My first experience with The Dark Eye was not actually with the English version, but rather the German version, Das Schwarze Auge, so please forgive me for using DSA as the acronym in this review.
That said, my introduction to it was rather strange, even by my standards. I was in Japan from 2005-2006 and met a gentleman from Germany who would talk about his gaming group that played DSA, and that one of that group was coming a few weeks later (but after he left, sadly). Said friend and I spent far too much time talking shop about games, mechanics, and of course, sharing stories of adventures; it helped us build a pretty solid bond.
Even though I dragged her into the World of Darkness line of games, she planted a seed for my interest in DSA, which was enough for me to go searching for an English translation. I got my hands on a poor translation of the Second Edition of the game (yes, the link is still live, no, I will not share it here), bought the PDF of the Fourth Edition, and got to reading in between my Japanese lessons.
Years later (and after I had found a cheap copy of the Fourth Edition to grace my shelves), I learned that the game was still going strong thanks to Ulisses Spiele bringing us the translated Fifth Edition of DSA.
So how does this new edition stack up? Even without comparing the editions, is the new book worthy of the name? Is it a worthy competitor to previously made fantasy tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons?
That’s what I’m here for: to answer these questions and many more!
If you haven’t heard of Ulisses Spiele, you really should look into them. While they are more well known in Germany (and have quite the list of items they publish and distribute), they recently got the rights to produce a number of new editions of RPGs. Some of these include a new Warhammer 40,000 RPG (and will be different from the FFG line), a new version of Fading Suns, and they are the company behind/that has the rights to Torg Eternity (released in 2016). It may not look like much, but there’s some good names of games being entrusted to them, and I am curious what they’ll be putting out in the future.
I often joke with people that DSA is “basically German D&D.” It’s more complex than that, but it’s a good start.
DSA is a fantasy RPG set in the realm of Aventuria, a large island (with some smaller islands) filled with many cultures that believe in (one, some, many, or all of) the Twelvegods.
Players take the role of heroes in this world and doing what heroes do: explore, defeat evil, save lives, and more!
The game is also a form of living campaign that grows and changes as time goes on, giving players and GMs more adventures, more of the world, and even just more ideas as time passes.
==What You Get==
The Fifth Edition of DSA comes in either a paperback or hardcover edition (based on pricetag), each weighing in at beefy 414 pages. The paperback copy is very much like “explorer’s editions” of books, and is drastically smaller than the norm while also being much cheaper ($20 as opposed to $60).
The book is filled with text and tables, with artwork appearing every few pages to break things up.
The book is broken down by chapters, beginning with a primer of the setting and game before moving into the chapters of mechanics, further setting information, and “Detailed Rules.”
==The Core Mechanic==
I would be remiss if I didn’t explain the basic core mechanic, especially since it is the cornerstone of the game. Outside of a few new add-ons, like Fate Points and new professions, the core part of the game hasn’t changed much.
Like Star Trek Adventures, your goal in this game is to roll low on a d20. Unlike Star Trek Adventures, you will either roll a single die or you’ll be rolling three times (or three dice), with a different target number for each.
All checks revolve around the attributes, which consist of Courage, Sagacity (Intelligence), Intuition (Wisdom meets instinct), Charisma, Dexterity (specifically hand-eye coordination), Agility (reflexes), Constitution, and Strength. Any time you are told to make a check, you are rolling under this number.
Now, the “weird” part that confuses most people: it’s seldom a one-roll task. Attack and Parry, as well as specific types of checks, are settled by a single die, but the real challenge is when skills come into play.
Say you want to climb a wall. The Climb skill has three Attributes listed: Courage, Agility, and Strength. To successfully climb that wall, you must roll three times (or three dice), rolling under your Attribute. Your skill rating becomes a cross between a buffer (to ensure success) to be spent across the roll and as a means to measure the Quality Level (of success).
To finish the climbing example, let’s say that you have a Climb skill of 5, Courage 14, Agility 10, and Strength 12. When you roll, you need to be under 14, then 10, then 12. If, on your first roll, you rolled a 15, you would use a point of your skill to succeed, dropping you to four remaining points for the last two rolls.
There are modifications to the rolls (such as Fate Points, Temporary Attribute Levels, etc), as well as additional rules (Criticals being one of them).
From this point, the rest of the game just falls into place along these guidelines.
==The Different Editions?==
I feel that I would be lax in my responsibilities if I didn’t briefly touch on this.
In the earlier editions of DSA (prior to the Fourth Edition), character creation was very much like Redbook D&D: your race (including cultural human offshoots) was your class, but in this game, these points determined your stat range (randomly rolled) as well as starting skills.
These editions got progressively cleaner with rules, fixing balance issues and the like, but really they played like the older editions of D&D with optional AD&D rules tossed in, such as weapon durability, weapon mods to initiative/attack/parry, and even how the day of your birth impacts your character’s abilities.
Starting in the Fourth Edition, the old character creation was scrapped and replaced with a Point Buy system. You were allotted a certain number of points, and you used these to purchase your race/culture, profession, and improve any attributes, skills, or advantages. Many old-guard players balked at this (just as many old-guard D&D players balked at 3E and 3.5), and refused to go any further with it because of this change.
The Fifth Edition stayed with this point-buy approach, but added even more professions and options in the core rulebook (part of the size difference is because of these new additions). The biggest change they made, in my opinion, was the addition of Fate Points, an added tool to modify a roll or change the game itself.
Like most modern RPGs, the art in this new edition is stellar. This is a much better line of art compared to what we had in the previous English Edition; it is almost literally a comparison of night and day due to the quality of art and colors used.
On the note of art, DSA has a plethora of gorgeous character art scattered throughout the book, often focusing on the discussing at hand. If a profession is being discussed, there’s a character art for it. If a culture is being discussed, there’s character art.
In fact, the book only has one full-page bit of art, and that’s the map. Otherwise, you’re getting quarter-page bits of artwork to break up the text.
Unlike the Fourth Edition, I feel as though this game is ready to run out of the box, so to speak. I have enough information on the world and setting (tossed among the rules; a double-edged sword when you want details), basic info on cultures and the rest of the world, and plenty of player options ready to go without needing two or three other books to even get the basics (i.e. spellcasters got the shaft in old editions unless you bought additional books). For once, it feels mechanically complete (some may say too mechanically complete), and I am elated to see that.
For those of you who worry about balancing issues, DSA has a pretty good balancing mechanic built in with the core mechanic. As all skill (and spell!) rolls require three rolls (usually different Attributes), players need to spread out a bit more. Additionally, at character creation, the GM can determine what sort of power level they are going for and can use the appropriate point totals and tips for those levels.
The introduction of Fate Points is a nice nod to other games that have been using them for years. With these, characters overall increase survivability and chances of success, while also making them feel more heroic during the whole process. Any mechanic that lets fantasy heroes feel more heroic without breaking the game gets kudos in my book.
For those of us who run games on the go or don’t want to drop a ton of money on dice: you’ll be happy to know that this game is easy to work with! This game specifically uses d20 and d6, so as long as you have about three of each for each player, you are covered! That’ll lighten the load on my dice bag, that’s for sure!
One thing I am ecstatic to see: there’s community created content, under the name Scriptorium Aventuris, that is being supported in this new edition. While this does mean that users are creating (and selling) their own content, it does mean that there’s a chance we’ll see some good freebies out there when this rolls out a bit more.
Honestly, my biggest gripe with this new edition actually rests within Character Creation. As I mentioned with StarFinder, complex math bogs down gameplay, and when your character creation process involves tallying 900-2100 Adventure Points (AP), and advantages can run as little as 2 AP (like a bonus to Tactile senses), it gets pretty tedious to track it all.
This version of point-buy also does a great deal of nickle and diming. You need to purchase your Race at the beginning, then you need to purchase your Profession (or build your own), and if you are a Spellcaster, not only do you need to buy the appropriate Advantage, but you’ll also need to buy a “tradition” (basically a school of magic; all branches types of magic have something similar) that can cost another hundred or so points on top of everything else.
Even certain combat techniques, like Charge and Defensive Posture, both of which are staples and standard actions in other fantasy games, require 10-25 AP. I understand that some of these “techniques” are bits of training and should be treated as such, like Two Weapon Fighting, Cross Block (negate chain weapon bonus vs your parry), and Quickdraw, I have a bad taste in my mouth whenever I see what should be a standard action with it’s own designated requirements/penalties/bonuses listed have an AP cost (with requirements to skills and attributes). Granted, this may just be a language choice or something that lost in translation (the original is in German, after all), but it is rather bothersome.
I should also note there’s a slew of Derived Attributes in this game. There’s the obligatory Life Points, then there’s derived numbers for points to power spells (depending on type of magic), Spirit Points, Toughness, Dodge, Initiative, and then the usual Carry Capacity, Speed, etc.
Even Combat Skills are derived, based on your weapon skill rating with a bonus based off of your Attribute (+1 for every 3 your attribute is above an 8). It’s rather fiddly.
Speaking of skills, there are FIFTY NINE skills…not including combat skills (of which there are fourteen). This brings our skill count up to SEVENTY-THREE! 73!
Oh, and that doesn’t include spells, which also technically count as skills.
I mean, I understand being comprehensive, and I kind of like the idea of certain spells being skills (to show specialization), but this is a bit overkill, especially since ALL SKILLS have their own “Advancement Ratings” to determine how much they cost to purchase and improve. (It was a major gripe my friends and I had about Fourth Edition that stuck with us, even though I wasn’t fond of the class/level system of prior to this edition.)
You know it’s going to be that kind of day when you basic character sheet is four pages, and then one (or more) additional page to cover spellcasters.
There’s also a running concern from players about there being just too many professions. Granted, you can technically build your own (and I’m all for free-form character creation if you haven’t guessed), but it is an issue for anyone who’s just starting and realizing there’s a list of professions…and there are more coming out with later books. The previous edition had this issue (especially with splatbooks), and it looks like it will sadly be continuing on.
From a layout perspective, I’m not a fan of how this was done. There are rules in almost every corner, oddly placed sidenotes with lines drawn to the passage in question, and setting information is hidden among pages of rules. It’s a bit awkward, honestly, and it makes it notoriously difficult to find setting information when it is hidden within pages of rules. It may help with getting through the rules, but I felt that it just made the book drag on and feel more like a packet of rules than a living world.
From a language perspective, while the book makes sense, there are some parts that feel odd. As previously mentioned, certain actions in combat, like Charge, are listed as “Combat Techniques”, alongside Two Weapon Fighting. Some of these names don’t come naturally, and it detracts from the quality of the book in my opinion.
The final concern is, once again, mechanical. While I took to the system rather easily and found it to be flexible (and it was a HUGE help when I picked up the 2d20 system), there are those that struggle with it. The idea of having three attribute rolls for a skill check is confusing for most people, but then the math to track costs and derived stats make it too convoluted for some to work with. I’ve lost a number of experienced roleplayers that just couldn’t grasp how this works, which means this may be a challenge to run.
All said and done, I think The Dark Eye (5th Edition) deserves a middling 3 buns.
This new edition is a drastic improvement over previous versions I’ve read as the world has more life to it (albeit hidden among the rules), all of the rules are here (and not missing or require waiting on other books), and there’s seriously tons to work with. It’s a complete game in a single book, which is pleasant to see and work with after dealing with older editions (and how many fantasy RPGs often feel “incomplete” and require more books).
That said, character creation is a royal pain and is not that intuitive, some of the words for things don’t come naturally, and the layout is a bit weak (again, most of the world info is hidden throughout the rules). There are also a few members of my various gaming groups over the years that have found the core mechanic to be too confusing or convoluted for their tastes, while other potential new players balk at the math needed to make a character but absolutely love the mechanic. It can be double edged and often leads to love/hate relationships.
If you are itching for a different approach to fantasy gaming, then The Dark Eye from Ulisses Spiele is absolutely worth looking into and will not disappoint. It’s a long-running world with a lot to offer and a mechanic that is much different than the norm, but English-speakers are going to be limited in available materials until more publications are released (unless you also speak German; then have at it with those other materials!).
In short: if you want something different than the norm but still want a fantasy game, want to gawk at lovely art, or want to borrow a setting or mechanics, absolutely pick up The Dark Eye. Avoid it if you want something streamlined and easy to build characters in.
The Dark Eye is published by Ulisses Spiele and can be purchased at most major book retailers. The book is available as a PDF ($19.99), a “pocket edition” softcover ($19.99), or hardcover ($49.99), and there is a Free Quickstart available if you want to test it out.