The Sealed Library is a solo tabletop roleplaying game available digitally on Itch.io and DriveThruRPG and physically from the creator’s website and Exalted Funeral. It uses the Wretched & Alone system to guide the player through prompts and offers 14 pages of content.
I had a moving, memorable, and wretched experience with this game. Just as intended.
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It wasn’t until the third or fourth time the cover floated past my internet periphery that I finally explored what The Sealed Library contained. The sharp pink of the title strikes a stark contrast with the black-and-white artwork, and the product page promised a solo TTRPG where no one will remember you. The design and theme lingered in the back of my mind until I returned to the page evermore curious, finally downloading a community copy.
I’ve never played a solo TTRPG, and I wasn’t sure how it would differ from reading a CYOA book. That said, I am the type of person who likes to feel sad and hopeless—at least when it’s on my terms. In my younger days, I’d accomplish this by devouring the sad chapters in Chicken Soup for the Soul during a binge-reading session. The Sealed Library drew me in because the text vowed to sink me in those feelings, forcing me to swim in a world of desolation and loss. And it’d be OK because none of it was real.
The Sealed Library takes place exactly where its name describes. Here’s the elevator pitch:
You are the sole surviving librarian of the greatest library in history. It sits in the centre of culture for an ancient land, now fallen to invaders. They pillage and raze. The library has been barricaded and you are under siege.
The centerpiece of the game’s mechanics is a Jenga-equivalent “tumbling block tower.” This ingenious bit of design represents the barricaded library door. If the tower falls, the invaders overcome the last thing keeping you safe, and you, dear reader, die.
Of course, there are other ways to die.
You, as the last junior librarian, might starve, become wounded, or suffer from some disease. There is a win mechanic, but the odds of meeting the required criteria are extremely slim.
Distant screams still fill me with dread.
To play, the game requires
- A deck of cards, jokers removed
- A six-sided die
- A tumbling block tower
- Something to record your efforts
I added a couple of items to enhance my experience. First, I played this video through noise-canceling headphones. For a more immersive setting, pretend the ongoing thunder is the relentless assault of intruder attacks.
Second, I lit a candle. The world in which your library is set is entirely up to you, but mine had no electricity. The subtle flame flicker added another layer of ambience as I imagined my junior librarian rummaging through the racks and running from unseen terrors. Unscented is always an option, but The Library Scriptorium from Cantrip Candles or The Grand Archives from Delve Candles pair wonderfully with being trapped among ancient works.
As the only archivist left, your goal is to decide which scrolls, books, and other materials to save for future generations. You cannot save them all before the invaders make their way in or you run out of food. The game overtly doubts your survival.
So why play? Because it’s an unforgettable experience if you dare to hope.
I will probably regret this.
To start the game, you set up a tumbling block tower in the usual way. You’ll roll to see how many blocks to initially pull, and then you’ll draw cards each day to see how the world destroys you. Each card describes an event and many instruct you to pull from the tower.
I don’t want to spoil the prompts, but most are sinister and unnerving. They ask about other librarians, books, maps, and more all while prying at your lifeforce. They are open-ended enough that you can build your own world and characters within them. It’s highly unlikely to see them all in one playthrough.
Some of the prompts offer hope. And that’s where things become dangerous.
As mentioned earlier, there is a mechanic for winning. It requires drawing a certain kind of card before the tower falls. But there are a lot of cards and not a lot of time. When I drew the first of these cards, I felt close to something of winning. My inner monologue danced around such phrases as “maybe this isn’t so impossible” and “perhaps I have a chance.” In those moments, I truly thought my luck had changed.
Since this was my first solo journaling RPG, I wasn’t sure how much to prepare ahead of time. So I prepared nothing. In the end, that was kind of a bad idea (for me). The game asks you to generate NPCs, books, and other materials on the fly. I’m good at content creation, but bad at naming—can you tell by my headlines? I think having a handy sheet of potential names or randomly generated book titles would have been helpful for ideas on the fly. I didn’t want to pull up a webpage because my ADHD would have taken over and removed me from the game.
To get the most out of The Sealed Library, I realized early on I had to put the work in: create and form connections to NPCs, link day-to-day activities, and build out the world as I went mostly on my own. Once I had the groove of it, I was completely immersed and invested. I drew cards with eager trepidation. Fear and despair creeped into my journal entries. A mixture of apathy and disillusionment soon followed. I formed memories and relationships. I celebrated and mourned.
I am unwell.
My game took about 2.5 hours. I ended up dying, as expected, alone and hopeless. Misery loves company, so I read my journal to my partner who then also felt alone and hopeless—and impressed with the experience I’d shared.
You’re invited to read my journal as well. I’ve posted it here.
This is one of the most stunning and emotional experiences I’ve ever had. It’s difficult to say I had fun, as I walked away completely wrecked. But my time with the game lingers with me, and I will feel its crushing impact for some time.
For an added layer of tension, I recommend playing with curious cats who want to knock the tower over.
Review at a Glance
|Content||Fantastic prompts that balance detail and open-endedness very well.|
|Rules difficulty||The rules are not complex at all. There isn’t a character sheet or checking stats. You simply do what the cards tell you.|
|Accessibility||The PDF is mostly black and white and easy to navigate. It’s not bookmarked, but it doesn’t seem necessary as the player references about 4 pages out of 14 throughout the game. I can see the tumbling tower being a barrier to play. Here is a thread that discusses some statistically similar alternatives.|
|Time commitment||I spent 2.5 hours playing the game. I don’t think it can go much longer than that unless someone is journaling heavily.|
|Price||I played a free community copy; however, the game sells for $8 USD. I have since payed that as well as ordered a physical copy. Well worth it.|
|Final thoughts||I easily recommend this if you’re in a good headspace. The game can take you to some dark places, so only venture in if you’re comfortable.|