After a recent back and forth with Rebecca Tucker (@researchib) on Twitter, I’ve been looking into the idea of using solo RPG as a writing aid. As quickly became apparent, the rabbit hole goes super deep, with lots of really cool-looking systems and system-agnostic methods of running a game without a GM. I told myself I wasn’t going to spend too much time on this, since I’ve got tons of other stuff to work on at the moment, but the idea kept nagging at me so I decided to try a bit of an experiment to see what comes out of using solo gameplay for story-writing purposes.
Of course, I’m very lazy. I saw that Ironsworn had a 200+ page rulebook, and decided to go simpler. And what could be simpler than falling back on my favorite board game of all time: Fantasy Flight Games’ Arkham Horror, 2nd Edition. Arkham Horror is a cooperative Lovecraftian horror board game. In it, players attempt to repel the forces of a stirring alien intellect before it can awaken and doom all of Arkham–and the world. To that end, players will visit locations and encounter random events, random monsters, find random items, and make decisions informed by multiple layers of randomness which dictate where clues spawn, how monsters move, and even what the weather does. In short: it’s a massive chaos generator, which makes it perfect for this little experiment.
So, what are we going to do? We’re going to use the chaos of Arkham Horror to attempt to outline a horror novel and see how it goes. As we go, I’ll be sharing moments of the game and showing how they translate into my vision of this strange little book. (Note: I’m using the Tabletop Simulator mod for Arkham Horror, because my hard copy is in America and I will likely never see it again)
The first thing we do in Arkham Horror is choose player characters and the Ancient One. The player characters will map to the main characters of the story, but the Ancient One is going to be a bit more subtle; we don’t really want to rip off Lovecraftian sources wholesale, so we’ll use what we draw for inspiration and kind of take it from there. And, since the overarching “nemesis” of the story will help to inform the direction we’re taking the whole production, let’s draw that first.
Alright, we’ve got Y’golonac. So, what’s this freak about? Keeping in mind we’re looking more for themes and narrative threads than paying too much attention to the monster itself, let’s check out his rules. There are two main points: his followers revert to their true form when killed, increasing Terror, and whenever somebody draws a Tome, Doom will increase. So we can thematically interpret this as, the monsters of the story are actually something horrible and alien wearing human shape, and forbidden books have something to do with their evil agenda. Although, honestly, I feel like the whole “evil book wreaking havoc” trope is a bit played out, so I’d like to change that bit. For now, let’s make it about forbidden film instead, just to see where that takes us.
Now that we’ve got a high concept, let’s draw a cast of characters. I kind of feel like a relatively tight scope will work in the favor of this story, so let’s just have two main characters (we can add supporting characters later, of course).
Alright, and we’ve got Joe Diamond the Private Eye and Rita Young the Athlete. Obviously, we will not be using these characters as-is, but we can safely use their archetypes to give us a starting point. I like the idea of having a private investigator in play, and having a presumably college-aged woman on a sports scholarship gives us some nice diversity in the angles through which we can view the story. Before we start fleshing out our characters to make them “ours”, let’s draw their starting items and see if anything sticks.
Aside from his .45 Automatic, our detective starts with a Military Motorcycle, a Map of Arkham, and for his skill he gets Martial Arts. The map doesn’t seem particularly interesting, but having a motorcycle and knowing martial arts are some nice details that can develop into something. Perhaps this dude is ex-military, or maybe he’s just an enthusiast of military hardware and frequents the army surplus store. Could totally see him being a doomsday prepper, too.
Meanwhile, our athlete starts with Eltdown Shards (a magical tome), a Knife, a Bullwhip (?!), and the skill Marksman. Uhh. Hmm. Okay. That’s interesting. Maybe our star athlete girl is working as a dominatrix part time? Well, moving past that, she knows how to handle a gun. Maybe she grew up surrounded by Southern gun culture. I like this as a skill, though, because it means she’s probably going to be able to hold her own if it comes to a fight with something supernatural, which it most assuredly will. Also a bit of a fun subversion of expectations that the private eye is the one who’s going to be kicking people in the head and the athlete is at home on a range.
I think we’ve also been given a pretty heavy-handed sign about how things are going to get started, because we drew a magical tome as one of her starting items. Like I said before, magic books are totally played out in horror. So I think our girl Rita has instead come into possession of one of these cursed films, which may or may not be allowing alien demon things to take over peoples’ bodies (we should probably hash out exactly how this works, but we can come back to that in a bit).
Also, I naturally feel like our college-aged protagonist desperately needs a friend. I could draw an Ally or Investigator for inspiration, but I’m actually feeling quite inspired by this whole film idea. I’m picturing a fairly stereotypical art student as a foil to Rita’s high levels of physicality, somebody tied loosely enough to the concept that she might help to give us a bit of direction out of the gate.
I can just about see the inciting incident now: Rita, our up-and-coming athlete, is strapped for cash. With tuition payments looming, she’s desperately trying to find a way to cover her expenses, and her part-time dominatrixing just isn’t cutting it (I’m half-joking, but maybe this is actually an element worth exploring). While going through boxes of her old stuff at her grandparents’ house, she comes across a canister of old celluloid film, and her artist friend tells her that it could be sold to a collector for a fair bit of cash (at this point I make a note to research if this is a plausible thing to pawn or if I need to do some hand-waving to explain it). Rita goes along with it, sells the film off, and thus starts a chain of events that leads to horror.
It’s rough, and there’s a bit too much of The Call of Cthulhu‘s “oh no, grandpa had something spooky” in it, but I feel like we don’t want to get bogged down too deep in worrying about cliches yet.
At this point, all we’ve done is literally the first part of game setup, and already I feel like we’ve got some potentially very interesting threads flowing. Before going any further, let’s spend a bit of time ruminating over these characters and thinking of how to make them a bit more original.
Let’s start with Joe Diamond. At the risk of typecasting, I’m suddenly inspired by memories of my old taekwondo / hapkido instructor. He was an older man, tiny like you wouldn’t believe. He served as a bodyguard for the South Korean president at some point, and after emigrating to the States and gaining citizenship he joined the national guard. I’ve never met a bigger badass in my life, and since all of that jives incredibly well with our martial artist ex-military private investigator, I think a lot of his details are going to get folded into our dude. Goodbye Joe Diamond, hello Inspector Yi. While we could go down the rabbit hole of exploring Yi’s backstory and personality and all that, I don’t want to lose too much momentum, so once again this will be Something We Come Back To™.
Rita I feel like is going to take a bit longer to really develop. From the plot threads we have so far, we know she is somehow behind the inciting incident, or is at least involved in the evil film phenomenon, so I think we can safely conclude that she is the main character. I dig the idea of her being from the South, maybe Alabama or Georgia, but I think it serves the drama to transplant her somewhere foreign. And what could be more foreign to her than the icy north? So, Canada or Alaska, I’m thinking, although that might make the whole sports scholarship angle a little trickier to pull off… Screw it, make a research note and keep moving! We’ll call her Annabelle Darrel for now, which isn’t that great, but whatever.
As for her friend, who for now is just a side character, I’m going to throw out the name Clarice Waterman, just to get something on paper. I think I’d like her to be Anna’s foil in a few ways; she’s probably a bit heavy set, long blonde hair, glasses, probably born in whatever Alaska / Canada town the university is in, and might not have ever left it. Springboarding off that, I imagine she has ambitions to travel and see the world, but either can’t manage it or just makes excuses why she can’t.
It’s Never Too Early For a Blurb
And with that, we have three characters at least thinly planned out, and now we can start to see a bit better how things are going to fit together. After thinking on it a few minutes, here’s my revised summary:
When you watch a film, what watches you back?
Annabelle Darrel thought getting out of her hodunk Alabama hometown would be all sunshine and rainbows. Instead, she was greeted with frigid weather, sunless days, and predatory student housing skimming more than a little off the top. With tuition payments coming up, she’s short on cash and shorter on time. But when she finds a strange reel of film in a care package from her family, she takes her artist friend Clarice’s advice and sells it to an underground arthouse cinema for a pretty penny. She thought that would be the end of it.
Now, people have started disappearing. With police searches hitting only dead ends, the case finds its way to the desk of Inspector Yi, a hard-boiled private investigator with a storied career intersecting with the dark and the paranormal. But his investigation into the disappearances soon reveals a horrifying truth: there’s something inhuman walking the streets of Tolfax, and their numbers are multiplying. With Inspector Yi on a collision course with Annabelle and Clarice, will the truth be revealed before an unseen enemy overtakes them? Or will the world fall under the control of forces unthinkable?
Eh, I’m no good at summaries, but that feels like it could become something. At the very least, we’ve got some conflict, we’ve managed to link Inspector Yi to the mysterious film, and we have a ton of options for where to go next. I think we’re going in the direction of aliens taking over the bodies of people who watch the film, just going off this summary. Why would that be the case? What is the film? And why did Anna end up with it? Was it intentionally sent to her, or was it an accident? We have some potentially sinister forces moving in her family, in the cinema, in the town, and potentially in the sky as well. We’ve got a ton of space to work with, including pulling in real-world paranormal / conspiracy lore for some verisimilitude.
Holy crap, all that came out of just the first part of setting up a game of Arkham Horror. Is it any good? Well, maybe not yet, but I can definitely see potential in it. We haven’t played a single turn of the actual game, but already the juices are flowing. We could take this in a bit more of an urban fantasy direction if we wanted to, do a bit of a The Dresden Files thing. Or, we could play it more like a zombie story, or even go full Lovecraft if we wanted to add in some cosmic horror elements. I kind of feel like this is meant to be paranormal / psychological horror, though.
And at this point, I feel like I could probably just close Arkham and start directly outlining a plot from this. I’m definitely going to close it for now, because I don’t think I can withstand any more inspiration. But I do want to come back and continue with this. So far we’ve seen that the setup for Arkham Horror has enough chaos in it to at least generate some interesting hooks, but it remains to be seen if the flow of the game lends itself to more granular plotting decisions. Either way, this was a ton of fun to try out, and I’m already looking forward to the future adventures of Yi and Anna.