Thursday, December 13, 2018

Five or So Questions on Beneath a Cursed Moon

Hi all! Today I have an interview with Michael "Karrius" Mazur about Beneath a Cursed Moon, a roleplaying game currently available on and DriveThruRPG. It sounds pretty cool, a game with investigation and monsters! I hope you enjoy what Michael's got to say below!


The book cover for "Beneath a Cursed Moon" with a red serif font and a window, looking out to lightning striking, casting light over a vampire hunter kit with garlic and a gun, a necklace with a strange circular symbol, and a bloodied stake.
Tell me a little about about Beneath a Cursed Moon. What excites you about it? 

Beneath a Cursed Moon is a Gothic fantasy game, inspired by media that's distinctly not horror media, but draws upon those tropes. It's a game about competent, fearless heroes who investigate monsters and slay them, protecting others as they do. Think Castlevania, Bloodborne, Darkest Dungeon, Pirates of the Caribbean, the 1999 The Mummy movie - these are all things with some pretty common horror tropes, all sorts of scary monsters, some scenes that can really give you nightmares, but in the end, the heroes are competent adventurers and the monsters are the ones who should be afraid.

I think the single thing I'm most proud of is the investigation system. Solving mysteries has always been very hit-or-miss in roleplaying games, both difficult to run and difficult to design. My goal was to make sure that every playbook could contribute to that part of the game in a different way, and nobody ever felt scared or punished if they tried to help out. There's no greater penalty for failure when it comes to doing investigation. Instead, events are on a clock, with bad stuff happening as time passes. So it's not a case of "Oh, the dice rolled poorly, time for the penalty", but rather, the players have to decide when they get enough clues to act on, or how fast they can figure things out. They're racing against the clock, and if they take too long and monsters prey on more people - well, they're the ones at fault then! Take the time to brood, and go and get revenge.

I'm also really excited about the game's mechanics have a focus on protecting others more than most combat-heavy games. It's a point I really wanted to emphasize - you're not going out and killing things to steal their treasure, you're going out and hunting down creatures who are putting others at risk. Heroes in these stories are often dark outcasts who don't quite fit into society, but sacrifice for the good of others all the same. It's an important focus to the game, and it's an idea that made a lot of the concepts in the game work - like I mentioned with the investigation.
A woman in a beautiful, elaborate dress and long black hair, some of which is tentacles
Please tell me more about the investigation system! I love investigation in games! How does it work, and what makes it special to you? 

There's a couple really important pieces to the investigation rules that all come together to work together. To start with, there are three different investigation skills - Poke Around, for classic magnifying glass style clue-gathering, Lore, for just knowing a lot about history, monsters, and magic, and Interview, for finding witnesses, getting useful information out of them, and also discerning what parts of their accounts are useful. Each skill lets you ask questions from a list, and you and the MC (the game master title) explore the fiction to figure out how your character comes across this information - this at least is pretty standard in many Apocalypse World style games.

It was important to me that everyone can participate in the investigation, so everyone is at least decent at one of those three skills - there's no characters who "don't have any Smarts" and are left out. This isn't even counting the individual playbook abilities characters can get, letting them help with investigations in unique ways. It was also important to me that no player ever felt like they shouldn't try to participate in the investigation because their skill was too low, or whatever. In some games, you're encouraged by the mechanics to just have your highest bonus character roll, in case a low roll brings bad results.There's no penalty for a low roll - instead, the trade off is a time and opportunity cost. When do you stop investigating, and when do you act? If you think you might know who the vampire secretly is, do you go after your current hunch, and risk angering the wrong people, or do you gain just a few more clues... and risk having the vampire attack an innocent again? This time cost is paid by the entire group, not just an individual character - so if your group decides to keep investigating, well, you get to pick something to help out, and the worst that can happen for you personally acting is not being useful for one action. There's no need to hold back on any particular action just because someone better at it is trying it too.

The time pressure is achieved by the MC coming up with a timeline of events that will happen if the players don't stop it, ranging from monster sightings to murders or whatever is most appropriate for the villains at hand. This is an important thing to me, because it shifts the focus away from just "You're just looking for fights" - the monsters or bad guys are being actively harmful, and if you don't step in, it's going to get worse. The players only have a certain number of turns to investigate until that "get worse" happens, and they don't know how many! This also ends up serving as a Fail Forward (where failing at a task pushing the story forward, rather than staying stagnant) mechanic and provides a drip of new information if players are stuck. If the players ask the wrong questions, or just can't put things together, there will be another monster attack, kidnapping, or the like - which is a new twist to the plot, and a new source of clues. Of course, this likely isn't going to go on forever - and the final result of a timeline should be something like the monster getting away, an elder evil awakening, or the like, shifting the story to a new focus and a player failure.

Finally, there's other stuff you can spend time on when investigating - healing your wounds, gathering together the local militia, finding the right supplies (like silver bullets or holy water), or setting up a magical ritual - so there's plenty of choices on how you want to spend time when investigating, planning, and preparing.
A woman with a cool whip-mace weapon and a battleaxe, wearing armor
I'd love to hear about why you made the choice to focus on protection. What led to this decision, and how do you reflect it in the mechanics? 

For starters, I feel it really suits the genre - a world full of vampires and werewolves would be a slasher horror one if heroes like your characters didn't exist. Plus, figuring out who the vampire is obsessed with, and rescuing them from the beast's clutches is a lot more interesting from a story standpoint than just breaking into a vampire's house and killing it, and it makes the combat more engaging, because there's more to do and worry about than just how much damage you're dealing. Plus, I like RPGs with big action and combat, and it's good to have characters who are fighting for something beyond just themselves. Encouraging the MC to have action scenes with civilians that you need to protect just makes the game more heroic, more fun, and helps to establish NPCs that everyone can care about and enjoy.

Mechanically, you'll see this reflected in the investigation timeline, but combat is handled in a similar way that breaks from Apocalypse World roll-and-response norms. How it works is, the MC describes what the monsters are intending to do, and then the players get to decide how they're reacting. It's the same idea as the timeline - something bad is going to happen, and you've got to stop it! It plays off of the idea of "established dangers" by establishing one that is immediate - the vampire is about to bite into the man's neck, the werewolf is about to dive onto your friend, the cult leader is about plunge her dagger into the sacrifice - how do you stop it? The basic Battle move isn't focused entirely on killing things - certainly, you'll use it to kill things a lot - but it's also what you use to drag a monster's attention onto you, disarm someone, push a victim aside, or the like. And again, trying to protect someone is never going to make it worse for the person you're protecting (although it certainly can for you). The "fail forward" is accounted for in the game mechanics - the failure is the same if you roll poorly or if you choose to do nothing at all, so you may as well try! - so the player of the physically frail Scholar doesn't have to worry if jumping in the way of a charging werewolf to protect a child is going to make things worse for the child. The scholar just has to worry if things are going to get worse for them - which is likely in that case, success or failure.
A bearded man holding a torch and a fancy book, with tons of pouches on his belt beneath his robe.
What kind of guidance do you give the MC for the timelines they have to create and similar activities? 

This is a tough one, because it really varies from group to group in a way that similar guidelines, like combat challenge ratings just can't cover. Instead of giving hard and fast rules, the book discusses the factors that go into it - how you want a steady drip of clues, the in-character logic between investigating a big or small location, your player count (as bigger parties get more actions), adapting to players who take a lot of investigation abilities or see through your plots quickly, etc. So it's discussed, but it's absolutely something each MC is going to have to feel out on their own. Luckily, it's easier to be too lenient with such things than too harsh.

How do you handle content in a game of this nature? It feels like a lot of risk, which can be exciting, but how did you design the sweet spot of content and creativity with safety in mind? 

That's a tough one, and yes, there is a lot of risk. There's a discussion of the importance of having to sit down and talk about what people want out of a game and expectations, as well as if/what safety tools you want to use. That sweet spot is going to vary from group to group, so my goal was to make things general enough that they could be used with room to tone back or ramp up the horror if needed. There's nothing very aggressively gory, sexual, or the like in the presentation, but there's plenty of room for there to be, if that's what the group wants. If you've seen the Castlevania television show, it's using the same monsters as the video games - but showing them partake in levels of excessive violence that the games barely hint at. My approach was similar - present the tools, but leave it up to the players on how they're used.

More directly, I tried to talk about the often bad history behind a lot of these monsters, and how they can be used better. Let's face it, Dracula is cool, but he's a problem - he's an invading foreigner come to prey on women. I address these outright - there's plenty of other things vampires can be a metaphor for, and if Dracula's staying at home and not venturing far to get his blood, he's now a rich noble who's become soulless from his abuse of power, and preying on those below him, draining them of their life to enrich himself. There's a similar part about Lovecraft inspired monsters (although I draw more from those inspired by Lovecraft than Lovecraft directly), the use of a real-world or fantasy setting, and the role a church or church-like structure can play in the game. The default assumption of the game is that you'll be making your own fantasy setting, as reflected in the cover, with sun-symbols instead of crosses, which gives players room to set up a setting and backstory they're comfortable with.

a person in a very fancy dress with high collar, wearing a horned mask, holding a bloodied dagger that is dripping on the floor.

Cover art by Flavia de Vita

Playbook art by Dreamweaver Druid

Thanks so much to Michael for the interview! I hope you all enjoyed it and that you'll check out Beneath a Cursed Moon on or DriveThruRPG!

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