[Let’s study: Curse the Darkness] System Part 1

Posted: March 20, 2013 by pointyman2000 in Articles, Let's Study

Before everything else, I’d like to apologize for my sudden disappearance for the past week. I needed to get some RL concerns sorted out but I’m determined to get my blogging back on it’s usual rhythm.

That said it’s time we get back to Curse the Darkness, the eerie atmospheric post-apocalypse horror game by Matthew McFarland.

Today we’re taking a look at some of the mechanics behind the game. Curse the Darkness is a unique game with some interesting playing-card based mechanics and gameplay and I think taking things slowly will help me in digesting it and getting an idea of how it comes together.

One of the most important concepts in Curse the Darkness is that each of the players is called on to make an essential choice: Lighting a candle or Cursing the darkness. Take note that this is a choice made by the players and not the character. When a player makes a choice, that choice follows them through the entire scenario, even if they change characters.

But what do these options mean?

Lighting a candle is the choice to fight back against the status quo. The setting is bleak and depressing and making this choice is about breaking the rules, to stand up against the antagonists of the setting and risking it all to make a change. Needless to say this isn’t alway the wisest of choices to make, but sometimes you have to take action even if it’s not very wise.

On the other hand, Cursing the darkness is the choice to give up and admit that things aren’t going to change. This is about hiding from the adversary and looking for means to avoid notice. This isn’t craven as much as it is obeying the basic rules of survival.

Curse the Darkness works in a fashion that the scenario is completed once all the players have made the essential choice. We’ll come back to this once we get to the sections dealing on scenario creation and how this choice matters and affects gameplay.


Characters in Curse the Darkness have four attributes, mapped out to the 4 different suits in a deck of playing cards. These are:

Focus (Diamonds) – This is the ability to bring knowledge, training or problem-solving ability to bear on a given challenge

Humanity (Hearts) – This is the social stat, and measures how well a character can get along with other people and get them to do things or see things their way.

Stability (Clubs) – This is the ability to withstand mental stress, staying calm and being able to act despite overwhelming fear.

Stamina (Spades) – Stamina is more of a measure of the character’s physical ability, and is the determining stat for feats of strength, dexterity or endurance.

One of the interesting things about the Curse the Darkness system is how the values of these attributes change to represent how people perform differently with regards to certain challenges. This makes for an interesting fluid shift in how people tackle things given different moments in the game.


Card-Caps represent a handicap of some sort affecting an attribute. This can be an injury or some trauma that prevent the character from exerting their full ability during a test. Card-Caps limit the maximum value of an Attribute for a given situation.

For example, a card-cap at 7 means that the maximum value of an attribute card is at 7, even if the card exceeds this. Card-caps can be removed once an action is taken to fix the issue. Whether this is a moment for someone to apply medical attention to an injury, or perhaps some actions taken to get over a trauma.


Scopes are special descriptors that specify what skills and talents a character has. Characters begin with at least one Scope and can have no more than five. Scopes are handy as they allow the player to apply both the face-up Attribute card and the card directly beneath it and add them together to beat the difficulty of the task.

Character Challenges

A character challenge occurs when a character performs an action with an uncertain outcome. To resolve these, a GM assigns a difficulty for a task, ranging from Difficulty 2 all the way to Difficulty King. The acting player then compares the relevant Active (face up) attribute card that they have against that difficulty. If the attribute card is equal to or higher than the difficulty, then the character succeeds. If the attribute card is lower, then the action fails.

Card Bank

The Card bank is a special discard pile for each character where used attribute cards are placed. The card Bank is interesting as it acts as a timer of sorts. As soon as three cards have been placed in the bank, the character is eligible for a Removal Challenge.

Removal Challenges

A Removal Challenge happens when characters are confronted with a situation that may result in them leaving play through death, capture, illness, etc. Considering that this is meant to be one of the more dramatic of situations in the game, Removal Challenges are subject to it’s own subsystem which we’ll tackle tomorrow.


Curse the Darkness’ mechanics are simple in play, and almost transparent in most situations. Without dice, the resolution is a straight up comparison of the active attribute card against the difficulty of the challenge. The uncertainty comes in with the fact that after the active attribute card is removed, you never know what the next one is.

This makes the system rather invisible in play, and people can keep the story moving as opposed to bogging down to roll and check dice each time a task is called for.

So far the system is clean and I’m enjoying the card-based approach. But what really has me interested is how Removal Challenges are handled and that’s what we’ll be looking at tomorrow.


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