Marching Along The Dawnline

By Anthony “LibrariaNPC” DeMinico,  10 July 2019

As an anime fan in the 90s, I couldn’t resist the siren song of titles such as Darkstalkers or Vampire Hunter D, and while the former was terrible, the latter heavily impacted my view of using vampires for more than just horror elements, leading me to find ways to incorporate these views into my gaming hobby.

After years of gothic and urban fantasy games portraying vampires , I thought I’d have been burned out on the idea of playing one. That changed when I saw the pitch for The Dawnline, and after reading up on it, I threw in and backed it on Kickstarter.

Now that I’ve caught up with it, it’s time to share with you what lurks in the dark…

==The Pitch==

The Dawnline is a game of nomadic humans travelling the world, attempting to stay in perpetual twilight. To walk in the darkness would be to invite death at the hands of creatures far beyond your understanding, while staying in the light would leave you potentially facing a fate far worse than death. No one that has traversed in the sunlight has survived, and none who have “bunkered” in the ancient ruins waiting for dawn have been heard from again.

To survive, the humans turn to “Guardians,” the ancient vampires that have joined their caravans. The vampires need humans for both sustenance and companionship, or else they will lose themselves and become creatures within the darkness. The humans need the vampires for protection and utilize their other various resources with the hopes of survival.

You play one of these vampires, watching over your caravan as it grows or dies, always keeping it one step ahead of the dawn.

The description sites games such as Ryuutama, Dracurouge, Darkest Dungeon, and series such as Vampire Hunter D as inspirations.

Always watching and waiting…

==What You Get==

The Dawnline weighs in at 224 pages. Within these pages, we are presented with the core rules of the game, character creation (with powers), village creation, a selection of pre-generated characters, and a sample adventure.

Beyond the front cover, the book is black and white, with a light gray background.

==The Good==

As someone who runs a lot of games on the go, often with short notice, I enjoy how welcoming The Dawnline is. Character creation can be done on the fly with enough copies of the books/handouts, as there are only three active stats, seven “exploration” skills, and six combat skills to choose from. The “longest” lists being the Vampire Lineages (thirteen; each having their own suggested powers and style), Roles (twelve; your role in the Village), and Powers (nineteen; each granting special abilities).

Not only is it easy to build a character, but Villages are done in a similar fashion (again, three ratings), and the players have the means to shape the village by creating a Face for the village that they frequently interact with. Couple this with a generator for developing Ruins, and it’s rather friendly for the GM on the go.

The core mechanic also lends itself to this idea. Unlike most games in which you are rolling a number of dice (and different varieties), all players in The Dawnline will be rolling 3d6 for the basic check, 1d6 for effects (like damage), and sometimes 2d6 (or a d66) to determine something from a chart. While simple mechanics are double edged at times (read: often too linear), I cannot fault them when they make parts of my job easier.

As it makes carrying everyone through that much simpler.

In all honesty, there is a lot of tech to borrow from this game. The village system adds a way to not only have the players tied to a “home,” but also show how their own efforts to improve the village help them; using downtime to gather additional supplies keeps the village together, which allows them to coordinate efforts to build projects, which can provide the players with resources and tools to complete their other tasks. I have yet to compare this to Ryuutama, but it is a fun concept to keep on hand for future projects.

On the topic of tech to steal, there’s an entire section of the book dedicated to randomly generating ruins and encounters. While the stats are always a mixed bag for other games, the idea of setting up “nodes” and having encounters, whether traps, details, or combat within each one is an interesting and useful tool. Even if you aren’t using it as-is, I’m certain there’s other uses you can find with it (like the ship/encounter/loot generation resources in Scavengers).

I’m also a fan of the “escalation” mechanic here. Like most modern games, it’s noted to only make rolls when there’s a chance of failure and if that would make things interesting. In combat, a roll is only made for a skill or an attack (and it is automatically assumed you can run on walls or do a backflip). When combat isn’t involved, the GM is strongly suggested to use an “escalation” mechanic if the roll wasn’t successful; this not only denotes failure, but shows how it’s gotten worse, but players can use their extra successes to add additional perks to the action. As many of these are more story than mechanical, it’s a nice element to see here.

Finally, the mechanics also promote some wonderful elements to keep the game going. For example, combat flow consists of blind bids and allocating resources (from die rolls) to determine not only initiative, but number of actions. There’s not enough equipment to get bogged down, which speeds things along, but if a player does finally hit the point of death in the fast-paced combat presented in The Dawnline, they may “Burn Out Brightly” and take one last, and immediate, turn; much more dramatic than normal last words!

Better than becoming a mindless Lurk, right?

==The Bad==

While the mechanics for The Dawnline are sound, there are some issues with the book overall that some may want to know of before jumping in.

From a layout perspective, I have some issues with The Dawnline. While two column layout is a standard in the industry, some of the page breaks were a bit frustrating for me, as it would leave us with two lines of text on a new page followed by a section break, which goes across the whole page. It’s an odd, disjointed feeling that I find odd, but again, that may be personal preference.

I’m also going to take a moment to pick on the art here, because there’s a few parts that really bugged me about it.

The first is general placement: beyond a few exceptions, the art we see next to paragraphs don’t always mesh with what is described. For example, we are given a note on automata and are presented with a white-masked, dapper-looking fencer; we are then given a description of this very thing, with stats, a few pages later, with a sketchy thumbnail of something that could be any random robot. This sort of thing continues on throughout the entire book, which is frustrating due to the vague detailing we are given for some of the creatures.

The art quality, in general, is also a bit inconsistent. Some of the art is done extraordinarily well, and would be the kind of art I praise in my reviews, while others range from middling quality (black-and-white images I’m used to seeing in RPGs from the 90s) to simple sketches (literally, sketches). While the sketches are a bit fitting for the setting, especially when there’s commentary about “finding” lost journals, it does make for a lackluster book when player options are given as small sketches and foe art is often generic at best.

This Bane lookalike is an example of the sketchiness we see in most corners of the book. Not all of them are as detailed, or even as large; some are not much bigger than a literal thumbnail.

From a gameplay perspective, there are a few problematic concerns, with the big one being scaling. For example, a starting character has 6 Hit Points, which may be raised at character creation. In battle, all attacks do d6 damage, with bonuses based on special effects and how well you roll. Unless you dump a fair share of your points into HP, you can be dropped in short order, and even with the Death Fatigue condition (a “condition” that “stacks”, causing penalties), it is still not too hard to kill a character. 

Even if you survive multiple condition stacks (I really can’t say that without thinking of an MMO) and loss of HP, you still have to worry about how your injuries are going to cause problems for your villagers afterward. Then there’s the issue of how to scale opposition, as Creature Ratings are in multiples of 10, but PCs don’t have levels to readily scale by, making it potentially difficult to not put PCs in this situation after the first couple of games.

From a setting perspective, I’m always wondering how long a campaign can survive without falling apart or people getting bored, especially when limited to survival and minor antics. As we are not given any details about why the world is the way it is, it’s hard to really come up with reasons for ruins to exist in the first place or what PCs can do beyond survival. In short, the game is written as a “mission of the week” to keep going, with no real input as to why things are the way they are and how they can get better.

Really, just how many automata can you defeat before it gets boring?

This is worsened by the village mechanic. As it stands, the village mechanic is there to add some minor interaction in the game (namely a few characters to interact with), but the bulk of the action of the session is the adventure the PCs take, whether it’s exploring ruins, finding a new path, or dealing with threats. PCs must then use their downtime to help maintain the village…or use it to become more powerful at the expense of the villagers (whether by self-improvement, using resources to recover injuries, or continuing construction). While I love the idea of having a “home” that changes and grows with the PCs, it comes across as nothing more than a set location to give players upgrades when they’re lucky or a way to slow down progression when they are unlucky.

Essentially, The Dawnline offers an interesting setting that, without the right group or a GM that is both able and willing to create an engrossing story, becomes nothing more than an episodic “monster of the week” or, arguably, a simple dungeon-exploration JRPG with a number of limitations. The Dawnline works wonderfully for short games or one-shots regardless of the group, but it’s going to take a great deal to get it to stick otherwise.

==The Verdict==

After facing the things in the darkness and keeping the dawn at my back, The Dawnline will continue on with two and a half buns, with an argument to go up to three or more for those that are into the way things work.

The Dawnline does a number of things right: we have an easy mechanic, low cost of entry with regards to dice, tools to promote fast pickup games or session generation, and a setting that is intriguing enough to rope people in. There’s a number of familiar elements, plenty of things to borrow from, and literally everything you need to get started. I has everything you would need for a good game.

Sadly, many of the elements of The Dawnline come off too much as an older generation video game: you have a limited “town” to work in, you explore limited areas and come back to take care of things, and the “conditions”, both good and bad, stack up like an MMO to have additional things to track. It comes off more video game than tabletop RPG, and with the limited story available, I’m personally not sold enough to want to give it a higher rating.

If you like open-ended settings, fast-paced combat, monster/dungeon of the week scenarios, and a growing village, then The Dawnline is absolutely worthwhile. If you’re not a fan of JRPG tower exploring games or MMORPG mechanics, you’ll want to give The Dawnline a pass.

The Dawnline is published by Voidspiral Entertainment and written by Richard Kelly. The book is available on DriveThruRPG for $15 as a PDF, $30 for the Print-on-Demand book, or $35 for both.

Anthony, better known as LibrariaNPC, wears many hats: librarian, gamemaster, playtester, NPC, and our Editor-In-Chief. You can support his work on Patreon, his tip jar, or via Ko-Fi.


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