Monday, December 13, 2010

[ctd] New Systems

Well, I haven't posted about curse the darkness in a while, but I've been working on it. Some changes I'm making, with input from Sarah, Matt and Michelle:


  • Streamline the Removal Challenge system. This is something that the playtesters have consistently not been real thrilled about (one of the playtesters mentioned it was like playing an RPG and then a bridge game breaks out).
  • Add a story creation element. I admit to being influenced by Ganakagok here, but also games like Don't Rest Your Head, Misspent Youth, My Life With Master and many other indie games that eschew "GM does lots of prep" for "quick improvisation by entire group."
  • A way to make the whole group invested in the immediacy of the scenario. curse the darkness was never supposed to be about saving the world. It's about what's happening right now. That's why mortality needs to be high, and that's why I focus so much on Memory and not as much on, say, long character arc.


So, with all that mind, here are the changes I'm making (some have been playtested, some haven't):

Character Challenges: Instead of discarding a card when you go through a Character Challenge, you put it into the bank. Your "bank" holds three cards, and you cannot be involved in a Removal Challenge until it's full. Your bank cannot hold more than three cards, but you pick which ones. Example: I have 3H, 2S and 8S in my bank. Multiple suits are nice, because they help in Removal Challenges (see below), so when I play my next card (7S), I can choose to replace the 3H, or keep that, for whatever reason, and replace either of the other spaces.

Removal Challenges: So, instead of gathering up all your cards, you just use your bank and your Active cards. You don't pick anything up. The system otherwise works much the same, and so the "bridge" problem might remain, but in playtest we found that if you're playing cards that you have face-up as the Removal Challenge begins it doesn't disrupt things nearly as much.

So let's say I've got the bank above (3H, 2S, 8S) and my Active Cards are 7S, 9H, KC, and 10D. We start a Removal Challenge. I have those seven cards to play to Suit Assignment. I play my KC, 8S, 10D and 9H, since I don't have much in the way of high cards and I'm hoping the GM gets shafted on his draws.

The GM plays 10S, 2H, JC and 10D. We tie on diamonds, GM wins on spades and I win on hearts and clubs. I used three of my Active Cards, so I turn over new ones: 4C, JD and 7H. I now have those three, 7S, 3H and 2S to use in Condition Assignment.

I go first because my king of clubs is high. I only have one club left in my Active Cards and none left in my bank, so I assign clubs as Succeed/Leave. The next high card is the GM's 10 of spades. I have a bunch of spades, so naturally the GM calls spades as Fail/Leave. My nine of hearts is next, and I call it Succeed/Remain. That leaves diamonds (left till last because we tied) for Fail/Remain.

The GM grabs the aces from the Players' Decks (just four, though I've found that eight works better for Removal Challenges with more than three people). I contribute two cards from any cards I control - bank or Active. Duh. I put in the 2H from my bank and the 7H from my Active Cards. The GM can spend Between points to add more cards (from my bank, discard piles, but not my Active Cards) and I can spend Memory to remove them. And then I draw and see what happens.

Passing the GM's Hat: And here was the other idea we had and liked, though we haven't playtested it: If you leave play during a Removal Challenge, you become the GM. The former GM takes a character card (and should make a character, at least the numbers, at the beginning of play), writes the character into Memory, and joins at the next opportunity.

Yes, that might seem like a big jump, but here's the thing: GMing curse the darkness is mostly about narration and difficulty adjudication, and I'm going to include charts for the latter. The former, well, everyone, including all the players, will know at the outset what the stakes and goals are for that session (or story). How? Read on.

Story Creation: At the beginning of play, you draw four cards. The first one indicates what He wants and on what scale. So the suit indicates what the target is (same ideas as the attributes; Focus, Humanity, Stamina, Stability) and the number indicates the scale: Ace is one person, all the way up to a whole city. (I have charts for all of this, which I'm not going to reproduce here, though I'll be happy to post an example.)

Next card is the Between Card, and that indicates how many Between Points the GM starts with and how many are necessary to get His attention. What this means, basically, is how important this mission is to Him - the higher the number, the more points are necessary (and thus the less important this is to Him - or maybe it means that characters are better hidden? That's for the group to interpret).

Third card is the Situation Card, which is basically "where are we when this all starts?" Suit breaks down like it does for Scenario, the number raises the tension of the situation. So the ace of spades is the end of a sprint to catch a target (physical in nature, but not a lot of Between-related danger) while the king of spades is an armed firefight between two factions (which adds a Between Point right off the bat, it's so risky).

Finally, the Complication card adds a wrinkle into things. Might be a natural disaster, a sugar crash, the sudden arrival of another group of rebels from the Between. The GM keeps it secret and the players can ask the GM to play it any time to reduce the number of Between Points in front of the GM. Or, the GM can cash in a black joker, if he has one, to introduce it (but more importantly, screw the players out of the chance to do so).

So! That's where we're at. Been trying to playtest this, but life, weather and illness haven't been cooperative. Next Monday, I hope. :)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

[ctd] Playtest B

Maybe I should summarize the changes we made last week?

Death and Memory: We had some deaths, though we haven't been able to test the Memory system yet because the deaths occurred at the end of the session. We did, however, decide that players should get a play mat, rather than a character sheet, and then use an index card (or I'll probably make a character pad and sell it cheap-like with the book) to make the character. Once I make a mock-up, this will make more sense, but the idea is that the players can make one character at the start of a session, and then make another (just distribute the numbers and define one Scope, but nothing else) that they can pick up in the midst of the session if their first character dies. We also talked about taking over NPCs, and decided that players should absolutely have the option of taking on an NPC (and thus statting him up real quick, with the GM giving some input for Scopes and the like).

We also talked about letting players play a red joker to switch characters without having their existing one die.

Between Points: On that subject, NPCs opening gates does add to the Between point total.

Removal Challenges: Some good changes here.

  • If you've got a relevant Scope during a Removal Challenge, you can draw an extra card during Resolution (this rule worked out nicely, because it gives you a fighting chance and makes burning Memory to remove cards from the deck more useful).
  • We need to nail down the order of players who draw during the Resolution of a Removal Challenge. I'm planning to say "common sense," but it just needs to be addressed in the book.
  • I'm thinking that 8 aces is too much to form the basis of the Resolution deck; gonna try it with 4 next time.
  • A Removal Challenge refreshes all decks for all survivors.
  • We removed the Reserve deck entirely. We're just using two cards from any that the player has access to to form the Resolution, plus the aces.
  • A suggested rule: The GM and the players each choose four cards, one from each suit (if they have 'em) and turn them over at the same time. No escalation unless the GM plays a black joker, or maybe just ditch that rule entirely.
  • Another thing to try out: You can donate a result card if you're involved in a Removal challenge with another player (or request one). So if I draw a heart and that means I'm safe, but another player draws a spade and that means they're fucked and I'm OK with dying but they aren't, we can swap. We have to make that make sense in the context of the game, but that's not usually hard.


Character Challenges: If you go from a four to a king, there should be some roleplaying accompanying that. It can be as simple as "second wind," but players should use that progression to flesh out their characters more.

Card-Caps: Characters can accept a card-cap voluntarily (in our game, Matt's character was blind, and so he had a cap on actions requiring sight). We decided that when such a cap comes up and hinders a character, the GM loses a Between point.

OK, next step: I want to make up a playtest packet that I can send out to other folks.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Breakdown of Society

He removed ethnicity, religion, politics, economics and all of the other artificial divisions we'd made for ourselves. He forced them out of us. He killed those that didn't comply, and that result in a dip in the world's population that's nothing short of surreal. He commanded us to use our skills, whatever they might be, for the good of all humanity. And then He disappeared, maybe into the Between, maybe on some now-depopulated estate somewhere.

It's easy to picture Him in a dark room somewhere, maybe one of the Hindu temples in India, nothing but rats and Them around, looking through a thousand shadows, searching for hints of dissent.

But as the world's gotten smaller, he has to look harder. The number of people has shrunk, but not the number of shadows. You just don't see Them as often anymore. You don't see shadows opening randomly.

It's not that He's gone. He makes his presence felt. The fact that the Symbol still works is evidence of that, because I firmly believe that They would kill anyone in the Between without His will to keep them back. That said, when I've been in the Between lately, I've felt something different. There's a hunger that wasn't there before, and I don't know if that means His grip is slipping or if He just doesn't care as much.

If He has any conscience at all, any concept of the billions of lives He ended and what that really means... I hate to say it, but I really hope He doesn't. I think we might need Him.

Remember?

curse the darkness

Thursday, September 9, 2010

[ctd] Setting - What do characters do?

OK, the long-awaited post on what characters do.

Lemme tell you, I've been dreading this post. Not because I don't have any ideas, because I do. But because...hell, I don't know. Because I hate explaining things like this. I hate telling people what my stories are about; I'd rather you read the story. "Mistress" isn't really about dogs, it's about loyalty and submission, but when I tell people about it, I usually say it's about dogs. Argh.

Anyway, curse the darkness is a game about what's important. It's about survival and about freedom, and which you choose when you're really up against the wall. It's about a world where stupidity really does get punished...but how that reveals that all of us have our blind spots. It's about memory and which details of people stick with us.

So how does that translate into the game itself? Well, let's consider the setting. The world is largely fucked. Some years ago, He showed up and killed off many of the most powerful people in the world. World leaders, military leaders (both of official and unofficial armies), CEOs, religious leaders, drug kingpins and anyone else who had built a cult of personality and was using it to exploit, all vanished or died openly. Monuments to ideology were destroyed, starting with obvious stuff like the Dome of the Rock and St. Peter's because it's obvious. He completely annihilated Jerusalem, and used that as the staging ground to reveal Himself.

Then He made the Riyadh Address, in which He outlined the rules for the world. No more religion, no more ideology. The whole of the law, basically, was that you did what you could and you took care of the rest of the world - one race, one planet, one nation. Except that He backed that up with "or else you're dead," and He only ever delivered the Address in English. It was translated and retranslated, and yes, it spread across the world, but it wasn't always delivered in pure form. It hasn't reached everywhere, and it's not enforced evenly everywhere.

Overt displays of religiosity or fervent belief in a...well, belief system, spiritual, economical or otherwise are a good way to get killed. Covert displays aren't safe, either, but they're safer for longer. Entrenched belief dies hard...but it's dying, because He's been killing off the people who are willing to fight for it. Parents take a big risk by teaching their kids to pray, because as any parent knows, kids don't know when to keep their mouths shut. You instruct your kids to believe in God and they say something at the wrong time, He might hear, and if He hears, They aren't far behind.

But quite beyond that, the world is in shambles. In some places, basic amenities like water and power still happen, because people are willing to go to work and produce them. But officially, money is verboten, and that means you don't get paid for your work. You're supposed to have everything provided for you by providing for everyone - if people were involved in production before, they still should be, only now they're doing it because that's how they keep their part of the world running. And in some places, that might happen, at least for a while.

But remember Office Space, and the discussion about the hypothetical "what would you do with a million dollars" question? Michael's response is that it's a bullshit question, because if everyone went by that there'd be no janitors, because no one would clean up shit if they had a million dollars. And something similar happened here - the people on the other side of the world are out of sight, out of mind. There's some import/export because you can Open a gateway (Openers aren't uncommon, but no one knows how common they really are) and go anywhere, but people are afraid to cross the Between. Communities grow insular because it's hard to sustain a larger community (every person not working is a burden on those who do), but people are afraid to set up any kind of working system for fear He'll take issue with it. As a result, people live hand to mouth, people steal, people kill and prey on each other.

Now, why doesn't He prevent it? He does...if He knows about it. But despite what people believe, He can't see everything at once. Life in this world is a constant fear that He's going to open a shadow at exactly the wrong moment, peak in and hear you say "thank God" or something out of reflex and send Them to kill you. Life in this world is fighting for food, shelter and other basic necessities, and then worrying once you get them that He'll see and figure you're hoarding. Mortality rate is high, and it's small victories that matter.

But I want PCs to be outside that, in some ways. There's got to be some resistance, people that figure that if they can learn enough about the Between, about Them, Him and what's happened to the world, maybe they can change it. I want the PCs to have some hope, and to have some reason to be brave. So a game of cure the darkness might involve hooking up with other resistors, transporting data, trying to get people established and communities running smoothly (so there's a base of operations), figuring out how the Between works and under what circumstances the Symbol works and doesn't, and other such dangerous work.

Need some suggestions, here. Brainstorm with me, folks. Oh, and you can read the existing curse the darkness posts by clicking here and working backwards.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Rules summary to playtest A

I'm running a playtest game of curse the darkness on Friday. As such, I need to note the workings of the system as I'm seeing it now. This post is mostly just for summary's sake. What I would like from the dedicated band of systems tinkerers (and man, you guys are awesome) isn't so much suggestions on how to change the system, but on what I'm missing that needs to be there so I can run the game.

So:

Chargen:

  • Distribute 10 points between Focus, Stability, Stamina and Humanity. Minimum is 1, max is 5.
  • Define Scopes (1 per point in Attributes) - optional.
  • Sacrifice a point in Humanity to be an Opener, or a point in anything to have a cool piece of gear that's hard to come by.
  • Name and quick description.


Game Setup:

  • Decks: 1/player (Character decks) + 1 (Reserve deck), and 1 for the GM. GM's deck is shuffled and set aside.
  • All aces removed from Character decks. Separate into suits, shuffle suits, deal out cards to each player equal to Attribute for the appropriate suit (Hearts = Humanity, Spades = Stamina, Clubs = Stability, Diamonds = Focus).
  • The rest of the character cards are kept separated for Refreshes.
  • Players choose one card at random from each suit to be the Action card for that Attribute. It is placed face up in the appropriate slot on the sheet, with the other cards of that suit face down below it.
  • Players each draw X cards from the Reserve deck (x = number of players, excluding GM) and place them face down in their Reserve.


Character Challenges:

  • GM describes the situation requiring the Challenge (or player initiates). GM assigns a difficulty, which he may or may not tell the player, depending on the situation.
  • Player can: Play the current Action card in that Attribute (equal to/higher than difficulty succeeds, card is discarded, top Action card revealed); play the Action card from a different Attribute at a higher difficulty (GM's discretion; otherwise plays the same way); play the Action card but pay a Memory point to keep it; play the Action card but keep it (only if the card value > difficulty by 3 or more).
  • A player can expend multiple cards on a Character Challenge if the Challenge is within a character's Scope.
  • A player can expend a card with a lower value than the difficulty. By itself, this means the character fails at the action, but the player can use this as an opportunity to get shed of a low card or to define a Scope.
  • Player can use Character Challenges to define Scopes. A player that does so receives a Memory point. The GM can require a Scope for specialized knowledge, but the player still gets the point.
  • If player has no cards in an Attribute (he is Exhausted), he may draw a card from his Reserve (Exhaustion Draw). If it is the correct suit, he can keep it. If it's not, he can pay a Memory point or give the GM a Between point to keep it. He can keep drawing until he gets the right suit, but this depletes the Reserve.


Removal Challenges:

  • GM assesses which players are initially involved in the challenge. GM draws 5 cards from the GM's Deck, adds them to any cards gained from Memory point expenditure.
  • GM describes the situation. Player(s) explain responses. GM plays a card of a given suit, player responds. This continues until all four suits are represented (either party can pass, and you don't have to play even if you can). Players can "open" a suit. At this point, the player can up the stakes by playing a new card of any suit. When the players pass, the GM can play one more card.
  • Player of highest card in a suit defines it, starting with the highest card on the table (ties go: Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, Spades). Definitions are: Fail/leave, succeed/leave, fail/stay, succeed/stay.
  • If a suit isn't represented, it is defined last. If two aren't represented, the GM defines them both.
  • Resolution deck is composed of aces from the Character decks + the highest cards from Suit Assignment + two cards from the Reserve decks of all involved players + 2 cards from the GM. GM can spend Between points to remove cards from the deck before drawing, players can spend Memory points to do the same.
  • Players cannot choose not to put cards into the Resolution deck. They must put two cards from the Reserve (if they have them), though they can choose which ones.
  • Players and GM can choose the cards their removing before the Resolution Draw (so you choose the suit you're removing, otherwise it doesn't make much sense).
  • Active player draws for Resolution. Players can choose to draw for their own Resolution or accept another player's. Player that assigned that suit gets narration rights.


Memory and Between:

  • Players can give the GM Between points. Doing so allows a player to keep a card during Exhaustion draw, to Refresh a pile (points equal to the Attribute), or the Reserve (2 points).
  • Players can spend Memory points for any of those things, as well as spending Memory to remove cards from the Resolution Deck.
  • Every time the players spend a Memory point, the GM draws a card and sets it aside for use in Removal Challenge.
  • Players get Memory points for bringing up and discussing fallen characters, for discussing their own histories, for defining Scopes or for helping to define the world.
  • Players are not permitted to take notes on other characters.
  • Shutting down a Memory exchange grants the GM a Between point, but it allows the player in question to change the Action card on the appropriate Attribute.


Jokers:

  • Jokers beat any other card, except another Joker (black jokers win ties).
  • If a player draws a black joker, he immediately passes it to the GM and something unpleasant happens to him.
  • If a player draws a red joker, he can keep it or put it on the table. If he puts it on the table, he gets to swap out any one of his Action cards or discard the active one and draw a new one (and take his chances). No Between point for that. Doing so increases any existing card-caps by one. Any player can use that joker, but only once.
  • The player can use a red joker to Refresh any pile on the table, even if they don't control it.
  • The GM can use a black joker only in Removal challenges.


Refresh/Redraw/Discards:

  • If an Attribute pile is empty, you can do an Exhaustion Draw from the Reserve.
  • If the Reserve is empty, you can spend 2 Memory points or a red joker to Refresh it.
  • Reserve is automatically Refresh after a Removal Challenge.
  • Character decks get discarded by suit. Reserve gets discarded separately and reshuffled when there's no deck to draw from.


Assists:

  • A player can assist another player, donating an Action card during a Character Challenge at a -2 penalty to the face value (so it's usually more economical to just take on the Challenge yourself, but that might not always be possible).
  • During a Removal Challenge, a player can donate cards from his Reserve to make up the difference for a player that doesn't have 2 card in his Reserve, but the total is always 2 Reserve cards/player (before spending Memory to remove them).


Items:

Openers:

Sunday, September 5, 2010

System 1.1

Some really good suggestions from the last post. To wit:

One thing that I was concerned about, and from the comments rightly so, is that there just aren't enough cards in one deck to use suit the way I was. In a 5-player game, if everyone gets dealt 8 cards (one for each suit, plus 4 in the Reserve) you've lost 40 of the 54 cards. There's a fair to middling chance that someone's not going to have a card of each suit, etc, etc.

Someone on my LJ points out that while my desires for the Memory system were pretty well defined, I didn't spend a lot of time talking about the way I envisioned other systems running. So let's think about that:

Where non-lethal conflicts are involved, I want players to be able to succeed if they want to. I hate the "chuckle behind the screen" model of GMing. I like torturing players with twists in plot and the eventual realization of the consequences of their own actions, when it's thematic (which it may not be here), but the point is, I like it when the players make the story happen. One of the reason I like GUMSHOE so much is that this is built into the system - you get the facts, but you have to figure out the truth.

So for curse the darkness, I want non-lethal conflicts' success to be mostly determined by the player. Failure is useful because it can be memorable, which can help the group later (after you die). Success is useful on its own merits. And I know that players might deliberately fail at a non-lethal action just to get a bad card out of their Action slot, especially if it's the kind of the thing that another player can pop in and say, "Hang on, I'm good at this" and throw down a king. And that's fine - I'm good with people using the system like that. That's what it's there for.

Ooh, I got it. I want non-lethal conflicts to help define characters. Tell you what I mean.

I'm playing a character who (currently) has a king in Focus. We find a survivor (maybe a new PC) who just popped through the Between and fell onto some debris, breaking his leg. Setting the bone is a Focus action, the GM sets that at 10 because it requires specialized knowledge and we don't have the right tools to hand, but again, I've got a king there. My character steps forward, says, "OK, calm down. I'm going to help you."

Now - why does my character know how to do this? I need to figure that out, because someone in the group is going to ask.

"How the hell do you know how to set a bone, Jack?" one of the other PCs asks.

"Well," says Jack, "Dad took us off the grid right after Jerusalem. We lived up in the mountains in Tennessee, and Dad taught my sister and I all kinds of stuff like this. Setting bones, what plants are edible, building fires, trapping."

"Cool," says the other character. "How'd your Dad know all that stuff? He in the Army?"

Jack shrugs. "Actually, I don't know how he knew. Dad wasn't the kind of guy who talked about himself."

We have now defined a great deal about Jack's life, and, you guessed it, this will be of great help later when he dies and folks need to remember him.

Now, right off the bat, I can see an issue forming: If I have a high card in a stat, I'm god. If I have a low card, I'm for shit. The fact that this can happen quickly is actually OK with me - you can get second winds, you can push yourself or run out of gas, and that's fine. But what I do worry about is that a guy with a King in Focus, for instance, is a surgeon as well as a genius and mapmaker and everything else.

So, with that in mind, here's a revised system:

You still have the same four stats: Focus, Stability, Stamina and Humanity. They still mean the same things. But each of those stats has a numerical value, 1 to 5. That's the number of cards you can have in that Action's slot. When you create a character, you get 10 points to spread out. For each point in an Action slot, you can put down one...defining point (I need a better name. "Scope" comes to mind, as in "scope of practice"). You can do these during chargen, but it's perhaps better to do them in play.

So let's take Jack, up there. He's got, let's say, Focus 3. When he tells his little history, I jot down "survivalist training" under Focus (that could also work under Stamina, if I wanted to double up, which is acceptable - maybe even advisable). This defines the scope of my training. It means that while Jack might be good to set a broken bone, he's not going to be performing appendectomies anytime soon, no matter what my active card in Focus is.

Also, having multiple cards in a given Action allows for better use of Refreshes. Offhand, let's say I can spend a Memory point to Refresh any given Action slot. I'd need to burn more Memory to Refresh all of my Action slots (that might also happen, as Jon suggests, when something important happens in-game - after someone dies might be a good idea).

And, obviously, one deck isn't going to be enough. One possibility is one deck stays broken down into suits, and one deck remains shuffled all together. I don't know what I'd use that breakdown for, but it's there.

Lethal Actions: OK, when you're taking a lethal action, it means you stand a good chance of dying or otherwise being removed from the game. As I may have said, mostly that'll involve dealing with Them, but getting into firefights with loyalists and the like works, too. So how's this gonna work?

Lethal actions have two phases, Exchange and Resolution. In the Exchange phase, you either win or lose quickly. If you win, you get to assign a suit to one of the four outcomes (which are, remember, escape but fail, escape and succeed, die and fail, die and succeed). If you lose, the GM makes that assignment. After an Exchange, the winner can attempt to force a Resolution.

When Resolution happens, the player takes a card at random from his Reserve. This determines the outcome. The odds are already stacked in favor of death, which I want, but this gives the player a little bit of edge - the GM doesn't necessarily know what's in the player's Reserve.

OK, so two issues right off the bat: 1) What if I have no cards in my Reserve? and 2) What if the Resolution pulls up a card that hasn't been defined in an Exchange?

Well, 1 is easy enough. If you run out of cards in you Reserve, maybe you automatically draw X cards. Maybe you draw the top card of the player's deck - or choose randomly from the GM's hand or deck. Either way, if you don't have a Reserve you have no idea how to play the Exchange.

But what if you Resolve but draw a suit that isn't defined? One option: The player defines it with one of the options left open. That might be good or it might utterly fuck you.

OK, we need to figure out how Exchanges work. They need to be quick, so let's make it a straight-up high card wins kind of thing. The GM puts down a card and says what's happening. The player puts down a card from one of his Action slots and says his response (this allows the player to either win or lose right away). The winner then defines an outcome, and can force an outcome by immediately playing a second card that beats the winning card (any suit).

Concrete example, for the love of God. OK, so let's say Jack slipped into the Between and now They are coming for him. This is a lethal conflict - Jack basically needs to get away before They catch him (once They catch you, you're done). The GM plays a 6 of hearts (suit is actually not relevant for GM purposes), and says, very simply, that They are slithering out of the Between and coming toward Jack.

I respond by playing a 7 of hearts from my Stamina slot. I say that Jack runs back toward the opening, hoping that it's still there and that I can make it somewhere safe. Maybe They won't chase me. I won the Exchange, so I get to define a suit.

In my Reserve, I have four card, three diamonds and a spade. I've obviously got the best chance of drawing a diamond, so I define diamonds as "escape and succeed." If I have an 8 or better handy, I can force Resolution. It's actually in my best interest to do that if I can, because I've got such a good chance of getting away. I play an 8 of something out of one of my Action slots, force Resolution, and the GM picks a card at random from my hand. If he draws a diamond, I'm home free - Jack gets out of the Opening, They don't chase him, and we're golden.

But that's too easy. Let's say the GM draws the spade. Spades aren't defined, so I now have to define them as one of the other three options. Assuming I like Jack and I don't want to make a new character (and you never know, sometimes it might feel like a dramatically appropriate thing to let a character die), I should choose "escape but fail."

This is a weird situation, in that "succeed" here means "escape", but I suspect that's really not going to be all that uncommon. OK, so moving on, I say that spades means "escape but fail." So I get to the opening, but They do follow me through. The circumstances have changed significantly (we're out of the Between, there might be more characters about, etc.). So what's happened, here?

Obviously if there's not an easy definition to the "succeed/fail" portion of the scene, then "fail" should fuck you in some non-lethal way. I'm OK with it leading to another lethal action scene, though maybe any cards already defined should stay defined? Like, Jack's outside, the circumstances are different, but we immediately enter a new scene but keep diamonds and spades the way they are? Yes, that favors Jack just at present, but that won't always be the case. Or maybe we enter a new scene and ditch the original definitions.

I think, at this point, I'm drifting beyond the level that pure discussion is helpful. Need to playtest.

Before that, I need to consider the important question: What do characters do? But that's another post.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

More systems

OK, try this:

Each character has five slots on the character sheet. Normally, four of them can only have one card at a time (Actions) while the fifth (Reserve) can have any number. The PCs share a deck, while the GM has a deck all to himself. Both decks have both jokers. For sake of argument right now, let's call the four actions Focus (diamonds), Stability (hearts), Stamina (clubs) and Humanity (spades).

Focus: If you've got a high Focus, you can apply your mental faculties to the task at hand. Covers remembering facts, finding your way through an unfamiliar (or formerly familiar) area, performing medical procedures (though this might be combined with Stability), and coming up with plans. If you've got a low Focus, it doesn't mean you're stupid, it means you're fried, hungry, tired, whatever, and your brain just isn't online right now.

Stability: If your Stability is high, it means you're coping well with the world. Yes, it sucks, but you're able to push the horror of the situation out for now and do what needs to be done. You'd make Stability actions when coping with loss, blood, death, grief, addiction and things that just scare the crap out of you. If your Stability is low, you just cannot cope anymore, and you might get too loud, cry, feel suicidal or just shut down.

Stamina: Physical tolerance. If it's high, you can run, carry, lift, engage in non-lethal combat (like restraining a low-Stability PC), defuse a bomb (again, probably also involving Stability). If it's high, your muscles are burning, your lungs are bursting for air, your heart is pounding, or maybe you're just so fucking exhausted that you can't even lift your arms.

Humanity: If this one's high, you can deal with people. Not the people in your group specifically (but them, too), but everyone. You see humanity as worth saving, and you've got some hope for the future. You'd use this Action to convince people you don't know to follow a plan, to counsel another person through a tough time, and probably some other stuff I'm not thinking of right now. If you've got a low Humanity, you're being really misanthropic and emo. It's not that it's not understandable, of course. You're making tasteless comments about the destruction of Jerusalem or any of the other massacres that have taken place, and you just don't give a shit that your friend lost his wife because she forgot and crossed herself on impulse.

OK, so, you've got a card in each of these. The higher the card, the better you're doing. When the game starts, you draw X cards and assign four to these Actions, and keep the rest in Reserve. You cannot refresh the cards in your Reserve until it's empty (normally). It makes sense to start off with higher cards across the board, if you're starting from a place of strength and respite. If you're coming into the game already on the run, maybe having one or two low cards isn't a bad idea. Also, say I wanted to play a character who is a dedicated misanthrope, or has a physical handicap of some kind, or who has ADD and can't focus, or whatever? I might never put a card higher than 5 in that Action, and consistently fail those types of things.

Now, why would I do that? Because it'll make my character easier to Remember. It might not be the nicest thing in the world if the other characters make use of my character's Memory by calling to mind how he almost got us killed because his gimpy leg made him slow, but it's a legitimate memory of the character and it'll work to allow refreshes and whatnot. Actually, I'm getting ahead of myself.

When a character takes a non-lethal action, the player plays a card from one of the Actions. It doesn't matter what suit, though the number can be higher or lower as a kind of "setting difficulty." If all four of your Actions are low numbers, you're tired, wasted, emotionally beaten down and you're seeing movement in the shadows even if there is none.

It's possible for Actions to require more than one type of suit. For instance, say my character is trying to defuse a bomb, for whatever reason. I need Stamina to cover the manual dexterity of it all, but also Stability because I'm freaking right the fuck out (this assumes my character knows how to disarm a bomb, but I'll get to that). The GM says I need a 5 or better in Stability (not so bad; that's 10 cards that are successes and only 3 that aren't, not counting jokers) and a 9 or better in Stamina.

(Now this is actually a bad example because if the bomb goes off, that'll kill me, which is pretty much the opposite of a "non-lethal" situation. But I think what would happen then is that the situation becomes Lethal, and we make everyone who's not at a safe distance take a Lethal action, which we'll get to).

If you can't or won't play a card at difficulty, you fail the action. Failing a non-lethal Action cannot lead to a character dying or otherwise leaving the game. It can result in injury, card-caps, and a situation immediately turning lethal.

Card-Caps: Say you go to jump across a gap in a bridge and the GM tells you "take a Stamina action." He doesn't tell you the difficulty because it's dark and you can't see how far it is to the other side. You take a leap of faith, and are immediately rewarded with an object lesson in how stupid an idea that is. Your character falls and lands badly. Your Stamina is capped at, say, six. You immediately check your Refresh for a heart of 6 or lower. If there aren't any, another player can (but does not have to) donate one. If that doesn't work, you just don't have a card in Stamina and you can't take Stamina actions until you can heal up (until there's some kind of Refresh happening). If They choose that moment to pop out of the shadows and come from your group, you stand a much better chance of dying.

Refreshes: When the PCs' deck runs out of cards and one player runs out of cards in his Reserve, all discarded cards are reshuffled.

Players can use Memories to force a Refresh.

A player can spend a red joker to force a Refresh.

Memory: You can Remember a dead or gone character at any time. It has to be stated in character, however (in soliloquy counts). Example: The unfortunate bridge-jumper (let's call him Bob) from above died shortly thereafter; he couldn't run fast enough to get away from Them. My character (who apparently survived his ill-advised bomb defuse attempt), is sitting on a pile of debris, other surviving characters nearby. My character reaches into his pocket and pulls out a photo. "Bob's kids," my character says. "He gave me this picture before he jumped. I guess I forgot to give it back in the confusion afterwards."

Now, at this point, my GM gives me a Memory, probably in the form of a chit or glass bead or something.

Another player picks up the cue. "Did he mention their names?"

A third player glances down at her sheet. She's currently got a 3 of Spades in Humanity. "Who gives a fuck? They're dead anyway."

That's a dick move. If it's a big enough dick move - like, it changes the topic of conversation and we drift away from Bob and his kids, the moment is lost and we can't follow the Memory more, that player gets to make a Swap on her sheet, changing out a bad card (including that Humanity) for a better card in her Refresh. She doesn't lose the bad card, she just tucks it back into her Refresh. If the other players ignore her and keep talking about Bob, that doesn't happen.

But let's say she doesn't take the dick move, and says, "I know the older one is Andy. I can't remember the little girl's name, but I remember he said she was named after her aunt."

Holy shit. That's two more Memory points, and the player that asked the question ("what were their names?") gets one, too, for setting it up (which wouldn't have happened if the third player had shut down the conversation).

So obviously it's possible to get lots of Memory points for free-form conversation. It's up to the GM when a Memory conversation has run its course, but there will be some guidelines. But here's the deal about Memory - you can't just make it up. You can misremember details (maybe it wasn't Andy, it was Adam), but you cannot make up another character's story. And, the player cannot write down these details. The player has to be memorable enough in her portrayal of a character for the other players to be able to use that Memory later.

Yes, that means characters are going to blur together in a long game where lots of people die. Yes, that means players have to pay attention, put their goddamn phones down and stop texting, and interact. Yes, that means you need to think about the specifics of your character's situation and how to bring that out. And, yes, that means this game rewards freeform, conversational RP. All of those things are things I want for curse the darkness.

The GMs' Deck: The GM has one deck, but reshuffles as needed. The GM does not normally play cards during non-lethal actions, though sometimes characters will take contested actions and it becomes "beat this card" rather than "beat this difficulty." During Lethal scenes is where the GM really gets to use cards.

The GM has a hand equal to the (number of players) x 1.5, rounding up, so 6 cards for a four-player game. The GM, like the players, does not draw to replace lost cards - he needs a Refresh for that. The GM gets a Refresh when:

He's out of cards.

Someone ends a Memory conversation in order to better their own situation (the "dick move", which will need a real name).

The GM uses a black joker for whatever reason (the Refresh is just a bonus).

A PC dies or leaves the game.

Jokers: Red jokers are good for players. Black jokers are good for the GM. When a red joker comes up in a players' hand, he can do one of two things with it: Keep it or put it on the table. If he keeps it, it becomes part of his Actions or Refresh as usual, and beats any other card except a black joker. If he puts it on the table, any player can use it to force a Refresh for the players, or any player can use it in an Action (non-lethal or lethal). Any player who puts a red joker on the table gets a Swap, but unlike a Swap gained for a "dick move," a joker-induced Swap you can use to discard a crappy card and draw a new one from the deck (so it might not get better, but then again, it might).

If a player draws a black joker, it immediately gets passed to the GM, and the player that drew it redraws. The GM should immediately do something unpleasant to the character that drew the black joker; a temporary card-cap is one possibility. Whatever is done, it should relate to Them or the Between in some way.

If the GM draws a red joker, it immediately goes on the table for use by the players. Any existing card-caps increase by one (that is, if you were capped at 3, you're now capped at 4) as the characters get a second wind.

If the GM draws a black joker, he keeps it out on the table for future use.

Lethal conflicts: Hokay. I said before that lethal conflicts have one of four outcomes: You die but fail, you die but succeed, you escape but fail, you escape but succeed. Here's the deal: In lethal conflicts, the usual suit breakdown doesn't apply. You are fighting for your life, and so you are using everything you have available to you. Running out of cards in the players' deck doesn't force a Refresh during a lethal conflict, but using a red joker or Memory points will work.

If They are the opponents, usually everyone's involved because you can't really hide from Them. If you're fighting, say, a bunch of loyalists with guns, then it's feasible that one character might hide and wait it out, and is therefore not involved. If you're not involved, you can jump in, but until you do, you can't assist.

More on lethal conflicts when I return from Teagan's first day of soccer. Meantime, anybody spots any obviously holes, punch through 'em.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Systems

So, I've been thinking about curse the darkness a lot lately. One of the things I've been thinking about is using cards as the random element, rather than dice. I know gamers like their dice, but I also know that you can grab probability from a deck just as easily as a dice bag, and I have some ideas about using suit and number that make cards more ideal for what I want.

The other thing I've been considering is that I'd like two types of conflict resolution. For the moment, call them "non-lethal" and "lethal."

A non-lethal conflict is pass/fail. You know the fact or you don't. You find the clue or you don't (and with all due respect to Robin Laws and the awesome GUMSHOE system, if the game goes off the rails because a player missed an investigation roll, the problem is with the GM, not the game). The stakes in this kind of conflict are non-lethal and, for the most part, binary. Yes/no, pass/fail.

A lethal conflict, though, has four possible outcomes: You escape and succeed, you escape but fail, you die but succeed, you die but fail.

That is, you've got a 50/50 shot of living through this, and a 50/50 shot of failing. This kind of conflict gets used for life-and-death conflicts, or, more specifically, conflicts with Them.

I want conflicts with Them to be a bad idea on the face of it. Unavoidable, sure, but if you're fighting Them directly, you're going to die sooner or later. That's why He was able to conquer the world so quickly - He controls Them. You can still "win" in the sense that you can achieve the goal of a given conflict, but odds are even that you won't live through it. And I want high mortality, here, which I know is going to turn some people off.

But see, here's the thing. One of the things I like about Chill is the lethality. Most creatures of the Unknown aren't vulnerable to bullets, and a lot of them can kill you easily. For people who are risking their lives because it's the right thing to do, that kind of lethality is appropriate. In a lot of games, it's not, because the protagonists are the PCs and so on. But in curse the darkness, I want character creation to be fast and life to be short.

I also want some kind of trait that lets people draw on your character memory after s/he's gone.

Anyway, just my thoughts for now. More coming.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Loyalty

He doesn't have any "followers."

If He did, mind, I'm sure they'd be the worst combination of bullies and zealots you could find. I'm sure they would look for people trying to pray in their basements, or teach their kids about what life was like before, or set up some kind of system of ownership.

I'm sure they'd be scrupulously non-violent, but irritating and inflammatory as all Hell, just pushing already stressed-out people to the breaking point. I'm sure they'd be happy to take a punch in the gut or a broken nose in exchange for trigger Their approach to get their "attackers."

I'm sure they'd would never discuss - or even admit - their loyalty or their motives in doing what they do.

But again, He doesn't have followers. That wouldn't make sense - He has Them. Why would He need people to help Him?

And besides, wouldn't that kind of loyalty trigger His hatred of ideology?

I'm sure. I'm sure it would.

Tune in Tomorrow.

curse the darkness

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Pattern Recognition

In a primitive society, a false negative can kill you.

You're sitting around your fire at night, and you see something moving. It might be just a shadow, but it might also be a predator. Your brain says "Predator!", puts you into fight-or-flight, and your eyes resolve the shadows into the shape of a panther or whatever. And you get up and grab your spear.

There are two possibilities. One is, it's a panther, you stab it, you win, you get to pass along your genetic material because your brain saw "shadows" and made your eyes perceive "enemy." Or it's a shadow, but you saw it as a panther, so you're awake but no skin off your nose.

But if your brain says "Shadows, never mind, going back to sleep," and it's really a predator...well, you're fucked. And that's why we hear voices in the wind, see monsters in closets, and Jesus in tortillas. We're genetically designed by evolution to see patterns, specifically faces.

So when people tell you that They look human, just keep that in mind.

Tune in Tomorrow.

curse the darkness

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Them

Not everyone has seen Them. Most people think they have.

They don't come out of the shadows and lay waste to everything in Their path. They've done that exactly once, that we know of, and that was Jerusalem. Mostly, They wait for you to fall into a shadow and then They do whatever it is They do with you.

Those of us who have been to the Between have seen Their natural environment a little more closely, of course. But it's always disappointing to folks who want information to use for strategy or analysis. They're "home" is just...dark. Nothing really there. You get some sense of topography, but...well, the Between's hard to explain, and They aren't easy either, so I'll try and stay focused.

Even if you've seen Them, you probably haven't really seen Them. When we see Them, it's usually because They're dragging someone near us away. And we look straight at the person being dragged, and usually what we remember is the screaming and the terror and sometimes the abrupt snap when the...It...carrying the person decides "fuck it" and just kills him. But we're looking right at It, and the thing is that They are always shrouded in shadows.

So if you look at Them out of the corner of your eye, where the greatest concentration of rods are, you see Them better. Rods are the bits of the eye that see better in dim light, which is why your peripheral vision is better in the dark than in the light. So if you really want to see Them, you look out of the corner of your eye.

While they're dragging someone away. Yeah, I didn't think you want to see Them that badly.

But really, you want to know the worst part? Think about all the times in your life - before He took over, I mean - when you thought you saw something move in the dark? Just some little flicker of activity, just for a split second, and you looked into that corner or behind that door or under that bed and there was nothing there except shadows, and you thought, "Hell, I thought I really saw something?"

I'm betting you did. I think They were just waiting for something.

Tune in Tomorrow.

curse the darkness

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Things We Don't Talk About

We don't talk about being American, or English, or Mexican, or Canadian, or Chinese, because nations don't exist.

We don't talk about being black or white or Hispanic, because race doesn't exist. He's never specifically forbidden that (after all, some folks are different colors than others, it's just that when people mention it at all, they're usually talking culture rather than skin color), but it's considered a taboo subject. Especially after dark.

We don't talk about religion or the religions we used to follow, if any.

We don't talk about the old days. Here's why.

They never happened.

This wasn't part of His explanations of the law in Riyadh. It was something that's kind of evolved since. You don't talk about ideas of nation, race, religion and other ideologies because they were never valid to begin with. God never existed, so there's no point harping on what people used to believe. Nations were never more than people standing on a patch of dirt and screaming "Ours!", so there's no point rehashing their slogans and songs. Race was never a valid reason to deny or extend anything to other people, so there's no point mentioning it.

As usual, He's got a point, but the larger issue overshadows it. Maybe he's right that nations, religion and race are artificial constructs, but that doesn't mean they weren't important or that there's no value in studying them. And even ignoring that, the fact of the matter is that they were worth killing and dying for, to a lot of people for a lot of years. And now He's saying, "Forget these parts of yourself ever existed, or else the monsters come in the night and kill you."

It's been 10 years, don't forget. Slowly but surely, They are taking out the people who just can't let go. The fire, the passion, the desire to stand and fight is becoming a less desirable trait.

Call it "unnatural selection."

Tune in Tomorrow.

curse the darkness

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Whole of the Law

He delivered it in English, of course. In His weird, non-accent accent, He stood in Riyadh, flanked by an army of Them, and told us how it was going to be.

It wasn't short. There are recordings, of course, and for a while it was just a matter of searching them online, but now that "online" doesn't mean the same thing as it once did, that's not as easy to arrange.

In that address, He explained Himself as clearly and concisely as He ever would. To my knowledge, He hasn't spoken since. Most of what He said was clarification on His statement three hours before Jerusalem. Ideology was the problem. Believing in something so strongly that you lost sight of what was real. Pursuit of an ideal, even when that ideal was untenable and counterproductive.

He made it clear He wasn't interested in debate. He wasn't interested in hearing about people's "right to believe." He mentioned, somewhere in that speech, while the world watched and tried to understand, that He couldn't control what anyone believed. But He could damn well keep them from acting in accordance with those "outdated, moronic, Bronze-Age ideals."

Mostly, He was talking about religion. But if you listened to the address, you started to understand: It wasn't just religion He wanted to dismantle.

He wanted a world where people realized that money wasn't actually worth anything. He wanted a world where people treated each other like people, related to each other on a direct, one-to-one kind of level, rather than seeing the vast majority of others as "them." He wanted a world in which greed, possessions, entitlement, victimization, were all gone.

Naturally, pretty much every major religion and government (what was left of them) stood up and said, "But that's what we wanted all along!"

More realistic folks stood up and said, "Um...how is this going to work?"

It's been 10 years. It's not working. But you can't say that too loud.

Tune in Tomorrow

curse the darkness

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Meaning of the Symbol

He never tried to keep people out of the Between. Of course, He never warned anyone, either, but that's sort of His way in a nutshell - do what you want, as long as what you want isn't clashing with the way the world should be.

Openers learned very quickly that the Between was useful, but not safe. And He set up the Symbol...maybe five years after Jerusalem. Like a lot of events of the time, it just kind of happened, and most of the world didn't see it until it was already there. But it was there, if people had been looking.

The Symbol is...well, it looks kind of like a spiral, or a loop, or a series of loops. I don't know. It's hard to describe. People define it in terms of symbols from their own culture. What letter it looks like, what alchemical symbols. Runes, Egyptian hieroglyphics, symbols from the Mayan calendar (even though we're well past that expiration date). But I think it's just something He made up. What frustrates people about the Symbol is that you can't cheat with it.

They know the intent behind the Symbol. That's the only way to explain it. If you're just using it to try and sneak through the Between and hook up with other resistance-types, They'll kill you. If you're using the Symbol to get through the Between to deliver a letter or something, They let you by. If you're delivering a letter and hooking up with resistance...well, then you're trusting your luck a little. They might kill you. They might not. And if there's a way to make this reliable, to really use the Symbol to your benefit, I don't know the secret.

It all points to Them communicating in ways other than what we use. Letters are symbols, of course, and depending on the nature of the symbol system a letter can stand for a concept or a sound. In English, letters stand for sounds and we group them together into words. In other systems, they stand for concepts, and as concepts are grouped you get bigger and more complicated concepts. But I think They understand symbols on a deeper, or more complex level - They know, somehow, what the intent was when the Symbol was made. I have no idea how that might work.

But if you watch the footage from Cheyenne Mountain, you can see Him nodding, almost imperceptibly, to the shadows around him. Acknowledgment of Their presence? Subtle, silent commands?

Like I said, that's His real power. Communicating with Them. We always assume He's controlling Them, but what if He is just the one person out of billions that They can understand?

Tune in Tomorrow.

curse the darkness

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The symbol

I heard about an Opener who got the Passage Symbol tattooed on his arm.

His wife found his arm on their bed the next week.

You can't cheat the Symbol. Jesus. How many people have to die before-

Well. Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself.

Tune in Tomorrow.

curse the darkness

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Resistance

This is the stuff I can't talk about.

All I can say is that...it's like living in every dystopian novel you've ever- Jeez, OK. The movies where there's computer security everywhere and they can track you flawlessly by a fingerprint? That, except you can't get away from it by going "off the grid." The grid isn't made of wires and nodes anymore. It's made of shadows. Anywhere you are, your body gives Him the window He needs to hear you, just by blocking light.

And, yes, the chances against Him listening in at any given time are pretty high. But when you think about how many people disappear every week, and the fact that He makes no attempt at all to hide what He's doing, you're left with two possibilities.

First, He might not be able to keep tabs on the whole world. That would make sense, right? Too much space, too many people, and He's got to sleep sometime, doesn't He? He might just grab people when He finds them (or they get reported - that's the other thing, it's not like He doesn't have followers), and takes enough people to make anyone thinking about resisting think twice.

The second possibility is scarier, but we have to consider it. He might actually be able to monitor the entire world somehow. He's already demonstrated that He can do things most Openers can't - direct two-way gates, controlling Them, expanding gates once they're open, and so on. Maybe He can listen to millions of people at once and sort through what they're saying for what He wants to hear. If so, that makes Him a savant and it makes Him even more terrifying, but honestly, my gut tells me this is what's really happening.

I say that because it's in keeping with how He's always behaved. He's never shown any desire to kill people. He's only ever killed to make a point, and He's going gone whole-hog at the very beginning, when He needed to make sure we all knew He wasn't fucking around. Since then, there haven't been any attacks on the scale of Jerusalem, and only a few on the scale of Cheyenne Mountain or Saint Peter's. He hasn't spoken to the world since the address he gave from Riyadh. Hell, to my knowledge He hasn't spoken since then.

The resistance, from what I've heard...hang on.

OK. Quick, now. From what I hear, most people who consider themselves "resistance" just want to be free to be religious again. It's a good, easy source of outrage, but it faces two big problems. First of all, it's dying out. Religion only works if people teach it to the kids, and teaching your kids about God is dangerous not only to you, but to the kids. Since there are no Churches anymore, urging you to send kids to Sunday school and give money, there's no community based on belief anymore, which is what He wanted in the first place, I think.

Second, the different religious factions still hate each other. They don't actively fight - radical Islam learned pretty quickly that any real violent activity against the West or the Jews was going to result in shadows opening up and a quick visit from Them - but they don't mingle and they don't help each other, either. And, in a show of bone-headedness that makes me want to sit down and cry, they blame each other for all of this.

They still. Blame. Each other.

Tune in Tomorrow.


curse the darkness

Thursday, April 29, 2010

I Miss Music

It's so quiet.

I used to get online and fire up Pandora or iTunes or Youtube or whatever. I'd get recommendations from my friends and I'd listen to them, I'd buy the music if I liked it. And I had such weird tastes in music, too. Run DMC rubbed shoulders with Old Crow Medicine Show. Metallica, sure. Cannibal Corpse if I feel like listening to a garbage disposal try to sing (sometimes, you do). Hell, I'll call up Beyonce or N'Sync or whatever other poppy shit I want to hear, because sometimes it's in your head and that's the only way to burn it out.

I mean, I did do that. I used to.

No one records anymore. Everyone's too scared. There's no anonymity anymore. Every shadow is a camera, and He's always watching. Yes, He doesn't send Them out for people telling the truth (though you do hear stories), but one mention of God or how it was better when you could still buy stuff or, hell, any ethnic or national sentiment...that's enough to get you killed. And there are no secrets anymore. There's only things He doesn't notice.

Everyone's terrified. They have every reason to be. And I start thinking about that, about how every shadow is a gateway, how they open seemingly at random, all hours of the day or night.

I don't even sing in the shower anymore. I hum, quietly, when I'm feeling brave. I play the music in my head. Mostly it's one song, the song that was playing when I drove by Monarch.

I drove by Monarch right before it happened. I stopped at a red light, and I saw people listening, heads out their windows. I turned off the CD and opened my window, and cocked my ear toward the Center.

I heard screaming. I heard that godawful noise that They make, though I didn't know at the time what it was. I saw the windows crack, then shatter, like they'd been heated up and then doused with cold water. And then the walls buckled and the building fell down.

The song playing on my CD player was "Imagine."

Imagine there's no Heaven. It's easy if you try.

I don't have to try.

I don't think this is what John Lennon meant.

Tune in Tomorrow.

curse the darkness

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Learning the Between

You learn about the Between the way you learn about anything. Through experimentation.

Except that experimenting can and does get you killed. The first time I went into the Between, it was with an Opener who was in his second year at UCLA. Majoring in something technical, I forget. Engineering, maybe? I don't remember. He told me that learning about the Between is like this card game he used to play, call "Mao."

I'd played Mao. It's this weird little game where you try to get rid of your cards, and talking about the rules is against the rules. So you have to learn as you go, by observation and trial and error. And you lose the first time out.

The Between is like that for Openers. They discover they can Open in response to stress. Problem is, stress attracts Them, and Openers attract Them, so stressed-out Openers usually die the first time they Open. That's one reason no one has any idea how common Openers are, or ever have been. Anyway, they Open a shadow or a dark area, and suddenly there they are, Between.

I'll describe what the Between is actually like some other time. Doing that requires thinking about it. Time in the Between is not time you want to dwell on, believe me. Logistically, the Between connects all points of darkness everywhere. An Opener can guide you through the Between to any location he has seen, as long as there's a shadow or a big enough dark patch there that he can Open to get out. Also, travel through the Between doesn't take very long; I've gone cross country in less than a minute.

Let that sink in. Gateways to anywhere. Near-instant travel. It's a miracle, right? Well, if it is, God's a sonofabitch, because the Between is home to Them. And, again, I'll talk about Them some other time.

Now, even though Openers can't control Them the way He seems to, you'd figure that this was all pretty potent, right? And it is, but still, He's got edges that the rest of us can't touch. Cheyenne Mountain showed us that.

Right after Jerusalem, Cheyenne Mountain just lit up. The big-brass generals of the Army were gone, but that's the thing about the Army, there's a chain of command. The lower-ranked officers just stepped up and someone got the brilliant idea of mounting a resistance in one of the most secure locations on the planet. It wasn't a bad idea, as plans go, but of course they didn't know what was really happening. People started flocking to Cheyenne, because it was obvious that there was activity. No one got in, but people were camped outside the installation for miles.

And then it all got quiet. Lights went out. No more movement. Everyone feared the worst. That lasted about six hours, and then the doors leading into the facility burst open.

And out He walked. It was twilight - enough light to see a bit about what was going on, but not enough for anyone to get a good clear pic of Him. He was walking through those massive doors, hands outstretched, with a wall of water on either side of him. He didn't say anything that time, He just looked out, down the mountain at the hundreds - maybe thousands - of people who just wanted somewhere safe to go.

And He let the ocean have them. He released the water, and He disappeared. The water flowed out from the mountain - from a mountain in Colorado - and washed over everyone there.

Not everyone died. Fatalities were actually pretty limited, all things considered, because the water spread so quickly. Best guess I ever heard was about 500 dead, mostly children, old folks, handicapped, folks who couldn't swim or get to higher ground. He never made a statement about Cheyenne Mountain, and most people assume what He meant by that act was, "Don't bother hiding, I can find you anywhere."

But really, I think He meant to demonstrate something to the Openers of the world. Yes, they can open gates to the Between and walk to places they could picture in a few minutes. He could open gates to any place he could visualize. And so what stops Him from opening a gateway into space and just sucking Earth's atmosphere out? What stops Him from opening a gateway to the sun during an eclipse - it's just a big shadow, right? - and burning us all to death?

I have no idea what's stopping Him. I assume, personally, it's because He figures things are OK the way they are, now.

Tune in Tomorrow.

curse the darkness

Monday, April 26, 2010

They Came for the CEOs

"THEY CAME FIRST for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

THEN THEY CAME for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

THEN THEY CAME for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

THEN THEY CAME for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up."


Everyone's heard that, either in history class or as part of some anti-government rhetoric when someone your party didn't like was in power. And it's a good sentiment, but one that folks never really understood. Or maybe His campaign to take over the world was just so different from what folks were used to that the comparison just doesn't work.

He came first for the politicians, the priests and the CEOs. He came for the people that we all hated. The people who were out of touch, who argued talking points and bottom lines when we were here on the ground working for a living. We knew that Congress was gone, and we heard - second and third hand, usually - that the richest and most powerful people in the world were just disappearing.

But the day-to-day didn't change much. The people who really did the work came in and punched their clocks like they always did. The breakdown started from the top, and because so much wealth and power was concentrated in such a small number of people, it didn't matter much that they were dead.

Well. We didn't know that they were dead. I guess technically they might be alive, but They aren't known to take prisoners when They don't have to. I imagine that the big corporate fat-cats, the Senators and Representatives, the important people, they turned off their lights to go to bed...and the darkness just came open, and they were gone.

And the world turned on. And even once we noticed, we didn't care, because it wasn't us disappearing into the dark, dragged off by monsters, dead before we knew anything had changed. It was them. It was those rich guys. Those guys that fired us, that voted for that piece of legislation that we hated, that said stupid things on camera, that spent our taxes dollars on that thing we didn't like. Serves them right.

It's tempting to feel guilty. To say we didn't do anything because of who they were. But that's overlooking two very important points. First, we put them there. We built our culture to be what it is. We, collectively, the whole world, made abstractions more important than concrete reality, and that was what He couldn't abide. I'm not saying we deserve what happened to the world. I'm just saying that the world was what we made it.

And second...what the hell could we have done about it? The point of that quote is that the people should have stopped it, shouldn't have turned a blind eye. But even if every single person had noticed and clamored for a response, where would it have come from? Who is like Him, and who can fight against Him?

Tune in Tomorrow.

curse the darkness

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Speculations

No one really knows anything about Him.

Well, that's an overstatement. We know He speaks English, though His accent certainly got picked to death after Jerusalem. It's a testament to bias of expectation that a lot of folks thought He sounded Palestinian (never mind that the Dome of the Rock was destroyed first). He doesn't have an Arabic accent, or an American one, for that matter. He just sounds...weird. There's a bizarre, hollow quality to His voice, which a lot of people assume is because He's speaking from the Between.

That could be. I've heard other theories, though.

For one thing, I've been to the Between. It doesn't make your voice sound hollow. Sound doesn't act right in the Between, and it certainly doesn't echo - that's one of the reasons we can use it at all, because there's no echo to make sound travel farther. For another, His voice isn't "hollow" like he's talking from the bottom of a well. It's hollow like he doesn't give a shit. He inflects in the wrong places, and His voice is just one degree of pitch off from being utterly monotone. I didn't attach any significance to that until I heard about Monarch.

The Monarch Center for Autism is a special school in Ohio. They treat folks on all levels of the autism spectrum. It's a subject with some significance to me, and so I knew quite a bit about the disorder before He ever showed up. I knew, for instance, that it had increased something like 600% in incidence over the last 15 years or so. That the latest numbers put it at roughly 1 in 150. That, yes, some of that was because of more sensitive diagnostic technique, but the cases of autism were just showing up like they hadn't been a couple of decades ago. Ask any special ed teacher.

Actually, you'd get a different answer now. The numbers took a sharp dip after He took over. And I've got some speculation about that, too.

Anyway, after Jerusalem but before Cheyenne Mountain, there was a lot of speculation about His origins. Everyone with some nationalist or racial or ethnic grudge had a theory. White supremacists thought He sounded black. Taiwanese thought He sounded Chinese. Pakistanis though He sounded Indian, Indians thought He sounded Pakistani, and English though He might have sounded both. It was absurd. Maybe it's because I'm an American mutt without any particular ethnic leanings, but I didn't think He sounded anything. Just flat. And of course no one ever saw Him.

To my knowledge, the only time anyone alive has ever seen Him was when He came walking out of Cheyenne Mountain with the ocean behind him.

Tune in Tomorrow.

curse the darkness

Saturday, April 17, 2010

My First Meeting With an Opener

Her name was Julie. Her hair was dyed a sort of auburn red kind of color. I remember thinking I'd have found that very attractive as a younger man.

I don't know why she chose to confide in me. By that time most of the area was abandoned. People were moving into the cities or out into the farmlands, and the suburbs, those symbols of the world that was still choking on it own blood, were getting like ghost towns. She might have confided in me just because we were among the few who didn't want to leave.

She came up to me and whispered, "I can do what He does." She looked terrified. She hadn't slept. She was unhealthily thin. I took her to my apartment, turned on every light in a vain attempt to minimize shadows, and asked her what she meant.

She said it again, a little more confidently. "I can do what He does." And then she tipped a lamp so it cast a big shadow on the wall, and she gestured at it. And it Opened.

Of course I'd seen the Between. It's not uncommon for shadows to open seemingly at random, and for Them to glance out, looking for insurrection. But to see it so close was terrifying. The Between isn't empty. It isn't silent. They are in there, and the Between is Their home, Their hive, Their nest.

But as terrifying as it was, I was elated. Maybe she could help us fight back! Maybe she could turn the tables. And if she could do it, maybe there were others!

I turned away, wanting to get my glasses, to look at her, to watch her do it again, maybe. I don't know. It's moot. When I turned around, she was gone. One of her shoes hung half in, half out of the open shadow on my wall. And then it closed, and the shoe was cut neatly in half, and she was gone. She never made a sound. I didn't hear Them take her.

She thought she could do what He does. She was only half right. She could Open the shadows, yes, but as it turns out, that's only the first step. Once you're in the Between, you need a way to deal with Them. For whatever reason, He can control Them. The rest of us just have try and find a safe passage through the Between.

Those of us that are stupid enough to go there at all, that is.

Tune in Tomorrow.

curse the darkness

Friday, April 16, 2010

Terror

Of course we had recordings. The whole world listened to what he'd said. We tried to make some sense of it all.

It was hard to get anything worthwhile, though. Most of the world was convinced it was the Apocalypse. Religions that didn't have an "end of the world" scenario made them up. Bible verses were reinterpreted, ancient prophecies "discovered," and folks made their signs and walked around with them.

I remember some cynic saying that the world was so far gone that we didn't know how to do anything except stage meaningless protests. But really, what were we going to do? We didn't have anyone to turn to. Government was gone. Every single member of Congress was dead. The President, the Vice-President...everyone on down the chain of command. The British Prime Minister. Heads of state the world over. All gone.

But He didn't stop there. We didn't find out until a little later, but generals and other top brass in armies all over the world disappeared. Not just the official armies, either. I don't remember how long after Jerusalem - maybe three or four weeks, couldn't have been much more than that - we found out that al-Qaeda was gone. A soldier in the Middle East somewhere put footage on the 'net of sixteen gutted bodies. The faces were intact, and the press wasted no time in identifying them as the terrorist masterminds that the US and its allies had been hunting for since 2001. The War on Terror was over.

Well, sort of. You could say that He was a kind of terrorist. It fits, I guess. The choice He's always given the world is the same one that terrorists did: Comply or die. His methods are similar. His minions can strike at literally any time and from anywhere. The only difference between Them and suicide bombers is that They don't die in the process of an attack. So, sure, He's a lot like a terrorist.

But I have a hard time thinking of Him that way. When I saw Jerusalem fall, or when the news cameras showed the rubble that used to be Saint Peter's Basilica, I didn't feel the same thing as I did when the towers went down.

Those terrorists hated us. And "us" meant "Americans" or "Christians" or something. It meant me. It was personal. I didn't feel that when He began His takeover. After His first speech, when He warned us about Jerusalem, I got the sense that it wasn't personal. He didn't have that same kind of hatred. He wasn't a zealot. He just knew that, as a species, we were regularly killing each other and starving each other to death and date-raping the world and all of the people in it for nothing. For what He saw as nothing, anyway. And he just happened to have the power to do something about it.

I seriously doubt He was the first Opener. The power to open shadows isn't unique, and I can't believe that no one ever did it before He came along. I do think, though, that He was the first one who could control Them.

I've never met another Opener who could. In fact, They usually kill Openers first.

Tune in Tomorrow.

curse the darkness

...And Salted The Earth

The helicopter cameras showed it, but we didn't know what we were looking at. I recorded some of the feed. It's not illegal to own it, despite what people think. He's not that kind of dictator. He doesn't care what you say about Him, and He takes full ownership of everything He did. He just thinks it was right.

Anyway.

The 'copters saw the city swallowed. Every shadow opened. Every single one. The buildings crumbles and fell into a billion tiny sinkholes. The people, the ones that They hadn't killed, just vanished into the Between. The 'copters kept their lights and their cameras on it. About five seconds in, they killed the sound feed.

It was bad enough we had to see it. No one wanted to hear it.

I've heard that some of the crew jumped from the copters. I've heard one of the copters crashed when the pilot had a heart attack - or maybe he put the copter down on purpose. Who wants to live in this world?, I've heard, is what came over the radio, but I know that's not true, because I was listening, and there was no sound. Just the Holy City vanishing into the Between.

When the dust settled, there was nothing but black. The shadows hadn't closed, they'd joined like mercury. Nothing below the copters but a puddle of blackness. And then every shadow in the world opened. The shadows in the room with me opened. We all heard the voice, again speaking English in that weird, stilted, not-quite-accented voice that we would come to know as His.

This is the end of your world. This is what will become of ideology. How many lives lost over the centuries for this place, which you now see is so impermanent? No more lives lost for Jerusalem, not after tonight, not ever again.

Have your riots. Convene your armies. Launch your missiles. Rant, rail, gnash your teeth. I will allow you that, for you need time to grieve your world. But when I speak to you again, know that it will be as your authority. You will do what I say to do, or They will come for you from the Between.

There is no question. There is no debate. There is no compromise. There is only the world and the whole of humanity.


Much of the world didn't know what to make of it. Hell, much of the world didn't understand it. But the Internet was still global at the time, and translations - a lot of them inaccurate, a lot of them with Biblical or Qu'ran quotes appended - starting making the rounds. While He never addressed them, I can't help but feel like they proved His point by doing that.

Some folks did analyze exactly what was going on. They started combing historical archives, Dead Sea Scrolls, Biblical Apocrypha, conspiracy theories, anything, anything, for a hint of what was happening. What was the Between? Was it Mictlan? The Underworld? Hell? Heaven? Was He an angel? God? Satan? The Antichrist?

The short answer: No. The longer answer: It's 10 years later, and we still don't know exactly who or what He is. But I've heard some good theories.

Tune in Tomorrow.

curse the darkness

What I Saw That Day

The voice from the shadows told us - told everyone, all over the world - to watch Jerusalem in three hours. It was 5:05PM local time for me when it started.

We saw it through cameras on the ground, and then from helicopters. We saw Them for the first time. They had come through before, of course, but always under cover of night, always striking quickly and efficiently, tearing down walls, yanking people through shadows. They had never been given free rein before.

That night, He let slip the leashes. He opened the shadows, pointed toward Jerusalem, and said, "Go."

And They came. They came out of the shadows underneath cars. They came from the shadows cast by the cooling buildings. They came from the shadows people cast walking home that night, or fleeing the city in terror. They boiled out of the shadows like fire ants on the warpath, and They destroyed everything They touched.

They caught the people first, of course. They didn't carry them away. They tore them into pieces. I remember watching one of Their massive hands closing over a camera lens, and the feed stayed on long enough for us to hear the screaming stop, the desperate gasping breaths, and then snapping. No biting. No chewing. They don't eat people. They don't eat.

The cameras on the ground died off, and the feed went black. And I sat there in my apartment watching the feed. I had my desktop, my laptop, my spare laptop and my TV all running different newsfeeds, and they all went black. And the day around me was quiet. I heard crying from outside the window, but no traffic. There was no movement. There was nothing we could do but watch.

And then someone had the presence of the mind to switch to one of the helicopter cameras, and we realized just how bad it really was.

Tune in Tomorrow.

curse the darkness

Graffiti on a wall in Chicago, a week after Jerusalem

I lost my aunt my uncle three cousins and my father
Where was the UN where was the USA where was anyone?


The answer, of course, was that they were all already dead. But we didn't know that then.

We all had questions.

Tune in tomorrow.

curse the darkness

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 Parliment and Congress were simultaneously invaded from the inside. Any one of the attacks, we know where we were.

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

So many crazy stories 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. They just open, and he knows them. A server, a website, a router... 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 from 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