Those Dark Places Roleplaying Game Review | Osprey Games

November 17, 2020 by brennon

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Those Dark Places by Jonathan Hicks immediately grabbed my attention back when it was announced and I was eager to get a look at this rules-light, story-focused roleplaying game published by Osprey Games.

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The book is now a week away from being released (26th November 2020) and I can safely say, it's one of the best times I have had just reading a roleplaying book in the last while. This is a gem of a system which does all the right things to bring the dark and foreboding world of Industrial Sci-Fi to life on the tabletop. This might be just what you need for the long winter months ahead.

Industrial Sci-Fi

One of the first things we should probably tackle is the tone and setting for this roleplaying game. This isn't Starfinder, Star Wars or Star Trek and you won't see flashy screens and pure white corridors that blink with inviting lights. This is Industrial Sci-Fi, a vision of the future with clanking gears, heavy levers, big punchy buttons and CRT screens. Ships are built for a very specific purpose, ferrying massive amounts of freight across the galaxy or making scientific trips and the corporations that control them care little for the crews that tend to them.

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To this end, Those Dark Places isn't really a roleplaying game about hope and "brave new worlds" but instead one which is dominated by claustrophobia and the very real feeling that should anything terrible happen out there in the depths of space, no-one is coming to help you. Just like in films like Alien, Outland and Moon you're battling against forces or situations that no-one has ever seen before and as in the likes of Alien: Isolation and Dead Space, you're going to find yourself struggling, drenched in sweat, grease and blood as you make it out of these situations by the skin of your teeth.

This, as I mentioned above, immediately grabbed me. As much as I like the exploration and adventure of Star Trek I find there is a real sense of fun to be had in not being the heroes and instead just playing as rag-tag everymen and women who are just trying to get by. Solving the puzzle set before you in a game like Those Dark Places is much more interesting when you've not been given all of the pieces.

The rulebook for Those Dark Places reinforces this feeling of dread throughout, brought to life amazingly by the narrative choices throughout the text and the artwork by Nathan Anderson. Everything is set up from the off as if a corporate stooge is introducing you to a simulation you need to play out before you go out on your first expedition and this tongue in cheek, almost satirical tone immediately sets the mood for what's to follow. It's all very sharp and witty.

If the core notion of this roleplaying game experience has caught your attention then I guess we should dive into the meat and potatoes of the game and see how it all works mechanically.

Surviving In Space: The Basics

The basics of character creation in Those Dark Places centres around your C.A.S.E File. Each player will have a set of Attributes which break down into Charisma, Agility, Strength and Education (get it?). When you get started you'll be assigning the values of one, two, three and four to each of these Attributes to determine how good you are within each area.

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This brings me to the way most moments are resolved in-game. Whenever you come to a moment which requires a roll you will tumble forth one six-sided die and then add your relevant Attribute. The difficulty for most tests is set at seven and if you beat that, you succeed in your task. This means that even the weakest person might succeed in heaving that massive airlock door closed if they're lucky.

If you want to make a test easier or harder as the General Monitor (Gamemaster) then you either set the target at a 6+ or an 8+ accordingly. This means that whilst things can fluctuate, there is a very simple way for a General Monitor to work out how to resolve a certain situation. Rolling exactly on the target number (so six, seven or eight) counts as a partial success and therefore you might have been able to solve a problem, only for something else to happen because of it. Perhaps you locked the airlock door but didn't notice the crack in the glass which is starting to grow!

There are extra ways for you to gain positives and negatives to your tests due to certain items, environmental factors and also your role within the crew. As well as working out your Attributes at the start of character creation you'll also be taking on a key role like Helm Officer, Science Officer, Security Officer and the like. These offer up a bonus +2 to any tests done which fit into your wheelhouse. Going back to our airlock scenario; if you were the Engineering Officer then you'd have a keen understanding of how to close that hatch without any faults so you might get a bonus!

That's the basics of any roll in Those Dark Places which was pretty easy to explain!

Combat & Pressure

When it comes to fighting in Those Dark Places, which may or may not be a big feature of your story, the rules are pretty simple too. You're still aiming for that magic number of seven for a normal swipe against someone or a shot from your sidearm, and this is made lower or higher by various factors.

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I won't go into the specifics of it all but in general, you're going to be looking at combats which have a real sense of danger to them. There are no "wounds" in Those Dark Places and instead, the damage done by weapons and bruised fists is done directly to your Attributes, namely your Strength. Weapons are capped in damage so they can't kill you instantly but if you're stuck being hounded by a terrifying alien beast it won't be long until you're bleeding all over the floor. If you're Strength ever reaches zero then you're unconscious, -2 means you're in terrible trouble and if you don't survive long enough for medical attention then you'll be going the way of the dodo!

As Strength can only ever really be as high as four or as low as one you can see why it might not be a good idea to fight if you can help it! When reading through these rules you suddenly realise why most people in these Sci-Fi Horror movies run away from the monsters and don't try taking them on face-to-face. Well, unless you're Ripley. But, she's a badass.

As well as suffering physical trauma, Those Dark Places also has a series of rules for tracking your mental trauma too. Pressure builds during intense situations or frightening moments and you might be called to roll to see if you can keep your mind in check. Over a session of play, this pressure can build and build and you could find yourself having what's called an Episode whereby you might suffer negatives to your Abilities or go dangerously off the rails.

Much like with combat, it is mentioned in Those Dark Places that this kind of trauma shouldn't be taken lightly and used in the right circumstances. If you keep getting scared every time you open a door or attacked when you walk down a corridor then the lustre of horror is going to be washed away pretty quickly. Instead, these moments and their outcomes should be used to highlight the horror.

Because death could be a very real occurrence in Those Dark Places it benefits the system to be simple. You could easily roll up a new character if your previous one got ripped to shreds, sucked out of an airlock or put into a LongSleep chamber. It also means that the players will develop a very real sense of survival when playing and perhaps act like frightened humans rather than action heroes.

This is where I feel like Those Dark Places embraces the nuances in its quick and easy rules. It's very easy, as you will have hopefully seen, to do anything in the game (at least from a mechanical point of view) and the real spotlight shifts from the roll of a die to the choices that you as a crew make and how the General Monitor decides to set out the story before you. The mechanics here reinforce the gameplay and storytelling rather than dominating it and whilst this won't work for some groups, I love how open and interpretive the rules are here.

Setting The Scene

The rest of the rulebook for Those Dark Places contains a lot of helpful information for those thinking about running the game. It's can sometimes be a stressful experience being the General Monitor or Gamemaster for a group and the book does a good job of laying out all the tools you might need.

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Without a reliance on a lot of finickity rules, the General Monitor in Those Dark Places is free to instead focus their attention on painting the picture for their group and bouncing around ideas to match the successes and failures of the crew. Throughout the latter half of the rulebook you'll find ideas for ships that your crew might pilot, places they could visit and there is even a mission to play out too called The Argent III Report which might be a good jumping-off point for a new group. You'll even find options for playing as Synthetic Automatons and how to build "creatures" too. Because the core rules are so simple, it shouldn't be too hard to make something terrifying for your friends to face.

There is also a section of quick reference options at the back of the book which pretty much covers everything you need to know during play so it's unlikely that you're going to be doing much flicking back and forth. Again, this set of rules feels like they give you the tools to play an Industrial Sci-Fi adventure and then step out of the way to make the players the focus. This could be daunting for someone very new to the idea of tabletop roleplaying as you won't know what's fair and what's not. In contrast to that though, veteran roleplayers will get a kick out of being able to just inhabit their characters and face the utterly asymmetrical odds which face them in the darkness of space. Plus, since when was it ever fair on the characters in Alien?

Everything is very dependant on the group you're playing with and what they enjoy of course. But, if the thought of playing an Alien-like adventure where the odds are stacked against you suits your taste then this might be worth taking a closer look at.

Worth A Look?

I think by now you'll have worked out that I think Those Dark Places is a superb little book. I am very much someone who loves the roleplaying side of tabletop storytelling and these rules offer just enough to control the fun and reinforce the horror without getting in the way. It also hits on a core element of Sci-Fi which I think might work as an antidote to all the High Sci-Fi we tend to see.

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I'm a big lover of games like Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play which put you in the boots of ordinary folks facing decided extraordinary circumstances and Those Dark Places does that for me within the Sci-Fi genre; just in boots and a corporate-mandated jumpsuit.

I genuinely think that Those Dark Places could work really nicely as a system to set up one-off sessions with a group where survival isn't garunteed. You could even take a more episodic approach to the story and bring in those characters that survive their encounters as NPCs in the future. There is a lot of fun to be had here.

I don't often talk about price either but you'd be hard-pressed not to pick this up and give it a read at £14.99. The read through the rules is entertaining due to the way it has been written and it's a particularly lovely tome to just "have". The artwork by Nathan Anderson is a perfect interpretation of what you'll be facing when you dive into this game and it's all collected together in a wonderful hardback package.

Do you think you could be tempted to go pick up Those Dark Places?

"Those Dark Places isn't really a roleplaying game about hope and "brave new worlds" but instead one which is dominated by claustrophobia and the very real feeling that should anything terrible happen out there in the depths of space, no-one is coming to help you..."

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"I'm a big lover of games which put you in the boots of ordinary folks facing decided extraordinary circumstances..."

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