Playtest Review: Afterlife: Wandering Souls
It gave me a new appreciation for talking about and engaging with games on Kickstarter. This newfound appreciation gave me the perfect opportunity to play a game with someone I admire and whose work I think is brilliant, Elizabeth Chaipraditkul. I've admired Liz's work from the first time I read the back of Witch: Fated Souls, a sexy and brilliant game about, well, Witches. I love the game so much I even bought the beautiful Devil's Deck to use with the game.
After Witch, I stumbled onto a Return to Wonderland scenario Liz designed with Steffie de Van. As a huge Alice in Wonderland fan, the game spoke to me. My partner and I nerded out going through the document together at Dreamation and I loved every page of it. Then came the amazing Bloody Demon Slayers, as played on She's a Super Geek. Any game that puts menstruation on the table as a key part of the game has my immediate attention.
When beautiful artwork arrived at my house by mail from Liz, I have to admit I hadn't looked into the game much because I was busy organizing and running my own Kickstarter. But goodness, that art? Afterlife: Wandering Souls has some of the most visually grabbing and stunning art I've seen in awhile. I received three beautiful postcard sized pieces of art and a really badass sticker of a tiger... thing.
Naturally I dove into the Quickstart and started to learn more about Afterlife. One of my favourite genres of fiction and art is phantasmagoria. I was a huge Alice in Wonderland fan in my undergrad and enjoyed the bizarre. Afterlife offers a more colourful, fantastical version of things like Beetlejuice and Wonderland. Things that have a sense of macabre, wonder, and the unusual. Things that speak to me on a deep level.
The bizarre has always been a space I enjoyed entering in film and literature, be it through Ping or Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett (which is something I think is flavoured strongly in Afterlife), to writing my own nonsensical poetry, phantasmagorical content has always spoke to me. Afterlife embraces that beautiful blend of the mysterious, the unreal, the unusual, and the nonsensical to bring us a living breathing world of the dead.
Trapped within the Tenebris, a vast desert landscape of the mirages and limbos, you play the wandering dead seeking who they were before they came to this place. Most of their memories are gone. As they wander the Tenebris, they seek limbos where they can break into their past and relive one of their stronger memories.
The landscape of the Tenebris is a desert, but pockets of mirages and limbos exist. It is strange, surreal, and inescapable. Mirages are places where the people who live in the Tenebris make their home. Often, the Wanderers also make their homes here. They live and exist, in whatever way they can, within these mirages. Once in awhile they hear a rumour and find out that someone has discovered a Limbo.
I had the fortunate experience of playing a brief adventure of Afterlife with Liz herself. Camdon Wright of One Child's Heart and I sat down and played through one of the Limbos. It was such a great experience. From creating characters as you cross the river guided by the ferrymen, which is all done in character, to the strong narrative control players have, Afterlife gave me life.
The game features a fair bit of stats and numbers, all easy to understand. You have some basic stats called Cores, that also have Attributes tied to them. If you want to do a thing, you can combine a Core and an Attribute to tell you how many dice you roll. A success on any d6 is 4 - 6. You have enough successes, you do the thing!
If you don't, you can modify your roll by spending from your pools. Of course, the GM can also spend, so a bidding war can ensue. If you fail, the GM can damage your vitality points and shit gets worse. The lovely thing about shit getting worse is it's all very surreal. So much of the discomfort and fear is from the way things are unpredictable and disquieting. I loved failing cause it meant the weird got weirder and somehow Afterlife never stalled on its weird.
One of the best parts of Afterlife is how much agency players get in defining themselves and the world. Each character has an Approach, like Bow, Shield, or Sword, and the player gets to define what this means. There's some built in ideas around what each approach is like, like a Bow is seen as witty, quick, and intelligent, but someone whose approach is a bow may be a wayfinder rather than a hunter.
This versatility, along with how Limbos can be created, really lets the GM and players shine together in a collaborative effort to explore the Tenebris. Limbos are fascinating because while some are pre-made for the game, there are guides on making them yourselves that mostly involve asking the players leading questions.
Our Limbo was flowers everywhere. Liz asked us a few questions, like who lived there, what did dead flowers mean, was there something in the flowers, etc., until we had a creepy surrealistic place that she twisted around our words. It was amazing. It was creepy and beautiful and super unsettling.
Afterlife really nails that space of weird meets beautiful. It lingers in surrealistic horror, latches on to the phantasmagoric, and bids you climb into the rabbit hole where the rabbit bleeds sawdust.
As a person who deeply struggles with memory loss because of trauma, so much of this game resonated with me on a deeper level. Identity, memory, loss, grief, and dying are big themes in the game. Not only who you were comes into play, but who you left behind, too.
The game allows you to discuss how memories influence who we are, and that knowing who we are through memories is a way to find peace. I have been forced in my life to find identity in a lack of memory, and to internalize what anyone says about me because odds are, they know better than I do. In Afterlife, there was so much agency given in defining and expanding and exploring memories I was excited and empowered.
Games about identity and memory are often hard to pull off because we lose agency in our character and are forced to internalize what we're told about ourselves. Afterlife does a beautiful job of navigating that landscape and keeping the player in charge of who their character is. I never was told who Harper, my character, was. Instead, I was given questions to help explore who I thought she was as she discovered herself.
There was such beauty in the story of watching someone discover themselves through memory. In part, because the game facilitates this beautifully. But also in part because it's a journey I so personally relate to.
Afterlife is a weird, creepy, unsettling, stunning, and nuanced game about discovering ones self through the power of memory, the lengths you'll go to find your memory, and becoming whole through exploring what our memories mean to us. The mechanics are fluid, simple to understand, but robust enough to offer multiple approaches to navigating conflict. Besides all of this, the art is absolutely gorgeous.
While I was never tentative on backing the game, I knew after I played it that it was a game I would regularly be running. It does everything I want a game to do: has depth and meaning, provides nuanced mechanics, and a fantastic world and premise ready to be explored.
The Tenebris awaits you. Won't you join us?