At Marcon this year, aside from making $100 dollars for charity the hard way, I played in a playtest of a game called curse the darkness (lowercase, as if it were being whispered). It is being created by Matt McFarland and you can find more info about it on the curse the darkness homepage or its kickstarter. You can also see the post about our game session here. I’m going to do a review of the game based off of my play experiences and the playtest materials I grabbed.
curse the darkness is a perfect example of the current generation of independent games. The mechanics are unique, the scope of the game is built around a set theme, and the jump in and play factor is incredibly quick. It also focuses on moral choices and personal decisions much more than stats on a sheet. This is a game you’ll grab for the story and the feel of it. One thing about a lot of independent games that I both like and dislike is the one-shot feel of them. While many games in this genre can be played over long campaigns, I often find the novelty of the game gone after one setting. curse the darkness doesn’t do that to me. It is perfectly capable of being played as a one-shot game and feeling complete, but it has the potential to be played over a longer campaign and not feel like you’ve already done everything there is to do.
The setting of the game is post-apocalyptic, but just a few years after the apocalypse occurs in 2012. It’s not a fiery apocalypse, but it destroys the world. All over the world at religious sites, government sites, and sites of financial power, buildings collapse, taking away the biggest forms of control. Soon, shadows open up and swallow more things, including the city of Jerusalem. A voice is heard declaring that there will be no more ideology, religion, politics, or racism. The only rule is that everyone takes care of everyone, and if you mess up, the creatures in the shadows (the Between) will take you too.
Your characters are living in this brave new world. Nobody knows who the voice is, but everyone is scared of breaking the rules and being drug into the shadows. Some people have learned how to move into the shadows themselves, and they can travel through the Between to any other point in the world if they know their destination. Things are in disarray, and some places are better than others. The creatures in the Between don’t attack people carrying supplies through the Between or following the rule of “care for everyone”, but they will pop out and attack people that are perceived to be breaking the rules.
The mechanics of curse the darkness are pretty unique. Action resolution is not done with dice or rolling, but by using a deck of cards and a number of cards of a particular suit that correspond to a players attribute. But let’s start with character creation to give you a more complete grasp on things.
Character Creation is more about asking questions about your character than anything else. The group, as a whole, figures out some elements of the story that they will be playing. Where are they? How is the group following the rules? How are they breaking them? What is the goal of the session? In a twist of in-media-res, one of the questions is: What has just happened to change the situation? This can throw the group right into the action, giving them a clear starting point to proceed from.
Once group questions are answered, players assign a pool of points between attributes in various areas like Focus, Stability, Stamina, and Humanity. These will later determine the number of playing cards that the player can have at a time. Players then assign a few scopes, broad areas that the character has some expertise in. Scopes allow you to not be challenged on more mundane actions (setting a broken bone with plenty of time and supplies, for instance). They also help to define who the character is and what types of abilities they have. After scopes are defined, the players write down character background details. Character creation takes very little time as the possibility of character death is pretty high. When a character is removed from the game, the player can build a new one to insert in fairly quickly.
The other part of mechanics for the game are Challenges, and this is where the interesting card mechanic comes in. There are 2 players decks and one GM’s deck. Every player is dealt out cards in the various suits equal to their scores. A score of 3 in Humanity means you get 3 heart cards to use for challenges. The cards are placed in the pile on the player mat and the top one is turned up. Once these are gone, your Humanity is fatigued until you do something to refresh it.
When it comes time for a Character Challenge (just the character involved in the action and no chance of removal from the game), the player plays the top card in the appropriate attribute against the difficulty set (but not always revealed) by the GM. If the player beats it, they succeed. The card goes into the bank. There can only be 3 cards in the players bank at any time. Character Challenges are called for only when they matter to the story.
Once a character has 3 cards in their bank, they are eligible for a removal challenge. A Removal Challenge is called for during combat, threat of death or removal, etc. The players, individually, say whether they are cursing the darkness (being defensive, running, etc.) or Lighting a Candle (fighting against something, being active, etc.) and what their action is. The players then get to decide and play a card in each suit on the play mat in the center of the table. The players can chose from their face up cards or their banks. The GM can choose the various difficulties from his cards. He or she places them face down. The GM’s cards are flipped and any suit that the players had higher cards in, they can choose what outcome it matches. The players assign possible outcomes to the various suits on the mat. They are Succeed/Stay (the character achieved what they were trying to do and stayed in play), Succeed/Leave (achieved action, but leave the game), Fail/Stay (fail at their action, but stay in play), or the whammy Fail/Leave (character failed and leaves the game).
The way the outcomes are determined are a mix of highest cards and a resolution deck. The GM assembles 2 cards from every player involved and grabs some cards from the players’ decks that have not yet been dealt. Players may spend memory points (a kind of story altering point, gained in a few different ways through in character actions) to remove cards from the GMs deck (turning things in their favor) but the GM may spend Between Points (gained when a player opts to keep a good card instead of discarding it, gained whenever a gateway to the between is opened, gained when a player asks for a refresh, etc.). The players then take a turn drawing resolution cards from the GM’s resolution deck and determine what happens. If the players won hearts and chose hearts as Succeed/Stay, then the player that drew a heart could succeed at the action and stay in the game.
The mechanic is a bit hard to explain, and I don’t know if I got it down properly. It definitely makes sense in play, and challenges go pretty quickly. It is a system of choosing your highest cards, comparing them, and if a Removal Challenge is in play, doing that as a group to tip the scales in your favor before drawing from a resolution deck to determine your individual fate.
As the game goes on, players are required to make a thing called the Essential Choice. Whether or not their characters (all of them, because the choice sticks with the player and moves on to new characters) Light A Candle (fight against him and try to restore the world) or curse the darkness (give in and accept that this is how things are). Once all players have made their choice, the goal can be achieved. But the characters can’t complete their stories until the choice is made.
curse the darkness is a fun little horror game in the same league as Dread. The unique mechanic draws in the fact that the players are bargaining with the GM (and with the world that they new inhabit). While things can be tilted in the GMs favor mechanically, this helps that feeling of working against the odds. The setting is one that has a lot of fun possibilities. The win goal of the scenario, and most things about the scenario, are determined by the players at the start of the game. I’m sure the final product will have more about the setting fleshed out, but there is a huge amount of freedom for the players to write their own story within the framework of the world.
There is one more thing I want to say about curse the darkness. At the end of the day, it is a metaphor about choice. Do the characters fight against the things oppressing them or do they give in and live the life written for them by someone else. If you are into horror games with unique story driven mechanics (the only way to properly do a horror game), then I would definitely check out curse the darkness.
Images come from the curse the darkness website.