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Dark Souls: The D&D Video Game that Isn’t Actually D&D

If somebody asked me “what video game today best represents old school D&D,” Legend of Grimrock comes to mind, but ultimately I think Dark Souls would be a more interesting and equally qualified answer. Given the raft of actual D&D games, branded with D&D on the box and everything, why on Earth would I think this? Hopefully I’m convincing.

Megadungeon Format

Dark Souls very much takes place in a megadungeon, and a well-made one at that. If you strip away the visual properties and various idiosyncrasies of the game and focus only on the fundamental design tropes of megadungeons you’ll find this to be the case.

Branching, Looping, Linear Pathways

Megadungeons consist of corridors with walls, meaning you are generally on a linear pathway. Sometimes these are broken into larger areas (rooms) filled with content, but the rooms only have a low number of exits (usually no more than 4 and often as few as 1 or 2). Dark Souls, perhaps simply because games are limited in this way but also probably due to design intention, is similarly made up of linear pathways punctuated by expansive “rooms” or, more video-game-appropriately, “arenas”, in the parlance of the Half Life 2 developers at Valve.

At the same time, though, these linear pathways tend to branch and loop. For more analysis of the types of exploratory pathways in games you can see this post on ENWorld. Further writing on the merits of designing good layouts of linear pathways is this piece by The Alexandrian. These are together probably two of the best examples of analyses on how to design combinations of arenas and linear pathways as far as it concerns roleplaying games, so they make good reading and say basically everything I ever could regarding background.

In summary, Dark Souls doesn’t offer an open world like Skyrim – you don’t have 360 degrees of motion between most locations – but it does offer multiple paths, shortcuts, secret passages, and the like. In Dark Souls, like in most good megadungeons, arenas are connected to each other in multiple discrete linear ways, and those connecting paths themselves are often interconnected.

Re-Stocking Enemies and Re-Treading Terrain

Megadungeons do it every time you leave (or in some cases even when you roll a random encounter, to some extent), while Dark Souls does it every time you rest at a bonfire (or die). While Dark Souls’ enemies don’t change the way a megadungeon’s might, they do still come back, and that means that just like a D&D megadungeon the megadungeon of Dark Souls is designed to not be permanently “clearable”. In Dark Souls, just like in megadungeons like the labyrinth under Castle Greyhawk, you also unlock shortcuts between areas (mentioned above) meaning what begins as re-treading dangerous ground over and over eventually becomes a much more streamlined adventure, much like higher level PCs skip straight to the lower levels of a megadungeon via some shortcut or direct access they have found, thereby reducing the amount of time the players spend re-treading familiar terrain and dealing with re-stocking enemies. Additionally, in both cases, as you level up you will find re-treading the same ground to be much easier than it originally was, but also providing much less reward. These two factors combine to encourage you to push forward outside of any story motivation – mechanically you are drawn to areas that are of appropriate difficulty, since these areas will provide reward commensurate with your out-of-game skill and in-game power level.

Subtle Narrative

There are a few ways that narrative happens in a megadungeon, and most of them aren’t what we think of when we think about exposition in modern RPGs. In a D&D megadungeon you can only reliably get information in a few ways. You can ask NPCs (most creatures wouldn’t be willing to help, though) if you manage to find any (or rarely you can ask NPCs outside of the megadungeon, but their chances of possessing significant knowledge is much less), you can look around for messages, writings, maps, and that sort of thing left behind by some precursor to yourself, you can learn by personal experience (you walk in the room and there are orcs? You know there are orcs in the room now, congratulations), or you can learn by some method of divination of non-language artifacts (either literally by using magic or more like an archaeologist by piecing together what you find laying around into a coherent story).

Dark Souls does all of these things in a very similar framework. You learn about the lore of the Dark Souls world in a few ways –

  • A short introductory cut-scene.
  • Rare, stilted, dialog with non-hostile NPCs.
  • Messages left by other players that fit a purposefully limited format (“[thing] ahead”, or “beware of trap”, for instance).
  • Non-contextual item descriptions of loot you find (you’ll get the story of the item in a few sentences, but no explanation of how it fits into the larger picture).
  • Seeing something for yourself (“oh, shit, there’s a hydra in the lake!”)

All of these are distinctly limited and present to you sufficiently less than the whole picture (and, often, aren’t even entirely accurate, as in the case of player messages). They’re generally lacking in overall context, and have a direct 1 for 1 with how you learn things in a traditional D&D megadungeon. Messages on walls, messages attached to items, observation of the environment… all of these are regular elements of what modern D&D designers term the “exploratory pillar” of D&D – finding out new stuff without it all being dumped on you at once by McLecturePants the Plot-Giving Elf.

People have eventually compiled histories of Dark Souls’ lore, just like players can eventually piece together the history of a megadungeon, but it took significant effort and there are still gaps that need the interpretation of these game-world historians, just as in a megadungeon environment.

A Land Where Stuff Is Weird

As one would be informed by the entry under W in The Dungeon Alphabet, megadungeons are all about being weird. They often (though not always) represent a mythic underworld (see page 22), where things have a sort of internal sense that defies complete scientific classification no matter how hard you try. It’s a brutal landscape for no apparent reason. In OD&D monsters can pass through doors without a care in the world but those same doors are stuck for the players a full third of the time, and even if the players get them open they have a habit of closing themselves and becoming stuck again unless spiked. In OD&D monsters can see in pitch black, unless they’re in the PCs’ service, and then they miraculously lose this method of vision. It’s designed to make the game challenging, sure, but the realistic repercussions of these game design decisions is that the world is seriously weird and seriously hostile in the narrative as well.

Dark Souls is no exception here, either. It’s designed to be difficult compared to most modern games. This game design decision (difficulty) needs justification in the world’s fiction, however, and so by playing as an undead monstrosity yourself you can’t truly die permanently no matter how many times you get sent back to the last checkpoint. The brilliance of this associated mechanic that explains “restart at checkpoint” in game-world terms aside, when’s the last time you played as an undead monster in a game? Probably never if you’re most people. When’s the last time you fought a huge wolf with a sword in its mouth or a giant magic butterfly or a flaming spider-centaur with a pyromancer witch as the torso? This kind of unique strangeness, generated partially by strictly game-centric design decisions being reflected in the narrative, is paramount to enhancing the feeling of exploration made possible by the previous section.

Level & Sublevel Theming

A common thing to find in most megadungeons are highly thematic “sub-levels” (smaller areas bound within a close proximity), or slightly less thematic (but still differently themed) whole levels. Put at its simplest, Dark Souls does the same, and is even kind enough to label them for you (Valley of Drakes, Blight Town, Sen’s Fortress, Anor Londo, and so on and so forth). At its most basic, this is just about creating differently themed “zones” so that things don’t become monotonous.

Under a Big Tent

The concept of the “big tent” campaign comes from the very early days of D&D with Gygax at the helm. Since he knew many people interested in playing games of this sort, they invariably all hounded him to run them – and the games grew truly to unwieldy proportions. Perhaps some 20-odd players inhabited his home campaign, even sometimes sitting at the same table! But, more generally, they drifted in and out as the mood suited them, and the more prolific players whose characters’ names live on in infamy were just the ones who played more often and were thus more successful.

This drifting in and out of players, and the discussions the players would’ve had about what they found in the dungeons beneath Castle Greyhawk, mimics the multiplayer aspect of Dark Souls (or perhaps I should say Dark Souls mimics it, chronologically speaking) almost perfectly. The fact that Dark Souls encourages you to come together to solve the problems of a shared environment (via cooperative summoning or messages, or in the meta aspect by simply talking to other people who play the game on regular internet message boards or otherwise) is extraordinarily similar in concept to how a giant rotating cast D&D game worked back then. Some days some people went into the dungeon, other days different people went in, and sometimes they compared notes, and mixed and matched companionship of their characters as the situation warranted.

This sort of individual shared experience (you were never guaranteed to play with the same people consistently, but you all played in the same world) is a quirky similarity, but one nonetheless.

A Land Where Danger is Everywhere

The final point here is that megadungeons are not amusement park rides with fake scares and cheap thrills – they’re designed in large part to be a game and therefore a test of skill. Not only this, but their early-D&D rulesets were pretty unforgiving of mistakes or even of bad luck. Dark Souls is no exception here, either: it is to most games what gutter bowling is to bumper bowling – in some cases literally, as bottomless pits with no safety rail will regularly attest; it’s a fair, but punishing, alternative. It embraces the war-game-like feel of early megadungeon play, where the trick is for the players to outsmart the environment and progress towards a distant point of actual distinct victory (name level and making a fortress in the wilderness, enabled by their earlier successes in the megadungeon).

Conclusion

As I’ve demonstrated here, Dark Souls is simply the video game that gets megadungeons, and by getting megadungeons it is probably the best representation of “old school” D&D that I can think of in video game format. It has some other elements that it shares with D&D, like leveling up and weapons and armor with plusses on them, but those aren’t what makes it like D&D; they’re just superficial similarities. It has things like PvP combat, too, and that makes it no less D&D all the same. The trappings – the PvP additions of Dark Souls or the weapons with plusses – aren’t what makes the games what they are. I think that reasoning belongs to the framework of play itself: the environment.

If you care about seeing and experiencing a representation of the design aesthetics all those OSR(Old School Renaissance)-types are constantly going on about, therefore, Dark Souls is probably just about the best and clearest alternate version of that experience (complete with moving pictures and sound effects) available in a box, period.

Until Next Time,
The Hydra DM