The Game
One of the hardest things in designing a role playing game is knowing where to start, and how to describe a vast and years-old system that you've been whittling at and refining to a total newcomer. On this wiki you'll find an RPG setting called Darkrealm and the Tell & Roll rule system built to facilitate it, including all of the core rules for game-play explained as simply and concisely as I could manage. The ambition of the rules are to marry closely to the setting, designed to compliment the technological and cultural trappings of Allornus, the home setting for the game. T&R was built to be retooled for every setting in which it is deployed, because I believe that hard-wiring tone into your mechanics makes a good game, and tone comes not from what you include, but what you exclude.

I have come to characterize the Darkrealm setting over many years of writing and playing in it as Weird Dark Fantasy. The basis and inspiration of Darkrealm rely on darker settings like Warhammer FRP, the Call of Cthulhu game, and the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm with a heavy does of Morrowind and Perdido Street Station to bring the weird. Swords and sorcery, dungeon delving fantasy wasn't my aim with this game or setting. Here I have (perhaps) gone too far to make combat unforgiving, magic ponderous and risk-laden, and interpersonal or intellectual conflicts as mechanically weighty as physical encounters. This first incarnation of T&R system is one where being a hero demands that an individual be truly courageous and exceptional, but also tries not to punish individuals who fall short. The idea of this being that when they manage something truly heroic it feel like an achievement, not an expectation.

The first draft of what would become known by the less than original moniker ‘Darkrealm’ was built as a series of locations necessary to facilitate a grand campaign that I was far too young to commit to actually seeing to a close. The story involved a group of heroes from many and varied backgrounds assembling around a barbarian champion, most likely influenced by years of playing Hero Quest. Many of these characters and places still exist in the world in much altered forms, though others have been long lost, from the written material in the atlases at least. Ahlonia was my first design, a land with two slightly antagonistic kingdoms divided and yet united by a nation of warlike barbarians between them. Then the continent became a little sub continent of a greater land, which for years were little more than names in brown sharpie on a rough map that had sounds I liked, or were adaptations of actual words, often meaning nothing at all.

Darkrealm has not been built from the rules down, but from the tone up, and though it is heavily mechanized it is also strongly plot driven, and hopefully robust enough that rules can be anticipated, or created on the fly, based around a player's description of the action, rather than his description be of mechanical elements. The ability to choose what parts of the game to use, to best reflect the action you are narrating, is core to the philosophy of the system, and allow even complex mechanics to be warranted by the narrative. And with a focus on rules as tools to describe and mechanize narrative, ideas like game balance are largely omitted.

T&R has been an exercise in building a rule system to cater to a certain tone of game, and a certain setting. In this case it is more gritty, more dark, less magical and fantastical. Mighty heroes are lucky to live out their lives, adventurers are seldom more than hired killers, wizards drink chicken blood and invoke evil spirits and priests call out to uncaring gods who have better things to do than drive off a few Harryhousen-esque skeletons. However in accepting these decisions as ones that have been made to restrict the setting, with the intention of giving it a very specific feel, and in embracing this feel, hopefully you'll find Darkrealm to be enjoyable, unique, and very much tailored to the pen-and-paper (or perhaps keyboard-and-webpage) medium it occupies. It's a combination of what has really appealed to me in the genre, and I have no doubt that there are at least some of you out there who share my tastes. Welcome!

John Stryker; Darkrealm Designer
Auckland, New Zealand
December 2010

What is a Role Playing Game?

A Roleplaying Game has two distinct components - Roleplaying and Game. Roleplaying is a term for a form of collective storytelling, like a game of make-believe for adults, or improvisations actors or comedians might do as an exercise. In order to keep from being completely meandering, however, the story is given a degree of structure by naming one player the director. It is the director's job to portray every person, place, and creature in the world save for the protagonists of the story, and it is his job to plan an over-arching plot in which those characters find themselves.

The remaining players (usually between one and seven in number, though four is the usual group) take on the role of a single protagonist in the story. These protagonists are not under the control of the director, and their actions are entirely decided by the player to whom that protagonist is assigned. Even the identities of these characters, within a few guidelines, are chosen by the player. These are called player characters. Unlike protagonists in a movie or a novel, player characters are free to succeed or fail of their own accord. Players have no knowledge of the plot that their characters do not have, and how they navigate the events taking place around them is entirely up to their imagination. For the director's part, making sure that the world and the ongoing plot react and adapt to the players decisions is a big part of his role.

So in a nutshell, that's the roleplaying bit. Now for the game. Everything in the world is represented by a series of numbers, a bit like a board game. And when a player character, or a character controlled by the director, wants to do something that is difficult, or has consequences for failure, they must use these numbers, and randomize the result with the roll dice, to test whether or not they are successful or not and how successful (or unsuccessful) they are. And all of this is managed within a formal turn structure, and refereed by the director.

The next key parallel comes in how the game operates. A game can be one of entertaining strategy, where characters combine mechanics cleverly and within prescribed and detailed limitations, much as one might a board game. In these games the rules are the governing logic of gameplay, and unless the director decides that a rule doesn't work, they are the source of truth for how the game component of the hobby operates. Darkrealm, in deploying the Tell & Roll mechaic, takes an alternative route, where collective understanding of narrative and tone are the governing factors. The Tell & Roll rules are detailed, but robust enough that if it makes sense in the story, they can usually cater to it. If a rule as written makes no sense in a given situation, the director is encouraged to change it. Rules should not be allowed to compromise narrative flow. Crucially, this means that agreeing on the tone of the game, how realistic it's going to be, and what kind of internal logic the game will follow, is a decision that the director must make clear from the outset.

And finally, crucially, unlike other games there is no winner, and no loser in a roleplaying game. Players are not trying to overcome the director, nor the director trying to defeat players. Roleplaying is about cooperatively telling a story, and while that story often pits player characters against characters and creatures controlled by the director, at no point are they in competition. Everyone wins when a good story is told, and many good stories see their protagonists overcome. Embrace the opportunity to have a hand in a collaborative story rather than playing for a victory that doesn't exist - that's the true pleasure of the hobby.

Playing the Game

T&R is a game for two or more players to participate in. One player must accept the responsibility of being the game’s Director, responsible for conceiving and telling all of the story of the game’s narrative and deciding what the result of the other players actions will be. The rest of the players will adopt characters and are generally referred to as Players if they are referred to at all. An RPG is basically the process of telling a non-linear story like a novel or film might, but players take on the roles of major characters within the narrative. This generally works best for four to six players, one assuming the role of Director and the rest creating characters whose personalities they portray and whose actions they direct. Every character in the game not controlled by a Player is controlled by the Director. While variations can exist this is the simplest format. Some groups could also use one character and one director, or a director with any number of players, or several groups of director and players co-ordinating their narrative by holding varied sizes of group session. Sometimes a large group may even have a Director who uses other Assistant-Directors to control a cast of lesser villains or non-player-characters within the limits of his established narrative. While this format does take some pressure off the director it is debatably less rewarding for the Assistant-Director.

The game is structured in the following fashion: The Director conceives of a Story for his players to be involved in. There is no limit to the actions the players may choose to take, so the script should be loose enough for them to be able to severely disrupt it by doing something unexpected. Inexperienced Directors may feel the need to lead players by the nose, this is not recommended as it does tend to make the player feel ineffectual and more like an audience than a character, but a certain degree of this can be integrated until a Director is flexible enough to anticipate most contingencies he may encounter. A script for a sample Episode, the name given to units of play, or to each Series, the name given to over-arching stories that take place over several Episodes, is provided with this volume to outline how this might be structured but really this can be done in whatever way the Director chooses. Overall what is essential to maintain is the integrity of the Player’s agency over the actions of their characters. Once he has conceived a script the Director then introduces the characters to the opening scenes and walks them through the action narrating what occurs to the players and allowing them to narrate the actions and dialogue of their characters as they see fit. Usually this is handled in the first person, present tense, but this is by no means definitive, simply more active. When a character takes an action within the narrative, or is subject to an event game mechanics are employed to determine the outcome of the relative success or failure of the action or event. It may seem that the mechanics to which most of this book is devoted are then a very small part of the game. This assumption is correct, while they may be the basic unit of interaction they are merely tools of the story and a good story should not be slave to constant dice-rolling and numbers.

Success, in an RPG, unlike a film, is not guaranteed. The narrative is less linear because the RPG represents the collision and negotiation of several visions: the vision of the Director as to the manner in which the narrative unfolds, while definitely dominant, is not unified with that of the protagonists unlike a film, and a completely different outcome, including failure, death, success in a goal that the Director did not originally conceive as a goal or essentially anything could occur. In this manner an RPG is far less linear than a novel or film, and even less linear than a video-game. An RPG is literally limited only by the combined imaginations of the Director and Players, and while a Director who is new to an RPG may keep things simple, (and certainly the most experienced player should usually accept the role of Director) the nature of the RPG is that it is literally limitless and can be inspired and influenced by any of the more linear narrative arts. Essentially it is a story with a number of contributing authors, being written as it unfolds.

On Pronouns

In writing we have several options for how to use non-gendered pronouns, none of which are entirely ideal. In the absence of clear convention throughout the rules for the Darkrealm the male pronoun (he, him, his) is used as the non-gendered pronoun.

Required Materials

Predominantly play of a Darkrealm game requires access to this wiki, for both Players and Director, which can be facilitated by little more than a device and an internet connection. The wiki is predominantly made up of setting information pertaining to the world of Allornus, but a few sections are core rules material using a setting-specific version of the Tell & Roll rules system. The Tome of Lore is the core rulebook for the system, detailing the majority of rules required for play. The Volume of Beasts is an index of descriptions of, and statistical information for, the various races, animals, and other things characters might encounter during play, and crucial for character building. The Tools of the Trade details vast lists of equipment and their uses. The remaining rules supplements: The Book of Swords, Encyclopedia Arcana, Manual of Stealth, Writ of Kingship, and The Land, all detail specific conventional actions for some of the most common Role Playing tropes and activities - combat, magic, stealth, rulership, and travel and the elements respectively.

In addition to these, players will also need access to a venue, be it an online forum for a play by post game (the Game Design chapter of the Tome of Lore makes some specific suggestions about Play by Post) or someone's house. They will also need pen and paper, of whatever digital format might substitute this, and dice (or, again, a digital equivalent). The T&R game endeavours to be relatively undemanding of gear, so a handful of six-sided dice (perhaps ten would probably be the most needed) and a few ten sided dice (three would be the maximum) are required. It will become clear as a player explores the rules, that it would be helpful to have a range of three colours across both sets of dice, to help differentiate their function in-game.

Players can also opt to use miniatures, drawn game boards or white boards, hand modelled terrain, sketch maps, or whatever else they might choose to employ. While a tactile element adds to the game for many, this is not in any way necessary for play.

The Scenario

The major difference between a role playing game and, say, a play or a board game, is that there is no predefined path for action to go down. A Director's job is to pre-concieve a problem, situation, or sequence of events that engages the characters he has in the game in the story he wants to tell. He should then facilitate their engagement with the story, being prepared for predictable eventualities, and also being prepared for players to deviate from the main story, through error or intent, to explore some other facet of the world, or unfolding narrative. Directors are encouraged to the force players down a linear path, but rather to encourage them to explore, and exercise their freedom of choice, and to be ready to respond to outlandish or unanticipated turns in the action, either due to fickle dice, or imaginative players. The one great advantage of the role playing game, over a film, book, play, or even a video game, is that literally anything can happen. It is limited only by imagination. And to fail to embrace this is really to miss out on a core part of the experience. In this sense the scenario is a guideline. A starting point. And a fall-back if the action doesn't take off on its own.

The Goal

Another major difference between a role playing game, and other games, is the ultimate goal. In most other forms of narrative, or games, there is a beginning and an end, and in the case of games the end comes when someone wins, and someone else loses. In a role playing game there are no winners or losers. The point of playing is not to win, but to tell a story. People might tell that story to socialize, to have a creative outlet, or for a range of other reasons. But what they do not do is win. Thus, as a group, Players are not in competition, but rather they are cooperating to tell the best story possible. Even the Director, who often opposes and thwarts players, does so with no motive beyond the good of the collective story. Some players might find it fun to oppose one another, even to openly compete, but this is done in-character, as part of the narrative unfolding, and not in reaction to the objective of the game.

Tell a good story, have fun, feel satisfied with the outcome, rinse, repeat: That is what a good role playing game looks like.