What Do I Know About First Impressions? Candela Obscura (Illuminated Worlds)

Was I planning on digging into a Quick Start Guide today? No, I was not. Did I want to read it when it was released and put words to (virtual) paper? Yes, I did. If you haven’t heard, Critical Role released a Quick Start version of Candela Obscura, the RPG that’s going to be the underlying rules system for their monthly “off-week” campaign. Candela Obscura is, itself, a specialized version of Darrington Press’ upcoming game Illuminated Worlds.


Seriously, I’m just adding this out of reflex at this point. No, I did not read this game over lunch, then somehow managed to pull together a game to test it. It’s also a free Quickstart, so you can head over to Darrington Press and get your own copy for free. For reasons that we’ll circle back to later, I’ll just point out that I have played and run Forged in the Dark games before, and I’ve played Vaesen.  Call that foreshadowing!

Candela Obscura Quick Start Guide

Lead Game Design: Spenser Starke and Rowan Hall
Written By: Rowan Hall and Spenser Starke
Additional Game Design: Christopher Grey, Tracey Harrison, and Taliesin Jaffe
Editor: Karen Twelves
Managing Editor: Matthew Key
Production: Ivan Van Norman and Alex Uboldi
Artists: Shaun Ellis, Jamie Harrison, Amelia Leonards, Marc Moreau, Stevie Morley, Justin O’neal, and Doug Telford
Layout: De La Rosa Design
Cultural Consultants: Basheer Ghouse, Christine Sandquist, Erin Roberts, Pam Punzalan, and Anthony Joyce-Rivera
Ancient Fairen Alphabet Design: Stevie Morley
Illuminated Worlds Game Design: Stras Acimovic and Layla Adelman
Original Concept Created By: Taliesin Jaffe and Chris Lockey

CO PictureLayout and Formatting

This is a 26-page PDF, which includes a credits page, and the rest is game and setting content. The book has sepia-toned borders and a two-column layout, with various sidebars elaborating on topics introduced into the text. There is a mixture of uncolored line art and full-color art throughout the PDF, as well as in-world artifacts like business cards.

In addition to the Quickstart Guide itself, there is a separate PDF for the Circle Guide, the playbook for tracking group advancement, a field guild, which is a short rules primer that can be handed to the players, and a PDF of pre-generated characters, with the following Roles and Specialties:

  • Slink (Criminal)
  • Scholar (Professor)
  • Face (Magician)
  • Weird (Occultist)
  • Muscle (Explorer)

Each one has various parts of the character sheet filled in, but doesn’t include any names or backstories.

The Setting

Candela Obscura is the name of an organization of occult investigators that research dangerous supernatural threats that leak into the world via the breaches in the Flare, the barrier that separates the supernatural realm from the real world. The real world, in this case, is an alternate reality similar to 1900s Earth, although generally more tolerant and enlightened.

The setting information references the Last Great War, where a distant military power sought to conquer the people of Newfaire. After six years of wide-ranging war, Newfaire, the primary city of the setting, is booming from new immigrants and new inventions, like electrical devices. The setting has three primary ruling organizations, The Ascendancy (the church), The Primacy (the executive branch), and The Periphery (the police force).

Newfaire is built on top of the ruins of Oldfaire, so you have a whole underworld of potential supernatural incursions to use in the game. There are also the Lighthouses, which, in this case, are built to denote locations where Bleed from the supernatural realm occurs. There is a nice map giving an overview of Newfaire and its environments, as well as a section on the districts of the city.

The Rules

Whenever players need to resolve a challenging action, they roll a number of dice equal to their action rating. The actions are:

  • Move
  • Strike
  • Control
  • Sway
  • Read
  • Hide
  • Survey
  • Focus
  • Sense

The player takes the highest roll from all of their dice, with a 1-3 being an unsuccessful attempt, a 4-5 being a success with a complication, and a 6 being a success. Multiple 6s denote a major success. This may sound similar to a Forged in the Dark game, and it is, however, the GM determines what action the character will roll after they describe what they want to do, and the GM is only establishing if the roll is low-stakes or high-stakes.

Failures or complications have repercussions based on whether the roll was low-stakes or high-stakes. A low-stakes complication will set up the character for a potentially bad consequence, which they may be able to take action to avoid. A high-stakes complication is going to have an immediately dangerous effect. If you are used to other games that use the concept, like Powered by the Apocalypse games, essentially a low-stakes complication warrants a soft move, and a high-stakes complication warrants a hard move.

Characters have a number of Drives, and they track their Maximum and Current Drive. You can spend a point of Drive to add a die to your roll, and your Maximum Drive sets the number of times you can make a Resistance roll. The Resistance roll is kind of similar to the Resistance Roll in Forged in the Dark Games, except you are limited to the number of times you can choose to resist a serious consequence from a complication. Instead of adding stress to your character for a lessened effect, you can reroll a number of dice equal to your rating in the action. So no rerolling any dice you got from spending points of Drive.

Some of your abilities are Gilded. This means you roll a different color die when rolling those abilities, and if you choose to take the Gilded die instead of another result, you get one of your drive points back.

Each character can take marks in Body, Brain, or Bleed. Body is physical harm, Brain is stress, and Bleed is magical corruption. Once all of your boxes in these marks are filled in, your character takes a Scar, a long-term change in your character based on this event. You can have three Scars, but an interesting aspect of this mechanic is that a Scar doesn’t make you less effective, it just means you shift your action scores around to tell the story of how the Scar has affected you.

If you take a Scar in Bleed, you may want to represent this by moving a point of Sense to a point of Move, representing the idea that maybe you have a harder time feeling the supernatural, and an increased desire to get away from a bad situation. The rules further explain that part of this design is to move away from the idea in horror roleplaying games that people that have experienced physical or mental health issues become less able to contribute to their Circle. This is meant to facilitate telling the story of how that Scar affects the character, rather than just making them less effective in game terms.

Each Role and Specialty has its own abilities that let you break the rules in specific ways that reinforce the story of that role. For example, the Criminal specialty has an ability that lets you use any drive to increase your Survey roles, because you’re always looking out for trouble. The final game will have more options, but the pre-generated characters all have three abilities between their Role and Specialty, with one filled in to start.

Like FITD games, you have a list of gear that you can pick on the fly when the situation calls for it. You don’t pick a load in this game, you just have three different picks that you can choose during an assignment.

Characters advance as a group. Each character has two special things they want to accomplish. In addition to these goals, the Circle itself has three questions to ask at the end of a session. Each “yes” for the group question fills in a box of the advancement track, and characters contribute either 2 (if some but not all accomplished their goals), or 4 (if all of the characters completed their goals. In addition to increasing action ratings, drives, or picking new abilities, the group itself can game Circle Abilities from advancement.

The Assignment

There is a sample assignment included in the quick start for a group to play through. The sample assignment explains what is really going on, threats that are likely to challenge the characters, and NPCs that are involved in the situation. The adventure is then divided into the Hook (getting the assignment), the Arrival (introducing the NPCs and the situation), Exploration I, Exploration II, Escalation I, and Escalation II.

This isn’t meant to play out in a linear fashion. The Explorations and Escalations are examples of what will happen if the PCs take specific actions in the course of their investigation, and what information, NPCs, and threats might be waiting for them with that course of action. The adventure then wraps around to a Climax, which assumes the PCs will discover what’s going on in that “what’s really going on” section at the beginning but doesn’t assume how they might resolve that situation, and an Epilogue, which includes some sample questions to help the group wrap up loose ends.

Final Thoughts

As I alluded to above, this reminds me a lot of a leaner implementation of a Forged in the Dark game with a solid helping of Vaesen mixed in for good measure. The occult investigation society and mission structure definitely touch on that same vibe as Vaesen, with a little more flexibility by setting the game in a world that isn’t quite the same as our own.

There is also a good amount of time (relative to the size of the quickstart) taken to discuss safety, the traditional pitfalls of horror and horror RPGs, and how the game integrates a less harmful paradigm into the storytelling using mechanics.

I like the concept of not only leveling up the Circle, as an organization but keeping the PCs bound together by tying their advancement to the advancement of the Circle. It also makes the idea of filling in advancement boxes a little less uneven if someone can’t make a session or two.

When I initially saw the announcement of the actual play, I thought that this setting may have been specific to the actual play, and the RPG release was going to be the core Illuminated Worlds game. Instead, it appears that Candela Obscura will be a full game release on its own. That makes me wonder if Illuminated Worlds is just going to be an underlying system, like Free League’s Year Zero Engine or Gumshoe, that doesn’t have its own “settingless” book, but will serve as the engine that powers other setting-influenced versions of the game.

I really like Forged in the Dark games, but I also know there can be a cognitive load put on the players and the GM continually framing situations for maximum flexibility with what actions to use, position, and effect, so I can see the allure to cutting away some of those aspects of the system, despite the fact that I think they do add a lot to the experience. It makes the game a little less intimidating on its face.

I was surprised to see the word most associated with FITD games, clocks, not making an appearance in these Quick Start rules. I wonder if the game is intentionally trying to avoid tracking incremental progress in that manner, or if it’s just not an aspect of the game that Darrington Press wanted to feature as part of the initial primer on the game.

Curious to see where this goes, and if there are any other Illuminated Worlds implementations either already in the works or at least in the planning stage.

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