Sunday, November 29, 2009

Das Schwarze Auge

In high school, I hung out with a lot of the foreign exchange students. (I was odd like that) My senior year, one of the Germans happened to be a gamer as well, and we spent many hours playing Vampire and Shadowrun with him. However, he always spoke very fondly of his favorite role playing game, Das Schwarze Auge. (Literally, "The Black Eye") In fact, many were the occasions where he told me that if he knew he was going to befriend American gamers, he'd have brought it over and run a campaign for us.

A few years ago, when I was in college, my German friend sent me a CD with PDFs of the DSA books, as well as a program that converts PDFs into an editable document format and a program to translate German e-documents to English. Unfortunately, the translated wasn't so hot with the German grammar conventions translating to English, so I could get only the faintest gist of what the books said, certainly not enough to play.

Around that time, a gaming company (I now forget which) published the core book of DSA in English, as "The Dark Eye." I told my German friend about it, and he lamented that it was an inferior edition that the fans hotly contested (sound familiar?) and that I shouldn't waste my money. I do remember flipping through it at the LGS and not finding it very much to my liking. Also, from what I understand, the American official translation of DSA is dead in the water, with almost no support forthcoming.

I recently found out about an Australian fellow named Jason Hutchings, who created an unofficial English translation of the first edition of DSA and put it up on his website at

DSA is a charming little game. It takes a lot of cues from early D&D, but has plenty of eccentricities all it's own. For instance, elves have a "strong sense of smell" (no mechanical advantage is described except that they can sense dragons) and they cannot fight dragons in melee. The player of a magician or elf must speak pre-written magical words in order to cast a spell, and they cannot look the magic words up if their character is under duress. (In combat, for instance) Character actions are sometimes "assumed" according to the rules (you don't have a weapon drawn while exploring unless you say you are drawing your weapon, you can't attack an opponent you wounded last round unless you are only fighting one opponent, the party and monsters automatically group off as evenly as possible, etc.) This game bears almost no resemblance to what my friend described to me, so I am assuming he must have played a later edition.

An interesting thing to note about DSA: There are no thieves, and there are no priests. I understand these were added later (whether in a supplement or new edition I am not sure), but in the beginning of the game, character abilities tended to fall into the realm of magic or combat, with a simple task resolution system based entirely on ability checks used for literally everything else.

What we have here is a simple game just begging to be tinkered with. (And from what I understand, editions following the first were vastly different) If you hop on over the site I mentioned, you can read and learn DSA in probably thirty minutes or less. know, now that I think about it, DSA seems to take more cues from Tunnels & Trolls than D&D. (It feels more like T&T upon further reading)

I hope that someone, someday, provides a translation of other editions of the game, though I understand this is unlikely. Then again, there's something very charming about the simplicity of this system. My inner tinker says fie on that. Ah, if only I had as much free time as I had back in high school or college.


  1. Realms of Arkania was a english computer version of DSA. No idea which version or how exact a translation.

    $6 at GOG

  2. That website has a LOT of amazing game resources.

  3. I played the original.
    --It was, Meh.

    * d20 roll under for combat
    * Body Points
    * Magic Points (if memory serves)

    We played a few sessions and then went back to T&T.


  4. @TS-

    Where did you get to play it? Did your group contain some German speakers?

    The spell point system interested me in that it was fairly harsh... when an Elf or Magician gain a level, they can either gain 1d6 hit points or 1d6 spell points, but not both. However, Magicians can purchase additional spell points between adventures by training at the local wizard's guild. (This is not an option for Elves)

  5. The game your friend played was most probably the second or third edition of Das Schwarze Auge.

    It is no wonder that DSA reminds you of T&T, as DSA was written by Ulrich Kiesow.
    Kiesow first translated Tunnels & Trolls (for publication under an imprint he co-owned), then he translated Basic (Red Box) Dungeons & Dragons. This translation was done because book publisher Knaur was after the D&D license, but the deal fell through. So Kiesow sold his work to the winning publisher, a big card game manufacturer.

    Then he was asked by Knaur to write an original, German RPG, "something similar to D&D". So with DSA he mirrored some parts of D&D (the Basic/Expert scheme of the boxes - light intro rules and more complex rules coming with higher levels), and other parts of T&T (humour, funny-named spells, spell points).
    The working title was Aventuria, which the board game manufacturer Schmidt Spiele (who had entered the deal in order to distribute the game for Knaur into the toy chains) found that title too dull. They proposed a more "mysterious" name, Das Schwarze Auge. Kiesow had to create an in-setting reason for that name, and invented a Palantir-like magic item, the Dark Eye, an all-seeing stone.

    The game changed quite a lot in its second edition. It received a fully workable skill system, 12 distinct priest classes (one for each Aventurian god), a very detailed setting (which was more renaissance-like than medieval, and possessed a unique flair that set it further apart from D&D and MERP, the two rival systems during the late 80s/early 90s), a huge metaplot, and participation by its fans (through a semi-official barony simulation game in which dedicated gamers could apply for a fief in Aventuria and shape the history of the setting through communication with their neighbors).

    I wrote two posts on the historical role of DSA in RPGPundit's forum, TheRPGsite:

  6. @astropia- Thanks for the info... very interesting to see how DSA prevailed. Since FanPro seems to be out of the gaming business, I can always hope that the new publisher will have a go at an English translation, though likely they'd just rerelease The Dark Eye.

  7. Ryan,

    My mother is a German speaker, and twenty years ago, my German was passable.