So, this past weekend was Con on the Cob, and I ran a demo of curse the darkness. People weren’t exactly lining up to get in – it’s a very Savage Worlds-focused con, and not everyone grooves on indie games – but in some ways it was my most successful demo yet.
Three players (Michelle, Rich and Lisa). I started off explaining the setting to them (well, Michelle knows it, obviously) and then asked what their goal was going to be. They decided that they were three teachers living at a school in Akron, trying to give kids and families a safe place to live and to educate the kids as best they could. They wanted to save one of the original copies of the Declaration of Independence.
At first, I was waffly, because this seemed very tied to these specific characters (and I caution against that, because characters die easy and the goal has to be bigger than them). But then they came up with the notion that Washington DC was burning, and so time was a factor and there was more going on. This, I like (I actually think I said in one of my fiction bits that DC had been completely obliterated, but you don’t step on your players’ dicks), because no matter what happens to these characters they can find other people who would agree with their cause.
So we started off with three teachers: Carol (math teacher), Steven (history) and Bud (gym). Bud’s kind of a jerk, Carol is asthmatic and friendly, Steven is knowledgeable and very much the driving force here. They’re at the school and they learn that DC is on fire, and they decide to undertake this mission. They figure that getting through the Between (which is the only way they’re getting there in time to do anything) specifically to rescue this document is risky, but if they were there to help people with the fire…
They go to the local fire station to steal a truck. Sure enough, there’s one there, it’s just wedged in the doorway like someone tried to back it out and failed. They find a local kid living in the back and send him to the school, and then loot the place (the players are making Character Challenges, putting cards in their banks, and their personalities are evolving – Steven defines “Volunteer Firefighter” as a Scope, so he knows the station and knows where to loot, f’rex). Carol paints the Symbol on the truck so they can drive it through the Between safely.
Eventually they’re ready to go. Bud, an Opener, backs the truck up a bit and Opens a shadow to take them Between. Steven navigates them to the Reflecting Pool, and Carol (a HAM radio enthusiast; it’s a Scope) gets on the CB to find the problem. They do – one of the buildings in the Library of Congress is burning.
They head out there, sirens wailing (and we noted that the sound of sirens is probably oddly comforting to people after all these years). The characters arrive and start fighting the blaze, and we entered our first Removal Challenge. All of the characters are lighting a candle because they’re taking direct, risky action – trying to pump water, direct people, move the hoses, etc.
Sorting out a Removal Challenge with a new group of people is always somewhat time consuming, and it’s something I’m going to streamline before doing more con demos. But we got it figured out. Bud and Steven (with help from other local folks) got the blaze under control, and looked around for Carol. They found her – dead, lying on the sidewalk. Remember, she was asthmatic, and the smoke inhalation coupled with the activity did her in. No one saw her in the confusion (Bud and Steven drew Succeed/Stay, she drew Fail/Leave).
Because Bud and Steven both drew Succeed/Stay, they got a section of Wick. Since this was a one-shot, they just needed one section to light a candle and make the essential choice, so they did. Michelle (Carol’s player) made a new character, Rochelle, a local girl and singer who was helping with the fire. She saw Steven sit heavily on the sidewalk and approached him. This started a Memory Conversation about Carol, which Bud shut down because Bud is something of a jerk. Rochelle got it started back up again and this allowed the characters to rack up some Memory Points.
Rochelle’s husband, Roy, agreed to watch the truck and make sure no one looted it, while she went with Bud and Steven to the other building to find the document (she used to be a docent; it’s a Scope!). They found a door and Steven beat it in with his fire ax, but when they found the staircase leading down to the room they wanted, it was just half gone. Bud Opened a gateway with the intent of Opening another at the bottom of the stairway (you can’t teleport, but you can navigate to somewhere you’ve just seen easily enough). But he had no Symbol and he was carrying a book he’d stolen, so They attacked (Removal Challenge for him, solo). He dodged around the creature and dove for the exit, using his Gym Teacher Scope to draw two cards, and got Succeed/Stay. His action was just to run, though, which was cursing the darkness, so when he succeeded I lost three Between Points (which was fine, since he’d already made his choice). He closed the gateway behind him; meanwhile Rochelle and Steven had jumped down with little ill effect.
They found the document, but there were five dead bodies on the floor, covered in sheets, throats slit. This led to some Stability checks (trying to get those card banks filled up so I could do one more Removal Challenge), but they didn’t have a chance to find out what happened because we were getting short on time. Rochelle opened the case and stole the document, Steven wrote the Symbol on the glass carrying case and they headed outside.
When they got back to the truck, they found the people had scattered. One of them was dead, his neck crushed, obviously by one of Them. The characters weren’t sure why They had attacked, but Rochelle wasn’t going anywhere till she knew Roy was safe. She got on the radio and found that he was OK, but he was wounded. En route, Rochelle’s player defined a few more Scopes, taking her to five Memory Points, which allowed her to light a candle (again, five points = one section of Wick, but that’s all they needed for the one-shot). Now that all of the players had made the essential choice, the story could end. The characters got the truck rolling again and found the other survivors, many of whom agreed to go to Akron through the Between. Bud Opened a gateway, and away they went…
They were transporting refugees, but also the Declaration. This was enough to get Their attention. The creatures boiled up out of the Between. Bud tried to drive through them and Open the gateway out, Rochelle knocked one back with the fire hose, and Steven blew the siren and flashed the lights to confuse them.
The players all burned their Memory Points to stack the deck in their favor, and had we had more time, I’d have used my Between Points to put those bad cards back in. But we didn’t, so I didn’t bother. They all drew Succeed/Stay, and made it back to Akron with the refugees.
What we learned: The “design your own scenario” works nicely. I’ll need to be clear in the book about making sure that the goal is not too character-specific, otherwise if there’s a TPK (which can happen) there’s no reason to continue. Likewise, the Wick system and the essential choice seem to work fine. It’ll be interesting to see how it changes the dynamic when you have to get, say, five sections of Wick to light a candle rather than just one (the players pointed out that you can define all of your Scopes right away and get a section of Wick, but that’s putting the cart before the horse in anything but a one-shot).
More notes coming soon. We also have a photo shoot this weekend!