10 January 2022
Can you save the land of Thra before it’s too late?
This article originally appeared in issue 58 of Tabletop Gaming, and was written by Christopher John Eggett. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here.
“It’s definitely a bit more focused on the gamer crowd – we have a lot of experience of the ‘my first rpg’ games with My Little Pony and Labyrinth. But there’s certainly more to sink your teeth into with The Dark Crystal,” says Jack Caesar, the designer of the game and previous Jim Hederson universe RPG, Labyrinth.
“Dark Crystal is a bit more in-depth, a bit more crunchy. We’re more focusing on the group of friends who like Dark Crystal, whereas Labyrinth was more for parents who wanted to introduce their family to it.”
Labyrinth: The Adventure Game was a huge success in many ways, not least critically. It won a couple of ENNIES – gold for best family product, and silver for best cartography. The adventure writer for the book was Ben Milton, a proponent of the OSR movement, found a happy medium between the classic ‘rulings not rules’ mantra, and working with a puzzle heavy combat-free system. The book also contained a cut out slice of the book to contain the pair of D6.
The designer is teaming up with Janet Forbes heading up the writing of the game this time as we are welcomed back to the world of Thra. That may be from your last visit for the 1982 film, or the Netflix series of 2019, or indeed the series of books. It’s a world filled with strange creatures, with the central story, thrust as it so often is, on gentle peoples ill equipped for the world. We’ll be taking on the roles of the extremely puppety Geflings in our hopes to save the world. Just try to avoid trial by stone.
The Dark Crystal Adventure Game, to give its full title is a roleplaying game, that comes entirely complete with in its pages.
“It’s both your ruleset, your adventure, everything you need to through the adventure – which is one of the nice things about it,” says the designer, “it takes inspiration from the movie, the series, the novels, the comics – we’ve been able to pick and mix from the entire world. There’s all these locations that people have put a lot of attention and care into describing over the years – and we can now bring that out in a gaming context.”
“The system is created for the setting, loosely based off the system for Labyrinth – which was if you’re good at something roll 2D6 and take the highest, if you’re bad, take the lower – but with Dark Crystal we’ve expanded it a lot.”
The sense of threat here is heightened. No one was going to be dying in Labyrinth, no one was going to roll an injury table. Here, you might.
“You can take damage, and you can actually die – which wasn’t a thing in Labyrinth. There’s more of that traditional D&D adventuring here, because there’s these darkened creatures in the world. There’s combat and there’s violence, and chance of injury – but it’s definitely not the focus.”
But like the previous outing, there’s a lightness to the system that’s got that OSR charm.
“What’s fun about the system, and about creating it custom for a set adventure is that things can be kept very light at the start – you pick a clan, a trait and your skills and then you’re ready to go – but all the levelling up is hidden in the adventure. So, you don’t choose to level up, instead you might meet a master who will teach you how to use your sword better or new skills and traits.”
Character advancement then is tied directly to the path the characters choose – it’s part of the world rather than the metagame, “you gain your trait and your levelling up from people within that world. So that’s the key benefit for making our own system,” explains Caesar.
“There is XP in the game, and that way that works is that at the end of each session every player gets one XP – and then gets to give one to another player for something they did in the session. It means at the end of each session ends up leading into reminiscing and telling game stories – you know, ‘I’m going to give you and XP for the way you jumped in front of that monster and saved me. And when you meet a master, you get to spend that XP.”
“There are ways to get better without a teacher, but it costs a lot more, so you’re encouraged to seek out these masters in the world. We tried to masters where players might expect based on things their characters have heard of within the game.”
The world is a living one, seemingly teeming with weird life, so where do players start?
“There is a bit sprawling map, and at the start of the adventure you’re told that you must collect seven seeds from the seven great trees. So the idea is that it gives you a good reason to go to the seven corners of the world, meet the seven clans, and get sidetracked on your adventures along the way.”
“It’s very open, but we try not to fall into the trap of saying ‘oh you guys make the adventure’ – no, this is your goal, and we’ve tried to put everything in the way of that a series of obstacles,” continues Caesar.
And of course, there’s a source of pressure on the player – in this instance it’s one of our favourites, the countdown.
“There’s a really nasty time limit as well,” says Caesar, “the whole adventure takes place over 100 days. There’s this concept in The Dark Crystal of ‘The Darkening’ where the world succumbs to blight, as the evil Skeksis in the tower with the Dark Crystal itself. Everything’s going really poorly”
The setting for the game has the somewhat expansive luxury of not telling a story that’s already been told. We’re exploring the space between the movie and series.
“We’re in a fun nebulous place where our adventure takes place after the series, but around one thousand years before the near-apocalyptic start of the original film. So we’re in a part of the story that’s never been told – and we don’t tell it, we give you the ingredients. Each of the regions succumb to darkness on various days, which means as the adventure goes on, you start out quite happy – the whole world is kind of a ‘Shire’,” says the designer, “it’s nice, peaceful, there is this war happening, but it’s sort of … over there.”
“And, as the adventure goes on, the war spreads. The taint happens. There’s forest fires, natural disasters – and you get this world being torn apart as you’re trying desperately to save it.”
“Putting a time limit on it pushes players to think about what they’re going to do and where they’re going to go – especially with all those carrots dangled along the way. We found we needed those carrots, as sometimes players in playtesting would attempt to ignore everything and head straight for the end game,” he says, laughing.
PULLING THE STRINGS
Most of the game has players travelling, with the GM on that two-page spread for the location – as seen in Labyrinth. Some pages even fold out into three pages as these epic encounters or sprawling dungeons.
“Sometimes it’s more of an event than a location,” says Caesar, “everything is in front of the GM as they’re using it. We weren’t afraid of duplicating information too, because we didn’t want the GM having to flip between pages during play.”
Within the world you can move between locations, which will take around a day of in game time. Once you’re there you can find individual locations within each region, “a lot of seeding of adventures leads you elsewhere across the map,” says Caesar, “the players will be aware of a lot of places on the map, but we seed adventures between.”
Right at the start of the game players set out as Gelflings, the frankly soft and mostly guileless heroes of the world. Sitting somewhere as useful and powerful as say, the hobbits who never left the Shire, the character types begin by relying on their own connections with the world. There’s a number of different starting clans with their own styles and benefits.
“All of these abilities have been taken from the lore and the world, it’s uncanny how it’s all melded into the game,” says Caesar, “for example there’s the Grottan, who can see in the dark, they lived underground until quite recently. The darkening and violent creatures pushed them out into the surface. Or The Vapran, who are the old nobles, but they have this thing of being nobles because they were closest to the Skeksis – who are the big bad of the piece. And now everyone hates the Skeksis – so the Vapren are hated for that complicity.”
“And there’s some magic in the Seafins, the pirates – they’ve got all these signs and symbols – and one of their special powers is that they always know what the weather is going to be like tomorrow. Which is very useful at sea.”
“And what’s fun about all these seven clans is that each of them is linked to an area of the world,” says the designer, “the Ranger in Dungeons & Dragons is very much about knowing a lot about survival and travel in their preferred environments. And so with this small world, and the fact that the players will be playing the Gelfling from different clans, you swap that role around. So when you’re in the swamps, the character from that area will be able to act like your ranger – or when you’re in the desert the Dowsen, the desert nomad clan, will be your ranger.”
The book also helps players along with what they already know, “most of the scenes have a section on knowledge, where you’ll have your clan’s knowledge about the area or encounter. Giving people the differing knowledge really helps out.”
But it’s not always as simple as a group of Geflings wandering over to the castle and somehow convincing the Skeksis to call the whole thing off. The game has combat, violence and player death.
“If everything goes right, you can play that Gelfling character right through to the end,” says the designer “but if the worst happens and you are returned to Thra – if you die in your travels – then there’s a scene in the book to use called ‘Return to Thra’. And it takes you through the Gelfling ceremonies, which are often simple. You’re each expected to tell a story about the recently passed, which is rewarded with a little bit of XP. But then, after the funeral you’re offered these new ways to play – such as a Fireling, which are similar to Gelfling, but from the core of the earth. They have fir-based powers and flaming hair. Or an Arathim,” – which are spidery-octopus-like creatures – “so you get to play as these more exotic races, which are kind of consolation prizes for your character having died.”
“One of them is a prototype Garthim, one of the huge evil mechanical crab creatures. But because it was a prototype, something went wrong and it’s been cast out because it is ‘good’. Naturally it’s a monster in combat, but because the world isn’t really set up combat, all of the Gelfling are terrified of it, making social situations awkward.”
Violence in the game is quick, brutal, and very nearly always a bad idea.
“Who is more powerful than who is very relative. You never gain hitpoints, you never become ‘higher level’. We’ve been very careful to make damage injuries and death something that’s quite quick to go from everything’s hunky-dory to everything’s really bad. This is something we took from Tales of Equestria – we wanted combat to be very quick, and not something you needed to focus on in a tactical way. We made it quite brutal to shorten it and get to the resolution fast, whereas in D&D that violence is the game and you do a bit of roleplaying in between.”
“In The Dark Crystal your skirmish might only be a few rolls, and the result of that might be that someone loses a hand. In theory we want it dangerous so people will avoid it. There’s usually a way around it – whether that’s with talking, a quest and so on.”
OLD SCHOOL DESIGN
The designer comments on what they’ve learnt from previous games, and the OSR movement.
“There’s a lot to be learnt from the OSR movement, and a lot to be improved upon – simply because of the small teams people in that space are working with. So being able to take a lot of those ideas, and then take from the beautiful Brian Froud art from The Jim Henderson Company and put it all together to make something beautiful, and functional,” say Caesar.
We mention the popular RPG design idea of eschewing +1 Swords for more directly world-effecting play that produces more roleplaying, rather than number crunching.
“The only pluses are on skills, such as if you’re a master of something, you’ll get a +3 to your roll for example. Gear is dealt with in a more narrative way in that if you’re trying to do something with inappropriate gear – like trying to cut down a tree without an axe – then you’ll roll with disadvantage. If you have an appropriate tool you’ll roll normally, and if you have a specialised tool you roll with advantage,” explains Caesar.
“A lot of the items and traits have a very small amount of text associated with them that could be a special rule, a description that could be used to solve problems. Like a seed that you could plant which grows into a full tree within a minute, and that tree bears another seed that does the same thing, which leads to some interesting solutions,” he continues, “a lot of items are herb based and plant based, as Gelflings have a certain amount of the druid about them. So there’s some classics like, a ‘super sticky glue that combines items forever’ – which is all the rule tells you. Or the Null Root which will make you forget the last thirty seconds. And it’s up to the GM and players to work out how those effects work in the game, but it’s a lot more interesting than the +1 Sword.”
THE BIG BAD
The Skeksis are the evil that’s taking over the world. And they certainly will have given a few people nightmares as children, but how bad are they?
“The Skeksis are interesting. They’re evil, aristocratic, bird-people who live in the Crystal Castle and are currently waging a war against the world. There are twelve of them originally, and two have died. They’re linked to the Mystics who send you on your quest at the beginning of the story – so if one of the Mystics dies, so does the counterpart Skeksis,” says Caesar, “this is another thing that dissuades the direct contact thing – as if you kill the bad guy, you kill the good guy too.”
“So you’ve got these twelve super powerful, super cunning – well –,” says the designer, interrupting himself, “well, that might be giving them too much credit. Something that’s lovely about the Dark Crystal I think is that the Skeksis are threatening, but they’re only threatening to Thra. If you dropped a Saruman, Sauron or a Balrog into the setting, or any of these evils from high fantasy, they would rule the world within a month. But you don’t have them, you have the Gelfling, which are three foot high puppets. So, everything’s on that scale. This is why I think we compare it to the Shire so much, as it’s about these small communities rising up against Skeksis.”
“Each of the Skeksis has their own personality and style, and they all get a scene where you get to know a bit more about them,” explains the designer, “The Slave Master has set up a lumber mill over here, say, or the Scientist – who turns up a few times – has these experiments that cause a lot of problems.”
“From a game design point of view, what’s interesting about them is that you know where they are. They’re in that big castle from the beginning of the game, in the centre of the map. There’s things in the adventure which will send you into the castle, which is a horrible place to be from an atmosphere point of view, and the Skeksis roaming the halls themselves. It’s interesting having them there and it’s up to you as to when you want to face them.”
The way other creatures work in the game is simple, “the creature has a creature die, which is how scary it is, and they’ll have a special rule. The Garthim for example will have a D12 – with a 50% chance of ignoring an attack that isn’t a power attack from something like a hammer because of their armour,” explains the designer, “the Gelfling have a creature dice of D6, so there’s something visceral about the enemy having simply a bigger dice. Each time a creature takes damage the dice is reduced for creatures.”
“Garthim are probably the biggest creature we still consider a ‘creature’ in the game. There’s a giant snake-whale that can eat you, and you have an adventure inside its tummy – which isn’t treated as a creature, it’s treated as a dungeon,” laughs Caesar, “but because of the effects of the Darkening a lot of the natural creatures are becoming violent,” says the designer, “so we have access to all these fun, whacky creatures which are now antagonistic. There’s an amazing amount of work prior to us on the character design.”
IN YOUR HANDS
Aside from fold out pages, the book will contain maps with a transparent page between, that will contain information for the GM only. This lets players see their location, before the GM applies the transparent page to see which trap they’ve just walked into.
“One of my favourite things in published adventures, is when someone pulls out a letter. And I think the fold out pages do a bit of that. Players know a location is big right away, after all it’s got a fold out page,” says the designer, “something that we’re really proud of is the interlinking of scenes and adventures, players will always have one or two things they’ll want to do. Plus all those landmarks.”
There’s talk of releasing resources online for free, like monsters and maps, so everyone can get moving really quickly.
Our usual question of what’s coming next is nudged away, “it’s unlikely we’ll ever do a ‘Labyrinth II’ or a ‘Dark Crystal II’ because we’ve put our heart and souls into these books. We’ve put every idea into this book. There’s a lot of books based on licences out there that read like you’re going to do half the work, that’s great, but I think there’s a lot to be said for say thing this is a contained product, this is our adventure.”
Looking for what to read next?
- Check out our review of Labyrinth: The Adventure Game
- For more Henson, you can check out our reviews of Ready, Steady, Worm, as well as Labyrinth: The Board Game
- Want to hear more from River Horse? Here's our interview with them on how a small time UK publisher brought Terminator, My Little Pony, and the Hunger Games to the tabletop
- Want to buy an epic monthly magazine full of Tabletop goodness like this? Click here!