Dark Souls can be pretty intimidating for new players, and I’ve seen various lists of tips for people just starting out. I wanted to try writing one which was thorough, but with a balance of clarifying things that unnecessarily confusing while leaving it up to players to explore and play how they want. Now seemed like a good time, as I’ve seen friends say they were trying this game after all my recent raving about it, and also the recent Steam sales and people playing it in advance of the sequel.
The goal isn’t just “before you get started” tips, but also to have a place to get descriptions of mechanics/systems that people are likely to ask about before they know the game well. This post should tell people how some things work without telling the player which options to pick. Figuring out what to do the first time is one of the great parts of the game, but my opinion is that works a little better when people can understand what their options are and what their significance might be.
In short, it’s the guide I would have wanted to have handy when I started playing.
A controller is recommended. I could see learning the game with keyboard/mouse if you’re really nimble with a keyboard/mouse, but it probably adds more to the learning curve in a game where that’s not required at all. The biggest obstacle is that the in-game UI references only controller buttons so you’ll have to memorize the various mappings on your own.
DSFix is a crucial mod that fixes some basic issues like resolution and framerate caps. It also adds frequent auto-save backups, which can be handy in the event that any bugs or encounters with hackers in multiplayer cause problems with your save file.
If you can’t get the game to start when you first try it, it’s probably an issue with Games For Windows Live. There’s no one exact solution, but googling around for solutions that have worked for people (usually involving reinstalling GFWL Marketplace) should get you going without too much trouble.
First of all, don’t rush the tutorial. It’s a bit threadbare, but it covers the important controls. But fitting with the way Dark Souls works, it leaves it up to you to read each message on the ground and to try doing whatever it describes once or twice before moving on.
A few detailed things.
The movement (B) button can:
- Backstep (tap while standing still)
- Roll (tap while moving)
- Sprint (hold while moving)
- Running jump (tap while sprinting)
- Slide down ladder (press while on ladder)
The attack (R1) button produces potentially different swings in different contexts:
- Light attack (press while standing or moving)
- Second light attack (press repeatedly). Some weapons have multiple different swings that form a combo if you swing consecutively.
- Kick (press while tapping forward). Timing is tricky. Some special weapons replace this with a special action.
- Rolling attack (press after rolling).
- Running attack (press while running).
- Plunging attack (press while falling).
Similarly, the heavy attack (R2) button can have repeated swings, and a jumping attack if you press while tapping forward.
One general point of control is that there is a very wide queueing window for all actions. Pressing any button while your character is doing anything (including something involuntary like being staggered) will usually result in that input taking effect as soon as the current animation finishes. The result is that you want to learn to be very deliberate with all your inputs–spamming anything tends to result in extra actions or things happening when you don’t want them too.
Things to Avoid
There are very few things that can cause serious permanent trouble to your campaign.
Most importantly, be careful about attacking NPCs. I’m not saying you should never kill an NPC, just only do it if you really mean to since they can never be brought back (and some offer unique services). Mostly, be careful about swinging weapons or casting spells anywhere around a friendly NPC. If you do accidentally aggro someone you don’t want to, run away and don’t kill them. There is one NPC who can “absolve your sins”, resetting hostility of all NPCs. If you aggro that NPC, there’s nothing you can do.
One specific note: if you ever acquire a “Fire Keeper Soul” item, don’t “use” it from the item menu. You want to find an NPC to turn it in to to get its unique benefit. I only note this because they’re rare and it’s not very clear. Similarly, special named souls that drop from some bosses can have uses other than consuming them to gain souls.
NPCs can’t always be made to repeat things they said even when it contains plot clues, and occasionally ask yes/no questions that affect your future dealings with them. So pay attention to dialogue.
Class choice in Dark Souls only affects your starting stats and gear; you can build any character in any direction from there. So you don’t have to worry too much at the start. Pick a class that sounds like it’s how you want to play. It mostly affects the beginning of the game. Especially when you’re first learning, you’ll probably be using your starting weapon/gear/spells for a while, so that difference will have a big impact on how your first few hours play out.
The starting gifts do vary a lot in value, but overall aren’t too big a deal in your first playthrough. Most are either consumables or have very limited use. Tiny Being’s Ring has a wrong description–it slightly increases max HP but doesn’t give regen. Master Key is a reusable item.
Perhaps one caveat is that spell-focused builds require you to eventually find the appropriate NPCs to support them or else you won’t have access to a lot of spells. Most aren’t hard to find if you explore thoroughly, but it’s still something to be wary about. Melee builds require weapons, of course, but there are so many weapons scattered around that you’ll have some to choose from even if you miss some particular ones.
Leveling and Stats
At any bonfire (outside the tutorial level) you can spend souls (the game’s universal currency) to gain a level. When you gain a level, you can add 1 to any stat, and in addition, all your resistances slightly increase (making you steadily more survivable). The only important downside to gaining a level is that it gets more expensive each time you do it, so try to put some thought into what stats you care about. No enemies scale with level. PvP matchmaking is done by level, but that’s unlikely to be important to you on your first character (and you won’t have a very optimized build at any rate).
- Strength and Dexterity: the most important function of these is to meet minimum requirements to use various weapons. Beyond that, weapons often scale in varying amounts (in terms of damage) with further Strength and/or Dexterity.
- When two-handing a weapon, Strength is multiplied by 1.5 (rounded down) for purposes of both requirements and damage scaling. So you can wield a weapon two-handed at 2/3 the listed Strength.
- Faith and Intellect: the most important function of these is to meet the requirement to cast Miracles (Faith) or Sorceries (Intellect). Most spellcasting tools scale with Faith or Intellect, meaning the spells effectively scale with them (see below). Some melee weapons do scale with Faith or Intellect.
- One class of spells (Pyromancies) does not require or scale with any stats. You instead improve it by investing souls in Pyromancy-related items.
- Vitality increases HP, which is important. Don’t necessarily consider it the all-purpose survivability stat though; understand the benefits of Endurance also.
- Endurance increases your equipment weight limit, improving your ability to wear armor, and increases your Stamina (up to 40 End). Stamina is the recharging energy bar that’s used for any combat actions including attacking, blocking, and rolling.
- Attunement provides added spell slots (slots are shared between all 3 types of spells). You need 10 Attunement to have at least one slot, in order to cast any spells. There is no benefit beyond 50 Attunement (10 slots).
- Resistance reduces your damage taken from all types. It is widely considered to be a very inefficient stat choice.
- Most stats have a sharp drop in value at around 40 to 50.
The most important property of a weapon is its swing animations (“moveset”). They vary in range, timing, angle of attack, recovery time, and other factors. This should be your primary criterion when choosing a weapon; it’s an important factor affecting how you fight enemies. Experiment with different ones and find something you like–when you do, you can likely use it for most or all of the game via the upgrade system. In a weapon’s moveset, the light attack and heavy attack are most important, but try out repeated attacks and things like jumping/running attacks as well.
Beyond that, if you’ve increased a stat very high (typically Str or Dex) you’ll want to focus on weapons that scale well with that stat. The letters next to the stat icons near the bottom left of the weapon stats page show scaling: a dash means the weapon does not scale with that stat, E means it scales slightly, A means it scales extremely well.
The most important way to keep your weapons effective as you progress is to upgrade your weapon at blacksmiths, using souls and Titanite materials. The “normal” upgrade path increases a weapon’s base damage and stat scaling. Eventually you’ll meet blacksmiths who can upgrade weapons in different ways branching off of the main path. Elemental paths sacrifice stat scaling for fixed elemental damage. Certain magical paths can give a weapon good scaling with Faith or Int.
Because shields and weapons have the same stats page, they can be confusing. For shields you care about the defensive stats on the right side. The most important elements when choosing a shield are:
- % damage reduction against various elements. Controls how much damage you take through a block. Most medium and larger shields block 100% physical.
- Stability, which controls how much of your stamina is used by a block. Very important.
- The shield’s Strength requirement and weight, affecting whether you can use it.
- Generally, small and medium shields are able to parry, whereas large shields are able to shield bash.
Shields can be upgraded similarly to weapons, usually for the purpose of improving their stability.
Armor and Weight
Armor provides resists, which reduce damage taken various elements (physical, fire, etc.), and can also make it harder for you to be afflicted with debuffs (e.g. poision). Armor comes at the cost of weight, however.
The total weight of your equipped items affects how nimbly you can move in combat. It controls your movement speed, and most importantly, how effective your roll maneuver is. Rolling away from attacks is a crucial part of Dark Souls combat, so there is a steep tradeoff to heavier and sturdier armor. There are two important “breakpoints” at 25% and 50% of your maximum equipment weight, controlling whether you have a fast, medium, or slow rolling animation.
In addition to resistance, armor has one crucial property called Poise. Poise determines whether, when you get hit, you get interrupted and momentarily stunned, or if you continue your current action. More Poise is required to endure heavier hits or consecutive hits. Enemies also have Poise and can be knocked off-balance in the same way.
The primary benefit of a light build is fast rolling; the primary benefit of a heavy build is high Poise.
You cast a spell by 1) having it attuned and currently selected, 2) wielding an appropriate spell tool (Talisman for Miracles, Catalyst for Sorceries, Flame for Pyromancies) in either hand, and 3) “attacking” with that hand.
Spell tools have a stat that other weapons don’t have, called Magic Adjust. It’s your “spellpower”, controlling the strength of spells cast. MA of Talismans often scales with Faith, and MA of Catalysts often scales with Int.
You can aim in first-person view with Bows but not with Crossbows. It’s possible to aim a Crossbow by first using a Bow to aim and then swapping weapons without moving the camera, but this takes some time.
Ranged attacks don’t necessarily hit precisely on the crosshair. The arrow travels in a curve, so you have to experiment a bit with each one to get the hang of the aim point.
Other Combat Mechanics
Most combat outcomes (e.g. hit/miss/dodge/parry/block/critical/counter) in Dark Souls aren’t things your character does but things you do. i.e., they are determined by skillful timing and positioning and not by random chance. Most of these are not strictly important to learn at the start, but since they are never explained, and mastering them is important to getting better, they’re good to understand. That way you can observe them and eventually try to incorporate them into your play.
- Criticals occur when the attacker is behind the target (“backstab”) or has just parried the target (“riposte”). Backstabs require being precisely positioned behind the target (often, by moving there while the target is swinging) and pressing R1, without your shield raised.
- Attacks are dodged either by simply moving out of the hitbox during the attack’s wind-up, or by rolling. Rolling provides a few frames of invincibility (more at faster roll speeds).
- Attacks are parried by timing your parry perfectly as the attack lands (very small window). This leaves the attacker vulnerable to a riposte for a brief time. Pressing R1 right after the parry should work, but the positioning can be a bit finicky.
- Attacks are blocked by holding your shield up and facing in the right direction (no timing). However, blocking drains stamina, and if a hit drains all your remaining stamina, you get guard-broken (staggered). Also, your stamina regen is greatly slowed while your shield is raised, so you are encouraged to pay attention to when you need to have it up.
- When comparatively weak attack hits a comparatively heavy shield the attack is deflected and the attacker is staggered.
- Attacks do extra damage against a target that is staggered. The player can also take added damage during certain vulnerable actions like sprinting.
- When two attackers swing at roughly the same time, if the first attack that lands overcomes its target’s Poise, the second swing will never complete. Otherwise, both swings will hit for damage.
Bonfires and Death
Bonfires are respawn points. Note: they are not savepoints or checkpoints–your game doesn’t roll back when you die. The game is saved continuously; bonfires simply control where you respawn. Touching a bonfire refills your HP and healing flask and respawns all enemies (except those that never respawn).
When you die, any souls and held Humanity (see below) are left on your bloodstain, you respawn at the last bonfire you touched, and enemies are respawned. If you recover your bloodstain you get 100% of those souls and Humanity back. If you die again first, a new bloodstain appears and the previous one vanishes along with the souls and Humanity.
Items and levels cannot be lost (via death) once acquired. Only unspent souls and held Humanity are at risk.
Laying this out since it’s pretty confusing. There are 3 separate concepts:
- Your current Humanity stat (aka “soft” or “held” Humanity). Appears in the top-left corner of your screen.
- A consumable item called Humanity that gives you 1 soft Humanity when you use it (it also can be used to heal you in a pinch).
- Being in “human” form, as opposed to “hollow” (undead).
Your Humanity stat increases the drop rate of items, increases your Curse resistance significantly, and increases all resistances slightly. It also improves the damage of certain specific weapons available later on.
In addition, 1 soft Humanity can be spent to A) turn into “human” form (lasting until you die) or B) kindle a Bonfire (causing it to give your healing flask more uses when you rest there).
Being in human form A) is required to kindle Bonfires, and B) enables both co-op and hostile multiplayer.
In addition to various minor interactions (seeing messages left by other players or seeing brief incorporeal glimpses of them), other players can be in your world as phantoms, either to help you or try to kill you.
To summon a friendly phantom, you must be in human form in an area where you haven’t killed the boss. If you see another player’s white sign on the ground, you can interact with it to summon them for “jolly co-operation”. The co-op continues until either of you dies, or you defeat the boss. If you want to try being summoned, you can acquire a “White Sign Soapstone” early in the game to leave those summoning signs for others to see. You can get it from an NPC near a bridge that has a dragon guarding it.
However, when in human form in an area where you haven’t killed the boss, you can be invaded by another player. The invasion continues until one of you dies, or you engage the boss (which will eject them from your world).
There are other modes of multiplayer related to certain Covenants (factions), but these are the most important ones early on.
Some NPCs use the same co-op/invasion mechanics as players–i.e. you can summon them, or they can invade you. This also requires being in human form, but it can happen while you’re playing offline.
The game is designed with a wide variety of possible routes you can take. There’s one generally expected path for beginners, with the main limitation being that going in a different order will leave you facing harder enemies than you’re ready to handle as a beginner. But if you’re making progress in any location, you’re not doing something wrong. If you’re not making progress, see if there’s a different path you haven’t explored.
If you’ve just emerged from the tutorial area, and are having a difficult time fighting some skeletons, you’re not going in the direction that’s easiest to start in. That’s one freebie since your intuition for what’s reasonable to deal with and what isn’t might not be calibrated yet. Also if you’re meeting ghosts that you can’t damage because your weapon passes through them, that’s not a good sign either (but hopefully you’d have worked that out on your own). There’s a path from the start that’s guarded only by hollows (zombies) similar to the ones in the tutorial.
Story and Lore
The story is not directly presented to you, but there for you to find and delve into. Aside from NPC dialogue and simply looking at the structure and detail of the world, the important vehicle is item descriptions. Most have a tidbit about some character or place, and the game has quite a lot of items.
The most important thing tested by Dark Souls is a willingness to learn. Anytime you’re stuck on anything, there’s a way to figure out what you can learn. Be vigilant for when you catch yourself trying the same thing over and over gain without changing anything. If you’re frustrated, you likely will do better after a break, because you’ll be more patient and more willing to pay attention to what’s going wrong or experiment with a different approach.
The one specific bit of advice I would give for combat is to focus on understanding enemies’ tells for all their different attacks. This is especially true of bosses. When you first encounter a boss, your first task should be to observe what it looks like when it starts each type of attack, and how you avoid it. Then to try to develop a routine for when you can safely get hits of your own in. A similar approach applies to other enemies; you’ll gradually get more comfortable as you start to anticipate each attack when you see its animation start up.
Good luck, praise the sun, and prepare to die.