Libraries in fantasy literature and media are always magical and mysterious. In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Unseen University’s library books have to be chained down for the safety of the students. In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, the library in the Dreaming contains every book ever dreamt. In David Tennant’s Doctor Who run, the Doctor and Donna visit a freaky space library where people’s bodies are stripped to bone and others disappear, supposedly saved by the library itself. Libraries are weird and scary and cool, librarians have magic powers, and visitors never leave unchanged.

The Librarian’s Apprentice

Almost Bedtime Theater
2023

Sidequest was provided with a copy of The Librarian’s Apprentice in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Prior to playing The Librarian’s Apprentice, my day-to-day work experience had sucked the magic out of libraries for me. The first time I volunteered in a library I helped with a teddy bear story time, where we donned pajamas and read books to children on the theme of teddy bears and bedtime. Before they left, each kid gave us a stuffed animal, and after the library closed we staged silly photos of the animals having a sleepover. They snuck into the workroom fridge for a late night snack, got up to shenanigans in the stacks, and I, a normal civilian, got to be in the library after closing. It’s super dorky, but I remember how cool that felt! Now I know my workplace intimately, I have good and bad memories there, and I curate the material that it contains. There is no thrill, just public service.

The mockup of the print version of The Librarian's Apprentice, showing the covers of volumes 1 and 2 and character sheets.

Playing The Librarian’s Apprentice allowed me to reexperience the magic and mystery of libraries. It’s a solo journaling game, which isn’t usually my bag—I’d only played Remember August before this—but the premise was just too good. Rather than describe it myself, I want to share the beautiful description that pulled me right in:

Infinite, ever-shifting, and sometimes dangerous, the Great Library exists in the space between worlds and times. Among the many who call it home are the Librarians, and only those who truly understand it may join their ranks. You seek to do so.

The path of a Librarian’s apprentice is a long one. Your current task is designed to test your skills at traversing the Library and finding information. Retrieve the six documents requested by your Librarian before the day is out and you will have completed one more step on your journey.

The lure of the infinite, ever-shifting, and dangerous library was stronger than I realized, because when I finally sat down and played The Librarian’s Apprentice I was much more interested in the setting than in my character. The mechanics also play a role in the draw of setting over character, so let’s take a moment to break them down.

As with most roleplaying games, the first step is to create your character by filling out a character sheet. In The Librarian’s Apprentice, this is quick and simple: you name your character, assign a +2, +1, and +0 to each of your three skills—Navigation, Research, and Lore—and answer three questions to create three truths that fill out some of their history and personality. Your character also gets a familiar who can take one point of fatigue and has a +1 to one of the aforementioned skills, which you can use until they get that point of fatigue.

I do want to take a moment to compliment the “truths” that you create, because they’re pretty intriguing! They cover your character’s background and the community where you live, and allow you to immediately create some lore for your library. This third truth in particular is really brilliant, because it gets the player thinking immediately about how they can create and influence the world of The Librarian’s Apprentice. This was, for me, really a game about world building and leaning into the fun of imaging a complex, wild, and magical world. By layering an aspect of that process into character creation, the game’s creators get players swiftly into that mindset.

Alenka's game map - two rows of cards with messy scraps of scratch paper on them and a small button token.

My incorrectly made map.

I will also note, for the sake of fairness, that I made my character sheet intending to start playing swiftly, and then didn’t play for a few weeks. When I came back to it, I decided that my familiar was a catacoon, gave it my cat’s name spelled backwards and pretty much her exact personality, and that was it! The long wait between character creation and actually playing the game likely had an impact on how I felt about the apprentice I’d created, but I do think the world of this game is more engaging than the character development. That’s not a bad thing! The setting is really what makes this game, so I wasn’t bothered by this aspect of the gameplay at all. Your apprentice can interact with others depending on events and complications that occur, and that does push you to think about who this person is and how they respond to conflict and danger, but the focus of the story you’ll ultimately create is more likely to be the setting.

The Librarian’s Apprentice was built using the Firelights game system, which has players draw two cards from a standard deck of playing cards, roll two d6s, and then compare the numbers to decide an outcome. It also includes mapmaking, which players in The Librarian’s Apprentice accomplish by using a drawn card to represent a location, placing a token on it when your apprentice is there, and scribbling down notes about that location on note cards or scrap paper to leave with the playing card. I used a pinback button with my tattoo artist’s studio’s logo and ripped out paper from a tiny notebook—literally whatever you have lying around works for game play! The fatigue mechanic also comes from Firelights, and in The Librarian’s Apprentice your familiar can take 1 fatigue, which means they can no longer give you a bonus to a skill roll, and your apprentice can take up to 4 until they have to rest and end their day.

I liked how the fatigue mechanic added an element of time to the story creation, and ended up structuring my journaling around it. I used “DAY ONE,” “DAY TWO,” and so on as headers, so I know my apprentice’s journey ended up lasting four days. Traveling from place to place, or playing card to playing card, can happen many times in a day or not at all depending on how many complications arise, which cause you to take on fatigue. An aspect I really liked about the game was that complications didn’t have to be solved in a specific or heroic way. The game manual provides a list of complications that you roll to establish, and the descriptions are VERY short, so it’s completely up to the player to decide how the complication cropped and how the apprentice resolved the issue.

This was the aspect of gameplay where I felt my apprentice—Carter—got the most development. Carter ended up being a bit world weary, introverted, and exasperated. For example, when they encountered a Keeper of the Forbidden, I decided that the Keeper was an older and hyper-critical librarian who was set on judging Carter’s methods. Carter was escorting the spirit of a beetle who’d grown agitated because their body was preserved in an entomology section instead of dying and returning to the earth naturally. They’d not yet found a space with earth where they could bury the bug, and the spirit’s presence woke up a colony of bats and caused them to start feverishly snapping at and devouring bugs in the room, which then made the spirit more agitated. Instead of trying to help or even being impressed that Carter had calmed and established trust with a spirit, The Keeper started spitting criticisms at them until they basically fled. This entire scene grew out of rolling an event about bats feeding on insects and the complication “A Keeper of the Forbidden.” That was it!

The green cover of The Librarian's Apprentice volume two and some of the interiors of the volume.

As my description of the older, judgmental, and unsympathetic librarian might allude, I did get some catharsis out of this game. When I hit my first complication, I decided Carter had to save a library patron who had been attacked by a dangerous creature called a gnosiphage. The patron was physically fine but took a long time to recover emotionally and mentally from the attack, and Carter, who grew up dealing with gnosiphages, was very frustrated with them… until they finally were well enough to leave and expressed their deep gratitude by presenting Carter with a gift.

Is this reflective of actual patron interactions I’ve had? I’m not going to lie to you—yes, yes it is. Sometimes the public is frustrating. Sometimes the public is frustrating because they’re dealing with a difficult situation, and once they’ve got what they need, their gratitude makes you feel like an asshole for all your internal exasperation. I absolutely did not plan to pour all this out onto the page, and when I did, I laughed! It was honestly very funny and relieving to see such a familiar emotional arc play out in a little fantasy story. And hey, I’ve never had to fight off a freaky fantasy book zombie! Maybe this will help me chill out about managing the study rooms.

The one aspect of gameplay I struggled with was using the “Events & Secrets” table. I might have missed it in the rules, but there doesn’t seem to be a set way to use this table. Because I was reviewing the game, I really wanted to play it right, so I got a bit self-critical whenever I struggled to understand the rules. I think this table is really meant to add intrigue and fun to the game, and I eventually just used it whenever it felt like a good time for an event. That worked for me just fine, and maybe a different kind of player wouldn’t stress over it the way I did, but I’d have appreciated a little more guidance about what to do with the table.

I don’t think I played The Librarian’s Apprentice to its fullest, not simply because I didn’t use the Events & Secrets table heavily, but because there were multiple mechanics I didn’t engage with as much. I didn’t really do research, which is one of the possible actions, and I never asked a question, which is another! Ultimately, I don’t think this is a bad thing. In fact, I think this is a sign that this game is replayable. Journaling games, to me, feel very one and done, but I could see myself playing this again so I could dig deeper into the unused mechanics. I also didn’t quite build my map correctly—there is a certain order to how you’re supposed to lay down the playing cards—and while I don’t think this error negatively impacted my playing experience, I wouldn’t mind a shot at paying more attention to the map. I would try to be more thoughtful about how and why the locations connected to each other.

While solo journaling games still don’t have a huge appeal to me, I very much enjoyed playing The Librarian’s Apprentice. I loved fleshing out the simple descriptions of documents and complications into more complex objects and scenes, and I wrote something fun just for myself! It’s been a very long time since I wrote just for fun. When I’m ready to slow down my workaholic brain and take more time doing something creative for leisure, I’ll likely go back and play this again. Almost Bedtime Theater, AKA Dan Bronson-Lowe, is currently running a Crowdfundr for some beautiful print copies of the game, and it’s already fully funded so you’re guaranteed to get one! Fund it before July 27th to snag a copy, or get it digitally right now on Itch.

Post-review update: while watching a playthrough of The Librarian’s Apprentice, I discovered I’d missed a rule—you’re supposed to discover all six documents within one day. This rule feels a bit in conflict with the description of fatigue: “When all your Fatigue is marked, the day is over. You will have to attempt the task another time.” If you have to collect six specific documents, I don’t think you could start over, but if you’re collecting documents that meet criteria, maybe you can start over by finding additional documents that meet the same criteria? Doing so would certainly extend the length of the game, which personally I’d find frustrating—but maybe a player who loves to set lots of time aside for games like this wouldn’t. Additionally, I also don’t see why you should have such a time constraint when working in an ever-changing magical library. Avoiding danger and resolving conflicts can be time consuming. Ultimately, I think having noticed this rule would have detracted from my play experience, and this is a solo game—if a rule isn’t serving you, I think it’s fine to throw it away.