Friday, November 26, 2021

Game Review: Grave

Grave does not have a cover; I chose this image
By 07imamwahyudin from Pixabay to seve
as a result of thumbnail; I think it suits.
Author: Jason Tocci
Publisher: Self-published
Engine: Knave

Grave is a TTRPG built on the Knave engine designed to emulate "soulslike" Genre of video games.

If you aren't familiar, "Soulslike" games are games that borrow much of their design and game play from Demon's Souls and its sequels Dark Souls. It has become a genre unto itself. Games in the genre include:

  • Demon's Souls
  • Dark Souls 1 & 2
  • Blood Bourne
  • Hollow Knight
  • Darksiders
  • Nioh
  • Star Wars: Fallen Order

The hallmarks of a soulslike game are gothic, often post-apocalyptic settings, heroes who are dead, dying, or somehow infected. Characters are often vampiric in some way, deriving their power from stolen souls or blood. Souls, blood, etc, also serve as currency in the game. Villains are often heroes who have been driven mad by their experiences. Friendly NPCs are often morally ambiguous or insane. The player characters in souls like games often die early in the game or begin the game dead. Death, however, is a temporary state. A character can continue to come back from the dead, or adventure while they are dead, but at a reduced ability until they can return themselves to life. Resurrection takes a toll on characters, they're often corrupted or scarred in some way. NPCs the heroes are often twisted into monsters to illustrate this. Body horror is a common element.

In terms of gameplay, soulslike games tend to be brutally hard, often requiring many attempts before a player character can finally defeat any major opponent and proceed. Characters usually have a limited stamina for using special abilities, and suffer severe penalties when they wear themselves out. The power curve for PCs is often low, even weak monsters from early in the game remain a threat towards the end. Elements of classic Dungeons & Dragons style role-playing games like leveling up may or may not be present. Often it is equipment that does the heavy lifting of character progression.

Cover Art for Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver
©1999 Crystal Dynamics
I personally have only played a couple of these games: the original Demon's Souls and Hollow Knight. However, I would argue that Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver was the template on which demon's souls was built, and has many of the same tropes mixed with the tropes of metroidvania style games and I have played a great deal of Legacy of Kain, indeed.

In concept, a souls like game, and in particular Demon's Souls and Dark Souls lend themselves well to role playing. The bleak setting, vampiric heroes, twisted monsters, mad NPCs and fallen heroes are great fodder for dark fantasy. In practice, the characters of most modern RPGs are simply too superheroic, and storygames are not challenge-focused enough to do a good job of simulating the difficult combat and high lethality of a souls like. OSR engines are far more suited to the task.

In theory, the temporary nature of death in souls like games is inimical to OSR gaming, but it can be offset with characters suffering some kind of degradation or weakening with each death... Eventually, a character ravaged by the side-effects of reanimation is going to add challenge and incentive to avoid dying.

Grave creates a mechanical framework using Knave to simulate a souls like setting.

Cover Art for Demon's Souls (PS3 release)
©2008 From Software
Characters in Grave start freshly reanimated with only a few fading, randomly-generated memories and a deformity created by their undead state. Unlike Knave, Grave characters select a starting "background" inspired by the starting templates offered in Demon's Souls: they offer starting gear, statistics, and spells. Like classic Knave, however, characters are flexible, their stats will change as they level and collect gear. The game remains classless. Hit Dice are reduced to a d6 to make combat more brutal.

Empty encumbrance slots grant Stamina, a limited resource that can be used to activate advanced combat stunts or fuel spells. This gives magicians an incentive to stick to light gear, as any excess of armor or weapons reduces the energy for magic.

Spellcasting is Vancian: a character can learn spells by recovering texts. They may prepare a limited number based on their Intelligence bonus. Spells are broken into three lists of 20 spells each: Wizard, Cleric, and Witch based on Int, Wis, and Cha for purposes of related rolls. A character must spend stamina to cast spells, the more spent (limited by level) the more powerful the effect and the longer the duration.

Cover for Dark Souls
©2011 From Software
The spells in Grave include attack spells that do damage, but are limited by stamina

Monsters contain "souls" that can be claimed based on their XP value or, if none is available, by a formula provided. Souls serve as currency, or can be consumed by the thousands to level up. Legendary creatures have special souls that can provide an instant level or be used to create artifacts, but carry a chance at corruption (becoming a monster) if consumed. After a certain level or when attributes peak, characters become larger, have a chance at corruption, and their souls become harvestable.

When characters die, they become a spirit, and may temporarily only affect the game by granting bonuses to other players. They return to life at the end of the encounter with even more deformations. They have a limited number of reanimations before the character dies a final death. Once they have reached level 10 or gained plus 10 in an attribute certain enemies May consume their soul, permanently killing the character as well.

The game concludes with a table of 50 magic items that might be found as treasure. These items do a lot of world building for grave.

What I Loved

Cover for Hollow Knight
©2014 Team Cherry
Solid Genre Emulation

Grave does an excellent job at capturing the souls like genre. It creates Heroes who are reliant on feeding upon enemies both for currency and for advancement. And it ensures that that advancement eventually comes with a cost of making characters more vulnerable or more twisted.

The Magic Item Table

The suggested magic items for grave are interesting and evocative. The most complicated ones come with a cost or task that must be done before they can be used. Even simple ones like enchanted armor come with evocative one line descriptions that help reinforce the Demon's / Dark Souls influence of the game.

The table of Alchemical items for purchasing the equipment section is also interesting, evocative, and gives player characters a reason to spend their hard-earned souls.

Cover for Nioh
©2017 Team Ninja
Stamina System

Giving characters incentives not to fill up all of their slots is clever. Especially as it creates the limitations on both spellcasting, and the ability to do special moves in combat while still doing damage at the same time.

The Character Templates

The character templates in grave took me straight back to my first character in Demon's Souls. They are interesting and evocative without falling into the trap of being a complete character class. for players who are not interested in choosing any of those, the vagabond background includes traditional Knave character generation rules.

The Souls System

I like the Wayne brave blurs the line between XP and treasure. On one level, killing a creature for XP also gives you treasure. It also means that expending currency slows your character's progress, making the purchase of magic items or even the goods needed for survival can be a difficult choice. As a corollary, certain kinds of treasure found can be converted into XP. If player characters are, as is the convention, supporting a group of desperate survivors, salvaged food and materials might be converted into souls in the marketplace. If characters still are willing to exchange traditional treasure for souls, as another way the player characters might be able to advance their characters without combat.

Cover for Darksiders
©2010 Vigil Software

Balance of Attributes

Grave slightly rearranges how the attributes work compared to Knave. Charisma provides extra lives and the ability to affect the world when the character has died. Dexterity can be used in certain melee combat situations. Overall, the game does a great job of making sure each attribute is valuable.

Growth points

Death Hasn't Got Enough Teeth

When a character is reduced to zero hit points in grave, they become a spirit, and may only affect the world by adding their Charisma bonus to other characters roles once per round. They are brought back to life the moment the other PCS complete to the encounter. This neither addresses what happens if there's a TPK, nor does it make death particularly a penalty. 

In my opinion, resurrection happens too swiftly. I understand that by allowing characters to become corporeal again quickly it prevents players from being bored, however his could have been tackled more effectively by giving spirits more to do, if they could, for example, generate Will o' Wisps to guide player characters, deal a single point of damage, and see things that player characters could not, or perhaps fight incorporeal creatures.

Cover for Bloodborne
©2015 From Software
By delaying a characters re-animation and might have been possible to require the rest of the party need to do something, like carry the corpse to a shrine, performer ritual, rest until sunrise, or engage a special type of NPC to reembody their character, without the player becoming bored or frustrated.

When PCs are brought back to life they roll again on the table that indicates signs of their undead and decayed state. These have no real mechanical effect. If dying cost a character an ability score point, came with a temporary penalty, or even just left them at only one hit point per level, it might make death feel like a more significant event.

As is, death is treated like a temporary inconvenience in a way that isn't consistent with the soulslike genre, which generally makes the dead character state weaker than the living character state, but with similar gameplay.

Give Us More

Many Knave clonw developers attempt to remain minimalistic in their design. Trying to keep their manuals close to Ben Milton's original seven page manual is seen as a virtue. Grave does an exceptional job at keeping itself short and sweet. However, I might like to have seen some more world building along the same line as the character name generator,

Slightly larger spell lists, a few more items on the equipment list with prices and souls would be welcome. What might have really made the game shine, however, might have been a few OSR style monsters that are apropos to the setting. Possessed and decayed warriors, soulless lunatics, mutated animals, gigantic corrupt heroes, and Lovecraftian horrors could have really showcased James Tocci's obvious talent for creating evocative content that enriches the game.

A list of common trade goods and their value in souls might have been an excellent way to encourage player characters to salvage monster infested ruins looking for not gold and jewels, but items necessary for the survival of the NPCs. Which would have been an excellent flourish.


Grave does an excellent job of translating the gameplay and conventions of the early soulslike games to tabletop role-playing. It started with the right engine to work with, something lightweight that is specifically designed to make combat difficult and dangerous. It then enhanced the danger of combat, but change the way death itself works in game to better suit the genre.

It further incentivizes combat by making it the easiest way to acquire the souls that are both currency and the key to character advancement. In the process it creates a game where hard combat and Terrible risks are required and come at a terrible cost to the player character. Eventually, the player character becomes a monster themselves as they advance.

It is difficult to translate a video game genre perfectly to tabletop role-playing. The Souls games are dark, stylish, and evocative, but their approach to death is tricky to make work in a tabletop game. I would say that grave comes most of the way there, but needed a little more thought in order to make death feel like a loss while making it impermanent.

Ultimately, when a player character doesn't fear death, something else must take its place. The survival of valued NPCs, the fate of a land, or something else must be put into place. This is where Grave requires a lot of work from the GM: they have to create something else the player characters care about, such as the promise from freedom from their undead state, loved ones to protect, or a way to save the world from the terrible curse that has led them to the situation they are in.

The other option is to depict a slow slide from humanity, with characters becoming weaker stranger, or more complicated as they die. Because Grave only does the latter in a way that is not reflected mechanically, it is down to the GM to do the former to make grave it's best possible game. This is a challenge that I believe a good GM can rise to, but must be kept in mind when designing a campaign for this game. A simple OSR sandbox where characters have few stakes will not be sufficient.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for reviewing this. It gave me things to think about, which is always good.