This is Joshua Wehner's archaic Blog

I've been Afraid, now I'm going to tell you about it.

This is more than a day late, but Erik has been bugging me to write more, so here goes... better late than never, eh?

Liz, Piers, Hans, in our kitchen, playing Afraid

Our local indie-gaming group has had a fantastic time running with The Shadow of Yesterday, but our GM needs a week or two to re-charge his thematic batteries, so at our last session, we tried a one-shot of Vincent Baker's new, pre-release horror-genre offering, Afraid.

We had fun, but more in-spite-of than due-to Afraid.

Okay... Afraid gets it's basic mechanics from Baker's stalwart Dogs in the Vineyard (which is, I think, my favorite game to play at Cons...) Stats are Body, Will, Heart, and Acuity rated in pools of various dice. These stats are combined when you want to do "something", where "something" is "talk", "move", "fight" or "kill". You also have dice pools in things like Traits ("I'm a very good swimmer"), relationships (if they are in the scene), belongings and bonds (mystical, ritual behaviors like "sleeps in a coffin", "prays five times a day", etc. that grant bonuses until somehow interrupted).

As you escalate from one "something" to another, you roll more dice into your pool. Rolled dice are paired off against your opponents' dice in a nifty, poker-style "raise-see-call" mechanic: "Raise" two of your dice forward, and you're opponent attempts to "see" (matching the total) with one, two or more dice of his own. If he manages with one, he takes the upper hand; three mean you take the upper hand; two are a wash.

We played four scenes total, one for setting the stage and introducing the "victim" - Chip the slightly-clueless cruise director - and two or three full-out character scenes each (some character's scenes overlapped).

Dire Circumstances

Afraid introduces one substantial new mechanic called "Circumstances". These are states, or horror-genre tropes, that a character may find himself in a scene: "alone", "unprepared", "lost" and/or "in trouble". "Alone" and "unprepared" appear to be mechanical penalties - when in these circumstances, you aren't allowed to call in pools for Relationships or Belongings (respectively) - while "lost" and "in trouble" seem to be more about color than anything mechanical.

I found Circumstances annoying. I started out in "unprepared" and couldn't find a way out, spiraling into "alone" and eventually "in trouble". (You can fall into worse Circumstances as a result of losing a conflict - though I should say that I chose Circumstances fallout, instead of choosing some other form of character decay).

Also, on a related note, whereas Dogs allows players much freedom in wandering around the town and investigating clues and what-not, Afraid seemed to be using Circumstances to put players into "threatened" or "reactive" positions at the outset - "Okay, you're alone and Bad Things Are Happening - What do you do?"

While I can imagine this working out better than it seemed to for us, I felt like the structure limited my choices in a painfully binary way. I could either save that NPC or abandon them to save myself, never both, no matter how well I rolled or strategized or contemplated; it just wasn't on the table.

In one of my scenes, I stated "I'm alone, I want to not be alone anymore, I want to go back to the ship". Piers' reaction of "Oh, that's just a mechanical thing - you can go back to the ship, even talk to other characters, you just won't get the dice for your relationships" left me feeling as though I could either control the mechanical properties or scenery properties, but not both.

On some level, I felt that Afraid just couldn't decide whether it was going for "horror" or "detective". For me, at least, I read "detective" as a "the clues are out there, you just have to find them" game - you win when you've gathered or guessed enough of the pieces together. Whereas I see "horror" as abject survival - escape with your life, or else. With "horror", I rarely expect be provided with meaningful clues or answers, just threats and possible escapes. Afraid seemed to want to have it both ways.

Still, I had some kind of fun. For better or worse, the Indie scene that's grown out of the Forge may be digging it's own grave, setting expectations that no game - or most games - just can't live up to. "I had fun" would have been enough of a metric for other games, but now I hear Ron's "System Does Matter" in my head when I say those words.

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