Alice is Missing
A Silent Role Playing Game
High school junior Alice Briarwood has gone missing in the sleepy little town of Silent Falls, a coastal forest town in Northern California. Three days before winter break, students at Franklin Academy shuffle down the hall, dusting powdered snow off their jackets. Many have gathered in front of the bulletin board, prominently displaying a missing person poster that displays Alice Briarwood’s photo. Alice is Missing is a silent roleplaying game that explores Alice’s disappearance. Players use their phones to send text messages to each other as they work to uncover clues that will shed light on what happened to Alice.
Having a style all its own, Alice is Missing is played live without verbal communication for most of the game. Game length varies from two to three hours; when it’s over, players say goodbye to their characters forever—truly a one-shot. There is no formal game master, though one player will become the Facilitator and help explain the rules and keep the game on track. The first 45 minutes are dedicated to setup in which players develop characters, relationships with Alice, and ties to each other. The next 90 minutes, actual gameplay, are played out in silence via group and individual text messages as they uncover Alice’s fate. As a fully cooperative storytelling game, players are encouraged to share information.
Alice is Missing deals with very real-world scenarios, even though it’s a game of fiction. The circumstances around missing women often involve violence, sexual violence, date rape, teenager-adult relationships, partner abuse, problems at home, victim-blaming, and death. Some of these topics may touch on players’ lived experiences, so setting expectations and boundaries is perhaps the most important part of game setup. (p. 11)
Owing to its dark and immersive nature, Alice is Missing can often tread into difficult content. Safety tools are recommended by the author (and this reviewer) to counter the effects of potentially troubling subject matter. The rulebook provides a solid explanation of the X-card and Lines and Veils. For those unfamiliar, Signalling the X-card during the game indicates a line has been crossed, and the person wants the scene stopped immediately. Lines and Veils are topics and themes to be avoided or thinly referenced and are decided beforehand. Lines are “hard stops,” boundaries not to cross and veils are subjects where “the camera pans away.” Players are encouraged to set boundaries of what content is acceptable, veiled, and lined entirely.
Setup [45 minutes]
Game setup takes a little time and requires players to take on their character roles immediately. Everything starts with the Facilitator reading the introduction and placing one of the missing person posters (available online) on the table. The Facilitator’s Guide provides the person filling this role with step-by-step instructions, additional details, and “read aloud” information to walk everyone through the setup process.
Introduction and Characters
Players choose a character card, with the Facilitator always being Charlie Barnes (the one who moved away). The others are Dakota Travis (best friend), Jack Briarwood (older brother), Julia North (secret girlfriend), and Evan Holwell (the one with the crush). Each Character card contains their background, a secret, and a voicemail prompt. Next, “Drive” cards are randomly passed out; these contain motives and relationship prompts. Finally, starting with Charlie Barnes, players introduce their character’s name, pronouns, relationship to Alice, physical description, and background prompt. If possible, players should hold off on revealing any secret they know until later.
Relationships, Voicemails, & Chat Setup
Each Drive card has two relationship prompts. Using these, players assign and establish connections between their character and two others. These basic relationship prompts are not secret, and players may privately establish further details if they wish. As a game that requires the use of text messaging, players will need to exchange phone numbers. The author recommends that for a more immersive experience, the players re-name their contacts (temporarily) to their character names. This reviewer suggests adding new contacts and then deleting them at the end of the game.* The last step, starting with Charlie Barnes, is to record the last voicemail each character left for Alice before they knew she was missing. This is done privately, away from the table, using the voicemail prompt and alluding to the character card’s secret.
* The game’s website provides alternate strategies and digital resources to facilitate online play if playing at a Con, with overseas participants, or for those not comfortable sharing their personal contact information.
Table, Timer, & Music
As players are stepping away to record their voicemails, the game table is prepared. Suspect and Location cards are shuffled and placed within easy reach of everyone. An electronic device (PC or tablet) is set up with the visual 90-minute playlist. The playlist serves as the official music soundtrack for the game and the countdown timer. The Countdown timer starts at 90 minutes and counts down to 0 minutes. As it counts down, players flip over their Clue cards when their corresponding time has been reached (i.e., 80, 50, 35, etc.). It’s recommended that any screensaver be disabled so the device does not go to sleep during the game.
Clue Cards & Starting Hunches
The Clue card deck is formed by randomly selecting one 10-minute card (red), which remains in the center of the table, and one of each clue card between 80 and 20 minutes (blue), creating a deck of 9 cards. As cards are flipped, players must follow all instructions, such as shuffling the face-up Suspect cards and revealing one (see inset) and organically integrating this new emerging information (clue) into the ongoing text messages.
Suspect and Location cards, one each of the five different cards, are placed on the table. Taking turns, players select one of these cards and describe why that suspect or location is suspicious in Alice’s disappearance. Once all cards have been selected and described, they are shuffled back into their respective decks. Search cards are also shuffled and placed within easy reach. When a location is searched without being promoted by a Clue card, the player may draw a Search card to discover something interesting at that location.
Gameplay [90 minutes]
The game begins in earnest. The Facilitator reads aloud the Game Guide, a single two-sided card outlining setting details, safety protocols, and rule reminders. It’s time to play Alice is Missing.
The game is played in silence for the next 90 minutes, with the Alice is Missing playlist providing the only sound. The countdown timer is started at the 90-minute mark, and Charlie Barnes flips over their 90-minute Clue card—following all its instructions. This begins the first group text, where everyone joins in the conversation. The mystery is now afoot. The gameplay continues with cards turning over at their triggered times, introducing new pieces of Alice’s disappearance into the conversation. When the 20-minute card is triggered, it reveals Alice’s location and when to reveal the 10-minute card to the holder. The 10-minute card determines how the cardholder finds Alice. Readers should note that time is fluid in the game, meaning these messages, in reality, could be playing out over the course of a day or more.
Once the countdown timer reaches zero, players may send one last text message, and the game ends. At the game’s end, players will know what became of Alice and who was involved. Multiple 20- and 10-minute cards make each game’s ending slightly different. Alice is Missing is a game about the mystery surrounding Alice’s disappearance and reveal. It’s not about obtaining justice for her. Once the 90-minute phase of the game is complete, it’s time to “Debrief.”
Debrief [10-15 minutes]
In this phase, the voicemails recorded earlier are played back for everyone to listen to overtop of the playlist’s final song. After the last voicemail ends, the Debrief card is flipped over, and its instructions are followed. This is essentially a recovery period with the Facilitator checking in with everyone to ensure that everyone is okay following what was likely an emotional game. On the Debrief card are four questions to be asked and answered and post-game administrivia, like changing back contacts, etc.
Alice is Missing comes packaged in a small box measuring 6.5″ x 5.5″ x 1.5″. The box’s cover portrays a girl looking down over a sleepy little town giving a sense of forlorn hope—the color palette further exacerbates that melancholy feeling. The game’s contents include a 48-page full-color matte-finished rulebook and 72 tarot-sized cards. All other necessary supplies are provided by the Facilitator and players. The rulebook is divided into two parts. The first is geared toward both players and facilitators, conveying the game’s setup, rules, and flow. The second is for facilitators and provides in-depth advice regarding setup, content warnings, keeping things on track, and playing online. The 72-card deck contains 5 Character cards, 31 Clue Cards, 10 Suspect Cards, 10 Location cards, 5 Drive cards, 8 Searching cards, the X card, a Debrief card, and an Introduction card. The artwork used is minimal, favoring text over art.
Several digital versions of the game exist but were not evaluated in this review. As of this review, a PDF can be purchased from DriveThruRPG to create your own Print-N-Play version; a fully functional Roll20 implementation is available on that site’s marketplace; and according to comments by the publisher, they’re working on creating an Alice is Missing app to facilitate local and remote play.
Alice is Missing is a newly published roleplaying game with an interesting and innovative design that has people talking and texting. It owes its uniqueness to text messaging as a major design element, but that alone does not make the game unique. The overall design, including texting, a countdown timer, and an emotional experience, gives Alice is Missing its innovativeness.
Funded via Kickstarter in June 2020, I passed on backing it because of real concerns. At the time, I wondered if the text messaging could result in real-world ramifications should a player then have issues and their phone confiscated by authorities? That concern still lingers in the back of my mind, especially given the game is about a teenage girl who’s gone missing. I mentioned early that I recommended creating new contacts for gameplay purposes and then deleting them once the game concluded. This is not an absolute solution but a way to separate game-related and non-game personal messages.
Due to its themes or unique texting mechanic, Alice is Missing won’t appeal to everyone. Still, to those that it does, it has the potential to offer a rewarding gameplay experience. I like and appreciate the simplicity of its design, the text messaging mechanic’s uniqueness, and its aim of creating a deep and emotional experience—it feels genuinely new and refreshing. I’ll put aside my concerns and place Alice is Missing on my shortlist for quarter one in 2021.
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