This is the one hundred forty-seventh 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 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.

Our one hundred forty-seventh random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality has crept up to our fire, lurking just outside its light. It’s Into The Flames, by Adam Dixon, and its tagline in the bundle reads:

A storygame about haunted journeys, designed to be played in front of a fire.

Come on Adam Dixon, light my fire.

Into The Flames is billed as a “storygame”, which is similar to many of the tabletop role-playing games that have appeared in this series before, except it’s not really designed to be played at a table. You could play that way if you want, but the ideal place to play it is outdoors, gathered around a fire. I know what you’re thinking, and yes: Into The Flames does contain a section on fire safety. The fire is but one barrier to me actually playing it, however; it also requires at least four players and ideally six to ten. I am too lazy to gather such a group had trek somewhere to build a fire, so I have simply read through the book and written my impressions here.

Into The Flames bills itself as a horror game, but it strikes me as spooky instead of flat out scary. It’s basically a more organized version of the fine tradition of telling ghost stories around a campfire. Most players take on the roles of pilgrims traveling a cursed road in a world similar to but distinct from our own. The initial set up part involves deciding what this world and its road are like: what dangers they hold, what elusive things are said to be at the end of the road, and why anyone would give up their lives to take up this perilous pilgrimage. In fact, it’s assumed that most players will be unfamiliar with the game, and reading through the book together is part of the game.

Actually, even that is getting ahead of things. Players are encouraged to begin playing before they even arrive at the fire, gathering trinkets from the trail, or wherever they happen to be playing. These trinkets are critical for the game, so if the group isn’t planning to actually travel somewhere to play, there are some printable trinkets included that can be handed out. But it’s best if people gather their own. Then they build the fire together, and share food and drink and conversation as the flames grow. Only then do they pass around the rulebook and read it together, establishing the world in which they will play and the nature of its mysterious road.

Earlier I said that most of the group will play as pilgrims. One player will instead embody the spirits that haunt the road. This player lurks outside the fire’s light, acting as an interrogator of sorts who (guided by the rulebook) helps define each of the pilgrims’ characters. Once those are established, the bulk of the game can begin. It consists of rounds in which the pilgrims tell stories of each day on the road, describing events or encounters. Everyone may contribute, and there are some optional “moves” included (inspired, no doubt, by the Powered By The Apocalypse system) to help get the story going if people are having trouble. When the tales of the day’s events have concluded, the pilgrims must choose to sacrifice (or not!) one or more of their trinkets, ideally by actually throwing them into the fire, along with a description of what the trinkets mean to their characters. The spirit then judges whether these sacrifices are worthy or not. Any pilgrim whose sacrifice was found wanting is claimed by the spirit, joining its ranks beyond the fire’s glow.

The next day’s story will then include what happened to any unfortunate pilgrims. The growing horde of spirits actively influences the story by choosing which pilgrims must speak, and the spirits are encouraged to whisper into the pilgrims’ ears, implanting ideas or doubts. Or, to just get up to spooky behavior beyond the pilgrims’ circle. Play proceeds until there is only one pilgrim remaining, but players are instructed not to read the final part of the rulebook until that point, so I will not spoil what happens here.

I appreciate that Into The Flames offers a lot of advice for players who may be new to improvisational collaborative storytelling. The moves that can be employed act as devices for building off of others’ ideas, by reinforcing them, adding twists, or even contradicting them in a benign way: “you say you saw a man on the road behind us… I don’t think that was a human.” The suggestion to ask a lot of questions seems particularly helpful: “If it wasn’t human, what was it?” The best advice of all may be to simply say what’s obvious. Keep the conversation going, no need to be clever. Just get everyone talking, and the game will flow from there. Several storytelling-focused tabletop role-playing games have come up in this series already, but they rarely give guidance like this, instead just providing a premise and letting players loose. That’s fine if everyone already knows how to do this kind of thing, but newcomers will appreciate the tips in Into The Flames.

The book is also careful to make sure everyone is comfortable. Even at the start, when reading the rules, it explicitly asks if everyone is willing to play, or if they aren’t feeling it (even if just in the moment). The group can stop right there and do something else. If people are willing to play, there’s time spent determining which (if any) subjects should be off limits for the game, and the X card is explicitly included as a safety tool to stop any story threads that are entering unwanted territory. Everyone should be having a spooky good time, not an actually scary time.

Most of all, I like the sections on the desired tone. Often, the book describes how the scene should feel, with everyone staring into the fire, letting the silence grow, before someone starts speaking. Conversations are meant to turn inward, starting with descriptions of what happened that day but morphing into debates about characters’ beliefs, or how characters are feeling or what they are thinking. The author wants characters to open up to each other around the fire. Perhaps paradoxically, the threat of perishing along the road should encourage this. Players may only get to play a few rounds as their pilgrim, so they should make the most of it; don’t hold back. And then enjoy haunting everyone else as a spirit.

I’m not sure how well I’d do at actually playing Into The Flames, but I’m certainly intrigued. I love the idea of the fire as a central element to the game, as it seems to automatically set the mood and get everyone into the right mindset to play. Gathering around a fire for warmth and light in the middle of a dark, cold night is an experience most people understand on an almost instinctual level, and Into The Flames just takes that and runs with it. It strikes me as something that would work well on a camping trip with likeminded folks. Indeed, it was first written for and played at an event called Furtive Shambles, which focused on small experimental games, and actually gathered everyone around a campfire to play. The original group of players are all thanked by name in the Acknowledgments section at the end of the book.

If you like campfires and spooky stories, and have a group of people who like them too, give Into The Flames a look. If you missed it in the bundle it’s sold for a minimum price of $10, with the printable trinket cards thrown in for any purchase above $12.

That’s 147 down, and only 1594 to go!