More Than Just “You Died”
If you’ve never played Dark Souls, it’s easy to take a passing glance at the game and write it off as just some ‘hardcore’ third person RPG experience that’s lacking depth. However, Dark Souls is a game wrapped in mystery and a much deeper story than meets the eye. If you watch the opening movie that describes the events to get you settled into the setting of the game. You see a gray world shrouded in mists, with tall ancient trees and rugged mountain terrain. The only inhabitants known to live in this world were the Everlasting Dragons in a time known as the Age of the Ancients, but then fire came into the world. With fire came heat and cold, life and death, and light and darkness. And from the darkness came three and those three found the Souls of Lords within the First Flame.
Nito, The First of the Undead, The Witch of Izalith and her Daughters of Chaos, Gwyn, the Lord of Sunlight, and his knights. But, there was a fourth, the Furtive Pygmy. The Lords challenged the Everlasting Dragons. Gwyn used his lighting to scrape away the Dragons stone scales. The Witch of Izalith and her daughters conjured up. Nito unleashed an un-relentless wave of death and pestilence. From the Everlasting Dragons there was one that sought betrayal. Seath the Scaleless betrayed his own kind and brought the end of the Everlasting Dragons.
The Age of the Ancients ended with the last of the Everlasting Dragons. Where one age found its conclusion another began, and so the game takes place in the Age of Fire. Like the previous age, The Age of Fire started to fade before it even really got started. When the flames flicker out, only darkness will remain. Even now there are only mere embers, and darkness surrounds humankind. Among them is the accursed Dark Sign, The Undead, branded by the sign that shackles them, a heavy yoke they must carry.
Players take up the role of an undead in the Dark Souls universe. The undead are gathered and sent away far away from the sights of the Lords where they await the end of time. Of course, there is a legend that is told that one day a chosen Undead will rise up and leave the imprisoned Asylum. This is where the player enters the scene. Character customization allows you to pick a class that fits your playstyle and then you’re off to delve through the halls of the Asylum. You’re not alone though, some undead have gone ‘Hollow’ (think of this like going feral, but for undead) and are now an obstacle. A threat, but not all of them. This is where the game teaches you the basics of the controls as well. Very early on you’ll encounter Oscar, the Knight of Astora who has recently encountered the Asylum Demon.
Oscar gives you key and your Estus Flask to help you escape, the flask is a refillable potable that Undead use to replenish their health. You might wonder why he would assist the you? Well, Oscar is undead just like the you, the player, and most likely was brought there to be locked away in his cell to be forgotten too. However, he managed to escape and when you find him and he notices you haven’t gone hollow yet so he decides to aid in your escape – hoping you can accomplish what he couldn’t.
Unfortunately, when you find your new friend he’s injured, he warns you of his impending fate, and as you walk away and you can hear the sound of him succumbing to his wounds. If you return to the Asylum later on in the game, you will encounter Oscar who has gone hollowed. As you journey through the game, slaying the hollowed undead you absorb their souls. Souls serve as the major form of currency in the game – used for upgrades, leveling up, and purchasing items.
This somewhat cryptic, isolated, and dark scene sets the tone for the entire Dark Souls series right within the first few minutes of gameplay. It’s a harrowing journey for the chosen undead, and the Dark Souls universe provides an insurmountable body of worldbuilding. There’s a ton of ways you can take the inspiration from this world and extrapolate it into your tabletop games.
Home Brew Tabletop Ideas
If you wanted to bring some Dark Souls into your current tabletop game you could maybe try using Oscar as a guide for the players. Giving them a quest to leave the Asylum and breaking the Estus Flask into X shards (one for each player). This would allow players to obtain their Estus Flask after a brief quest. Oscar could be encountered on your party’s journey as they venture through Lordran. If your gaming group has someone sitting out for a session or two. You could have an “Oscar Summon Sign” show up on the floor near encounters or boss fights where his aid might help swing a battle that would otherwise be a struggle or outright unfair. This could apply to any NPC you think would be a good addition to the campaign.
The Estus Flask that Oscar gave your characters wouldn’t have to be a permanent item in your game. Something to nod to the Dark Souls fans in your group or you could have it as a substitute for healing potions. If you wanted to run a setting with Dark Souls the Estus flask could be recharged at a bonfire like in the games. Obtaining upgrades to the Estus Flask could be gained by finding special Souls or Estus Shards. Or the flasks would have to be refilled at a town merchant. An alchemist who requires ingredients making the flask a more treasured and potent tool for the player, only using it when things are dire.
So this was just a quick and dirty primer on a bit of the Dark Souls universe and exploring just a few ideas for your tabletop, but there’s a whole lot of room for more. If you’re a Dark Souls fan and have tried to bring some of its elements to your tabletop campaign, we’d love to hear about them in the comments. Also, if you enjoyed this article please let us know and if there’s enough interest we’ll turn it into a series. Until next time!
I’m running a homebrew Campaign with a DS/DS2 theme on 5th edition. And have implemented many of the suggestions you write in this article.
Players start in “human form” and only the first time they die the Undead curse starts.
Obviously the campaign is very deadly, but players have this re-spawn rule: If the character die, they re-appear at the last encampment where they rested. (Long Rest) and in Undead form (No Constitution bonus Modifier on HP, so they must track the Hit Points and the Constitution Modifier bonus as separate numbers).This makes any encounter even more deadly.
To recover their humanity, the character must use a consumable item that is quite hard to get (like Humanity or Human Effigy), either by Invading (a List of Specific pregenerated NPC’s), Defeating an Invader (Also another list of pregenerated Npc’s) or Defeating Solo Bosses (like in Demon Souls) Sometimes, the item can be found as treasure, but is very rare.
Also If the character die in Undead state, the character start to permanently lose points in an special attribute score called “Memory score” that is equal to the Intelligence Score. If the score reach Zero, the character becomes Hollow and is treated as a “Zombie”.
What complicate this respawn rule, is when the character dies early in a battle, but others characters are still fighting and the battle last more than expected. So, to bring the felled player back to the action, the character can “sacrifice” one of his “Points of Memory and return to the fight the next round in “Undead State”. But that is a hard choice to make, specially because you can’t recover the memory points.
Summon Sings to replace a missing player is very useful indeed. But as in the game, only players in Human form can see them.
Estus is the only potion of the game, and yes, the character can only carry one. Other ‘Estus Shards’ can be found to upgrade the potion from CLW to CMW and so on. But only a Special NPC can do the upgrade.
I’m still working and testing some rules. But the real challenge is to bring at the table the grim mood and despair feeling that makes the game so special.
Those are some pretty cool ideas/rules that you have come up with for your homebrew DS/DS2 5E game.
With the Estus shard I was thinking about if the players acquire a shard. Should a choice be given where a player can use the shard to increase the # of uses of the flask or to strengthen by 1 D# roll for healing? Like you said, it can only be upgraded by a certain individual, making a special moment when the player comes across the NPC.
For the re-spawn rule, what if characters were allowed to acquire “Soft Humanity” and it could be used to bring a player back who died in battle? But, they come back with 1/2 their hit points and at the fog gate. This was my initial idea when I was thinking about how it would be implemented. But your memory point’s stat makes it more of a hard choice than having someone with 10 Humanity. “Yeah, I’ll resurrect Sun Bro” *crushes humanity*. Of course I was going to have a dialogue of “If a player uses Humanity during battle they must wait D6 rounds before using again.”
Also I totally agree with you on the difficulty of bringing and keeping the grim atmosphere of the DS games to the table. It’s the same difficulty of running a horror table-top game.
I wish you the best on your DS/DS2 game. If you come up with anymore cool rules let me know. My twitter is @Nosferatu1208
Take care & Praise the Sun! \[T]/