How Darkest Dungeon Builds Exciting Characters Out of Mechanics

For a game about expendable characters, the quality of Character Creation in Darkest Dungeon is the heart of a doomed tale.

Darkest Dungeon is about an inheritor of a cursed estate employing brave heroes to cleanse the land and retrieve its valuable treasures. A highlight of the game is its brutal combat system where permadeath and lasting scars are built into the adventure. How the game builds unique characters out of a limited supply of classes is through its Quirk system. The Quirk system dictates the personality and behaviors that make each hero a unique character.

Some Spoilers ahead.

Stop Sticking Your Hands in Weird Holes

One of the mechanics Darkest Dungeon introduces is the stress meter. The Stress meter works as a long-term indicator of a hero’s mental health, quirks function as the long-term development of a hero’s character. Quirks are added and replaced when heroes clear dungeons as manifestations of their minds fracturing against the monstrous violations of life.  Some Quirks will affect combat stats conditionally but there are also behavioral quirks that will have characters Act-Out of the player’s control often resulting in stress damage. Heroes will claw open chests to satiate their curiosity or cower at an unlit chamber. Afflictions on the other hand are the extremes of the quirk system that occur from intense stress and are destructive obsessions like jealousy, paranoia, sadism, panic, etc. Activated by stress these occur commonly from incredibly dangerous fights or from overworking heroes in the condemned dungeons. The effects of afflictions have heroes turning on their teammates and range from destroying formations as they cower to striking teammates in a feverish rage. After one hero begins to fall the teammates watching in despair can be quick to join from the accelerating stress damage. Mismanagement of quirks can be a long path of dysfunction that quickly spirals into a tangle of broken wills and eventual death.

Character Hellion activating Hopeless affliction due to high stress
Hopeless Affliciton

On a dungeon mission, Heroes will often bark out comments relating to their current predicament. The Barking system provides the player with feedback from whether a hero is ready for a mission to their thrill at a fortunate turn in battle. There are some common phrases that are tactically informative like the current light source or the anticipation of monsters but many add flavor relative to the heroes class such as Crusaders gleefully banishing hellspawn or a lucky recovery spell raising an ally from Death’s Door. Among these comments are unique phrases that are produced from quirks, like a greedy hero gleefully pocketing a trinket or a sadist taking pleasure at their team’s bloodletting. The assortment of phrases with the hero’s eccentricities becomes a pattern unique to that hero. Even with near-identical class avatars and character portraits these interactions and moments of uncontained emotions build sociability between player instructions and their responses.

Character Vestal Quirk bark

HR Needs You to Stop Dying

Players can’t control what quirks a hero develops, but what they can do is use facilities at the town to strengthen or remove quirks as well as heal stress damage which removes afflictions. Strengthening quirks make them irreplaceable from curio encounters or on dungeon completion, essentially this is the story equivalent of a character finding a defining feature of who they are. This also works for negative quirks as well which can be used strategically to secure stress recovery through activities like gambling and also locks out more destructive behaviors. For a grimdark tale of horror and unimaginable despair, it’s difficult to keep any characters from descending into insanity but a confident strategist can use this drag chute to halt a plummeting nosedive. 

Stat Sheet for the Crusader Character
Character sheet for a crusader hero

Players are limited to three quirks they can reinforce, it’s a limiter on how much of the hero’s selves a single influential figure can instill. There is however a unique way that characters can reinforce quirks on their own and bypass the three reinforce limit the player has, this requires a hero receiving an additional quirk identical to one they already have which then reinforces it. It is akin to a person realizing they are quite proficient at a task or skill and defining their self-worth or identity based on that quality. These are shining moments that merge character mechanics with storytelling and it’s what makes Darkest Dungeon more than a turn-based dungeon crawler.

Character Plague Doctor activates Courageous Virtue from Stress
Courageous Virtue

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The motif behind the permadeath and quirk system is that of expendability. The upkeep for managing heroes’ stress and aligning quirks takes considerable time and funds. The story will even comment on how the player may have burned through many heroes to satisfy their morbid curiosity in the name of progress. The Ancestor will chastise the player for recklessly disregarding and disposing of followers just like he did thus creating the monstrosities that the player has been slaying through the Estate. Darkest Dungeon doesn’t shy away from this method of cost-effectiveness. There’s a reduced cost to progress from losing heroes as the caravan always has fresh recruits at a comparable power level to the current dungeon. Whether or not a player is willing to take the easy way out is the point. 

The player’s role in the story pivots on what type of person they will be to their subjects and if they will repeat the sins of old. Players willing to pain through their tormented heroes with them will be able to cultivate a band of peak warriors decorated with mythical armaments and iron wills. 

Without the work put into character qualities Darkest Dungeon’s story of impossibly horrible dangers would be incredibly less impactful. The combat and art direction is the flavor but the characterization lies at the heart of the story allowing the player to become attached to each hero under their watch. If you’re looking for a game that delivers bright souls into the empty heart of a cold abyss Darkest Dungeon will get you clawing your eyes out at every dice roll. You can unveil this trinket at the Steam store here and if it suits your appetite check out our coverage of the Darkest Dungeon 2 announcement.