Playing tabletop RPGs is a hobby that is near and dear to my heart. I love the stories that can be told and the laughs that are often shared around the RPG table. The way the mechanisms work to create compelling situations, the freedom that the game gives you to truly create characters and narratives that are all your own – tabletops take everything I love about gaming and stories and rolls it all together into a single experience. But tabletops are also time-consuming endeavors that require the company of other people to play, so I don’t get to engage with them nearly as often as I want to. When looking at one of the many unused RPG books currently on my shelf or stored in my PDF library, I have often thought “if only I could play RPGs by myself, I could get a lot more out of this hobby.”
Enter plot ARMOR, a game created as part of a tabletop RPG event known as the Emotional Mecha Jam. Hashtagged as #sadmechjam on Twitter, this was an event in which tabletop RPG designers of all experience levels were invited to create short length roleplaying games focused on the emotional lives of mech pilots. plot ARMOR was developed by @OrionDBlack on Twitter, who is also the developer of the game Mutants in the Night, based on Blades in the Dark (the latter of which I’ve written about but not yet been able to play). I’ve always enjoyed Orion’s insights into RPG design online so when I saw this opportunity to pick up a game that I would actually be able to play immediately, without having to bring my RPG group into the equation, I jumped at the chance.
I’ve played a couple of “sessions” of plot ARMOR since purchasing it and I wanted to share my first impressions of the game. Writing about the games I’m playing often helps me to dig deeper into my feelings about them than just simply playing and moving on, and I certainly have a lot of feelings to sort through where the solo RPG experience is concerned. So let’s dig into my early thoughts about the game based on these initial sessions to see what plot ARMOR is and how the mechanisms of the game function.
plot ARMOR is a roleplaying game in which you play the PROTAGONIST of a mecha-anime. As the PROTAGONIST of the story, your character has plot armor: they cannot die, no matter how hard anyone in this embattled world may try (gotta love the worldplay). During the course of your campaign, your PROTAGONIST will live through a series of impossible events which should have killed them and slowly realize that they absolutely cannot die. How will they act on this knowledge? What will they think about themselves and the world around them? You’ll discover the answers to these questions over the course of 32 episodes – at which point your PROTAGONIST will die.
plot ARMOR may be a game, but it does not play games. The emotional work your character is doing will be all about death and their relationship to it, so the subject matter can get quite heavy during the course of play. This is amplified by some of the pieces which are necessary parts of the game world. While you get to design most of your setting for your campaign, it is mandatory that the world involve giant mecha embroiled in combat situations which are impossible to survive without “immense luck and/or impossible skill.” These elements make it known that your character will most definitely be in situations in which they are supposed to die, and yet somehow they do not.
The game clearly takes inspiration from mecha anime – your goal, after all, is to create one – so a familiarity with that genre will probably be a boon for you. Not knowing things about mecha anime doesn’t stop you from playing, though. I’ve seen maybe two episodes of whatever Gundam show was popular back when I was a teenager, and something tells me that Voltron: Legendary Defender doesn’t really count in this category. Fortunately, plot ARMOR has lots of helpful tools built in to convey the tone and set pieces of the genre. In addition to the mandatory elements described above, the game also has an optional hot springs episode. Your PROTAGONIST is built from archetypes such as “the reluctant hero” or “totally inexperienced but full of heart” that give you context for the types of characters that these stories focus on. The mechanisms also help to push you in the right direction, so let’s zoom in on those next.
How exactly does a solo RPG work? I assume the answer to that question is different from game to game, but in plot ARMOR you as the player use the rules as a sort of writing prompt. Your PROTAGONIST logs their experiences in a journal that serves to track the “episodes” of your anime. Each episode, you are writing about the experiences of the PROTAGONIST in past tense, from their perspective. This first person perspective gives you a stronger connection to the character, and writing about all of the events as if they happened in the past gives the PROTAGONIST room to reflect on their feelings about them. These may seem like simple mechanics, but they were skillfully chosen for the subject matter of the game.
The first episode has its own rules in which you establish the necessary pieces of the game. You title the episode by making up a “star date” which sets the time of your campaign. Notice again how even the little details help to establish the setting – having a star date like 8Z1-WB-05 (the star date I used for my first episode) says something about the game world and establishes a mood for the game, even if its only an aesthetic touch. In the first episode, you’ll journal about all of the necessary aspects of your narrative like how the PROTAGONIST started their journey as a pilot or what they think about their ARMOR, the mech they pilot. The rules explain that you establish these details early so that you can use the first chapter as a reference if you ever get stuck. Just flip back to those early notes and use them to inform the direction of your story where it is now.
Once you complete the first episode, you reach what I consider to be the meat of the game: the episodes between episode one and episode thirty-two. At the start of each episode, you roll a six-sided dice (D6) to determine your current episode number. In my case, after episode one I rolled a 1 and proceeded right into episode two, and after that I rolled a 4 and ended up on episode six. Any gap between episodes is explained in your next journal entry, and you have total control over how much time passes. Multiple episodes could take place in the same day, or there could be weeks between them, or you can use both approaches at different times throughout the campaign. Because the game always ends at episode 32, each plot ARMOR campaign will vary in length from 32 episodes (rolling a 1 every single time) to only 7 episodes (rolling a 6 every single time).
Once you know your episode number, you have two more things to roll: impossible happenings. There are a dozen impossible happenings in the game which are split between six related to the PROTAGONIST and six related to their ARMOR. You roll for one of each and then must incorporate those impossible happenings into the events described during the episode. The events are such that they can strongly impact the direction of your campaign, and because they are so impossible and yet they just keep happening it won’t take long for it to become evident to your character that something unusual is happening to them.
I’ll use my own campaign as an example of how this all works. In my first episode I established that my PROTAGONIST was a young mech pilot named Ryvor who inherited his father’s ARMOR after he died during a war. That war ended the day Ryvor’s father lost his life, but a new war has risen from its ashes. I set up everything with the expectation that Ryvor would die as soon as he hit the battlefield: he was untrained, their forces were exhausted from the first war, and they were vastly outnumbered. But when I rolled for episode two, my impossible happening had nothing to do with Ryvor’s death; instead, he would go berserk and slay both friend and foe alike on the battlefield. The impossible happening for the ARMOR was to take control of itself, so I used that as the solution to my first problem and had the mech take Ryvor away from the battle when his berserk rage led him to kill some of his own soldiers. I ended that story establishing that Ryvor’s goal was to discover the origins of his ARMOR – instead, when I rolled the dice for episode six, I discovered that at some point Ryvor has died and come back to life.
The randomly-generated events do a lot to push your campaign in wild new directions. Each time I find myself thinking “goodness, how in the world am I gonna make this make any sense?” But when I figure out the answer to that question, it pushes the narrative somewhere compelling and it gives my character more opportunities to delve into the strange meaning behind exactly why he simply cannot die. Over all of that hangs a truth that I know that the character does not – eventually, that plot armor will fade and he will lose his life despite all of the things he has learned about his seemingly-immortal self.
plot ARMOR may be a single page RPG (not counting the great cover art by Mikey Zee), but the short rules do not make those rules mechanically weak. The established set pieces give you room to be creative while also telling you things about the substance of the game and giving the game a distinct genre flavor. The dice rolls drive home the idea of your PROTAGONIST surviving through impossible circumstances while also pushing you to come up with creative solutions that justify the outcomes the dice tell you that you have to include. It’s a simple but effective game that’s quite creatively stimulating.
I only have one issue in my experience with plot ARMOR so far, and it is less about a flaw in the game’s design and more about the game not being my style of game. I picked up plot ARMOR hoping that a solo RPG could scratch the same itch that is satisfied by playing tabletop games with my friends. As it turns out, the experiences are totally different. I don’t get the same pleasure from playing this game that I do from playing tabletops with my friends, and I think that is perhaps because the interactivity of those games is more significant to me than I imagined it was before I had this experience. The part of me that this game appeals to most is the fiction writer, and though I’ve been enjoying my playthrough so far I haven’t felt the desire to play often because I am so rarely in the mood to do this kind of writing.
plot ARMOR is a well-designed game that I picked up and started playing wanting something from it that it isn’t intended to give. As a solo RPG, it offers a different experience than other tabletop games and shouldn’t be treated as identical to them. So if you’re reading this and hoping for a game that you can play by yourself that feels the same as Dungeons and Dragons or Apocalypse World or whatever else, plot ARMOR will probably not satisfy that for you. However, if you’re reading this and you have a passion for creating stories and are intrigued by the creative challenge that comes from incorporating randomly-generated story elements into your writing (while still having a prompt to guide you), then plot ARMOR might be up your alley even if other types of RPGs have not been in the past. For the price of $3 on itch.io, I think it’s well worth a try if the idea of writing your own story about a mech pilot with plot armor is appealing to you.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject, adventurers. Have you played plot ARMOR or something like it? Do you have any questions about this game and whether or not it would be something you could be interested in? Leave a comment below and I’d be happy to talk to you about my experience with the game and to make recommendations or answer questions!