Those Dark Places is a game the evokes the theme and mood of great classic sci-fi/horror movies like Alien, Outland, Event Horizon and Saturn 3. It’s got a simple system and easy game mechanics that don’t get in the way of roleplaying in an atmosphere of isolation and horror. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Those Dark Places is one of the best games I’ve played in the last decade; and the best part is it’s all contained in this one little book.
Characters have four attributes, Strength, Agility, Charisma and Education, each with a unique value of 1-4. In addition, they have both a primary and secondary job aboard the ship; things like Security or Helm Officer or Engineer, etc. You use a single six-sided die to resolve everything in the game, and you usually roll one die, add your relevant attribute score and add a bonus from your job (2 for primary, 1 for secondary) if applicable. If the total equals 7 or more, you succeed. If it ties, it’s a partial success. If it’s less, you fail.
So, let’s say your character is the ship’s engineer and you want to cut open an airlock door from outside the ship. You would roll a single die, add your education score (let’s say your education is 3), and another +2 from your primary position as engineer. If the total is more than seven, you succeed.
Ranged combat is very much the same. Roll a die, add your Agility and any bonus from the Security position, if applicable. The target to beat is a 6 for short range, a 7 for medium and an 8 for long, with an additional +1 added if the target elects to dodge, losing his next action but making it harder to be hit.
Hand-to-hand combat is an opposed roll, meaning both you and your opponent roll a die, add your strength, plus any relevant bonus from the Security Officer position. Compare results and whoever has the highest wins, doing damage to his or her opponent. In the event of a tie, nothing happens (they just feint and jab, grapple or block…whatever).
Then there’s pressure, a measure of how much stress you can take under duress. You make a pressure roll any time the game master thinks it’s appropriate. Roll a die, add your pressure bonus (the sum of your Strength + Education scores). If it’s more than 10, you pass; anything less and you get to increase your Pressure Level by 1. The higher your Pressure Level, the more likely you are to crack under the stress and suffer an Episode; anything from fatigue, to freezing, to all-out panic. Returning to the example above, let’s say you’re the engineer and you don’t just want to cut through the airlock from outside, you NEED to because your spacesuit is compromised and you’re leaking air like a punctured balloon. Time is of the essence. Sounds like a good time for a pressure roll before you roll to see if you succeed in your task.
Like I said, I like this game a lot, and a big reason is the system mechanics. It’s quick, easy and fun. Just what I needed for my 1970’s street crime RPG: The Hub.
I’ve wanted to run a 1970’s crime game like this for a while, ever since I came across the RPG Dog Town, by Cold Blooded Games. From the official description: Dog Town is a realistic role playing game set in a New York City ghetto in the mid to late 1970’s, think of films like “Donnie Brasco”, “Goodfella’s”, “Shaft” and “Carlito’s Way” and you’ll get the picture. It’s about attitude and swaggering machismo, about being a “bad ass” like gangsters portrayed on the big screen. There are no heroes trying to save the world from evil forces, just at best anti-heroes trying to profit from it. In Dog Town it is the people that are the animals and your own dark destructive motives, which you have to be careful of. Life often is short and brutal starting and ending in the gutter. That’s just the way it is.
Dog Town is a true labor of love by the game’s creators. You can see in every page how much they respect the source material. The core rulebook and its various supplements are a treasure trove of information about this time period and subject matter. The artwork is awesome and the production value is high. It’s really exceptional.
It’s also free on DriveThru RPG. All of it. Lately, I have a hair across my ass about DTRPG, and I wouldn’t encourage anyone to shop there. But like I said, it’s FREE, so DTRPG isn’t making money off them. Not that they’d want to anyway: this game definitely contains “potentially offensive content” and “acts of criminal perversion”, two things DTRPG says are against their selectively-enforced content rules. Better get over there now and grab it while you can, before someone gets offended and complains.
Unfortunately, Dog Town’s game mechanics are fucking incomprehensible to me, and I’m no dummy. They’re clunky, to say the least; and it requires a lot of math and chart referencing to resolve most actions. I’m not a fan of the rules; but once again, I can’t say enough good things about the setting and the work these guys put into it.
I knew I wanted to set my game in Boston, because it’s a city I’m familiar with and it has a long history of corruption and violence. I had several scenario ideas, I just needed a good game system. I briefly considered Fate, because I really like it; but Fate is definitely a “heroic” roleplaying game. Player characters have a high chance of success in almost everything they do, and they are able to perform feats and stunts that normal folks can’t. I don’t want that. I want gritty realism, not John Wick.
Those Dark Places has exactly what I need. Simple mechanics, deadly combat, fast resolution and the pressure mechanic all foster great roleplaying opportunities and fit exactly into the atmosphere I’m trying to create. Once I decided, it was easy to adapt.
Attributes remain the same. I just replaced the ship positions with criminal types; so instead of things like helm officer, engineer and medical officer, I have things like heavy, thief, grifter, etc. Each one of these gives primary and secondary bonuses as applicable. Pressure is the same; except you roll a pressure test for things like getting chased by the cops or getting threatened by a gang boss; or, you know, getting shot at. I went a step further and added some basic skills that give bonuses in specific circumstances, like “Manson Lamps”, which gives a +1 bonus to Charisma when trying to intimidate someone, or “Wicked Smart” which gives a +1 bonus to assess unfamiliar situations. Characters get to choose one skill.
I’m happy to say it has worked perfectly so far. My first playtest of the game was Sunday, and everyone seemed to have a good time. The players really embraced the setting and made some cool characters that would be at home in any 70’s crime movie. Combat worked exactly as I wanted and there weren’t any game-breaking flaws (yet). Both characters survived, too; which is always a plus!
I’m always looking for players; so if this setting intrigues you, let me know! Or check out all the other games I will get around to running eventually. You can find them here.