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Creating curse the darkness

Posted on May 26, 2012 by Flames

The direct inspiration for curse the darkness was a song. My brother sent me a link to A Perfect Circle’s cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” some years back. I like the original well enough, but the cover really got my brain moving. I tend to see scenes and characters and stories when I hear music anyway, and when I heard that song (which you can find easily enough on Youtube, if you want to give it a listen before buying it), I saw a man standing on a balcony looking out over the ruined world. The ground was blasted and blackened, and he — whoever he was — stood there thinking, “Yes, this was the right decision. I did the right thing.”

Who was he? What had happened? I didn’t know. I did know that the message of the song felt different with the cover. Instead of “let’s all get along,” it was “get along, and that’s not a request.” I let that sit in my brain for a while, not really knowing what to do with it.

And then in 2009, I stumbled across a photo album online with a bunch of pictures from a Tea Party rally. I look over people carrying signs that advertised their hatred, ignorance and prejudice, and I found myself thinking about the man on the balcony and why he destroyed the world. His philosophy — take care of people or else — became a zero-sum game. You did that, or you died.

To that idea, I added the imagery of shadows opening and monsters emerging. I’ve been enamored of the idea of travel using shadows as portals for years; it shows up in Abyss Mysticism in Dark Ages and as a fetch power in Changeling: The Lost. There’s just something really cool about the idea of touching a shadow and opening it, walking through a wall and emerging somewhere else (and, of course, I’ve been in long-distance relationships and fervently wished for that kind of instant travel). Combining those two things with the anger I was feeling, I sat down and wrote this:

Here’s What Happened

    Everyone remembers where they were when the Vatican fell. Or when the Dome of the Rock was pulled down. Or when Parliament and Congress were simultaneously invaded from the inside. During any one of the attacks, we know where we were.

    But where were you when you found out about Him? When you found out that it was all connected?

    So many crazy stories around before the truth came out. Honestly, if the Internet had survived, those crazy stories would have, too, I’m sure. You don’t remember because you’re too young, but the Internet was a place where any insanity could thrive. You could spout any story you wanted and not only be heard, but be believed. The ubiquitous “they” that said mankind never landed on the moon, that Catherine the Great died having sex with a horse, that the late President Obama was a Kenyan-born Muslim — “they” found their voice and their pulpit on the Internet.

    When you think about it, what He does isn’t so different than the ‘net. He opens a gate, and out they come. The gates are everywhere on Earth, because they’re nowhere. A server, a website, a router… Oh right, I forgot. Hell, never mind. Like I said, you’re too young.

      I remember where I was when I learned the truth. I was in a big box store buying supplies. No riots that day, but the police were out front watching the store; it was one of the few in the city that had anything left. I had turned off my radio. I just couldn’t listen to death tolls and speculations and fanatics anymore. And then the lights flicked, and the TVs in the back of the store went dark. And I turned on my radio, and I heard what everyone else heard.

      It’s over. What you knew is over. Ideology is over.

      Ideology is the poison at the soul of the privileged. In the First World, people talk ideology over full bellies. In the Third World, people have been trained to kill and die for ideology over and above their own survival.

      Some of our greatest heroes have said this, though never in so many words. They have said that to make any meaningful change in the world, we must let go of the chains of religion, politics, economics, and all of the other systems of beliefs that interrupt the real and true cycles of life. The hungry must eat. The cold must be given shelter. The world must be saved, and as long as ideology — any ideology — festers at the heart of the leaders, no salvation is possible.

      Now it is possible. Now the shadows are open. Now the world has a savior.

      From this moment on, ideology is forbidden. Any idol at which you worship — be it mythical figure, figment of economics, ephemeral political position — is shattered as of now. You have seen what I can do when I open the shadows. And now you will see it again. Turn your eyes, world, to Jerusalem in three hours’ time.

      And we stood there, not knowing quite what to make of it. I heard people crying. I heard a man near me say that he had family in Israel. And all I could think was, “He’s going to nuke it.”

      I wasn’t wrong. The effect was much the same.

      Tune in tomorrow.

        curse the darkness

          At that point I still didn’t know exactly what I was doing. I didn’t know it was going to turn into an RPG until I made a few more posts. I considered writing a novel or finding an artist and working on a graphic novel, but I’d never designed my own game from the ground up before. I liked the challenge of making a game in which the setting was bleak, the characters died easily, and the world was familiar and yet ruined.

          The idea of using cards rather than dice happened pretty early on. I had considered using FATE or some variant thereof; I love the Aspects system and I’m a big fan of how easy to use yet how thorough the system is. But it’s also kind of hard for characters to die easily in FATE, and I knew I wanted that for curse the darkness. I wanted one-shot kills, not the death spiral that most RPGs wind up using. I finally decided on cards because I felt that they felt right for the game, and the system began to evolve.

          The rules as they stand work, but they’re probably the sixth or seventh iteration. I got very familiar with the phrase “kill your darlings” during playtest. We tested out a scenario creation system where you built the scenario on a series of random draws, as well as a system in which the GM job would pass to a different player when a character died (that one is included in the book as a variant). My wife (and editor) Michelle, my girlfriend Sarah and my friend Matt wound up giving me a lot of good suggestions and feedback, and every time I ran the game at a convention or for a new group of people, I wrote down comments and decided what was a good change to make and what was just one group’s difficulty with the game.

          I designed the game, but Michelle really made it happen. I had no idea how the business side of the game should work, and she was the one that really helped me make connections to get it done. Gareth-Michael Skarka signed on to do layout, and I reached out to a friend and longtime participant in my Changeling game Steve Karpinecz to take some photos for us. I reconnected with Sarah Petrie, who some years ago digitally altered a picture of my daughter into a fairy princess helping a unicorn, and asked her to add tendrils, shadows and other horrific effects to the photos. You can see the results if you go the Kickstarter — and they’re pretty amazing.

          Somewhere along the way, Michelle and I incorporated Play Attention Games, and curse the darkness is our first release. I’m glad that happened for a number of reasons, but one of the big ones was although the game was my idea, it hasn’t felt like just mine for a long time. It’s taken a lot of really awesome people to put it all together, and it feels more honest of me to say that curse the darkness is “the first release from Play Attention Games, Inc.” than “a roleplaying game by Matthew McFarland.”

          Now that the game is done, it’s easy to look at the early playtest drafts and think that a lot has changed, but the truth is, when I compare what the game does to that initial vision I had of a man standing on a balcony and telling himself he was right to destroy the world to save it, it’s exactly what I had in mind. curse the darkness is about choosing to fight against injustice even if the choice is dangerous. It’s about tolerance, even if tolerance means accepting viewpoints you don’t like. And it’s about paying attention to other people and trying to empathize. That wasn’t a message that I was trying to give people when I wrote that initial piece. It was a message I was reminding myself to learn, because it’s hard and it was something I hadn’t (and probably haven’t) fully internalized.

          The Kickstarter is almost over, and curse the darkness is soon going to go up for sale. I’m hopeful that people will play it and like it, and share their experiences and any hacks or changes they make with me. I’ve written a lot of words for games over the years, but this one has a lot of me in it, and that’s always a risk. But this has been a lot of work, and the risk might be the best part.

          Matthew McFarland – 2012

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