Killed and looted your way to boredom? Try healing and giving stuff away! Does it bother you when your roleplaying degenerates into roll playing? Do your games sound like "I try to hit him" (rolls) "Does a 17 hit?" instead of "Gritting my teeth, I open my mouth in a wordless yell, raise my sword above my head and, heedless of defense, I strike with all my might." Tired of killing, looting, plundering, stealing, mayhem, and combat with monsters/villains for little reason? Try Dead Inside.
Written by Chad Underkoffler and published by Atomic Sock Monkey Press, Dead Inside: The roleplaying game of loss and redemption is designed to encourage deep relational characters with real stories, loves and goals, and to bring vivid descriptions out in conflict and combat. This intention is held throughout the book and I think the author succeeds. The Prose Descriptive Qualities (PDQ) mechanic helps to encourage vivid roleplaying by giving character bonuses (called an "upshift") for good player descriptions. Even the gamer in your group who is into kicking butt and buffing his rolls has a reason to try and tell a better story.
Incidentally, I think this is an excellent idea for any RPG if you are trying to encourage the narrative or prosaic elements of the game. Using Dead Inside (DI) as a break from the usual session may help revitalize roleplaying styles. My current gaming group is heavily into roleplaying. Recently though, we have been in more combat situations and have found our roleplaying lacking. I think a use of the "upshift" mechanic could really brighten the descriptions and narrations by stretching the roleplaying muscles of our group.
you've lost your soul and need to get it back or create a new one
Tone: The game begins with a supernatural emphasis: you've lost your soul and need to get it back or create a new one. As characters reconstitute a soul, their powers increase and the tone may shift more towards high fantasy. While the examples describe a modern setting, I didn't see any reason why a futuristic, historical, etc., period couldn't be used. The early motivation of regaining the soul also lends a relational aspect for each character. Players are encouraged both implicitly and explicitly to help others, to care about NPCs and each other, and to get involved. Even the character creation process bears this out as most of it is writing the backstory to the character. Based on the backstory, you and the GM work together to figure out what skills you've implied your character has. The beauty is that there is almost no way to lose the story in the mechanics. The mechanics are dictated by the story and without the story you have nothing to mechanize. In other games with a "realistic mechanic", you can spend so much time rolling dice that the game degenerates into moving pieces around a board.
The majority of this rule book is dedicated to play within the spirit world, and I suspect that people who enjoy a supernatural setting will be drawn to Dead Inside. Given DIs emphasis on relational play and storytelling, and what I have learned from some of the articles by Gamerchick, I also suspect that some female gamers might enjoy Dead Inside very much. If you want to rescue the princess and have a kick butt sword, for which you roll a handful of dice numerous times to kill things, this may not be the best game for you. The only dice required are two d6s.
Mechanics: The PDQ system, the mechanics for the game, uses descriptors for qualities and skills: instead of "climbing", that particular skill might fall under "Outdoorsy", or "Extreme Sport Fanatic". Instead of "Bluff", that skill might fall under the character's "CEO" or "Street Vendor" quality. In-game, you try to use a quality for a task and the GM rules if the quality you propose fits with the task you are trying to do. The beauty of this system is that it is a simple, no frills way of trimming down mechanics and keeping the story more prominent. Players can enjoy the fact that they don't have to memorize a lot of piddling rules, modifiers, and exceptions.
The downside of the PDQ system is that it opens the way for a lot of GM interpretation and adjudication. Players that have a hard time getting their style crimped by a GM's "no" may find this mechanic annoying, as opposed to those who enjoy a bit of debate. Rules lawyers will not like this game because there isn't enough substance in the rules to bicker about: everything really hinges on GM arbitration.
Art: Cover art by Mr. Steve Archer was both stark and emotional. The black and purple hues reveal the wounded and sorrowful tone typical of the DI game. As mentioned above, the game is certainly capable of developing into high fantasy, but its beginnings and emphasis are on playing a Dead Inside, a human without a soul, and the cover art portrays that tone well. The internal art is not the highlight of this book: it isn't slick or polished and I got the feeling that I was looking through a high school art student's journal. By the end, this feeling became part of the appeal of the entire book's aesthetic; the pictures added to the overall text by generating a sense on closeness with the artist. The one unequivocally bad aspect were the pictures of digital clocks displaying various semi-game related words like "DEAD" and "PAIN". The first time I saw one, it felt contrived; by the sixth time, it felt contrived and overused.
Chapter by Chapter Overview
The introduction lacks one serious component: the game and the world. While Mr. Underkoffler introduces the concepts and inspiration behind the game, revealing his own emphasis on purpose and process rather than content, he neglects to give some basic understanding of the setting. It would have helped if he had simply written: You begin the game playing a character without a soul. How they lost it is up to you, but the character's goal is to reclaim or recreate it. Usually this is done by traveling to the Spirit World, because it is easier to get soul making stuff there.
Chapter 1: Being Dead Inside
Chapter 1 begins by talking to "you" in narrative form, "Maybe you've never felt anything strongly..."; by you, it is referring to your character. If you begin reading the book in character, it will help a lot. On the other hand, I, the player, started and felt like I was reading a bad new-age cosmology or self-help book. Once I restarted as though I was a new character, it read far more easily. There is no meta-game content for a long time, so I kept wanting some kind of foundation on which to base my understanding. Eventually, I learned enough that I had a sense of the world and what the ramifications of the narration were on character creation and the dynamics of play.
The first chapter explains what it means to be Dead Inside, that is, how your character might have gotten that way, and how your character realizes what they've become. A couple of pages in, the disconnected prose, ways of losing a soul, and finding out that you lost it, begins to get a bit boring. The prose is written well, but because there is no meta-game connection (the individual theoretical in-game explanations), I started to feel like I was watching commercials but no show.
I was getting sucked in.
By the end of the chapter, I finally realized what was nagging me. Every time I pick up a new game system, I always try to learn as much as I can about the crunchy bits as soon as possible. Character generation and the combat system are usually my first reads, and they usually come first in the book. In DI, however, author Chad Underkoffler is true to his word: he set out to create a roleplaying heavy, mechanic low game. The early text is devoted to building the player's perception of the Spirit World, and character creation and mechanics are covered in a scant 33 pages of a 121 page book. By the time I settled in to chapter 2, I was more comfortable with the images and mystery being entwined around me. "Okay, so I play a soulless being walking around the world with a city at the center and a changing dreamlike landscape surrounding it..." I was getting sucked in.
Chapter 2: The Real World and the Spirit World
In chapter 2, the world becomes more concrete... well, sort of. Reasons are given why the Spirit World is easier to build a soul in (it is closer to "The Source"). I really enjoyed that these descriptions left a lot of mystery in them about the nature of "The Source". Is it God or energy? Conscious or not? This leaves a lot of room for GM interpretation and later player exploration.
Population: The section on population is extensive. I had to put the book down at a couple of points and make notes because this is also the player's version of a beastiary. The section tells you about all the inhabitants of the Real World and the Spirit World, some of which can travel in both. When the chapter begins to introduce the Imagos (Jungian archetypes) and the personal imagos (a PC's or NPC's personal reflection of a Jungian archetype), my head started swimming. I got daunted at this point (though I was reassured when I read the chapter on GMing) at the concept of narrating as many as nine different reflections of each PC, let alone the necessary NPCs. It started to feel like a character generation nightmare.
I made it through because I was so excited by the prospect of using this game with the style of play I have described in some of my other articles. Especially if used in gaming for two, interactions with a personal imago could be very revealing and even helpful. As characters evolve in the game, they are limited at two points from advancing until they have integrated one of their personal imagos (the sensitive must integrate the syzygy and the mage must integrate the shadow). If you are a Jung fan, or enjoy playing with archetypes, this game is a must: the flow is intimately connected to the use of the Imagos.
the flow is intimately connected to the use of the Imagos.
Several prominent NPCs are revealed as well. They can surely be changed or refigured as the GM sees fit. I found that these glimpses of prominent NPCs helped me to get a feel of the Spirit World.
Geography: The geography of the Spirit World is described well. The vignettes given to describe each place are vivid and written beautifully. The challenge in assimilating the geography is that the relative location of places to each other is supposed to change because this is a dreamlike world. The map on page 20 helped clear up some confusion. In GMing this world, I'd want to have a copy of that map handy at all times.
The description of commerce in the spirit world was also clear and concise. Simple mental conversions from real world dollars to Spirit World commodities helped to envision GMing such scenarios.
Chapter 3: Creating DI Player Characters
The DI character creation process is completely different from anything I have experienced in other games. You don't roll a single die (okay, that is familiar in a point/buy system), you don't determine ability scores or skills, and you don't buy equipment! While I have heard many GMs and advice columns recommend starting with a personality in mind, I have never seen a game that actually starts that way. The first step in creating a DI character is to get a sense of the character's personality. The second task is to write a backstory. Your backstory includes the virtue and vice of the character (kind of like a moral advantage and disadvantage). Third, you write the story about how the character lost their soul and how they found out. GMs: think of being able to tell your gaming group that they have to do some creative writing and thinking before that can add a single stat to their character sheet... compelled yet?
creative writing and thinking before adding a single stat
Finally, looking at the personality and the backstory, the player and GM work together to decide on qualities that will help determine what your character can do. Skills in this game are not what you might think. First, there are no weapons, no armor, there aren't even individual skills. Instead, you have a quality like "Outdoorsy" with a rank (the first number mechanic you've seen in the book so far). When a physical task comes up, you'll probably roll against this "Outdoorsy", "College Professor", or "Chatty" quality to figure out how well you can run, write a letter, or get someone to like you. This is how the mechanic remains out of the way of the story. You get a quality based on the character as written, and you and the GM decide on the spot if the quality applies to the task intended and how well. Brilliant. So simple it's elegant. The game also has some useful tips on how to write a quality so that it is the right combination of specificity and broadness. A quality like "Businessman" could be a variety of different tasks and skills (e.g. paper pushing office wimp to CEO) and thus is too broad, whereas a quality like "Middle Finance Manager for Acme Wood Cabinet Supply, Inc." is a bit to narrow.
This mechanic also highlights how important it is for a group to have the right players for this game to work. The qualities are written in a word or a phrase, and much is left open to interpretation or determination by the GM. The group playing a DI game will need to figure out how to deal with the vague quality of the system. If they are going to allow players to argue or challenge a GM on whether a quality fits a task, then they'll also need to agree on not holding a grudge if they lose a particular debate. Or, if they agree that what the GM says goes, than everyone can have some feedback on whether the interpretations feel too constricted or too vague.
The virtue/vice pairs introduce another set of facets to any PC personality. I appreciated the author's use of a set of virtues and vices that didn't match perfectly with any real world religious tradition. The GM section does give virtue/vice sets from world religions and histories (Viking virtues, anyone?) but in the player section, the set chosen would appeal to the widest audience and wouldn't turn off anyone allergic to a particular tradition.
Chapter 4: DI Game Mechanics
a player who describes well gains a bonus on the roll
As mentioned in the overall review, the best part of DI's mechanic is that it was designed to, and does in fact, support storytelling, roleplaying, and interpersonal drama. The biggest example of this is the "upshift", in which a player who describes or illustrates a scene particularly well gains a bonus on the roll determining the action that has been described. What a simple and effective way of encouraging even the most trenchant roll player to try out some roleplaying. What is the worst that could happen? You get everyone at the table describing everything in dramatic, vibrant detail bringing the world to life around them. The "upshift" in DI is large enough to make a difference, but small enough that it isn't going to munchkin any characters.
The mechanics are smooth and fairly simple; all rolls require only 2d6. The chapter concludes with in-game examples of story, paired with narrations of mechanics in use. These examples made a lot of sense and use enough of the contingencies together to make it more clear how the game works. The examples also add another emphasis on the relational orientation to the game.
Chapter 5: DI Game Advice
The GM chapter begins with descriptions of gaming groups DI might be appropriate for. I was pleased to have it confirmed that this would be a good system for a one player RPG (for more tips, see Gamegrene's "Gaming For Two"). The section on group play seems a bit negative. This made me wonder if there were negative experiences among play testers or if these are general statements about roleplaying in general. In any case, the warnings here about group play seem more important than in other games: MAKE SURE YOU ARE RUNNING A GAME YOUR PLAYERS WANT TO PLAY.
One thing that didn't get covered is that because the mechanics are so simple, and the character creation process so easy, this is a game that might appeal to non- or first time gamers. I have mentioned Dead Inside to several people who don't play RPGs (including my wife), and they all expressed a great deal of interest. I think this is due to two factors: it is simple and relational.
This chapter also helps clear up fears about running DI. From chapters 1 through 4, I was left with a dreamlike vision of how play proceeds. I was quite daunted by the idea of GMing in this world, because so much of the action is completely free form. This is especially true of the Imagos (character alter-egos that may appear at any time). The GM section helps clear up the purpose, powers, and theme of each of the Imagos. After this chapter, it became more clear how and when to use the each of the personal Imagos in relation to the PCs. After reading this chapter, my fears were allayed.
I'd make use of "The Voice" off-limits.
The description of the use of "The Voice" imago is difficult. In essence, "The Voice" is all-knowing and always speaks the truth. This tool can then be used by the GM to clue characters into things they seem to have missed. It could be useful if a player is particularly stuck, but if the GM uses it too often, you will teach the players that all they have to do is wait, acting "stumped" long enough, and The Voice will come out. There are cautions about using this tool but, if I was running this game, I'd make the use of "The Voice" off-limits.
Reading the player section leaves you with enough knowledge to start playing and to have a sense of what to expect, but doesn't give you a concrete understanding of the world. As I was reading the chapter on GMing DI, I realized that the author had done a great service by maintaining an economy of explanation in the player section. By keeping the system of soul cultivation and decay a secret, it may seem, from a player standpoint, to be coming at random. This will keep the game a mystery, and the mystery of its mechanic, will help players focus on the demanding aspects of roleplaying and storytelling. On the GM side, the soul decay and soul cultivation system is so simple that one sheet of paper could easily hold the information for a group of 5-6 PCs and another 5-6 NPCs.
The section on how evil characters exist in a world designed to reward good characters was helpful, in that it answered a question that had been nagging me since I began reading. In the DI Spirit World, immoral or unethical actions erode one's soul. If your soul erodes too much, you become less powerful. How do you have a powerful evil or at least dramatically annoying NPC? Wouldn't that NPC be diminishing his own ability to use power? These questions were answered when the text describes that evil characters horde soul force for those times that they want to do something less savory.
Chapters 6 and 7: Glossary, Bibliography, Scenario
I wish every game included a bibliography. I jotted down several books and games the author identifies as influencing the creation or concepts of DI. Since I like this game so much, I take the author's recommendations seriously. Wouldn't you like it if your favorite game author listed recommended books, movies, and games? Likewise, the Start-up Scenario at the end of the book gives a starting adventure to familiarize both players and GM with the world and major NPCs of Dead Inside. I found it fairly easy to read and very flexible to adapt what I found there with other plot ideas. I could easily see weaving these elements together in a new way to start a DI campaign with my own long term plots.
If you enjoy this review, or this game, look forward to my subsequent review of the first supplement to Dead Inside, Cold Hard World, which gives rules and background for playing in the Real World instead of the Spirit World. You may purchase Dead Inside as a PDF for $13 or in a Print on Demand version for $25.
This review is based on a complementary copy of Dead Inside.