There’s a new project from the designer of My Body is a Cage and The Wizards and the Wastes that will probably hurt to read. Lilancholy is a lyric game that resides somewhere amongst prose poetry, RPG setting guide and folk game collection, and it lets players bargain against fairies with their names dangling on the line.
On the crowdfunding project page, designer Batts describes Lilancholy as a lyric game. This is one of those wavy-gravy definitions that artists and creators have rallied behind and used their own interpretations to solidify from idea to suggestion to concept and, perhaps unsurprisingly, point of contention. Lyric games often eschew dice, stats and other basic TRPG assumptions, and their subject matter can be a lot more mundane than your average sword and sorcery splatbook.
Batts is embracing this messiness by referring to Lilancholy as an “experiment of form” as much as anything else - players should be prepared to leave assumptions at the door. They do make one thing certain: it is meant to be played. That’s likely because the subject matter focuses on faeries from the realm of Lilancholy, a liminal plane of magic and trickery that the player and the characters in the book will visit, whether any of them want to or not.
Lilancholy is described as a place where forgotten things end up, but it is also a reality separated from our own by gauzy fabric that one can slip through with the right ritual. It is the magic of youth unfettered by the calcified presumptions of maturity, but it is also a realm where rules - especially those governing games - have dire importance. It is the thrilling fear of the unknown, and the all-too-familiar dread of what you know lurks in your home and your heart.
The book, which will comprise 150 pages of black and white text, details spells for players to cast and games they might play with any faeries they encounter. These sometimes read like rules text, listing somatic gestures, effects and duration. Others slip into prose from the main character’s point of view, letting their memories and emotions do all the explaining. That character takes readers through the main narrative sections of the book and tell of a nightmarish, ecstatic youth spent delving back and forth into Lilancholy with a friend.
Some of the 40 games will be intimately familiar to anyone who spent time on a public school playground or the park downtown. They range in simplicity from flipping a coin and Button, Button to Capture the Flag and Bloody Knuckles. All of them detail how a faerie might cheat, or instructions for pulling a fast one on the otherworldly creatures who will absolutely steal the loser’s name - a grievous situation. Batts is playing with the tone of voice young children use when announcing truths about their world - naive, confident and wholly missing from any adult’s capabilities.
If this all sounds way too weird and hard to grasp, I recommend reading part of the preview version available on Batts’ Itch.io page. It contains a bit of everything the crowdfunding page says to expect and will let you know if the format is effective. Reading it opened a hole in my chest that let loose a frigid wind, reminding me of the logic my brain adopts as I slip between waking and sleep.
There’s real value in designers willing to explore the horizon of the “evil WarioWare” as “horror experiences, wrapped in its own fiction.” There’s potential for LARPing, even by yourself, and toying with the assumptions of play keeps us, the players, conscious of why a game asks specific things of those who approach it.
Lilancholy’s crowdfunding campaign will remain open through September 2nd, and the book is available as both a digital PDF and a physical hardcover edition. Both versions are expected to ship out to backers in January of 2023.