Thursday, 1 October 2015


Did you enjoy the tale of Howell's Phasmagraph in the Black Catalogue? Well, now you can play it at home! Sort of.
This is a mini-story game about a seance: it works best with 4 or 5 players, but it can also be a neat 2 player game and all you'll need is an ordinary pack of playing cards (Ouija board is optional.)

Seat all the players comfortably around your dining table or Ouija board, placing a well shuffled pack
of playing cards in the middle and deal 3 cards from the top of the deck to each player. Believe it or not, you are now ready to begin: for simplicity, players are encouraged to take on the roles of characters who look like themselves, so play someone of about your own age, gender, ethnicity, etc. This will make it easier for everyone else around the table to identify and remember the character you are playing. You can form an idea about your character in advance and then introduce yourself as you sit down at the seance, or you can allow your character to form through play, reacting to questions & answers spontaneously rather than according to any plan.

Whoever has the highest ranked card acts as the Medium, who will be first to guide the seance: in a tie, cards are ranked in the order Spades, Hearts, Diamonds and Clubs (reverse alphabetical order) from highest to lowest. The Medium begins the seance by asking "Is anybody there?" Another player responds to this by putting one of their cards face down on the table to confirm that a spirit is present; the Medium then asks, "Do you have a message for us?" and another card is placed face down on the table, by the same player as before or a different one. Whoever plays this card becomes the Subject: only the Medium and the Subject can ask questions in each round of play, but anyone can provide an answer so long as they never answer their own question.

If the Subject has two cards face down in front of them, the Medium must ask the first question; if the Subject has only one card face down in front of them, then they must ask the first question. The first question is always answered by the player who first put a card face down on the table and they answer it by turning their card face up and following the guidelines below.

Questions should always be provocative and important: the spirits won't bother with trivial matters and you can dismiss the normal chit-chat about what things are like in the spirit world. Aim to construct a personal narrative without filling in every last detail: a question like "Where is the wedding album?" is fine, as it suggests a story without delving too deeply into it. Try to avoid purely binary questions, with yes or no answers: these are allowed, but a whole string of them can make it seem more like a guessing game than a seance. You can give a detailed answer to a seemingly binary question, e.g. if the Subject asks "Is that you Uncle Harold?", it might throw the cat among the pigeons if the answer is T-H-I-E-F.

Answers from the Great Beyond

Once the Medium and Subject are chosen, the next two questions are answered by turning over one of the cards that are face down on the table, with the player who placed that card there answering the question. Therefore, if you are the Subject and you have two cards face down in front of you, the Medium must ask the next two questions and you must answer them. The answers to subsequent questions can be provided by anyone who didn't actually ask the question. When you provide an answer, you simply play a card from your hand face up in front of you; there are two ways the cards can be used to answer questions from the Subject or Medium, creating either a simple answer or a detailed one.

Simple Answers: this applies to answers that fall into binary pairings or other small sets, e.g. yes & no, young & old, dead & alive, male & female, past & future, near & far, etc. After playing a card to provide a simple answer, draw a replacement card. The colour of the card played must correspond to the answer, like so:
  • Black is for answers such as no, old, dead, male, past and far.
  • Red is for answers such as yes, young, alive, female, future and near.
If a simple answer is given that does not appear above, the colour chosen should be noted and applied consistently for the rest of the seance, e.g. if the answer 'Guilty' is given with a black card, then black cards means guilty and red cards mean innocent for the rest of this seance. Try to stick to the themes for each colour, hence 'guilty' seems like a more fitting match for black cards than red.

Detailed Answers: you can respond to any question by spelling out a word, with a number of letters equal to the rank of the card you play, with all court cards counting as a flat rank of 10. You can combine cards, playing two or three at once to provide a longer answer if necessary. When giving a detailed answer, stick to one word and spell it out; you can be cryptic or tangential if you must, but don't be obfuscatory or obstructive. A detailed answer should excite or unnerve, not baffle or confound. You don't draw replacement cards when providing a detailed answer, so there is a limit to how many detailed answers can be given in each round of play.

A round of play ends either when the Subject and the Medium have no further questions or when there are no more cards left to play; in either case, the Medium should announce that the spirits have left and a new round of play can begin. All cards on the table are shuffled back into the deck and dealt out to the players until everyone has three cards once again; choose a new player to be the Medium for the next round and proceed as before, but ensure that there is a new Subject for each round of the seance, so that no-one gets to be the Subject twice. Also, anyone who wants to be the Medium should get a chance to do so, regardless of who has the highest ranked card at the start of any round.

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