Welcome back, gamers! I usually homebrew stuff and this is a complete change of pace for me. That said, I’ve been meaning to write pieces examining things within games in addition to homebrew. As it is, I’ve branched out with gaming recaps and those seem to reach some sort of audience, so I’ll continue to experiment. That said, homebrewing is still my prime focus.
Back on topic, last time I opened up the carnival by looking at why I think people like darker genres and topics in their games! Today’s post is deeper focus on dark settings in regards to conflict; whether it’s problems from society, the self, the environment or even forces beyond our control. One can’t have a darker story without extreme conflict, to the point it’s usually quite oppressive, or repressive in some cases. Sure, there are more examples than what I’m talking about, but I could go on and on about that. Also, I like rambling some anecdotes about old games I’ve played it, because I really love sharing gaming stories with everyone when I get the chance!
Author’s Note: I know, it’s a change of pace. Like I said, I’m not abandoning homebrewing. I promise. Also, this one is a little more mature oriented than other posts, touching upon rougher subjects.
For starters, let’s look at societal ills and social conflict. Discrimination, prejudice, dehumanization and acts of hatred are commonplace for dark settings, and are often the root of these problems. To many, it’s the easiest way to make your setting darker, as it often directly effects the players. Of course, it’s always good to bring this by your table first… so it doesn’t look like you’re doing this out of spite. In lighter settings, we like to envision the world to be more egalitarian, opening up to different possibilities. However, like much of our history and even today, this is far from the case. Now, in the real world, we have made strides and have made progress. Problems still exist and still will, but societies have made efforts to confront them and bring change. In a darker world, all of this would be wiped out in favor of ignorance, arrogance, divisiveness and more. Plus, in lighter settings, it’s safe to say that this sort of behavior is given a solid Evil alignment to it… or at least is considered evil. In darker worlds, the motivations are more grey… and even worse, have more of an uncanny and human aspect to them. After all, many of the worst dictators and perpetrators of mass atrocities were also human. Seeing that side of them makes us uncomfortable, as that forces us to realize that we too are capable of such horrible things too. And sometimes, these things are taken too far.
Take my home setting, for example. In it, the world has come into conflict with both dragonkind and the “fiendish” planar creatures countless times. In previous games within the setting, tensions began to boil as groups began to form solely for the purpose of fighting these creatures. The players witnessed a group of paladins butcher a dragon whose only crime was eating livestock in a countryside. Conflicted, they sided with the dragon in the end, thus motivating these ragtag groups of people angry (from constant monster aggression) to band more and become stronger. That said, things got interesting when I switched to 4E. Given the context of the game, conflict was bound to happen. Unfortunately, things went sour for a team of mostly Asmodean Tieflings and Dragonborn. The campaign ended with the players ultimately fleeing from civilization, having failed their quest to stop a dracolich. To my surprise, the players enjoyed the darker direction the game was taking.
In a follow-up game a few years later (early D&D Next playtest), the radical factions gained momentum and have turned towards wiping these creatures out as part of their end-game new world order. The current party didn’t like them and were frankly terrified of their attempts to paint these creatures as truly evil, when they discovered that this wasn’t quite the case. However, the monsters made attempts at recruiting and manipulating the team. They grew more uncomfortable, noticing a pattern. To the monsters, the inquisitors were a blight on the world. And those who sympathize with them? Merely lesser inquisitors! The group was conflicted, feeling disgruntled with both groups, there was no “good” choice. Both sides were stuck in a stalemate, until the monstrous faction retaliated in such a way that forgiveness from anyone was unlikely. Planar gateways were opened as lands were either wiped out or corrupted. To many dragons, fiends and other creatures; the innocents were already on the inquisition’s side. The tragedy gave the paladin fanatics the edge they needed, as half of the party even joined them! The inter-party conflict RP was amazing, to say the least, as the other half became fed up with both sides after seeing their worst brought out. Ultimately, the rest of the team reluctantly worked alongside the inquisitors. Eventually, they bought the propaganda that ANYTHING related to those creatures must go, as they bolstered the group with new tactics, magical assets and whatnot; giving them the edge they needed for winning their war. In the end, the Dragonborn, Tieflings and others were mostly wiped out from existence, save for those who fled into sealed off demiplanes… and it was mostly the choices and actions of the team that lead to that. The entire team was aghast, barely able to fight again when a resistance wanted to push the inquisition out of power. Ultimately, the inquisitors were banned from the Material Plane, but the damage was too great. In the end, the PCs retired from adventuring. Some tried to live their lives, some couldn’t take the guilt and died by their own hand or another’s, some were trialed for crimes against the multiverse. It was the heaviest campaign that was ever run. It left me shocked, as well as the players. But, we still felt like we had a satisfying, if not extremely morbid campaign… One I probably won’t ever be able to replicate or run again, even if the game helped shape my universe.
When it’s not societal pressure or even outwards social aggression at the hands of others, it’s usually the environment working against heroes. While dystopian settings have many spades of this, the post-apocalypse genre embodies this far better! Decrepit ruins on the brink of collapse, landscapes poisoned by radiation/dark power/chemical, barren wastelands that are either excruciatingly hot or cold, dwindling supplies with few signs of obtaining more, you get the general idea. While not as thematically intense as a socially driven game, there is still much conflict to be had in such a game. When everything a character has known is lost, what do they do with their life? Who do they become? Take Mad Max, for example. The world was ending when he was still a police officer for a last ditch effort to keep order. The state declared martial law as the world was going mad. After losing his family, a sense of civilization and then some, he more or less snapped. After brutally slaying bandits, he fled into the outback as the apocalypse surged! And over time, he lost more and more of himself. While Furiosa helped him recover some of his humanity, he is still very broken.
This was captured to an awesome extent in a Savage Worlds game I played in. Long story short, history diverges at 1983. Instead of a mistaken missile broadcast being dismissed by a skeptical Soviet soldier, the broadcast is taken at face value and total nuclear war begins! The game took place several years later. The world is still reeling from the attacks and hasn’t quite rebuilt itself yet… nor is it even close. My character, Greg Solomon, a former accountant, couldn’t deal with how many of his “old world” skills were useless. However, his knowledge of how markets worked and how people worked in general still proved useful. His insight proved useful when dealing with post-apocalyptic organizations and factions, especially in terms of trade. However, his pure endurance made him a target for the humid, mucky heat of the deep south. More often than not, he was overshadowed by an eclectic cast, as Greg was a pretty timid guy. He was joined by Martin Flanagan (jack-of-all-trades, but mostly a handyman and cook), Alexander Amazing (a fantasy obsessed body-builder who fancies himself as a spartan), Junker Philipe (a hobbyist tinkerer who scraps and repurposes whatever he can come across) and Sharon Sheryll (A former bartender and skilled hunter). Greg started following the crew at the start of his game, unhinged from surviving off the remains of Atlanta for a couple years. He has to come to terms with letting go of his old life, but not forgetting it. Like his friends and family, his old life has effectively passed on. Many games later, after dealing with this crisis, the weaselly and lanky businessman tries to be more influential in the party, whether being assertive to help push the team in the right direction or helping to keep the peace when encountering potential hostiles. While that didn’t always work, he still found himself in a more courageous place. Eventually, we joined up with a group of former-police officers overseeing a settlement that was scrapped together from the remains of Charleston… until we discovered that they used slaves captured from outside said settlement. While many were former-raiders and criminals (some of which were from a nearby prison), others were just hapless folks who tried to sneak in, hoping to find shelter or a safe haven. We tried our best to reason with the “governing force”, family and friends of the original government killed in during the war. The entire party stood their ground on finding a method of getting the slaves freed, but realized a fight would kill all of them. In the end, a few wrongly “trialed” slaves were freed and tagged along with us for a while before breaking off. In the end, everyone were forced to leave, lest they get “charged with crime” and force the team to work as a “settlement servant”. Despite the corruption of this new civilization, it was still a civilization, something Greg yearned for. Sadly, the rest of the game dealt with very little in terms of people rebuilding beyond a few houses out in the wastes. Well, until we met a village of Hills Have Eyes Original-meets-Remake cannibals. Poor Greg was torn apart fast, but considering the cannibal mutants had an unfortunate penchant for rape and necrophilia, that was probably a more merciful fate. As could be easily said, the post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland is a really messed up place.
Dark lands rife with conflict need not be always about being pit against other people or nature, but also a case of “Man vs. God”. By this, I mean places and people dealing with forces far outside of their control or understanding. A conspiracy involving secret alien colonization, lingering supernatural evil that will do everything to corrupt and/or take us, eldritch abominations seeking to eliminate us and reclaim the world, things of that nature. This sort of theme is a classic trope of a lot of horror literature. While religious writings from around the world tell of supernatural evils that lure or destroy those who get too close, more modern genres of horror fiction are all about dealing with such accounts. The Gothic genre deals with distant forces that twist those who have desire, as well as villains who fell to temptation. In the case of even more modern takes, such as H.P. Lovecraft, reality is an illusion that will soon shatter once alien “gods” take back what was once theirs. Some fall to cults that worship either out of admiration or fear of these dread forces. Some defy this strong evil at all costs, whether it’s the life, their sanity, their purity or whatever else is at stake. Such powers can’t be fully understand and it’s likely that they’re not fully defeated. Whether it’s the entities of The Warp from Warhammer 40K or the Mists from the Demiplane of Dread, darkness will always lurk in the distant places of the cosmos.
Speaking of Ravenloft, an expedition to Falkovnia was one such instance. The domain of Falkovnia is ruled by a Darklord by the name of Vlad Markov. He’s a power hungry tyrant who rules with an iron fist. In fact, his presence and overbearing eye is said to be felt throughout the entire domain! The players have all wandered in from other domains or outside of the Mists entirely! Unlike other domains, this one faces direct oppression. Every citizen must practically give up everything for the bloated military machine of Markov. Those who aren’t true human are treated lower than peasantry. This mindset has bred a narrow-minded and jingoistic mentality that’s pervasive throughout the domain. But worse yet is the sense of dread that you’re always watched and if your actions aren’t in the benefit of the Falkovnian military, you’ll be found out sooner or later. Luckily for us, Markov’s lofty ambitions have a habit of eating themselves, but that doesn’t mean his eyes weren’t always staring. When we tried to combat bounty hunters sent after us, we felt his ire. We even heard his booming and condemning voice when we killed a rebellious peasant mobs (and almost failed dark powers checks), as they can be manipulated to still help with expansive war campaigns! Creepiest of all, when we criticized a policy in public, the villagers’ faces ALL TURNED INTO VLAD’S! Of course, that wasn’t as bad as subsequently being chased by secret-police through the countryside. The oppression went from physical form to a supernatural form that was purely terrifying. It was a memorable handful of Ravenloft sessions. Plus, the distrust and paranoia ran rampant, almost like a Stalinist Soviet Union. The pervasive surveillance state kept players on the toes, knowing they were perpetually watched. This society of supernaturally-bolstered supreme law proved to be terrifying for reasons both paranormal and mundane.
IMAGE SOURCE: Anti-Warforged Protesters – Sharn City of Towers (Keith Baker, James Wyatt), Lost Heroes – Gerald Brom, Falkovnia Flag – Fraternity of Shadow