A Rifleman and A General

Back in 2020 one of the first games I played fully online after the lockdowns went into effect was Bleak Spirit. It’s one of those games that’s trying to tap into themes of the Dark Souls and Bloodborne video games. I don’t have any familiarity with those games but I have a lot of sympathy for that design impulse having chased after Silent Hill for nearly 20 years in my own work.

An interesting record of the game we played exists here: Bleak Spirit Trello Board I’m going to talk about each of the columns and what they reflected about play. (You can ignore the World and Chorus columns. I was using those columns to track which players were performing those duties during scenes. They are a kind of turn tracking device).

The Ban List is pretty straightforward. It’s things we stated upfront we did not want in the game.  “Plague” was my own contribution which is unusual for me. I’m normally a no-holds-barred kind of player but given the circumstances at the time I just wasn’t up for discussing people dying of disease.

The Wanderer is interesting because they are ostensibly the main character. Everything in that list is generated during setup. Very little of it, if any, changes over the course of, or as a result of, play.  In fact the book says this about The Wanderer:

The wanderer is an unstoppable juggernaut, capable of bypassing any obstacle between them and their goal; what they seek may be heroic or disastrous or both, and they may never understand why they seek it. But they will get there, and things will change.

The Occupied Monastery is a location that is pitched as part of setup. A few of those sub-locations are also suggested at the start of play. Many of the sub-locations are created during play but any given game of Bleak Speak takes place entirely inside the main containing location.

The real meat of the game is the Lore column. The game has an explicit three part structure. The first two parts are very similar. Part one consists of five scenes, two of which must contain physical dangers. Part two contains up to three scenes, one of which must contain a physical danger. The only difference between the two parts is tone. The environment shifts from curious to ominous, characters shift from enigmatic to either fully helpful or fully antagonist, and dangers shift from inconvenient to deadly.

Between scenes players rotate the roles of The Wanderer, The World and The Chorus. Which roughly correspond to PC, GM and advisors. The main point of each scene is to generate a piece of lore. Thus each card in the Lore column corresponds exactly to one scene, in the order we played them, top to bottom.

The purpose of lore is to hint at an implied history of the location as well as an adversary that lurks there. Players are actually not supposed to discuss much once play begins. The World describes the environment and how it reacts and The Wanderer describes what that character does. The Chorus may offer up details but no player is supposed to talk about things that can’t be seen such as the whys and wherefores of things or The Wanderer’s inner thoughts or emotions.

Instead each player is supposed to take a moment at the end of each scene to reflect on the Questions you see in that column. Again this is a silent personal process and never shared with the group directly. It is simply meant to inform how you choose to play The Wanderer or The World or contribute as The Chorus.

The third and final part of the game consists of a showdown between The Wanderer and The Adversary. Remember The Wanderer is a known quantity from the beginning while The Adversary is derived from the aggregate of lore generated over 6 to 8 scenes across the main location. The Wanderer is also guaranteed to defeat The Adversary, it’s up to the current Wanderer and World players to describe how.  Also, the showdown happens over a few stages and those roles rotate between those stages so most players get a bit of a say in what happens.

Now for the last interesting bit which loops back to the text I quoted about The Wanderer. After The Adversary is defeated, you say how the location is permanently changed, for better or for worse. So the arc of play is building up a location, and then saying how that location is impacted by The Wanderer having trampled through it. The Wanderer themselves, remains rather unchanged.

It’s been so long since this games was played that I don’t quite remember exactly what we said happened after The General was defeated. I think it was that the occupying force he was in charge of withdraws and thus the monastery can begin to return to its original spiritual purpose. Or something along those lines.

Despite being a single session game in its core structure, the text suggests that it’s intended to be played as a campaign. You keep The Wanderer but build (and destroy) a new location each session. You can revisit old locations if you want but it’s recommended that you do so infrequently. I have only played this one game. I am somewhat curious to see if over many locations The Wanderer develops any sense of depth or purpose, comes to any definitive point of resolution for themselves, or if the world as a whole coheres into a place with distinct historical and cultural features.

[editing in: Bleak Spirit homepage – RE]

9 responses to “A Rifleman and A General”

  1. Where is the Danger?

    I am intrigued by the game, but from a play perspective where was the danger, if there was any? I ask because the system seems to take away "failure", at least at the end. Without having read the rules, I can see where discovery could play a big part, but considering the influence, which relies heavy on failure, rinse, repeat, I am curious where uncertainty exists in play. 

    • You are right to observe that

      You are right to observe that there is no failure. In a scene with physical danger The World simply describes the threat and The Wanderer describes how they overcome it.  When it comes to The Adversary there are simply two such exchanges. In the quote from the book I provided I find the phrase "unstoppable juggernaut" rather significant.

      I think the game is rather insightful to do this in terms of its pursuit to capture the esssence of the video game. It's true those games have a reputation for being extremely difficult but also failure doesn't cause anything different to happen. It's just "try again." There is a kind fun/pleasure to be found in the skill building exercise of improving until you beat it but that's a poor thing to try and capture in an RPG.

      So what's left? There is a thing in video game development called Evironmental Storytelling. In some ways it could be thought of as imaginary archeaology. There is a story but it's all told through artifacts and visual clues. In fact the game's text is very explicit that it is this aspect of the video games this game is trying to capure:

      …the player is walking in at the very end of some huge, mythic tale.

      The emphasis is mine. The story is in the past and The Wanderer simply has arrived at the crux of its crisis (or maybe even imediately after its tragic resolution) and is a force that will tip things over one way or another.

      So what are the ways we can capture this effect? In a more traditional setup this would just result in the GM describing a bunch of lore purly in lavish aesthetic terms. The players are reduced to tourists wandering and wondering at the world around them.

      Bleak Spirit arrives at a different solution: distribute the main activity. It's refreshingly honest about it in that we don't roll to see whose idea goes in or spend tokens to out bid each other. We just take turns. It's like painting a landscape together. The Wanderer description done at the beginning of the game establishes the aesthetic baseline and then reflecting on the Questions keeps the activity centered.

      The fact that the Wanderer can automatically defeat every threat reminds us that a physical danger is like everything else: an artifact that reflects the area's history. It's not a "conflict" in the narrative sense, it's a piece of lore that happens to be active and agressive whether that's a creature or an environmental hazzard

    • From looking at the schema at

      From looking at the schema at your link, I hoped that play would feature that effect. It's apparently more about potraiture of a place, or better, revelations rather than merely filling-in, so maybe we'd discover and create its story. The Wanderer doesn't have a story, they're the "situation" that the place itself is encountering.

      Even more so: it's not that we take turns playing the Wanderer; maybe, playing the Wanderer is a bit of a rest & reflection from playing the place (and its history).

      Jesse, am I over-idealizing this? Is it more or less what you're describing?

    • Ron, I don’t think you are

      Ron, I don't think you are over-idealizing. What you describe is definitely what the game is about. Thinking about the Wanderer as the situation the location is encountering is really interesting way of framing things.

      I do think the role of the Wanderer is to sort-of question The World via their actions. What do I see in the pages of those books you described? What happens if touch the flame? What does the water taste like if I take a drink from the well? That kind of thing.

      There is a card mechanic that is considered optional and it is even recommended you don't use the first time you play. So we didn't use it. I do notice that some of those cards can introduce more content about The Wanderer themselves such as Flashbacks. I have no idea what additional impact on play those cards might have.

    • I have a lot of experience

      I have a lot of experience with the videogames, Ron's reading is extremely accurate for those too. The process of discovering the lore (which is almost entirely ex-post, both diegetically and extradiegetically, optional and in good part born from collective effort) reflects that dynamic precisely. The protagonist is incidental, nameless, and mostly irrelevant to the story. A witness at best, a disturbance at worst. And he is the situation, because he doesn't step in into an ongoing crysis, but rather into the ashes of one.

      I can elaborate further but I don't know how pertinent it would be to the discussion. There's some overlapping but the mediums are clearly too different to draw any real parallels.

  2. The Chorus Role

    Sean hit a key point with his question; for my part, I'm interested in the role of Chorus, and how you think it worked in your play. In general, I've never found these "side" roles to be particularly well developed; in what I would generally describe as a bad Polaris experience, players were afraid to break into the duet between the Heart and The Mistake, failing to define when their intervention encroached and limiting themselves to minor aesthetic embellishments, or even remaining silent. From just reading Lovecraftqesque, then, I realized how often this role is defined with "don't step on the GM's toes and don't introduce anything too weird." 

    I don't want to assume anything about your play, so here are my questions: how did you find taking on this role compared to the Wanderer or World role? Do you feel that the Chorus' contributions have sometimes dramatically altered the duet between the two main parts? Did you have difficulty figuring out what it couldn't do, or did you find that whoever was taking on the role was pushing the envelope? And if so, how did you deal with that?

    • I don’t know if you know this

      I don't know if you know this already but Bleak Spirit is based on Lovecraftesque. I have neither played nor read Lovecraftesque, so I can't compare there. Also, I'm a bit far out from the actual play of this game to remember in detail any specific standout moments of Chorus contribution.

      What I can say is that the role was definitely one of "enthusiastic audience." There's no pressure to contribute. You can just listen if you want and that isn't a bad thing. But you don't have to just stay silent either. It's a bit like the example Ron likes to use of someone scoring a hit with an axe and someone else shouting out, "CRUNCH!" Contributions are usually an emblishment or an appreciative underscoring of something that just happend. These additions may be minimal but I wouldn't say they are insignificant.

  3. Where was the fun?

    I don't mean this to be a challenging question, I'm just genuinely curious: what parts of the session did you find most enjoyable (I don't care about why, just which moments)? And would you enjoy playing it again?

    • I had to really think about

      I had to really think about this because I'm so removed from when the game actually took place. The thing that came to me most was the joy of being able to create without the need to justify. You're supposed to reflect on those Questions but that's just to make sure you aren't spinning something from nothing. The answers are just in your head, always provisional, and never shared.

      I was the first player to play The World and as part of that I introduced the great flame with faces singing gregorian chants. It was just an image I had in my head, so I put it out there. Later, the climax of the game took place near that flame and The Wanderer described themselves leaping through the flames with the faces screaming all around him as he went for The General. It was a pretty cool reincorporation.

      In todays world of mass media that must be nailed down with a well understood canon that can readily answer any question the fan base throws at it, it was nice to create something that generated more questions than answers. This even applied to The Wanderer's own behavior.

      At one point we introduced these glass orbs that screamed when broken and The Wanderer player at that moment described how he went through them as if looking for a specific one and after finding it put it in his bag. There's a mechanic I didn't mention in my original write up and that I should probably have included in my response about danger. When The Wanderer describes how he defeats a danger The World offers up a Price, something that the success costs the Wanderer, and The Chorus offers up an alternative Price. The Wanderer has to choose one.

      So, of course, after The Wanderer picked up that orb one of the Prices was always "the orb breaks" and the alternative was usually something pretty horrible happening to The Wanderer physically.  And of course each of choose the horrible thing because somehow we all got it into our heads that this orb was SUPER important to this guy.  None of us knew why!  We still don't know why!  And frankly that was awesome.  It somehow made it feel less like we were "just making it up."  The less we said the more real it felt.  

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