Author – Alexi Sargeant (@AlexiSargeant) of Cloven Pine Games (@ClovenPineGames)
Where to Buy – https://cloven-pine-games.itch.io/the-tabula-initiative
Anyone who’s played RPGs for awhile knows the pain of scheduling a session only to have it all fall apart come game night. Maybe someone gets sick. Another person gets called into work. A third person gets waylaid by bandits. Such is life. Luckily, the good folks over at Cloven Pine Games created The Tabula Initiative so that as long as two of you show up, game night can continue as scheduled.
As you may have inferred from the image above, The Tabula Initiative is essentially a two-player RPG allowing one GM and one player to play through their own version of a Bourne Identity-esque story. For those unfamiliar with the source material this game is based on, The Bourne Identity is about an amnesiac spy trying to figure out who he is while being hunted by the program that created him. Even though he can’t remember who he is, the muscle memory from his training kicks in at opportune times to save him from his pursuers.
The entirety of the game focuses on one move, the format of which will be familiar to anyone who has played a Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) game. Whenever a player wants to do something with an uncertain outcome, they’ll roll 2d6 and add their Programming modifier. The Programming modifier represents how close they are to becoming a government asset again and increases with every failed roll. So, as the player’s character become more powerful, they risk losing all control. Once their Programming modifier reaches 4, the character becomes an operative once again and the game ends.
The Tabula Initiative is only four pages long but manages to pack a lot of information in that tiny amount of space. In addition to the move described above, there’s some brief but wonderful intro fiction that also serves as the game’s character creation rules. As I mentioned, The Tabula Initiative’s only stat is created through play and so character creation is, by necessity, more narrative than mechanical. As the GM reads the introductory fiction, the player is invited to answer a few questions to explain who they are and a few details about the world around them. It’s a brief and straightforward process that still manages to create player buy in through shared narrative control, and that’s just excellent design.
Like any good PBTA-based game, The Tabula Initiative provides advice to GMs in the form of Agendas and Principles. Usually when short form games bother to provide this sort of advice, they do so with a brief bulleted list of best practices. The author of The Tabula Initiative went above and beyond that, providing a paragraph of text after each provided principle. The advice is fantastic, covering a breadth of principles with enough depth to actually help GMs run the game successfully.
The Tabula Initiative is an exemplary model of a small game that feels complete, and that is a truly rare but wonderful thing. I hope we did it justice in our recent episode!
DISCLAIMER: I do not know anyone involved with this game, nor did I receive anything for free in exchange for this review. Also, this game has stirred within me a hunger for more niche one move PBTA-inspired games. Let me know on Twitter if there are any others out there!