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Saturday, 17 July 2021

Monophobic Ruraphobia

The traditional solo roleplaying experience has been with solo adventure books like those of the Fighting Fantasy series or for Tunnels & Trolls, but there are other formats too. For example, letter writing, whether through an exchange of missives such as the Diana Jones 2002 Award Nominated De Profundis or even solo, such as Quill: A Letter-Writing Roleplaying Game for a Single Player, the Indie RPG Awards Best Free RPG of 2016. In recent years, there has been a trend in experiencing solo roleplaying through journaling. That is, the keeping of a journal a la the gentleman or lady of the nineteenth century recording his or her daily or experiences. On one level a diary, but often a vehicle to tell a story—and perhaps emulate the style of certain authors, such as H.P. Lovecraft. A journaling roleplaying game typically involves a deck of cards or dice to generate random events which serve as prompts for the player, who will record the reactions of his character in the journal, creating and telling a story in the process—a story whose plot and events will only become clear once the dénouement has been reached and its aftermath told…

Perhaps the most well known of the format is Thousand Year Old Vampire, which explores the immortal life of a member of the undead. It also showcases a popular genre for the Journaling format, that of horror, though there are alternatives. One such alternative is English Eerie: Rural Horror Storytelling Game for One Player, published by Trollish Delver Games, also responsible for Merry Outlaws: A roleplaying game of folk ballads and justice. Inspired by the works of M.R. James, Arthur Machen, and Algernon Blackwood, as well as the English country and English folklore—such as the Black Dog and the Barghest, Boggarts and Bloody Bones, Church Grims and Jack Frost, Grindylows and Redcaps, Shug Monkeys and Sooterkins, and more. It is also inspired by a fear of the English landscape itself, with its deep history drenched in tradition, shame, and blood, the bleak emptiness of its moors and mountains, the cold and the damp of its weather, and the ruins and ritual sites where great ceremonies and great acts of bloodshed were enacted to unknown, unchristian gods… Long haunted by the past, it is a bucolic idyll hiding great evils and great secrets until some foolish visitor, scholar, or official stumbles across something best left far, far away from his urban refuge.

To emulate such tales of fear and loathing, and of creeping tension, Eerie: Rural Horror Storytelling Game for One Player employs simple mechanics and a specially prepared deck of ordinary playing cards. The player creates a simple character and draws from the deck to determine events that will beset the character, revealing rising tensions, and in turn the player will record his character’s response to each one and how he overcomes them (or not), uncovering further clues hopefully to survive to complete his recounting of events. All of this is recorded in his journal—Eerie: Rural Horror Storytelling Game for One Player is ideally played and recorded in a proper journal with a proper fountain pen—in the light of a flickering candle. Thus it might also be an exercise in penmanship and storytelling as much roleplaying. To play, in addition to the pen and journal, a player will also need a set of tokens in two colours—ten of each, and a ten-sided die.

To set up Eerie: Rural Horror Storytelling Game for One Player, a player creates his character by dividing ten points between Resolve and Spirit. Resolve is a Player Character’s determination to continue his investigations, rationalise the weirdness around him, and to keep their wits about them. It is spent to help a Player Character’s capacity overcome obstacles in scenes. Spirit is a Player Character’s thoughts, feelings, and physical well-being. Its reduction represents a Player Character’s spiral into horror, harm, and doubt. Player Character background and occupation is usually indicated by the scenario, of which there are five in the roleplaying game. The tokens are used to represent the Player Character’s Resolve and Spirit. The playing deck needs some preparation to create the Story Deck. This consists of the four, five, six, and seven cards from all four suits, plus three Queens, or ‘Grey Ladies’. The ‘Grey Ladies’ represent the ghosts of English folklore and a rise in Tension whenever one is drawn.

Game play is simple. The player draws a card, resolves the scene type it indicates, and writes an entry in his character’s journal explaining what happened, how he felt, and so on. Each of the four suits represents a different type of scene—a Hearts card indicates that a secondary NPC is hurt; Clubs that a secondary NPC acts as an obstacle for the Player Character in some way; Diamonds that the environment acts as an obstacle for the Player Character in some way; and Spades that a minor clue has been discovered. Each drawing and resolving of two cards represents a day in the life of the Player Character. If the card drawn is an obstacle—a Clubs or a Diamond—it needs to be overcome. In which case, the player rolls the die and attempts to equal to or greater than the value of the card drawn. If failed, the Player Character loses a point of Spirit, but his player can spend Resolve to reroll and each point spent is added to the subsequent roll. However, for each Grey Lady drawn, the Tension rises by one and adds one to the total value of each obstacle card the player has to roll against. 

When the third and final Grey Lady is drawn, it indicates the end of the story. At this point, the player compares his character’s remaining Spirit points with the Conclusion Table the scenario he is playing. This suggests how the player will write the last entry in his character’s journal. If the character has Spirit points left, the ending of the story will be positive, but if he has none left, the ending will be much, much darker. There is no simple bad ending.

Play of Eerie: Rural Horror Storytelling Game for One Player revolves around the play of individual scenarios. Each of the five in the roleplaying game include tables for secondary characters, minor clues, environmental and NPC obstacles, and a tension table. Each also begins with a set-up and ends with a Spirit table for determining the final outcome. The five include mysteries set in the nineteenth and twenty-first century, but most are set in the twentieth century. They take place in Derbyshire—twice, once to check on a friend, the other an inheritance, on a boating holiday in Cumbria, at a digital detox camp in the Yorkshire Dales, and into the Cotswolds in search of property! Essentially what each scenario represents is a series of prompts and spurs to the player’s imagination. How one player would approach telling a story and what exactly it involves will be entirely different for another.

A scenario can be played through in a single session, but in fact, the intent is that a player plays it day by day, drawing and resolving a pair of cards each day, then coming back to the scenario the following day to continue adding to the journal. This allows time for the player to mull over the day’s events and come back to the story afresh as if the character himself had gained a night’s rest. It adds a degree of contemplation not typically found in other roleplaying games, and played this way, it only takes a few minutes or so each day. Plus, it also extends the tension across episodes making it a marathon rather than the sprint of a single session. Eerie: Rural Horror Storytelling Game for One Player includes rules for campfire, or group play, and has the players telling the same story, taking turns to be the storyteller. This is essentially telling stories but with a few extra rules for determining aspects of the plot.

Physically, Eerie: Rural Horror Storytelling Game for One Player is a clean and tidy PDF. It is lightly illustrated using images in the public domain. It comes with an extensive example play, which is actually best not to read until after a player has completed writing his first journal lest he be influenced by the given example. 

Eerie: Rural Horror Storytelling Game for One Player and roleplaying games like it seem the perfect antidote to our times. When we cannot get out to game together face to face, whether that is with our regular group or at a convention, having other options for solo play seems like a perfect solution. The mechanics in Eerie: Rural Horror Storytelling Game for One Player not only serve to drive the story forward, they also serve to drive up the tension—not necessarily too far, but enough to make the survival of a player’s character matter and if played over days rather than the single session, to draw that tension out over and over… 

Then there is the act of the journaling, which brings a physicality to the play, and if done using a fountain pen and a journal, two further effects. One is the artfulness of penmanship, the other is actually aches and pain, because how many of us sit down and actually write in long form any more in this digital age? For many, playing or journaling Eerie: Rural Horror Storytelling Game for One Player will mark a return to a skill that has long fallen out of use and employing again may require the reworking of some very lazy muscle memory.

Eerie: Rural Horror Storytelling Game for One Player is mechanically simple, but it pushes us to be imaginative and to go back directly to the telling of stories that we drew upon for inspiration when we first began roleplaying. Of course, all good Journaling games should do that, and as well as being no exception to that, Eerie: Rural Horror Storytelling Game for One Player provides an easy way into a different, but equally imaginative way of roleplaying.

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