Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Hit The Road Jack is A New High-Octane, Character-Driven SoloTTRPG

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Hit The Road Jack is a solo TTRPG with a very specific idea of the story it wants to tell: a cat-and-mouse chase between two characters – Jack Be Nimble and Jack Be Quick. 

With straight forward mechanics, the game creates a very direct, encapsulated story that primarily operates in bullet time, using reflections on the past that influence the present high-stakes chase. 

According to the game’s writer Kyle Tam, “[Hit The Road Jack] is a game that begins in the middle of the action, demanding that players construct an image of who their Jack is and what has driven them to run or hunt.” The game draws thematic inspiration from films like Full Throttle, Death Proof, Ghost Rider, and Akira, aiming to “create a tense environment of gasoline, grease, and chrome.” 

“The biggest influence was “Full Throttle”, written by the father/son duo of Stephen King and Joe Hill, which is an extraordinarily tense short story about a motorcycle gang vs. a delivery truck in the world’s most emotionally fraught chase scene,” said Tam.

“It’s this energy I wanted to capture, that when you chase or you’re being chased you carry your sins, your loves, your anger, your sadness with you. There is a beautiful introspection to this, and it makes for such an interesting contrast to Tarantino’s Death Proof. That’s a wonderful story of anger, of rage against the feminine vs women taking back their power, a frantic manic energy that is also a valid way to play Jack.”

The game is designed to be recorded, rather than handwritten like most solo journaling games. This was intentional in the design, to be more accessible for players who may not feel able to continually write fleshed out responses to prompts and prefer a more verbal, stream of consciousness play style. “This was always a game meant to be read aloud,” Tam said. 

“That’s why it’s written in the second person, and why Aaron [Cartazno Saez]’s voice is crucial to what I see as the most complete way to play Jack – the audiobook.” The writer said in regard to the game’s introductory monologue and the planned audio recording of the games 44 prompts, which you can fund at their Itch.io page. “It’s something that’s meant to get under your skin, and there’s even a question in there where you have to answer the crucial question – whose voice IS this? Someone you love? Someone you hate?”

The story progresses both narratively and mechanically using a deck of major arcana cards or Random Number Generator. Each card has two prompts associated with it (both upright and reversed per) which flesh out the backstory to the character as they venture down their road. One of the more esoteric conflict resolution systems, as not everyone has tarot cards at their disposal, it does add a specific tone to the game that is what initially intrigued me personally.

“Tarot comes with its own stories, histories, meaning,” Tam wrote on his Substack about the choice to use tarot which allowed for capturing the essence of the card’s meaning.

This clear and unique story concept, along with the intention behind the use of tarot is what convinced me to play the review copy provided by the team at Urania Games.

My Review of Hit The Road Jack:

Disclaimer: I have only been able to play this game’s solo version, I have not yet had the opportunity to play the duet method, so I will not speak to that.

The game’s loose bounds give you space to make whatever kind of dynamic you want between the pursuer and the pursued. This game is doing a lot, being part TTRPG and part board game, and is unequivocally succeeding at what it sets out to do. It tells a high-octane, intensely retrospective game about what it means to run from a choice you’ve made, or what it means to make the choice to run.

The art by Charles Ferguson-Avery is absolutely gorgeous, evoking an expansive, oppressive, southwestern desert throughout. The layout of the game by Sinta Posadas is straightforward and easy to understand, easily navigable as I drew various cards. 

I only had two real hangs-ups while playing the game, the character creation and its relationship between narrative prompt and mechanic results. For clarity, those are more stylistic preferences on my end than a failure on the game’s end to fulfill it’s objectives as a storytelling vehicle. 

Let’s break it down.

Set-Up Time for Hit The Road Jack: <5 minutes

This is a game you can jump into immediately with minimal setup. The mechanics are very straightforward and can be done immediately after character ideation. 

One note is that in the materials I had access to I did not see a Chase Board present, to demarcate the mechanical progress of the chase. The game’s instructions on whether the Chase Board was provided or if it has to be made are not particularly clear, which added the only significant amount of time to my prep as I looked for something that was not there. I made one myself easily using a google sheet, but one can also be made on pen and paper using physical tokens.

Character Creation Tools in Hit The Road Jack: Contrasting Archetypes

You can spend as much or as little as you would like in developing your characters reasons for being on the road, but the prompts are intended to flesh out details from a vague concept.

Admittedly, character creation was more open ended than I would have preferred for such a genre-specific game. In a chase narrative, there are two types of characters: the chaser (Jack Be Quick) and the chased (Jack Be Nimble). Jack Be Nimble is running from something – something they’ve done. Jack Be Quick is following after, in reaction to whatever it was Nimble did. 

Past that, there are no more examples of who these two are or why they are in this struggle, that’s for the players to create. For those who prefer room to imagine, this is ideal. For those who struggle with choice paralysis in creating characters and worlds, you may want to source inspiration from the tropes that inspire this game. 

I think the game could have benefitted from providing players with sample lists of motivations or contexts for the chase. A random table of places to be running away or from, reasons why someone is fleeing or pursuing, and what the relationships between the two Jacks could be may have provided a stronger foundation or starting point for the flashback-fueled narrative the game evokes.

Hit The Road Jack Play Duration: 30+ minutes

There are three lengths of gameplay available: 6 cards drawn, 10 cards drawn, or 14 cards drawn. It took me 40 minutes to play the short solo version, typing out my responses instead of recording them, as the game itself suggests in both its rules and iconography. Each prompt has a small microphone symbol following it to remind you of its audio-focused intentions.

“I love journaling games, but I’m an impatient person.” Ting had to say about his own relationship to soloTTRPGs influenced the game’s design. “I find it hard to get through more than ten, maybe twelve prompts before my brain starts turning a little bit to mush. This is why I wanted Jack to play FAST, right? Initially in testing you’d play on the set track, and either one Jack escaped or the other caught up and this ended the game. And it did. Fast. Too fast, actually. One of my playtesters very kindly suggested that you could instead do a set number of prompts, and the finish position of the two Jacks would determine which ending the game had, and this worked out MUCH better. You can play at various lengths of game depending on how you feel, you still get a complete experience.”

Play Experience of Hit The Road Jack: Fast Paced, Self-propelling

This game is meant to be played as a ride happening on the span of a single highway. 

The primary source of tension in this game is supposed to come from the immediate chase at hand and whether or not you will be caught, or whether you will do the catching. It is not intended to come from the prompts you fill along the way. Those are intended to provide background context for what your character is feeling, what they’ve done, and why they did what they did.

To be entirely honest, I believed I played this game incorrectly on my first playthrough. 

In my first game, I played this not as a single chase that was resolved right there and then on the road, but one that took place over the course of multiple days. That’s on me for not fully understanding the intention of the game upon first playthrough, though I do think one could expand the bounds of the game to include these types of stories with a little bit of creative effort.

The story that resulted from my first playthrough was still compelling, with the experience overall enjoyable, but there definitely was a bit of friction in trying to bend the rules in this way (even if unintentionally). I’ve since played a few games of Hit the Road Jack as it was intended, and created fascinating characters with deeply profound motivations for why they were on the road.

Hit The Road Jack’s Conflict Resolution System: Tarot Cards – Major Arcana Only or Random Number Generator 1-44

The narrative prompts are heavily in genre. Each is written in the second person, from an omniscient narrator whose voice is yours to choose. These prompts are meant to fill out the backstory of these individuals and are just open ended enough to allow for a multitude of different responses. They ask questions like (paraphrased of course) “What kind of vehicle are you riding?” or “Who are you going to be when you get where you’re going?”

The mechanical motions on the Hit the Road Jack has a very board game feel, and they have a loose connection to the narrative. The narrative prompts ask you to fill out the context of who your character is, rather than what happens. 

The prompts are justifications for why those in-character thoughts would impact the way you are navigating the road. These forward and backward moves on the Chase Sheet are the story beats connecting the disparate internal processes of your character. You can read ahead and use this to flavor your responses to the prompt, but they do come after the indicated recording sign.

In a slight homebrew of a game (because what is a TTRPG if not a living, breathing entity) I expanded the scope of the story to a larger period of time by using my interpretations of the minor arcana of the tarot deck to color the journey between each major arcana. The number of cards I drew influenced how long the time between mechanical shifts on the board occurred.

Hit The Road Jack Overall Review: A fast-paced TTRPG with a focus on flashbacks

It’s a fast paced, easily accessible game for someone trying to get into solo TTRPGs. It has a central conflict and narrative archetypes that anyone can imagine dozens of iterations of in different contexts. A very re-playable game that I’m excited to explore playing the duet version of.

You can get a copy of Hit The Road Jack at Urania Game’s Itch.io.

All Images from Urania Games

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