Review: Open Ended Games – Against the Darkmaster

Against the Darkmaster
Against the Darkmaster is a classic fantasy RPG written by Massimiliano Caracristi and published by Open Ended Games.
By Aaron T. Huss

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Against the Darkmaster is the latest classic fantasy RPG in a long line of classic fantasy RPGs. Eschewing the illicit d20, it utilizes only a d100 and d10 to satisfy the breadth of all mechanics. Combine that with 30 million charts and you get a rules heavy game nestled inside 560 pages of heavy paper armor. Interestingly enough, it has an odd familiarity I couldn’t place my finger on…

… until I looked it up online. Against the Darkmaster is a retro-clone of Middle-Earth Role Playing (aka MERP) / Rolemaster. Ah! That’s why it felt so familiar; it’s a Rolemaster retro-clone with its huge d100 range that goes well beyond 100 when bolstered by some pretty cool bonuses. The MERP aspect explains the cover (you can see it to the right) as it is a good representation of that short movie series known as The Lord of the Rings (you may have heard of it before). I’ve never approached MERP nor have I ever approached classic versions of Rolemaster, but I have perused new Rolemaster books and can see how this fits in with mechanics. With that in mind, the concept of retro-clone is usually executed in one of two ways – mimic the old rules or improve upon them in minor ways; Against the Darkmaster feels like it falls into the former category of retro-clones.

This game oozes 70s/80s RPG design where you throw more mechanics at the player to do more stuff instead of creating something a bit more generic that can be applied in multiple ways. That doesn’t make it wrong or bad or anything, it just means that the game is designed for those who like a lot of crunch in their games and like to have a booklet of reference tables to resolve a huge number of situations. Definitely nothing I would get into (I hate reference charts outside of rolling for injuries or treasure), but then I’m not the target audience.

The game has three core tenants repeated throughout: 1) the Darkmaster is this puppet master that pulls all the strings and serves as the overseer of all badness (like Sauron or Emperor Palpatine), 2) the game is meant to be “low magic” where magic is rare and dangerous, and 3) it’s thematically influenced by heavy metal music. The game does an amazing job at #1, a good job at #2, and a piss poor job at #3.

For starters, the setting and adventure/campaign designed is presented from the view of that big bad overseer. There is lots of content for the GM to consume for hours on end to make this game feel like that overseer is always pulling the strings. Next, the low magic aspects are kind of executed in a low magic way. There are lots of magic options, but not everyone has magic and those who don’t use it wisely will earn the attention of the “Darkmaster” in bad ways. It’s definitely not D&D or Pathfinder, but it seem to be more like “medium magic” that is only dangerous if you push it too far. For the third one… sorry, but there is not heavy metal influence here; more like 80s power metal. You want heavy metal influence? Go check out Lamentations of the Flame Princess. The game is simply too high fantasy with no real darkness (i.e. actual dark themes) to be considered heavy metal fantasy. Just because it’s the “Darkmaster” and the cover shows a dark atmosphere does equal to dark themes. The themes are actually very classic fantasy with all the classic tropes, cultures, and beasts you see elsewhere.

So what about the book? Well, the writing is top notch, the layout looks great, the artwork is awesome (it’s black and white, but I have an appreciation for black and white), but holy crap is there a lot of white space! This 560+ page book could probably fit into 400 pages if the white space was reduced and the layout was more efficient. With so many books being print-on-demand nowadays, I really wish publishers would pay more attention to their page count. This is another personal preference as many players either don’t mind or possibly even like the really big books. Once again, I’m not the target audience so don’t let my couple of personal opinions sway you as the content inside the book is worth it. Why? Because you get: 1) Player Character creation, adventuring rules (mechanics, magic, equipment, combat, health, etc.), GM’s guide, bestiary, magic grimoire (like the details for the magic stuff), an adventure, and a pile of game tables. You can literally run this game for years and years and never have to buy another book. That’s a lot of content! If this was Pathfinder, that’s equivalent to 3 or 4 books and you get all of this for the low price of one book!

If you like MERP / Rolemaster and want to use your old books again or get back into that campaign you never finished as a teenager, this is the book for you! If you prefer fast-resolution, rules-medium mechanics, or games that use generalized mechanics for simplicity, this is definitely not the book for you. Turn around, walk out the door, and go back to Gen Con to find something else.

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