2400 devlog: Data Loss

2400 devlog: Data Loss

Data Loss is a soulslike sci-fi TTRPG scenario about waking up in a cloning station on a ruined world, tasked with gathering memories of the dead to piece together the situation and how to survive it. It’s available as part of the full 2400 series on Itch.io, and on its own and in the 2400 bundle on DriveThruRPG.

(Data Loss is not an official or authorized adaptation of Dark Souls, nor is it officially recognized or endorsed by FromSoftware or its publishers … which should be obvious … but I’ll mention it just in case.)

What is a “soulslike TTRPG,” anyway?

As I acknowledge in the original Data Loss devlog, this game exists thanks to the announcement of an officially licensed Dark Souls adaption for D&D. Not because I felt the need to do it “better” — I’d already made multiple soulslike tabletop RPGs (it’s kind of an obsession of mine). Rather, that announcement got my entire social media ecosystem thinking aloud about what “soulslike” even means … and my attempt to hazard an explanation inadvertently resulted in a game.

Here is my absolutely adamant, supremely unsatisfying answer:

soulslike
/ ˈsōlz-līk /

adjective

1. any of a number of action RPG video games developed by FromSoftware (including the eponymous Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls series), known for challenging combat and environmental storytelling, with a shared mechanism of avatar death risking the loss of currency required for character advancement

2. any game inspired by, or attempting to capture the feeling of, FromSoftware’s soulslike games (see SOULSLIKE entry 1)

You may be wondering: Can’t you define it WITHOUT referencing Dark Souls?

No.

You literally cannot arrive at a complete and accurate definition of “soulslike” without referring to FromSoftware’s video games.

You can list a bunch of things that games marketed or described as “soulslike” tend to have in common. I mentioned a few in my above definition, limiting myself to elements that are unarguably true. Dark Souls is certainly known for challenging combat and environmental storytelling (Wikipedia says so!). And I can personally verify that every one of those games sees you risking your souls, blood echoes, runes, or whatever when you die.

Beyond that, trying to define “soulslike” based on specific mechanisms or tropes is iffy at best. You could, for instance, say that soulslike games are “dark fantasy” — but then you’d be ignoring the marketing campaign, public perception, and clearly indebted gameplay of games like The Surge. Or you might say that soulslike games all involve dropping XP and returning to the same spot to reclaim it — but Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice doesn’t work that way (you just lose some XP and money). And I’m certainly not going to be the one to argue that one of FromSoft’s own games doesn’t count.

There’s no formal set of criteria that can be said to fairly qualify a game as “soulslike.” Any attempt to pin it down as such is doomed to failure — at least for now.

It’s been long enough since the first comic strip was produced that you can now refer to “comics” without that word implying the product is funny. It has been long enough since the release of Rogue in 1980 — over 40 years ago, as of this writing — that you can offer a formal definition of “roguelike” that doesn’t rely on anybody having ever heard of Rogue. But we are still too close to the source material for “soulslike” to clearly mean anything other than a reference to that source material. Demon’s Souls only came out in 2009; ask me again what “soulslike” means in ten to twenty years, if we’re even still using the term.

In the meantime, it’s more accurate to understand “soulslike” as a useful term for signaling your inspirations and marketing to people who like the same things.

This is why, when Paul Beakley of the Indie Game Reading Club asked what makes a game “soulslike,” I linked to my collection of soulslike games on Itch, and admitted that it’s pretty easy to qualify for that collection. Really, all you need is to say it’s inspired by Dark Souls. Sometimes I’ll add things that just remind me of other soulslike games. By way of example, I said that I’d call a TTRPG “soulslike” if you played a repeatedly dying clone who harvests mind-backups and battles giant robots.

And then I thought, “Wait … I’d actually play that game.”

And then I made it.

It’s not exactly “dark fantasy,” it doesn’t have “stamina,” and I forgot to put in a clever reference to big sword made out of moonlight, but I’ll try to explain what I did to make it feel “soulslike” to me.

Adapting soulslike elements to a TTRPG

I don’t think a game needs repeated death or giant boss monsters to count as “soulslike.” I want these things for my soulslike games, though. And that means I want combat that feels “soulslike” too.

Soulslike combat in a tabletop game is a fraught topic. When that official adaptation was announced, gamers loudly complained that Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition is the “wrong” rule set for a soulslike game. It spawned at least two game jams — one explicitly devoted to doing it “better” — and a lot of discussion on what the rules should look like. It’s not a coincidence, I think, that one of the most celebrated soulslike TTRPGs, Bleak Spirit, doesn’t even bother to try to emulate the combat; instead, it captures the atmosphere, the haunting beauty, quietude, and, well, bleakness.

Trying to capture Dark Souls combat in a TTRPG faces at least two big challenges, I think. One is fan expectations: Different people have different ideas about what’s most important about that experience, perhaps because the game supports a wide range of play styles. The other big challenge is inherent complexity: Trying to adapt Dark Souls’s mechanics directly is a losing endeavor because your players don’t have the benefit of a computer tracking all the math for them.

My personal philosophy is not to worry about what other people want from a soulslike game, and instead to focus on capturing the feel of what I want. And so, I don’t try to adapt Dark Souls’s mechanics directly or completely. I just pick the parts that matter to me and see what I can do for them.

In my earlier soulslike microgames, I focused on tactical resource management — that is, demanding consequential, moment-to moment decisions, based on how much you’re willing to wager. And so I adapted just a couple currencies from the video games: health (run out, and you’re dead) and stamina (run out, and you’re limited in what you can do).

The interplay between these currencies turns combat into a series of rapid-fire considerations of how much to push your luck, and how to invest your limited resources. Do you wear heavier armor to protect your health, or lighter armor to give more options in spending stamina? Hold onto stamina to dodge, or overextend yourself in the hopes of ending the fight sooner?

I fully intended to go the same route in Data Loss. I figured I’d use a full page (!) for rules, to accommodate all the additions necessary to make this a soulslike 2400 game.

And then … I didn’t. I tried! I wrote the rules a few different ways, as I often do. But, I don’t know, maybe it was my experience (re)designing Codebreakers that gave me pause. I didn’t want more rules. I didn’t want to just recreate Exhumed, which is already a pretty 2400-like soulslike micro RPG with stamina tokens.

What’s more, I realized the very few rules that 2400 does have are already laser-focused on what I wanted to emulate about soulslike combat: risk. (And stuff breaking.) That “series of rapid-fire considerations of how much to push your luck” doesn’t have to be grounded in “how to invest your limited resources,” I think. I love playing the games that do handle it that way, but action in 2400 is so pared-down that (at least in the hands of a GM confident in improvisation) it’s more “rapid-fire” now than it would be with tokens to pass around.

So, rather than add a new abstract mechanic, I added some clarifications and examples for how to run 2400 combat (with rules as written) in a way that feels “soulslike” to me. If, for instance, you want to emulate that feeling of using up your last bit of stamina to gamble on finishing the fight early, describe “a risky stunt (pushing hard, hindering your next roll).”

I did still end up doing a full page of “Rules,” but the rules I added focused as much as I could on “fictional rules” — rules that exist in the setting, visible to the characters themselves. Like…

You have 120 seconds to resuscitate or loot someone [who has died] before DRM protocols disintegrate their body and items. Their mind, stored as a Sapience Optimized Uplink Log (SOUL), transmits to the nearest backup station to be cloned with fabricated copies of their items. Only their SOUL transmits on death; other SOUL chips they carry are dropped, and may be looted if left unattended.

I could’ve just said, “If you die, you’re resurrected at a nearby backup station with your gear, but you drop your souls where you died,” and anybody who has played the video games would know exactly what this meant. I really prefer cause and effect to be grounded in fiction in 2400, though. You can quibble over whether it counts as a “rule,” but it’s certainly different from what you see under the rules for “death” in most RPGs.

I tried to carry this philosophy through the material on the back page as well. Dark Souls “boss fights” can feel like a tedious grind to whittle down their hit points before they whittle down yours … but not when they’re fun, I think. I personally think they work best when you’re able to approach them as puzzles: sussing out the enemy’s logical weaknesses, observing the patterns in their behavior to exploit openings, spotting what in the environment you can use to your advantage. The metaminds of Data Loss are thus my attempt to boil down video-gamey boss fights to fictional rules, using the same considerations of risks and obstacles I tried to introduce with explicit examples in Orbital Decay.

You can spot some other elements inspired by Dark Souls scattered throughout Data Loss, like “corruption” (modeled on “hollowing“), “metamind cores” (akin to “boss souls“), distinct kinds of “spells” based on different skills (TK mods vs. arcwire mods, roughly paralleling miracles and sorceries), and — I hope, at least — a tragic story that might be gradually revealed from environmental clues scattered across the world. (Nobody has actually told me they “got it” yet, though, so maybe it’s more hidden than I meant it to be.) Even the name is an oblique reference; I’d originally intended to write “Loss” backwards on the cover, so the title would just look a few letters off from “Dark Souls.” (Fortunately, the part of my brain that cares about readers shot down the backwards-text idea.)

Someday, I want to do even more with all this — with Data Loss, and environmental storytelling in soulslike games more broadly. I briefly considered making this game even longer, or split into two parts — a standard four-pager, plus an optional supplement with another cover. But for now, I like my 2400 games like I like my Dark Souls characters: short and sweet (at least compared to monstrous the monstrous, soul-eating monarchs they face).

Prepping to run Data Loss

The last page in Data Loss — what I think of as the “GM’s page” — is something of a departure from other 2400 games. Instead of four, 20-item lists, this page is organized into areas of the world.

Within each area are some suggested encounters, some clues about where to go or what might have happened here, and a “boss fight” with brief notes on how it will try to kill you and one way (though I don’t expect the only way) to kill it first. There’s a lot condensed in there, but also a lot of gaps to fill: Much like when you play Dark Souls, I hope, the clues scattered across scraps of flavorful text paint a picture, but still leave more than a little room for speculation and further investigation.

This back page is, in a way, a map you can’t see. If I’d had more space, I might’ve included an actual map, or perhaps numbered individual rooms. My hope, however, is that this approach gives you the flexibility to make your world as large as you need for the amount of time you expect to be able to play. A dedicated group might be able to blow through all of data loss in a relatively long one-shot; others might stretch a game over five or more sessions, focusing on a different area in each.

If you would like to have maps for each area before playing, you could search online for actual building floor plans, but it can take a while to find interesting results. Personally, I recommend random map generators tailored for each area. I reviewed a bunch while working on Data Loss, and these were my favorites.

Outskirts and City maps can be generated by Watabou or ProbableTrain.

Plant maps can generated by Donjon, or adapted from Gradient Descent, a Mothership scenario.

Labs maps can be generated by Donjon, or adapted from the “red tower” map in Dead Planet, another Mothership scenario.

Mines maps can be generated by choosing “cavernous” on Donjon, or by customizing “caverns” on Dave’s Mapper.

A note about process

People sometimes ask me how long it takes me to write a short game. Data Loss is a good illustration of the answer:

It takes me about eight days … if it’s a topic I’m obsessed with … after about a year and a half of refining the rules and character options.

In contrast, I first teased Resistors about eight months before I was actually able to finish it. When I did release it, it was sandwiched just days in between Habs & Gardens and Xot.

Just know, for the record, I’m not some kind of super-fast productivity powerhouse. We all work at our own pace. Mine’s slower than it looks. (But it’s a heck of a lot faster when I’m hacking stuff to run Dark Souls.)

Combining with other 2400 games

Data Loss can be played as a self-contained scenario or as part of a broader 2400 arc. There’s more than one way to integrate it into a larger 2400 setting, but I imagine it makes the most sense as a starting point with the goal of getting offworld. 

For more TK mods, use powers from Project Ikaros. It’s up to you whether non-telekinetic psi powers can be run with the TK implant, require a different kind of implant, or even exist at all. (At my table, at least, TK implants are grossly unsafe, and any other psi powers you find are betas or prototypes. Good luck!)

For more arcwire mods, adapt cyberware from Inner System Blues and/or Resistors. (What does an “arcwire tool” even look like, anyway? Great question. You should decide that.)

For alternate clone bodies and upgrades, check out ALT, another 2400 game about mind-backups that leans more into body modification. (Now you get to be a land octopus, if you want.)

For interesting things to turn metamind cores into, consult the lists or generators in Exiles, Zone, and/or Xot.

For more advancement options, consider using “talents” from Eos and/or Legends — especially if your game goes offworld. Data Loss’s approach to advancement may make less sense to use out of the original context.

And if you want a more traditional, dark fantasy 24XX soulslike, use the rules from Data Loss (replacing “backup station” to “bonfire,” etc.); use the character creation, items, and magic rules and options from Legends (replacing “coins” with “souls”); and cobble together your setting from my soulslike campaign suggestions or other sources.

Legends and Data Loss are both designed to encourage open-ended character builds, just like the Souls games: They offer starting templates, but you can grow in any direction. If you want to make it feel even truer to the Souls video games, you might want to also do the following:

  • Assign “talents” to items, rather than taking them as advancement options (e.g., Miracle Working and Spell Casting are built-in properties granted by holy symbols and wands; Battle Rage is a built-in property granted by certain weapons; etc.)
  • Split up “incantations” into separate lists of spells and miracles, each type requiring a different item and skill to use
  • Adapt or remove the “corruption” rule, as “hollowing” doesn’t actually negatively affect the player character’s mind in Souls games (though you might rule that walking around looking like a decaying corpse helps or hinders certain social interactions, much as it affects some conversation optionsin the video games)
  • Bolt on other mechanisms if you think you need them, like hit points and stamina (which could be adapted straight from Exhumed), poise (say, as a property of heavy armor that allows you to ignore the effects of brief hindrances), or slower item breakage (like allowing items to be “damaged” multiple times before being “broken”) … but I strongly recommend trying it without all that stuff first

Again, Data Loss is NOT an authorized or official Dark Souls tabletop RPG … but it should be pretty easy to use it to run Dark-Souls-inspired campaign. You know, if you wanted.

Featured image edited from original by Beeple (Mike Winkelmann)

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