Months ago, I discovered a Kickstarter for a tabletop RPG called Project: Dark created by a Chicagoan named Will Hindmarch. If the name sounds familiar, you might know him from previous projects like Always/Now/Never or his poetry. If it doesn’t sound familiar, we’ll need to redress that problem immediately.
I want to confess something, firstly. I didn’t back Hindmarch’s Kickstarter. Either I discovered it after it closed or I was broke as hell at the time, but either way, I missed out on the opportunity to not only invest in this project but also get the sneak peek of the game’s mechanics with a beta kit accessible only to backers. Now let me get to why I regret this: the game eschews dice for a standard 52-playing card deck, and the name of the game is all about stealth.
From what I’ve been able to gather in various actual play reports online and the One Shot podcast in which Hindmarch himself ran the game for a group of local Chicago gamers/comic improvisers, the mechanics are fascinating. Card suits relate to four attributes: Guile (Diamond), Mettle (Heart), Force (Club), and Finesse (Spade). Actions are executed by playing cards from your hand, but here’s the thing: your hand limit is determined by how stealthy you’re being. The more coverage you have, the more cards you get. Word is that the game scales really well for a one-on-one session between one GM and one player, which makes the system all the more attractive for me.
The game draws inspiration from stealth video games like Thief and Dishonored, and even goes beyond fantasy and into scifi territory with its various supported settings. Sadly, there’s no release date in sight just yet, so for now I’ll just have to be patient. Or instead, obsess over another thievery-based Kickstarter called Blades in the Dark.
I was able to catch this one in time, so I did end up backing it. Blades in the Dark keeps it simple and sticks to D6s for your action resolution methods. Like Project: Dark, it too focuses on ne’er-do-wells in a Thief– or Dishonored-inspired fantasy world. But unlike Project: Dark, you’re not just sticking to the shadows doing shady things. You’re also starting up a thieves guild. Or assassin’s guild. Whatever you want, really, as long as you’re playing a rude dude.
Each character has their own character sheet, but then the party as a whole has a shared sheet for their “crew.” This is where you get to organize your criminal organization and also see how well you’re getting along with other factions. As your empire grows, you’ll upgrade aspects of your crew and shift your likability among your less than savory peers. The more you succeed likely means the more your rivals will suffer.
Another interesting mechanic is the progress clock in which you essentially draw a circle and draw lines through it so it looks like a pie graph. Progress clocks are a way to track how far along you are in completing a given task. The harder the task, the more sections of the clock there are. A reasonably difficulty task might be, say, eight sections of a progress clock. Certain actions and their degrees of success might clear out more sections of the clock. Those familiar with Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World will recognize the clock as similar to that system’s way of tracking character health. They’ll also notice that the character sheets aren’t merely character sheets but also “playbooks” in which all of your character advancement information is displayed on the character sheet itself.
Characters can take stress to avoid injuries, but when they take too much stress they suffer “trauma.” Take too much trauma and they have to retire. While it sounds like the characters might have a sort of mechanical immortality, there is also a separate type of consequence called “harm.” Some lesser harm examples include “Strained, Tired, Nervous, Confused, Slowed, Battered,” while the fatal examples consist of “Electrocuted, Disintegrated, Drowned, Torn Apart.” After going over the rules, it doesn’t seem as though it shares the same degree of lethality as, say, original Dungeons & Dragons, but there’s a grittiness here that we don’t often see in indie RPGs who lean into the more story-focused aspect of tabletop gaming.
Until I get a group together to play it, I can’t give too much of an opinion of how the machinery works with itself, but what Mr. Harper’s got so far I’m enthusiastic about. He’s made significant changes to the quick start rules he released to Kickstarter backers, but I look at that as a positive in that he’s responding to the feedback. And consistent communication between writer and audience is a good thing.