OSR: The Iron Gates - Design Goals and Initial Notes

I'm writing an Alexandrian Dark Souls setting. You can read about the initial concept here.
Anton Fedotov

Current Dark Souls RPGs

There are tools out there if you want to run Dark Souls - the video game version - as an RPG.

Embers of the Forgotten Kingdom is a setting book with rules support for "D&D 5th Edition, Pathfinder, Shadow of the Demon Lord, OSR/AD&D, Cypher System, Dungeon World , FATE, Savage Worlds & 13th Age." The rules haven't been published yet, which is a bit of a worrying sign. The setting book itself is Dark Souls with the serial numbers filed off. The PDF is difficult to read and, I'd think, difficult to use at the table. It's fun to read the authors' alternate lore for well-known Dark Souls bosses, but without the rules, it's just fiction with art.

Fires Far Away is a homebrewed system. As far as I can tell, it's designed to emulate all aspects of the video game, so if you like that sort of thing, the rules will probably interest you. It seems fiddly to me, but I haven't given it a close reading.

Necropraxis also has a bunch of rules and ideas.

EDIT: RoosterEma has a fully functional Dark Souls RPG with procedural abstract exploration rules. It's a very cool idea and the best and most complete implementation of a Dark Souls-imitating RPG that I've seen yet.

John 'jD' Dickenson

Structure of the Book

If there ever will be a book.

1. Locations and Maps

If all goes well, I'll have several cities with "district-level" maps and some "dungeon-level" maps (high-combat areas, catacombs, etc.).
2. Boss Fights
I want to present interesting but mostly system-less mechanics for each fight. Consider the Basilisk fight from Tomb of the Serpent Kings a sneak preview.

3. Minor Enemies

In a statless format (like the Undead here)

4. Classes and Spells
I'll write up custom GLOG classes. They will be free.

I don't want to have a long "lore" section you have to slog through first. Instead, I want the locations, enemies, bosses, encounters, allies, etc. to imply the lore. It should be possible - maybe not easy, but possible - for a GM to discover the setting along with the players. I might even put the enemies and "boss fights" before the maps. 
Artem Demura

Dark Souls Mechanics I Cannot Use

Respawn, Dropped XP, and Eternal Life
The concept of video game "lives" is as old as pinball. You try, die, put in another quarter, try again. Most video games never both to explain why this, why Mario can eat a mushroom and restart the level an extra time. Video games have checkpoints too; if you fail, you don't start over at the very beginning. Both elements are almost mandatory to create an enjoyable experience.

Dark Souls has an explanation for these video game mechanics. It takes things that normally feel arbitrary but necessary and makes them vital parts of worldbuilding lore: the Curse of Undeath.

It doesn't work in a tabletop RPG. Without permanent death, failure and sucess mean nothing.

Imagine a group of 5 people playing a Dark Souls RPG using Dark Souls video game logic. One PC dies during a fight and drops their XP. Can another PC pick it up? The fight is over. The dead PC respawns at the last bonfire checkpoint. The other PCs have to go back and get them or wait for them to catch up.

The requirements of a single-player combat-focused video game and a tabletop RPG can't be reconciled, so I'm not going to try. No bonfires, no dropping XP.

Strictly Defined Combat

Dark Souls has a tightly controlled environment. You can sneak past enemies, find secret paths, and use a variety of spells and weapons, but the world is still limited. It's a video game after all. You can't use pyromancy to melt through a wall or negotiate with a giant. You can't interrogate the world.

Rather than try to limit player options, I'll try to design locations and enemies that will be interesting and thematically consistent no matter what approach the players take. If they want to flood the catacombs or hire mercenaries or drop a cathedral on the boss's head, they can, and everything will still work out. Dark Souls is very linear; can I evoke the same themes without railroading? I hope so.

Artem Demura

Dark Souls Setting Elements I Will Not Be Using

Fire and Darkness
It's been done. Instead of a cycle of fire, ash, and dark, I'll be using a cycle of civilization and barbarism, of kings, crowns, and swords.

Humanity and the Nature of Undeath

It's too closely tied to the respawn video game mechanic.

Post-Apocalyptic Settings

In Dark Souls, you alway seem to arrive just after everything has gone to hell in a handbasket. Everything is dead or mindless or falling apart. You might move through a city, but the city isn't really alive anymore.

The setting I'm writing is pre-apocalyptic. There will be areas of devastation and areas of collapse, but society is still going. The Lords haven't left their homes, the cities aren't "the habitation of dragons, and a court for owls" (Isaiah 34:13).

"Reach heaven through violence."
A game with only fighting is not ideal. There needs to be some other mechanic. I'm trying to see if merchant caravans work. They might, they might not. But they give the GM an "out". Let's say a group doesn't want to deal with any of this stupid "souls" business. They want to trade oysters for silk and silk for candles, etc, and make out like bandits. The GM can slowly de-emphasize the overarching plot and just use the book as a commerce-crawl game. Or if the players really want to find out what's going on, the GM can de-empahsize the commerce side of things.

Stephan Martiniere

The Trailer

Because every Dark Souls game starts with a mysterious, yet vitally important opening cinematic. Names may change.

[On a clear night, the camera pans down from the stars to Sekar. A great city of pillars and pyramids rises from the desert, near the banks of a wide river, lit by moonlight.]

The Last King of Sekar - Nectabenos - saw through sorcery that the Gods had sided with the savage enemies of his kingdom. He alone escaped destruction and wandered for many years

[The camera approaches Nectabenos from behind, at shoulder height. Nectabenos, in a golden robe and leaning on an elaborate staff, looks over a balcony towards the sea. On the horizon, he sees an armada of ships of different shapes and sizes approaching the coast, followed by stormclouds.]

In the barbarian lands, he begat a child through sorcery and deception.

[Close-up of the child's face. It is stern, almost mask-like. The child has a halo of curly golden hair, like a lion's mane. One eye is blue, the other is black. As the camera pulls back, the scene is revealed to be lit by lightning and two large primitive iron braziers. Nectabenos is kneeling next to the child, whispering in his ear. His face is in shadow. The child's eyes remain fixed on the camera.]

But when the child learned Nectabenos' last secret, he cast the sorcerer aside.

[Without looking away from the camera, as the slow pull back continues, the child pushes Nectabenos forward. As he falls, we see they were on the edge of a deep rough-hewn stone pit. There is a flash of lightning, just enough to show that the child is smiling very slightly.]

[The flash fades to reveal a slow motion shot of Iskandar, now an adult, riding a white horse. Winds whip his hair. Around him, surging forward, are his knights, in brass hoplite armour, spears raised. The scene resembles a Roman coffin carving.]

In time, his armies conquered the west, the east, and the south.

[Iskandar and a smaller, hunched figure are seen walking from darkness as huge iron doors close behind them. Snow swirls around their feet. They are both bloodstained and tired.]

But after his last conquest, he was betrayed. His five generals divided his empire and, for an age, there was peace. A long and glorious day.

[A grand golden city on a spur of land is seen, surrounded by water. It glitters, wrapped in clouds. This is the city of Novaria.]

The day draws to a close, and night approaches. The old generals stir in their sleep, troubled by dreams of the north.

[The iron gates, now closed and drifted with snow, shake, as if struck. There is a repeated, dull, thump, and we realize we've been hearing it throughout the video, though it was formerly masked by the music. Cut to black as the thumping continues.]
Marco Gorlei

The Cycle of Kings and Kingdoms

Between each location, the players will pass though ruins of the former kingdoms, and learn, perhaps, that the five great kingdoms were not the first to rise, and that this age is only one age in a great cycle, interrupted by the Iron Gates.

The Iron Gates hold back the Barbarians. Each cycle, the Barbarians come and kill the old and decadent civilizations, returning the world to a state of ignorance and harmony. But slowly, Kings arise and build cities, and the cycle begins again. 

But Nectabenos, via his son of vengeance Iskandar, broke the cycle. Iskandar built the Iron Gates to seal the Barbarians away, and drank from the Fountain of Immortality to ensure his kingdom would never end.
Artem Demura

Names and Links

Names are hard. I haven't finalized anything yet. This section is a sort of placeholder or reminder.

Major Locations
In-Setting Real World Adjacent Ruins
Meridia Cordoba Cyclopean/Mycenean walls
Rhen Rome Old Rome
Novaria Constantinople Macedon/Athens/Greece
Azure Jerusalem Solomon's Works
[?] Baghdad Babylon/Babel
Minor Locations
In-Setting Real World Adjacent Ruins
Tomb of Iskandar Alexandria Egypt
[City of Sorcerers] Damascus

Genoa and Pisa
Elihu Vedder

Enemies, Creatures, and Factions

-Alexander was the First Knight, so knights will still be prominent, particularly around Jerusalem.
-Giants, though rare, still exist.
-Spinxes will be more common. Egypt has the Gynosphinx, Fallen Babylon has the Androsphinx.

-The Undead in some areas, particularly Rome's catacombs and Alexandria
-Wild dogs, wolves, basilisks, giant snakes, sea serpents

-Wandering sorcerers, mad cultists, hags, cannibals, and bandits

-Few or no dragons.

Dark Souls Information

If you've never played the game but want to learn about it, the internet can help.
I like Sean Plott (aka Day[9])'s recent playthrough of Dark Souls: Remastered. He doesn't offer much lore commentary, and he misses a fair number of secrets and optional storylines, but he's just so darn cheerful.

If you want to learn more about the lore, check out VaatiVidya's youtube channel.


  1. Sphinxes you say? Excellent.

    As for names - could one do something with Cordoba and the Pillars of Hercules?

  2. I think the bonfire system is crucial to a Dark Souls experience, but I agree with the reasons you've identified for why it's a bad fit for a group game and a persistent world. However, the gameplay loop of discovering places of relative safety and comfort in a dangerous world and then repeatedly leaving them to face new challenges is pretty profound. The fragile bonfire is a great visual symbol, but I think you could achieve a similar effect with places of civilization and safety surrounded by ruin and wilderness.

    Adventures In Middle Earth offers a way of implementing the pacing and themes of the Dark Souls bonfire system in a way that's better suited to D&D. It uses the 5th edition Short and Long rest system, as well as the healing surge/Hit Dice mechanic, but I don't think that would be too hard to port onto an OSR framework (in most OSR games this would make characters much more resilient. Compared to the GLOG however, recovering lost HP would involve more resource management and characters would be a bit more vulnerable over long expeditions). Essentially, characters can only make Long Rests in special safe locations called Sanctuaries. Players begin with one Sanctuary open to them and must discover others through play, mainly exploration and roleplaying with whatever powers control each Sanctuary.

    Not being able to replenish your Hit Dice until you reach another sanctuary replicates the estus system pretty cleanly as well, although I doubt you'd want to use the same fictional justification as every character carrying their own healing flask. You could have players expend a Hit Dice to regain one spent magic dice as well.

    The souls mechanic is interesting because it's constantly pushing you to weigh risk and reward. When you have a lot of souls on you you don't want to lose them, but returning to safety means the loss of progress. Should you press on ahead or play it safe? An OSR travel game where XP is only awarded through treasure spent will replicate a lot of those same experiences, especially if treasure can only be spent in large quantities at the various Sanctuaries/points of civilization. The only change you might want to consider is in having particularly dangerous monsters/NPCS consistently carry treasure, because there are more incentives in OSR D&D for avoiding combat with powerful enemies. You could aware XP for combat instead, but there's no danger of losing combat XP, while treasure occupies encumbrance slots and has to be transported back to safety to be spent.

    1. I think the bonfire system is crucial to the videogame, but it really doesn't work for an RPG in my opinion. RoosterEma has a very good take on it in his homebrew (I don't think it could be improved) but even then, there are just too many issues to make it viable.

      I'll cover this in the next post, but Dark Souls has 3 types of spells (pyromancy, sorcery, and miracles), 3 elemental types (fire, soul/crystal, and sunlight/lightning). I'm replacing this with my own trinity of Water/Knowledge, Iron/Earth, and Gold/Sunlight.

      Gold, rather than souls, will drive this game's core economy. It makes a lot of sense. Barbarians want gold, crowns are forged from gold, rich cities are covered in gold. You don't need to remove gold=xp at all. You just need to reveal its properly mythic nature.

    2. I didn't mean a literal save or checkpoint, that doesn't translate well to a tabletop game at all. But I think you would want to replicate the feeling of relief upon discovering a momentary respite from a dangerous world, fragile but comforting, and I think you can do that with pockets of civilization. "At last! A place where we can recover our strength, spend the game's currency to level up, and gird ourselves for another dangerous journey!"

      I was agreeing with you about gold driving the game, I think it's a good way of creating a similar play experience to the souls system in a tabletop format, and it fits your chosen themes. When I said "you could award XP for combat instead," I meant "instead of having boss monsters always carry or guard treasure, if that starts to feel artificial or forced," so in addition to XP for gold. But I don't think even that is really necessary.

  3. "Without permanent death, failure and [success] mean nothing."

    I disagree. failure probably means nothing if the failure is not permanent, but you can fail, irrecoverably, without dying.

    1. I disagree with your disagreement. Though the quote should be "without appropriate consequences, failure and success mean nothing."

      One of the most devious kinds of failure is wasted time as it works both in game and out. As the more time you spend increased the chance of complications.

    2. Are you sure you disagree with me? Because your corrected quotation is exactly what I was saying: death is not the only consequence that can make failure or success meaningful.

  4. Your link to Fires Far Away just goes to your "Mythic Itinerary" post.

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