09 February 2022
Gamesmaster of puppets
This article originally appeared in issue 63 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here.
The latest addition to River Horse’s array of puppet-inspired gamebooks-cum-RPGs is a delight to read and play. It’s moody and sentimental by turns, with just enough rules to provide players room to grow and GMs to flex their creativity.
As with its predecessor, Labyrinth: The Adventure Game, this tabletop take on Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal is both a game system and a campaign in a single volume. It sees a band of gelfling heroes – this will all make sense if you’ve seen the movie or the TV series, and none at all if you haven’t – summoned together to perform a grand quest. They need to journey across the magical land of Thra, and retrieve seven seeds from the seven great trees.
In all honesty, though, the quest is just an excuse to go on a quest and be heroic. The real joy of the game lies in exploring the melancholy landscape and interacting with the world’s weird inhabitants.
This is all achieved with the adventure book. This slim volume blends traditional RPG elements with choose-your-own-path games. Encounters and locations are neatly laid out on their own pages, and as the party explores you flick back and forth between them.
While this sounds similar to standard campaign design, in practice it feels very different. The neat flow from place to place is easy to manage and while it pays to read ahead, the GM only needs minimal preparation to keep things ticking over. So long as the players are okay with taking a few moments to plan and plot while they do a quick burst of speed-reading, it’s easy to grab the gamebook and get an adventure running in minutes.
There are a handful of issues with this design. Tying the game to a single major quest means players can’t roam the world at will and experience the theoretically endless adventure offered by Dungeons & Dragons and the like. If you’re simply after a platform for telling your own stories, The Dark Crystal Adventure Game can be disappointing.
Ironically, the other major stumbling block GMs might run into is the need to improvise complex scenes with very little information to go on. As every event and location in the book is squeezed into just two pages, some action-packed areas seem to run out of room for details. You might roll on the table and run into a skirmish against grapple claw-wielding bandits in the mountains. Exactly what the bandits are after, what the terrain is and how to make the battle exciting is left in the GM’s lap.
This isn’t strictly a mark against the game, though. While it can be tough to learn to roll with the punches early on, the freedom these rough sketches offer can be exciting too. One gripe with River Horse’s take on Labyrinth was that the action could feel predetermined. The game almost ran on rails. With The Dark Crystal Adventure Game, things feel looser. There are more options, for both players and GMs alike.
The rules you play by are much more detailed too, though they are still very easy to digest by the standard of mainstream RPGs. Heroes and monsters alike are assigned character dice ranging from the humble d4 up to the mighty d12. When they try to do something risky, whether that’s climbing a frayed rope ladder or hucking a spear at a skeksis, they roll this die and try to hit some target number determined by how tough the task is.
There are a few ways to get bonuses to this roll, including training and teamwork, but it’s still very easy to pick up and play. You might need to do a lot of flicking back and forth, especially when you’re new to the game, but this isn’t such a bad thing.
It helps that the book itself is beautiful. The binding is soft faux leather set with delicate inlaid art, while dungeon encounters are supplemented with transparent overlays that add detail to the maps. Exploring the rulebook is a delightful experience, even if you aren’t in the midst of a game.
Ultimately, The Dark Crystal Adventure Game balances its two halves much more neatly. There is enough of the choose-your-own-adventure about it to keep newer GMs feeling safely supported, and also enough raw RPG goodness to keep things from feeling constricted.
If you’re after a truly open-ended experience this isn’t a product for you. However, if you’re after something low-prep but with plenty of room for incidental improvisation, The Dark Crystal Adventure Game is a solid purchase.
PLAY IT? YES
A beautiful way to explore the world of The Dark Crystal
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED Labyrinth: The Adventure Game
While there isn’t quite so much David Bowie in The Dark Crystal, it makes up for it with juicier rules and greater freedom
Designer: Janet Forbes & Jack Cæsar
Publisher: River Horse
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