Project Update: Spirit Reveal: Breath of Darkness Down Your Spine
Welcome back, everyone! To continue our regularly scheduled updates, we’re going to talk about our next Incarna Spirit: Breath of Darkness Down your Spine. This spirit really lives up to a name so impactful. We’ve got creator R. Eric Reuss giving you everything you need to know about this unnerving spirit, featuring notes by development team member Emilia Katari.
Fear of the dark - and of being alone in the dark - is something really primal. On Spirit Island, it’s also really sensible: not just because there are things in the dark that might hurt you, but because the dark itself might swallow you, never to return. It is not a mere absence of light, but an actual thing unto itself.
Or, perhaps, multiple things, but here we’re discussing just one: Breath of Darkness Down Your Spine.
Breath of Darkness is an Incarna Spirit, its tangled locus a fearsome creature of living shadow that is not exactly physical, but not exactly intangible - it can rend and tear, but also slip through tiny openings, suddenly unfurl itself to a vaster shape, or evaporate away altogether. This may be because it is not entirely here - there is a realm of shadows that may exist inside of it, or on the other side of it, or which it partially exists in, or to which it is connected?… even the Dahan aren’t sure, and have little desire to try and find out. What they do know is that some of those trapped by darkness return - eventually - while others never do.
(The Dahan have few troubles with Breath of Darkness these days. Perhaps this is because the Dahan are correct in their beliefs about certain patterns the Spirit is thought to dislike, allowing travelers caught out alone a much better chance of avoiding an encounter with it. Perhaps it is because the Dahan are correct in other beliefs about the nature of the island, and have resided there long enough to be better-anchored against being pulled into another realm against their will. Perhaps it is simply because Breath of Darkness has some agenda of its own, or because some other Spirit is intervening in one fashion or another, or because it is actually an alternate form of Shadows Flicker Like Flame. Regardless, most Dahan remain cautious - though if it started speaking to them, they’d hear what it had to say; part of their deep wariness is that it doesn’t communicate with them much.)
Breath of Darkness Down Your Spine was the very first Incarna Spirit, but its origins lie long before this expansion.
A tiny bit of its concept came about during the very very early designs of 2012-2013; there was a Major Power where some hard-to-perceive creature mysteriously destroyed/disappeared Invaders in two different lands. It was before Fear existed as a concept, but the card’s feel lingered with me, and since it hasn’t become a published Major Power I’ve always vaguely wanted something with that vibe.
The idea started more firmly during Jagged Earth design: there was a Spirit of Living Darkness which was really good at dealing with lightly populated lands, but couldn’t even target lands with too many Invaders. It didn’t work out well enough to include, largely because it had a very lopsided set of Growth choices that over-encouraged spamming Presence and gaining no Power Cards - when the time came to narrow down which Spirits were making the cut, it clearly wasn’t one of them, it was still way too wonky. (In hindsight, I suspect the weird Growth choices might have been workable, but would have required vastly more internal structural support to make the dynamic work - like how Lightning’s Plays track is counterbalanced by its poor access to Energy and Power Cards.)
Despite it having some really neat dynamics, I hadn’t originally planned on pulling it back in for this expansion, but when Ted asked for additional designs, I decided to revisit it. I overhauled its Growth to be more straightforward, tweaked a couple of its Power Cards, and gave it a special rule called Incarna Stalks the Land - it wasn’t just Living Darkness everywhere, but a creature of living darkness, with a unique piece that could count as Presence and/or a Beast token. It wasn’t really a Beasts-centered Spirit per se - only one of its Uniques cared about Beasts tokens at all, and it only checked “is a Beasts present?” - it’s more that it was a Beast. (And as a result could pivot to Beasts powers a little more easily than most, particularly since Animal was one of its elements.)
Ted thought the Incarna was a really neat concept (which could also work with other Spirits/Aspects) but that this Spirit wasn’t likely to make it to Moderate complexity without shaving off a lot of what made it interesting, and asked about a more straightforward stompy Incarna Spirit. That did get designed before too long (Ember-Eyed Behemoth), with a detour for a Control-focused Incarna first; we’ll talk about that more in a future update.
Unsurprisingly for a Spirit of Darkness that has a somewhat loose relationship with normal physical space, Breath of Darkness Down Your Spine has vastly more Incarna mobility than Behemoth does: one Growth choice lets its Incarna move to any land with Presence (or return to the board if it’s been destroyed), another lets its Incarna move anywhere, and every level of its first innate moves it (usually Pushing it). One of its Uniques lets its Incarna move, and since Incarna can count as Presence, the “move a Presence 1” on its Plays track can be used to move its Incara every Spirit phase. Lots of mobility.
Its core gameplay revolves around abducting Invaders into the Endless Dark - in initial handoff, this was something that just one of its Unique Powers did (moved one or more Invaders from the board onto the Power Card, they returned to the board when the Power Card left play), but players liked that so much that the developers decided to make it central to the Spirit, and it works great. It’s still a Spirit that cares a lot about catching people/pieces alone: when it would Damage/Destroy the only Invader in a land, it instead moves it to The Endless Dark:
…and the more Invaders it holds in the Endless Dark, the more Fear it can earn with its second innate, Lost in the Endless Dark:
Lost in the Endless Dark can also Downgrade pieces - some of the Invaders just never return at all. Others come back eventually: during Growth, 1, 2, or all pieces will escape, depending on your Growth choice. But when only 1 or 2 escape, you get to pick which ones, so if you have a non-Invader piece (say, a Beasts token), you can choose it and keep more Invaders wrapped up in your shadow-realm.
Dev Notes by Emilia Katari
From handoff, this spirit had a mechanical focus similar to what it is now - it ran around the island with its extremely mobile Incarna, went after lone Invaders, and generated a ton of Fear while doing so - but a lot of its exact details changed. Initially, the Endless Dark was just a single power card called Swallowed By The Endless Dark, which took an Explorer or Town off the island, but brought them back at the end of the turn. Players loved using this card, and wanted more of this effect, so it eventually gained a threshold that let it grab Cities, too, but it still felt more infrequent than a lot of players wanted. At the same time, we were trying to figure out how to incentivize this Spirit to go after lone Invaders especially - we tried a bunch of different effects, and they all ended up being problematic for either power level or game feel reasons. Ultimately, we decided that leaning farther into the “Swallowed effect” - which became Abduct - would be a great way to kill two birds with one stone, and it wound up working great!
Different iterations of the Endless Dark had different rules; sometimes it would just store Invaders and they would all be dumped out at the end of the turn, and sometimes it would generate Fear and Downgrade them. Still, we were trying to figure out how we could encourage people to Abduct Explorers instead of just killing them. Even if you were getting an extra Fear, why just move an Explorer instead of destroying it? From there, we came up with the idea of keeping pieces in the Endless Dark for multiple turns and having only a few escape - that way, an extra piece abducted can be Fear over multiple turns, plus letting an Explorer escape could stop a City from escaping. Shortly after then, we replaced Darkness’s second Innate Power - which let it split off lone pieces from large stacks - with something that interacted directly with the Endless Dark, and at that point, we started brainstorming all sorts of things the Endless Dark could do. Could you target it with Dire Metamorphosis, and let the Blight and Tokens out instead of Invaders? Could you Abduct Dahan to protect them from Ravages? What about Beasts, or Presence, or your own Incarna? Some of these ended up working out, and others didn’t (for instance, Dahan would not take kindly to being Abducted), but the end result is a Spirit where the idea of the Endless Dark is intricately linked with its core gameplan much in the same way that Drowning is linked to Ocean.
Once the core idea of all the Powers and Special Rules were solidified, this Spirit took an above-average amount of time to tune for balance. Because of Darkness’s Reclaim releasing all Abducted invaders, it naturally has somewhat cyclic strength: you Abduct a ton of pieces and can make the island almost empty - way more effectively than usual for Spirits that make this much Fear, but once you Reclaim you have to find somewhere to put them all, and lose some progress. Thus, it was really important to strike a very careful balance about how much you could Abduct in the early game. Too much Abduct and canny players could clear their entire board extremely early; too little Abduct and players would feel like everything they Abducted would just immediately be released. All the exact details of Innate thresholds and Presence track positioning are based on a lot of iteration and feedback from a wide variety of playtesters. Ultimately, I feel it ended up in a great place, with a unique feel and play style that fits well with the thematic idea of this shadow beast.
Event Card: Terror Spikes Upwards
Terror Spikes Upwards will be welcome to Spirits that focus on Fear, giving the opportunity to resolve a powerful Terror Level 2 or 3 effect very early, and Final Harvest can help remove the last few Cities from the board in Terror Level 3. But be careful - unlike most events, the Beast and Dahan Events won’t necessarily help you here.
Postscript from Eric: A Note on Terminology
We’re aware that there’s a minority of players - from what we’ve seen, we estimate around 5-15% - who associate “abduct” almost entirely with UFOs, rather than the broader meaning of the word.
Please don’t comment about this. We’re aware of this viewpoint, and tried out other terms during playtesting, but none had the right resonance or really described what was happening. For those of you who have that super-strong association: we realize the term will seem incongruous - at least at first - but we have faith that you’ll find the Spirit fun nonetheless.
Thank you to Eric and Emilia! We’ll be back on Friday with an update all about aspects for core game spirits! See you then.