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Dark Souls x 5E: The Ground Rules

Dark Souls x 5E: The Ground Rules

You Died.

That’s how the first session of my D&D/Dark Souls homebrew began; with the black dragon, Ebonwrath, swooping out of the sky, breathing black death upon the PCs in a brief but fairly-rolled encounter. He killed the PCs and stole their true souls with dark magic.

“You work for me now,” the dragon said. “As long as I have your true souls, you shall be my minions. Guard the first floor of my lair while I count my hoard of souls.”

The dragon then retired to the lowest floor of his eleven-tier dungeon lair and the PCs awoke by a bonfire to discover that they were metaphysically tethered to the location by their true souls hoarded on the lair’s deepest level.

The PCs learned they were soulless husks of their former selves, and the players learned that several aspects of two games they love had been woven together.

But first, we had to change the way some 5E things worked.

Note: Other game companies have produced entire games to simulate Dark Souls play, but this blog series gives you the keys to the kingdom for the game you already own!

The Five House Rules of DSx5E

The Dark Souls series has a lot in common with 5E. It’s got dungeons AND it’s got dragons. But it also has a fantasy medieval backdrop, heroes and villains, dark magic, terrifying creatures, and a penchant for the unexpected.

Dark Souls games also do some things differently. These are the ground rules to adapt Dark Souls for 5E play.

Rule 1. Inspiration is replaced by Humanity.

Humanity is like inspiration, but it lasts longer. While a PC has Humanity, they may roll 2d20 and take the higher result once per turn when making:

  • an Attack action
  • a Cast a Spell action
  • a skill check
  • a saving throw

Humanity is not spent after use. A character can keep using this benefit Humanity until their hit points drop to 0. Then they become Hollow.

Humanity items exist throughout the adventure. A PC with a Humanity item can spend an action to crush it. Afterward, the PC absorbs the Humanity and regains the Humanity ability.

This version of Humanity mimics the video game better than inspiration, making your character powerful, but in a precious state, easily lost with frequent death.

Rule 2. Hollow is a new, non-mechanical condition.

A PC is Hollow any time they do not have Humanity or their true soul. A Hollow PC appears as an emaciated zombie with necrotized flesh and sunken eyes.

Luckily, this condition has no mechanical benefit or penalty. However, being Hollow can make some NPC and item interactions unavailable. Some NPCs are afraid of Hollow characters, fearing contagion. Others believe that once you go Hollow there is no coming back.

Being Hollow has at least one benefit, however: it protects the adventuring party from Invaders, humanoid NPCs who hunt creatures for their Humanity.

Rule 3. Bonfires are a safe resting place.

Bonfires are checkpoints found throughout the adventure. A PC can use a bonfire to teleport to any other lit bonfire they have found. Note that a PC can take a long rest only at a bonfire. This long rest also resets all nearby traps and encounters.

The “safe zone” of the campaign, a place just at the entrance to Ebonwrath’s lair, contains a Great Bonfire where the PCs wake up at the beginning of every session. Additional bonfires must be earned.

Each floor of the dungeon can have its own bonfire (where PCs can quickly teleport once they’ve lit them), but the PCs must explore each floor to find secrets and one of Ebonwrath’s underbosses. Once an underboss is slain, the PCs can build a bonfire from its ashes, gaining a deeper foothold into the lair and the recovery of their true souls.

Rule 4. Souls are experience points and currency.

Instead of XP and gold, PCs earn souls for killing creatures and finding certain items. Combining the two resources means players must consider whether they want to spend souls to buy a shiny new weapon or level up sooner.

This manufactured scarcity is offset by monsters resetting after a rest at a bonfires, a wealth of found items that provide additional souls, and high-value souls obtained from Ebonwrath’s many underbosses. A PC’s true soul is worth as many souls as they currently carry (which they dropp when they die). Fortunately, no one but Ebonwrath can steal a PC’s souls or gain their souls by killing them.

Note that this is an asymmetrical, cooperative game. The Dark Souls video games do have player-versus-player mechanics, but unless you want to run a brutal (and probaly short) TTRPG campaign, you should disallow PVP at the table.

Rule 5. Death is not the end.

You probably guessed this one. It underpins all the other rules. When a PC drops to 0 hit points, they do not make death saves and are not killed. Instead, they instantly reappear at the last bonfire where they took a long rest. Any souls they gathered are left on the spot where they died.

To recover souls, the PC must travel to where they died and make an item interaction to pick them up. Only the PC who dropped souls can pick up those souls again.

The Path Forward

These five rules lay a foundation for playing a favorite video game style in a tabletop format. Coming up, we’ll cover a few key items to enhance the experience as well as new action mechanics.

Beyond that, look forward to guidance for crafting Dark Souls-worthy boss encounters, infusion and transposition crafting systems, and more!

about Sebastian Rombach

We can neither confirm nor deny that Sebastian is actually three raccoons in a trenchcoat. His freelance contributions can be found in Tome of Beasts 2, Tome of Heroes, and more. You can roll dice with him at https://startplaying.games/gm/dontbreakthedm or follow him on Twitter and Instagram @dontbreakthedm.

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