Tabletop RPG Review: The Dark Crystal Adventure Game

The Dark Crystal Adventure Game is somehow both more and less than I had hoped and than I had expected.  It was put out by the same company that did Labyrinth Adventure Game, and it has a similar look and feel.  However, if Labyrinth was maybe a bit further over on the board game/puzzle game side of the scale, The Dark Crystal seems to be fully in the role-playing game camp.

Character creation is fairly simple, as are the basic game mechanics.  There are a few extras and plug-ins, but most of those are fairly well explained or explained when they become important.  The experience system is interesting and even has a bit of a strategic element.  It might be good to leave some unspent experience points on your sheet, because you can use them in-session to gain extra skills and such.  It’s also possible to play as non-Gelflings, but it’s only after your first character has died that you get the opportunity.

Once character creation is done, you’re essentially ready to go.  You start with a scene where your characters are given a mission, and that mission is the lion’s share of the book.  If I’m reading everything right, this is actually a fairly involved campaign.  I realize that I’m not the most efficient or “on-task” GM out there, but as I was reading through various locations and encounters, I imagine the game will take quite some time.  I’d be very curious to know how many hours/sessions folks have taken to go through the whole thing.

The overall mission is a “fetch quest,” meaning you’re tasked with traveling the world and finding a number of objects, then bringing them to a special place, all before a certain time.  There is an actual countdown, so the amount of time you spend doing things matters.  The longer you take, the darker the world becomes and the more challenging things get.

When I say that this is more than I hoped for or expected, I mean unlike The Labyrinth Adventure Game, this feels  more like a traditional roleplaying game.  There’s a lot of setting information.  Characters seem to have more potential to grow and be interesting.  I could imagine using the book to tell more and different stories than the one provided (though, as is, this is clearly meant to be a campaign with a beginning, middle, and end).  The book presents something of a “sandbox” for your characters to go wild in, and to explore as they see fit.  There’s nothing pushing you to go to a specific place, only a clock hanging over your head pushing you to find those objects.  Labyrinth Adventure Game felt like it was very good at being exactly the thing it is, by which I mean, as long as you want to go solve a bunch of puzzles in order to find the Goblin King, it’s great.  But there’s really nothing else to do, nowhere else to take your character.  But with this, I think there’s potential for more, for other stories.  I could even see them producing a follow-up book where you could take your veteran characters through a new story.

When I say it’s less than I’d hoped/expected, I mean the book has some odd flaws and failings.  First off, it is meant to be played as a campaign.  So, while I think there’s a ton of great setting info and it would be enough to create and tell your own stories, you’ll have to dig it out of location and encounter pages.  It’s not set up in an easy to read way, like the setting section in a typical RPG book.  There’s also no index, so good luck finding that thing you’re thinking about.  Additionally, while each location or encounter is presented in a cool, easy to read, two-page spread, much like they were in Labyrinth Adventure Game, they unfortunately do not have all the information you need.  What I realized quite quickly is that there’s a lot of work for a GM to do before running this game.  In fact, you’ll probably want to end sessions by asking your players where they want to go next (and making them stick to that), so that you can do some prep work beforehand.  There are some encounter charts, but generally they’re the sort of thing I’d want to roll on before a session, then flesh out whatever that encounter might be.  Otherwise, if you’re rolling in session, you’re going to have to be really, really good at improving encounters.  Some bigger, fleshed out encounters are in the book, keyed to specific locations or events.  But a lot of stuff is going to fall to the GM.  There’s also a real lack of guidance.  I’m not sure if I’m just missing things, because the book is organized in a strange way, or if it’s simply not there.  For example, as if a PC dies, the player can create a non-Gelfling character.  Cool.  However, there’s zero guidance on what that means, how to integrate them into the group, etc.  There are a lot of things like that left very vague.  I’m a fairly experienced GM.  I can figure it out.  But I’ve got to admit, in this day and age, with a lot of the more GM-friendly books coming out, I don’t know that I want to figure it out for myself.  Anyway, throughout the book, I found little bits where I’d have absolutely loved to have some kind of guidance (“in playtesting, the PCs did this…” or “you might want to try this…”).

Because the book feels so important and is so physically impressive, and because Labyrinth Adventure Game seems to have been designed with playing straight out of the book without much if any extra work on the part of the GM, I was disappointed that this book isn’t quite so “out of the book” ready.  But then, it is a different type of game, even if they’re both labeled as “Adventure Game.”

The Dark Crystal” is one of my all time favorite Fantasy films.  I’ve mentioned it as a major inspiration for my Conquest of the Sphere setting.  I really enjoyed the NetFlix series (and yes, was ticked off when they canceled it).  It’s a setting I’ve long thought about running an RPG in, and now an RPG actually exists.  Is it perfect?  No.  It is interesting, however.  I hope I’ll be able to actually find a group to run it for at some point.  Like Labyrinth Adventure Game, I think this one is really meant to be played face to face around a table.  With the world being what it is, I’m not there yet.  Soon, I hope.

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