Death often defines the RPGs that we play, even when we don’t realize it. The style of gameplay of many games is determined by the frequency of character death, but even in games where that isn’t a consideration, the absence of character death is often a consideration in reinforcing the tone and themes of a game.
Instead of death being an aspect of the wider game, the game I’m reviewing today is entirely about death, and what comes after. Today, we’re looking at Afterlife—Wandering Souls, a game about finding out who you were in life, now that you are dead.
The Book of the Dead
This review is based on the PDF for the game, which is 153 pages long. This includes a two-page character sheet and a single page index at the back of the book. The book itself has clear headers and table entries, but saying that feels like I’m definitely underselling this book.
When I say this book has full-color art, I mean there are gorgeous borders on each page, as well as full-page chapter illustrations, and various half-page illustrations for various entries in the book. Vibrant flowers contrast with grey skulls and characters that encompass both extremes in appearance throughout the book.
Traveling the Dark
The book begins with an explanation of the setting of the game. The Tenebris is shadowy real that isn’t the afterlife that you should have reached. It’s kind of a strange world between worlds, where the player characters aren’t natives.
Player characters are Wanderers, trying to collect Resonance to unlock memories that lead to Death Marks, which appear on their skin once they have had a Break that allows them to reintegrate a memory. Enough Death Marks, and the character can find their way out of the Tenebris and into their intended afterlife.
If they gain too much Stagnation, they become Unrequited, characters that have lost their will to move out of the Tenebris and find their intended afterlife. Characters remember very little about their past lives, and are attempting to find out who they were, before moving Beyond. There is more on Mirages, Limbos, and the people native to the Tenebris later on in the book.
By this point in the book, I was already greatly intrigued at what this kind of surreal journey through the spaces between life and death would look like, and this is a great, evocative chapter to bait the hook.
Characters have a stat for Body, Mind, and Soul. They have Attributes linked to each of these core stats, that represent a specialization in applying that core stat.
In addition to attributes, characters have pools derived from adding a core stat to an attribute. One pool is Concept, and the other is Vitality. Concept can be spent to gain special results when that pool is relevant to what is being done, such as spending points to generate a success on your roll, or to add a success to an allies check. The Vitality pool represents how well you resist stress to the relevant area—for example, Health represents physical well-being, Hunger represents want (more on this later), and Will represents your ability to carry on.
Health and Will function as you might expect—zero out your pool and you may need to accept a consequence or you die (again, and permanently this time) or you start gaining Stagnation and eventually become an NPC that doesn’t have the motivation to find out who you are or your final afterlife any longer. You can save yourself from permanent death by giving up Will, and if you zero out Health or Will, you suffer a memory.
Hunger is interesting, because it can track you having your basic needs met, but you can also spend from this pool to buy things, representing you giving up your potential to sustain yourself to secure an item. This is what you do instead of tracking any kind of wealth. If you zero out your Hunger, you start taking Health damage until you aren’t quite so destitute anymore.
When characters fill up their Resonance track, they gain Death Marks, and Death Marks allow characters to pick up abilities like Tricks, which can lower the difficulty of certain tasks. Characters also have an Approach, which is a manifestation of the character’s self. This manifestation is either a Bow, a Shield, or a Sword, and each one gives benefits to checks in different situations. Characters can also have Talents, which are very much like Feats or Stunts from other games—a discreet ability that modifies the game rules in specific circumstances.
While Death Marks and Approaches are manifestations of who the Wanderers are, Wanderers can also obtain Curiosa, items that have a level from 1 to 3 that can increase damage or reduce difficulty when used in an appropriate circumstance.
Making checks involves rolling a pool of d6s derived from adding a Core Stat to an Attribute (with potential bonuses from other aspects of the character), and counting certain numbers as successes. The GM sets difficulties, and when the PCs fail, Things Get Worse, which means that the action in the scene escalates, or the PCs take damage to one of their Vitality pools. The GM never rolls dice.
Two things in particular jump out at me in this design. I am interested to see how the flow of Hunger works as both a substitute for tracking currency and for measuring the “needs” of a character. I’m an easy mark for anything that tracks wealth or resources in a new way. I also like that failure isn’t just failure, it is always escalation. I feel like this is a long term legacy of games derived from Apocalypse World, and a key component to game design that doesn’t involve the GM rolling dice or using the rules that work in a parallel manner to the player facing mechanics.
This chapter details the assumed course of play in a game session. Characters are traveling across the Tenebris and interact with the inhabitants. They find Limbos, which are special “pocket dimensions” where they can gain Resonance. When they gain enough Resonance, they can suffer a Break, which allows them to unlock a Death Mark, which moves them closer to their Requiem, their final trip to their intended afterlife.
Characters can mark XP for each Things Get Worse result that comes up, and these can be used to advance attributes. XP can also be marked by answering questions at the end of a session. Death Marks and their associated abilities are only unlocked through interacting with Limbos and gaining Resonance.
In each Limbo, a character can claim something in that Limbo as a Fragment, a powerful link to a memory that immediately triggers a Break and creates a Death Mark for them. This can only happen once per Limbo, and the same character can’t claim a Fragment in a Limbo until everyone else in the group has done so.
I like the idea of characters being able to name their own fragments and have the agency to say when they will experience a Break and what about that memory helps them to remember who they are. It is a nice interaction between the surreal nature of the setting and player agency to allow this kind of declaration, and I like that the built-in mechanics address who can claim a fragment and when, to keep people from dominating a trip into a Limbo.
World, Mirages, and Limbos
The next three chapters detail the settings and give examples of existing people and places in the Tenebris. Mirages are established settlements in the Tenebris, usually populated by people that are native to the Tenebris itself, rather than wandering souls that are either looking to travel Beyond, or have given up that quest.
Limbos are strange pocket dimensions that hold Resonance that the Wanderers need to unlock their memories and gain Death Marks. Limbos tend to be even stranger and more thematic than the Mirage settlements in the Tenebris.
These chapters introduce some of the hazy mythology of the setting, including the giant serpents that live under the sands of the Tenebris and that were present at the dawn of creation.
There are native people of the Tenebris, such as:
- The Kiin (human appearing, but born to this world)
- The Nagiin (serpentine natives of the Tenebris that see themselves as heirs of the giant serpents)
- Venefolk (multi-armed near humans with a talent for Magick)
- Usurii (small, spiritual bearfolk)
- Ungkiin (hooved humanoids subdivided between satyrs and centaurs)
There are also the other Wanderers as well as the Unrequited
The Wanderers have philosophical factions based on their view of the true nature of the afterlife Beyond, and there are factions of Unrequited as well. Individual Mirages have political aspirations that might reach across the Tenebris and hinder or harm the efforts of PC Wanderers on their journeys.
Example Mirages include a city built on the back of a giant dinosaur, the towering city of Babel with its 77 circles, a city built on the edge of a chasm, and what appears to be a crashed starship. There are frozen wastes, cities built inside of an enormous skeleton (with districts in the various body parts), a city composed of reflections, and a mirage based on M.C. Escher architecture.
Example Limbos include a region that exists in the flame of an enormous candle, an ever-expanding version of Atlantis, an ever dark jungle, and a giant garden. Other examples are a living steampunk land, a maze of broken glass, a giant void, and a world based on truths established by ancient science and alchemy. Because the Limbos are both highly conceptual and the area where the heart of adventuring is assumed to be taking place, the entries have a section for what themes the Limbo has, as well as various plot hooks listed at the end of the Limbo’s entry.
I don’t always enjoy surrealist fantasy. I may be no fun, as I can’t always enjoy a world that aggressively doesn’t make sense for the sake of reveling in the chaos. That said, there is something very charming and engaging about the Tenebris and its details. Something about the framing device of the setting existing between and outside of the real world and the afterlives that “should be” makes my brain embrace all of the weirdness and want to engage with it, especially with the meta-conceit of essentially seizing the dreamlike qualities of the Limbos in order to regain memories and remember who your character really is.
This section summarizes and expands on the mechanics presented in previous sections. It also defines the modes of play and switching between them (in this case, what it is like to travel the Tenebris, versus encountering a Limbo, versus having a Break or suffering a Memory).
It gives advice on setting difficulty and defining what happens when Things Get Worse. There are some guidelines for creating your own Limbos, and charts to help generate inhabitants that the PCs may encounter.
There is also a section on the various factions in the Tenebris, their motivations, and their goals. There is also a section on tracking the activity level of the various powers in the setting, to determine how ascendant and important they are in your version of the Tenebris.
Character creation is situated at the end of the book, most likely because creating characters is essentially a very active “session zero” for the game, where you don’t determine anything about your character until everyone is together on The Boatman’s ship, arriving in the Tenebris together.
Each character gets three dice of Clarity, which allows them the potential to reroll the results they get as they begin to remember details about themselves. If characters have Clarity left at the end of character creation, they can spend it to move points from one attribute to another.
Characters roll on the following charts, which give you base level numbers for your Core stats and Attributes depending on the entries:
- My Life Was . . .
- What I Learned . . .
- What I Know Now . . .
Even once you come up with all of this, you don’t have a huge amount of details on your characters, but you have a framework to start building on, and your memories (which you have more control over defining), will let you add context. Even at that, some of the facts of your life (you murdered someone, you were a liar, etc.) may not be what you want to build on, so you can roll a Clarity die to see if you can reroll on the chart.
This isn’t framed as “that last roll never happened,” but “you started to remember something, but that wasn’t exactly how it was.” I like that this contributes to the fuzzy nature of trying to rebuild your identity in the Tenebris, and how fragmentary memories can be misleading.
That said, I’m not sure that I’m thrilled with the idea that spending your Clarity dice only allows you a random chance to roll a new memory from the charts. While the game is very much about playing to the story, and not manipulating the rules, this mechanic rewards saving your Clarity dice to customize your character at the end more than just having a chance to play with different established details in your past life.
The appendix includes the Death Marks, listed in alphabetical order, as well as providing alternate lists for all of the steps of character creation, which could be useful for long-term play, as well as varying results when players end up with similar results within the same group.
Resonance It strikes a wonderful balance between the surreal and the structured, with a set of mythological conceits that provide a container for the chaos within.
There are so many imaginative elements to this setting, and fun details to play with. I love the concept of the Limbos, and the agency that players have in claiming fragments and regaining memories. It is such a strong, fun theme to play with, and the details of the people and the Mirages in the Tenebris act as a really well-defined pacing mechanism so that the players have more to do then just racing to the next Limbo.
I’m not a huge fan of spending a resource for only the chance at rerolling a result, especially when Clarity is the only real input that a player has on their character in character creation driven by random rolls. While players have more agency “on the back end,” first impressions can be strong, and this mechanic feels like its rewarding arranging numbers more than controlling narrative elements. There is discussion in many places in the book about player input and getting the permission of the table for elements of the story, but with some of the themes of the game, I would have liked a more concentrated and direct treatment of table safety. It’s not missing, it’s just not a single reference point that can be accessed.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
This is an imaginative setting, with fun and accessible mechanics, and lots of tools for adding creative content into games. There is space for player agency and contribution to the story, but lots of room for the GM to have fun adding the fantastical to the game. It strikes a wonderful balance between the surreal and the structured, with a set of mythological conceits that provide a container for the chaos within.
Do you love surreal fantasy, and if so, what games have captured the feel that you want the best? How much does a setting need to make sense for you to enjoy it? What other games have you played that dealt with the disposition of souls after death, and what are your favorites? Let us know in the comments below, we’re looking forward to hearing from you.