OSR: Boss Fight Design

I like boss fights. They provide a nice change of pace from traditional dungeon exploration. Surviving their challenges and emerging triumphant. My Alexandrian Dark Souls setting will include a lot of boss fights, so I thought I'd lay out my general principles.
Artem Demura

The Action Economy

I: Combat Effort

If fighting is sure to result in victory, then you must fight.
-Sun Tzu
Five PCs can make five attacks in a turn. A standard enemy can only make one attack.

The obvious - and incorrect - adjustment is to make the one enemy's attacks five times stronger and give them five times as much HP. This can work, but it makes a fight deadly and boring. Damage isn't everything. The 5 "attacks" the PCs can make could include stun effects, terrain modification effects, confusion, flanking, pushing someone off a cliff, etc. Just multiplying the numbers won't help.

II: Bullshit Effort

If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected. 
-Sun Tzu
Five PCs can get up to five times as much bullshit as a standard enemy. They can tie ropes, toss items around, communicate, plot, and execute. They can combine items, spells, and abilities.

The obvious adjustment is to give your enemy bullshit-cancelling techniques: stun effects, sleep effects, turning people into trees. These can work, but you can't cancel all bullshit all the time. Instead, bullshit right back.

III: Mental Effort

Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent's fate. 
-Sun Tzu
No matter how clever you are, five players can still think faster than you because there are five of them. They might be thinking in different directions, they might be thinking incorrectly, they might be thinking themselves into trouble... but they are still moving faster than your poor GM brain can manage.

Good boss design can minimize mental effort. At a bare minimum, the boss fight should include all the information you need. If an enemy can teleport, don't list dimension door. List the range and limitations. Having to pause in the middle of a fight to look up some minor detail is a waste of everyone's time.

Jens Kuczwara

The Elements of a Boss Fight

You don't need to include all these elements in the same boss fight. Pick and choose.

I: The Rules

Bosses can break them. End of story. A fair fight is a fight you've already lost. Your rules say enemies attack once per round? Screw it, this boss attacks three times around. Your rules say creatures have a to-hit value? Screw it. You can't hit this boss with conventional weapons, or you automatically hit them.

II: Terrain

A 50'x50' room is boring. Consider including:
  • Interactive (things to knock over, push, throw, or dodge)
  • Intuitively connected areas (a room with a balcony, a sailing ship)
    Unintuitively connected areas (portals, teleporters, floating platforms)
  • Something going on (an active forge, a collapsing building, a rotating water wheel)
  • Places to maneuver, hide, or circle around (pillars, darkness)
  • Areas that limit movement (flowing water, video game lava or acid, swarms of slippery maggots)
  • Dangerous areas (pits, drops, mashing gears, flame jets)
  • Strong themes. This is almost mandatory. The arena should be as interesting as the boss.
Try to include a potential escape route and a place to hide for a few rounds.

III: Phases

Tension in a boss fight tends to drop off fairly quickly. At first, there's this feeling of "Augh what the fuck is that thing!?", but players tend to figure out bosses fairly quickly. The fight becomes a slog.

You can continue to increase the tension by the uses of phases.

Phases can be triggered by:
  • # of rounds since combat began (kill it quickly or it gets tougher or drag out combat to tire it out)
  • Damage taken (1/2 HP or a specific threshold)
  • Specific actions (melting ice, breaking chains, opening a door, using a spell)
Triggers should be obvious to the GM and easy to track.
  • Phases can include:
  • A change of boss moves (different or better attacks)
  • An increase in the number of enemies (calling goblin assistants, splitting in half)
  • An change in pace (slower or faster attacks)
    A change in terrain (see above) as the boss moves or alters its environment

IV: Boss Moves

A minimum starting point:
  • One "moderate" damage attack. Enough to chip away at one or more PCs but not enough to kill a full health PC.
  • One "oh fuck" damage attack. Enough to almost kill a PC or at least scare the hell out of your players.
  • One "aha, thought you were being clever" attack. Usually an area-of-effect burst or a re-positioning.
  • One "weird" effect. Passive or active. Does something unexpected. Helps control the fight, combat the PCs' bullshit.
Don't forget; the boss can re-position itself as well as attacking. It can circle, move back, flank, isolate, corner, or retreat. A boss shouldn't remain stationary to let the PCs surround and wail on it.
Additional Moves
  • Telegraphed mega-damage attack. One round to get out of the way or you're probably dead.
  • Area control attacks. Classic MMORPG boss fight moves. Designate an area; anyone in the area after a few rounds has something horrible happen to them.
  • Reactions. Occur when a PC does something (casts a spell, fires a ranged weapon, smashes a vital gem). Breaks the normal turn order. Frightening.
  • Summoning low-threat allies.
Passive Boss Abilities
  • Initiative penalties (this boss is really quick)
    Multiple actions per round (It goes at the start of each round and in the middle of each round)
    Actions after every PC's turn (It goes after every PC)
  • Automatically hit (this boss is huge, you can't possibly miss) coupled with damage reduction (but it's so huge your weapons barely harm it)
    Immunity to some types of attack
  • An inconvenient movement move (flight, hovering, swimming)
Additional Complications
  • Immune until some action is taken (smashing a crystal, opening windows to let sunlight in)
  • Terrain can be used against the boss (ancient rusting cannons on the balcony, fragile ceiling)
  • A second boss arrives in the middle of the fight.
Boss Move Tips
  • The move's name and description should enable the GM to describe it, with as much or as little purple prose as needed, without preparing ahead of time.
  • Powerful moves should be telegraphed. If a boss spits fire, its mouth should dribble flames all the time, even when it's not using that move. If it has a dart-forward multi-attack, it should move like a duelist, etc.
  • Moves should be repeated to give the players a chance to learn and adapt.
  • Try to include more than one path to victory. The Basilisk can be fought traditionally or blinded by stealth or fed to make it into a sort of ally.
  • Some bosses deserve as much foreshadowing as you can give them. Hype them up. Give hints and warnings and, perhaps, mangled survivors.
  • Some bosses should be horrible surprises.

V: Twists

  • Not all bosses need to be larger or stranger than the PCs. The first boss fight in Bloodborne is against Father Gascoigne. He has the same equipment and the same moves as you... and he kicks your ass, because he uses them better. He thumbs his nose at the player. "I don't have any special advantages or tools. I'm just better. Get good, scruuuuub."
  • Some bosses, especially ones with immunity to common attacks, can be treated more like puzzles than fights.
  • Some boss fights can be tragic instead of hectic. They can be easier than expected for a reason that only becomes obvious later.
  • A composite boss (a smaller creature riding a larger creature, two allies with different fighting styles, a caster and a sword-wielder)

VI: Music

Boss fights are a chance to get bombastic. If you don't use background music normally, now's your chance. Mostly silence, with only some areas having music, is a Dark Souls hallmark.

VII: Prose

Your goal, as a GM, is to make the boss fight interesting. Take your time describing the boss and the terrain before the fight begins. Linger over details. Build a complete picture in your players' minds and you will be rewarded for it later.

Practice describing things. Go onto Artstation or some other site, find some monsters, and describe them - out loud if possible. Your goal is to produce an experience that your players will
vividly remember.

Yongsub Noh

Example Boss Fights

The Basilisk (by far the best and most complete boss fight I've written and tested)
The Stone Cobra Guardian
The Blizzard Eel
Xiximanter the Lich, the Apocalypse Shell, and the Umbral Duchess

Further Reading

Held Kinetic Energy in Old School Arenas
JRPG Inspired Encounter Design
5th Edition's Legendary Actions
Action Economics 101 and 102
Broodmother Skyfortress
All the boss fights in Dark Souls
EDIT: Better Boss Fights


OSR: Miscellaneous Alexandrian Monsters, Part 1

The Wonders of the East is an Old English miscellany written in ~1000 AD. It's not quite an itinerary or a bestiary. Unlike Benjamin of Tudela's factual account, this text is mostly fantastic nonsense. You can read a translation here. I've pulled it apart and sorted it into a few useful categories.

It's a perfect source document for the Alexandrian Dark Souls setting I'm working on. Rather than doing something productive with my time, here are stats for some of the creatures from the text. I'm not sure how many of them will be used in the final setting.

Side Note: Medieval Telephone

In The Wonders of the East, we get the following mysterious description:

28. By the ocean is a breed of wild animals that is called Catini, and they are very beautiful animals. And there are people there who live on raw meat and honey.

29. On the left-hand side of the kingdom in which there are wild animals called Catini, there are hospitable people, kings who have subdued many tyrants. Their boundaries border on the Ocean, and from there, from the left-hand section, there are many kings.
An Old French abbreviator summarized the text as:
There are men called Catius, just and handsome, who live on raw flesh. The inhabitants of the region neighboring the Catius are a kingly people called the Reges.
And who knows? There could be other texts based on the Old French abridged version that add new details and new inventions, and the game continues. 

Side Note: Common Elements

Medieval "books of wonders", especially books from France and England, tend to focus on specific supernatural elements.

Size: creatures much larger than local ones.
Fire: creatures who can breathe fire, dwell in fire, or use fire.
Serpents: serpents held a peculiar fascination for medieval authors, especially their deadly venom.
Intelligence: creatures which are as intelligent as people or people who behave in very strange ways.

The Dragon
possesses all three elements in many accounts.

Part 1: Beasts and Birds

Wild beasts are also born there. When these wild beasts hear a human voice, they run far away. The beasts have eight feet, and valkyrie-eyes, and two heads. If anyone tries to touch them, they set their bodies aflame. They are extraordinary beasts.

Flame-Wreathed Jackals

HD: 5
Appearance: a tan-furred hound with two heads. Each head has one glittering eye.
Wants: to hunt the weak, evade the strong.
Armor: as leather
Move: 2x normal
Morale: 5
Damage: 1d6 bite. If struck, they ignite, dealing 1d6 fire damage to anyone who lands a successful  melee hit.

They fear speech and flee from words. Their minds at least as sharp as a man's, possibly more. They pad through the desert on eight feet, hunting mice and wounded camels and burst into flames when in danger. Each ice-crystal eye is worth 100gp, either as a gem or as a scrying stone. Crush glass in the desert to call them; they might eat your camels in the night, but they keep away the desert ghosts on moonless nights.

GM Notes on Flame-Wreathed Jackals: As far as I can tell, "valkyrie-eyes" means "sparkling" or "bright". Not lantern-bright, but glittering, like ice. Purser says other texts "emphasize the eyes of the wælcyrge as the seat of her monstrosity". How eerie would a creature like this look; two heads, but one eye each, looking down on your from the top of a dune? These creature are background flavour and something for the PCs to hunt while traveling if they need a challenge... or something that could hunt the PCs if they are weak and isolated.

Ants are born there as big as dogs, which have feet like grasshoppers, and are of red and black color. The ants dig up gold from the ground from before night to the fifth hour of the day. People who are bold enough to take the gold bring with them male camels, and females with their young. They tie up the young before they cross the river. They load the gold onto the females, and mount them themselves, and leave the males there. Then the ants detect the males, and while the ants are occupied with the males, the men cross over the river with the females and the gold. They are so swift that one would think that they were flying.

Giant Ants

HD: 2
Appearance: a black-and-red striped ant the size of a dog.
Wants: to acquire gold, protect eggs.
Armor: as chain
Move: normal
Morale: 10
Damage: 1d6 bite

Giant ants are found in roving groups of 2d20. In some areas they mine gold nuggets, which are stolen by desert raiders using camels as bait. Some people think the ants are trading gold nuggets for delicious camels.

GM Notes on Giant Ants: I already have several picnics worth of ants in my settings, so I'm a bit tired of ants. I doubt I'll use these guys, but the idea of desert people thinking they're so cunning in using camels to "trick" ants, and ants thinking they're so cunning in using gold nuggets to trick desert people.
In these regions are born great multitudes of elephants.
Medieval authors loved elephants. They were often illustrated with wildly inconsistent details. The ever-delightful Pliny the Elder devotes twelve chapters to them. Since many medieval bestiaries quote Pliny (and through him, Aristotle, etc.), I've included a few relevant sections below.
Let us now pass on to the other animals, and first of all to the land animals. The elephant is the largest of them all, and in intelligence approaches the nearest to man. It understands the language of its country, it obeys commands, and it remembers all the duties which it has been taught. It is sensible alike of the pleasures of love and glory, and, to a degree that is rare among men even, possesses notions of honesty, prudence, and equity; it has a religious respect also for the stars, and a veneration for the sun and the moon... They are supposed to have a notion, too, of the differences of religion; and when about to cross the sea, they cannot be prevailed upon to go on board the ship, until their keeper has promised upon oath that they shall return home again. They have been seen, too, when worn out by disease, (for even these vast masses are liable to disease,) lying on their back, and throwing the grass up into the air, as if deputing the earth to intercede for them with its prayers. As a proof of their extreme docility, they pay homage to the king, fall upon their knees, and offer him the crown.
Nor, indeed, ought we to be surprised, that an animal which possesses memory should be sensible of affection: for the same author relates, that an elephant recognized, after the lapse of many years, an old man who had been its keeper in his youth. They would seem also to have an instinctive feeling of justice. King Bocchus once fastened thirty elephants to the stake, with the determination of wreaking his vengeance on them, by means of thirty others; but though men kept sallying forth among them to goad them on, he could not, with all his endeavours, force them to become the ministers of the cruelty of others.
Bartholomaeus Anglicus has an absolutely excellent Elephant vs. Dragon fight in his encyclopedia. You can read it here.


Appearance: a great grey beast, with broad ears, legs like tree trunks, and a long nose as flexible as a snake.
Wants: to live a peaceful life
Armor: as plate+shield
Move: 1/2 normal
Morale: 10
Damage: 1d8 stomp / 1d6 tusk swipe

Elephants are peaceful, intelligent beasts. The legends say they were used in Iskander's army, and by his enemies, but no armies now use them. They are wise, religious, and can be taught writing and other simple crafts. They are locked in conflict with dragons.

GM Notes on Elephants: Consider replacing a faction in your setting with elephants. Not fancy elephants with carriages and cities. Just regular elephants. They are certainly smart enough to qualify. Your average elephant can probably out-think your average PC.
As you go towards the Red Sea there is a place called Lentibeisinea, where there are hens born like ours, red in color. If any one tries to take or touch them, they immediately burn up all his body. That is extraordinary magic.

Fire Hens

HD: 0 (1 HP)
Appearance: a bright red chicken.
Wants: conquest, domination, bloodshed. A tiny cluster of neurons filled with unfathomable hatred, limited only by their short attention span, love of food, and shocking idiocy.
Armor: none
Move: normal, fly in 10' hops.
Morale: 12
Damage: 1d8 fire. Fire Hens catch fire under the mildest provocation. They also swarm.

Do not taunt the chickens. Everyone in this land fear the chickens. They roam untroubled, eating grain right out of a farmer's field or the fresh-baked loaf from his table. Poultriarchy - rule by chicken. They aren't great legislators but they are definitely in control.

GM Notes for Fire Hens: There is a village with solid, stone-walled buildings, frightened people, and fat and happy chickens.

Part 2: Serpents

Dragons are born there, who are one hundred and fifty feet long, and are as thick as great stone pillars. Because of the abundance of the dragons, no one can travel easily in that land.
A dragon should be a boss fight.

...because of the multitude of snakes called Corsiae which are in those places.  They have horns as big as ram's. If they strike or touch anyone, he immediately dies.

Corsiae, the Horned Snakes

HD: 3
Appearance: a cluster of horned snakes. A full cluster has 3 HD and fights as one creature.
Wants: to eat eggs, grow fat, and protect the other snakes.
Armor: none
Move: 1x normal
Morale: 8
Damage: on a successful hit, Save vs Death. Touching the snakes also requires a Save vs Death unless thick impermeable gloves are used.

The Corsiae snakes are widely feared. Areas they infest are abandoned by all animals, save for nervous-looking perching birds. Every part of their body is hideously and immediately toxic. It is said the Assassins raise these snake and slowly become immune to their poison.

GM Notes on the
Corsiae: "Save vs Death" serpents aren't terribly interesting on their own.  Put them in context.

This place contains serpents. The serpents have two heads, whose eyes shine at night as brightly as lanterns.
These serpents don't need stats, but they do provide an interesting alternative to torches. Keeping a serpent happy is more difficult than buying lamp oil but it's much more impressive.
In those lands there is an abundance of pepper. The snakes keep the pepper in their eagerness. In order to take the pepper people set fire to the place and then the snakes flee from the high ground into the earth; because of this the pepper is black. The place is barren because of the multitude of the snakes.
Again, these serpents don't need stats. Instead, imagine the PCs cresting a hill to encounter a wildfire and a huge swarm of serpents, or discover that they can get access to heaps of valuable spices just by killing a few serpents.

Part 3: General Background Creatures

Things that don't need stats but could be used to provide some background details.

Rams born there as big as oxen.

In one land there are born donkeys which have horns as big as oxen's.

In the same place is another kind of bird called Phoenix. They have crests on their heads like peacocks, and they build their nests from the most precious spices, which are called cinnamon; and from its breath, after a thousand years, it kindles a flame, and then rises up young again from the ashes.

Part 4: Trees, Plants, and Places

In this place there are kinds of trees which are like laurel and olive. From these trees the most expensive oil, balsam, is wholly produced.

Then there is a golden vineyard near the rising of the sun which has berries of 150 feet. On them, berries are produced like pearls or jewels.

Then there is an island, which is in length and breadth in the lesser measurement that is called stadia 360, and in the greater called leuuae 90. There was built in the days of Belus the king and Jove a temple made from wrought iron and brass. And in the same place there is east from there another temple, sacred to the sun, in which is ordained a fine and gentle priest, and he governs the halls and looks after them.

There is another kingdom in the lands of Babylon where there is found the biggest mountain between the mountain of Media and of Armenia. It is the biggest and highest mountain of all. There are decent people there who have power and dominion over the Red Sea. Precious jewels are produced there.

Then there are kinds of tree from which the most precious stones are produced, and upon which they grow.

Then there is land in which very many vineyards grow, where there is a couch of ivory. It is 306 feet long.

Then there is a mountain called Adamans.

Part 5: People

There is a land called Ciconia in Callia, where people are born of three colors, whose heads have manes like lions' heads, and they are twenty feet tall, and have mouths as big as fans. If they see or perceive anyone in those lands, or if anyone is following them, then they take flight and flee, and sweat blood. They are thought to be men.
"They are thought to be men" is a very curious statement. No matter how strange a people might be, medieval authors generally gave them the benefit of the doubt. Friedman says that some of the "races of men" mentioned by medieval authors may have actually existed, at least in some form. I'd say that the Mursi people of Ethiopia could (after a few rounds of medieval telephone) fit the description above.

I probably won't include any of these specifically, but they're too good not to list.
In one land people are born who are six feet tall. They have beards to their knees, and hair to their heels. They are called Homodubii, that is 'doubtful ones', and they eat raw fish and live on them. [...] There are born there Homodubii, that is 'doubtful ones'. They have a human shape to the navel and below that the shape of a donkey, and they have long legs like birds, and a soft voice. If they see or perceive anyone in those lands, they run far off and flee.
There are people born there, who are, fifteen feet tall and have white bodies and two faces on a single head, feet and knees very red, and long noses and black hair. When they want to give birth, they travel in ships to India, and bring their young into the world there.

Beyond the River Brixontes, east from there, there are people born big and tall, who have feet and shanks twelve feet long, flanks with chests seven feet long. They are of a black colour, and are called Hostes. As certainly as they catch a person they devour him.

Then there are on the Brixontes wild animals which are called Lertices. They have donkeys ears and sheep's wool and bird's feet.

Then there is another island, south of the Brixontes, on which there are born men without heads who have their eyes and mouth in their chests. They are eight feet tall and eight feet wide.

Then there is another place with barbarous people, and they have kings under them to the number of 110. They are the worst and most barbarous people, and there are two lakes there, one of the sun and the other of the moon. The suds lake is hot in the day and cold at night, and the moon's lake is hot at night and cold in the day.

Then there is an island in the Red Sea where there is a race of people we call Donestre, who have grown like soothsayers from the head to the navel, and the other part is human. And they know all human speech. When they see someone from a foreign country, they name him and his kinsmen with the names of acquaintances, and with lying words they beguile him and capture him, and after that eat him all up except for the head, and then sit and weep over the head.
I'm not sure if "grown like soothsayers" is an accurate translation or a reference I'm missing. Donestre were fairly common in medieval bestiaries, and are usually depicted with... very strange heads. Examples of lion-headed and snake-headed Donestre can be found in medieval manuscripts. Evidently some illustrators didn't know what to make of them either.
Going east from there is a place where people are born who are in size fifteen feet tall and ten broad. They have large heads and ears like fans. They spread one ear beneath them at night, and they wrap themselves with the other. Their ears are very light and their bodies are as white as milk. And if they see or perceive anyone in those lands, they take their ears in their hands and go far and flee, so swiftly one might think that they flew.
Then there is an island on which people are born whose eyes shine as brightly as if one had lit a great lantern on a dark night.

Around those places there are born women, who have beards down to their breasts, and have made clothes out of horse's hide. They are called great huntresses, and instead of dogs they breed tigers and leopards, that are the fiercest beasts. And they hunt for all the kinds of wild beasts which are born on the mountain.

Then there are other women who have boar's tusks and hair down to their heels and ox-tails on their loins. Those women are thirteen feet tall and their bodies are of the whiteness of marble. And they have camel's feet and boar's teeth. Because of their uncleanness they were killed by Alexander the Great of Macedon. He killed them because he could not capture them alive, because they have offensive and disgusting bodies.

And there are people there who live on raw meat and honey.

On the left-hand side of the kingdom in which there are wild animals called Catini, there are hospitable people, kings who have subdued many tyrants. Their boundaries border on the Ocean, and from there, from the left-hand section, there are many kings. This race of people live for many years, and they are generous people. If anyone visits them they give him a woman before they let him go. When Alexander of Macedon visited them, he was amazed at their humanity, and would not kill them or cause them any harm.

There is another race of people there of black color to look at, who are called Ethiopians.

Then there is another mountain where there are black people, and no one else can approach those people because the mountain is all aflame.

Also there are born there half-dogs who are called Conopenae. They have horses' manes and boars' tusks and dogs' heads and their breath is like a fiery flame.
The other "half" of a "half-dog" is a person.

Anyway, next time you need some D&D races or factions to fill in the edge of your setting, here you go.

Consider that Saint Christopher was widely considered to have been a dog-headed person. Consider that if the King of Ghana had sent a trade mission to northern Ireland in 900 AD, the local rulers and monks would have been able to fit them into a pre-existing context.

Part 6: Bonus Content

The manuscript ends with a bit of misplaced apocrypha. I've included it for two reasons. First, it shows just how jumbled manuscripts can be. Second, because Mambres and Iamnes are these two sorcerers and they have a song. 
Here it says how Mambres opened the magical books of his brother Iamnes, and to him were revealed the deep mysteries of his brother's idolatry. The soul of Iamnes answered him with these words: 'Brother, I am dead not unjustly, but rightly and justly am I dead, and God's judgment stands against me because I alone was wiser than all the other sorcerers, and I withstood the two brothers called Moses and Aaron, who performed those great portents and signs. For that reason am I dead, and for this am I brought to the middle kingdom of hell, where there is the great heat of eternal punishment, and where there is the pit of perpetual torment from which no one ever ascends. Now, my brother Mambres, take care that you do well to your children and your friends, because in hell there is nothing good, only misery and darkness; and after you are dead, then you will come to hell, and your dwelling-place will be among the dead, down in the ground, and your pit will be two cubits wide and four cubits long.'


The Iron Gates - Maps, Clues, and Speeches

I'm working on an Alexandrian Dark Souls setting. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. You don't really need to read the other parts first, but it might help. This is (probably) the last planning post. After this, I'll try to stick to locations, boss fights, items, classes, etc.

The map isn't accurate or complete or to scale. It's just a tool I'm using to plan the content.
PCs will start on the far left, in Outer Meridia. Some locations will have mapped areas but most will use an encounter table or two.

For comparison, here's the Dark Souls 1 map.

Gold and the Promise of Safety

OSR-type games tend to work best when there is localized order but general disorder. "Safe" towns and "dangerous" wilderness/dungeons. Somewhere the PCs can sell loot and somewhere they can find loot.

In this game, markets are bonfires. If there's a market, there's enough local order to allow gold to flow without violence. In a setting where gold is closely tied to ambition, that's more important than you might think.

Repeated Information

Dark Souls relies on repetition. Items with vital lore clues in their description have a random drop rate. NPC questlines have bizarre activation conditions that usually require an internet guide, crowdsourced testing, and a great deal of time.

Well, this is an RPG. The PCs only have one shot. I'll try to layer as many clues and hints as I can into everything they encounter.

Readaloud Text

Embers of the Forgotten Kingdom uses a very unusual technique to convey lore. They have Dark Soul-style item descriptions in each chapter heading page.
Now, this is definitely in keeping with the video game's style... but it's completely useless to the players! The items aren't indexed, so the GM can't flip back and read off the text when needed. They are purely for someone reading the book as a novel. It's one of those frustrating little things that looks good on paper but is useless in practice.
So I'm not going to be doing things like that. I'm going to try to embed as much lore as possible in player-facing content and minimize read-aloud text wherever possible. Descriptions can be read verbatim or summarized.

Dark Souls Names

Anor Londo. Knight Artorias. The Way of White. Yhorm the Giant. Gwynevere and Gwyndolin.

These names are immediately evocative. They evoke real-world myths: Guinevere and Lancelot and Sir Gawain. The developers even used Tolkien's elvish language dictionary to name things. I'm going to try to use names with the same level of care. I'll probably fail, but I'll try.

I also want to use a limited number of names. Jumping into the middle of a module and seeing dozens of named NPCs and/or locations and/or setting concepts mixed together is, for me, a tiring and disheartening experience. If you're going to name something you should have a good reason, and you should tell the GM or the players something of vital importance.

"As children of the abbey, both Ceidwen and Caddell were forced to live lives of the faithful under the care of the Stargazers. Learning the abbey’s role in the Cycle, as well as the nature of souls, aiding their passage into the Hearth. [sic]"
-Embers of the Forgotten Kingdom pg. 31


The only "mandatory" readloud text will be speeches. Dark Souls embeds a lot of lore in NPC dialogue. Possibly because the speeches are translated, or possibly because they were originally very strange, speeches have a peculiar cadence. Unlike most things in Dark Souls, this is relatively easy to replicate in a tabletop RPG. I'll use the same format I used in Kidnap the Archpriest - a few introductory words, and then optional answers to questions the PCs might ask.

I also intend to use repeated phrases. I really recommend this as a worldbuilding technique. For some reason players tend to fixate on these phrases and remember them session to session.

"For gold, and crowns of gold"

     "Iron must be quenched in blood." 
          "As it was in Iskandar's day."
                         "A dream, a terrible dream."

Sherbakov Stanislav

Not the Boss Fight You Expected

Dark Souls has several unusual boss fights. Sometimes they don't make a lot of sense if you don't pay attention to the lore. Yhorm the Giant is a good example. He's a giant king. He has very powerful sword... next to his throne. Run over, grab it, and it's trivial to kill him.What a weird fight.

But if you understand the lore (and the linked video helps), you'll realize he put the sword there deliberately. It was half of a matched pair. Its twin is carried by Yhorm's close friend.

Recurring NPCS

The PCs may cross paths with several NPCs. A knight traveling to fight. A merchant with wild dreams. An agent of the church, looking for anyone who might disrupt the existing order. I'm going to try to reference these NPCs in a limited number of locations to prevent flipping back and forth constantly... or telling a novel-length story in the middle of a module.


The Iron Gates - Gold, Gods, and Sorcery

I'm working on an Alexandrian Dark Souls setting. Part 1, Part 2. You don't really need to read the other parts first, but it might help.

Dark Souls takes a video game necessity - respawning after death - and makes it part of the world's lore.

Gold for XP is a core concept in many old-school games. You don't level up by reaching checkpoints or progressing through a story. You get gold by looting it. Find a cunning, less risky way to get loot? Good job.

The following is very dry and organized. In setting, it will be presented in bits and pieces, not laid out in the open.
Franklin Booth

"For Gold, and Crowns of Gold"

"Remember the Golden Rule; he who has the gold makes the rules." 
- Peasant saying.
What if we make gold for XP part of the world's lore? Gold is a kind of magic, after all. It captivates people. Crowns are forged from gold. So are crosses, wedding rings, and idols. A golden age, a golden mean, a golden rule.

Gold is civilization. Gold is ambition, pride, and status. The more gold you have, the more "human" you feel, the grander your desires and dreams. Gold is a divine gift.
Artem Demura

"Iron Must be Quenched in Blood."

They did not fight at a distance with bows and javelins, but with one mind hacked at one another in close combat with their mighty swords and spears pointed at both ends; they fought moreover with keen battle-axes and with hatchets. Many a good stout blade hilted and scabbarded with iron, fell from hand or shoulder as they fought, and the earth ran red with blood.  
-Illiad, Homer
Iron protects and iron corrupts. As each age draws to a close, as the Barbarians come to tear down the cities of civilization, iron sings a song of blood. The song is quiet in most ages, but in this age, with the Iron Gates holding back the Barbarians and prolonging the Long Day, the song has become a roar. Those who wield iron lose memories and restraint. Their lives are pared down to a handful of instincts. They aren't bestial or mindless - not quite - but they are simplified. Knights plot furious wars, reach for their weapons at the slightest sign of dissent, perpetrate massacres, and duel to the death in the streets.

Iron is the setting's equivalent to Hollowing. In Dark Souls, repeated death can reduce an undead to a mindless husk. In this game, iron slowly drowns you in an endless thirst for war. It turns your heart to iron; you become callous, unable to love or even to hate. Knights can make vows to focus their minds. Berserkers deliberately choose to obey iron's call, gaining great strength but sometimes losing control.
Alexey Egorov

Gods and Mortals

Not at all similar are the race of the immortal gods and the race of men who walk upon the earth. 
-Illiad, Homer
Staring into the basin, he saw the gods of the Egyptians and they were leading the ships of the oncoming enemies from the barbarous nations - he was a man who was accustomed to being among and speaking with the gods magically through his sorcerer's skill. And upon learning that the kingdom of the Egyptians had come to an end, he filled his belt with much gold and silver and shaved his hair and his beard. Having disguised himself, he fled away, without anyone's knowing.
Ankai is the God of Gold. He is also the God of Civilization and Sunlight and Art. His power is over desire and ambition. His miracles are the golden rays of the sun, bright and obvious.

Ennu is the God of Water. She is also the God of Knowledge and Storms and Dreams. Her power is over fear, sight, and the written word. The first hydromancers were taught by her.

Nitan is the God of War. Nitan is a beast, neither male nor female and both at once. Its power is over iron, the earth, and blood. Nitan is also the god of mathematics, forges, and kilns. The first geomancers learned from Nitan.

The Gods sit outside the cycle of civilizations. They watch them rise and fall, helping some, harming others, playing inscrutable and distant games.

Sorcery and Magic in Dark Souls

All "magic" in Dark Souls falls into one of 3 classes:

Pyromancy: fire magic. Associated with chaos and losing control. From the Witch of Izalith.
Sorcery: soul magic. Associated with crystals. From Seath the Scaleless.
Miracles: holy magic (not really magic): Associated with heat and light (and lightning, the combination of both). From Lord Gwyn (and the other gods).

These three elements repeat over and over in other items.

With the cycle of fire and dark replaced with civilization and barbarism in my setting, I've needed to make some adjustments. Pyromancy is out (sadly). Sorcery becomes a catch-all term. The two main schools are Hydromancy and Geomancy. Miracles are similar to their Dark Souls equivalent (and generic D&D cleric spells), so I don't think they need a separate section at this time.
Fabian Krenn
For if ever a marauding horde rose against him, he did not work at machines of warfare, stockpile arms, prepare man-killing iron weapons, nor did he proffer any ingenious devices. Rather, he went to his palace alone, took a basin, and, isolating himself, worked this sorcery of the basin. He poured spring water into his basin, and with his hands created ships and men from wax, and set the men upon the ships and put them into the basin; and the men came to life. And he, Nectanebos, took an ebony staff in his hand and by incantation invoked the gods of the earth and the spirits of the sky; and in this fashion, he baptized the ships which were in the basin. As they were being baptized, the ships which were coming against them by sea from their enemies were destroyed. And because of the masterful magic power of the man, his kingdom was at peace. 
-Alexander Romance

[The Turkish nomads] do not wash after polluting themselves with excrement and urine. They do not wash after major ritual pollution, or any other pollution. They have no contact with water, especially in winter.

None of the merchants, or indeed any Muslim, can perform ablutions in their presence after a major pollution; it must be done at night where they cannot see him otherwise they become angry and say, "This man wants to put a spell on us - he is practicing hydromancy."
And then they fine him.
-Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness
Hydromancy spells will include scrying, purifying, finding secrets, lightning, acting on things at a great distance, and dreams.
Artem Demura
Geomancy is an Art of Divination, wherby the judgement may be rendred by lot, or destiny, to every question of every thing whatsoever, but the Art hereof consisteth especially in certain points where of certain figures are deducted according to the reason or rule of equality of inequality, likenesse or unlikenesse,; which Figures are also reduced to the Coelestiall Figures, assuming their natures and proprieties, according to the course and forms of the Signes and Planets. 
-Of Geomancy, Henry Cornelius Agrippa
Geomancy spells will include prediction, direction-finding, separating, dragging down, measuring, and works of architecture and mathematics.
Krist Miha

Classes and Symmetry

I'm thinking of using 9 classes. Dark Souls has a lot of classes but they are designed for a combat-heavy video game. Here are a few vague ideas for class features.

Merchant: Associated with Gold. Cannot be corrupted by items as long as they intend to sell them. Can read people, evaluate items. Can choose to be the most obvious or least obvious person in a group. Can use anything as a weapon (dealing 1d4 damage).

Hunter: Associated with Water. Tracking, wilderness survival, bows (in some cases, ludicrously large). Dealing with nature, beasts, weather.

: Associated with Iron. Parry, shield, reroll Saves vs Fear or Mind-Altering Effects if you’ve taken a vow. Tank.

Pardoner: Associated with Gold. Not entirely sure on this class yet. Find and purge curses, cut deals, gain followers/cultists.

Scoundrel: Associated with Water. Can break any contract, vow, or promise. Must Save or betray someone if they put their faith in you. Can choose up to template # of people to truly trust. Disguise self as any other class or profession (might only last for a few rounds if you have no props).

Berserker: Associated with Iron. Big weapons, big damage. Can act in surprise round if action is to draw weapon or if weapon is drawn attack nearest enemy.

: Associated with Gold. Divine miracles.

Hydromancer: Associated with Water. See above.

Geomancer: Associated with Iron. See above.

Olya Bossak

Side Note: Player Skill

In my view, there are two types major types of player skills.

The first is hitting every gear change exactly right. Cutting every corner. Knowing the precise limits of your vehicle.

The second is taking a shortcut through the woods and arriving at your destination - with branches in your radiator and a cracked wing mirror, perhaps - thirty minutes ahead of schedule.

RoosterEma's very interesting Dark Souls RPG relies on the first kind of player skill, the almost gnostic-obsessive puzzle-pattern finder who can look at an Exalted charm list or a 3.5 splatbook (or a new set of Magic the Gathering) and figure out how to build "something good". This is a player skill, and it's a very good skill to have. Optimizing and min-maxing and carefully picking equipment and rings is a part of the Dark Souls video game experience, and his game replicates it very well (as far as I can tell, just by reading it).

But, for all that, it's not a skill I particularly value in my games. I don't typically write content for this type of skill. It's difficult. You need to balance a lot of things and do a lot of testing to ensure there are no extremely under- or overpowered builds. You need to create and then carefully curate your design space.

The second type of skill - the improvisational, the unexpected, the coming up with a cunning plan from unlikely ingredients - is my preference. It's easy for me to write content for this type of skill; I just provide a lot of odd tools and see what people build with them. I deliberately try to make it difficult to deliberately optimize a character.

Anyway, for the purposes of this setting, it really doesn't matter. Enemies and boss fights will be designed to work with both playstyles and system types.