There have been a lot of franchise tie-in tabletop games coming out recently. Labyrinth, Marvel, The Princess Bride. It’s easy to understand why, of course. Media tie-in games have an inbuilt audience. Geeky ones are already predisposed to enjoy gaming. And cult classic franchises benefit from the continual release of new products – they’ve long passed the majority of their income from the original media.
The Dark Crystal Adventure Game is a tabletop roleplaying game that takes players on an adventure through the world of Thra, the setting of the cult classic film The Dark Crystal.
The Dark Crystal first came out in 1982, inspired primarily by an illustration of Lewis Carroll’s poetry, and the relative darkness of traditional Grimm’s fairytales. Jim Henson, who is best known for creating the Muppets, Fraggle Rock, and Sesame Street (and puppeteering many of the characters thereon), wrote a brief story to base the movie upon.
Like most Henson productions, the movie is cast with puppets, or set in fantastical fabricated sets which do not attempt to look like real locations or people. The result is a gorgeous movie – in which the last two Gelflings (a small, mostly human species) attempt to repair the broken Dark Crystal, reunite the UrSkeks, and save all of Thra.
In 2019, Netflix released a prequel series Age of Resistance. This series was directed by Jim Henson’s son and received mixed reviews from audiences. Set some time before the film, it follows several Gelflings who resist the tyranny of the Skeksis, exploring the world and societies of Thra as they do so.
Setting and Timeline
The Dark Crystal Adventure Game, like Age of Resistance, is set in a time prior to the events of the movie. Gelflings are still plentiful, Skekis are tyrannical overlords who capture and enslave weaker species, and the Darkening is slowly corrupting the beautiful world around you.
Not a lot of setting information is given upfront (exploration of the world is a major factor in the provided adventure), but it all seems to fall in line with the lore found across various Dark Crystal media and adaptations.
You play as a Gelfling. Not surprising, that, since Gelflings are the most human of Thra’s species, and protagonists of basically every story told in the world.
You do, however, get to choose between various subspecies of Gelfling clans. These are found in various lore, and are divided by living environment. There are Dousan (desert Gelflings), Drenchen (swamp Gelflings), Grottan (cavern Gelflings), Sifa (ocean/river Gelflings), Stonewood (forest Gelflings), and Vapra (tundra Gelflings). Each of these clans comes with their own Clan Trait, which will impact some of your rolls and mechanics.
Once you’ve chosen your clan, you then get to choose two Skills, and a Specialization for each of them. These determine the kind of adventurer that you are – are you good at fighting, puzzle solving, magic?
You also choose a Flaw. This won’t actually hurt your rolls. It just affects your roleplay, and it does benefit you to keep it in mind. Working through and roleplaying these flaws is one of the fastest ways to get experience points (a fairly limited resource).
Instead of a leveling system, you can instead exchange your experience points for new skills and specializations. Each has their own cost, with stronger specializations costing a little more.
To get experience points, you simply play the game. Completing game sessions nets everyone in the party a point, as well as moments in which your character overcomes a flaw. Additionally, at the end of session, each member of the party chooses another player to get an experience point (alongside a little explanation of what they did to deserve it).
Rules and Gameplay
This game has a relatively simple set of rules. Each creature has a creature die – a d6 for Gelflings (which all player characters are) – and a modifier of up to 3, which are rolled and totaled when they attempt to interact with the world.
Challenges (instances in which you might make an opposed roll against another player or an NPC) are done by having both creatures make their own rolls as they normally would, with whatever modifiers are applicable. Whomever totals higher wins.
Combat works much the same way, except that you only ever do 1 point of damage. Taking a damage, though, lowers your creature die to a d4. Taking another damage forces you to roll on the injury table and take whatever debuff that gives you.
The Adventure Game is very much a group effort – to that end, there are some checks that a single character, no matter how many modifiers you pump into a single skill, cannot pass on their own. You *have to* work as a group.
Lone wolves don’t live long in Thra.
This, along with the fact that your fellow players give you a full third of the experience points you receive, makes cooperating with each other an essential skill to this game.
The majority of the game book is, in fact, one long adventure. It takes your players through pretty much all of Thra, forcing them to gather various shards to stop the Darkening. They’re racing against the Skekis, of course, who want the shards for their own ends. Along the way, they encounter spies, pirates, poets, and more – learning about the vast world of Thra.
It’s a pretty good adventure, although fairly dark. Players have the option to choose which parts of the world to explore first, and how to go about retrieving the crystals that they’ve been tasked with finding. You could also easily use locations, NPCs, and world events that are provided to make your own campaign as well, if the one provided just doesn’t do it for you.
Most reviews that I’ve seen of the game seem to consider the ending of the included adventure anticlimactic. The world isn’t permanently saved, you cannot beat the Skeksis – all you’ve done is delay the inevitable. While this might be disappointing to players, this is more a product of being a prequel than a flaw in the writing of the campaign. The Dark Crystal movie takes place after the near complete destruction of Thra, after all. Saving it completely is simply impossible. (Personally, I thought that the Age of Resistance series had this same problem)
Presentation and Supplements
The art and the materials given in this book are simply stunning.
There are maps for just about every location, plus illustrations and diagrams of creatures and landscapes, and plenty of atmospheric art to give the DM inspiration. Fans of the whimsical and magical style of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth might want to give this book a read just to see the artwork!
There are as yet no supplemental books or custom dice to use with the game.
Since the worldbuilding explanation is so sparse within the gamebook, this is pretty heavily geared toward people who have already been exposed to the Dark Crystal in some capacity. And even if you have, it might behoove you to give it a quick rewatch, or a read through of the wiki at least.
You do have to be willing to work alongside your fellow players – combative personalities and power gamers aren’t likely to find this game very fun. There is no “optimal build” for your character, and you can’t boost your modifiers enough to ever really feel like a powerful or impactful entity within the world. You’re a small creature trying to survive, and to help the people around you survive, not a warlike demigod laying waste to your foes.
The tone of the game is also quite dark. In the movie and on television, the quaint appearance of the puppets and set dressing undercuts the disturbing and serious elements of the story. With the game, you don’t really have that. Things like slavery, trauma, dismemberment, and death are all happening around the people across the table.
Still, if you love the franchise (and I know that I do) this is a great game. It details and immerses you pretty well into Thra, emphasizes the abilities and tone of the original works, and lets you really embrace the adventure that you might find therewithin.
Have you played The Dark Crystal Adventure Game? How did it go? Did you enjoy it? We'd love to hear about it in the comments below!