originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2011/10/11/tabletop-review-de-profundis-second-edition-2/
This is De Profundis, a role-playing game where the players write more than they roll dice, where they think more than they talk, and where they imagine more than is really there… or is all that is imagined really there and more? The book was written and conceived by Polish game designer Michal Oracz, whom board game players might know from his popular Neuroshima Hex!, a quick, tactical war game. De Profundis is loosely set in the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, an ever-popular source of setting material for a number of games, especially in the last ten years. The reason I say “loosely” is because the game is more about imitating the feel of Lovecraft’s stories, and not about using the specific terminology of the Lovecraft universe.
The Lovecraft mythos has seen some love in recent days and has received a lot of different treatments. The gaming community has seen everything from the grandiose Arkham Horror and Mansions of Madness, to the cheesy Cthulhu themes slapped onto basic dice and card games. Then of course, there is the grandpappy of Lovecraft RPGs: Call of Cthulhu. Well, this is totally different from all of them.
Gameplay and Feel
De Profundis is a game about communicating your imagined experiences. Whether you do this with a large group of people (called a Society or Network), one other person, or just yourself, the goal is to create a narrative through a series of writings. Before you start writing, you have to choose who you are going to be. You can simply be yourself in the current time, or you can be a person in the 1920s, or you can be a specific character from one of Lovecraft’s stories.
Later in the book there is some equivocating as to whether this is a hard and fast rule, and it seems that you are free to be anyone in any time period as long as you are experiencing strange occurrences in the style of Lovecraft’s stories. This brings up one of my only complaints with this book: that there are multiple writers for the various “supplemental” chapters, and some of what they write seems to slightly expand upon (or maybe even contradict a little) what was written by Michal Oracz in the introduction and three “books” (sections) that comprise the main concepts of the game.
For example, in the “On Conventions” section of the first supplemental chapter it reads: “The possibilities for role-playing by letter-writing are practically limitless, defined only by the nature and character of the Society writing them rather than by any specific rules in De Profundis itself”. After reading 52 pages of what the game was about and how it was played, here the book is saying the specific rules don’t really matter! Well, being the open-minded role-player that I am, this does not bother me all that much, except for the general contradiction itself. However, it makes me think twice about the cohesiveness of the game if part of the core book is telling me that it is fine to disregard the rules and do what I want.
Well, what are those specific rules that I can ignore if I want to? Um…well you have to write letters and…basically be interesting and creepy. Heck, there really aren’t any specific rules in De Profundis aside from guidelines like time (a person in 1925 can’t be writing letters to a person in 1887 for example…unless you decide to ignore those guidelines), the whole game is about creating an atmosphere, a feel. This is key to getting into the game, and possibly one aspect that will make some people not call it a game at all. Instead of accomplishing a specific goal that is set by the game or the GM (did I tell you this is primarily a GM-less game? It is.), the goal is more abstract. How do I write a good narrative? Well, that is one of the things that the book does, it gives you some hints on how to create your story in a Lovecraftian way; it instructs you to hint instead of tell, to feel instead of know. I should also note that you don’t even have to write letters if you don’t want to, you can just take pictures or record yourself speaking. I’ll just push these guidelines out a little further…
Anyway, back to characters. Ideally, players in a Society (a group of people playing De Profundis) will choose their identity and begin writing to each other as those identities. For instance, if I choose to be Dr. Fernsbury, a small-town physician in 1927, I will expect letters addressed to me with “Dear Dr. Fernsbury” or some such greeting. I will expect the letter to be written with a dip pen, fountain pen or a typewriter, and on paper that bears a little resemblance to paper technology back then. I will write letters to my confidante (fellow player), and if their identity is a Madame Du Feuilles I will address my letters accordingly. You see, the world created in the letter exchange is the game world, and the game world is special in that while it is shaped by each player individually, it is supposed to be shared universally. As an illustration, imagine a small group of people sitting around a table holding up signs saying what they are feeling, or Tarot cards, or masks, but not having much say in what other people decide to reveal. In this sense the game is about creating a shared experience that is not necessarily cooperative, but shared nonetheless.
Players in a Society will also choose a convention, or a specific theme and style of the game you wish to run. An example convention might be a Victorian era theme and aristocratic style, another might be current-day Illuminati theme and a formal political style, yet another might be a London street urchin theme with a barely-literate-pauper style. It’s all up to you and the Society in which you play in.
Now, here is another guideline that is emphasized in the book: if you want to play a specialist in a particular field of knowledge like, say, a physician in 1927, you should be knowledgeable about that subject. Logical, eh? You should write about how you treated a patient with abnormal reflexes and a pallid complexion who happened to have eerily long canines, and in real life take yourself to the library or Wikipedia and research basic medical terms and language so that your letters can be as authentic as possible. Are you going to play a map-maker from the Colonial era? Better study your 18th century maps. How about a Civil War soldier who deserted and got lost in the woods? Find a regiment and an army to belong to, as well as a town to be from. These kinds of ideas are guidelines I can get behind. These are the guidelines that you ignore to the detriment of your game!
Other General Thoughts
I don’t want to give too much away about what the De Profundis book says to the reader and the great ideas that are contained inside, but I will talk a little more about what the book as a whole is like and some of my thoughts on it.
As someone who collects RPGs and often wonders what changes the authors make from one edition to the next, I was of course curious to see if I could find out what the first edition of De Profundis contained. Unfortunately I was unable to find a copy easily and instead could only surmise based on the page count information I could dig up, which put the first edition (in Polish, this may have been a very early edition) at 28 pages, while the second edition is 110 pages. Wow! If that information is correct, that is quite a jump in content. If there are any first edition owners reading this, I can only say that it might be worth your while to pick up the second edition, you might be pleasantly surprised. Of course, the original edition seems to have been written in the late 90’s and was published in 2001, so it’s not surprising that several years later a substantial update would be in order.
Another aspect of the book that I really enjoy is the style it is written in. The three main sections of the book (and one of the supplemental sections) are written like letters. I love that. The author begins each “chapter” like a new letter in a series of letters, which takes away the normally dry core rulebook format and instead immerses you in a hot bath of theme. The author demonstrates the feel of the game right in the rules.
There are about 49 pages of those letter-chapters that comprise the main thrust of the game, and then the following sections are updates or supplemental materials presented in a more conventional style (except for the section on e-mails). These additional sections are excellent in the way that they expand upon and clarify the intentions of the game (with the few exceptions of small contradictions that I noted earlier). There are sections on Society play, where groups of people form what is essentially a campaign group that plays De Profundis; a section on an example campaign with commentary; a section of using De Profundis with Call of Cthulhu or other RPGs; and even more to help get your games going.
One more thing about actually playing De Profundis: it’s harder than it sounds. I couldn’t find anyone to play with me on short notice so I tried writing some solo material, and capturing the subtlety and creepiness required to make it interesting was really hard. Much like writing a good story, so much of the challenge is how to make it interesting.
This book made me very excited about role-playing, and I like the possibilities that spring up in my mind when I read this book. The concept of psychodrama, not as a psychological therapy tool but as a sort of self-imposed, paranoia-inducing state of mind, is an idea that really appeals to me as a gamer and as a writer. You might also think of it as attuning your perceptions to Lovecraft and his idea of horror, putting yourself in a Lovecraft story. I want to sit down on a rainy evening with a lit candle and scratch out a letter about strange faces in the windows after reading this book, and that is cool.
As far as playing the game, I worry that an exchange of letters would just be a few people writing to each other about weird stuff without any provocation. What I mean is, I don’t see how a game could carry on if players are just trying to write about their creepy experiences without asking the other players questions relating to their experiences. Basically, I worry about selfish playing. With a game so dependent upon individual effort, I can see some folks writing their narrative continuously without engaging the narratives of other players and I would implore any of you to consider that if and when you play the game.
If you like role-playing, getting a little creeped out, and especially if you like the feel of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories and want to take a crack at recreating that, definitely check out De Profundis, you will not be disappointed.