Author: Doug Bolden
Reviewed by: Ron Edwards, 1999-04-01
Ghost Light exists only as a few pages download from the Internet. No sourcebook, no pictures, no "what is role-playing" section - it's basically a premise, a character creation section, and a dice mechanic. Yet this game, even in its present form, has more potential for a powerful and creative role-playing experience than any hard-bound, multiple-supplement RPG on the shelves in the gaming stores today. Guaranteed.
The premise is this: ghosts exist as groups of active emotions that, having been accumulated and strengthened by multiple life-experiences (that is, repeated from life to life), no longer enter the cycle of rebirth. The PC is defined as a list of related emotions that are too strong to be "washed clean" and get born into another life. Scores are assigned to indicate the emotions' intensity, as well as situations that can activate ("stimulate") them. So a character might be defined by Love, Sorrow, and Fear; another by Madness and Guilt; another by Mischief and Hate; etc. A skill and a trait or two round the character out.
Thus far the game might sound a bit like Wraith or Lost Souls. However, Ghost Light is notable for this reason: all actions are attempted only as expressions of emotion. In game terms, you "use" the dice associated with that emotion to try something; in narrative terms, it means the PC must care about the act. Generally, you can attempt anything as long as you can justify its emotional relevance. Therefore the numbers of character creation, the resolution system, and the role-playing itself are all the same thing.
There are long-term consequences of the system as well, in that emotions may be intensified or diminished through play, in some cases to the extent of returning the ghost to re-birth.
Ghost Light is a hard-core Narrativist game. It requires players who can justify the characters' degree of emotional intent, and a GM who can judge and work with that information, both in the short term and the long term. The simple, quick-to-use dice system exists only to make these interactions possible.
For example, the character is confronted by a barrier. One of this ghost's emotions is Rage at value 4, so the player determines that the PC gets really mad and blasts through the barrier. The player rolls 4d6; the total is quickly read (a d6 gives 0, 1, or 2 "successes") and compared to the GM's task value (equally quickly determined by the handy difficulty system). Another ghost might have used Love, because they felt strongly about the person on the other side; another might have used Mischief to dismantle the barrier or subvert it somehow.
Enough rhetoric; cut to the videotape. How did it work? Well, at first one of my players was very skeptical of some touchy-feely game based on emotions... and by the end of the session he had fallen completely in love with the system. It's amazing how many tasks you can accomplish with three or four emotions and their inter-combinations. The system presented no problem at all in terms of action resolution, motivations, or some of the consequences like gaining or losing emotion scores. Combining emotions, tainting one emotion with another, pushing the limits of the emotion, being overwhelmed by an emotion, losing "ghost status" and being re-born into life... it's all there. The system is complete and sufficient for play.
From the perspective of modern RPG publishing, though, Ghost Light is not ready for glossy covers by a long shot. It wholly lacks background content, which doesn't bother me, but there are certainly some conceptual gaps that need filling.
A Narrativist game requires some discussion of story structure (as in Amber, Everway, Over the Edge, and similar games), and the present form of Ghost Light only presents a vague notion of the PCs running around having adventures with NPC ghosts. In play, I needed more. Ed did too, and in our separate GMing experiences with Ghost Light, we independently decided to "superimpose" the ghost world upon the living one.
Atmosphere and theme are also left open, as evidenced again from our playtesting. I did a kind of cartoony adventure with lots of quirky characters and an occult technicality that lasted one afternoon of ghost-time. Ed did a gothic-horror-fantasy spanning several centuries and generations of ghosts.
Therefore I suggest that the game would benefit greatly from a section explaining several different options for the following things:
- What does a ghost know or remember about having been alive? [I decided, "Nothing"; Ed decided, "Almost everything."] Are the most recent lives clearest?
- How does the ghost interact with the living world, if at all? Do stimuli occurring there affect it less, just as much, or more than stimuli occurring due to other ghosts' actions? How does affecting a real chair differ from affecting its ghostly counterpart?
- Given that players have total control over the actual action to take (which I like), what are the limits for the scope of ghosts' actions? Could one stop the Earth from turning if it got a good enough roll?
- How do different atmospheres and themes affect some of the rules? A revenge drama, a self-help redemption drama, a comedy romp, a just-plain-scary story... all suggest different ways to handle stimulus rules in particular.
Again, we're dealing with a game in development here. It's only seven pages soaking wet. But once you do the work to fill in the conceptual blank spots yourself, it's a playable RPG, and a damned fine one. Bolden has identified exactly the right sort of system to create characters of this kind. Ghost Light ranks high as one of the most interesting and original indie role-playing games.