The Rules and World of The Dark Eye

24 Aug 2009

Das Schwarze Auge has been the most successful pen and paper roleplaying game in Germany for as long as many of us can remember. But it has only enjoyed limited international success; the first edition made it into the Netherlands as Het Oog des Meesters, France as L'Œil noir, and Italy as Uno sguardo nel buio, but it was never translated into English.

The third edition did make it into English-speaking countries; not as a tabletop RPG, but as a computer RPG: the classic Realms of Arkania trilogy, also known as the Northland Trilogy (NLT). The fourth edition has been officially released into English-speaking territories as The Dark Eye, though only basic rulesets are available.

I used to play quite a bit of 2nd edition Oog des Meesters, back in the day, and like many lovers of classic cRPGs I'm well familiar with the NLT games. But 4th edition is fairly unexplored territory. And unlike Dungeons & Dragons, to many players this property is completely unfamiliar. For that reason, we're going to walk through the basic rules and details on the setting in this editorial. As a 25-year old system, TDE is very complex, and as such this basic guide is not meant to be complete. It is simply meant to help unfamiliar players get a better grasp of the game and world.

Rules – Attributes

Eight attributes define the core statistics of any character. There are four mental attributes - Courage (CO), Cleverness (CL), Intuition (IN), Charisma (CH) - and four physical attributes – Dexterity (DE), Agility (AG), Constitution (CN), and Strength (ST). The possible variation to each of these attributes is 1 to 21, but 8 to 14 is considered a “normal” stat. Many of the character's other stats are derived from attributes, but during adventures they can also be tested directly. A twenty-sided die (D20) is rolled, and if the roll is lower than the attribute's value, the test has been passed. Derived data includes Vitality (VI), Endurance (ED), Astral Energy (AE), and Resistance to Magic (RM). So the negative and positive attribute system from 3rd edition is gone, with 4th edition adding advantages and disadvantages to character generation instead.

In 4th edition, each character starts with 110 Generation Points. Specialist professions cost GP (for example: starting as a magician costs 20 GP, while starting as a burglar costs 0 GP), but most of these points are invested in the 8 attributes as well as in starting Social Standing (SO). Your chosen race modifies your attributes, which must then match the minimum requirements for your chosen profession. Advantages and disadvantages are the final step in GP investment, with advantages costing GP and disadvantages giving you additional GP to spend (to a maximum of 50). After this step your total GP must be 0. To use an example from the TDE textbook:

Lisa starts her character's generation by determining the race (human, 0 GP) and culture (Horasian Empire, 5 GP). She opts to be a burglar (0 GP), which means she has to have CO 12, AG 12, DE 13 and social standing no greater than 7 as starting values. Her final character setup gives values of CO 12, CL 11, IN 12, CH 10, DE 14, AG 13, CN 11, ST 12 and a social standing of 7. That mean she spent a total of 102 GP, with her culture costing her an additional 5, leaving her with 3 GP. She spends 16 GP on advantages (Connections and Social Chameleon), meaning she's on negative 13, which she compensates with 13 GP in disadvantages (Curiosity and Greed).

Rules – Talents

The next step in character creation is your talent sheet. Talents are basically skills, and TDE has a rather wide set of them. For purposes of Drakensang, this list has been cut down to 10 combat skills (brawling, daggers, axes & maces, staffs, spears, fencing weapons, sabers, swords, two-handed swords, two-handed axes & maces) and 23 non-combat skills (sneak, willpower, perception, pick pocket, dwarfnose, animal lore, plant lore, survival, traps, streetwise, treat poisons, treat wounds, arcane lore, seduce, etiquette, haggle, human nature, fast talk, alchemy, bowyer, blacksmith, pick locks and disarm traps). Your choice of race, class and culture modifies your starting values (from the example above: amongst other things, Lisa gets +7 open locks from her burglar profession and +1 crossbows from her Horasian Empire culture). Combat skills determine some base combat values (see below). Other talents are tested ingame, by rolling modified tests against a number of attributes. Another example:

Lisa's character wants to open a lock. Her lockpicking talent is 7 from her background. Picking locks is listed as tested against IN/DE/DE, Lisa's values in those attributes being 12 and 14. She rolls three D20s, rolling an 13 for the intuition test, and 17 and 8 for the dexterity tests. She can use one point from her talent to compensate the intuition test so that the value becomes 12, and 3 points more to compensate the dexterity test to become 14, meaning she made her skill check (assuming there are no difficulty penalties due to the lock being very hard).

Magic works much the same way as non-combat skills. Each spell the magician tries to cast is tested against various attributes (sometimes including attributes of the target) modified by his Spell Prowess value in that particular spell. The basic spellset lists 27 spells, ranging from direct attack spells like Ignafixus to balm of healing and magic locks. Using magic eats up astral points based on the character's astral value, which slowly regenerates. In TDE, magic usage is limited to certain professions (magicians) or races (elves).

Rules – Combat

Combat works a little differently. Combat is based in rounds, with each character having an offensive and defensive action per round. Initiative is determined based on Courage, Intuition and Agility. The to-hit chance of the person moving first is based on his Attack Value, which is (CO+AG+ST)/5. After this the other person gets a chance to parry the attack based on his Parry Value, (IN+AG+ST)/5. The base Attack Value and Parry Value of each character are modified at character creation (and at each level up) by the player adding talent points from his combat skill value in the relevant weapon to either his AV or PV. Ranged attacks work much the same way only the base value is determined as (IN+DE+ST)/5, with no relevant parry skill attached.

Two other important modifiers to base AV and PV are EEC and the values of the item you're using. EEC is effective encumbrance: it is the base encumbrance value of the armor you're wearing modified by the ease of use of the weapon skill, subtracted evenly from your PV and AV (with PV having preference if the number is odd). And finally, many items have values that modify AV and PV: a normal knife has a value of -2/-3, thus lowering your AV by 2 and PV by 3. A battle axe has 0/-1, a sword has 0/0, a spear has 0/-2, etc. etc. Only after all these modifiers do the final attack value (AT) and parry value (PA) surface.

An attack is successful if the roll with a D20 against the attacker's AT succeeds and the defender's PA roll fails. The exception to this rule is if you roll a 1 or a 20. When attacking, a 1 is a lucky strike, which can be turned into a critical strike with a successful second AT roll. A 20 is a fumble, which is always a miss, though unpleasant fumbling consequences can be avoided by making a successful check against your AT. When parrying, a 1 is a lucky parry, which gives you an additional defensive action (to parry a second attacker, for example, as you can normally only parry one). A 20 is a parry fumble, which is always a failure, but like attacking fumble further consequences can be avoided with a successful PA check.

If the attack succeeds and the PA roll fails, the attacker rolls to see how much damage he does, based on the hit point value of his weapon. A weapon's hit point value is determined by its base value plus a strength bonus. A sword has D6+4 and a strength bonus of 11/4, which means that at strength 11 you meet the minimum requirements to use this weapon and then every 4 points adds a bonus point to damage: strength 15 gives D6+5 hit points, strength 19 gives D6+6. The defender's armor rating, depending primarily on his clothing, is subtracted from this amount to determine the damage points done, which is subtracted from the defender's vitality points. Example:

Bahron the warrior is fighting Kogando the pirate. Kogando has higher initiative, meaning he attacks first. His base AV is (13+14+12)/5 = 8, plus 4 from his sabers talent makes an AT of 12. He rolls an 7, landing a hit. Bahron tries to parry. His base PV is (10+13+15)/5 = 8, plus 3 from his swords skill makes 11. Swords and sabers do not have AV/PV modifiers, but Bahron is wearing a chain mail shirt with an encumbrance of 3, this is modified by -2 by the sword skill to be an EEC of 1, which lowers his PV by 1 to a PA of 10. He rolls a 11, failing to parry the blow.

Kogando is using a saber with a HP value of D6+3. He rolls a 4, doing 7 HP. Bahron's chain mail shirt has an armor rating of 3, meaning Kogando's hit does 7-3 = 4 damage points, which are subtracted from Bahron's vitality points.


Rules – Progress

TDE measures progress in experience, which in turn transform into adventure points. Adventure Points can be directly invested into talents, attributes, spell prowess, vitality, astral energy, endurance and in getting rid of existing disadvantages. Normally, only talents and spell prowess increase, with attributes increasing very rarely, mostly due to a prohibitive high cost.

Talents can be learned from any value, including negative ones, as having a score in a talent implies basic knowledge in it. Increasing known talents starts out costing relatively few adventure points but becomes harder as the talent becomes higher, costing more and more AP. Learning a new talent requires a teacher or direct experience in being forced to use it (sink or swim scenarios).

Levels are gained by advancing 100 AP + the AP value required for the last level up. So you become level 2 at 100 AP, level 3 at 300 AP, level 4 at 600 AP, level 5 at 1000 AP, level 6 at 1500 AP and so on and so forth. Levels have no practical impact in the TDE rule system, the AP count is spent elsewhere and gaining a level does not represent any increases in any stats.

Rules – Races, cultures, and professions

When creating a character in TDE, you’re allowed to choose your race, culture, and profession. The basic rules of TDE 4th edition offer playable races in Aventuria, the world of the Dark Eye:

Middenrealmians – the dominant race of man, descended from humans who came across the sea from Myranor to settle in Aventuria
Tulamides – humans descended from the indigenous people of Aventuria
Thorwalingers – seafaring humans descended from Hjaldingard
Elves – forest-dwelling elves, refer to themselves as Fey
Dwarfs – dwarfs, living underground and of ancient descent, refer to themselves as Angroshim

There are 8 basic cultures. Middenrealmians can be Garetian (from the main Aventurian central kingdom), Horasian (typically arrogant people from the Horasian empire), Fountlandian (from the noble's republic of Fountland, good-natured but conservative). Tulamides can be Mhanadistani (from the wealthy, trade-driven heartland) or Novadi (desert dwellers).

Thorwalians are always Thorwalian in culture (rough-hewn seafarers), the standard cultures of elves are Lea Elf (river-dwellers) and dwarfs are normally Anvil Dwarf (from the dwarfish kingdom under the Anvil Mountains).

4th edition's basic ruleset offers 20 professions: burglar, explorer, hunter, magician, mercenary, messenger, mountebank, physician, pirate, rogue, scout, warrior, legend singer and ranger. Not every profession is available to every race or culture: Middlerealmians have the widest berth of possible professions, with other human races slightly more limited, for example Thorwalians can not be burglars.

Anvil Dwarfs are more limited – their only options are explorer, mercenary, messenger and physician. Lea Elves are the only ones that can be legend singers and rangers, but those are also the only professions available to them.

Drakensang takes a slightly different approach, offering you a set of 20 different archetypes: warrior, bowman, soldier, battlemage, healing mage, charlatan, explorer, burglar, thief, elemental mage, metamage, alchemist, pirate, amazon, elven ranger, elven spellweaver, elven fighter, dwarfish mercenary, dwarfish sapper and dwarfish prospector.

Each of these have a preset pick of race and profession balanced to work in the game. There is an expert mode allowing you to go into the system as described above, but for first-timers it would probably be best to take one of the pre-sets.

World – Basics

The world of TDE fits the basic mold of high fantasy fairly well. The playable races mentioned above all have the archetypical characteristics; dwarfs being greedy and most comfortable underground, elves being haughty, etc. etc. The enemies include the standard sorts: orks, goblins, ogres and undead.

As a rule, adventures in TDE are set on the continent of Aventuria. Before the publishing of 4th edition as The Dark Eye, Aventuria was referred to as Arkania in English translations. A large part of this continent is free land not held by any ruler, but the continent does have a few major nations: Middenrealm, the feudal empire holding the heartland. To its north are the noble republic of Fountland and the petty, hostile kingdoms of Andergast and Nostria, to its west is rich Fairfield.

There are many other nations large and small, fuedal or republic throughout the continent. It is set in the time when the level of development can be compared to early-to-mid medieval Europe, but the size of the continent and the various races means no two areas are alike. Neither in climate – the continent offering the full spectrum, from swamps and deserts to permanently frozen lands in the north – nor in culture – varying from fuedal kingdoms to noble republics, from agricultural societies to slave and trade-based economies.

World – Creatures

Aventuria sticks close to archetypes wherever possible, but does add quite a bit of flavor as well. Small but welcome variations in normal archetypes are the fact that goblins are red-furred, muscular creatures as tall as dwarfs, while orcs are black-furred and yet more muscular. Other humanoid races include the Achaz, lizard-men of ancient culture, and the Holberker, a cross of orc and elf. Another good example of being slightly different from standard is the fact that trolls, huge hairy ogre-like creatures, are pretty intelligent and not aggressive by definition, having once had a rich culture in the mountains.

Other than varying in existing archetypes, Aventuria does have a rich offering of flora and fauna. An old fan favorite is the giant amoeba, a very slow but also very relentless giant blob of a monster. Other opponents you'll run in more often than you'd like are the Linnorm, a six-legged wingless dragon-like creature, and the morfu, a slug-like creature covered in warts that it uses to pelt enemies with poisonous horn splinters.

TDE has a clear delineation in how strong and dangerous enemies are, and whether or not it's worth to fight them. Just hacking your way through the world won't cut it (depending on the game master), and the usual tactic against some monsters, like the morfu, is to just run away.

In particular, TDE has a number of high-level creatures that – if the game master is evil enough to introduce them – you either pray are on your side or you run. This includes all but the weakest kinds of dragons, and almost all types of demons. I have never heard of a party of heroes even surviving an encounter with a three-headed Giant Wyrm, no matter their level. Most game masters won't be all that intent to kill the player characters, but regardless, it's a fairly unforgiving world if you're into doing stupid stuff.

World – Magic

Aventuria is a relatively low-magic setting. Magic items are rare, and this does not apply just to powerful magic swords but even to such “simple” items as magic healing potions. This is a consequence of how difficult it is to make magic items – for an item to have a permanent magical effect on it the creator has to imbue it with part of his own astral energy, not exactly a popular action. The only common permanent magic items are mage's staves and other such tools.

This does not mean magic is unfamiliar to the common man. Different kinds of magic users are quite prevalent, not just in the large mage's guild but also in a variety of other callings, such as druid or witch. The usage of magic is often not appreciated within city limits, but it is pretty much a part of life for most Aventurians.

World - Religion

Most of the Aventurian continent holds to the belief that the world was created by Los after he killed the giantess Sumu. Los regretted the killing – done in anger – and crying tears upon it turned it into the world Ehtra, on which the continent of Aventuria lays.

The dominant religion is that of the Twelve Gods, held throughout most of Aventuria. Of its few rivals, the notable ones are the monotheistic worship of Rastullah by the Novadis, and the worship of the sorcerer-king Borbarad coupled with demonic cults in the Heptarch Empires. The traditional foe of the twelve gods is the Nameless One, held chiefly responsible for all suffering in the world and worshipped by many an evil creature.

The Twelve Gods are Praios, Rondra, Efferd, Travia, Boron, Hesinde, Firun, Tsa, Phex, Peraine, Ingerimm and Rahja. Each God has a month named after him in Aventuria's calender. Traditionally Praios – god of truth and law – is held as the highest god, while the other fulfil recognisable roles, such as Rondra the goddess of war or Hesinde the goddess of wisdom.

While most areas in Aventuria share a common worship of the Twelve, the way in which they are worshipped varies depending on race and culture. To the dwarfs, Ingerimm – god of fire and artisans – is held as the highest god. The same attitude prevails in Al'Anfa towards Boron – the god of sleep and death. Phex is the god of merchants, but he is also the god of thieves, who worship him in their own secret temples.

Beyond the established religions – or as a part of them – superstition reigns supreme. 3, 6, 7 and 12 are lucky or blessed numbers, whereas the number 13 is cursed. The healing power of certain herbs is often attributed to various gods, while fortune telling is also very prevalent. But this is a magic world, so do not be too quick to judge something a foolish superstition – if a frog lays an egg, you better get as far away as you can because that egg will hatch the deadly basilisk.

World – Final Word

One might feel disinterested in TDE's setting based on how cliche and predictable it all sounds. My advice would be not to be so quick to judge. Aventuria certainly lacks in originality, but the many years with the setting, with numerous source-books, adventure modules and novels adding to the canon, has added complexity and richness to a solid core world.