Friday, December 13, 2019

Disco Elysium All Night Long

God this game has some style.

Disco Elysium is the best CRPG since Planescape Torment. If we're talking from a mechanical perspective it is absolutely better and if we're talking story and characters it comes down purely to taste and frankly I don't want to make that call because comparing two super-good things like that is silly. It can be shelved right next to the other great OSR-adjacent video games: Darkest Dungeon, Dwarf Fortress, Caves of Qud, those ones. It is a game where a little offhand skill check or inspecting a random item can send you spirited away on a sidequest. It is a dense game and a detailed game, and what I describe here is not the game. It is a game in a mirror darkly world. It is a game that sits at the junction between incredible cynicism and incredible empathy and nails the point home with a goddamn railroad spike. This game made me feel things. I finished it and want to play it again.

Go play it. Don't worry about spoilers here. This post is about mechanics and a bit of dressing.

Most importantly for our purposes: Disco Elysium puts all of its mechanics up front to you. It shows you the dice rolls, it shows you the difficulty, it shows you circumstantial modifiers, it shows you the odds of success. This makes it terribly easy to see what is under the hood. It goes like this.

Character Creation

You start with 12 points to put into four attributes. The three premade templates distribute them 5/4/2/1 but you can go as high as 6. The number of points in a base attribute determines both your base score in that attribute, and the maximum level you can raise skills in that category to.

There are four attributes (Intellect, Psyche, Physique, Motorics), each with five related skills (see below). One of those skills starts with a pip in it (and you get +1 to the cap of all skills for that ability), if you choose it as a favored skill at generation.

Click for big

Skills for Bills

The skill system is the best thing this side of TROIKA!, for similar reasons. Instead of being limited to discrete actions, each skill encompasses a wider and open-ended swath of personal traits.

Skills can be increased via skill points (gained every 100 xp) items (which can also decrease them) and internalizing thoughts (which can also decrease them, and raise caps, and other things.)

Dice Rolls

Resolution in Disco Elysium is 2d6 + Attribute + Skill vs target number. Sometimes there are modifiers. Snake Eyes always fail, Boxcars always succeed.

Target numbers range from 6 (Trivial), to 20 (Impossible). Most are in the range between 10-16: anything lower than that is passive, and most things higher have alternate solutions. White Checks are ones you can retake (after spending a skill point in that skill, or finding out new information), Red Checks can be tried only once.

Taking full advantage of being a video game, Disco Elysium rolls for passive checks (hunches, thoughts, observations, and so on) on its own. These rarely go above 10 and will grant you a little bit of insight as to what is going on around you, sometimes opening up new dialog options or giving you a hint as a good one to take. This is the one part of the game that is not particularly great for tabletop adaptation as-is, but all it takes is an index card with a list of some skills for each player and the ref can just tell them they got a ping.

Alignment Shmalighnment I am HOBOCOP

Well first you have your cop type: rockstar, apocalyptic, sorry, boring. In all circumstances you are still a sad, drunken amnesiac.

Then you have your political alignment: communist, fascist, ultraliberal, moralist. In all circumstances these ideologies are divorced from reality and just make things worse because of their inherent disconnect from humanity.

You can be as many of these as you want.

Internalized Dumb Ideas

You can get bonuses or maluses to skills, caps, and other features by internalizing thoughts that come to you, if you have slots open in your Thought Cabinet (slots cost a skill point, forgetting something also costs a skill point.) and spend the in-game time. There are loads of these and they can reveal things about your character, the world, or make you depressed about the previous two things.


Doesn't exist in this game. Good riddance. Someone with a gun should be a Big Deal.

Using it at the Table 

I'd approach it how the game does it: a big mystery to solve in a small geographic area, with a bunch of NPCs with secrets and conflicts and flaws. Dump a spaghetti plate of threads at their feet. Throw a wrench in or two. It would be a lot of work, it would be a very different game, but it would be worth it. It'd be worth even the small things: imitating how it does skills or using Thoughts as XP milestones or or or...

It's such a goddamn good game.

Bonus: A Matter of Setting

Masterclass in how to build a wider setting while exploring only a small corner of it. Also a masterclass in that niche of "I mean it's technically fantasy but that's because it's a secondary world that is certainly not our own but it resembles it through a mirror darkly it's not like there are wizards"

More of this please.


  1. Replies
    1. If exploration takes no time (another unique feature in on-timer story), I don't understand why there is no fast-ish movement option. I like the place, however bleak it is, but running back and forth between the village and the docks in eighth time because I forgot to talk to one person there, it getting tiring for a while. Especially because you need to constantly keep double clicking for the [certain cop]>to keep jogging.

      Setting is very intriguing. Initially you think this is just a parallel to the more or less modern historical world with names changed, and then you go to the abandoned business building and see what is computer is in this world, and the impression immediately cracks, and then it just keeps getting more and more intriguing. Initially I thought that 'interisolary' was a fancy in-world word for 'between islands/continents' but with other stuff that is shown in bits I am very not sure this is longer a case.

      Shivers, Inland Empire and in the lesser degree Esprit de Corps are amazing ideas for the skills.

      Not GOTY for me, but very decent game.

    2. Yeah jogging everywhere became something of a drag but then I realized that time really only moves forward when you are talking to people.

    3. Which is why it is confusing to me why there is no fast-ish travel between the village and the city, as the jogging wastes only the player's time. The probable cause is because sometimes there are thoughts and little details on the environment the player might otherwise miss, but these are so few and far between, it still doesn't justifies the absence of fast-ish travel.

  2. as good as planescape torment? that is *very* high praise indeed.

  3. You're the second friend of mine that's mentioned this game. Welp, here I go a hobo-ing!