Riffing on ‘The Vast in the Dark’

Charlie Ferguson-Avery’s The Vast In the Dark zine is a treasure, and I highly recommend anyone with an interest in slightly off-beat OSR-adjacent material picks it up. The zine presents itself as being “about exploring dark and alien megastructures of an infinite realm”, and it delivers on that deliciously ominous tease. It’s a toolbox, succinctly written and jam-packed with neat ideas. Only negative? It’s fairly short, and I would love to see more of Charlie’s vision of this fascinating premise.

Setting, mood and tone are important in The Vast In the Dark. Rather than being set in quasi-European castles and dungeon, the Vast is more akin to something from the most feverish and half-mad realms of decayed beauty from the stranger bits of Lovecraft and Ashton-Smith. Unknowable, hostile, yet indifferent, all tinged with Dark Souls-esque ruin and a sense of melancholic dread. The zine packs a punch.

Handy in print too!

It present some variant rules for hexcrawling, exhaustion, generating ruins, inventory management, and so on, all broadly compatible with most OSR systems. It also has rules for what Charlie has termed ‘the Harrowing’, described as “an erosion of memory, drive and desire” that infects those who wander the Vast. It works like this: Each PC writes down five memories that drive their character. Certain events trigger losing one of these memories permanently. When the fifth memory is lost, the PC dies or effectively becomes an NPC, another empty husk of a being left to wander the Vast. It’s brilliant stuff.

Charlie’s Harrowing rules have achieved what I have seen many other game-tinkerers (including myself) have failed to: To mechanize the sense of spiritual dread that pervades so much dark fantasy media. They’ve done it in a way that’s thematic, evocative, unburdensome, and completely in line with OSR design principles. It instantly inspired me to think further on its possibilities.

I can imagine a game where death is inconvenience and not an end, but losing Memories is permanently dangerous. Where danger is as much about the condition of one’s soul and spirit as it is about physical danger. To muse on Charlie’s excellent rules, there might be a way of regaining lost Memories, much as Humanity can be restored in Dark Souls. But it should be a finite resource, dangerous to get hold of – and dropping to 0 hp is listed as something that triggers a loss of Memory…

Perhaps this game takes place in a pseudo-afterlife. The Vast might be a space between life and death, where (to steal from Dark Souls once more “the flow of time itself is convoluted”. The characters aren’t adventurers; they are the Limbo-bound lost souls of adventurers. Adventuring in the Vast is a quest not for riches and glory, but a quest to escape the entropy that withers everything away. The goal is motivated by hope, and that hope is expressed in Memories.

Cool. Chilling, but cool.

Thank you, Charlie, for this spark of brilliance.

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