Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Five or So Questions with Will Hindmarch on Project: Dark

I got the chance to interview Will Hindmarch on his current Kickstarter project, Project: Dark. It just debuted yesterday and it looks fantastic!

Tell me a little about Project: Dark. What's the general idea?
The project is a single banner for a single game—Dark—that can be played in several different game worlds with just minor tweaks and expansions. The game takes stealth-adventure play into the tabletop RPG space by casting all players as stealthy sorts of characters operating in perilous and mysterious worlds. It's a game of sneak-thieves, spies, trespassers, and other such nefarious sorts, without assuming that such characters are heroic or antiheroic necessarily.

The first setting for the game is the titular Dark (though this world has gone through a lot of names during development!), set in a fantastical city of staggering riches and squalid slums, with a style that's sort of a blend of Elizabethan London and medieval Constantinople.

What led you to create the project?
For years, I wanted to facilitate this kind of campaign with a system that was designed explicitly for this kind of play, so I designed one that did what I wanted.

I'm the kind of GM who loves to make maps and imagine what goes on in the game world before (and after) the players' characters come through. I like the glimpses into occulted corners of the world or the little conversations and monologues we sometimes hear in great stealth video games. As a player of stealth video games, I love the moments when the setting comes alive around you through little performances or moments of humanity. Eavesdropping on a world that doesn't know the players' characters are there creates this great multifaceted feeling. It's not like the guards who patrol that rich castle every night think some trespasser is the star of the story, right? It naturally creates great conflicts and worlds with multiple viewpoints.

So I didn't just want to design a game that brought stealth play to the table as a puzzle or tactical simulation; I wanted players to be able to imagine the spaces around them and have those details come into play in a variety of ways. To get the most mileage out of the game and the world, I wanted to create as many environments as I could—I wanted to design little sandbox levels, really—that were both compelling fictional spaces and narrative structures. I didn't just want to make the game, I wanted to support it with a bunch of adventures to make it easier for other GMs to play.

I've heard it's great at emulating a very cool stealth-action feel. What kind of mechanics did you use to create that feel?
While most everything in Dark points at a few core kinds of gameplay choices, I think the card-based play is the best example. To help reduce the impact of randomness a bit, and to emphasize the role of caution and precision, the game system relies primarily on regular playing cards rather than dice. (The GM uses a combination of dice and NPC traits to express the environment, though.)

The cards sort of straddle the gap between character-level and player-level mechanisms in this case. Inputs from the game world determine how many cards a player holds—so the better hidden your character, the more options you have available to you and the more you can plan your next move. But that ability to see what sort of options you have available isn't nailed down too tightly. The abstraction there gives the player some freedom of expression. Does a hand full of cards suggesting physicality mean your character's itching for a fight? Does it make her confident or reckless?

Part of the way cards work also emphasizes that stealth is sometimes about ponderously deliberate action rather than dashing antics. Making slow, measured moves in Dark seldom comes down to a single volatile die roll, but neither is it tedious. Everything happens in dramatic, informative increments.

Individual adventures then emphasize or focus on unique circumstances and situations, so one scenario might be about sprinting for a treasure before rival thieves get it while the next is about shadowing a mark without being detected. The game offers a lot of diversity in play, even with its honed focus.

What did you use as inspiration for this project?
Lots of stealth video games inspired this one, for sure. I love having the time during a level to explore and experience the worlds of games like Thief and Splinter Cell and Dishonored. My favorite Halo game is ODST because of the meditative style of those city levels and the way players get to slow down a bit and get glimpses of life in the future through audio diaries and the like.

Look at the variety of play styles within the various Splinter Cell games, for example. That's inspiring to me. Each new game isn't just new gadgets and levels but new ways of framing the themes, characters, and environments of the game world. Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and Blacklist especially contextualize player actions in fascinating ways, turning some tactical decisions into rich ethical and dramatic choices.

At the same time, I'm into architecture and history, futurism and espionage dramas, so I'm rolling elements of those into the game worlds, too. It's been great fun to study up on the physical places and the cultures that have inspired the worlds for Dark. Part of the joy of creating fictional worlds, for me, is that I can draw on lots of interests and hobbies to make the worlds feel more real. All kinds of research ends up going into the final product.

What can we expect to experience when we play Project Dark?
Like a lot of RPGs, some of it will depend on the scenario or campaign you play. The game shines, though, when it's about suspense and suspicion, about camaraderie between thieves and skulduggery against rivals. A Dark campaign can be about righteous trespassing in corrupt halls, about desperate revolutionaries toppling rotten powers, or about a variety of other takes on the core activity of play. Every setting for the game is meant to put the act of intruding, of trespassing, of stealing into a dramatic context that provokes more questions than it answers. Robin Hood was a hero, but not all Dark tales are about Robin Hoods.

The game breaks out into a few key phases of play—casing the target, the job itself, and the investigation by an inspector—each of which can be spun or altered to create a different rhythm for the campaign over time. So while your campaign might become about vendettas and revenge, dodging a zealous inspector, or bringing down a sordid duke, the game expresses helps you channel that story into those key phases.

It's a bit like the way that a classic fantasy dungeon-crawl can be about things bigger and more epic than the dungeon … even as the game often expresses itself through linked and thrilling maps to explore. Over time, I expect the adventures to show more and more ways to remix these components.

What's next for you, after the Kickstarter?
Depending on how far the funding goes, I'll be presenting additional content for the game for a little while yet. I'm planning on presenting adventures for Dark, as well as a few other games, via my Patreon page over the next few months, if interest is there.

Of course, I'm also writing and designing for Storium at and I have at least one other game in the works for 2014. These are exciting times!

Make sure to check out Will's Kickstarter and his Patreon for more Dark goodness!

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