This is the one hundred twenty-eighth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.
A solo cosmic horror RPG written for the Wretched & Alone game jam
Ooh, a solo game. No need to recruit a group of people, I can just play this one myself!
As the tagline says, The Artifact was made for the Wretched & Alone game jam, which ran from May 14th to July 4th, 2020. It was hosted by Chris Bisette, creator of The Wretched (which is also in the bundle, although it hasn’t come up yet) and the associated Wretched & Alone system that lets others create their own games using a similar design. As far as I can tell, the first game to do so was The Sealed Library (again, also in the bundle, but hasn’t come up yet), whose creator(s?) co-hosted the jam. Wretched & Alone games are always solo tabletop role-playing games, casting the player as someone attempting to survive against overwhelming odds, using a six-sided die, a deck of playing cards, and a block tower (like the one from Jenga) as tools.
As advertised, The Artifact is about cosmic horror, citing H. P. Lovecraft and R. W. Chambers as inspirations, as well as more recent media like Fallen London, Gravity Falls and Twin Peaks, and Laird Barron’s “The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All”. I feel obligated to remind readers that Lovecraft was an infamous racist, which does not align well with a bundle based on racial justice. Yet the genre his work spawned has grown beyond his bigoted views, and there’s no racism to be found in The Artifact. Just a mysrerious artifact, arriving in an unmarked crate at the museum where the player character works as assistant curator. This artifact is some sort of conduit for unimaginable and terrifying forces that slowly break the player character’s mind. As mysterious artifacts are wont to be.
Play begins by describing what the artifact is, from a series of prompts. On a whim, I ended up with a figurine of a panther, about a foot long, surprisingly heavy, and in curiously good condition given that the crate it arrived in was battered and stained. From here, play proceeds day by in-game day, with the player encouraged to make logs each day (preferably audio logs, although I just typed mine) that narrate the increasingly bizarre events. Those events are determined from randomized prompts: first, roll the six-sided die and draw that many cards from the shuffled deck, keeping them face down. Then, reveal the cards one by one, and follow the prompts given in the Reference Library which makes up the second half of the short rulebook (but don’t peek at the other prompts!). Each suit is themed, containing events associated with the artifact itself, the player character’s mind and body, the player character’s dreams, or the player character’s relationships with others. From there, each exact card has a prompt for something that happened that day. Many of them are harmful to the character’s mind, which is where the block tower comes in. When commanded, players must pull a block from the tower and place it on top, modeling their curator’s ever more tenuous grip on reality. If the tower collapses, it’s game over, and the artifact has overpowered our poor curator’s psyche.
The only problem is that I didn’t have a block tower. Fortunately, balou86 anticipated this possibility, and offers an alternative in the form of a community-developed online dice roller tool. This rolls 100 virtual six-sided dice, and then discards any that roll a 1. The next time players are prompted to pull from the tower, they instead roll the remaining virtual dice in the pool. The probabilities of this system mean that early rolls lose lots of dice, creating urgency quickly, but players can scrape through later rolls for a while, hanging on to their last few dice as they desperately hope for a way out. I’m not sure how this experience compares to using a block tower, which remains the recommended way to play, but I enjoyed it.
The weird thing, in my case, was a specific rule that I almost missed. It says to use the virtual dice roller whenever prompted to pull from the block tower, but then adds “roll your six-sided die, and then perform that many online die rolls”. If I interpreted that correctly, it adds a lot of extra randomness to each block tower pull. I might only have to roll my virtual dice pool once, or I might do it five or six times, which really hastens a disastrous ending. My curator didn’t even make it through the fourth day with the artifact before it had completely unraveled his mind. This is a shame, because I glanced through some of the other things that can happen, and they include some much more dramatic finales. My own ending felt abrupt and a bit underwhelming, although some of that may have been a lack of creativity on my part, failing to link the different events together to make a cohesive story.
Still, I was intrigued by the Wretched & Alone system, and I’m guessing players who are bigger fans of cosmic horror than I (or who simply have more vivid imaginations) could quickly create a compelling and creepy tale with The Artifact. The prompts in the Reference Library are well written and give a lot of guidance, so players should never get stuck not knowing what to describe next. It plays quickly too, easily done in an hour or two (especially if that rule about multiple online dice rolls is correct). I had a lot of un-drawn cards left after my game, suggesting a decent amount of replay value, but obviously some prompts will start to recur. But when the minimum price is only $3 for those who missed it in the bundle, it’s easy to recommend The Artifact. I’m interested to see what the other Wretched & Alone games in the bundle are like too, once they (eventually) get picked.
That’s 128 down, and only 1613 to go!