When I look at the rulebook for a really outstanding, inspired game, I usually know exactly what I want to write about it (though I often discover new things as I do). It’s rare that I feel compelled to say something but don’t know what or how.
Tabula Rasa (Boundless Vista Games) is one of those rare moments—and even rarer games.
As of writing this, Tabula Rasa is currently out of development in layout. Sora over at Boundless Vista got in touch and sent me the PDF. Looking through it was one of those moments of mind-rupturing enlightenment—this is what a TTRPG can really be and what TTRPGs as a genre can become.
As always, I’m not being compensated for this review, and it was not explicitly solicited. I’m not involved with the project or profiting from it in any way. This post’s purpose is to give a sneak peek at this massive bound forward into the future of tabletop gaming.
Elegance is a (if not the) holy grail of modern minimalist and rules-light gaming. Designers want to offer a robust and expansive experience to their players with a simple, but not simplistic, system. It has to be easy to learn and play, but it must offer enough versatility to satisfy various player types and desires, slyly evading mastery to keep them uncertain and eager to come back for another session. But it needs to capture that complexity without becoming complicated, legalistic, and riddled with ad hoc rules and caveats.
To succeed in this design outcome is to thread the proverbial needle. It is far easier ideated than accomplished.
That being said, Tabula Rasa is, in my experience, the closest an RPG has come to capturing that platonic ideal of an elegant system.
In a lot of ways, it reminds me of John Conway’s Life. The game’s very simple system let you play around for a few minutes of diversion if that’s all you want. But it also allows you to construct massive, articulated structures that you didn’t realize were possible with such a minimalist ruleset.
Tabula Rasa brings a similar experience to your tabletop.
Visually, Tabula Rasa deploys modernism’s clean abstraction but retains minimalism’s ambiguity and interpretability. The ultra-monochrome palette and aggressively unembellished graphic design are simultaneously calming and exciting, clearing the viewer’s mind while also (perhaps as a precondition to) filling it with impressions and half-ideas that you’ll be excited to continue exploring and building on.
Through this strategy, the book invites the reader to make their own sense and meaning of the visual elements. It initiates a rich interplay between graphic design and game system, letting each inform and inspire the other in productive and fantastic ways.
On its own, Tabula Rasa won’t strike you as an artbook. But the way that its aesthetics align with its ethos as an elegant RPG—now that’s a work of beauty.
Tabula Rasa has a learning curve, but a shallow one. The biggest challenge is unlearning your preconceptions about how RPGs work and opening up to how this particular game functions.
Do you want to use your full set of dice? Go for it. Do you want to use your d7s and d30s? The system accommodates that. Do you want to play an impromptu session but only have a few d6s on hand? Those will work just as well.
Perhaps most excitingly, Tabula Rasa is universally compatible—and I mean that literally. Whether you want to play AD&D’s The Keep on the Borderlands, CoC’s Masks of Nyarlathotep, or any other famous module, conversion to Tabula Rasa is quick and simple. And not only does the system accommodate other games’ content, its unique mechanics open up new possibilities for ways to play that content.
But despite that versatility, there is no ambiguity. Multiple times while playing, one of us said, “I want to do [this],” and all the rest of us said, “Well, you would [that] [this way].” Before long, we had all come to an intuitive concordance as to how the system functions and its capacities. It’s a far cry, and a refreshing reprieve, from wanting to do something cool and then spending half an hour flipping through rulebooks seeing if, let alone how, it’s possible.
What more can I say about Tabula Rasa that I haven’t already?
Not much, I’m afraid. Boundless Vista has asked me not to reveal too many specifics about the game prior to its release (which I’m sure you’ve already guessed based on this post’s deliberate vagueness). The best I can do is sketch out this revolutionary game’s contours and potential impact on the industry and hobby.
The future of TTRPGs is a blank slate waiting to be written.
Happy April Fools’ Day.
This post was inspired by a tweet about releasing a blank page as a TTRPG. I don’t remember when I saw it or who posted it. If it was you, let me know, and I’ll link to it and credit you for the idea.
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2 thoughts on “Tabula Rasa: a (p)review”
I enjoyed this. I didn’t realize until I think a year or maybe two ago that there’s apparently been some cultural and/or social media backlash against April Fool’s Day? I dunno, I’m sure some people do some obnoxious things, but like two decades of the videogame and videogame journalism industry finding clever, funny, and often genuinely fun and interesting ways to leverage the “holiday” has conditioned in me an appreciation for the day. Glad to see someone pick it up with TTRPGs and do something clever with it.
Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it.