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News

Dark Places: Behind the Scenes

Published on 01.06.2016

“Every move towards darkness brings us one step closer to answers. When you have endured it all as long as I, as well as I, you begin to see that the answers outnumber the questions. This is the problem that comes of time folding inward upon itself, and it is resolved through the Books of the Void. In their pages, there are questions and answers aplenty. Making them match… that is the work of us all.”

—The Darkened Father, in an early Third Turning sermon at the Chapel of the Dust

Dark Places is a strange game. It has an unconventional genre (afterlife mystery), an unusual play style (specific number of players and no gamemaster), a strange core dice mechanic (D8s and D4s), and it isn’t explicitly designed to tack on to any particularly popular tropes. What it is though is a unique way of telling stories that wouldn’t quite fit in any other game, and that is why it was so important that I bring it to you.

Why Four Players?

There’s an old adage about group work in education that says the bigger the group, the less likely that everyone does something and the more likely that one person does everything. Roleplaying games tend to work that way too. If the group is too big, the gamemaster does more and more work and the individual contributions of players are diminished. But of a group is smaller, the work tends to more evenly distribute. To make Dark Places work best, and to let interpersonal conflict and interaction live at the heart of the game, it takes four players. One to star in a scene, one to arbitrate the scene, and two to play the supporting cast in the scene. With four players, any number of exciting combinations of characters can happen, and it is those combinations that make the game work.

My name is Jeremiah L. Schwennen, and I am the writer and conceptual ringmaster of Dark Places. The amazing team at Vagrant Workshop, in particular Carsten Damm and Angus McNicholl, made the final product elegant and beautiful, but Dark Places in its ugly, warty original state has been around for a decade and has reaped the benefits of being touched by many hands, as evidenced in the credits of the book.

The mission when I first started working on Dark Places was to create a game that allowed players to portray characters from across history. I wanted a game that focused on the interactions of individuals, not epic battles or massive political intrigues. As the idea of an afterlife realm where time-lost souls interacted started to take shape, the real question of the game also started to define itself. Why did it matter that all of these people from across the world and across time are thrust into this strange patchwork Hell?

The answer, of course, is mystery. Dark Places is an afterlife mystery, where the big questions, things like “Why are we here?” and “What is the purpose of the Dark Places?” lurk in the background but, ultimately, become far less interesting than the more personal, grounded mysteries of “Why am I here?” and “What do I do with this new chance at living?”

Every player in Dark Places is trying to tell the story of his or her character’s descent into darkness and madness, or perhaps valiant struggle for redemption, in tandem with every other player. The mysteries, and opportunities for intense drama and daring adventure, all grow organically from the natural intersection of each character’s pursuit of their own story arc.

As a human being and as an author, I subscribe to an idea I call Convergence Predestinism. I believe that our path through life is largely predetermined, but it is only through interactions with others that our course can be altered. None of us exist in a vacuum, and the collisions and intersections with the predestined paths of others give us the chance to jump tracks and send our lives moving in unexpected directions. That is Dark Places, in a nutshell—a place where, instead of characters just continuing on the same path they would have taken in life, this hodge-podge damnation creates myriad unpredictable ways for characters to collide, intersect, and alter the course of one another’s destiny.

And behind the scenes, working slowly and unveiling through glimpses and clever plays by even more clever players, the answers to the big questions start to pop up. But with no single authorial vision—no gamemaster—the answers to questions like “What were the Fields of Soot before they were the Fields of Soot” have confusing, conflicting answers. Navigating those conflicting truths is the challenge of the game, creating a situation where, instead of a gamemasterless game, one starts to see Dark Places as a game where everyone is the gamemaster.

All of the best parts of playing? Check. All of the best parts of gamemastering? Also check.

That was the dream in my head when I started working on Dark Places in this latest iteration. A story about bad, bad people with incredible powers, striving to assert their dominance and work their will in a world where everyone is just as damaged, just as precariously positioned for greatness, as they are.

And along the way, I have some crazy stuff to throw your way. Ancient monsters, secret pacts, unfathomable forces, and remnants of old, broken truths hide in the Dark, waiting to be found by four players who want to try something just a little bit different than anything they have played before.

NPC: Paul Ourim, Pumice Novice

Ambition: Recognition

Rank: 2

Role-Playing Hints: Eager, Awkward, Naïve. Never talk about the snow.

Paul is a child of the 1980s in the Great Lakes region of the United States. Born in a small town where he never seemed to fit in, he died at the age of seventeen when a pair of his classmates tried to scare him and went too far. Paul does not for the life of him understand why he is in the Dark Places, because he cannot conceive of what he did in life that was so bad as to send him to this place.

But Paul is living proof that whatever it is in the Dark that selects who will enter these Places is not a creature of memory, but one of truth. There are things in Paul’s short past that he does not remember, but the Dark knows. Occasionally flashes of these truths haunt Paul, and it is in those times of terror and confusion that he turns to the Book of the Void and the teachings of the Pumice for comfort and direction.

Realm: The Loop (Town)

Every small town has one—the stretch of street where, on a Saturday night, every teenager that can get his hands on a car can be found. They drive up and down the street in a monotonous parade, stopping only infrequently at the grain elevator in the heart of town to laugh, throw back an ill-gotten beer, or to line up for a short, noisy race.

The loop is populated by shadowfolk driving trucks, station wagons, and all manner of nineteen-eighties era vehicles, but the real action is in the small six-car parking lot of the grain elevator, where a small cluster of lawn chairs have been erected around a fire pit made of an old steel barrel cut in half cross-wise. The air is always warm but brisk here, as though August has just barely given way to September.

The Loop is the home realm of Paul Ourim

Playing Paul

Paul’s Ambition of Recognition drives him towards visibility. Upon first arriving in the Dark Places, he will spend several, perhaps even many, scenes focused on getting his bearings. He is young and lived a sheltered life, so it suits him to make connections and see the world before settling down.

After he feels sufficiently oriented to this new world, he will likely start to form more significant alliances with the major Shadowers that he meets on his tour of the Dark. As a Pumice, he is naturally able to Consecrate oaths, and he will do this to ensure that he has a modicum of protection from the more predatory elements of the Dark.

While Paul is consolidating his position, he will be fueling his Ambition. The more connections he makes, the more firmly he establishes that he belongs, the more powerful he will become. As his power grows, he will also start to more firmly reconnect with the baggage of his sins. His naiveté upon arrival is only a shell, a defense mechanism, and the truth of his sins will start to manifest in cruelty and spite. He will avoid direct violence and will often profess his innocence—“I don’t even know why I am here!” but his actions will slowly start to reveal a potent desire for Vengeance that he is not even consciously aware of at first. When he makes the shift from his Recognition Ambition to the Ambition of Vengeance, his evolution truly begins. What the intrigues of the Dark Places will do with Paul, once he stands revealed to others and himself, remains to be seen.

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