Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Retro-Engineering: Darkness and Dread

In the annals of the old school wave that hit the d20 system in the 2000's, Darkness & Dread from Fantasy Flight Games is generally, and unfairly, overlooked. Ostensibly, Darkness & Dread was intended as a tool box for running dark fantasy, horror-style games with the d20 rules. In fact, it plays very much like a weird love child of old D&D and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, with d20 serving as a surrogate mother.

This is most obvious in the classes - all 24 of them. All of the classes have either five or ten level, and all can be entered into after first level (remember, in d20 you don't gain levels in a class, you just gain levels, choosing to take that level in whatever class you like) only if one has a requisite number of points in a given skill - a nod to WFRP's career system. Moreover, they divide the careers into categories (Academic, Expert, Laborer and Orator) and have an optional rule that permits one to randomly determine their profession at 1st level - another nod to WFRP. Like old school D&D, the classes are much lower powered than their d20 equivalents. The spell casting classes (Acolyte, Alchemist, Apprentice and Herbalist), for example, never make it past 4th level spells (the apprentice). The game also suggests that treasure be doled out at 10% the normal level (i.e. fewer magic items - and in d20, you get loaded down with magic items). Most of the classes depend on the skill point system in d20, so don't necessarily translate well into older editions that tend to hand-wave skills and ignore professional and craft skills. A few make for nice additions to a low-powered game, or interesting variations on the old standbys.

Acolyte (Academic)
Within a religious hierarchy, the acolyte is an administrator, a priest assigned to a small village, or a similar minor underling.

Prime Requisite: Wisdom and Charisma, 13+ earns +15% experience
Hit Dice: 1d6
Armor Permitted: Leather
Weapons Permitted: Club, dagger, staff, light and heavy crossbow
Attack As: Cleric
Starting Gold: 1d4 x 10 gp
Entry Requirements: To take levels in acolyte after 1st level, one must gain the sponsorship of a religious organization and complete training in its basic tenets.

Special Abilities
Acolytes gain access to a small number of divine spells. Acolytes prepare and cast spells as clerics. They can select spells from the following list:

Level 0: Detect magic, detect poison, light, purify food & drink
Level 1: Cause fear*, cure light wounds*, detect evil
Level 2: Bless, find traps, hold person, speak with animals
Level 3: Continual light, cure disease*, darkness, prayer

* Denotes a reversible spell

Ward the Unholy: Acolytes can call on their god to hold supernatural creatures at bay. This divine blessings grants the acolyte and her allies a +1 bonus to AC and a +1 bonus to saving throws against magic and mind effects. To use this ability, the acolyte must have 5 gp worth of incense, holy water, and other religious paraphernalia at hand. These items are consumed when the acolyte uses this ability. The acolyte can do this once per day at 1st level, gaining an additional use at 3rd, 6th and 9th levels.

Tend to the Flock: At 5th level, an acolytes time spent dealing with the people in his parish makes him skilled at managing large crowds and leading mobs of commoners and other folk who adhere to his faith. By chanting prayers and benedictions, the acolyte can calm others and steady their nerves. All allies within 60 feet of the acolyte who are 3 or more levels below the acolyte's total level gain a +2 bonus to save vs. fear and a +1 bonus to hit in combat. The acolyte can use this ability twice per day, and each use lasts for 5 rounds + the acolyte's Charisma modifier.

Strength of the Faithful: At 10th level, the acolyte is perhaps one of the most accomplished members of his church hierarchy. His faith is unshakable in the face of the horrors that lurk just beyond the knowledge of mortal men. He gains a +2 bonus to saving throws against fear. In addition, once per day he can choose to automatically succeed at a single save against fear.

Level XP HD Save 0 1 2 3
1 0 1 15 1 - - -
2 1,000 2 14 1 - - -
3 2,000 3 13 1 1 - -
4 4,000 4 12 2 1 - -
5 8,000 5 11 2 1 1 -
6 16,000 6 10 2 2 1 -
7 32,000 7 9 3 2 1 1
8 64,000 8 8 3 2 2 1
9 100,000 9 7 3 3 2 1
10 140,000 10 6 4 3 2 2

Prospector (Expert)
Prospectors seek out veins of gold and other precious metals, but many of them also delve into forgotten ruins in search of lost treasures and valuable relics from an earlier era.

Prime Requisite: Dexterity & Intelligence, 13+ earns +15% experience
Hit Dice: 1d8 (or 1d6+1 if you prefer)
Armor Permitted: Leather
Weapons Permitted: Club, dagger, dart, javelin, mace, morningstar, sling, spear, staff, light and heavy crossbow
Attack As: Thief
Starting Gold: 2d4 x 10 gp
Entry Requirements: To take levels in prospector after 1st level, one must already have the ability to search for and disable traps.

Special Abilities

Skills: Prospectors can use the following skills as a thief (using whatever rules you prefer for thieves): Climb Walls, Find & Remove Traps and Open Locks. They are also capable of appraising the value of metals and stones and they can survive in the wilderness.

Trap Mastery: Prospectors are experts at setting traps and concealing pits. Damage from these traps depends on the prospector's level, with traps doing 1d6 damage at 1st level, 1d8 damage at 2nd level, 2d6 damage at 3rd level, 3d6 damage at 4th level and 4d6 damage at 5th level.

Oiled Reflexes: If a 3rd level prospector is about to set off a trap due to a failed attempt at removing it, he can immediately make a second remove traps attempt to keep it from triggering. If this second attempt fails, the trap is triggered. If it succeeds, the trap is not removed, but does fail to trigger.

Danger Sense: 5th level prospector's can re-roll failed saving throws against traps once per day, or twice per day if their intelligence score is 13 or greater.

Level XP HD Save
1 0 1 14
2 1,000 2 13
3 2,000 3 12
4 4,000 4 11
5 8,000 5 10

Pit Fighter (Laborer)
Pit fighters are down-and-dirty gladiators who fight for money, fame and glory.

Prime Requisite: Strength & Dexterity, 13+ earns +15% experience
Hit Dice: 1d10 (or 1d6+2 if you prefer)

Armor Permitted: Leather and shield
Weapons Permitted: Any weapon
Attack As: Fighting-Man
Starting Gold: 2d4 x 10 gp
Entry Requirements: To take levels in pit fighter after 1st level, one must already have an attack bonus of at least +1 and must train as a gladiator for 1 month.

Special Abilities

Frenzy: Once per day, a pit fighter can enter a berserk fury for 5 rounds + the pit fighter's constitution bonus. During the frenzy the pit fighter gains a +1 bonus to hit and damage, +1 hp/level, +2 on all saves against fear and a -2 penalty to AC. When the frenzy ends, the penalty to AC continues until the encounter is over.

Dirty Fighter: Pit fighters do whatever it takes to overcome their enemies. If a pit fighter of 3rd level or higher attacks from the rear or attacks an opponent who is surprised or flanked by an ally, he does double damage.

Fearless Frenzy: At 5th level, pit fighters gain a second use of frenzy each day and are completely immune to fear.


Medium (Orator)
Mediums are those rare, special individuals who have the ability to pierce the psychic veil, using ESP, object reading and other talents.

Prime Requisite: Wisdom & Charisma, 13+ earns +15% experience
Hit Dice: 1d6

Armor Permitted: None

Weapons Permitted: Club, dagger, staff, light and heavy crossbow

Attack As: Magic-User
Starting Gold: 1d6 x 10 gp
Entry Requirements: To take levels in medium after 1st level, one must already have a wisdom score of 13 or higher and must have failed a saving throw vs. fear from some supernatural creature.

Special Abilities

Skills: Mediums can pick pockets as well as a thief of equal level. In addition, they receive a +1 bonus to reaction checks when speaking for their party and collect double the normal number of rumors.

Sense the Unseen: With quiet study and meditation, mediums can read the emotional background of a specific area, such as a room, a forest clearing or a short section of road. By studying the area for a peaceful hour, the medium can learn if a traumatic event took place there by making a successful saving throw with a -2 penalty per year since an event took place. If the medium doesn't know about a particular event, she can use this method to learn of the last traumatic event that took place there. If the saving throw is successful by more than 3 points, the medium gains a hazy, incomplete mental picture of the event. If she beats the saving throw by 6 or more points, she gains a perfect mental picture of the event, but will suffer any fear effects associated with the event. This power can also be used to read a specific object, like a dagger or article of clothing.

Sixth Sense: At 3rd level, a medium can make a saving throw to detect any supernatural or undead creature that comes within 100 feet of him. If the check succeeds, he senses the creature's general location. The power of the sensation depends on the Hit Dice of the creature detected: It is faint for creatures with 1-3 HD, disturbing for creatures to 4-8 HD, powerful for creatures with 9-12 HD and overwhelming for creatures with 13+ HD.

Pierce the Veil: A 5th level medium can cast her sight into the land of the dead. She may cast speak with dead once per day.



Other excellent mini-classes include the antiquarian, engineer, physician, sage, artisan, kennelmaster, merchant, thief, tracker, grave robber, sewerjack, veteran, worker, beggar, gambler, grifter and minstrel. One immediately recognizes some old class titles from old D&D.

Darkness & Dread, written by Mike Mearls, has many more excellent ideas that I'll cover in future editions of Retro-Engineering. In the meantime, if you're heading into Middenheim or considering sending your players into Hammer Film territory, check Amazon for a copy - the book is pretty easily adapted to older editions of the rules.


  1. That's awesome. Out of the early d20 glut, I really enjoyed Fantasy Flight's products. I remember some gmaers confusing them and Fast Forward Entertainment (which produced some really awful stuff - except the Encycopedia of Demons and Devils which was OK). I think their d20 line suffered for this. At any rate, good to see the conversions.

  2. Thanks for pointing this out. I have a copy and as it happens its highly suitable for use with the E6/E8 D&D I was planning to run

  3. Interesting. I'd completely missed this book.

  4. Did you ever work up any more of these classes? Like what you did with these.

  5. You know, I got busy with other things and didn't - but I think I'll have to revisit it and make a few more.

  6. Excellent! Look forward to seeing what you work up. I think this was one of the better 3PP to come out of the 3.x era, shame it didn't get more attention.


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