As someone who loves both vampires and writing (especially at the same time), being approached by Rori Montford (MontfordTales on Twitter) to write a review about her upcoming Dead Letter Society was an absolute no-brainer. Did I want to playtest something that involved at least two of my favourite things? Umm… yes please!
Feeling a little bit more than special to have been asked, I dived into the game immediately, and took a quick skim before scheduling myself a quiet Sunday afternoon to get cosy and play. The game immediately appeals with a beautifully written letter that helps set the tone for the included setting. Then, going on to describe itself, it states the following:
Solo play too? Perfect. I’d never actually managed to sit down and play a solo TTRPG before this (despite having a whole load of them on the shelf!!), so I was more than excited to get started.
The game requires a tarot deck, or some other way to randomly generate numbers which you can check against a provided table to find the correct prompts. I have a few decks here, so I took some time to choose one that felt right for the character I had in mind. I settled on the True Black Tarot, feeling it matched my vampire’s penchant for luxury and style.
Right from the start, Dead Letter Society tackles the all important topic of safety. Vampires are inherently emotional subjects, and stories about them can easily bring up content that not everyone will be comfortable with. The game includes a comprehensive section on both Safety Tools and Content Warnings right away and provides guidance to remove certain cards from the deck which may contain undesirable themes.
Rori was kind enough to share the full game text with me, so I decided to play using that rather than just the preview, and after reading through the comprehensive rules I was excited to choose a few optional rules for my game that suited just how I wanted to play.
This included “The Story So Far”, which allowed me to explore my character’s motivations for joining the Dead Letter Society in the first place, “A Brief Correspondence” which meant I would create a second character myself, but imagine what they wrote in their letters rather than write them out in full, and “Major Arcana Endgame”, which meant that my game would end when the last Major Arcana card had been drawn, rather than after a set number of rounds (what can I say? I like to write).
After this, it was time to set up the game. This did take me some time – I spent around a little over an hour and a half to sort out everything I needed to in order to start playing. This may be something to consider, especially if you are the type who likes to quickly jump into a game and start playing without any prep. However, if you’re anything like me then you’re probably more than happy to spend that time imagining characters and figuring out various aspects of the world they live in. There are also a number of playsets included in the game – pre-written settings that will help streamline and cut down setup time.
To start with, you need to work out the tone and scope of your game – this is the themes and genre you wish to explore, as well as the area you want your correspondence to cover. You also plan the length of your game, which gives you the ability to nicely control the pacing of your story to suit your own needs. As mentioned above, I chose to leave mine more open-ended, purely because I know how I love to waffle on, and on, and on (as evidenced by this review).
After setting tone and scope, you move on to world building. The ‘What is a Vampire?’ section allows you to choose aspects of vampirism that suit your intended world. In the full version of the game, there is also the chance to define aspects of humanity in a similar way, as well as vampire society. I found this a quick and simple way to establish both pros and cons for each – very effective and nice and fast with predetermined lists to choose from. Each of these traits are then expanded on in some way to further define what they mean, and pose questions or decisions for your characters to make.
For my game, I chose Immortality, Speed, Unseen and Sunlight for my vampiric traits, and Critical Thinking, Capitalist, Networking and Disease for humanity. In my world, vampire society is defined by Hierarchy, Dictatorship, Morality and Bonds.
There is a setting included in the preview which is in Lovecraftian London, so if that’s your jam then the next part is already done for you. The full version of the game will include at least four of these playsets in various locations and eras. I decided to go with my own setting that I’ve written in for some time, which is present day London, and wrote up a summary of the current situation affecting my character.
Like my setting, I already had an idea of which character I wanted to explore more, so I filled out the gorgeous application form with him in mind. The character creation process involves defining some basic characteristics, then their assets, which in this case does not only include material items, but also things such as allies and rivals, scars, and principles. You also decide their ambition for joining – what do they want to get out of this experience?
Lloyd is a 246 year old vampire who has lived with wealth for much of his life, and was turned in the early 1800's after returning from the French Revolutionary Wars. He has devoted his un-life to working as a spy for the Queen, and holds strong religious beliefs. He's also a bit pretentious. After defining his assets I decided that he has chosen to apply to the society due to a distinct lack of interesting peers in the area of London he is currently residing in, and that he is also curious as to the nature of the Society itself. He wonders if it truly operates as independently and pervasively as it seems.
The society demands an application fee based on one of the assets you have defined. It could be direct forfeiture of that asset to the Society, or a task related to one of them. If you are playing a two player game, you choose this for each other’s characters.
In a two player game, each of you would make your characters independently and at the same time. As I played alone, I then needed to make my second character, the one whom Lloyd would be exchanging letters with. I decided to create a sheet for her and define her assets in case I wanted to use them in her letters. However the optional rule I was using meant I did not have to think up a fee, as Lloyd would be the main focus of the game.
I decided to match Lloyd with a character who is almost his polar opposite: Mara, a vampire located in California, is a poet, an artist, and cares very little for wealth or material possessions. Though she has ties to France and England, it has been a long time since she left Europe, and Lloyd's similarities to her ex-husband made me wonder how they might influence one another, for better or worse.
Playing the Game
Once ready to dive in, I found that the gameplay of Dead Letter Society is interesting, surprising and – most importantly – incredibly fun. There are three phases to each round, each phase requiring you to do different things.
The first phase is the Letter Phase, in which you write your letters to one another. The second is the Society Phase, where you interact with the Society itself, following prompts based on the Major Arcana, journaling your responses.
The prompts Rori has provided are expertly crafted and represent the symbolism of the tarot cards themselves. I was surprised at how well they seemed to be able to fit into the subjects I was exploring – and much like a traditional tarot reading, provided me with alternate points of view through which to consider my character’s current situation.
The third phase is the Chronicle Phase, in which you receive and read a letter, and develop your character, their story and assets by spending Chronicle Points. You can spend your points to draw cards from the Minor Arcana here to develop further ideas and explore the topics that are of interest to you. All of the prompts are provided at the back of the book, as well as a rolling table that you can use if you do not have your own Tarot deck, or prefer to use dice, or some other kind of random number generator.
The full version of the game provides plenty of guidance on how to play each phase, develop your assets, and also includes great examples if you’re still not sure how it all works. I found the example supremely helpful, but also found that diving right in helped immensely as the context provided some needed framing
The game text also gives great ideas for good ways to develop your ideas, and talks about potential obstacles that might pop up while playing. Rori offers great advice on how to resolve any conflicts that might come up. This is primarily a storytelling game, so by and large the most important thing is to communicate with your fellow player and agree on the outcomes you want to see happen for your character(s).
Ending the Game
The magic of this is that the game ends precisely when you want it to. Whether its after a pre-arranged amount of letters, or simply because you feel that you are satisfied, or just think that you’ve done enough for now. You are in control of your character’s conclusion, and may choose to write an epilogue by doing a final Chronicle Phase once you feel you have finished. If one of you wants to continue playing, you can even invoke one of the optional rules to make it seem like one of the characters stops replying to the letters, so that the other can continue on their own!
I have not yet finished my own game. In fact, I managed just two rounds in the time I had set aside for myself to play this, and still wound up with over 1500 words written down between my letters and journal! I still have a lot more exploration to do with Lloyd and Mara, and I'm excited to see how they might affect one another as time passes and their correspondence continues.
All in all, the flexibility of this game is one of its greatest features. I can see this working as a wonderful slow game between two friends, potentially even using real snail mail, or something fun and quick to do together over a cosy evening or two in person. You could easily play this with a pal over Discord or any other digital tool – even something like tumblr, treating your timeline as the spot for journaling while sending Asks to each other as your letters.
For me, solo play of Dead Letter Society has inspired me to want to explore my existing characters further, both for those that I use in my creative writing and up and coming vampire TTRPG characters. It is not only a wonderfully well thought out game with insightful prompts and a plethora of potential settings (really, it can work with anything, anywhere), but one that provided me with a whole heap of enjoyment, and I am sure a lot more to come.
A free preview PDF of Dead Letter Society will be available today, Jan 30th, at 3pm! Crowdfunding begins from Feb 7th. In the meantime, please visit the campaign page to sign up to be notified when it launches so you can grab some wonderful early bird rewards!
If you'd like to read my letters and journaling for Lloyd, you can hop on over to this post.