Original cover of The Darkest Age
As a zombie fan and a general supporter of smaller gaming companies, I was delighted to be offered the chance to review a game which presents an alternate history of Earth, turning the Black Death into a zombie plague.
The Darkest Age Core Rulebook is a heftier tome than you might expect but also an attractive one. Softcover but not flimsy, the art and layout are well done and thematic throughout. While it doesn’t have an index, it does have an itemized table of contents and it's fairly easy to find the information you’re looking for. The key reason for its size is that it includes basic d20 materials from the PHB and DMG, as well as a selection of monsters. This makes it a one-stop resource for the game they're aiming to provide.
The fiction interspersed throughout the book makes you want to stop and read it. Every time I encountered the fiction, I could imagine it in living color effortlessly and started getting ideas for what I could run in that kind of world. Even the smaller pieces sketch out more information about major figures or events mentioned elsewhere. Unlike the lengthy scenes in other books, narratives remain short save for the one close to the beginning, which helps to set the scene. Heroism and smart strategies are balanced by stupid and self-destructive blasphemies, showing a spectrum of very human responses to a hellish twist of fate.
The game stands out for its setting and its vision of survival horror in medieval Europe. With a few key tweaks to world events, the plague becomes even worse than it was, the religious landscape becomes more open and complex, and a detailed knowledge of medieval history becomes largely unnecessary. While familiar places are mentioned, they are irrevocably changed. Only the most recent past and the reality of the Darkest Age matters. The early sections have enough information to give players a firm idea of what they're in for, and the GM's section gives a decent follow up with more details about locations and groups.
The game reflects the Black Death and its most triumphant era without trying to recreate history. The classes cover what people did while leaving a bit of room to excel to moderately superhuman levels. Alignments are philosophies (such as altruistic, controller, hedonistic) that show how people conduct themselves and view the world. I recognized those philosophies from the plague literature I have studied and savored. Backgrounds, skills, and spells (called rites) take the game into the realm of the fantastic at the highest levels (with spells like commune and control weather), and are reasonable at the lower levels.
Some key changes make everything more interesting. People have every reason to be on the move and embrace old gods, so we get a lot of religious and cultural diversity. Women have a great deal more power, given that they can create llife and must fight alongside everyone else. The book refuses to establish whether or not any deity actually exists and priests can exist for any faith, relying on bardic song abilities for their sermons. The religions outlined are all engaging and the cults can be truly menacing, depending on their goals. The wayforts described in the GM's section provide ready-made, unique locations that show a range of survival strategies. These shifts create room to diverge from our preconceived ideas about the era.
The quality of the book becomes shaky in four respects: grammar, standardizing, specifying, and innovating. I know that the first complaint might not sound like much of a concern. Typos are bound to show up in even the most carefully groomed products and fans will forgive some slips in a product they love. But regular spelling and grammatical errors throughout its length, often several per page, are not acceptable in an otherwise lovely volume striving for a professional appearance. Simply put, it has more linguistic errors than any gaming book I've seen in many years. The layout and material deserve better.
The troubles with standardizing terms and procedures are revealed early on and lead to some confusion. ‘Guards' are repeatedly mentioned without any class being named as such; eventually it becomes clear that ‘guards' are a nickname for the Sentinel class. (This happens again later with prestige classes.) Crowns are mentioned as key currency in some places, gold pieces in others. Some passages suggest that bartering is king, but coinage seems to have the only real weight. Several classes gain followers but none of them really seem to use the Leadership system, instead providing varying numbers of people, willy-nilly. Some classes are accompanied by a section of famous (and infamous) figures of that class, but others are not - and I found myself missing that information each time it was absent. (I suppose they spoiled me; I loved those passages!)
Parts of the book suffer from a lack of specification. Unanswered questions plague the Mystic, making it by far the most unstable class as it is written. What is the difference between secret knowledge and trance? They're both first level abilities that seem to be the same thing. Naming of the Martyr can designate a person the Mystic hasn't even met yet to become a martyr. "Their lives [will be] irrevocably changed,” but aside from advising that the player work with the GM to figure out the effect, there's no real guidance as to what exactly is intended. Other issues exist with that one class, but this problem extends to other elements.
The long list of backgrounds, for instance, ends up feeling empty since the results are listed as "roleplaying,” and/or a reputation adjustment. Very few grant a solid reward or penalty. Allegiances (to various groups) sound cool and have a table of purported benefits, but absolutely no details about how those benefits are supposed to play out. GMs are encouraged to experiment and invent the most deadly strain of the plague and "remember game balance,” but are not given options that might maintain that balance. It is all fine and good to leave room for roleplaying and choice, but players need a solid idea of what's expected. GMs deserve guidance as to the balance of power and any historic flavor. A bit of extra effort can make these omissions into real, flavorful strengths.
By far the greatest flaw of the book is a lack of innovation in the mechanics. Most of the classes take most of their options from base classes and move them around into new packages, but classes like the merchant could have really used some original abilities. The thief is basically the old rogue we know and love, but some variety would be refreshing. Given how many years it's been since the OGL was released, I found myself hoping for more changes. More alchemical goods seem to be called for, as well as more statted traps and tricks for dealing with the undead. Some modifications that are made are clunky, like having three different skills for healing. A few entirely absent aspects - like rules for being surrounded, rules for infection following medieval surgery, and unique/period weapons - would have distinguished Darkest Age further.
I could go on with pros and cons, but here's the bottom line: In the end, I want to see more of and from this game, not less. It is onto something that could be a hell of a lot of fun and a nice change from standard horror and medieval fare. What this book needs badly is a second edition, and I look forward to seeing it.
Check it out now at DriveThru.
(Since I was generously sent a review copy and did not buy it, I am not able to review it on DriveThru.)
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