This is the sixty-sixth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
“The Ouija Board of Roleplaying Games”
Yes, the tagline is itself in quotes. But I don’t know who is being quoted.
As the title suggests, The Frost Papers is actually ten games in one. They might be described as live action role-playing games, but are inspired by Victorian parlour games, séances, and supernatural ghost stories and paranormal events. Intriguingly, they are presented entirely within their own fiction. The short introduction to The Frost Papers informs us that they are a series of letters that appeared for auction in 1891, from a mysterious “A.R.” to the eponymous Mr. Frost. The letters act as instructions for each of the games, which let players make contact with the mysterious Grey, a dangerous realm of spirits and dangerous but tempting power. The games are therefore actual games within the lore, played in order to dabble with dark forces beyond our understanding.
This framing device means that The Frost Papers are an entertaining read, even without playing any of the games. Each successive letter hints at Mr. Frost’s increasingly reckless behavior, failing to head A.R.’s warnings and forced to attempt ever more dangerous games in order to save himself and others. An overarching story spread across the ten games was not something I expected to find, but it was welcome given that all but two games — a solitaire card game, and a game about guided dreaming — require multiple people in the same room, so I can’t actually play them. And as I read through, I questioned whether the games are even meant to be played at all. The authors certainly indicate that they are on the itch.io page, but a huge part of the appeal of the games comes from their ritualistic aspects, which would be hard to replicate in practice. Chairs must be arranged in specific patterns in rooms, and often within a circle drawn on the floor (occasionally circles must be drawn “in the first way” or “in the seventh way”, but these are nor elaborated upon; I suppose Mr. Frost already knew these basics). Candles must be lit and placed in specific patterns. All clocks and timepieces in the room must be stopped, and any iron objects must be collected in a sealed box. Players’ names must never be spoken during the games, as they instead adopt roles like The Guide or The Traveller.
Where other games might have a section on safety, to ensure that all players are comfortable and that triggering or traumatic subjects don’t come up in the game, here the safety rules are A.R.’s guidelines for protecting oneself against the dangers of the Grey. There are Rules such as “do not seal a covenant” or “do not stray from the path”. Players are cautioned not to leave the protective circles drawn around them, no matter what they see, or what the denizens of the Grey offer. This is all fantastic flavor, but how to ensure everyone actually feels safe when playing? Especially given that some games get into some pretty creepy stuff. In one, the Traveller must be physically bound to their chair, as they are (temporarily, one hopes) possessed by a demon. One game involves creating defensive sigils that require the player’s own blood. Another tasks players with sewing a piece of meat inside a doll, burying the doll, and then digging it up a day later.
Even the solitaire card game I mentioned has aspects like this. Mechanically it’s very simple, involving dealing a deck of cards into different piles, and then drawing from them and sorting cards, hoping that the Jacks (“knaves”) are drawn last. But the embellishments make it so much creepier. Players must sit with their back towards a window, cracked open such that the spirit known as Blind Jack may enter. They must physically deface the deck of cards, blinding the jacks, kings and queens by scratching out their eyes. Their chair must be ensconced in a protective circle, with candles lit and arranged in a precise pattern, and they must utter an incantation to summon Blind Jack and begin the game.
Again, this is wonderfully evocative, but it’s hard to imagine actually doing all of it. I don’t want to deface a deck of cards, and I’m not sure I even have any candles. And I definitely don’t want to start drawing circles on my floor. Certain groups of players might be excited to try some of the games offered here, which the authors describe as akin to being in a supernatural horror film. They could also serve as inspirations for tabletop role-playing games, which would allow players to pretend they are playing these games instead of actually playing them. But I suspect many will simply enjoy reading through the letters, following Mr. Frost’s story and basking in the spookiness of it all. If you missed it in the bundle, The Frost Papers – Ten Games To Play in the Dark is sold for a minimum price of $10.
That’s 66 down, and only 1675 to go!