The Wretched (Chris Bissette)
Writing, Design, & Layout – Chris Bissette
Design Consultant – Matt Sanders
Wretched Logo – Liz Gist
Most solo tabletop RPGs are centered around journaling which has been a sticky point for me in the first two reviews. I don’t really journal, my posts here on PopCult Reviews are about as regular as I sit down and write about my thoughts. But I understood that for these games to have their full impact, I needed to be able to document the experience in some way. The solution I thought about goes back to being a kid (again). I filled up reams of spiral-bound notebooks starting at seven and going into college. I eventually trashed these notebooks during a move around 13 years ago (yes, a lot was lost, but I have moved a lot and just was exhausted from lugging so many things around). Within were lots of things: sketches & ideas for video games, I went through a period of drawing comic book covers after discovering books about the Silver Age, and I loved creating a tv show and writing episode descriptions. I was a weird kid; many might argue I am a weird adult. So, I thought that for the games where it worked, I’d like to frame each journal entry as an episode in a tv program. That just happened to work perfectly with The Wretched.
The Wretched is played with three mechanics (one six-sided die, a standard deck of playing cards with jokers removed, and a Jenga/or similarly non-copyrighted tower of blocks). The premise has you as the last surviving crew member of an intergalactic salvage ship, The Wretched. The game begins in media res with your engines failing and a hostile alien lifeform having killed the other crew members. You launched the creature out of the airlock, but it turned out it could survive in the vacuum of space and is trying to get back inside. You’re probably thinking, and are correct, that this is highly inspired by Ridley Scott’s Alien.
Each suit in the card deck represents a different aspect of your situation. Hearts are your ship’s systems, Clubs are the crew, Diamonds are the ship’s physical structures, and Spades are the creature. Each day (a round of play) consists of rolling your d6 and drawing that amount of cards from the deck. Using the Oracle, you find the prompt that matches each card and resolve them in that order. Before you start, you’ll roll the d6 and remove that many blocks from the tower, which represents the ship. You’re already in trouble so it makes sense that some of the blocks will be gone. Odd cards often require the player to pull from the tower as well as Queens & Jacks.
Other cards have specific abilities that drive the story towards an ending: Each time you draw a King, you place it to the side; if you draw all four Kings, that means the creature wins. The Ace of Hearts represents the distress beacon, and you place 10 tokens on it. At the end of each day, after pulling the Ace of Hearts, you roll the d6 and remove that many tokens representing your attempts to get it broadcasting again. You win if you remove all the tokens (with one more tower pull) before the tower falls or draw all four Kings. The odds of this happening are pretty low, which is why the game emphasizes this isn’t about “winning” but about telling a compelling story steeped in dread.
The Wretched’s structure isn’t as crunchy as many other ttrpgs, but it also has more mechanical depth than many of the looser solo RPGs. As a result, it has inspired many other games using the system billed as The Wretched & Alone. After playing it, I am very interested in exploring the other games using this system as they span all varieties of genres. I’ve also played around with making my own Wretched & Alone game based on Better Call Saul and a little Breaking Bad. In terms of game creation, and I speak from minimal experience making any sort of game, it feels like a lower barrier to entry than others. If you can create themes for the card suits and write compelling prompts, you can probably make something at least half-decent.
As for playing The Wretched, I had a lot of fun over the course of an afternoon. The game offers different ways to play, including doing it one day at a time in real-time, which would be interesting to see how things develop as affected by your day-to-day life. If you are itching for something that captures the feel of original Alien and similar dark science fiction, The Wretched captures the tone quite well.
So here are the entries I wrote up while playing this game, stylized as episodes in a television series.
Cold Open: Day 1, salvage ship The Wretched. Flight Engineer Valerie Harrow reporting. The other crew members are dead, and the engines remain non-operational, though ship integrity remains good and life support systems are still active. I successfully jettisoned the intruder from the airlock, but it remains alive and continues trying to access the ship. With some luck, I can repair the distress beacon, and somebody will pick me up. This is Valerie Harrow, the last survivor of The Wretched, signing off.
Valerie scavenges for tools through the crew’s quarters after deciding to take the engine apart and see if she can repair the damage. While going through Truman’s room, she discovers his journal. This leads to flashbacks of her friendship with Truman, spending time with him, his husband Monte, and their daughter Neveah. Valerie struggles with her grief for her friend, which culminates in the episode’s final flashback, where Valerie witnesses the intruder kill Truman as she hides for her own life. This shakes her up causing Valerie to make some critical mistakes in rebuilding the engine. She also doesn’t have the expertise or resources needed for the damage it has sustained. Valerie puts the engine back in place but is left shaken as she notices sensor readings from the hull that the intruder may not be gone.
Episode cold opens with a flashback to Valerie crawling through the ship’s ventilation systems, having just left Truman behind in the mess hall. As she moves forward on her elbows, Valerie is dripping sweat from her brow, hair matted down. She moves past one grating and can hear the intruder dispatching with more crew members. Valerie holds her breath as a shadow moves across the grating; she’s apparently undetected by the creature.
The episode picks up from the last; Valerie uses the camera systems outside the ship to get a clear picture of the intruder, unable to understand how it can survive. It seems to know she is watching and evades her, though she finds severe damage to the hull, showing it is trying to get back inside. Valerie decides to electrify the hull just enough without damaging any systems, and it seems to stun the intruder’s attack on the ship.
We flashback to Valerie finally reaching the lockdowned section of The Wretched. Valerie watches from the security hub with Dr. Bennett, the ship’s Chief Medical Officer. Second Officer Viola Dexter, now acting captain as they were killed in the opening salvo, goes down to investigate strange readings from the cargo bay after the lights begin shutting on & off shipwide. Dexter gets a glimpse of the thing. However, it remains obscured from the security cameras. Dexter seems to realize something about the intruder just before it attacks. She uses her pulse weapon to fend it off but sustains fatal injuries. She uses her pulse weapon to cause a stack of titanium crates to fall, pinning the intruder and giving the surviving crew time.
In the present, Valerie is reviewing these security logs to see if they give her any information on this creature. The shipwide comms light up, crackling with static. Valerie opens the channel and asks, “Who is there?” Through the static crackle comes a gurgling inhuman voice, “The sector is forbidden.” Valerie, in a panic, shuts off the comms, unable to understand how the intruder speaks English and is using the comms despite being outside of the ship. No hull breaches have been detected by sensors. This is impossible.
Note: I only drew one card for this day, which was that Valerie just shuts down and doesn’t do anything letting the problems on the ship get worse, which made me think this would be a good episode to give her some backstory & develop the idea of shutting down/depression.
Valerie goes into Freeze mode during this episode. We follow her through a slow journey of burnout. Everything she attempts fucks up which leads her to not even try. Valerie double checks the blast doors in the secured section of the ship, and they were still intact. She temporarily disables the ship’s internal comms and spends the day in her quarters.
This is paralleled by flashbacks to her childhood as we see her father struggling with depression that profoundly affects his family.
- In the first flashback (Valerie as a little girl) her father loses his job and struggles to find a new one. We get glimpses of an Earth with a crumbling hyper-individualist & capitalist system that has ground up her father.
- The following flashback sequence has Valerie, as a preteen watching her mother leave the family after being unable to deal with her husband’s depression. Valerie finds the roles reversed, and she has become like a parent to her father.
- In the third flashback, Valerie is a teenager growing increasingly annoyed with her dad, the pull of youth wanting her to spend as much time outside the home as possible. The temptations of the hyper-individualist society & her short-sightedness as a kid keep her from realizing she’s repeating many of the same steps as her father.
- The final flashback is when she decides to join the Academy after her father has begun locking himself in his bedroom, unable to even get up. Valerie kept thinking he would just snap out of it. She says “Goodbye” to her father and leaves the apartment, boarding a bus headed to the Academy where she meets a younger Truman.
While going through Captain Dempsey’s quarters, Valerie discovers a hidden panel in the wall. Inside is a security card. A little investigation leads her to connect this card with access to a seemingly unimportant part of the ship near the back. She grabs a pulse weapon and carefully finds her way back there unharmed. Using the access card, the doors slide open, and Valerie finds a laboratory she was utterly unaware of. There is a large glass cylinder connected to some monitoring equipment, and inside is a humanoid form floating, connected to life support systems operating on their own grid separate from the ships. There is another similar cylinder, but the glass has been shattered outward. This stunning revelation is cut short when a klaxon sounds, and the ship’s computer alerts her that the ship’s sewage silo is leaking at an increased rate into the clean water systems.
Valerie can barely patch up the sewage silo and has to flush some of the tainted water, running the rest through an extra filtration cycle just to be sure. A scan of the water systems shows the intruder targeted an exterior panel that created an overload, revealing it somehow understands the ship’s systems. Valerie also realizes that the intruder would be at the furthest point from the ship’s antenna. She quickly does some calculations realizing that if she gets to the ship’s EVA docking station, she can reach the antenna and manually boost it. There is some brief difficulty operating the arm of the EVA as the onboard sensors track the intruder’s movement, but Valerie can boost the antenna and get back inside. Lots of little mistakes made by Valerie being nervous that amps up the tension, helped via editing. Almost as soon as she does, the lights go out.
Valerie has to keep her spacesuit on, using its built-in lights. However, it gives her extreme claustrophobia as she has to pull herself through a narrow crawlspace to get to a panel that will switch to emergency backup power. However, while Valerie is there, she picks up the sounds of something moving through the ventilation system. The suit’s sensors tell her it is the intruder. Valerie struggles to keep moving, realizing that in the bulky suit, she will never outrun it. Then, she happens to notice she’s near a part of the ventilation system that goes by the sewage silo.
We see parts of the intruder as it catches up to where we last saw Valerie. It makes a snorting sound, scanning the silo and then moving on. A beat. Valerie emerges from the sewage, dripping off the helmet to reveal her no longer looking scared but enraged and ready to fight.
Valerie discards the tainted space suit, taking an extra long time in the decontamination room. She screams in rage and frustration as the proxy alarms keep going off. Finally, Valerie puts on some clean clothes and checks the hull sensors, discovering that the intruder is moving in and out of the ship, triggering them. In frustration, Valerie disables them, not wanting that klaxon on, only to realize it won’t turn back on when she realizes how vital it is to track the intruder.
With the intruder not detected by sensors, Valerie knows she is fighting blind. She decides to make the mess hall her place to try and fight the intruder. However, this is where most of the bodies are. Through a series of flashbacks, as she cleans, we see the moment the ship’s crew becomes aware of the intruder. They were celebrating the pending retirement of Captain Bennett just before they were to go into cryosleep. When they woke up, The Wretched would be docked in port, and Bennett would no longer travel the stars in this capacity. We spend a little time with each crew member seen before and a few who have only been background up to this point.
The memory of the intruder’s attack on the crew is intercut with Valerie in a mess, armed with a pulse rifle. The bodies of her friends are carefully wrapped by her in bedsheets. The sound of scraping and destruction gets closer & closer. The life support system alarm goes off, alerting Valerie to the fact that oxygen is depleting at a rapid rate. The door to the mess hall is torn apart, and the intruder enters; a humanoid figure with gruesome insectoid features seems to have perpetual moisture over its entire body, some of which crystallize in the cold void of space. It’s thawing now. We cut to the hallway outside the mess hall, hearing Valerie’s screams of rage, the flash of pulse fire lighting up the darkened ship. That’s it for Valerie.
I decided to add this bit for fun; it’s not something in The Wretched.
Post-credits: We see The Wretched, a ship of the dead now drifting. The camera pans down to show it seems to have been caught in the orbit of a yellow-orange planet. Cut to inside the secret lab Valerie found. Alarms sound and the computer gives announcements about the status of life support on board the ship. The floating figure in the cylinder is flushed. Cut to the exterior, The Wretched from a distance. An escape pod fires out of the ship, rocketing towards this planet. Cut to black. A story for another time.