The Perils of a First Attempt: Solipstry Rpg Review

Solipstry RPG: a new approach to tabletop RPGs is an independent work that seeks to make its own way in the wide world of roleplay. Solipstry, defined on the first page as “A theory in philosophy that your own existence is the only thing that is real or can be known.” I don’t understand what the relevance of this theory is to gaming, and it is not expounded on in the book. The website explains it is meant to represent how the game worlds exist in the player’s minds, which is at best a tenuous connection.

Its “new approach” is cobbled together from existing mechanics of other games. The title of the book is made up of an irrelevant statement followed by an untrue one, and we are only getting started there.

The point of the game, as its introduction reiterates several times, is to give you all the tools you need to “create a world,” providing a mechanical framework for whatever type of game you want. What you find as you delve into the game is that Solipstry’s version of “freedom” is in fact absence. Its mechanics are lightweight, making it accessible but lacking in any support necessary to let you make those games. At every turn, it expects you to make a game whole cloth for yourself, only aiding you by being so vague in its mechanics that, with enough work, you could make something functional on your own.

The equipment section, for instance, does not exist. You are told that your character probably has equipment, but not how it functions or how much it should cost. You are told in this section (which is on the wrong page—the table of contents lists the wrong page numbers) that you can improve pieces of equipment with Augments. It suggests how they might work and gives a few examples, but overall leaves it to the GM to determine actual mechanics. In the combat section nearly 40 pages later, we learn that melee weapons do d4 damage if wielded one handed or d6 if two handed, with no mention made of ranged or unarmed damage. The only place that does reference ranged damage is a special ability later which changes this damage amount.

Is that a snowglobe or a shield? Either way why is it here?

Early on, you find yourself bombarded with a few persistent and damning flaws in Solipstry. For one, it badly needs editing. Not only is the tone too informal to make the rules easily usable, but there are errors in the book that should never have gone unnoticed. It’s the constant passive voice which not only makes rules unclear but infuriates you while reading. Page 67, for instance, has most of its text completely covered by a piece of art which is irrelevant and nonsensical. Those rules are luckily locatable later on in the book, but there is no excuse for allowing it to see print. Helpful sidebars are scattered nigh-randomly throughout the book, putting information that would fit perfectly well in the adventuring section in the index, for reasons that are beyond me. Very often, it will start a section with some suggested ideas but end with some variation on telling you to figure it out for yourself. But with mechanics as sparse as these, you cannot help but realize that there are systems better suited to homebrewery and with more support for those invested in it.

Another consistent flaw is Solipstry’s insistence in promoting itself by negativity, a tactic that simply has to stop in RPG marketing. When it bemoans “crunchy, complicated math” and games that try to make you play in their world, it doesn’t tell you anything about the game, but it tells you far too much about its creators. This tactic is mired in looking at what the game isn’t rather than what it is. It alienates those who might be fans of the game being criticised, in this case blatantly D&D and a few others, while giving far too little information about this game’s own strengths. Worse still, it exposes its own lack of literacy with game design, which has grown in every direction since the days of early D&D, and even D&D has changed massively since those times. Roleplaying games must sell themselves on their merits, not by negativity towards pre-existing titles.

The system itself is a collection of ideas from other games, which is not itself a flaw. Using pre-existing ideas to their full effect might bring them to life in new and interesting ways. Doing so, however, is anything but a new approach. The core of Solipstry is Dungeons & Dragons and Call of Cthulhu pretty much directly, with a few odds and ends thrown in to better or worse effect. The eight attributes are the base six from D&D as well as Luck and Speed. Speed as a main attribute is an odd decision, as it only relates to two skills and affects movement, but the goal may have been to reduce the dominance that Dexterity has as a trait. Luck grants Fortune points, your basic metacurrency which you can use to add to a roll or defense on a one for one basis or gain a standard action. Starting characters will have one to three Fortune points, and the way the game’s mechanics work makes those first two applications basically useless.

Speaking of those mechanics, the basics of Solipstry are simple: roll a d20 and add modifiers from your attribute and skill, then compare to a difficulty class. Attributes and skills range from 1 to 100, the tens place making up the modifier that you will apply to your rolls. Luck is the only difference. Like in Call of Cthulhu, it makes up your general good fortune, and you will attempt to roll under it on a d100 roll for situations based purely on chance. You have an Armor Class as well as three derived defenses: Fortitude, Will, and Reflex. To create a character, you simply choose from an array of attribute values and then do the same for skills.

There is a lot going on here for a simple game, and this is only page one

The skills are nearly identical to those you would find in the D&D skill list, but for a few additions. At levels 25, 50, and 75 they get special bonuses unique to each skill, which are minor but reward specialization. It would have been nice, especially in a game that sells itself as a toolkit, to have several options for each skill, but as usual modification is up to your GM to design him or herself.

One skill that does stick out is Enlightenment, which appears to be the ability to peer into the ether and pull out utter nonsense. It states that it is the understanding of religious practices, but also grants you access to Truth, passive bonuses which you unlock while levelling up. They feel random and ill-conceived in both power level and unlock points. I simply don’t understand what the point of this skill is. It seems to imply that religion gives you tangible and magical bonuses to real-life challenges, but why is it here? Religion is not the focus of this game. Is it an example of how you might modify a skill? A source of power they thought players should have over and above those of Talents and Abilities? Its presence in this game is confusing, and it seems liable to give certain characters advantages for no clear reason.

Once you have chosen your skills and attributes and invented equipment, you can make a race. Once again, the task of race creation is all yours, minus some guidance on how size affects the numbers. The book provides some vague clues hinting that bonuses should roughly equal drawbacks, but gives only nebulous hints as to what different drawbacks are actually worth.

Finally, you choose Talents and Abilities. You gain one Talent at character creation and another at each subsequent level, and one Ability per modifier in that Ability’s skill. Talents are roughly equivalent to feats; they fill out your character in minor ways by granting extras such as darkvision or natural armor. Many of these seem like they would only naturally be taken at character creation, but none have such a requirement. This would have been the best place to make the system fit better with more genres, but most seem built for a fantasy setting. The vast majority are geared towards combat efficiency, narrowing the game’s focus to battles and conquest.

Abilities further enforce the feeling that Solipstry is intended as a combat engine. Abilities are supernatural powers of various sorts. They are broken into types such as Destruction, Control, and Enhancement. Nearly all of them are combat-based, to the point where Utility, or non-combat Abilities, comprise a separate Ability tree. All Abilities require paying Ability Points to activate, which refresh over time. This section was the only one where I felt happy that there was some variety, relegated though it was to combat. It made me want to experiment with what one could make by combining different trees together to make a mixed character. Because of the ease of entry into Ability trees, every character is going to be a mage of some sort unless they are deliberately hampering themselves or you are running a no-magic game.

Taken all together, the options you have for your character are less open than they are unfocused. A long section of the book is dedicated to laying them out, and it is less extensive than it is haphazard. Anyone with enough time (and access to the D&D 3.5 spell list) could put some magic down to paper. Whether these multitudinous options are balanced against one another or feed into one another in interesting ways is left to chance, not intentional design.

The combat is fairly standard, with an action economy and listing of maneuvers once again lifted pretty directly from Dungeons and Dragons, including standard actions, opportunity attacks, bullrushing, flanking, etcetera.

The experience system also owes it origins elsewhere in Call of Cthulhu. After successfully using an attribute or skill, you make a tally next to it. Once the session is over, you roll a d100 attempting to get over that value, and if you succeed, you increase it. This system makes it more difficult to improve things you are already proficient at while rewarding use of skills. I always liked it, and I would like its implementation in Solipstry were it not awkwardly tied to a more conventional level system. After ten tallies, your character levels up, granting new Talents. Everything else in the game is handled with prerequisites, which don’t require a separate level value to track.

The book attempts to round itself out with a few suggested settings, but really what it does is display its weaknesses. These pages lay out some ideas of places to run games, but without the support necessary to actually do so. The most they have are some new skills; in some cases, these skills are arbitrary unless they are intended as complete replacements, which is left unclear. The most exciting setting ironically had the least support for it: Sweet Spot, a Candy-Land inspired fantasy setting with a dark underbelly. I wish I had more ways to explore it, but apart from a few paragraphs, we get some hints at a new skill list and equipment types, with little else provided.

If there is one thing that Solipstry gets right, it is the overall look…almost. The book is well bound and double columns read cleanly, each chapter having a different but still readable color to signal where you are in the book. Most importantly, the resident artist put to paper some magnificent and enchanting works that I spent minutes staring at, wishing I could enter into the world she created. I genuinely wish she could have a setting book all her own, just to explore more of her aesthetic and add substance to her worlds. At the same time, there are a few exceptions which are so bad I have to conclude they were only put in the final product by mistake. One page has an elegantly detailed goddess with hindu influences, her clothes wafting about her in divine and subtle radiance. Another has a deformed rat creature that is just terrible to look at. There is no nice way to say it, and rare though these examples are, they stick out whenever you find them.

Not even the worst one

In my playtest, I found that Solipstry does create fast, accessible gaming, but with no real spine to back itself up with. The combat and character creation works, but it all lacks the inspiration necessary to make it a better choice than any similarly complex RPG on the market, especially because of how tightly it clings to D&D. I cannot recommend this game as anything more than a curiosity to those studying design.

Solipstry: A New Approach to Tabletop RPGs
Designed by: Bennett and Rinehart
Published by: Idlewild Games
Players: 2+
Ages: 13 and up
Mechanics: Roleplaying, Tactical Combat, Metacurrency Management
Weight: Medium
MSRP: $15.00



Solipstry Rpg

Review Guidelines

Solipstry sells itself as a toolkit to create your own world, but far too many of the rules necessary to do so are nonexistent; the rules that are in place are often vague, and the ones that are clear are simply uninspiring. While Solipstry is a functional product, once you get past its exterior of unedited rules, it is no more than that, and its goals of accessible yet freeform mechanics have been implemented better in other places.

John Farrell is a legal aid attorney specializing in domestic violence, living in West Chester Pennsylvania. You can listen to him travel the weird west as Carrie A. Nation in the Joker's Wild podcast at:
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