The Game: Anathema
The Publisher: End Transmission
Degree of Familiarity: None. I've read it.
Books Required: Just the one.
Anathema is a game that came out of the same Game Chef competition that produced They Became Flesh. It's billed as "a roleplaying game of death deferred," which I'm not sure is quite accurate, but of course I haven't played it. The cover is simple and sexy, though some of the font choices are a little strange and hard to read (but I'm a White Wolf vet, so I'm pretty inured).
The idea is that you're someone who's died, and been recruited by The Balance (have I mentioned it annoys me when games capitalize articles? just me?) to "kill as many people in as short a time as possible."
Yep. That's the game. You kill people. You're not given much guidance on who to kill or how, you just kill people.
I have some issues with this, not least of which is that the book gives you stats for people that you should be killing. It's mentioned that low-level Shrouds (your character is called a "Shroud") kill people one at a time, while more powerful Shrouds arrange plane crashes and plagues and so forth.
The idea is an intriguing one. And I don't necessary mean that in a good way. I'm not necessarily opposed to going to dark places in my roleplaying, obviously (curse the darkness is hardly a walk in the park, and I've played and enjoyed Poison'd, which is hardly light and fluffy). But this...I dunno. It reads (and again, haven't played it) like a mostly traditional RPG; roll a dice pool, anything above a 3 is a success, and considering that the designer is also working on Shadowrun 5th I guess that's not a huge surprise. But the tone of the game feels like it should be an indie game, like the killing and the death and everything should be abstracted. Put another way, there are stats in the back of the book for the people you'll be killing, arranged by how much of a fight they can put up. So children/old people are first.
That makes me profoundly uncomfortable, not (just) because the game is suggested wholesale murder might be fun to roleplay, but because it's presently people in the same way that other games present orcs.
Oh, another peeve: There's no character sheet. I asked one of the designers, but never got a response, and I can't find it. Said designer also mentioned, by the way, that this game hasn't exactly been extensively playtested, which makes me wonder why it's been published. I mean, why rush?
Anyway, I'm also informed that the game sells, so I dunno, maybe it works in play. I'm in no hurry to try.
Before we construct a Shroud, the book says, we must decide on an identity for our Husk. I should pick name, profession, personality, history, age, appearance, family, and all the other little details (quoting here) that make someone human. Next sentence: "None of these factors will have any mechanical impact on game play, but they should be recorded in as much detail as possible."
If it doesn't impact gameplay, why the hell is it there? Or maybe it just doesn't have mechanical impact, in which case I have the same question, really, because if you want the players to care about something, you make it important to the game. But whatevs. I need a Husk.
Method of death is important. Most common cause of death in the US is heart disease. Accidents are fifth on the list. I'll split the difference and say my Husk died of a stroke. He was in his 40s, in otherwise decent health, but had a brain bleed that got out of control. One day he just keeled over, and his last thought, quite apart from being profound or poignant, was "I'm going to be late for the movie."
His name was Harold Duncan, and he was a high school math teacher. He covered one wall of his classroom with whiteboard paper because he hated the feel of chalk. He was married, but he and his wife grew distant within a few years of their wedding. They liked each other well enough, and they were comfortable, but there wasn't much fiery passion there. Harold liked his work, coached soccer, and was just beginning to wonder if maybe he might be missing something when his brain caught up with him.
It seems character creation takes place during the first session of play (that is, chargen is part of the game, of which I approve). I do think, however, that the actual steps could be called out a little more clearly. I get 10 points to split up between Combat, Perception, Manipulation, and Resistance. Max is five, min is 1. OK.
Well, let's assume that I'm not going to be a bruiser, because I rarely play those. I'll put 4 points into Perception, 2 into Combat, and 3 each into Manipulation and Resistance.
Well, looking ahead, my Husk died due to illness, which means my primary Dominion is Pestilence (makes sense). I start with 3 in said Dominion. Then I get 5 points to buy up other Dominions, but I can't put them higher than my primary -1, which is 2. Right? Weird. Why not just say I get 2/2/1? Oh, well, I guess there are six Dominions total, so I could take the other five at 1 point, but eh.
OK, let's see. War is boring combat stuff with really no flavor to it (1st dot, extra damage, 2nd dot, extra attack, third dot, ladies' lingerie). Misfortune is more interesting, though the first power is called "Accident Freak." WTF?
Anyway, I'll take 2 points there. Atrophy allows me to give humans "points of Age," which I assume means I can...age them. The dot rating just determines range. Famine Dominion lets me destroy food and then dehydrate people, and Despair lets me sap people's Will.
Huh. Well, I'll take Despair 2 and then Atrophy 1, how about.
So, now I get more points to put into Abilities (oh, the points before were for the Husk, these are the Shroud's influence, kinda like the two-step process in Mummy: The Resurrection). Sure. I can go over 5 now, but every point over 5 costs 2 points. Well, I'll boost Perception to 5. Most of my powers rely on Manipulation, so I'll spend two points to put that to 5, and then two more to put it to 6. And then I'll put the last point into Resistance.
Now I decide why the (sorry, "The") Balance chose me. I can be Violent ("I KILLLL YOOOUUU"), Lost ("Huh?") or Kindly ("I AM ANGST!"). Well, clearly Violent doesn't work. Kindly makes some sense, but I think I'll go Lost. When I get closer to understanding who I was in life and why I was chosen, I gain Will. Sure. I lose Will by not trying to do that.
And then I get a Victim Preference and a Victim Avoidance. OH GOD. These are people that I prefer to kill and that I prefer not to kill. One of the examples is "haughty blonde cheerleader". That's uncomfortable, given the amount of blithe misogyny that gets slung around in this hobby (the other example of Victim Preference is "KKK Members").
Well, I think I'll take "incompetent bureaucrats" as my Victim Preference, and "teenage athletes" as my Avoidance, why not.
Almost done. I have to determine how much time elapsed between death and Shroud-hood. It's very vague, though. Rolling a d6, I get "days." OK. It only took days for Harold to become a Shroud.
And now I get (hang on; it's a d6) five random memory fragments. I'm gonna get get some entropy. Oh, wait, it's actually a d6-2 because I'm Lost. So just three.
I get 3, which is a sibling or close friend. Sure. Let's say Harold had a younger sister named Olivia, training for the Olympics when Harold died (Harold doesn't remember which event).
A roll of 4 gives me an important lover or lack thereof. Sure. Let's say his wife, Jackie. He remembers her in a vague, abstract sort of way. I think that in play, the sad lesson here would be that's pretty much how their marriage was.
And finally, 8 means an enemy. Harold's principal, Mr. Aiken, is old as dirt and has no time for any approach to teaching that doesn't involve the way he used to do it...40 years ago. Harold had to get the union involved when he put that white board stuff up in his room. Aiken's first on the block when the Harold-Shroud comes around, man.
"In terms of their formidable supernatural powers, Shrouds that have newly returned are as weak as kittens." FUCK THAT. If I'm going to be weak as a kitten, I want to actually be playing a kitten. (And there are lots of games for that.) But I think that puts me done.
Husk: Harold Duncan
Abilities: Combat 2, Perception 5, Manipulation 6, Resistance 4
Dominions: Pestilence 3, Atrophy 1, Despair 2, Misfortune 2
Trait That Doesn't Have a Name: Lost
Memory Fragments: Olivia (sister), Jackie (wife), Mr. Aiken (dickbag principal)
There ya have it!