Yoshi had a great comment on @Sarah’s Duets thread that I felt justified a new thread for me to talk about my experiences with Lucian Kahn’s Dead Friend. I hope you’ll join me in sharing yours - this game is incredibly special to me.
To date, I’ve played Dead Friend six times, and I’m looking forward to more opportunities to play it. What separates it for me from other duets I’ve played is just how flexible it is despite its rigid structure. Each combination of setting and conflict I’ve played has allowed me and my partners to tell incredibly different stories, despite many of the games involving the same prompts in different steps of the ritual that is the game. I haven’t yet found anything else like it.
I’ve included some detail of the conflicts and settings of each of the games I’ve played in the summary sections below, but here are the things I’ve taken away from each of my games of Dead Friend, why I’m excited to play more of it, and why I desperately want more games like it.
(Oh! And I’ve titled each of the sessions I’ve played with the object that we’ve named in the game as a ritual focus, a tradition I took from @transalaskan’s games of Dead Friend. Clever!)
Licence Plate Summary
Setting: Southwest US ghost town, passed by when the interstate was built
THE LIVING - Luna - You wish to say a final goodbye to your dead friend.
THE DEAD - Christopher - You wish to return from the dead and wreak havoc.
This was my first time playing Dead Friend, though Ryan had played it a couple times before. We created a greedy and powerful NPC, a developer who paved the way to open a Wal-Mart in our town. This turned our town from a place Luna had to escape into a place there was no way she ever could, which was made even worse when Christopher got himself killed after getting involved in some criminal activity. The tragedy of his death pushed Luna over the edge and she spent years figuring out how she’d be able to say goodbye, but when she did, all Christopher wanted was to have things be like they used to be, just the two of them without a care or responsibility. Christopher won out and the two rode roughshod over Wal-Marts all over the southwest, Bonnie and Undead Clyde.
What really struck me in this game was how little the community members needed to be present on-screen to give weight to the setting. Our greedy and powerful person really only ever haunted this game (though his name did appear once in a scene, on a piece of mail).
Leather Boots Summary
Setting: An ancient forest in 1600s Bavaria
THE LIVING - Luzi - You wish to gain otherworldly power from your dead friend.
THE DEAD - Wilhelmine - You wish to own your friend’s soul.
Sarah and I had each played once before this game, and I was incredibly proud of the story we ended up telling (to the point that I edited it and put it on Soundcloud). People disappear in the woods, we decided, and that’s why you don’t go in there. We filled out the threat of the woods by having someone mystical and intimidating living on the outskirts of the village, and delivered on the threat when it was time to determine how Wilhelmine died. Over and over, Luzi found herself rejecting the life she had in pursuit of the one Wilhelmine was living, which culminated in Luzi finding that Wilhelmine’s husband Johann could show her parts of the world she’d never have dreamed of through books.
Dead Friend doesn’t offer the players complete control many times - really just in the selection of a setting, and in naming the “words from beyond”, offered one at a time by the player of the Dead throughout the ritual. This play showed me how we could really use these words to steer the narrative when both players know the structure.
Setting: a writer’s retreat at an off-season ski resort in the Rocky Mountains
THE LIVING - Sebastian - You wish to bring your dead friend back to life.
THE DEAD - Ben - You wish to kill your friend.
This was my first time facilitating Dead Friend for a new player. We landed on a writer’s retreat (an idea adjacent to the artists’ retreat listed as an example). Sebastian and Ben had been close, but Sebastian hadn’t been a very good friend - he missed Ben’s wedding and Ben died before Sebastian could apologize, if he even wanted to. Sebastian began writing a book about their relationship but needed to speak with Ben again to really be able to tell the story of their relationship.
This game solidified for me that Dead Friend is a great first duet, either for a new partner or for a player who’s never played a duet game, despite our game running close to four hours (including our pre-game discussion). We never struggled with the rules or anything - we just apparently both had a deep well to draw from, and came up with a deep and detailed story.
Space Helmet with Sarah (not shared)
Space Helmet Summary
Setting: A refinery and refueling vessel orbiting Jupiter, staffed by clones in the year 2601
THE LIVING - You wish to bring your dead friend back to life.
THE DEAD - You wish to kill your friend.
To date, Sarah’s the only player I’ve placed twice with, but I am so, so glad we did. We somehow found hope and a happy-ish end in the tale of our clones in space, who were going to make a new life for themselves and their people after leaving our greedy and powerful NPC (this time, a future space Elon Musk named Phoenix Williams III) stranded in space. We had to twist my motivation somewhat because I honestly didn’t want to kill my friend.
For me, this game was a perfect illustration of why safety tools are essential, even with a trusted co-player. We bent the rules where we really wanted to to make the story work, but after the game, I felt uncomfortable with the how the death played out (omitting the detail here). We re-recorded a section of the game (that I will some day edit back in to maybe share) to get some much-needed closure for the story, and I thank Sarah for being kind enough to grant it!
Button Eye Summary
Setting: A wealthy family’s estate in Victorian England
THE LIVING - Dorian - You wish to say a final goodbye to your dead friend.
THE DEAD - Lancelot Littlebury - You wish to return from the dead and wreak havoc.
Before I had a chance to play any games with Lauren, I saw the great discussion on duets she had with Sidney Icarus. When we finally got a chance to chat about playing a duet together, she had the brilliant idea of playing a game of Dead Friend where the dead friend is also imaginary. We told a story where the land of the dead was a musty old toybox, and Lancelot, a small crocheted knight in armor, was stamped out under the foot of Father’s horse. Dorian might have led a life of comfort and privilege, and maybe one filled with love, but for needing to say goodbye and reopening his imagination.
Both of us had played Dead Friend at least a few times before this game and because of that, this session sang. Beyond having familiarity with the structure of the game, we were both able to lay down threads for each other that we could reincorporate. This play, though, was the first one in which I really felt the death. (I 100% promise that isn’t a pun.)
Friendship Bracelet Summary
Setting: A school playground
THE LIVING - Hannah - You wish to bring your dead friend back to life.
THE DEAD - Nathanael - You wish to kill your friend.
In this game, Nathanael discovered a kind of magic when his friend Hannah joined him on his family’s Christmas vacation. When Hannah’s sister got sick, though, her family had to move away. As an adult, Hannah moved back to her hometown, but the two remained separated two until their reunion in the necromantic ritual.
This game brought home for me how little setting you can get away with thinking about beyond simply naming it when you start the game. Ben and I went back and forth on the specifics of a couple of different settings before we landed on using the school playground from the examples. We played children, whose lives are frequently defined in relation to all the people around them, which worked perfectly for this game, but in retrospect, I think we could have played any of the settings we discussed regardless of the level of knowledge either of us had about them since so much of the early game is focused on these community relationships.
I don’t know that I’m any closer to finding an emotional core to Dead Friend yet. When I thought about it, I haven’t found grief to be a particularly strong theme for me (though I’ve only played The Living in two out of my six games), but the loss is always there. I’ve orbited hope, been the object of envy, felt the childhood bond of friendship and languished in adult ennui.