De Profundis Capsule Review by Christopher E. Meadows on 31/07/02
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
An interesting and exciting new method of epistolary roleplaying, at a very affordable price but perhaps also slightly worrying.
Product: De Profundis
Author: Michal Oracz
Company/Publisher: Hogshead Publishing
Line: New Style
Cost: $6.95US/4.5 pounds UK
Page count: 32
Year published: 2002
SKU: HOG 405
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Christopher E. Meadows on 31/07/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Science Fiction Modern day Historical Horror Conspiracy Gothic Diceless
De Profundis, an English translation of a roleplaying game from Poland, is a 32-page booklet containing a set of rules for epistolary psychodramaa sort of roleplaying by letterin the world of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. Psychodrama, as explained by an article in an appendix, is a diceless, game-masterless method of roleplaying, in which the course of the narrative is decided by the course of conversation among the gamers. It seems very similar to the freestyle form of roleplay used in MUSHes and other on-line roleplay environments.
Most roleplaying games contain rules, play examples, and game-world fiction. De Profundis somehow manages to combine all three of those elements into the very same text.
That text contains a tale that actually works on several different levels. Not only is it a set of rules and instructions explaining how to play, it is also an example of how to playthe rules are laid down as a series of letters from Michal to one of his friends, becoming more and more erratic as he approaches the end of the book. And thus, it is also itself a work of fictionan enjoyable pastiche of the Lovecraftian milieu.
The first section, Letters from the Abyss, makes up the largest portion of the book. This is the section that focuses on the writing of letters. For their letters, players first make up a character, or choose one of Lovecraft's, and play in either the 1920s or the present day. In either case, each tries to get into the mind of his character, and writes his letters strictly from that point of view.
One part of this section that has become moderately controversial among gamers urges players to avoid the faster and more modern "shortcuts" of email, and suggests instead using an old-style fountain pen, or perhaps a typewriter. Taking the care and time to write a letter in the old style turns De Profundis into a sort of "ceremony"letting the reader get into the proper frame of mind in which to read and correspond. Needless to say, gamers may ignore the anti-technology dictate at their whim, and some have; there are already several YahooGroups De Profundis mailing lists.
In De Profundis, as in any psychodrama, there is no one game-master, per serather, everyone has an equal stake in creating the world and deciding where it goes.
Except, perhaps "creating" the world is a misnomer for, as the correspondent-author explains, we will actually be playing in our own world. In De Profundis, we blur the line between fiction and reality, using our imagination to discover the "Truth" behind commonplace, everyday events.
The second part of the book, Phantasmagoria, elaborates, explaining how gamers can use their imagination to turn any ordinary place into a horror-haunted Lovecraftian realm: take something normal, like the sound of a distant factory, and imagine some otherworldly explanation for it. Picture it in your mind, until you can almost believe it is real
The third section, The Hermitage, is not so much game content as the author telling (and demonstrating) why he refuses to expose his epistolary friend to the true third part of the game De Profundis. The appendices include a mail-in form to get onto Hogshead's international player registry, and the aforementioned article about psychodrama in general.
Despite its Lovecraftian slant, De Profundis need hardly be limited to the Cthulhu mythos; one could take the same epistolary techniques and apply them to any genrefantasy, science fiction, adventure, and so on. There is little functional difference between a letter carried by post and a message carried from star to star by courier shipboth take time to arrive and to return.
The space on De Profundis's 32 pages is used quite efficiently. Most pages have two full columns of text, and very narrow margins. The material is dense, broken only by headers in a typewriter font, and by small, odd illustrations. The pictures seem to have no relationship to the text surrounding them, and most resemble clip-art from someone's word processor. In fact, the book might have been better off without them, as they detract from the illusion that the book really was a series of handwritten letters.
Other than the art, a few grammatical nitpicks ("dice" is not a singular noun!) and a formatting issue with excess page numbers on the appendix article, the presentation is top notch. However, I also have a few reservations about the content.
De Profundis is an excellent story and a great gameclearly a work of remarkable imagination and vision, elegant in its simplicity and execution. Its unique angle on writing should prove fascinating for roleplayers and nonroleplayers alike. The price of $6.95 is quite a bargain, especially in today's market. (The fact that all or most of the source materialLovecraft's workscan be found online for free is simply a nice bonus.)
And yet, I find I am a trifle concerned about Phantasmagoria.
Apparently, so was Hogshead; an italicized disclaimer on its copyright page states that De Profundis is for mentally mature and well-balanced people only, and emphasizes that it "should be read and interpreted only as a game. Under no circumstances should it be treated as a way of living."
And yet, the rules themselves seem to recommend precisely that"filtering" our view of reality; looking at the world through Cthulhu-colored glasses, as it were.
I may be taking the quote slightly out of context, yet I cannot help reflecting on the struggle that RPGs have faced for years against organizations such as BADD ("Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons") who claim that roleplaying games promote satanism, disconnection from reality, and suicide. RPG advocates have responded with pamphlets and rebuttals, claiming that almost all gamers were able to tell the difference between reality and fantasy, and the result has been a kind of stalemate.
And now, along comes a game that encourages gamers to blur those lines that suggests inducing paranoia or schizophrenia, and overlaying the real world with our imaginations. For BADD propaganda, it would seem almost heaven-sentand for people who already have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality, any alternate-reality game would be bad, but De Profundis could be more dangerous than most.
Most of us can read this book and realize that it is simply fiction, written to provide a means of playing out a Lovecraftian storythe literary equivalent of ghost stories around a campfire. But will everybody share this viewpoint?
Worries aside, De Profundis is both an excellent game and an excellent story, at an excellent price. At less than $7, buy it just to read it, and consider any fun you get out of playing it an unexpected bonus. But do be careful with it.