The Darkest Age Interview
by Judy Spring
Spectacle Publishing Media Group has recently published a horror role-playing game, The Darkest Age, collaboratively written by Eric Staggs, Rob Gee, and Julia Gengenbach. Based on the d20 OGL system, The Darkest Age is set in 14th century Europe where an unusual strain of the bubonic plague creates a world full of zombies, corruption, fear, and paranoia. Eric Staggs has answered a few development questions to give us insight to the frightening experience that is DA.
Where did The Darkest Age originate? What was the motivation behind the role-playing game?
There have been quite a few attempts in the tabletop gaming world to capitalize on the zombie craze. I wrote an elaborate research paper on the sub-genre of zombies when I was doing my undergrad. work and since then have spent much time considering this phenomenon. I wanted to try to explain all the inconsistencies, to create a viable game world that would allow players to explore a dangerous environment, yet without the futility of a true “extinction level event.”
How did the project mature or expand over time?
The initial idea was intense—profound almost. What happens when the Black Plague, which killed ¾ of Europe, also turns the infected into zombies? We had to determine how the world would react, how would a medieval/pre-Renaissance society survive? Could they at all? We had to do some detailed anthropological work, as well as extrapolate concepts from other writers, like Max Brooks (Zombie Survival Guide and WWZ).
What aspects of DA are different from other RPGs?
First, DA has unique character classes. Most character classes are based on a cultural concept—the Skald for example. We worked hard to find a way to logically create a measure of gender equality in this historical setting. The Midwife and Mystic are great examples. The mystic is a historical figure not often mentioned in church history—a heretic or prophet [with powers] a church official thought they might use to their own advantage. It’s pretty shady stuff, but imagine if you were accused of witchcraft, yet offered this chance to have the ear of a bishop? The midwife has evolved into something much more powerful than a nurse or medicine woman. They’ve become an organized power group that literally has control over the future of humanity. Further, The Darkest Age is a role-playing game. The precarious grip of this civilization requires players to be clever, and to think. The typical, “I draw my sword and attack,” scenario simply won’t work.
What aspects were important to keep the same, and why?
Well, it’s still a d20 based game system. This is important because anyone who’s played Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 or above will know how to play our game. A new GM for The Darkest Age could be up and running a campaign within a day of reading the book. This compatibility makes game play, character creation, and skills/combat quick and d20-easy.
What sources from history/literature were expanded on in DA? How did incorporating these help create the unique experience of this RPG?
The research process was long and involved. The bibliography in the back of the book covers much of it. Essentially, we encapsulate major historical events from about 200 years on either side of 1340 C.E.; we know them inside and out, and twisted them to our own ends. There are so many pseudo-medieval fantasy games. We wanted to create something unique.
Why was The Darkest Age made more egalitarian than other games of that type?
The idea of an extinction event levels the playing field completely. Most folks don’t care who is saving their life, man or woman, as long as they get saved. When zombies are chewing through the walls, the one with the plan is going to be the leader, male or female. In fantasy settings, there is no implicit sexism, but it’s rampant in anything vaguely historically accurate. The Darkest Age assumes a civilization-wide revelation—children are the future of humanity. This means so much more than just bearing and rearing children. This means medicine and knowledge, technique and process, it means that an all-mighty king will kneel to the Midwife’s Guild and give them whatever they ask for because they have a monopoly on the precious knowledge of survival.
Where did the inspiration for the artwork in The Darkest Age come from?
The cover is based on a scene from a short story I wrote. The scene was actually excised from the final draft, but used in one of the many vignettes. We supplied Jeff Dewitt with some of these concepts. Our creative director, Rob Gee, and Jeff hashed out some pretty chilling visuals. The interior art was created by Rob and Mark A. Nelson, two of my favorite illustrators.
What is gained in offering so many new character classes?
Variety. A new gaming experience. The Fighter, Mage, Priest, Thief combo is classic, but not always appropriate for certain settings. Party balance is a nice concept, but realistically seldom occurs. So, in this setting which is heavy in RP opportunities, we worked out what it would be like to really live and work in this alternate history.
What is your favorite new character class and why?
I like the Mystic. Their historical realities have fallen into the realm of “esoteric trivia.” I also like the Apothecary. I’m a builder when I game, so I like to run characters that gain power and influence more than whipping about swords.
Which tropes included in DA interest or humor you most?
The Inquisitors and the Vikings. The return to the “old ways” in the midst of a failing monotheistic religion makes me chuckle.
What was your major role in the creation of The Darkest Age?
I guess in many ways I was the project manager, as well as the writer. The spark was mine, but working with Rob and Julia caused a synergy and flow of concept that I was very proud to participate in.
What was your favorite part in designing/building/creating DA?
Finishing. That and the artwork. Seeing what I was writing about take form was a charge I’ll never forget.
What draws you into the world of Role-Playing Games?
These games are good for you. They teach teamwork, strategy, history, culture, imagination, decision-making, consequences and so much more. These games are critical to developing real skills for being successful. The zombies and swords are just the icing on the cake.
What other genres do you enjoy writing or creating in?
I’m a sci-fi junkie. I typically avoid horror at all cost. My shorts and novellas range from science fiction to what they call “creative non-fiction,” which is really some professor’s term for bullshitting while telling a story.
Do you have any additional pursuits besides game design that you’d like to share?
I’ve got a lot of interests: Philosophy, History Anthropology, Mythology, lots of –ologies. I like a good spaceship battle here and there. Physics and astronomy make me happy. And zombies—the cultural zeitgeist of a zombie apocalypse is worth sincere study.
Are there any additional projects in progress?
Actually yes. We’re working on a science fiction project and the first Darkest Age supplement is underway. Too soon for hints, but based on the popularity and initial success of The Darkest Age, we’re going to keep going so fans can just keep playing!