Dark Souls III PvP Guide - how to Git Gud at Dark Souls III's devious multiplayer

Guides
June 24, 2016 by Claris Cyarron

Everything you ever wanted to know about Dark Souls PvP, but you were afraid to ask.

Hello hello, ZAM readers! Internet weirdo Claris Cyarron here, to tell you all about Dark Souls PvP! You may remember me from such hits as: Screaming about Architecture for Hours Online, Reviewing scary altgames on Zam, Writing a Dating Sim about Casual Sex with Buildings or That “Game” about Driving at Night.

Fret not, gamer friends; I'm not always an arty killjoy. I too, enjoy the shooty-stabby and the PvPs. I may not be the most grizzled of souls PvP veteran, or the most skillful invader, but I am pretty good. I’ve PvPed since the first Dark Souls came out on PC, and during that time I have absorbed much of the series’ obscure systems and competitive sub-culture.

The Most Dangerous Game - the Darkest Souls

When I was younger, I read Richard Connell’s short adventure story “The Most Dangerous Game.” It tells of a shipwrecked man, Rainsford, who finds himself on the island of dastardly General Zaroff. Zaroff takes Rainsford in and while touring his massive estate, explains that he is a big-game hunter. So great is his skill, Zaroff boasts, that the exotic beasts of the world no longer provide good sport.

He asked himself, “what is the most dangerous and resourceful predator?” and quickly realized the answer: humans. And so now, Zaroff explains amid ominous thunder claps, whenever a sailor washes upon the shore, he gives him a knife, some rations, and a 3 hour head start. If the sailor elludes his hunting party for 3 days, then he is free to go, but none have so far managed to do so. As Rainsford struggles to grasp his situation, the chase begins.

The Souls games -- the collective name for Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls 1-3, and Bloodborne -- get into your head, and you can’t shake them. They drop you into a slickly designed and depressingly macabre world, a new agent in the fight against ravenous abominations and the world’s dying fire. Despite the difficult journey, the Souls games provide all the tools and techniques required to achieve victory, all that is required is for you to master their use.

However, as you grow in skill -- assuming each game’s Crestfallen Guyface hasn’t talked you into quitting -- once fearful enemies will eventually seem little more than stilted puppets who dance to a tune you know by heart -- predictable beasts, all of them. What-oh-what can you do with all of the skill you’ve accumulated? New Game plus only offers harder hitting & healthier puppets. Like Zaroff, you may one day find the thrill of the hunt is fading, and you too will ask yourself, who is the most dangerous foe in the game?

What follows is a guide to the PvP (player-versus-player) systems in Dark Souls III. It is aimed at players who may be new to souls PvP but are at least familiar with the basic mechanics/flow of the game. Those uninterested in PvP will still find much of use in this guide, especially considering the semi-optional nature of Dark Souls III’s invasions. Finally, more seasoned PvPers may still find the build section interesting, which features the three builds I currently run as well as the reasoning and research I employed in creating them.

Oh so you desire the blood of your own kind? Yes, yes, I understand. You’ve certainly come to the right place.

There are several ways to fight with other players in Dark Souls III, each requiring a combination of items, covenants, and location.

Duels

Duels are the most common form of PvP and also the best place to learn the basics. Most duels take place in the area just beyond the Pontiff Sulyvahn bonfire in Irithyll. There should be a ton of summon signs down there. The High Wall of Lothric is another popular spot. Take your pick and have fun. Oh, and remember, just because these are duels doesn’t mean that whoever you summon is going to play fair; be cautious.

If you want to be able to place your own red (PvP) summon sign, then you will need to kill the non-hostile grub holding a staff that’s just outside of Rosaria’s chamber.

Invasions

This is where the real action is, but be warned, invading is very difficult, especially when you are just beginning. When you invade, you will appear as a red phantom in another player’s world. Your goal is to find the player whose world this is and kill them. Don’t expect your target to play fair, or even show up to the fight. Sometimes a world’s host will run and hide, using spells like chameleon to blend into the environment or even force-quit the game to avoid their fate.

Other times though, the host will be waiting for you, with several of their buddies in tow.

Throwing yourself against a group of prepared gankers is the toughest challenge in the entire game, and it requires a great deal of skill, patience, and tactics (with just a tiny bit of luck). Nothing quite compares to the thrill of taking away a host’s phantoms one by one until they, too, fall by your blade - but don’t forget that your goal is to kill the host, as only the host’s death matters. You should only focus on a phantom to clear a path to the host, and often such paths open themselves up to you anyway, if you are willing to wait.

Gank-squads are often overconfident and rarely clever, so while killing all of them is a great way to prove your complete mastery, remember that by doing so you are only making a hard task even harder.

Unlike dropping a red soapstone sign, invading requires you to be embered, and also to use either a cracked or whole Red Eye Orb. Leonhard, an NPC who leans against the highest throne at Firelink Shrine, will give you 5 cracked Red Eye Orbs at the start of the game. Once you have defeated the Curse-Rotted Greatwood or found a Pale Tongue, return to Leonhard and he will give you directions to an imprisoned Darkwraith under the High Wall of Lothric. Killing the Darkwraith gains you an uncracked Red Eye Orb, which won’t break after using it.  

Area Defense

If you are part of the Watchdogs of Farron or Aldrich Faithful covenants, you will be automatically summoned every once in awhile to defend an area from embered trespassers (Road of Sacrifices or the area after Pontiff Sulyvahn, respectively). Oftentimes, you’ll have help from another invader. The Aldrich Faithful enjoy reliably frequent summon times but if you want to be a bad-ass Watchdog, prepare to wait, as it can take 10+ minutes to get summoned.

This type of PvP can be a lot of fun for those not in the covenant, as well. Trying to get through the area while fending off multiple invaders is a blast but you will have to dispatch them to end the combat (there’s no goal to reach). I find that these invaders are a bit more bumbling and predictable than gankers or standard invaders, so it’s a good place to practice dealing with multiple players at once. Just remember to be patient and use the map to separate your enemies if you can.

Cops and Robbers

The final mode of PvP play involves being summoned to defend against invaders. If you want to PvP while being “a good guy” then this is for you. You’ll need to have the Blue Sentinels or Darkmoon Blade covenant equipped. Doing so will summon you automatically to aid members of the Way of Blue who are being invaded. The game will prioritize players being invaded in the same area you are in (so hanging out where the area defense covenants are is a good idea) but you can also be summoned to other locations.

Don't get your hopes up, though. This mode is pretty much garbage. Despite recent patches improving this kind of matchmaking, you can still expect to wait more than 30 minutes between summons (often longer), and that is only if you don’t enter an area that removes you from the queue. You can tell you are in the queue when the covenant icon to the left of your HP bar is flashing. If it stops flashing, you’ve been removed from the waitlist (often because you’ve entered an area with no PvP). I’ve had the Darkmoon Blade covenant on my main character the whole time and in over 100 hours of play I’ve been summoned fewer than 30 times.

Luckily, Sentinels and Darkmoons can use the Red Eye Orb to invade with no penalties or worse matchmaking than dedicated invader covenants, so more often than not that’s what I do. You’re all guilty sinners, anyway; don’t act like you don’t deserve punishment.

“The Meta”

If you’ve spent any time at all watching souls series PvP on youtube, or skimming a forum for some souls pro-strats, you might have come across discussions of the meta. “The Meta” is the name given to the loosely organized decision making of the PvP playerbase. In each game, FromSoft provides a deep, robust, occasionally broken, and certainly fallible system for PvPers to play with; the meta represents our collective negotiation with (and sometimes exploitation of) that system.

Matchmaking

The most important part of the meta by far is the level range that players “agree” upon as being high enough for end-game content like PvP. Every game in the series  -- except Dark Souls 2 -- utilizes a player’s Soul Level for matchmaking calculations. Level up too high and you won’t see many people to co-op or PvP with, level up too low and the diversity of builds will be annoyingly small, forcing you to fight the same 3 hyper-efficient builds ad nauseam.

Although it can't be said for absolute certain where the majority of the community will fall across the entire lifespan of Dark Souls III, I can predict with a great deal of confidence that the PvP meta will be around Soul Level 125 (+ or -  5). SL 130 should allow casters and hybrid builds enough flexibility to flourish, and SL 120 allows a pure STR or DEX build to max out all their primary stats or diversify a bit. Those in the 120-130 range can connect with each other.

If you want to nerd out over the matchmaking calculations the game uses, click here, but all you really need to know is that there’s no reason to stop leveling up before 120 unless you plan to stay way lower than that (I’m talking significantly under SL 100 here). But absolutely, whatever you do, don’t level up beyond SL 130 unless you are really truly ok on missing out on the bulk of co-op and PvP content. Being on your first playthrough vs NG+ does not have an effect on matchmaking.

These matchmaking calculations do not affect players that use matching-passwords; players who do so can connect to each other regardless of their level difference. The higher level player will be temporarily adjusted down for balance, but it’s not perfect; the higher level player often still has a considerable advantage.

Poise and Hyper-armor

You may have already noticed, but in Dark Souls III, anything from a rat to a giant can and will stun-lock you into next week, regardless of how heavy your armor is. In previous games, Poise (a stat attached to armor) was what dictated how many hits you could take before being stunned, but that has been done away with, causing confusion and irritation for all.

Poise is still around, but nobody is sure what exactly it does, yet. There have been contradictory statements from Bandai Namco: one saying poise is currently broken with a patch incoming, and another insisting that poise is working as intended and that Dark Souls III’s poise is just “more situational.” All you really need to know is that poise doesn’t matter much anymore, and what you should be paying the most attention to is damage absorption, weight, and fashion when picking your outfit, not poise.

Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to prevent your attacks from being interrupted.

First, you can rely on an inherent quality of the largest weapons in the game: hyper-armor. Put simply, a weapon with hyper-armor will not have its attack interrupted once the swing is underway (it usually kicks in 25-50% through the animation, depending on the weapon). This makes it possible to trade hits, even against a group of foes, making big weapons very useful when invading. You will take damage normally though, so watch out. There is no indicator in-game if a weapon has hyper-armor other than it being huge and slow and uninterruptable. The Iron Flesh pyromancy and several weapon arts (perseverance, stone flesh, unfaltering prayer) also make your attacks or miracles uninterruptable for a short time.

The following methods are not essential for PvP success, but they do make things much easier:

Patches (the updates, not the character)

Everything above and below is subject to change, I’m afraid to say. Expect a patch every month or so for a while. Often, the changes FromSoft makes to the game are minor tweaks, mostly bug fixes, but they do make regular adjustments to weapons, and less often to spells.

It’s never perfect; some weapons will always be weak and others that are obviously over-powered will go un-nerfed. That said, if you’re relying on a very common and powerful weapon, don’t be surprised if it gets adjusted down somehow.

To see what recent changes have been made to the game, select “Information” from the game’s main menu.  

Magic

Ah yes, magic is a thing. Whether you are a warrior who trained in the arcane arts for one or two build-defining spells, a pure-melee fighter who just wants force or heal in their back pocket, or a full-on wizard, Dark Souls 3 has a lot of interesting and diverse magic for you to add to your repertoire.

I know, I know: The word on the street is that magic is terrible and pretty much all of the spells are either too hard to hit with or too slow or too little damage (or a combo of all three depending on who you ask). But the truth is that magic is viable in PvP. So the doom-sayers aren’t correct but that doesn’t mean that magic isn’t difficult to use in PvP at the moment. This is especially true of offensive miracles, which do more-or-less suck.

Expect the situation to improve as time goes on as well. I think From Software is always a bit scared of magic being over-powered and they tend to overcorrect for this before their games ship, baking in a ton of downsides right from the get-go. These often relax as time goes on. They certainly did in Dark Souls 2, where magic saw incremental improvements to spell tracking and additional viability tweaks, as well as new spells from the DLC to round out a mage’s blind-spots.

When you use magic, you have to be smart about it. Magic may have difficulty hitting but even a dodged spell is useful if you can punish the enemy's roll with a melee attack or other spell. A large repertoire of spells (4+) gives you the means to respond to several situations and attack with different timings. Timing is key with spells. Alternate between spells with different casting times: great soul arrow > heavy great soul arrow. These changes is timing will increase the chance your foe will make a mistake. This works well for sorcery, pyromancy, and hexes, but not as much for miracles.

Miracles are a much more conditional form of magic, relying less on direct means of dealing damage and more on spells that solve a specific problem. Sure, miracles get the lightning spears, but they are slower than their counterparts from other schools and lightning defense is likely your enemy’s highest (it’s based off of endurance, which everyone has in abundance). To excel at using miracles in PvP you need to work with your environment and plan out your options well in advance. Invading in the catacombs? Bring the force miracle with you. Knock suckers off the edge when they start swinging at you. Finding in an area with lots of small rooms? Divine Pillars of Light goes from being decent to good. Is your enemy standing in water? Lightning spear now has an area of effect you can abuse. ALWAYS USE A TALISMAN if you’re doing anything beyond buffing, because the ability to cast uninterrupted with the talisman weapon-art is without a doubt the greatest asset miracles have over other forms of magic; trading hits is your bread and butter.

Even though magic is harder to use, many players will fight very differently (and more ruthlessly) against it. I’ve had way more losers disconnect on me while I’m using my mage than any other build. Expect salty assholes to make their presence and opinions known.

The bottom line is that if you use it correctly, magic makes you less predictable than a melee-only foe, but this is in exchange for being less of a direct threat compared to pure melee (many of your attacks will miss). Be extra patient and when the time is right, box your enemy into a situation where matter what, they are going to eat a ton of damage. It’s a challenge is feels very different to straight melee, but beating a competent player with magical might and arcane trickery makes you feel like flippin’ Merlin.

Tips and Tricks

Here are just a few suggested strategies and tips to help you find success. Some of these are very basic while others are more at an intermediate-level, but none are particularly hard to do with a bit of practice (just hard to remember to do in the heat of the moment).

Patience

Above everything else, be calm and be patient! No matter if you are fighting a single opponent or a group of gankers, patience is key. There are two main reasons for this. First, being patient means you’re less likely to make a mistake or take your opponent’s bait. Don’t attack just because it might work and that’s what you are supposed to do. Strike when you have a plan and an opening; otherwise, just probe, poke, and keep moving around to find favourable positioning. The other reason patience is important is that your opponent, especially if they are not alone, is much less likely to be patient themselves. An impatient opponent will make mistakes, get themselves in a bad position, or take your bait much more often. The more patient and calm you are, they more impatient they are likely to be.

Parrying

There’s a big difference between being able to parry a flurry of Dark Sword slashes and being a parry master who uses ninja-like reflexes to parry everything. The latter can take months of practice and is far from necessary while the former is ~almost~ required to find consistent PvP success. There are just 3 things every PvPer should know about parrying:

  • The first parry attempt you make, successful or not, is one of the most important moves in the entire fight. Regardless of what happens afterward, your opponent is now aware that you will be trying to parry them. Many will start playing more conservatively as a result. Make your first parry count, but that doesn’t mean make sure it lands, though it’s obviously preferable when it does. Just encouraging your opponent to slow down and be more careful can provide you much needed relief against a relentless onslaught.
  • Certain attacks are much easier to parry than others. Running attacks, rolling attacks, the moment when your opponent is standing up after being knocked down -- these are all times when it’s easier to parry because their movement is telegraphing the soon to be unleashed attack. It’s fine to just focus on the low-hanging fruit and leave the rest to folks more comfortable with twitch-based gaming.
  • Parrying a straight sword or rapier is hands-down the best way to deal with it, outside of carrying a heavy and stable shield. So many straight- and thrusting sword users (*cough ESTOC cough DARKSWORD*) will swing with reckless abandon, which can absolutely annihilate you if you just take it, but those rhythmic, never-varying swings also are perfect parry-bait. Skilled straight sword users will of course be more cautious and will also be expecting parry attempts, so don’t just assume anyone using a Dark Sword is an idiot. But the players who are swinging their sword five times in a row, every time? Yeah, you can be fairly confident they aren’t playing mindgames with you. Parry them, riposte, and then go fight someone more interesting.

Get your kicks!

Kicking is back from Dark Souls and it’s still one of the series’ most underlooked and underappreciated techniques. This is good news for you, because that means that your opponents are less likely to be expecting it. To kick, press up on the left joystick while simultaneously pressing R1.

A kick drains a good deal of your enemy’s stamina, regardless of whether they are guarding or not. This effect can be increased by wearing the Horsehoof ring from patches, but honestly, I don’t think it’s worth it. If you deplete the enemy’s stamina bar with a kick (or strike), then their shield will drop away and they’ll be stunned, as if you parried them. Just like a parry, take just second to line up to face them and then hit R1 to perform a riposte. Straight swords with the stance weapon art can also do this very effectively with their L2->R1 attack. These are great ways to deal with timid enemies, or foes who use a greatshield. Note that greatshields will require many kicks before your enemy’s stamina is fully drained. It’s best to use a kick when your enemy is tired, like right after they have finished making a flurry of attacks and have just brought their shield back up to recover safely.

Use your surroundings

Remember to take advantage of the area you’re fighting in, though this is less applicable during a duel.

  • Use the terrain to split up multiple enemies, or to give yourself time to recover.
  • Remember that if you are an invader, the monsters will not bother but they will attack the host and their helper phantoms, though. Retreating behind a group of monsters can provide you cover to heal up or prepare for another assault. If you are the host being invaded you can remove this advantage by using a giant seed to get monsters to fight red phantoms. A unique giant seed icon will appear under everyone’s stamina bar, so watch out for this if you are an invader.
  • When invading and tracking down the host, look for clues like dead monsters. These will indicate that your enemies have been around that area, while a room full of healthy monsters means you should be looking elsewhere.

Dead Angles

This is a technique from back in the days of the original Dark Souls, though how it works is a bit different in Dark Souls III. Dead angling is a way of attacking your enemy that makes it difficult, or even impossible, for them to parry you. Interested? I thought you might be.

Dead Angling works best on weapons with wide slashing attacks, and doesn’t work at all on thrusting attacks, so spears and rapiers are out of luck. Something like a greatsword or ultra-greatsword is a good place to practice and make sure you are getting it down right. You’ll need to be fighting unlocked, too. When you strike, turn your character’s body away from the side of your opponent that’s doing the parrying. If your enemy has a buckler in their left hand, you’ll be wanting to twist-in-place to the left (your left not theirs), away from the shield. When done right, it will make you look like your character is swinging their weapon with all of their body, and also make them look slightly drunk. Dead angled attacks can be partially parried (your enemy takes reduced damage) but can not be fully-parried, making them safe to use without fear of being riposted.

Git’n Gud

There is a culture surrounding high-skill games like Dark Souls III that insists that there’s an appropriate way to play, and that if you can’t or won’t conform, you need to go away and practice until you can. This is exemplified in the phrase “git gud,” a chorus of which will fill your ears if you express frustration at the game or disinterest in adopting the twitch-reflex playstyle favoured by popular PvPers.

This is toxic garbage that you should absolutely feel free to ignore. Lightly armored characters who leap and dodge around while striking with elegant swordplay is certainly one way to play, but it isn’t the only way, and skill is required to be good with any playstyle. Practice is important, but you shouldn’t feel pressured to practice or play in a certain way. I’ve fought more predictable and annoyingly mediocre dodgy-dex characters than I have slow n’ steady straight-sword and greatshield users. Every style has weaknesses, and at the end of the day, you’re fighting the person on the other end of the connection as much as you’re pitting your style against theirs.

Instead of fixating on how unfair or cheap or boring the choices your enemy made are, focus on the weaknesses they aren’t covering; exploit the mistakes they are making. Take your time and think. If you are unsure what to do against a playstyle, try it out for yourself!

Mindgames and good tactics can make even the simplest build powerful, flexible, and also fun to fight against. Focus on playing smart, being patient, and understanding the implications of your choices as well as those of your enemy.

Dying with Grace and Dignity

Now we have come to the end of this guide, but before we go our separate ways (the next time we meet we may be enemies) I wish to impart the most important skill in souls PvP.

You are going to die. You are going to miss a parry you know you can get and have some doofus with a Dark Sword cut you in half. You are going to get hit with a swing that was miles away because netcode sucks. You are going to have a host named Deez Nutz force-quit the game to rob you of a win. You are going to have a team of 4 gankers Patches Squat on your corpse. These events probably won't represent the majority of your time in PvP, but they will happen, and how calmly you handle it will absolutely make a difference in how much you enjoy competitive play in Dark Souls on the whole. Even the best players die regularly -- because of mistakes, and because of bullshit that was totally out of their control.

If these things spike your blood pressure and make you scream then maybe you should consider a different esport. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done my fair share of yelling at the TV, too. Dark Souls is set up to be a very frustrating, high-stress game, and a little gloating from your adversary can push it over the edge into a new level of irritation. But remember that it is within your power to take it in stride, and that this is as much a learned skill as anything else in this game. Honestly, souls PvP has also helped me to take the rest of life's little disappointments in stride, too.

When you fall and those damn letters Y-O-U D-I-E-D appear, ask yourself what you would have done differently. Run the fight back in your mind: did you stay too close even though you had a straight sword and they had a spear? Did you panic when your health got low? Did you use a move that was too obvious and get parried? Maybe it was complete garbage and how dare they beat you -- if so, just close your eyes, take a deep breath, exhale, and when you open them again, you’ll have respawned.

Next: check out specific builds in part two of this guide.