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(Catching up on my USA roleplay adventures)

Jonna had met Jason Morningstar in Finland last week, and he had hooked us up with game designer Will Hindmarch who offered to run a playtest of his game Project: Dark for us. What a nice guy! We met in the office building he and a bunch of other creative game freelancers share with the guys from Cards Against Humanity. Seeing this place was an adventure in itself – it was a beautiful place filled with games, a container that housed a Japanese tea ceremony room and a gaming corner. The place even had a theatre! After running wild for a while, we took our mason jar glasses and our Kale chips (yes, it took about a day for us to become hipsters) and set down at the wooden conference table to start gaming.

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Project Dark is a light rpg of thievery, heists and thieves guilds. It’s inspired by Assassin’s Creed and the Thief games. Games we like a lot and that don’t really have an rpg tabletop counterpart yet. We got a choice of four pre-gens that were all female. Awesome!

Jonna picked the agile parcours thief, Jan picked the sexy, con-woman thief, and I picked the religious sorceress. I didn’t really know how a sorceress becomes a thief, but I wrote down ‘creepy red priestess’ as a roleplay note on my character sheet. We got to choose individually which item we were after, so I figured my lady wanted to get her hands on a Scroll of Necromancy – just to keep it out of the hands of the bad guys, of course. That pretty much set the tone for my character!

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How to play

On our sheet we had a list of skills on the right, and on the left we had an overview of special abilities that we could trigger with our own personalized card deck. It also served as an overview of what cards we had in our deck.

The game had two phases. In the Casing phase we honed in on our target and prepared for our heist. The conwoman asked around, the parcours lady cased out the guards, and my sorceress lady sacrificed a goat, made a map of its entrails and let the heart mark the spot. This phase seemed a lot like other ‘investigation’ phases – it’s probably no surprise that Will is a big fan of the Gumshoe system.

Playing the House

Then we started our heist (I don’t remember what it was called). We did our actions in any order we wanted and started our plans. Here, task/skill resolution happened through our deck of cards. First, the GM (“The House”) will say which of four suits your task belongs to. Is it a hearts task that tests your mettle or your persuasion? Or a Spades task that requires finesse and sneakiness? Then you too attach a suit to your action, though you have to make sure that suit fits with how you tackle the job. So this will ideally result in a flavorful and original description. Then you play cards of those two named suits to come up to as high a number as you can (the highest number to beat is 12). Playing specific face cards might also trigger special abilities that can help you. We tended to play our hand in one guy – but later I thought Will said we could also play the cards one by one, adding a bit more narration each time.

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Will had described one of the guards as whittling a toy sword and another has having just stepped into one of the buildings to take a leak. Our parcours assassin quickly dispatched the latter with two good clubs but I didn’t really know how to deal with the father guard. I had no real combat skills. Then I realized I didn’t really have to kill him and that I had a good deal of intimidation. So I just stepped out of the darkness and whispered “Don’t say a word and leave this place… if you ever want your child to be returned to you again”. I had a nice hand of diamonds (Guile) so it worked beautifully – though a timer was running on when the guard would find his child tucked into bed and would return to alarm his fellow mercenaries. It was a neat moment and it made me think it would be fun to play an entire heist without killing anyone.

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After that we scaled floor after floor of the tower in what felt like a very lightweight action game. Not having to worry about initiative, positioning and other D&D trappings meant that we could play fast and lose, and we could use our action narration to give color to our characters.

Another neat mechanic was looting. You could spend an action and give up any amount of cards from your hand to loot the room you are in. Hand management quickly becomes a thing, and so flushing out a few bad (low) cards is a useful thing. Of course, low cards also give less loot and the more cards you play, the more it adds to your suspicion rating… so it all depends on how greedy your character is. If you find loot suitable to your areas of expertise you can pawn it for more money – and it’s that money that will translate to more experience for your character. You train people to make you better. “Better” in this case means adding higher cards to your game, or making your special cards more effective.

The game was very focused on the heist – so interpersonal roleplaying was limited to a few witty catchphrases between characters. I imagine that would come up more between heist sessions. At least if I ran it – I’m already really interested to see what an all-female thieves guild gets up to between scores! I’d also be excited about dropping a session of Dark into a regular campaign when a heist-session came up.

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Wot I thought

I had a great time, I enjoyed making my character’s actions as dark as possible and creeping out the other players. I can quite get into the heist genre if it’s done well and doesn’t bog down – and this game certainly kept both the pace and the fun high. The resolution system is intricate, almost like a mini-game. But it doesn’t bog down play like, say, the card system in Primetime Adventures does for us. Will was working on campaign modes for the moment, but I’m not sure the game offers enough replayability for that. Jonna thought her current Pathfinder group would love it, though, and would want to play it a lot.

We had a great time playing. It was also just plain fun to add a roleplay game to our Chicago experience, and see this cool hidden Chicago spot. I confess I’m kind of hoping I get to play a Gumshoe game with Will at Origins as well!

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