How Darkest Dungeon found new horror through its turn-based combat

This is The Mechanic, where Alex Wiltshire invites developers to discuss the inner workings of their games. This time, Darkest Dungeon [official site].

Darkest Dungeon is an RPG in which four flawed heroes face damnably transcendent terrors as they explore the ancient narrow passages beneath a cursed mansion. Notch by notch, their grasp on sanity slips and their vitality trickles thinner as their torch dims and new horror befalls them.

This is a game in which pressure mounts, misfortune crushes, and mistakes are punished. You can’t expect your party to always survive, whether driven to death or madness, and its turn-based combat plays out with the constant understanding that every decision can turn on a knife-edge: a missed hit, an ill-considered target, the wrong ability. And a lot of that tension is founded on something that on its face sounds prosaic, even old-fashioned:

THE MECHANIC: 2D combat

The decision developer Red Hook Studios made to view your party of miscreants from the side powers a great deal of Darkest Dungeon’s atmosphere. It even defined how its distinctive take on combat would work. How it came about is down to many things: the practicalities of indie production, of the wish to develop bonds between players and their heroes, of breaking conventions, and of finding new ideas in a genre that’d surely long been plundered.

After all, the kind of RPGs studio co-founders Tyler Sigman and Chris Bourassa were originally looking to are as old as the hills. The Bard’s Tale, Eye of the Beholder, Ultima; games which array their parties of heroes out, sometimes in lines, against their enemies in combat.

“We had this idea for Darkest Dungeon which would be about the real downsides of being an adventurer, really,” Sigman tells me. At this early point, he and Bourassa had yet to found Red Hook Studios and were casting around for a project on which they could work together. They started to sketch out a tile-based game in which the party would move as a gaggle through a dungeon with transitions as they went into combat into a new view.

“Chris was saying a lot that resonated with me,” says Sigman. “You get tired of looking at people’s heads and it’s hard to bond with them, so he came up with this idea of side-on, and then you really get to see them well.”

“We knew we wanted to get down and close to the characters and show them off a little bit,” says Bourassa, who led Darkest Dungeon’s art. And he certainly capitalised on that. Darkest Dungeon’s heroes and enemies are large, detailed and extremely characterful, all the better for showcasing his striking thick-lined art style. They stick in the mind; you get attached to their all too commonly short lives and share some of their dread of their monstrous foes, since up close they seem so vulnerable.

“It led us down a bit of a rabbit hole as far as presentation goes,” says Bourassa. But, as the game’s lone artist for much of its development, it also had to be something that he could make on his own. Having a top-down view that transitioned to a side-on one for combat would significantly increase his workload.

“I like looking at the same character the whole time,” Bourassa says. “I don’t particularly enjoy switching modes with a big fade-to-black and then you’re looking at something completely different. But we thought we had to do that for a while! We thought that’s how you make RPGs, because it’s what’s understood to be the way to deliver a turn-based RPG.”

So they broke the rules, maintaining the same view for both dungeon-crawling and combat. While that decision was driven by the need for tight budgeting, it also provides Darkest Dungeon with a great deal of its personality: gritty, intimate, dangerous, claustrophobic. A game in which walking and battling come hand-in-hand and you’re always kept down on your heroes’ level.

As Bourassa and Sigman discussed what it’d mean for the combat design and what it meant for a line of heroes to face a line of monsters, they began to imagine a hero reaching with a spear deep into the ranks of the enemies. With that came the concept of positioning: where the place a hero or monster stood in the ranks could affect its ability to act.

Sigman remembered The Bard’s Tale and how heroes would be divided into two ranks. Those in the front one could hit with melee weapons, while those in the back could only hit with ranged or magical attacks. “So that was a mental model that we could start building on,” he says. “And it makes sense. You know you want your tank up front and stuff like that. I think we were pleasantly surprised as we started diving into that that there was a fair amount more we could do with this four-on-four than, say, those other games had done.”

“It makes logical sense too, right?” says Bourassa. “You couldn’t hit somebody all the way behind three other guys with a sword. So it’s easy for people to understand what we’re trying to simulate when they sit down and look at it. It makes that immediate logical sense.”

Positioning created a new and broad palette of actions and attributes which in turn led to interesting situations that you spend combat solving. If a monster pulls a hero out of its optimal position, where it’s exposed to minimal risk and from where its attacks are best used, what do you do? Spend its turn getting back into place? Spend another hero’s turn moving them instead to shuffle the positions around?

Positioning also opened up a new stat, move resistance, a value which determines how easy it is to pull a hero or monster out of place, and that led to trinkets and buffs which can boost this stat and debuffs which can decrease it.

And heroes and monsters could have a new attribute, movement, which defines how many positions in the rank they can shift in a single turn. “It influences your party design,” says Sigman. “If you want to be a min-maxer about parties with optimal positions, you’ll be very fragile compared to a versatile party.” In Darkest Dungeon, versatility is all about dealing with terrible circumstance: remaining effective even if the party’s been reshuffled or it has lost a hero.

On an aesthetic level, movement and positioning gives the hero classes different feels, whether agile or lumbering. But as much as they’re constructed from abilities and stats, Red Hook began designing them from a more thematic point of view. Their first step was to make a list of classes they liked the notion of and felt would fit in with the occult Victoriana setting. Having come up with 40, they then imagined what each would do. More often than not, they allowed this to determine their role and abilities in the game.

For example, among the 15 classes in the final release there’s the Leper, an exceedingly tough hero because his nerves are destroyed and he can’t feel pain, but his eyesight’s been ruined by his disease so he’s inaccurate. A tank fighter, then, prime for the front line.

Sometimes the concept of a character found its place in a role that was open in the roster, like the Grave Robber. Bourassa loved the visuals she inspired and the team saw her fitting into a glass cannon role: a tricksy character, highly accurate and with a high crit-rate, able to move two positions in the ranks and to attack both at range and in melee.

Sometimes a hero started in one place and then organically settled into another, like the Bounty Hunter. He could’ve been a tank, but as they explored him they realised he should be versatile, as happy setting snares and pulling monsters out of their formation as going toe-to-toe.

“Some of the classes are maybe more archetypal so it’s clear what they are, but some of them are kind of from the left field and we let them define what they needed to be,” says Sigman. And they built flexibility into each so as they levelled up they could fulfil different roles if the players trained them that way, allowing lots of experimentation with party compositions. “We didn’t really plan out party comps, we tried to make interesting heroes,” Sigman continues. “If you look at the whole game, if you make a bunch of interesting systems, hopefully they’ll all start working together well. We released all these heroes and watched what parties people built with them.”

Red Hook approached monster design in a similar way, since in most cases they can do anything heroes can. “We wanted to expose the full range of tools to both factions because it can create so many more interesting problems to solve,” says Bourassa. So, again, considering positioning was vital, such as with the Bone Arbalist, a ranged skeleton which deals damage from the monsters’ back ranks. “They’re terrifying, they can get a crit on you and do a lot of damage,” says Sigman. “Do I hook it and pull it forward? By contrast you have the little fish warriors in the Cove who have harpoons and are good in any rank, so it’s a different problem. Is my focus on eliminating them, or taking out this tank that’s guarding them? That texture is what we wanted to set up.”

Right now, Red Hook are finishing Darkest Dungeon’s first DLC, The Crimson Court. They set out wondering if they’d already wrung its combat system dry. “There’s a little concern, ‘Oh God, do we have to reuse every mechanic we have or are there more?’” says Sigman. “And we were able to find even more. It’s been a system that every time we go back to the well we’re able to pluck something out.” Red Hook discovered that adding a new twist on an antediluvian system opened up a dark and fascinating a new dimension for RPG play.

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25 Comments

  1. skyst says:

    I put just over 130 hours into Darkest Dungeon since it went up on Steam in an unfinished, beta state. A chunk of that time was spent with the game minimized or with me AFK, but I did finish the game eventually. I never tried the hard mode unlocked by finishing the game normally but intend to in the future; it sounds to me like what the game should have been from the start.

    While I rather enjoyed DD, particularly the art style and everything audio about it, there are some mechanical oddities and design choices that strike me as odd.

    The chief offender of odd choices is the inability to lose in the normal game. This is achieved by the endless stream of adventurers into town, willing to die for the cause. If there is a DD2, I would love to see it have a limited number of characters with more in depth builds rather than having a huge roster of guys with freely swappable abilities. In the current state, you can simply throw wave after wave of new recruits at the dungeon, collecting loot and kicking them to the curb afterwards. This doesn’t quite fit the nature of the game in my opinion.

    Beyond that, there are some balance issues with some characters being far too effective (Hellion’s damage, Abomination stun abuse, etc) once one learns the classes and becomes proficient with the game’s mechanics. Otherwise, DD is a really neat game oozing with flavor that’s well worth the cost.

    I’d love to see the full list of 40 classes originally dreamt up.

  2. Rorschach617 says:

    11 hours in.

    About 11 restarts, still haven’t got to grips with the meta-game.

    I see what you mean, skyst, but I like the endless stream of adventurers. I don’t just throw them in and hope to get some loot out of it, I prune the roster, accepting the better options from those available (hence the 11 restarts when I lost 2-3 heroes and the roster became lopsided), firing heroes when better options come along.

    That DD allows for extremely varied styles of play should be applauded.
    What I would like to see from a DD2 or a DLC is the Heroes’ artwork visibly changing as things happen to them:
    eg. A Cowardly hero should cringe more, an Egomaniac would wear silks and ermine. And what do the kleptomaniacs do with all the loot? Could I assign someone to shadow them to see where they stash the goods please?
    But more artwork definitely. Even just being able to distinguish at a glance between Loric the veteran Crusader from young Cirol the trainee would be great.

    • dbsmith says:

      Wait, why restarts? There’s no permanent penalty to having teams die. All positive progress you make (i.e. upgrades to your village, items you collect/win) is permanent.

  3. Disgruntled Goat says:

    I’m going to give DD another go once they release the Radiant update.

    The one part of the game I could never get my head around was the Quirks system. They were so expensive to manage, I mostly ignored them (which might have a lot to do with my ultimate failure to finish the game).

    I never got a handle on which positive quirks to “lock in” and which negative ones to get rid of. I just couldn’t see spending thousands of gold dumping a bad quirk, only for that guy to acquire a random new one on the next run.

    Does anyone have an effective strategy to deal with quirks?

    • sonson says:

      Quirks are the last thing to worry about in terms of an investment. They’re the most obvious example of not throwing good money after bad. At the last stage of the game it’s zero sum stuff, and taking along a hero who isn’t equipped for the job can cost you dozens of turns, loads of money and items and even the lives of other better heroes.

      If you have the cash and your heroes are upgraded fully (including items) then go nuts, there’s nothing else to spend it on. Otherwise they’re not worth it in the round, and I would say they’re simply never worth it at low levels at all. At low levels you should be squeezing people for all their worth and giving them nothing more than they need to survive so that you can do it again. There’s no quirk that’s worth buying instead of a flat +5 increase in base dodge, HP, Dmg etc as is the case with armour and weapons. Upgrades are expensive and cash dosen’t tend to be easy to come by.

      They sort of look after themselves in the sense that a Champion Hero is never going to have too many bad quirks as the ramp up from Veteran to Champion is so huge that any hero affected by minus traits is simply going to be a liability or die once you reach level 6. It’s quite possible that you might rank up a veteran with some bad quirks and they’ll be fine for mid level missions and you’ll have had them for ages, but they’re still going to cost you a fortune if you have to spend 7000 gold on them to just to get them to a base level again. Not to mention that Champion missions are so knife edge that a quirk can literally be the difference between winning and failing a mission and gaining or losing pots of gold and items. That kind of sentiment and attachment to your most loyal crew member you tend to get in other roster games will cost you here. I’ve thrown level 6 members who picked up quirks in their final veteran mission, even though I had upgraded them all the way there. It just wasn’t worth having to basically put an expedition together solely to meet the cost of outfitting and curing someone, no matter how much I had invested on them at that point.

      Worth pointing out that there’s a town event where you can cure quirks, and possibly lock them in, for free. Towards the end of the game once your facility is fully upgraded that event cropping up will take care of a good percentage of the problems they might be causing.

      The quirks thing is fine but in an otherwise excellent game their essential redundancy stands out a mile. They’re not bad as a device, but its because they’re either laughably crippling to the point that you throw someone for having them, or they just don’t do much. In both cases they don’t really intrude or add anything.

      There’s curios in different dungeons which can remove quirks or increase a chance of getting a positive negative one, and spending too long in buildings in the town can do the same. I thought once I learned this it would add a new dimension to quirk management/strategy, but honestly they’re so secondary to the other things. If you’re getting the main things right a bad quirk isn’t going to stop you progressing well. If you’re not, well, it doesn’t matter, fixing quirks isn’t going to do anything to help.

      • RogerMellie says:

        Agree with this.

        Quirks are a pain to keep on top of in general, so just learn to live with them.

        I’d like a reduction to maybe 2 good and 2 bad per character, maybe increasing their effects too. Would be something to manage then I think.

  4. Lobotomist says:

    I wish so much to like this game. I so much love the art style and concept, i had it as my desktop wallpaper since it was first announced as kickstarter.

    I love this type of game. And is something I always wanted to play.

    But I can not bring my self to play it. Not because of difficulty, but because its constantly punishing player. Its like the game is very random, but always in favor of monsters.

    For example if your party has critical – maybe one or two character receive 2 inspiration. But if enemy critical the party, the entire party gets 20 desperation.

    And everything in the game is like that.

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      I’m going to agree with you here. One other point which had me scratching my head is that any surplus supplies you get for your party are lost – even if the party returns alive and well.

    • cakeisalie says:

      It’s not actually that hard, more time consuming than anything. There are far more unforgiving roguelikes!

      The key is having the right combination of heroes and abilities for the different dungeons. For instance, there’s not much point taking bleed attacks into the Cove, because most of the enemies have very high bleed resistance. However, blight attacks are extremely effective in the Cove and can be stacked.

      Also there are lots of ways to deal with stress, the most obvious one being to target stress dealers first, who are usually quite weak enemies anyway. There are also many trinkets that reduce stress, as well as making sure your torch is always above 75. And some characters (eg the Jester) and curios can heal stress. Camping also cures stress and many of the camping abilities revolve around reducing it.

      I’m very close to the end now and only lost around 20 heroes in 80 hours of gameplay.

    • sonson says:

      It’s honestly not a hard game. Its grueling and it punishes carelessness far more than most games I’ve played but like any good strategy game if you understand the basics and apply them effectively you won’t have an issue. It requires a lot of trial and error but if you persist and learn the lessons the game is always telling you- Overconfidence is a slow and insidious killer probably being the main one- you will progress quickly.

      I think I lost 7 heroes in my 70 hour play through and like 4 of them at the start and the other 2 main ones in level 6 mission I was nowhere near enough prepared for. I think I lost one dude to what I felt was an “unfair” crit by a maggot or something. And even then there were things I could have done to protect him. It sounds stupid but one of the biggest lessons you can learn in the end game is that basically anyone can die in two turns, at any point, but it’s not unfair because you *can* prepare around this.

    • Christo4 says:

      That’s also the thing that annoyed me last time i played it and i haven’t for a LOOOONG time. Not sure if it changed or anything, but apparently it didn’t, judging from your comment.

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      Ericusson says:

      I’m in the same boat there.
      The game is just not my cup of tea. I find he punishable nature of it a repelling element along with the way it forces you to see adventurers as disposable paper tissues thanks to the quirks system.

      I can’t bring myself to see it the way it wants to force me to play it.

  5. tranchera says:

    Admittedly I haven’t tried extremely hard to get into the game, but one thing that really annoys me is the food system. Or in other words, the fact that there isn’t really one.

    You take food (a multiple of 4) and even if you make everyone in your party eat a meal to heal up, you could take a single step and be informed that everyone is starving and you have to spend another 4 to stop them from taking damage.

    It should either be a thing that recovers health, or fills a hunger bar. (As far as I’m aware) it’s just a random trap in a dungeon that tells you everyone is hungry.

    I can obviously just work around it but weird design choices like that make me enjoy the game that little bit less, because it makes no sense.

    • cakeisalie says:

      It’s totally random, which is a bit nonsensical, but it works both way as sometimes you can go ages without needing a meal. It’s all part of the risk/reward mechanic – can I get by with taking less food (or should I feed my hero who has low health), making more room for collecting treasure and reducing my overall spend on the quest? But when you think about it, most of the mechanics don’t make much sense in terms of realism.

    • sonson says:

      It’s an abstraction. Your progress through the dungeon is meant to represent a week. At some point in the week you’ll get hungry and need food, that’s the learning point.

      And like everything else in the game, it’s easy to prepare for. I stopped having issues with food as soon as I realised food is something that can be an issue, basically. Just always take as much food and torches as you can. A few hundred extra gold to complete a mission is a no-brainer if it means you’re return is going to be in the thousands.

      Unless you’re trying to be hardcore it never makes sense to scrimp on essentials at any point. The cost of failure is massive and you should never invest in risk.

  6. tonicer says:

    I like DD it’s a good game and thankfully it is very easy do modify the things that i don’t like.

  7. Ginsoakedboy21 says:

    I was put off by this game for a long time, finally took the plunge, and am loving it. It’s scratching my FTL itch that hasn’t been scratched since, well, FTL.

    Did a trial run for a couple of hours, restarted and am now about 20 hours into my main run. Yes it’s hard, but manageably so, best tip is use the wiki for what inventory items work with what dungeon curios (I don’t see how you would ever figure this out on your own tbh) it gives you a small but important advantage.

  8. ThePuzzler says:

    2D combat? 2D graphics, but looks more 1D in gameplay terms. Does height or depth play a significant tactical factor?

    • skeletortoise says:

      This seems a little nit picky to me. How often do all three dimensions actually come into play in a game which might be described as having 3D combat?

      • Dman of Dhour says:

        I can think of modern FPS and some hack-n-slash brawlers off the top of my head.

        But yeah, generally most 3D games don’t have 3D combat. Especially not RPGs.

  9. ShiArch says:

    I wanted to like this game. I love other games in this genre like Desktop Dungeons.
    I love hard games but this games combat system was a random mess.
    Let me say it again, its core gameplay is total mess.
    Random numbers are out of control and stupidly large.
    Planning has almost no effect as enemies can do absolutely massive critical damages and your characters are always getting hard to remove negative traits.

    Let me be even more clear,
    We play tactical rpgs for planning, strategy and characters.
    Planning and strategy have very little bearing here due to extreme randomness. The game ‘compensates’ for this by giving you endless supply of copy/paste heroes. Heroes who never hold your interest for even a minute as they are cannon fodder to random numbers.
    One of the most massively overhyped games ever.

    • Darloth says:

      But Desktop Dungeons is a puzzle game. It has essentially no roguelike elements at all, if you don’t count being tile based, and is not really a tactical RPG either. It’s certainly not anywhere near the genre of Darkest Dungeon.

      If you were comparing it to something like Fire Emblem, or Etrian Odyssey, then perhaps. Your actual list of dislikes for the game is also valid, though I do think that the game is structured around planning how you will deal with random bad things over a whole run, rather than planning on a more detailed level combat to combat.

    • skyst says:

      The combat ceases to be as you describe once you begin developing your adventurers. And not that it is necessarily great design, but low level D&D tends to function the same way in that everyone misses constantly and then nearly dies to a single hit. Your team becomes a lot tougher and usually has a number of ways to mitigate or effectively heal damage as your party gains experience. Then there is a degree of strategy – it’s never incredibly deep, but I don’t think that this game really intends to be.

      You begin to appreciate some of the necessary planning as you find the boss encounters. Various party compositions can handle most of the bosses, but chances are that the party you have been using to clear the mooks in the normal dungeons will be woefully inadequate to handle the first boss you find. Dreaming up a specific comp to handle the boss (or by reading a Wiki) is part of the fun here.

  10. Shadrach says:

    I fell in love with Darkest Dungeon when I first saw the gorgeous art and its music, and I have always been a fan of dungeon-crawlers. Unfortunately it turned out way too hard for me, more of a masochism-simulator than a fun game, but some like that I guess.

    I still enjoy it from time to time, but have long ago realized I will never, ever get to the final boss battles. But that’s fine, I’ve still enjoyed it, for what that’s worth.

  11. mercyRPG says:

    I recently asked my cousin – he buys any hyped game on Steam -, if I could try out DD to see if its worth buying.

    I found the game’s combat unenjoyable. Compared to Battle Brothers, DD is a laughing stock.

    Only the graphical style is atmospheric. The rest is forgettable.

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