Tuesday 2 February 2010

Roll your own in Cursed Life by Sean Wilt

Cursed Life by Sean Wilt is a dark, modern roleplaying game that has an epic character background creator and a modular setting. It's the modular underpinning of the setting that catches my beady eye: it provides the GM with a guiding toolbox to build a varied world. Mechanics lite and setting heavy but does it leave too much for the GM to do? Well, it depends how lazy your GM is...

Character Generation

Attributes take the form of Traits (Physical, Mental and Spiritual), whose values cap their respective skills. Secondary Traits add a welcome extra crunch and measure how alien to the world the character is. Marked as optional but I'd force the gnashing, blood-shot eyed players to have them. Skills make up learnt abilities and are purchased before the life path is decided. I won't dwell on these; Sean didn't. In the epic that is character generation, Traits are merely "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.".

Your character coagulates during a trudge along a life path. The life path is a huge (yet quick) system for generating random character backgrounds and a smorgasbord of sharpened hooks for the plot hungry GM. Although the tables run into tens of pages, random rolling avoids endless pouring over the rules (which is included as an option). Lifepaths are generated by a series of random rolls. You begin by rolling for parents, then for childhood. The wealth and standing of your parents will specify which of the childhood tables you roll on. Education rolls then specify what you get to roll for on the Adult tables. You then roll for your Transformation. There is a strengths chart and a weaknesses chart and for each strength (or super power) you must roll a weakness. You can have up to four. For my players, that means they would have four. Why? Because they are just like that.

Every character has a crooked, evil side (based on the deadly sins) called an Alien. This could be infection of an evil spirit or evil lurking in the recesses of your character's psyche (setting dependent). The vile urge is treated like a parasitic alien entity. As the Alien is important to the character's modus operandi, it is chosen - not randomly rolled. The descriptions cause the creative mind to froth.

Enemies and friends are rolled for. The enemies table is particularly delicious - listing a superb array of reasons why you might fall out with someone.


Roll d10 + skill + modifiers vs value of 9. opposed is higher roll wins. Rolls for unskilled items are d10-2. Character advancement is based on the number of sessions played. Combat is played out using opposed rolls and description with damage application requiring another roll and the use of a table. With a slick engine in general, damage feels a little like a cog with some teeth bitten off.


Cursed Life is set in the modern world where humans have been 'transformed', that is beings with special abilities and a dark evil too. The origin can be either from another world, a scientific explanation, spiritual warfare, planetary alignments or magic. The GM can then choose to either transform only a few of the humans or all of them. The combinations of these bring light to some fascinating settings. What if everyone on earth is from another world but people are slowly waking up to that stark realisation through a planetary alignment. As such the setting can be overlaid onto any game: fantasy, supers, modern day or cyberpunk. Quite a lot needs to be filled in by the GM but the combinatorial nature provides a broad tapestry of what Cursed Life can be.


Cursed Life loves the Gamesmaster. The GM Section reads like a monologue of lust toward the GM and the tips there are mostlye solid with a few Cursed Life specific ones. The equipment section is brief and drags the RPG back into the real world. There are pre-solidified Corporations and NPCs for the GM, which indicate how the system might be played. Attractive stock Superhero art is good throughout but doesn't always convey the same description in the text.

The niggles

Cursed Life needs a thorough application of my Guide to Organising an RPG. In particular, I would have liked a brief introduction at the start of the game that details what the characters actually do and why the game is worth playing at all. It's important and should be at the front, bold as brass! Some explanations are marred by lots of "GM can do modify this" caveats. Noting that the GM is free to change and modify to suit is important but need only be included once. I also think the Lifepath section should be performed first so that Traits can be set to match the character's upbringing.


Cursed Life is a toolbox of ideas that can be combined and combed into a unique quiff. To some, a boon. To others (the time strapped GM), a pointless extravagance. Cursed Life does need effort from the Gamesmaster to get running but the settings you would generate can be novel enough to intrigue and familiar enough to be unsettling. Cursed Life is a glinting gem.

Thank you to Sean for sharing some very large ideas.


Unknown said...

Thanks for the feedback Rob.

Rob Lang said...

You're welcome, Sean. I am glad I can be of some assistance. Are you going to create another version? I would like to see a tightened up Cursed Life.

Unknown said...

I want to release a revised version incorporating suggestions received up to this point. It's another ball in my juggling act however.

Spacemouse said...

I decided to leave my comment here, since Twitter is a bit brief for my burgeoning style.

I have a love/hate relationship with Lifepath generators. As a rule, I like random tables for the way they can kick-start my creativity. Furthermore, Lifepath tables can provide very practical hints on the tone of the setting.

On the other hand, "unprogrammed" Lifepath generators (where results are not influenced by previous ones) can produce nonsensical results, or results that just don't mesh with the emerging character concept. (Of course, results can always be ignored or changed, but having to do that a lot raises the question why I'm bothering with the tables at all.)

I found the Lifepath system for Shadowrun I mentioned! It was published in Shadowrun Supplemental issue #8. Take a gander, I think it's top-notch stuff.

I liked the MegaTraveller career system a lot (possibly because I only ever created one or two MT characters and never got to examine the system closely, so all I was left with was the memory of extreme coolness 8P), particularly because it gave the option of quickly whipping up careers in the Traveller-standard 4-year blocks, or rolling for each year in detail.

Mark Chase created a much improved generic version of the Interlock Lifepath system as part of his Atomik Fuzion product line, but the text is, sadly, no longer available online.

Unknown said...

Hey Spacemouse,

The link for shadowrun isn't working out for me. I heard mixed messages about MT and didn't know about Mark Chase. Anyway, you gave me some leads to chase down:)

Rob Lang said...

Hey spacemouse, glad you made the jump over to the blog!

Since reading Cursed Life, I've been mulling lifepath geenrators (and tweeting, naturally) for two reasons:

1. For people new to a setting, it can be very difficult to generate a background - after all, you don't know much about the setting! The lifepath generator is really good at that. From reading Sean's, I could get a real feel for the sorts of characters that would be played in the system.

2. I don't like lengthy character creation and I think asking players to generate background can bog things down. Especially for those players who have had a hard week at work! In that case, random rolls can start to throw ideas into the melting pot.

As for nonsensical - I can see where you're coming from. However, Cursed Life is one of those games where you are FORCED to make sense of things that might not fit because it is by its very nature a combinatorial game. You generate the setting from a combination of possibly-not-fitting-100% ideas. Regardless of fit, the outcome is novel.

@Sean, I really hope you do another version. Don't just feedback from me, however, pop along to http://www.1km1k1t.net/forum and get feedback from other free RPG authors - like spacemouse.

Spacemouse said...

The Dumpshock site, where the SR Supplemental files (and more) are stored, works fine for me, so in the interest of public service, I put SRS#8 up on SnapDrive. (I don't think I'm breaking anyone's rights here, since they're supposed to be freely distributable, but I'll still take it down in a few days, so go get it now! 8P)

(Oh, and Rob, I've been following the Free RPG Blog for the entire time it's been online... I've just been quiet as a mouse about it!)

Unknown said...

Ok, I could access SR#8. I had to remember my Shadowrun...once I did, the lifepath made much more sense and I'll remember to go back when I revise:)

Misterecho said...

I love life path generators, in fact I love random tables of all kinds! I will peruse this little gem at length.

Unknown said...

Any feedback, good or bad, would be appreciated Misterecho

Rob Lang said...

@sean - Try asking over on http://www.1km1kt.net/forum - the community is bubbling there and misterecho (and others just like him) will give you some great feedback.