Dead Inside: A Review
Sometimes the independent role-playing industry releases some real gems, and Dead Inside is definitely one of them. It has enough storyline for any player who focuses on character development and the ease of play allows newcomers and veterans alike to enter into the game quickly, without spending hours scrutinizing on character archetypes and the crunchy mechanics.
When White Wolf killed (pun intended) the Wraith project, it also destroyed a great aspect of the game: role-playing in a world entirely comprised of spiritual energy. There was a great sense of depth inside of Wraith: The Oblivion. You were a ghost who had clung to life to resolve past issues and make sure that key elements of your being were safe until, one day, you could transcend the physical world and rejoin with whatever lies beyond.
This strong philosophical depth and strength of character is matched, if not exceeded, in the independent role-playing game Dead Inside, by Chad Underkoffler of Atomic Sock Monkey Press. The independent role-playing game scene is, in my opinion, one of great respect. Every major role-playing company began as a group of players or gamemasters sitting around a dinner table, fleshing out a new system and crafting ideas that would later go on to inspire wonderment and creativity in others.
Let's take a look at the starting point for the Dead Inside line: the actual core book. The full title is Dead Inside: A Roleplaying Game of Loss and Redemption. The game is designed around the idea that your character has lost his or her soul in some way, either through a slow decay by drugs, alcohol, sexual promiscuity or otherwise, or through someone stealing it from you. Regardless of how you lost your soul, the point is clear: you need to get it back.
The mechanics of Dead Inside are very simple, designed to streamline gameplay so you can get right into the nitty-gritty role-playing. The PDQ, or Prose Descriptive Qualities, system bases itself around your character's qualities. You have a selection of qualities that can range from Poor (which gives you a -2 on dice rolls) to Master (which gives you a +6 on dice rolls). Your qualities not only describe what you can do, they also describe who your character is. In any other system, you may have a high strength characteristic or be good at melee combat for some reason or another, but with the PDQ system, you have to actually think about why your character would have those abilities. If I were to create a character who was an Expert (+4 to dice rolls) Professional Fencer, even just mentioning the concept brings to mind a whole host of ideas of why he might be good with a sword. Maybe he was an olympian, or perhaps just a rich kid that took a lot of fencing classes, maybe even a Lord of the Rings nerd who took up swordplay to pretend he was Aragorn.
Each character has qualities in five different categories, they are as follows:
Physical. Having to do with the body, athleticism or natural talent;
Mental. Areas of study, intellectual acuity, education;
Social. Groups the character is a member of or associates with, skills in dealing with people;
Professional. Knowledge and skills picked up on the job; and
Spiritual. Esoteric, weird talents or Abilities.
Each of these quality types are essentially freeform; you can make a character without a list of skills (though one is provided for you if you are having trouble thinking of some qualities) and, essentially, play whatever you want. This is high realism, folks. Not many people would wander around describing themselves as having a four in music, but they would describe themselves as being a good musician, and the PDQ system reflects this.
The basic PDQ system is free for download from the Atomic Sock Monkey Press website.
Dead Inside has a few extra features that are tacked on to the game mechanics, notably your Type. There are three different playable Types in Dead Inside: the Dead Inside, which are people that lost their souls for one reason or another, the Sensitives, who were either born with a little too much soul or who were Dead Inside and regained their soul (or cultivated a new one), and the Magi, which are people with dual souls who have increased powers and abilities. Each type is basically a quality, these Type qualities control your natural abilities. You can also take additional qualities that allow you to use various mystical abilities to a greater degree (that would be the Spiritual category).
Dead Inside provides the basic fundamentals of each Ability, allowing the player (in true PDQ form) to expand upon the Abilities as they deem fit.
Basically, the Dead Inside storyline is as the tag line reads; Dead Inside is a game of loss and redemption. You lose your soul because you squandered it away in some fashion and you seek to redeem yourself and regain your soul. It is a game of questing and personal seeking, and strikes a chord in players of Mage: The Ascension or Wraith: The Oblivion due to its rich, lush landscape.
There are two worlds in Dead Inside. One of them is the world that we know, albeit slightly different. Among human beings walk the Sensitives, the Dead Inside and (rarely) the Magi. Ghosts, the spirits of man, can be seen moving throughout the human population being followed by the Zombi, a corpse without a soul attached to it.
The other world is the one about which we dream. It is the deadlands, the dreamlands, the Spirit World. Within the Spirit World there is a City that all beings come to eventually, either as ghosts or through their own will as Sensitives or the Dead Inside. Underkoffler describes it as:
The City is the cynosure of the Spirit World: almost all events of import happen within its walls. Like a Real World city, souls congregate here. Day and night, season by season...sweat lodges and log cabins in the shadows of 23rd Century steel and glass monstrosities, yurts beside Victorian houses beside pagodas, and Art Deco skyscrapers looming over a host of squatting Classical, Neo-Classical, Retro-Classical and Anti-Classical piles of marble.
It is, indeed, crazy and beautiful.
The City fulfills every fantasy about some form of heaven or hell, and the beauty behind its conceptual design is that it is both heaven and hell.
Dead Inside pushes on at full strength into the realm of the philosophical and existensial; it is rich in body like merlot and quick like cheap whiskey.
Ease of Play
Due to the PDQ system, Dead Inside is relatively easy to start and even easier to play. Instead of focusing on all of the mechanical aspects that go into games like Dungeons and Dragons and (with all of the system additions) most White Wolf games, Dead Inside focuses more on character building and development of storyline/plot.
The most difficult aspect of Dead Inside goes to the GM's creation of the game; the gamemaster has a difficult task of creating and cultivating role-playing in terms of what Dead Inside actually entails. The players, not the characters, need to understand that the game goes beyond a simple hack-n-slash, "I hit him with my leet longsword" mentality. As always, with the right group, this could be easily remedied, but the intense, in depth descriptions about the worlds that exist within Dead Inside create a definite cap of skill for any Game Master.
It is both made for newcomers to the hobby as well as old veterans. Newcomers will find the PDQ system very easy to work with, and veterans will appreciate the flow of gameplay as well as the intricate detail involved in Dead Inside.
Out of five stars, I give Dead Inside a 4.5; it is almost perfect, but I would like to see more information on the different aspects of the Spirit World as well as some information on the Magi. The core book has a great deal of information about the City, but not so much about different places mentioned within the Game Master's section. As for the Magi, there's always an Epic Level Handbook that's included with any line. With Mage, you had the book about the archmages; with Vampire, it was the book about the elders. I would like to see something about the Magi.
But in itself, the book is rather exquisite.