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Designing The Darkest Age

Posted on March 24, 2014 by Flames

The Flames Rising RPG Design series continues with Eric Staggs from Spectacle Publishing.

The Darkest Age is a Horror RPG set in a grim, alternate history. Enter the gritty and dangerous world of Europe in 1350, as an unusual strain of the bubonic plague ravages the countryside and those afflicted don’t just die. Faced with extinction, the people of Europe are forced to survive in any way they can. Characters face death, disease and the myriad undead, as well as cannibals, xenophobic city-states, and religious strife in an unending battle for the resources that mean survival.

Eric tells us about his process of creating the game.

Designing The Darkest Age

    People ask all the time “What’s your game about?” I quickly run through a catalog of default answers, comparing them to what will be most efficient for the inquirer. Too many times, I end up saying, “Zombies.” But sometimes, just sometimes, I get to say things like, “It’s an alternate history horror RPG that takes the Black Plague and turns it into something much darker.”

    They look at me then, either in horror or fascination and then say, “How did you come up with that?”

    It’s not a huge leap– a biological infection that spreads like wildfire through a population that can’t quite fathom what is happening or how. Welcome to the mid-14th century. While The Darkest Age wasn’t the first zombie RPG on the scene, the idea was unique. We wanted to create a realistic horror roleplaying experience, using something that was easily relatable. Sure, we can all imagine an alien invasion. But zombies, corpses shambling about, the decline of civilization – this is truly the stuff of nightmare. A pop-culture nightmare that’s hit like wildfire over the past few years, thanks to Max Brooks and The Walking Dead. An undead plague is compelling, but not so terrifying when you’re armed to teeth with automatic weapons, or even the ability to chuck fireballs at the rotting masses as they trundle across your front yard. It had to be easy to play though, no point in reinventing the wheel, especially when it’s the role-playing experience we were after.

    It started with a book about the Black Plague. There are actually two (maybe more, according to some researchers) variants of the Black Plague: Bubonic and Pneumonic. One is pretty familiar – fluid exchange, blood, mucus, et cetera, will spread the infection. This is one that comes from Fleas – a bite, mixed, blood, and you’re on your way to a gruesome death. The other variant, Pneumonic Plague is airborne. Suddenly the whole thing gets really vicious. Turns out, you could survive the former version, but not the latter. For those who don’t know, the Black Plague is a pretty nasty way to die. Your lymph nodes swell with “foul smelling pus,” and then, eventually burst. You can live through that. Lancing the buboes seemed to help. Anyway, we’ve got a real life horror story happening already. The Medical University of Paris suggests that the plague was caused because misaligned planets and that eating cabbage would likely solve the problem.

    Deciding that the plague not only caused a horrible death, but then reanimated the corpse as zombie seemed logical – come on – there’s not much else that could make the Black Plague any worse, right?

    We pulled out a map and started marking it up. Enter 1345 C.E., Europe – a hotbed of plague-ridden peasants and undead monsters. To complete the setting we fought through a series of cause and effect events. For example, you can’t mine for ore. It makes noise. Zombies come and that’s bad. So, less and less raw material is being gathered. Widespread shortages bring commerce, as we know it to a grinding halt. Money is devalued; barter becomes the standard method across dozens of kingdoms.

    As the plague spreads further, the whole concept of feudalism comes apart. You can’t work the fields. Without crops, you can’t feed an army. With no army, you can’t make war, steal your neighbor’s stuff or protect your peasants. You can see how this could quickly spiral out of control and become disastrous for a feudal world, no matter how close to enlightenment they were.

    At this point, the only logical thing to do is circle the wagons – that is, gather what resources you can and find a castle with some very high walls. In The Darkest Age as nations collapsed, local lords became more powerful; those with well defended estates and castles even more so. Survivors flocked to these fortresses, camping anywhere there was relative safety. Eventually, this evolved a sort of Fortress-City-State, not necessarily owing fealty to anyone, but unable to interact politically with neighbors. An island of the living in a sea of the undead.

    To further exasperate the issue, two volcanoes erupt in Norway, causing a migration of the Nordic peoples to the south. Meanwhile, the plague is pushing people from southern Europe to the north. The clash of ideology and culture, a major thematic point for the game, occurs right in the middle of Europe.

    Another unique aspect of The Darkest Age is the shift in social power that comes naturally from unnatural changes in social expectations. It was apparent early on that those who could save lives would be, more often than not, given the opportunity to do so – regardless of social class or gender. Suddenly whole new hierarchies were created. In keeping with the medieval theme, we designed knightly orders devoted to various aspects of survival in an apocalyptic world.

    Character classes are born from the standards we all know, but modified to be functional in a world without magic or fantasy monsters. The character’s abilities are all plausible, but no less extraordinary. This is a game that encourages role-playing over hacking, so skills and how others perceive a character and NPCs is very important. The culture clash surfaces again as we see Nordic people thinking more about the old gods, giving up Christianity. Meanwhile, the Church struggles to make sense of the world, losing ground every day. Though an uphill battle, the Church is relentless and rallies its armies around Rome, creating a Fortress-City. Inquisitors are sent into the world, not to punish heretics, but to root out the cause of this great evil plague.

    Just to keep things interesting, there’s something else going on in the background, a haunting presence that never quite shows itself.

    Rules System
    As I said before, we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. We went down the list, and the d20/OGL was the rules system that stood. Not only for flexibility, but also for adaptation. Any of the rules or character classes in The Darkest Age can be adapted to an existing D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder Game. That means, you pretty much already know how to play.

    In an effort to keep the world “historically accurate” (you know, aside from zombies), we peeled away all the magic. Instead, we added Rituals, which are more time consuming and less dramatic than a fireball, but represent belief and superstition. These rituals can be as simple as blessing before a battle, or payer over an infected comrade, or as complex as an attempt at seeing the future or challenging spirits. Here’s a sticking point – they aren’t magic. There’s guarantee any given ritual will work – unlike Magic Missile, which, if I remember correctly, strikes unerringly and doesn’t allow a save. These rituals are psychological placebo, and sometimes, that’s good enough. “You’ll be fine, lads!”

    Instead of magic swords and armor, we invested some real cultural personality artifacts. These objects have similar effects to rituals, but are portable. They take the form of ancient axes handed down through generations of Viking kings, to the mummified foot of a Pope.

    Because players are exceptional – that is, they are heroes, they have immunity surges, which enable them to endure more exposure to the plague than a normal NPC. This is a pretty dangerous setting already.

    The world was there, the maps, the land, the cultures and kingdoms. But some how we had to make it into a coherent core rules book that was an introduction to a familiar, yet slightly different setting. Research became the name of the game. Dozens of books about the 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, the plague (literally 12 different books entitled “The Black Plague”) and of course extraneous factoids had to be ironed out. Gunpowder for example made quite an impression and causes a rather (cough) explosive discussion about whether or not it should be included. In the end, we found a way to blend an obviously major technological innovation with a culture that values silence.

    As art came in and was arranged, we found the need some additional content. This was a great opportunity to flesh out the setting and conflicts in a narrative style. We introduced many of the NPCs that shaped the world, and explained their personal experiences, their adventures, in a plague-ridden apocalypse.

    The results of this entire endeavor, though it took almost two years of regular meetings, writing, and beatings, was a fresh new take on a popular theme. When the proofs arrived from the printer, well, “there was much rejoicing.”

    What’s next? Quite a bit – the Darkest Age Game Masters’ Companion is in the first round of editing right now. Within a week or there, there should be a teaser released. It’s a freebie – our way of saying thank you!

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