I’ve never done any “GM emulator”-style solo roleplaying, but I’ve played my fair share of gamebooks, solo roleplaying poems, and card-driven solo story games. This list is packed with stuff I’ve never heard of, much of it free.
There’s a twist, too — and it sounds creepy as hell.
Based on the game’s introduction (“don’t read ahead”), and the excellent — spoiler-free — RPGGeek review that led me to it, this is one it’s best to go into blind.
I think just reading the setup will tell most folks whether or not this is going to be their jam:
“you will need
– the rest of the pages from this game, printed out
– a pen
– a timer
– a flashlight
– thirty minutes uninterupted time in the dark of night
– an isolated, dark building to explore, preferably one that is unfamiliar
to you, and preferably one with plenty of odd ambient noises”
So: a solitaire LARP played at night, by flashlight, in an otherwise empty building. Fuck. Yes.
I haven’t played it yet, and honestly I’m new enough to Seattle that I’m not sure where I’d go to play it — yet. But I’m so in.
This ticks all of my personal boxes for weird, experimental RPGs, and I don’t get too many chances to LARP.
I hadn’t planned to enter the 200 Word RPG Challenge, but then an idea popped into my head, followed closely by another, and one spilled out of me.
The Thief is a solitaire RPG that takes a few minutes to play. You need a handful of coins and possibly something to write on.
The Thief was inspired by the TV series The Wire and the video game Papers, Please; the Prince Valiant RPG, which uses coin-tossing; and current events. It’s not what the title makes it sound like it might be, but it’s not subtle about what it actually is.
I love nanogames, roleplaying poems, whatever you want to call them — short-form games, as a form, are fascinating. To date, my favorite is Stoke-Birmingham 0-0, in which you play the most boring people possible with the most boring lives possible and, over the course of (if memory serves) fifteen minutes, attempt to say absolutely nothing of interest. It’s hilarious.
200 words is a brutal constraint. I struggled to strike a balance between brevity, clarity, and the tone I was after. It required multiple drafts to get it down to 200 words, which was a surprisingly enjoyable process — I dig creativity with constraints. (And I played it conservative and counted the title, byline, and copyright language against my 200.)
The Thief took me about five hours to produce: one hour for the first draft, another to find the woodcut and header font, and three hours to rewrite, redesign, playtest, and proofread. The mechanics went through several iterations, three of which I playtested, until I found the mix I wanted. For about five minutes, the game took an abrupt dogleg and was about time travel, but it didn’t take me long to see that that wasn’t right for it.
I played the final version before submitting it to the challenge, and it did what I wanted it to. If you try it, I hope you get something out of it.
A little while back game designer Jason Morningstar said this about his solitaire RPG METAL SHOWCASE 11PM: “Half solo RPG, half choose-your-path novel, half nobody has ever bought or played this and I think it is really good!”
Gauntlet thrown, challenge accepted. I ordered a copy, played it, and now I’m going to talk about it. Only briefly, though, because this is an RPG with potential spoilers.
It took me about 30 minutes to play, and I had a great time. I’d happily play it again. But part of the fun was knowing almost nothing about it going in, and while it’s a tricky line to walk in a review I want to preserve that experience for you.
Pictured above are the book, the two dice I grabbed (black because \m/), and the back of my character sheet. The latter shows all the notes I made during the game, hopefully tantalizing you without spoiling anything. I named my band Suppurating Maelstrom. My favorite note from the session was “Enabled [character’s] morbid obesity.”
Here are my impressions after one play, which I jotted down immediately after playing.
What a fantastic little game
It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure or Fighting Fantasy book, only better written and more fun. You have a character and stats; you make choices and compete in contests.
But you’re also asked to get inside your guy’s head at different points, and those choices — and the notes you made about them — matter later on. My first session was 30 enjoyable minutes long, told a story (a rather depressing one; my guy was kind of a dick), and made me want to play again.
That might sound like a subtle tweak on the formula, but in combination with the tight presentation and writing, an alchemy occurs: There’s roleplaying here that I’ve never experienced when playing a gamebook. I felt involved in a way that was much more like how I’d get into a non-solitaire RPG session, or a solo board game session when playing a board game that tells a story, like Arkham Horror or Astra Titanus. It’s hard to explain, but: good stuff.
There are plenty of choices involved, and the stuff you make up on the fringes of the game space will be different every time, so I can see this having good replayability. It’s also difficult to win; that’s a good thing.
I’ve never played a game quite like it. I’m enamored of it, and I recommend it.
I’ve been curious about solo (or solitaire) board gaming for a while now, and while I recognize that it likely sounds weird to folks who aren’t into board games — and, honestly, it still seemed a bit odd even to me until I tried it — it really isn’t much different than sitting down to play a video game.
Having debated different options and discarded them all for one reason or another, I hit on Arkham Horror (paid link).
I’m a huge fan of H.P. Lovecraft, and of Call of Cthulhu (paid link), so from that standpoint it seemed like a great fit. But I’d also heard that it takes forever — 4-6 hours depending on the number of players and other factors — and has a high luck factor, something I don’t usually enjoy in games. Still, I like trying new things, especially games, and it seemed like a chance worth taking.
When it arrived, I read the rules and set it up on my desk — which it fills almost completely, leaving just enough space to work.
I started the game over the weekend, taking a few turns while everyone else was asleep, and finished it up on Wednesday night. It took about three hours altogether; I played with two investigators (Darrell and Drake, chosen randomly) and probably screwed up a rule or two here and there.
It’s a fantastically evocative game. One of the coolest things I’d heard about it was that it tells a story, and that was absolutely true. The mood and feel are Lovecraftian — shading into Pulp, and perhaps closer in tone to the RPG than the stories — and the flow of the game is unique. I would have been happy to lose, and expected to several times; the story would have been just as interesting.
As it was, Darrell and Drake stumbled around at first, literally clueless, as Azathoth stirred and gates opened all across Arkham. They both went insane and had to recover at Arkham Sanitarium, and that combined with Nodens’ Favor turned the tide. As townsfolk (and Allies, and shopkeepers) fled the city, Darrell became a police deputy and started driving his police car through gates to other worlds and back again. (It eventually broke down.) Drake joined the Silver Twilight Lodge and gathered clues to pass along, and Darrell closed and sealed the remaining gates — sealing the sixth with the terror level at 9, Arkham nearly overrun with monsters. The last defenders of Arkham, armed with forbidden lore, managed to save the city.
And it didn’t feel weird. Really no different than jumping into a video game, prepping an adventure for next week’s gaming session, or any other similar solo creative play-type activity. I’ve always looked at board games as a fundamentally social activity, but I’m glad I expanded that view. Playing solo, particularly in short bursts over several days, was fun in its own way.
I’d love to try it again with a group of like-minded folks, expecting a longer game, but I’m also looking forward to playing it again solo. If you’re in the market for a solitaire-friendly game and like HPL, Call of Cthulhu, or adventure-style games in general, Arkham Horror is worth checking out.