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]