Cheat Your Own Adventure
is a self-described role-playing poem by Shane McLean. It is available for free on the UKRoleplayers' Collective website here
and in a modestly prettified .pdf format here
What's The Pitch?
You remember going to the library as a kid; pushing past the crowded shelves of Boxcar Children and Nancy Drews, Narnias and Prydains. You'd read them all, and loved them too, but you wanted something more. So it was that you found that shelf of white, taped-up paperbacks with the red logos, because you longed for more tales of adventure, but you didn't want to be constrained by old-fashioned linear plots with only one ending. And thus you came to the Choose Your Own Adventure section, where the stories never ended just once and where you decided what happened! Also, where everything was awkwardly written in the second-person.
If you recall those days with fondness and want to know how this game uses that format as a jumping-off point for storytelling fun, scroll to "What's the Gist?"
If you are wondering what sort of stories your group might be able to tell with this game, check out "How Does It Play?"
If you remember that most of those books were kinda lame and are looking for an excuse to skip this one, maybe you'll find it in "What Should You Know?"
If you're tired of reading and just want a verdict, mosey on down to "The Tee Ell Dee Arr."
What's the Gist?
Cheat Your Own Adventure's rules are simple, contained on less than two pages. It can be played by as few as 3 people, and while it has apparently been played in groups as large as 12, I imagine that 4-6 is the sweet spot; the pdf recommends 4-5. You'll also requre 2d6 and a scrap of paper with a pen. On the paper, you'll write down the numbers 2-12, which represent a sort of timer to the end of the story, and are referred to in the text as the players' collective "stamina."
The game starts with an optional procedure to generate a title. The titles it produces are charming approximations of the source material- my sessions included "The Port of Misery" and "The Caverns of Eternal Stench!" The system is based on rolling 2d6 and comparing the result to two provided tables, but the curved nature of that roll may lead to undesirable repetition. It's simple enough to use a d12 if you want to stick with McLean's provided tables, or to find (or even create) a different title generator.
One player is chosen to start, and they narrate a short opening to the story based on the title- all in that familiar second-person. When the narrator runs out of steam (sections should generally last about a paragraph or so) or comes to an interesting decision point, they pause the story and look to the other players.
In turn, each of the other players gives the narrator a choice, in the traditional format "If you do X, then turn to page Y." The narrator picks the answer they like the best, and hands the 2d6 to the player who offered it. That player then rolls against the lowest stamina on the scrap paper (e.g. the number 2 at the first decision point). If they roll equal to or over the stamina target, they continue the story as the new narrator. If they roll under it, then they describe the horrible failure and death that results from making that choice, and then hand the dice back to the original narrator, who "cheats" and chooses another option. In the event of a "cheat," the player who offered the second choice is not required to roll, and automatically takes over narration.
No matter the result of the roll, the lowest number is then scratched out. After playing through 12 decision points, the final narrator brings the story to a conclusion.
How Does It Read?
The rules have not been formally published, outside of the simple act of sharing them online. As such, the text reads more-or-less like a draft document, rather than a finely-polished product. Still, the rules are clear and concise, and include plenty of useful tips on how to emulate the style and tone of the source material.
The rules are simple enough that referring back to the text in play is generally unnecessary, and they're short enough that it wouldn't be hard to find what you're looking for in any event.
How Does It Play?
Just as the old CYOA books cheerfully hopped through a variety of genres, so too Cheat Your Own Adventure's procedure is capable of producing stories in diverse genres and tones. As is typical for this sort of game, the first couple plays can tend towards the slightly silly or gonzo. The first game I played with my group was a rollicking tale of adventure and piracy, with a surprisingly dark turn towards a kind of fantastic parable on the cost of greed at the end. Our second was a kind of survival horror game involving mountain climbers exploring a creepy cave system, which also took a turn at the end towards something almost Lovecraftian. Both were enlivened with funny choices that made everyone laugh, and genuinely shocking choices that left us gasping in amazement. As players get more familiar with the procedure, it's easier to maintain a more delicate style or tone. Our group discussed using the game to play a murder mystery, or a Goosebumps-style "kid horror" one. Reportedly, some players have had a lot of success playing the game to produce stories in even more unlikely genres, such as quiet, touching family dramas.
The game plays in less than 45 minutes for 3-4 players, and manages to produce quite a bit of story in that short frame. Leaving the key decision points up to your fellow players means you are constantly surprised; and the stories that result are not something any one of you would or could have come up with on your own.
The game also suffers from some of the same issues as other turn-taking narration games. Namely, there is the potential for freezing under pressure when it's your turn to narrate or present a choice (relying on simple improvisational principles like saying the most obvious or boring thing can help), the potential for runaway narration (how long a given section should be will vary from group to group), and the issue of clashing visions or expectations. In all cases, a quick discussion at the beginning to sort of put people at ease and get everyone on the same page should alleviate most problems; introducing tools like the pallete from Microscope, the ritual phrases from Archipelago, or the X Card as described by John Stavropolous might also be useful techniques to consider.
What's Surprising About It?
The really astonishing thing about the game is how much fun and satisfaction can be produced in a game that plays so fast, so simply, and with such a broad diversity of groups. It's easy to imagine this game being played and enjoyed by kids and adults alike, gamers and non-gamers. The choice mechanism generates stories that are both sensible and surprising, and the round countdown effectively pushes the narrative towards a satisfying climax. It's easy to imagine this game being played in place of clunkier "around-the-campfire" type games, and my group has already happily adopted it as our go-to "some of us don't want to go home yet so let's play a quick thing" filler game.
Then there is the excitement as the game approaches the midway point and failures become more likely. There is a kind of perverse delight in getting to narrate a "death sequence," and it's common for the narrator to begin considering which option would make the most interesting failure and picking it first as the game nears the end. The final round will result in a death first more than 97% of the time, and typically a group will have 2-5 deaths before that, too. That mechanic also means that more people get to narrate, which helps keep everyone involved and the downtime to a minimum. The requirement for everyone to offer a choice means that everyone has to actively listen when not narrating, too, so the game stays pretty focused and awesome.
What Should You Know?
This is a true story game. There is little-to-no traditional role-playing involved and the system is super-breezy and abstract. Everyone is required to contribute and narrate, and the game is entirely improvised. If those things are not for you, then neither is this game. The stories it produces are interesting and satisfying, but they will tend to be slight (and often silly), not to mention somewhat self-contradictory (by design).
That said, the price is right. And it requires very little time investment, making it incredibly easy to just pick up and try to see if you like it. I certainly do.
The Tee Ell Dee Arr.
Cheat Your Own Adventure is a brilliant little storytelling game that emulates the Choose Your Own Adventure books of yore. The game can handle a range of group sizes (3-12), and plays quickly, usually in less than an hour. It's friendly to non-gamers and old story game hands alike, and can produce a wide range of stories in a variety of tones and genres.
I'm Jonathan Cook, a gamer from East Tennessee. I love all kinds of games, including board, card, video and role-playing. RPGs and Story Games are my especial jam, though. Like a lot of story-gamers, I've got pretensions about being a writer and an itch to design. This is my first review, and I hope to have an avatar one day. Thanks for reading, and let me know if there's anything I can do to make this review more helpful to you. Have fun, and roll high!