Wednesday, January 20, 2016

[Review] Quill: A Letter-Writing RPG By Trollish Delver Games

Sometimes in an RPG, your character's ability to swing a sword or pick a lock don't matter. In the world of Quill: A Letter-Writing RPG for a Single Player by Scott Malthouse, it all comes down to your PC's penmanship and eloquence.

In Quill, you take on the persona of a letter-writer who is trying to create the best missive to impress the letter's recipient. Do well, and the letter-reader might be impressed enough to reward you. Perform poorly, and the punishment could be dire. Everything that happens to your character comes down to your ability to write convincingly and with heart. (Although your real-life ability to write well is secondary to the gameplay, which will become clear during this review.)

In this unusually-styled RPG, you have six character classes to choose from that reflect professions with a literate background: Monk, Poet, Aristocrat, Courtier. Knight, and Scholar. Each class has three attributes reflecting their respective competence with the written word: Penmanship (how clean it looks); Heart (how heartfelt it sounds); and Language (how well it reads). Each attribute is rated Poor, Average, and Good, which reflects how many dice you roll when that attribute comes into play (1, 2, or 3 dice, respectively). So the Knight would write heartfelt letters (Heart: Good) but he would use commoner's slang when writing (Language: Poor). The Poet's turn of phrasing would be amazing (Language: Good), but his scribbles would be illegible (Penmanship: Poor). Finally, you can choose one of three skills (Inspiration (Language), Illumination (Penmanship), and Augmentation (Heart)) that reflect a one-time-use extra die roll when writing your letter.

Once you've determined your class, attributes, and personal skill, it's time to sit down and write to your letter which will consist of five paragraphs. To start, grab at least three 6-sided dice and choose one of the four scenarios in the rulebook. Each scenario gives you a profile of the recipient of your letter, and the subject you are writing to them about. For example, one scenario has you writing to the king informing him of your suspicions that someone in his court is a spy. Each scenario also gives you the Rules of Correspondence with special circumstances specific to the scenario that will give you a bonus or penalty if applicable. Finally, each scenario has an Ink Pot, a list of words -- both Superior and Inferior -- that you can use to increase your score. Roll well, and you may use one of the Superior Words in your letter, thus impressing the reader. Roll poorly, and you're stuck with phrasing that's a bit more gauche.

All Attributes and Skill checks allow you to roll as many dice as their value allows. If you roll a 5 or 6 on any of the dice, the check is successful. And that's the basis of the game.

To play, you begin writing your letter keeping in mind the information you're trying to impart as well as the profile of the eventual reader. Within each of the five graphs, you'll want to try to insert one of the Superior Words. When you reach that turn of phrase, you'll make a Language skill check. Succeed, gain a point and use one of the Superior Words in the Ink Pot. Fail the check, and blunder your way with one of the crummier words. Further checks are required anytime you want to try to impress the reader with Flourishes (fancy adjectives/adverbs scattered throughout) or by your Penmanship (make a check at the end of each paragraph to see if you're able to maintain your legibility). As you build your letter, you'll make checks versus your Heart, Language, and Penmanship scores, gaining points as you hit the high points of your missive, and suffering penalties as you fumble your way through the low points. At the end of the letter, you'll add up your total score, then refer to the scenario's "Consequences" section to see how the reader reacted to your letter.

So how does it play? Admittedly, most of the game is an exercise in narrative prompt writing with a scoring system tacked on. Whether you do well or poorly comes down to a roll of the dice rather than any real ability of the player to write well. (However, most RPG results comes down to a roll of the dice anyway even if the player can't swing a sword or pick a lock, so it's not a fair comparison.) Overall, I really like the concept of the game as it's a different kind of role-playing. As I sat down as a Monk tasked to inform a close family friend of the death of his son, I found myself pondering the best way to approach the subject. I mulled over the most tactful and somber way to let him know...when it struck me that none of this was real. It was a role-playing exercise that had drawn me in and THAT is the mark of a good game.

That said, I think I'd like to find some time to noodle around with the mechanics and add some new challenges to the game. For example, having to deliver some unpleasant bit of information in your letter may start the player off with a starting negative score that must be overcome during play. Or perhaps a scenario could come with some hidden background text that, if mentioned in the letter, would add to or remove from the player's score. For example, after the game ends and the letter is written, the player would turn to another page with more background info on the letter reader. Perhaps any mention of the letter reader's parents at any point -- whom he hadn't spoken to in years due to a bitter fight -- might give a penalty to the letter's effectiveness. Or mentioning gold or riches to a reader who is secretly a covetous miser would give the writer a bonus.

I would also like to see the game expanded to have some scenarios that are a bit more fantastical in a future supplement. Perhaps there could be a scenario where a knight is about to embark on a rescue quest who needs to secure a powerful magical talisman from a cranky magic-user. Can he sway the arch-mage to surrender his cherished magic item? Or perhaps a monk could try to convince a known rogue to join his crusade against a tyrannical overlord. Heck, how about a series of letters to 4 different recipients where the player is trying to recruit the various members of a dungeon-exploration party? The success of each letter would bring a new member into the party, resulting in a more successful quest. And if everyone turns you down due to your lousy written missives, the player could end up dying alone in the depths of an arch-lich's catacombs!

In summary, I found Quill to be an unusually effective role-playing exercise as I found myself immersed in the scenarios I played, even if I found the mechanics of resolution a bit too random and not contingent upon the letter being written. I think the game could be tightened up a bit with some minor tweaks and additions to the gameplay, but that's just some personal preference sneaking in. I can see myself cobbling together a few scenarios of my own to share with the Quill-playing public in the future!

Quill: A Letter-Writing RPG for a Single Player is available as a Pay What You Want item (so you can try before you buy, if you wish) at Drive Through RPG and RPG Now, and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license. Sniderman says "Grab your Quill and begin writing."

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