This is the one hundred tenth 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.
Another random selection from the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality has been delivered in a sealed envelope with a handwritten address. It’s The Reaper’s Almanac, by Mitch Schiwal, and its tagline in the bundle reads:
A letter writing game about embracing death and celebrating life.
For our younger readers, “letters” were these things we used to write, by hand, on actual paper, and then have the paper physically delivered to the person we were writing to in an envelope. People used to communicate that way, before social media. Crazy, I know.
The Reaper’s Almanac, created for the Correspondence Jam which ran in late 2019, requires two players, so I can’t just play it by myself. But perhaps a bigger obstacle than the need to recruit another player is the time required to play. Each player will write five letters, responding to their partner’s missives while also recounting their own stories, which means the game could easily take weeks or months to complete, and I simply do not have that much time to invest in it for this series. Instead, I’ve read through the rules and written my impressions here.
The two players in The Reaper’s Almanac assume the roles of the titular Reaper(s), tasked with shepherding souls upon death. Each Reaper has a certain Charge, over which they are responsible. This can be anything: a location, a specific family, even a weapon. All deaths associated with one’s Charge must be handled, and each written letter concerns (at least partly) a specific death. The Reapers are also chroniclers, recounting the stories of the deceased so they will not be forgotten. Given the subject matter, it’s good to see a hefty section dedicated to safety, especially since players are not sat at the same table and therefore cannot use common safety mechanics like the X card. This section of the rulebook is a thoughtful discussion of how to ensure that the subject matter doesn’t veer into unpleasant or triggering areas. The aim of the game is to celebrate life after death, not to dwell on grim topics.
After some initial set up where the players decide on a rough setting in which their correspondence will take place, the game itself is guided through the Path, a structure reminiscent of Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks. While one’s first letter always has the same prompts — to detail one’s Charge, recount the Departed, and elicit some emotion in the other player — things can go in many different directions from there. Upon receiving the other player’s first letter, the emotions it instills will point to one of eight possible prompts for a second letter. These prompts generally describe an event or circumstance and ask the player to flesh it out. Further, each asks one or more questions, regarding how the player feels about what happened, or what they decide to do in response. This then points to two or three further choices, each leading to their own new prompt for the next letter. The Path sends both players through a sort of story arc for their Reapers, often with rather dramatic conclusions.
I really liked these prompts. Experienced or particularly creative players are free to deviate from the Path and create their own stories, but the prompts provided in the rulebook allow for a varied set of narratives and topics. Perhaps a Reaper remains detached and finds peace in watching the cycle of life and death within their Charge, or perhaps they become too attached or involved. A Reaper may be faced with tragedy and decide to defy their duties, while another might ruminate on the existential exhaustion of dealing with death for so long. Maybe a Reaper must change their Charge, and reflect upon what the old one meant to them and how they are adjusting to the new. The prompts should effectively guide players towards narratives that interest them, since each is the result of their own decisions on how to respond to events or how they feel about their Charge or specific Departed within it.
But, beyond the very first choice which stems from a reaction to the other player’s letter, it wasn’t clear to me exactly how to incorporate the other Reaper into one’s own evolving story. Along the Path, each new prompt is related to one’s own Charge and the choices made up to that point, never mentioning the other Reaper’s letters again. I could even imagine penning letters solo (although I’m not sure my own creative writing skills are up to snuff) without needing another player to respond to. I suspect, however, that there’s an unspoken assumption that players will comment on each other’s narratives and perhaps even use the other player’s thoughts to guide their own choices as they follow the Path.
I also think that the time delays inherent in sending physical letters will be to The Reaper’s Almanac’s benefit. The game won’t really stop when players aren’t actively writing, they’ll still think things over as they go about their lives. And this time for reflection will make for more interesting letters. A similar effect occurs in one of my favorite PC games, Solium Infernum (which I’m still playing, by the way), where the delays between turns give space for players to ruminate over what to do, perhaps concoct a secret alliance or two, and most importantly lend extra weight to every outcome. In The Reaper’s Almanac, the extra time given to the stories should grant them more poignancy.
I’ve not encountered a letter-writing game like this before, but it seems like a cool idea. I’m sure that others must exist (indeed, enough for an entire game jam about them), and they are likely popular among creative writers. The focus here on chronicling the lives of those who have died also has the potential to be highly therapeutic. If musing on life and death while building stories with a partner sounds interesting to you, give The Reaper’s Almanac a look. If you missed it in the bundle, it’s sold for a minimum price of $5.
That’s 110 down, and only 1631 to go!