Review: ‘Annalise’

Paoletta-AnnaliseI have spent a long time saying I wanted to play Annalise and never getting around to it, another trophy from the Bundle of Holding. I’m a huge fan of the Gothic and of vampire stories, and Annalise is a fascinating take in a potentially over-populated genre.

Annalise grew out of creator Nathan D. Paoletta’s desire to explore how his character’s internal struggles drove the story in a game of Misspent Youth. The character he played in that game was called Annalise, and she led to Paoletta creating an RPG about the victims of a vampire in which all the mechanics are drawn from the character’s internal drives.

The victims in Annalise can also be hunters, lovers, servants and sceptics of the vampire, but in some way this supernatural creature has become fixated on you and is slowly unravelling your life. There is no GM, though there are options for a ‘Facilitator’ who doesn’t play. You can play with between 2 and 4 people, which was one of the things that drew me to the game, as there’s a dearth of good games designed to run well with only 2 people.

Annalise also requires no preparation – at the start of the session, everyone will come up with a character name and a Vulnerability for that character, something that makes them interesting to the Vampire. This is where the game starts to tangle with some darker themes – your character can be a victim of neglect or abuse, so it’s worth handling this with care and sensitivity. However, like Monsterhearts, Annalise incorporates the process of discussing boundaries and content into the game by having a Lines and Veils stage (originating in a supplement for the RPG Sorcerer), where players establish things they don’t want to come into the game at all (Lines) and things that can be alluded to but not described in detail (Veils).

People start to introduce their characters, which prompts one of the most interesting mechanics of this RPG: Claims. Claims are scraps of story, evocative images, places or characters who you think can be used later on in the game. You ‘Claim’ these when someone else narrates them (you can’t Claim your own fictions) and gain Coins, the spendable resource for this game, as you do so. This reminds me a little of Seven Leagues, a fairy telling RPG in which you write your character’s fairy tale and then highlight words within the tale, using them as abilities during the game. It is also not a million miles away from Aspects in FATE, but a more dynamic and collaborative process that builds naturally as the story does.

As with many story games, there is a set order in which the scenes unfold. First, Introduction, where you have control over your own narrative but can ask other players to play NPCs, and set your name and Vulnerability. In Laying the Foundations, players take it in turns narrating scenes for one another to develop the characters’ satellite traits and have randomised outcomes that tell you whether Consequences occur or Achievements come into play. Finally, in the Confrontation, you decide the fate of the characters and whether they defeat the vampire. One thing I would say is that ‘Laying the Foundations’ was where I almost gave up on reading Annalise. The sheer amount of jargon and the density of the rules text was hard going. However, I’m glad I stuck with it. It’s the sort of game where I suspect it flows a lot better in play than the book might suggest.

I definitely came out of reading it inspired to play Annalise. It’s rules-dense, sure, but even reading it, I started to get a feel for how this might start to move in play and the subtleties and tensions of it. It is, essentially, a GM-less game with pretty clear guidelines for negotiating narrative control, and the emphasis it places on your character’s vulnerabilities and secrets moving the action forward is exactly the kind of thing I like. There are some rules hacks suggested as well as a number of imaginative guided play scenarios. Paoletta also emphasises that you don’t need to run a Gothic vampire story with Annalise – the examples given range from a reworking of Dracula in the classic Victorian vampire vein (pun both unintentional and unashamed) to high fantasy, modern-day college drama, grim superheroes, weird west and cyberpunk. The vampire can be a looming evil of any kind – in fact, I could see this being a really interesting system for running properly frightening cosmic horror stories, or conspiracy tales.

I have concerns about the fact that most of the time, only two people will really be involved in each scene (though there are mechanics for other players to become involved if they want to), but I suppose that can depend on the group and the story. It also places a lot of pressure on the creativity of the group members, which could be intimidating for less confident players. The rules section of the book is not long, but it’s very dense if you don’t already have a handle on the game.

However, Annalise is a fascinating game with some really interesting mechanics, and a refreshingly different style of vampire game from most, placing the story on the victims rather than the vampire – and designed around the concept that your character may never defeat the vampire, but you’ll tell a great story doing it.

Publisher page: ndp design

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