06 May 2021
Death and Despair Between the Stars
Plenty of games manage to conjure up feelings of horror at the tabletop, but Those Dark Places is among the first to assail its players with the impassionate chill of raw despair. With just a handful of rules and a whole heap of atmosphere, it conjures up a sci-fi world where a malfunctioning purifier can inspire more dread than any alien, and where the crushing weight of isolation is deadlier than any laser beam.
Coming from the mind of designer Jonathan Hicks, the game is a rules-light, anxiety-heavy experience that revels in the horrors inherent to (moderately) realistic space travel. Rather than intrepid heroes and daring explorers, it drops its players into the sleep pods of interstellar truckers, surveyors and couriers, and challenges them to live out their 25-year contract without being blasted into the void, clubbed to death by a maddened crewmate or going utterly out of their mind with stress.
That might sound like a boring campaign pitch, but the genius of Those Dark Places comes from twisting the ordinary and relatable into something horrible and insidious. It asks its players to imagine how it would feel to be trapped in a metal box six months out from civilisation, trusting your life to equipment supplied by the lowest bidder and breathing the same lungful of recycled air for the thousandth time. What would it feel like to get a message that’s spent three weeks catching up to you, ordering the ship to change course and check in with a remote outpost that’s gone dark?
The result is a uniquely harrowing experience. It’s almost the roleplaying equivalent of an ice bath – a sharp shock that can get the blood pumping and make the outside chill feel suddenly balmy, but perhaps not something for everybody, nor for an extended period.
So far we’ve only really talked about the story and the tone of the game, but sooner or later you’re going to have to delve into the rules. These are a rather stripped-back, easy-to-understand kind a thing, with most checks revolving around rolling a six-sided dice and adding whichever stat seems most relevant at the time, as well a small bonus depending on the gear you’re holding and your official role aboard the ship. Get anything over a seven total and you’re golden. Usually, anyway.
Really, it says a lot about Those Dark Places that by far the most complex system in the entire game is the one for handling pressure – the mental sort, not the kind that can send your liquified organs squirting into the void.
This is a little sub-system that comes into play every time your characters might find themselves at risk of freaking out and giving into fear, whether that’s because they just saw their buddy get ripped apart by a booby-trapped door or because they’re stuck outside the ship and the little light on their O2 meter just won’t stop goddamn flashing. Fail a few pressure rolls and there’s a good chance of your character having a momentary breakdown, incurring stat penalties that have a good chance of taking them out of the game until they can get a few days’ R&R.
It’s a rather brutal little ruleset, with the harsh dangers of adventuring amplified by the utter absence of anything approaching traditional character progression. Where most RPG characters can boost their stats by stabbing goblins or hacking computers enough times, the poor, desperate souls of Those Dark Places have nothing to look forward to beyond another phobia to add to their card and a few more months of work put towards their contract.
Nobody gets more dice to roll, nobody gets any shiny loot, and in the unlikely event that you do stumble across something exciting you can guarantee that some middle-manager is going to steal the credit and leave you in the dirt.
This isn’t to say there aren’t moments of levity and perhaps even joy to be found in Those Dark Places, but they’re few and far between. In some ways the game actually succeeds a little too well in building an anxiety-riddled atmosphere, to the point where it can be a little hard to find the motivation to spend more than a couple of sessions torturing your poor characters.
However, while this makes it tough to recommend the game unequivocally, there is undeniably some catharsis to be found in its steel corridors, and the mysteries your find between the stars are all the more fulfilling for it.
There’s nothing lonelier than space. Especially if you’re there with other people.
The granddaddy of industrial sci-fi was a huge inspiration behind Those Dark Places, so if you want to experience the horrors of space without even the tantalising possibility of plasma rifles it might be just what you’re looking for
Designer: Jonathan Hicks
Publisher: Osprey Games
This review originally appeared in Issue 50 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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