Review: Dark Explorations

In Short…

Dark Explorations is Tad Kelson’s game of exploring lost civilizations that came before the Long Freeze. A self-described “simulationist-styled” game, it is built on a modified version of the d20 system. While the system itself seems perfectly serviceable, I found myself disappointed that the hints to the background and setting were completely un-expanded upon, leaving me with little desire to play the game.

Incorporation Of Images

The image set that Tad received obviously inspired some kind of world in his mind for exploration to occur in; unfortunately, that world didn’t end up making it to the page. The images that he includes in the document serve to show glimpses both of that unexplained world and of the society that the characters come out of, but again, other than a couple of captions they are unexplored.

I wish that the images could have been used to seed game mechanical information that would both expand the range of options open to the players, and create “setting nuggets” for the group to wrap their game around. The city symbols and the map image both had enormous potential for this kind of treatment, in particular.

The game is clearly inspired by the image set, but fails to build upon it in a productive (to me) manner. I have some thoughts on how to do so, to follow the category breakdown.


As mentioned, the resolution system for the game is built upon the OGL d20 system, which is proven in play and perfectly serviceable. I was intrigued by the advancement system, which said something interesting about the game world (again, see below).

Unfortunately, the system pretty much leaves off at task resolution and stat advancement. [Warning: theory-type talk ahead!] In a sim-style game, mechanics can be extremely important and effective ways to communicate the “Dream,” or the actual thing that play of the game is meant to simulate or celebrate. The limited skill list that is presented to us, and the fact that there are more Physical than Spiritual than Mental statistics are both little hints to these kinds of things (i.e. the world of the game emphasizes Physical action over Spiritual and Spiritual over Mental, and so on).

So, the theme continues on – I have little hints to what I’m really interested in, but nothing meaty to sink my teeth into. While I don’t see any reason you couldn’t sit down and play this game (with experienced gamers, at least), I also don’t have a reason to want to play it, mechanically.


I was really sad when I was done reading this game! The first page and the images gave me tantalizing little hints of awesome adventure setting with underwater travels and crazy buried cities, but the text itself gave me nothing to latch onto! I need a couple of things in order to hook me into a game, in general; a strong sense of what the characters do in the game (“explore” is too vague, sorry); and/or a colorful and evocative environment in which they interact. I want to play the game that this game promises is out there, somewhere – but the game text itself isn’t that game.

Further Thoughts

Tad, you should check out Ron Edward’s Mongrel, if you don’t know it, as an example of a game that gives you mechanics that show you how the game world works just from how they interact with one another. I think that you can attach game system information to (for example) the images in your game in order to fill out the world without having to spell out a whole “setting chapter,” or anything like that. I hope that makes sense!

I know that you didn’t manage to get everything into your submission that was in your head, but I definitely think that it would be worth re-visiting and fleshing out in every dimension.


Published in: on March 13, 2007 at 1:39 am  Leave a Comment  

Dark Explorations

Review of Dark Explorations

Incorporation of images

Tad did a nice job drawing inspiration from the images to imagine a post apocalyptic world in which survivors of a great freeze are beginning to explore the ruins locked beneath the ice. Because the draft says little about the process of exploration or what the characters may find, the images take on even greater significance. By the way it was classy to include the full credits for the photos.


The game system is a modified D20 that is level-less, class-less, and feat-less and merges combat into skill checks. It seems like it would work fine. The draft, however, provides little support for the game’s premise of sub-ice exploration. One of my favorite lines in the text is that “Eventually the characters will come into conflict, be it with wild predators, insane madmen, savage natives, what have you.” But these potential encounters and conflicts are not mentioned again, given statistics, or otherwise reflected in the system. If I were GMing the game (and the premise is indeed interesting) I could make up ways to create NPCs, creatures, and invent frozen civilizations and dangers, but it would be more convenient to play D20 gamma world or some other D20 variant that includes tools and content that would help structure play. I guess that there is a small chance that this game is a Lacuna-style product that intentionally leaves blanks so that each group has to invent their own form of play. If so then my comments are misguided. It seems more likely that this is a first cut at an interesting concept and needs fleshing out of the setting and exploration risks and rewards to fulfill the promise of the images and game premise.


The draft has a workable, slimmed down D20 variant and an interesting premise of exploration. These two sides never really connect, however. Besides a skill of archeological techniques, the system doesn’t engage with themes of post-apocalyptic societies, frozen wastelands, or buried civilizations. Still, it’s a cool idea that hopefully can be further developed.

Published in: on March 8, 2007 at 5:15 am  Comments (1)