The Way of Stealth
by Will Hindmarch
It’s nighttime in the chapel. A gilded altar glitters. Candles, arranged like a choir, lit to honor the memories of cherished dead, glow behind it. The floor is a maze of colors cast onto the floor by the moon beyond the stained-glass windows. It smells like sandalwood incense in here. A guard in a red tabard and steel helmet carries a sword and a lantern through the smoke.
A precious artifact—an etched skull, long ago dipped in molten gold—weighs heavy, with stolen coins and other loot, in the bag hung from your shoulder. When they discover the skull is missing, they’ll raise a cry. If they find you with it, they’ll put you to the sword.
Press your back to a pillar and hold your breath while the guard moves through the place, his bright lantern turning and shifting shadows throughout the room. As he moves, sneak around the pillar to keep yourself in darkness.
Lots of thieves work alone. In Dark, you have that option. The game plays wonderfully with one thief and one game master, who we call the House.
Up to four players, with one thief each, can undertake a single adventure together with the help of a single House. A crew of thieves can protect each other but also introduces more variables into play. Often risky, sometimes worth it.
Fortunately, keeping everyone hidden is seldom one of those risks. You’re not at the mercy of a die roll to stay hidden because in Dark, you don’t roll dice to see if you hide. You hide. Stealth is your forté, your modus operandi, and you don’t need a complex plan and the luck of the dice to pull it off.
Thieves use regular playing cards to play—one deck per thief. The luck of the draw is there for you to see and manage throughout a mission. What cards do you play—and when? What cards do you hold—and how for long?
And the plan? The plan is to sneak. Stealth is always the plan. The game’s pre-heist Casing phase helps you know what you’re getting into and allows you to use your thief’s expertise and your imagination to plan in hindsight.
After that, it’s up to other characters to detect you.
Slip to the next pillar, press against it. Stay in the shadows. Turn your eyes to the far door, the door for common entry—your escape route—and just then another guard enters. He’s got muddy boots and a lantern of his own. Even fewer shadows now. The darkness recoils from the lanterns.
The guards walk through the narrow chapel, down the center aisle toward each other. It looks like they’ll meet in the center of the room, lined up almost exactly with the pillar you hide behind. One of them adjusts the sword hanging from his belt.
Dark is designed for narrative play, combining simple maps with theater-of-the-mind portrayals to bring that narrative to life in your imagination. No hexes, no vision cones; they’re a wonderful tool for games that focus on the puzzle elements of game levels, but for Dark they are too pat, too fiddly, and no fun to track at the table.
We want you to describe things and imagine them. We want you to be unsure what all a guard can see at once, to worry that they might notice you through a smoke-dark window. That’s the sweet suspense of stealth.
An empty, echoing room with bright lights and a loud tile floor is difficult to sneak through. An attic with mere dashes of moonlight through the windows and lots of cloth-draped furniture for cover? That’s easier to sneak through, even if the floorboards do squeak.
It all helps to describe an area’s Stealth Level—the game’s scale of stealthiness. Instead of a binary hidden-or-not measure, it’s about risk. The Stealth Level translates a swath of descriptive detail into a simple method for thinking like a thief. The higher the Stealth Level, the harder you are to detect and the more cards you hold in hand. You have options and power when you act from the shadows.
The guards, both in red, step near each other. It’s just cold enough in here to see their breath in the air. One of them sniffs snot into his nose and grumbles one word: “Quiet.”
“What’s that?” the muddy-booted guard asks.
“I say it’s quiet tonight.”
“Yeah. I thought the abbot would be up late writing again.”
“I thought he’d come by tonight to pray over the, uh, the thing. The skull.”
Dash to the pews while they’re talking. Use them for cover. Move, pew by pew, toward the common doors. Toward escape.
“Say goodbye before House Cormorant’s priests collect it in the morning,” he says with disdain. “Instead he’s sleeping?”
“I assume. We should all be so lucky. Look our best when the delegation arrives. Speaking of, I should get back outside and watch the gate.”
You are two pews away from the common doors when the mud-booted guard turns around, his lantern throwing light and shadows, and stomps toward those same doors you need. The other guard heads back toward the chancel, where the skull is meant to be.
Dark provides environments with many voices and many moods you can witness and influence in myriad ways. See what characters and monsters do when they’re not in a fight against heavy-handed adventurers.
While sneaking around undetected, the thief players have a lot of control over the pace of the game. They can explore, learn about the environment, and prepare the plays they want to make. This part of play, which involves gleaning details from the world and reading the fictional environment, can feel like something like an interactive “walking simulator” game. It’s an opportunity to inhabit a fantastical world—in secret—and observe what life is like there. And what schemes are about to boil over.
The world is larger than your thief. Things are happening all around you. And yet, your thief is at the center of the game even when they’re not the center of the world.
At the common doors, the muddy guard pushes a door open and then … stops. He pulls a long-stemmed pipe out of his clothes and sniffs it.
Through the open door, you see a chair beneath an empty lantern-hook. A watch post. If he installs himself there? How do you escape?
Reach a hand into your satchel. Find one of the coins you stole. Glance at it. The queen’s face is on one side, the royal castle on the other. Hold the coin in your fingers.
The guard near the altar makes a question-mark sound.
The guard near the door leans out to set his lantern on the hook.
Throw the coin, side-arm, toward the pews on the far side of the chapel.
As they move through the game world, your thief discovers lore and secrets. Some of these lead to new opportunities for heists and scores. Some of these give you glimpses into the lives you criss-cross as you move unseen through the city—lives that might change based on your choices in play.
Learn what plots, schemes, and tales are unfolding throughout the city, then decide how—or if—to act on those stories, in ways that go beyond combat.
Whether your thief steals a cherished relic to keep it out of the wrong hands or eavesdrops on traitors to the crown as they plan a bloody attack, how you move objects and intelligence throughout the city changes things.
In an ongoing campaign, consequences progress and collide to spark an emergent narrative, showing how other characters in the world respond to your thievery—for good or for ill. But what you steal and why and where it ends up only matters if you can make your getaways…
”Huh?” The mud-booted guard, lantern still in hand, spins around and squints into the chapel, toward the sound of your coin clattering across the stone floor. “What’s that?”
The guard near the altar turns toward it, too. He puts a hand on his sword but doesn’t draw it.
As they follow your ruse, slip one pew closer to the door.
Shadows flow in to swallow the common doors as the guards converge on your coin.
Move to the last pew. Brace yourself to dash out of here.
”Did you hear that?”
”Aye, look. Is that a shilling?”
Through the dark.
Through the open door.
And, as your feet crunch gravel in the yard and you vault over the outer wall, where you hear them holler alarms in the empty chapel: “Trespasser! The relic is gone!”
Sprint into the city and vanish.