll a 4, 2, 8, and 1, you can form a 3-tack with the 4, 2, and 1. The strength of the tack, or “force” (the number of dice in the tack), will determine how well you did and whether you met the target number or, if it was an open-ended test, how strong or weak the effect of your roll is. In combat you will be forming several tacks, depending on your strategy, the numbers you roll, and how you want to allocate them. Depending on the size of the tack, it will have a different function.

Feeling the crunch yet? Is it like a handful of almonds crunchy, or like freshly-poured cereal that crunches so loud your significant other makes you eat it in the other room? The game purports to be moderately crunchy, but I think for the average RPGer they will find that this game can be fairly crunchy. However I don’t think it’s the numbers that accomplish that, I think it is the terminology. This book is filled with terms. Teeming with terms. They are familiar words but their exact meanings are particular to how the authors chose to use them in this game. The best example is probably “alignment”, this is a word a lot of us older and middle-aged gamers are familiar with because of a very popular system, but in this game it takes on a completely different meaning mechanically. This game is crunchy in the sense that you will be adding numbers often, but you will also be remembering numbers and coupling them with terms like “limit” and “force” and “tack”. You might have a 4-tack inside a 9-limit, which has a force of 4, but you rolled 8 dice, etc.

The combat system is very tactical in regards to dice allocation and strategy. The tacks mentioned above are used in various ways to either strike at your foe or to perform tactical maneuvers or give yourself a small advantage. One reason why the dice usage in this RPG is so awesome is because it allows for this game-within-a-game combat where you decide how to use your roll depending on what you are trying to accomplish. Early on in the combat you might try to give yourself an advantage, then next round move in for a decisive strike. Meanwhile, your opponent might try to use a “talent”, which is like a special move or attack that has its own defined effects.

What Do I Think?

I was really excited when I started reading Early Dark, and my excitement was only tempered by the effort I estimated it would take to really grasp the game. This game has got a lot going on, but I think those who dig into it will be richly rewarded. I haven’t even mentioned so much of the content of the core book in this review: magick, storytelling, a whole lot of combat specifics, skills,

As I have already hinted at, I have some reservations about all the terms used in the game. On one page about combat defenses there are 10 bolded terms alone! I am not sure it is worth trying to change the RPG vernacular to fit your game or to define a specialized vocabulary for one game, but it may also help to attract and provide freshness for those who are looking for something new. Using terms like “alignment” and completely changing their meaning is, I think, a little unfair and unnecessary for the long-time gamer who has this word stuck in their head as one thing, and might not want to muddle the definition just for the sake of this game. If I may borrow a word from one of my professors, its usage is a bit “obtuse” anyway, and something like “purpose” or “drive” would have worked equally well. Alright, rant off.

Looking at this game, you think traditional fantasy RPG, but it’s coming at it from this other perspective. It’s kind of like bizarro-D&D, but to call Early Dark D&D in any way would be way off. I think Anthropos Games has succeeded in making something new, and something deep. It’s easy to see that a lot of thought and work went into this project, and I think that the RPG hobby is better off already just having this pseudo-scholarly thesis of a role-playing game out there. Now, if some RPGers start picking this up and running with it (the Kickstarter suggests some already have) I wouldn’t be surprised to see this title popping up more and more in the near future.

I think Anthropos Games really did a top-notch job on the production values as well, I will be jealous of anyone who gets to hold a hardback in their hands. There is excellent artwork in the book as well, some of which is sampled here. I prefer a more uniform direction to the art generally, and Early Dark has a lot of art contributors, so things look different here and there but overall a beautiful product. Cheers to Anthropos Games!