Dead Friend: A review of light necromancy

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On Thursday evening, Toby and I got together to play Dead Friend: A Game of Necromancy. This is a Pay What You Want game on DriveThruRPG. I discovered it through chance– I think one of the recommendation sidebars popped it up. I had never heard of it before, which is unusual for me. Most of the time, I hear about story games through Google+, so this was an unexpected gem!

It’s a card-based story game for 2 players. One plays the deceased friend, and the other plays the living necromancer trying to speak with/summon them.

There’s a pentagram-based board which plays a role in the game. You use a tarot deck or a standard deck of playing cards; I substituted my Lovecraft tarot deck. Really, the cards are a random number generator for numbers 1-14. The major arcana are not used after setting up the game. You also need two coins, one large and one small; I used my Bedlam Hall challenge coin from Monkeyfun Studios for the large coin. There are enough props in this game, in fact, that we decided to go a little bit “larp” with it and dress up.

We gave it a first try over the weekend, and found ourselves coming up with something silly instead of serious. Partway through the first page, my friend stopped the game and said he wanted to play this as the designer had intended it. So we paused and decided to revisit in the evening, maybe with dress up and props.

In our story, we were Dmitri and Eleanor. Dmitri was a Russian-born small-time drug dealer, agnostic-at-best, rational fellow who had a temper, but was never violent. His whole life had pretty much gone to hell since the unexpected death of his friend, Eleanor.

Eleanor was a pothead and a bit of a pagan, sort of falling under the spell of a charismatic monster in the local pagan community– a would-be cult leader type. Throughout the entire game, with a few exceptions, I kept Eleanor’s voice flat.

The game is told in a series of rituals using the pentagram board and coins to initiate the ritual, then drawing from the deck of cards to determine elements of the story. For example, we drew a card during setup that indicated one of the NPCs would be someone “powerful and greedy.” Toby decided this was “Samuel,” who is one of those guys who is either rich because he’s charismatic, or charismatic because he’s rich. Either way, he always comes to your friends’ parties, even though most people who see through his bullshit realize he’s a narcissistic asshole. We also had Joey, a naive idealist, Angela, the cheerful hostess, and Sir Gregory, the mystical and intimidating aforementioned pagan leader.

The game spends most of its time remembering events from the friends’ past together. Who they were, what happened in their lives. It leads slowly towards the death of one of the friends. I had placed some foreshadowing into the story– the necklace I’d given Dmitri was secretly given to me by Sir Gregory. When telling the story of how I died, I described a road trip with Dmitri up to meet a small town herbalist and pick something up for Sir Gregory. We drank tea, but by the time we got home, I was direly ill and planning to go to the doctor in the morning. I was dead by then– liver failure.

By the time the final showdown between Dmitri and Eleanor happened (because this game ends with a fight between the friends– you can’t be friends with a ghost!), Eleanor is no longer the friend who will wait in line at a Star Trek convention so Dmitri can meet Walter Koenig. No. Eleanor has had her life cut short by poisoned tea, tea that was meant to kill Dmitri! Dmitri, meanwhile, is desperate to apologize to Eleanor for not being a better friend to her when she was alive.

In our epilogue, we decided that both of us got what we wanted. I burned Dmitri’s house down, and he found peace through unexpected prayer. Eleanor left Dmitri a message showing him a map through the world of the dead, and the epilogue has him and Joey heading there to find out what’s on the other side, and maybe, just maybe, helping Eleanor find peace in the bargain.

It was a really good story game. It’s tightly written, but with enough variety through the cards that you could easily play it a hundred different ways with different outcomes each time.

Our game was almost exactly 2 hours long, which is pretty much the limit for how long I can sit in a crossed-legged position.