Darkest Dungeon Heroes Are Not Cannon Fodder

Darkest Dungeon seems almost like it was designed with me in mind. It has a grim atmosphere and a setting that is at least slightly non-standard, going for a 17th century vibe over your standard 15th century high fantasy affair, using Lovecraftian reimaginings of standard D&D monsters like skeletons and orcs to populate its dungeons. It lets the imagination run wild with who your heroes are, using a few stray lines of characterization to provide an outline for the player to fill in, creating a personal attachment to them. Being defeated has an actual cost, which means if you mess up, you can keep playing and let that defeat be part of your story, instead of constantly reloading, backing up and retelling the story over and over again until you land on the version where you are never once defeated, an invincible juggernaut. The sting of defeat is enough to make it a real setback, but not so steep that you end up just reloading to get around it because your whole run is doomed (Darkest Dungeon also makes an effort to prevent save scumming at all, but like any piece of software that runs on a machine you own, you can edit the save file to be whatever you want if you’re committed enough).

Moral choices that aren’t tied directly to a karma meter, but instead just ask players to consider their own opinion on a moral quandary, are also something I really like. It’s also something that people claim Darkest Dungeon has. But they’re wrong. Anyone who’s played Darkest Dungeon even halfway through knows they’re wrong. Now in fairness, Darkest Dungeon is big and you can play a lot of it without getting halfway through. I don’t blame people for coming to a conclusion about the game after “only” ten or twelve hours of gameplay. That said, being that this blog is read by the entire gaming community without exception, I am taking it upon myself to put this rumor to rest.

The claim goes that Darkest Dungeon asks you to consider how much you value human life by making it more expedient to use heroes as cannon fodder, sending them on suicide missions and then replacing the fallen with an endless stream of new chumps from the wagon. You only get so many per week, but they never run out, and except on hard mode, there’s no time limit, so you can always just go on quick dungeons runs for no purpose but to break even on their own expense while you wait for your barracks to restock itself with new losers to throw at the latest dungeon boss.

The problem with this strategy is that it’s bad. Not morally, although it is also that, but pragmatically, in the sense that it will slow you down. Your heroes are by far your most precious resource. Treasure can be used to rebuild the hamlet, but that’s mainly useful to help make dungeon expeditions cheaper and to maintain a larger roster of total heroes. It doesn’t help you win directly. Magic items do help you win directly, because they power up your heroes, but they’re a small fraction of the total power your heroes can have compared to upgrading their weapons and armor, teaching them new skills, and leveling them up. Those weapons, armor, and skills all cost treasure, but they’re also level gated.

No matter how much treasure you dump onto the stage coach, your new recruits are never higher than level 2, and no matter how much treasure you dump on those starting heroes, they will never have more than 2nd level gear and skills. If you want heroes who can storm end-game or even mid-game dungeons, you need them to successfully raid a few of the early-game ones, and you need them to come back from it alive.

You’re also going to want specific party compositions for specific bosses in the end-game. You can beat a mid-game boss into submission just by walking up with level 4 gear and skills, lots of magic items, and a generally well-balanced party, but if you’re going up against an end-game boss, you need a party optimized specifically for that boss. Lose your Houndmaster, and god only knows when you’ll see a new one in the stage coach, who you will then have to shepherd up to the level cap of six before you can use him for a marking party. The game isn’t completely inflexible about this, mind, most end-game bosses have a couple of different viable strategies, but there’s still no guarantee that the heroes you need for any of them will show up when you need them, never mind how long it takes to get them ready for the end-game.

There’s no moral dilemma in Darkest Dungeon, because using your heroes like cannon fodder is a bad strategy. It doesn’t work. Sure, it’s close to impossible to get the game into a truly unwinnable state (except for Hard Mode, which adds a time limit and an automatic game over if you lose too many heroes), but you’re never going to actually win unless you stop treating your heroes like cannon fodder and put together a party who lives to see high levels.

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