I’ve wanted to let the ideas and mechanics of ‘Curse the Darkness’ rattle about in my head for a while before posting a review – I think that the game deserves nothing less than measured consideration. It is one of those games that appears (especially given the relatively slender nature of the volume) to be very simple and straightforward. In many ways it is – and then you start to start to actually think about what is being proposed.
The setting for the game is one in which an unknowable entity has decided that ideology (whether political, religious, economic – any excuse humans have concocted to delineate ‘us’ and ‘them’) will be outlawed. Any ideological expression will be noticed by Him and He will send Them to mete out justice of a particularly brutal kind. ‘They’ are the shadowy creatures which exist in a world that is accessed by any shadow in the world – a place simply called the Between. People can travel through the Between, making civilisation quite mobile.
In order to show that He was serious, His power was exercised; wiping entire cities off the map and punishing those who disobeyed His will. The net result is a massive loss of human life, a disaggregation of human civilisation and a single rule ‘look after each other’ which is lethally enforced.
The default setting for the game opens ten years after His decree and asks whether characters will take a stance (and ‘light a candle’) or will submit (and ‘curse the darkness’).
Character creation is very simple, yet the impact of a single character on the game can be quite deep. The basic character generation is a points-buy system against four traits and a single Scope. A Scope defines something about your character that you can call upon to influence the success of your activities. For example ‘spent five years in Scouts’ might give you a bonus to if you need to start a fire; or ‘professional baseball player’ might be called upon if you have to sprint a short distance. During game play, you can define up to four more Scopes. This helps you design and explore your character through actual play, and lends a humanistic, dynamic sense of narrative.
All of the action resolution is based on decks of cards to represent fluctuations in your traits and also to resolve any opposed actions. This relies on the GM and the players setting up a series of agreed outcomes, assigning cards and then storytelling the end result. What evolves is a game which is highly collaborative, story-driven and imaginative.
Character death is quite common, and this impacts the game in two ways. Firstly, the GM should be ready to offer an NPC forward to write a player back into the game with minimal fuss. Given how quickly characters can be generated, this shouldn’t be a problem. Secondly, fallen characters can trigger Memory Conversations in the survivors. This occurs when one of the survivors starts a conversation focused on remembering the fallen, offering details about their life. Others can join in, and the experience generates Memory Points (which have a number of uses). In this way, characters are encouraged (and rewarded) to not only find out about each other, but to mourn those who have been lost.
I said the game appeared simple mostly because of the ease of character generation and the straightforward mechanics but it does have layers of hidden complexity which emerge through play. The single unifying idea of the game – His destruction of ideology and a commandment to ‘look after each other’ – can create a lot of debate. Is this actually a bad idea? Is there anything wrong with a society which abandons all of the beliefs which divide us in order to simply ‘look after each other’? If you knew that deviating from the rules could be fatal, would you still do it? These are the core concepts with which players of this game must grapple, and there are no easy answers. In this, I think every group will react differently, and that level of personalisation for the game is strong selling point.
Likewise, the mechanics, whilst simple, offer almost limitless opportunities to tell a good story. Players have to be committed though to telling stories of failure and sacrifice as much as heroism and success (if anything a lot more of the former). They have to be prepared to take chances, tell a good story, make decisions which are sound for the narrative, and take the hard knocks on the chin. It is a gritty, hard setting and this is reflected in the stories which are told.
Aesthetically, it succeeds in supporting the genre. The layout lends itself to a sparse look, interspersed with graffiti (the product of some of the Kickstarter backers) and black-and-white photos (which fit the mood, and are shot with an eye for detail and quality). The sections are logically presented, and the example of play is not only much-needed, but well-executed. There is a range of good GM advice sprinkled throughout and the reader can tell that this is a very practical book.
This game will not be for everyone. The collaborative storytelling won’t work for every group, but the subject matter should spark some interesting conversations. Even if you aren’t sure that your group is up to this type of play, I’d highly recommend that you give it a try. The only game that this comes close to for me is ‘Summerland’ which is a similar rules-light, post apocalyptic story-driven game. ‘Curse the Darkness’ is an imaginative and intelligent piece of quality work and I’d urge every role-player to try it at least once. Like me, though, you might want to read it cover to cover and then let it rest in your head for a while. You’ll be glad you did.