Solipsist, by David Donachie

Solipsist cover

There’s a joking reference I learned from reading British stories. The original version is a 19th century cartoon from Punch magazine, showing an obviously intimidated curate as the guest of his much wealthier boss, the local bishop. The bishop says, “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr. Jones.” The curate replies, “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!” It caught on, as so many Punch lines have, and a “curate’s egg” can be any sort of thing with mixed good and bad qualities. Solipsist is a curate’s egg of an RPG.

The worst of the egg

I nearly didn’t review this game, and my hesitation is entirely due to one throwaway line:

Throughout the text we refer to Solipsists, players and the GM using “he”, “him”, “his”. etc. This is just a convention we’ve used in this book.

I will not here do a full-bore spiel about the concept of privilege as manifest in gaming writing. Nonetheless, that’s an archetypal bit of privilege in action. Donachie can be flippant about it, because nobody with any clout is going to suggest that as someone with a male-sounding name and who’s referred to by the publisher and others with male pronouns, he is presumptively not a gamer and should be regarded with suspicion. It’s very unlikely that anyone will insist that if he games with miniature figures, they should all have enormous penises and wear bondage gear, or that his characters should expect to be subservient to all those of any other group of players. He will probably never get groped in a game store; if he does, it’s very unlikely that the store owner will start by assuming that he did something to bring it on. The odds are excellent that he will never show up at a gaming session pitched to him as male-friendly only to have his character raped and enslaved. And on, and on, and on, and on.

(As always, someone will doubt that the inverse of these things actually happen to anyone. Another time I’ll do a post about educational resources. For now…yes, in fact, they do, and careful, reliable accounts are readily available via common search engines.)

The point here is that for a lot of gamers, it’s not at all a given that they should be allowed to identify as gamers or associate with other gamers. Women, people of color whatever their sex and gender, LGBT people…quite a few kinds of people who like to game and wish to participate in gaming scenes have to struggle to get more advantaged gamers to accept them as equals. They don’t get to casually toss off their choice of associations and usages. I know that some of the people who read my reviews will look at that line and think “I can sit on this batch of bucks and save it for someone who’s willing to write about players, GMs, and characters in ways that include me in”. And I’ll think they’re being pretty sensible.

The rest of the egg

Example page

Solipsist is a 98-page digest-sized RPG, available in PDF from DriveThruRPG for $10 US. It’s not bookmarked, though the organization is good, the index is accurate and thorough, and the actual rules are so compact that I never felt more than simply annoyed by the absence. As with a lot of digest-sized books, it’s got a single-column layout and the art is all either full-page or nearly so. The layout and typography are very crisp and clean. The footer space on some pages has authorial comments or mood-inspiring quotations, and is blank on others.

This is a game about people who have the right kind of force of will to change reality. What they want hard enough may come true. But there are complications.

Solipsists who wish for everything they want, all at one, disappear into their own pocket universes, and leave behind a tear in the fabric of consensus reality. Through those tears come the shadows, mysterious and possibly unknowable forces or entities out to devour all of reality and solipsists in particular. So solipsists who’d like their works to last and who don’t want to annihilate reality at large have to pace themselves, balancing the changes they wish for with affirmations of their connections to consensus reality. As Queen nearly put it, “Too much wishing will kill you just as sure as not enough.”

A brief observation on terminology

Solipsist capitalizes game terms. Lots and lots of game terms. So it has sentences like this: “Overshoot: Succeeding at Changing Reality so completely that your Obsessions run away with you and the Change goes out of your control.”

I’m not going to say that this is wrong, because it’s a stylistic issue. I do say that I don’t believe it helps, and that the risks of ambiguity between game-mechanical terms and more general usages is often overrated by gaming authors (including me in the past). I think that where there’s any risk of confusion, it’s almost always possible to clarify by simple adjustments to the passage; I strongly recommend that authors try out passages on a variety of readers and see whether confusion actually occurs, and where it doesn’t, don’t add complications.

More of the rest of the egg

Mechanically, Solipsist is a strikingly minimalist game.

It’s diceless, and that’s a big part of why I went ahead with the review despite reservations. I really love diceless games and want to see more of them, and am doing my part to get the word out about what’s available in this part of the gaming ecosystem.

There are no skills, and only certain very specific kinds of attribute. Broadly speaking, if you want your character to do something that doesn’t contradict local reality as established so far in play, they can go ahead and do it. You could, of course, plug in any of many fine rules sets to provide a simple addendum to cover the mundane side of this game’s solipsists, but there’s something to be said for the “sure, go ahead” approach.

These are the features each solipsist has:

#1. A vision. Example characters’ visions include:

  • My vision is of a just world. A place where I preside over a fair society. My rules are followed and I am respected. There is no injustice here, only order and my law.
  • My vision is of a world covered by ocean, where no humans exist. I am the mermaid princess of this underwater kingdom.
  • My vision is of a world where family is so important that each family shares its life essence. I am the sole survivor of my whole family and they live on through me.
  • My vision is of an endless and glorious summer, where the flowers are ever in bloom and in the balmy evenings my new-found friends drink with me and smile.

Whatever the vision, it needs to center on the solipsist: what do they want to do and be, and what must the world be to accommodate that?

#2. Obsessions. These are particular drives that feed into the vision. They may be specific aspects of the vision itself, or desires that would move the character closer to the vision without being part of it themselves. These are the obsessions for the would-be mermaid, for instance:

  • I want to have a house by the sea (3 points)
  • I want to become a mermaid (3 points)
  • I want to breathe water (1 point)
  • I want to free the killer whales (1 point)
  • I want to see the sea cover the Earth (1 point)

I’ll come back to the point values in a moment; for now, just know that each character has exactly 5 obsessions, and divides 9 points between them. Higher-ranked ones will be more significant in attempts to change reality in the character’s here-and-now.

#3. Limitations. These are the things that make the character hesitate, feel unable or unworthy to pursue their vision, and connect them to consensus reality. As with obsessions, there are always 5, with 9 points divided between them. Here are the ones for the would-be mermaid:

  • My son would die (4 points)
  • My family love me (2 points)
  • I cannot swim (1 point)
  • I hate what being alone does to me (1 point)
  • My pet snake cannot breathe water (1 point)

#4. Tears. Over time, uncontrolled and overpowered shifts in reality tear it. Characters start off with no legacy of tears, but they build them up over time, and must make efforts to fix the tears before everything just breaks down.

#5. Infestation. In Solipsist‘s cosmology, the fundamental units of the universe are almost infinitely small living beings, named animacules in an homage to Anton van Leeuwenhoek’s term for the bacteria and other microorganisms he was the first to see through primitive microscopes. The animacules shape reality in response to the conscious and unconscious desires of all living beings, and most efficiently when reflecting solipsists’ desires. The infestation score is a pool of points you can spend on useful tasks, and can regain with suitable effort.

Something I like about this game is that infestation scores could work just as well for other things, from generic fate/action points to Mage-style Arete ratings, with no dislocation at all to anything else in the game. A sidebar specifically discusses ways of modifying play to reflect various ambiences, and one option is Mage-inspired, with non-solipsist bystanders affecting the difficulty of reality changes. This is a very tinker-friendly game that way, and that always makes me happy.

Once made, of course, characters go about trying to change reality. This is mechanically simple but quite elegant. The proposed change must include and affect the solipsist then and there, and it must be in accord with their vision. Changes that have no consequence for the solipsist just don’t happen, and neither do ones that work against the world the solipsist dreams of.

The GM sets the difficulty, and there are simple rules for this: 3, +1 if a change contradicts facts established in the current story or +2 if it contradicts facts established in the current scene, +2 or more if shadows are active in the area (more about them later), plus the ratings of all the solipsist’s relevant limitations. This is where the strategic element of assigning points feeds into the tactics of any particular change.

Now the player sets about reducing the difficulty, subtracting the rating of each relevant obsession. The goal is to get the difficulty to 0. If juggling obsessions doesn’t do it, you’ve got two options. One is to spend infestation points, shifting it closer to 0 on a 1-for-1 basis. If that’s still not enough, you can have your character push it, gaining a tear and reducing the difficulty by 5.

The outcome falls into one of three categories. If the final difficulty is greater than 0, the attempted change fails. Involved limitations get experience ticks, and the GM narrates the results. If the difficulty is exactly 0, the change goes as you want, and you narrate the results. If the difficulty is below 0, the change happens in an uncontrolled way. Obsessions get experience ticks, your character gains a tear, new infestation points come in, and whatever happens is to going to highlight the impact of runaway obsessions and limitations.

And that’s the heart of the game, right there.

A clever subheading evoking eggs and development

I’m not going to cover character development in nearly so much detail.

It’s possible for a character to fulfill enough obsessions and have enough tears accumulated that they fall into their own pocket universe. That’s the last they’ll be seen in play for good or bad; their last connection to the campaign will be the player narrating how the disappearance seems – whether it’s got a mundane cover or is overtly strange, and so on – to those who remain in consensus reality.

It’s also possible to take steps to avoid that. The game describes ways to reduce limitations and obsessions, and also to develop new ones,and to close up tears.

Mechanics cover multiple solipsists working together or just being near each other and not helping out. I admit that I think this game may be strongest for one-on-one play just because clashing visions looks likely to bring in more nuisance than reward. I’ve only had the chance to play it one-on-one, though, so I can’t be a voice of experience in the matter.

Earlier, I referred to the shadows. These are the unnatural forces that challenge solipsists’ ability to pursue their vision. The game offers a whole spread of possibilities: they’re a force of nature (predators feeding on animacules, perhaps), or other solipsists who don’t otherwise interact with the characters, or ascended solipsists returning to consensus reality to steal more animacules as needed, or the dark side of the solipsists’ own nature, or the doctors in the asylum trying to cure the characters’ delusions. They may also not appear at all, if you want to dispense with them as a source of threat and difficulty.

The game offers quite nifty mechanics for handling the shadows. As GM, you set an overall shadow strength, and give yourself that many shadow tokens or shadow points; the game has guidelines for how many points per character you’ll want to consider, with an eye on characters being able to prevail after good and perhaps costly effort. I will pause here to say that this is another reason I’m reviewing the game. I love that expectation for the outcome of play, and love to say “Here’s another game doing it just the way I like it!”

Some shadow points go to establishing one or several threads, each with its own rating. The thread strength raises the difficulty of reality-changing attempts when the person, place, thing, quality, or whatever that it represents is present as a solipsist tries to do their stuff. There’s always some way to resolve it: burn the tape (or copy it and inflict its vision on another person before seven days expire), find the missing person, complete the unfinished novel, etc. Other shadow points measure the overall strength of the underlying shadow, which can undertake reality-destroying changes of its own and can be engaged directly once the solipsists have identified and isolated it.

So, depending on the priorities mutually agreeable to players and GM, Solipsist games can cover a wide spread of combos of “I shall pursue my vision” and “I shall save the world from being negated and annihilated”. The advice on evolving development is compact but good.

There are some ways the game shows its origins as an individual project within a small development community. There are some “oh you hadda been there” moments, like a joke that is explained by artwork that’s supposed to explain it only if you’ve heard or read the rest of the story somewhere outside the rulebook. The example of play is long but oddly incomplete in some ways, offering no clear sense at all of how two characters with such divergent visions ever came together or got to the point they’re at when the example begins. It reads like a lot of drafts I’ve read and some I’ve written, where the author finds their early readers not getting something and fills it in personally. This works right up until you distribute it to people who don’t have you within easy access reach all the time.

One final criticism that’s not a problem with the book, but with the consensus reality of us the gamers. 🙂 It’s got multiple references to online discussions that simply don’t exist anymore. Forums do crash, get hacked, and otherwise wear out, and I’m not driven to fits of rage over it or anything. But I’d have liked to see some of those discussions. Perhaps in future there could be an archive site under the author’s or publisher’s own control with backups?

At meal’s end: a verdict

There’s enough about Solipsist I dislike that I can’t give it any kind of straight-on, no-major-reservations recommendation, of the sort I’ve given other books I’ve reviewed lately. If the doubts and problems I’ve pointed out seem like they’d be problems for you too, I can only recommend that you see about gathering some more info before making a purchase.

On the other hand, though, in many ways this is one of those games I think I’ve always wanted without quite knowing it. Yearning for a different reality, but held back by elements of oneself just as strong as important as the escape-fueling obsessions? Yeah, I know a thing or two about that myself, and I also find it a really great source of fantasy drama and adventure. The lightness and personal focus of this game let it open new windows on scenes often viewed through more weighty edifices’ galleries, like Mage and Nobilis; because the cosmological framework is so sparce, there’s room to welcome in very idiosyncratic and deeply personal visions without them clashing with or requiring adjustments to lots of existing setting material. Its dicelessness makes it fine for playing at a distance without needing any dice rollers and such.

I like it, but I’d love to see a new edition that would bring the not-so-excellent parts up to the standard of the rest.

Solipsist, by David Donachie


As I keep mentioning, I'm a buyer of games in electronic form these days. Not entirely exclusively, but close. One of the things that can now make or break a sale for me, and also make or break a recommendation that others purchase a book/file, is how well it's bookmarked. But what consitutes good bookmarking? I'm glad you asked that! What I'm going to do here is show some examples of what I regard as okay bookmarking and really good bookmarking, with a few comments.

First of all, though, let me illustrate the worst kind of bookmarking, which is to say, none at all. This is HeroQuest 2nd edition, a game I love very, very much. But this is why I'm not doing very much with it for my personal use these days: finding things is a drag. I could, over time, assemble my own bookmarks and annotations, but the fact is I don't want to. At 132 pages, HQ2 isn't as long as, oh, say, the vast majority of White Wolf books I own, but these days they pretty much all have at least rudimentary chapter-level outlining and bookmarking, and everything new has much more detailed ones. It's a shame, but honestly, groping for text is about my least favorite part of gaming.

It's not like this a problem unique to HQ, of course. I keep seeing a fair number of promising releases which don't have any bookmarking at all. It's not my place to sit and guess at market shares and what fraction of the readership cares about what. Thank goodness. I like being just a citizen of the gaming polis. But I know that the concern I'm expressing here certainly is a very common one among people who're reading on tablets, and also on laptop and desktop machines. It's easier/quicker to search for text with a full keyboard and mouse interface, and scrolling through thumbnails can be surprisingly handy, but there are no circumstances involving online reading where a good set of bookmarks is a liability.

Next up, an example of okay bookmarking. This is Monsterhearts, one of the rapidly growing family of games tweaking Apocalypse World for their own purposes. As you can see, it includes the chapter numbers and titles, and Joe Mcdaldno gave each chapter a clear, useful title. So you can get in the vicinity of where you're going pretty rapidly, and then you can rummage around a few pages to find what you're looking for. It works, particularly given the playbook structure of the AW family of games, where so many crucial mechanics are in class-specific spreads available separately. But it'd be okay for games without that advantage as well, as long as the chapter names remain useful. (That's not a given. I, um, have committed some pretty obscure chapter titles in my time, and I'm not alone in that. I was relying on table of contents and the then-WW-standard “here's what's in each chapter” part of the introduction. I never had this kind of usage in mind. My bad, along with others'.)

Naturally, the more detailed and expansive each chapter gets, the less help this kind of thing would be. Monsterhearts is 160-odd pages long, with a generous, uncrowded layout. Trying to make your way through something like D&D spell lists with just chapter-level entries would get slow and tedious in short order.

Now for an example of bookmarking done well. This is from Blue Rose, John Snead's foray into romantic fantasy roleplaying developed by Steve Kenson. It bears noting here that this is from 2005, well before there was any tablet market to speak of: it's just that the Green Ronin crew laid things out in a way that made sense for the desktop/laptop PDF market of the time and that continues to make sense as platforms evolve.

It's not the most detailed breakdown imaginable—there could be sub-entries for each of the six abilities, for instance. But what we have here is going to suffice for very quick look-up almost all the time. Everything is clear, and you're never going to be more than a page or very few away from what you're after by clicking on the relevant entry.

Since I am not a very technical person, I don't know what it is that some layout people do to make tables of contents like these indent by level of sub-heading on the iPad. I know that it's something they do, that not everyone does, because I've seen my share of flat, everything-at-the-left-margin outlines. As long as the details are there, that's okay, but the indentation helps a very great deal in quick, coherent navigation. Some people's minds parse undistinguished lists without trouble, but my mind isn't one of thsoe; I welcome all hte clues I can get.

This, then, is what I want to find when I check the bookmarks of a newly acquired game in electronic form. Nor is this just a matter exclusively of PDF usage!

Here, for instance, is Diaspora, Brad Murray et al's Fate-based game of post-Traveller hard-ish sf, as seen in Apple's iBooks app. You may have problems reading the details because I shrunk it down a bunch, but you can see the hierarchical layout. The headings are very brief—Diaspora has no poesy of the directory—but it's all clear, and the progression from “Clusters” to “systems” to “linking systems” to “construction sequence” will help you get where you're going. Each line is a hyperlink, though that's not obvious from their coloring or anything; it's something any iBooks user will find out in short order.

Kindle files can have similar formatting. Likewise with HTML or whatever else it is one may be using to publish in. These days, everything this side of multi-megabyte bundles of animated ASCII can have good navigational aids.

And everything should.




Starting the new year with apologies and hopes

I’d have liked to write more for this blog the last couple weeks, but I had the Martian Death Fu to keep me otherwise occupied. I have done some reading, screenshot taking, and note making in preparation for upcoming entries, and we’ll just see what gets written up when. There’s so much neat stuff here waiting for me to comment on! Should be a good year for blogging.

Starting the new year with apologies and hopes