Cautionary Tale Edition
So here’s an odd duck: Curse the Darkness, a postapocalypse storygame-type game out of a 2012 Kickstarter. I’ve been reading it for a couple days and … I’m having trouble making heads or tails of it. I think it doesn’t actually work as advertised.
First off: the book starts with, literally, 30 pages of talk about politics, and game fiction. The politics are interesting, and I’m even somewhat sympathetic to where the author is coming from, but it’s … just too long. Too much. Not enough promises made, too many rationales and justifications for what the game is and what it says.
The premise goes like this: some mysterious superbeing, known only as Him, has decided that the world is full of too much ideologically driven madness and has unleashed hell on Earth to cleanse it. His minions are known only as Them, and They are freaky beasts from beyond our world who leap out from the shadows to murder and destroy. The game is set a decade after He dropped the hammer on the world. Things are quieted down a bit.
So allegedly the game centers on a group of characters who are deciding to light a candle and fight back — that is, allow disagreement and dissent, but also democracy and tolerance — or to curse the darkness — accept the way things are and hide from direct confrontation with Him. To represent each character’s choice, the character sheet as a little drawing of a candle and some blank boxes, and when the boxes are filled up you can choose to light a candle. You can also choose to curse the darkness whenever you want, but that means you can’t engage in direct confrontation any more.
There are two economies in the game: Memory points and Between points. Memory is…dunno. You earn them when someone dies (character mortality is wicked-high, don’t get attached) and then you talk about them. You can turn in 5 of them to check off one of the candle boxes. Between points refer to the Between where They lurk, this extradimensional space you can walk through but doing so alerts Him to your activities. So as you give the GM Between points, you’re getting some short-term benefit but you’re also ticking down the clock to when He will roll up and wreck your shit.
The whole thing runs off decks of plain playing cards, and there’s an interesting twist: you assign a card face-up to each of four abilities, so the GM knows just how well prepared you are to deal with a situation. But…then the GM also sets target numbers. It feels super-arbitrary and I think the author swears, swears this is a feature and not a bug. Feels like a bug. Tastes like a bug. Wiggles around in my mouth like a bug.
So, well, the alleged Big Decision of the game is whether to light a candle and fight out in the open, or curse the darkness and remain hidden. It’s clear in the text that the curse the darkness choice constrains you but there’s just nothing at all explaining what exactly happens when you’ve filled in all those boxes and worked your economies and struggled and strained and, by gosh, chosen to light a candle.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that the phrase light a candle is used elsewhere in the rules for related but not identical reasons. When you’ve done enough fights, the GM can call a “removal challenge,” which is how you eliminate a character (death, imprisonment, they quit, go mad, whatever). And during the removal challenge you can choose proactive, fighty narration that falls into the “light a candle” category. It’s possible that maybe you don’t get to make those narrative choices until you’ve filled up your candle squares, but honestly? That seems crazy beyond a one-shot game. Are you really expected to spend 2 or 5 or 10 sessions scuttling around being sly or cowardly before you’ve earned the right to fight back? That surely cannot be it.
There’s another IMO Big Problem with the text, and that is the fact that the game consistently and repeatedly talks about concepts before they’re explained. Most of the time, okay, there’s a page number referencing you ahead, but it makes reading the rules as a linear document just impossible. It’s like the Infinite Jest of rules. Really what it tells me is that it needed a developer to come at the text really objectively, and think long and hard about how to introduce the game concepts so that you’re not constantly having to say “we’ll talk about this on page 64”.
So…I feel like this is a game that probably works pretty great as a demo with the designer in a one-shot. I’ll bet you anything the concepts and economies and little interlocking rules aren’t honestly that hard to suss out in person. But man, I’m stymied.