With Candela Obscura, the cast of Critical Role heads off into uncharted territory. Debuting in May of this year, the long-form streaming series doesn’t use Dungeons & Dragons as the basis for its actual play action. Instead, the team has dreamed up a set of rules it says are custom-built with performance in mind. Polygon sat down with lead designers Spenser Starke and Rowan Hall to learn about the game’s most fundamental concepts — the roles and specialties players will use to build their characters at home. Here’s a quick look inside Candela Obscura Core Rulebook.
For those who haven’t yet been introduced to the world of the world of the Fairelands through Critical Role’s streaming series, know the setting blends gaslamp-style fantasy with the glamorous 1920’s decor of The Great Gatsby. It’s a world where the industrial revolution butts up against the rediscovery of “magick,” and where powerful forces bubble up from the ancient caverns that lie below.
“Candela Obscura is a horror role-playing game that focuses on a secret society of supernatural investigators,” Starke said in a recent interview. “It’s really an investigative horror game that asks you to think about the humanity in horror as much as the horror in humanity.”
As such, it was important for the designers to ground the game with a very specific set of character templates — but to make them appealing to modern audiences as well.
“Speaking as a queer woman, it’s not really fun being a woman who can’t go to college, couldn’t marry another woman, and is going to experience hate and oppression on all sides,” Hall said. “And yet, that doesn’t stop people from wanting to play in that place of incredible technological advancement, [a time] when the layman didn’t know if magick if ghosts if spirituality was real, because science also felt like magick.”
The face role will often be the most charismatic member of the party. In playtesting, that often made it the most popular — but the specialties themselves came later. The journalist, for instance, was previously included alongside the thief as a slink. Meanwhile, the magician was created much more recently, a nod to the fact that even those who claim to understand the true nature of magic in the world of Candela Obscura rarely do.
Meanwhile, the muscle role includes the game’s tanks — the explorer and the soldier. But far more narrative weight has been given to these roles compared to other comparable game systems. While the soldier grapples with their experiences from the Last Great War (the game world’s analogue for World War I), the explorer will be on the front lines of discovering what mysteries lie beneath the surface of the Fairelands itself.
“It’s a really fun way to be clever about history,” Hall said, which can be found within the sprawling undercroft known as Oldfaire that lies below the setting’s largest city.
The scholar role includes the doctor and the professor, which both feature some of the system’s more thematic abilities. The Non-Combatant ability, for instance, gives doctors benefits only if a character hasn’t hurt anyone yet during an encounter. Meanwhile, the professor’s University Resources mean they have knowledgeable allies akin to Dr. Brody or Sallah waiting in the wings.
While the slink role, with its criminal and detective specialties, will be immediately familiar to players, Starke and Hall worked closely with artist Lily McDonnell to tie them visually to larger themes inside the Core Rulebook. The thief card, for instance, includes a heavy use of the iconography of the Red Hand, the setting’s criminal organization.
Finally, players who elect to play characters in the weird role can choose between the medium or the occultist. Either way, these classes give players an interesting choice with regard to their motivation.
“You have a game that deals with spookiness and monsters and has death,” Hall said, “but then you also have a real world that where people are grappling with death and what that means. [...] The medium sits in this unique place of having to decide if you’re telling the truth or not.
“Ultimately, the Canadela Obscura is a secret society,” Hall added. “Ideally, innocent people aren’t having to learn about magick. But also, ideally people aren’t losing their loved ones. I think getting to make a spiritualists’ parlor is a really good place to lay a lot of clues.”