The Independents: Afterlife: Wandering Souls

“Welcome to the Tenebris. You died and something went wrong. You were meant to ascend to heaven, walk the path of reincarnation, be food for worms—that did not happen. Instead, you took a solemn boat ride across darkened water with other lost souls. Desperately trying to retain memories from your former life, you realised you died and cannot go back. The light at the end of the watery tunnel revealed an endless desert, known by its inhabitants as the Tenebris—the dark.” You’ll have to fight against the death of hope, find your own memories and learn about your own past, and find your way to the true Beyond in Afterlife: Wandering Souls from Angry Hamster Publishing!

Afterlife: Wandering Souls is a roleplaying game that sees the players take on the role of Wanderers, people who have died and lost all but the scraps of their memory from before their death. They haven’t wound up in a heaven, a hell, a reincarnation cycle, or any other sort of ‘traditional’ afterlife. Instead, they find themselves in an endless and shifting desert, dotted with pockets of strange civilizations and stranger creatures. This is not a land without hope, however; the Requiem, the passing on to the Beyond and whatever true final fate awaits them, pulls at the Wanderers’ souls. By traveling to pockets of reality scattered across the Tenebris known as Limbos, the Wanderers can unlock their own memories and discover the nature and lessons of their first life – and their death. It won’t be easy – especially with the Unrequited, former Wanderers who gave up on hope, spitefully doing everything they can to stop the Wanderers from succeeding.

AWS is brought to us by Creator and Lead Designer (she also did the layout) Elizabeth Chaipraditkul, who sharp-eyed CHG readers may remember from the Book of Lore for Bluebeard’s Bride. Fortunately for us, Elizabeth was happy to answer my questions about Afterlife when I reached out. First, where did the idea for a game of wandering souls trying to remember themselves, avoid falling into despair, and pass on to a true afterlife come from? What, if any, sources of inspiration did she draw upon, and what themes did she want AWS to help players explore?

“My design always centers on a player character’s journey in whatever setting they are placed in, so the genesis of Afterlife came from there. Each time I create a game I am always trying to figure out how to maximize the player’s experience of their character’s journey and when I was creating Afterlife it seemed the best way to do that was to have them remember absolutely nothing. From there I created the Tenebris, where Afterlife is set, as a place for the players to explore and the rest of the design came from there. I’ve always been attracted to more macabre themes and trying to find beauty in ‘the dark’ so death felt like a natural place to explore the loss of a person’s memory. I think the idea that everything you will remember is in the past and there is no way to remedy it, except acceptance within yourself, can be freeing for a player. It makes the game more centered around coming to terms with yourself rather than rectifying what mistakes you made before.

In terms of inspiration I drew from works like Alice In Wonderland to inspire the feel of the game. Aside from a person finding themselves they are also exploring a totally alien world that takes a familiar shape. All the limbos, different worlds players can explore, have a hint of Wonderland in them–they are weird, with weird people, and while you may understand the logic behind a place, you’ll never truly be part of it as a character.”

When it comes to core mechanics the game is pretty straightforward. There are three Core stats, each of which has three linked attributes that function like skills, insofar as they’re how a Wanderer can deal with situations: Body (Manoeuvre, Overcome, Withstand), Mind (Apply, Percept, Reason), and Soul (Charm, Create, Understand). When attempting an action, you simply roll a number of d6s equal to your relevant Core stat + linked attribute; 4 or better is a success, and you need a number of successes equal to or better than the Challenge number set by the GM. This is also one of those games where the GM doesn’t have to roll dice, instead simply narrating what’s going on and adjudicating the result of the players’ rolls. 

Those Core stats and linked attributes feed into two separate classes of Pools, Concept and Vitality. Concept Pools act as points that can be spent to grant automatic successes, at one point per success if you’re spending them for yourself and two per success if you’re spending them to help a fellow Wanderer. Concept Pools are determined by your Core stat and its lowest linked attribute: Ferocity (Body), Lucidity (Mind), and Generosity (Soul). Vitality Pools are instead part hit points and part resource, determined by a Core stat and its highest linked attribute. Health (Body) is pretty straightforward; run out of it and your Wanderer dies and is gone forever, even in the Afterlife, or lose a point of Will and become catatonic from a nightmarish memory. 

Hunger (Mind) is food, shelter, safety, and any other basic needs. Points of Hunger can actually be spent to make promises or buy/give resources, but they can also be lost when something is taken from you or you can’t actually meet your basic needs; run out and you start to lose Health until you get yourself out of the gutter, along with potential story consequences. Will (Soul) is your hope in the journey to the Beyond; points of Will can be lost by staying in one place for too long, shirking the call of the Beyond, becoming corrupted by the Unrequited, or suffering one of those nightmarish memories. If your Will reaches 0 you pick up a point of Stagnation; pick up four of those and you become an Unrequited yourself, and the Beyond is lost to you forever.

Your wanderer has a few tricks up their sleeve, though. Actually, now that I mention it, one group of abilities are actually ‘Tricks’ such as ‘I am desirable’ and ‘Thorns dance under my skin’, that if used appropriately can reduce the Challenge of a check. Talents offer a wide variety of abilities from inspiring allies to seeing glimpses of the future to transforming into an animal. Curiousa are mystical items that can offer some kind of benefit, either extra damage or reducing Challenges depending on their use. Then each character has nine Death Marks, arcane markings that appear on the skin as they are unlocked by a Wanderer finding new memories, offering a truly varied array of bonuses depending on the mark: extra dice, recovered Concept or Vitality points, rerolls, and more. So how does a Wanderer get all of these? Well that’s where we get to the most interesting mechanical aspect of Afterlife: the character creation.

Character creation is done live in the first session as a group, and is part randomly-generated and part choice-based. The reason for this is that all of the new Wanderers awaken on a boat, surrounded by dark water and guided by the Boatman. The Wanderers know only four things: they’re dead, they do not belong in the world they’re headed to, there’s no way off of the boat, and they can’t remember exactly how they died. A lot of 2d6s are going to get rolled, which tells you which of six lists to go to and then which six of the options on that list to read to the player. First there’s your History (‘I cannot forget the sea. These black waters call me so”), then five wispy Memories (Someone I love is yelling at me”) followed by choosing from three follow-up options (“I tried to soothe them”), then three Truths you know for certain about yourself (“I was a caretaker”). These results determine your Core stats and linked attributes as well as your nine Death Marks.

It’s definitely a stand-out part of the game. We’ve come across random character creation here at CHG before, but this seemed to stick out to me even more, feeling less like determining what a character can do and more like hinting at who a character was. So obviously I asked Elizabeth to write a bit about why it was important for AWS characters to be made this way, and what it brings to the table that more traditional character building doesn’t.

“Because you have no idea what your character’s memory was, it would be strange for you to create a character sheet with skills, because that already leads to ideas about who your character is. I wanted players to be able to live the exploration into their past selves with their characters rather than deciding what they were like and hoping memories fit. In theory, character creation didn’t have to be in game, a player and GM could do it privately, but discovering a few hints of memories with other players around is a bonding experience. Because you play Afterlife with other people at the table, and book keeping-wise it is easiest (and most humane XD) for GMs to have their PCs together for most of the story–creating your character in game with the other players provides everyone with plenty of reasons to stay together, bond, and want to take this weird journey with one another.”

I spent a lot of time reading over the character creation part of the game, and making a few characters of my own (you can find them here), and I found it to be quite the delightful experience. The dice seem to love making a story of their own for you to work with, and there are even secondary lists for the different phases of character creation to alternate among for large groups to keep things varied. One thing I particularly liked was the amount of choice you have within the random rolls; your choices in the Memories determine not just what memory might be waiting for you to find but what linked attributes you can add to, and every Talent is broken up by Approach (a mystical item every Wanderer has, taking the shape of a Sword, Shield, or Bow determined by your Core stats) and then further divided into three options you can choose from. You are also provided a mechanic for some limited re-rolling, three d6 that you can roll and call evens or odds on; get it right and you can reroll whatever you didn’t care for. Any of these ‘Clarity’ dice that aren’t spent this way can be used to rearrange stats and attributes.

So we have here a pretty unique narrative idea and some pretty unique mechanics to help get you there. That being said, I was curious about the design process for the game, and if there had been any bumps in the road.

“When I start a game my design process is always a bit haphazard. I write whatever inspires me and then work from there. As soon as I can I start playtesting the game and if the ideas I’ve scribbled down have any traction–then I start actually outlining the book, working on concrete ideas, and seeing what type of team I want to work on the project. 

Initially, Afterlife had a very Abrahamic-religion feel to it utilizing the Seven Deadly Sins/Virtues as a way for people to connect with their past. There was no reason behind this, aside from me always liking the idea of the sins/virtues. And so this was the result of my ‘random start’ writing and there was always something that didn’t click about the game. Afterlife wasn’t representing what I wanted it to and that was because it was confined by a rather narrow view of how people deal and interact with the world. When I finally threw out the idea of sins and virtues is when my game actually started to take off and become what is was today. Shaking off that theme was definitely a challenge for me.”

Another thing that really caught my eye was the setting. The Tenebris isn’t some empty desert; it’s inhabited by more than one civilization, and what’s particularly strange is that they’re not Wanderers. Oh, well, yes, there are factions of NPC Wanderers who divide themselves up by their beliefs: some think passing to the Beyond is actually a final death and true oblivion, while others view it as a purification ritual for the soul, and still others think there’s a giant monster that’s going to eat all of them. But all of the actual civilizations and species in the Tenebris are native to it; they don’t know where all these humans come from, or where they go, but it’s just another strange fact of life to them. The Usurii are bipedal bears who tend to be spiritual and focused on self-improvement, while also having a knack for creating gadgets and other items. Kiin might look like humans, but they carry no Death Marks and can shift their form and see the spirits of others. The legendary Serpents supposedly live beneath the sands of the Tenebris, and the half-human half-snake Naginn only exempt humans from their expansionism because they believe it to be the will of the Serpents.

Mirages are locations within the Tenebris itself, each one stranger than the last. The Average Point has one law that takes ‘everything in moderation’ to truly absurd extremes – no citizen is allowed to leave because that would make the population total below average. Exodus Thirteen is a ship that tried to escape the Tenebris, only to crash back down, now filled with advanced technology for the taking if you can avoid the murderous cyborgs harvesting meat to maintain themselves with. Ancestor is both a towering brachiosaurus and the city built upon it, and Wanderers can hitch a ride as it travels across the sands. 

The Limbos are, if anything, even stranger. The Drowned Lands highlight the themes of survival, fear, and mystery and can only be accessed by a giant blue portal with obsidian gates in a kiin mirage. Once you get in, you find it’s inhabited by gene-splicing Atlanteans, murderous merfolk, and the ghosts of every sunken ship in history (and their passengers).Candleflame focuses on hope, adventure, and dreams, and is reached via a single lit candle somewhere out in the Tenebris. Wanderers who manage to pass through might find themselves instinctively screaming in horror when they find themselves enveloped in flame, only to discover that the flames do not burn. They are instead the stuff of dreams that can be collected and even consumed, and the primordial being of fire who lives at the center of Candleflame might be willing to find you a specific one. The Wall of Thorns enables the themes of beauty, loss, and melancholy, and can be entered through a cast-iron gate wreathed in hundreds of roses and thorns. The wall that gives the Limbo its name bears flowers that can show the life of a loved one, is patrolled by the Reaper who tends the roses, and is haunted by Unrequited who have found themselves trapped by looking at what they’ve lost.

So how did we get this strange world, and the pockets of reality that let Wanderers peek into the Beyond?

“Honestly, a lot of it came from my imagination and from drawing out random characters for my players while play-testing. The Tenebris is a strange place unified with a few important pieces of imagery–snakes, sand, and sun. Once I mapped out what I thought the Tenebris was I got two other authors, Steffie de Vaan and Danielle Lauzon, to create unique mirages they dreamt up. Their only real guideline was to not create anything I had. Once they completed their mirages I worked with what they provided to create a unified vision of what the Tenebris was. It was most important to me that people reading the lore of Afterlife couldn’t tie it to one specific religion or culture (esp. after I finally let go of the sins/virtues idea) and having three differing viewpoints creating setting really helped with that.”

As they travel into Limbos the Wanderers will gain experience points that can be spent to raise linked attributes, as well as something called Resonance; 1 to 2 points for every Limbo they have a meaningful interaction with, and 3 for every time they claim a fragment of memory and learn more about themselves. For every 3 Resonance the Wanderer experiences a Break, going temporarily catatonic as the memory overtakes them. Unlike the nightmarish memories that sap Will, however, these memories are what cause Death Marks to appear on a Wanderer’s skin, unlocking new abilities. In addition, when they experience a Break the Wanderer can also gain a new Talent or a new ability from a Talent they already have. Experiencing Breaks and gaining Death Marks is the entire point of the Wanderer’s journey, though. If you unlock all 9 (or a smaller number thereof, advises the book, for shorter campaigns), your Wanderer can experience their Requiem and make one final journey to the Beyond.

From my read-through of the game it seems like it would be quite possible for a Wanderer to get their final Break and feel compelled to travel to their Requiem, while other Wanderers aren’t quite there yet. So I asked what advice Elizabeth would have for groups dealing with this, re; pacing and keeping the passed-on player in the game.

“There are a few ways to do this depending on where each person is in their journey. If every character is only one or two sessions away from finishing, I’d suggest letting the players who’ve finished their stories come back as NPCs for their Crewmates until everyone is done. They could even design a limbo for their fellow players to explore and run through it with the GM. If players journeys aren’t paced so closely to one another, but a character finds their Requiem quickly I’d suggest letting them either create a new Wanderer or take over a NPC who the characters have met, turning them into a PC for a short time.

Assuming a character doesn’t turn Unrequited, which is a totally different story, each player should finish their journey relatively close to one another if the advice in the book is followed. If a player finishes much, much sooner than everyone else it is either by design (and the GM would have a plan there) or they are taking all the spotlight moments every session. In this case it’s important as a player to take a step back and let everyone else have the spotlight for a while so they can continue their journeys.”

Speaking of advice, what’s the best Elizabeth had to offer to prospective, first-time AWS GMs? How about for players?

“Players – Have fun and let your story surprise you! Know exactly who you are and have that idea completely shattered. Fall in love with discovering who you are and revel in your past mistake. 

GMs – Remember you can always take a breather. You want this world to be weird and unique, sure, but if you have no idea what to do – ask the players. Make one of your players describe the NPC they meet, the room they walk into, or the mystery they have to solve. Let your players surprise you and work with the ammo they give you to create an awesome story for them to play. There is always a twist you can throw in and a new truth to reveal.”

What’s next for Elizabeth, AWS, and Angry Hamster Publishing?

“We have a few projects coming up soon! We’ll be releasing a supplemental book for Afterlife called ‘A Wanderer’s Guide to Limbos and Mirages’, which expands (you guessed it) upon limbos and mirages. We are also working on a tarot-based expansion for our game WITCH: Fated Souls, which will be an adventure and new character options all packaged in a unique box. And finally, we are developing a modern fantasy game about elves, orcs, and dwarfs using the same system as Afterlife and tying into the world of WITCH.”

Final/parting words for our readers?

“I am always curious to know what type of Limbos people would create for Afterlife. If you have a cool idea please tweet me @angryhamsterrpg!”

If you want to really explore who a character is, so much so that even you the player are only really meeting them for the first time over the course of the campaign, in a world that manages to be different from what you’ll find in almost any other game, than you should be giving this one a try. Afterlife makes randomized character creation fun and interesting (I’d say even for the holdouts), has simple mechanics that even newcomers will find easy to pick up, possesses a slew of interesting abilities and impressive powers, explores a fascinating world and the worlds within it, and gives you plenty upon plenty of meaningful choices. 

Afterlife: Wandering Souls is currently available in PDF form on DriveThruRPG for $11.99, a bargain considering the quality not just of the game but the art and design within;  there’s also a Pay What You Want Quickstart available for the buyer who wants to check things out first. You can find physical copies for €35.00, as well as a free character sheet download, news about AWS, and information on AHP’s other games at the Angry Hamster Publishing site.

Find lost memories, come to terms with how you died, discover who you truly are. 

Thanks to Meredith Gerber of DriveThruRPG for getting us a review copy of the game, and to Elizabeth for taking the time to answer my questions about Afterlife.

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