Solitaire Storytelling: Last Tea House

I run a tea shop on the border of the living and the dead. The recently deceased visit for one last hot drink before their long journey to the Great Beyond. Time is strange here. Days and memories blur. Nobody visited yesterday – I am sure of that. Someone passed last week, but I am unable to picture their face.

The fog thins. A figure approaches. I stoke the fire. “Welcome to the last tea shop,” I say. “You are welcome here, To The Dregs.”

Ah, but I should describe my little stall before speaking of who visits it. To The Dregs is beside a river, nestled in a mountain pass. Some visitors come by a boat on the river that is not steered, but simply floats to the small dock outside my door, while others travel a winding footpath that runs alongside the river. All travel alone, which is for the best; it is a small stall, best suited for me to serve a single customer. It is a place that has a great affinity for the mists, as well as an affinity for memories; many visitors have left some bauble or marking on the walls that was important to their own memories, which often serves to spark a memory for the next visitor.

Now, where was I? Ah, yes…

The Messenger

I remember now, it had been three days since my last customer… whoever that was. The messenger came running down the footpath through the shadow mists a few shades short of pure darkness, clearly frightened. A comforting brew should do the trick, with a dash of sea salt.

It is my nature, or perhaps the nature of my profession, that I ask my visitors questions while I prepare the tea and after I serve it. As I sprinkle in the sea salt, I ask: what is the last thing that you remember?

“Running, as fast as I could, pursuers behind me. There was a warning of an invasion, one that had slipped past the defenses and was headed for the heartland. I had to warn the others. I ducked into a copse of trees to hide for a few minutes, dashed out, and then… they found me, and…”

They take a sip of the tea, and some of the tension fades from their face. You hid something? What did you hide?

A small smile.

“The signet dagger of my commander, among the trees. The ones pursuing me were scouts, far ahead of the invasion. If anyone investigates their passage, they may find the dagger, and know that my commander would only have sent the dagger away so that a messenger would be heeded. My message may still reach its destination, in a way.”

The messenger thanks me, and leaves, their expression more hopeful than when they had arrived.

The Baker

A trio of days pass, and the color of the mists lightens and begins to move more vigorously. Out of the swirling white a baker emerges, floating up to the dock on the boat with no boatsman. She looks confused as she walks up the dock To The Dregs, so I steep an ancient seashell in the pot for a Draft of Recall. Where did you live?

“The… yes, the capital city, in the heartland of my country. I had the best bread in the entire land! Pastries, I admit, less so, but close. I’m… not sure how I got here. Oh, dear, what if I left the fire on?”

How did you know the messenger?

“Oh! Oh, they were one of my regular customers. Always stopped at my bakery when they were passing through the city, bought travel biscuits for the road but always stayed to talk while I baked them a fresh loaf for them to enjoy for the first day. They even said my pastries were the best, flatterer.”

Realization dawns and chases away the confusion as sunlight would chase away the mist outside as she sips the draft. You recently realized something. What was it?

“They… they didn’t come for the bread. They came for me. They were in love with me. Their hand always lingered when it glanced mine while hanging over payment. Their eyes never left mine when I looked, and they were so kind. But by the time I realized what it meant, they had left again. To the southwest. Where the invaders came from.”

She leaves most of her belongings behind as she thanks me for the tea and rushes out and down the road, following in the messenger’s footsteps with a determined look on her face. I add a trinket to the wall, and the quartz crystal to my ingredients drawer.

The Beekeeper

The very next day gentle sunbeams are warming my roof, as if the mists were startled out of the way by the baker’s will. A beekeeper strolls up the road, calm as you please, and smiles when he sees my stall.

He smiles wider when he sees the baker’s trinket. How did he know her?

“She bought honey from me every season, used it to make loaves of bread with lavender in them. Lovely woman, and she always included a sample with her payment. It is good to know I walk the same path she did.”

A simple gumboot tea to warm the soul, I think. Steam starts to come from the pot’s spigot. Where did you live?

“My apiary was a few days’ travel from the capital, actually. Surrounded by fields of every flower I could manage to grow, or convince my neighbors to grow. If you went to the top of a small hill near my home on a clear spring day, you could see a kaleidoscope of color almost to the horizon. Most beautiful place in the world.”

He smiles after sipping the tea, seemingly content in its warmth. You lost something valuable. What happened? 

“Ah, my child. Didn’t care much for joining me in my trade, thought the life was too simple, and I was too stubborn at the time. They ran away many years ago, and I haven’t heard from them since. I miss them dearly. I hope they found their own happiness, and I hope I get to see them again. Just not too soon, now, eh?”

He gives me a bright gumdrop before he leaves – his child’s favorite, he never stopped carrying them just in case – and heads back out into the sun, still calm and smiling, wondering out loud if he will see new flowers on the trail.

The Librarian

The better part of a week has passed, and the shadow mists have come down from the mountain and risen up from the river again. A librarian stumbles in, still clutching a book to his chest, scared half out of his wits. Another comforting brew, this time with dried sage stirred in while the water is heating up but before it boils.

You left something unfinished. What is undone? The question gets him to stop pacing and shooting glances towards the doorway, at least.

“There was a prophecy, or a legend, or a story, I don’t really know. I’d stumbled upon a fragment, once. It was about something terrible that had happened, or was going to happen, and how it had been stopped or how to stop it. I was trying to complete it, assemble all the fragments. I was so close-”

I serve the tea, and ask him to sit and drink. The effect is immediate, the slight tremor in his hands vanishing and his next breath a full one. How did you know the beekeeper? His eyes light up slightly, and don’t dart to the doorway.

“Simpler times! A botanist wanted to catalog all the types of flowers in the region, and offered to donate a copy of her treatise to the library if we helped her. I went along with her, and stayed with the beekeeper for several days. I think he had to have been right about where the area stood in the rankings of beauty.”

Tell me about your journey to the tea shop.

“I was trying to translate a text that I believe held another fragment of my subject, when men in dark clothing burst into my office, drawing weapons. I grabbed my work and ran out into the night and eventually I found myself in the mists. I didn’t stop running until I got here. I suppose… I suppose that means my work must have mattered, somehow. All that effort had a purpose, even if I never found out the ending.”

He hands me the book, stuffed full of loose notes, saying that he won’t need it any more. Perhaps I could find someone to finish the work? I put it on a wall shelf as he steps onto the drifting boat and continues down the river, a look of acceptance on his face.

The Merchant

Another most-of-a-week passes, and as a merchant steps calmly out of the boat and onto the dock gentle sunbeams shine down upon her, making the river’s water glitter and showing the majesty of the mountains. After the mists and a week alone I could use some mirth myself, so I add in the bright gumdrop for a Tea of Mirth.

You hid something. What did you hide?

“My true purpose, and people. I was a good merchant, very profitable, but my caravan acted as a way for others to travel unseen. One expects strange folk in a merchant caravan, and one more bored-looking guard or porter draws no eyes by comparison. Spies, fugitives, smugglers, all traveled with me at one point or another.”

As I serve the tea, how did you know the librarian? 

“Oh, he was a customer, once. Had to be smuggled across a border to continue his research at one point, retrieve some sort of cipher, I think. Getting him in was easy. Getting out was decidedly less so. My understanding is that he’d actually gotten along well with the natives, but the country’s occupiers caught wind of him and weren’t so welcoming. Their soldiers accepted bribes easily enough, however.”

A few sips of the Tea of Mirth has her chuckling to herself. Who will miss you?

“No one who will speak of me! They say one is not dead until one’s name is not spoken, but I doubt many of my true customers would reveal how they got to where they needed to be, even now. To many I was just a merchant, but to those I truly worked for, I could have been the difference between life and death, and often was. So they’ll remember me, but won’t speak of me. Perhaps that means I’ve been dead for ages! Or maybe I’m still alive. Or maybe I’ve been in-between the whole time, like yourself!”

The merchant gifts me a small vial of cloud dew – “my last sale for the price of a cup and a laugh, and never have I gotten a better deal” – and continues to stroll down the path, still chuckling about ghost merchants.

The Hero

Three days pass, and a heavy blue fog rolls down the pass. The figure who emerges from the fog is armed and armored, clearly not some common guard or soldier but a true hero by their bearing, but as they sit down they have an air of melancholy about them. I grind up the quartz crystal so I can make a Draft of Recall. Who will miss you?

“My father. We parted on bad terms, I ran away from home because I didn’t want to simply take up his trade, but I know he still loved me. I had intended for some time now to go home, to see him again, but now I never will, and he will have to… we will have to go on missing one another.”

How did you know the merchant?

“I joined the merchant’s caravan to smuggle myself back into the capital city. It hadn’t been able to hold out, even with a warning to prepare, but I had learned the enemy leader would be taking up residence now that it had been captured. She got me inside, through who knew how many checkpoints, even with the market being closed. It was like magic.”

After I serve the Draft and they take their first sip, they grimace for a moment. You recently realized something. What was it?

“I got as far as the throne room. Left vambrace was shattered, right leg trembling from a spear wound that had slipped past my greaves. The smell of smoke and old blood clung to the room, with sweat and fresh blood trying to overcome them. The so-called emperor was alone now, but they rushed me. My shield was knocked to the side, their blade struck true, my spear fell from my hands. But as the darkness claimed me I drew a dagger and plunged it towards their neck.

I don’t know if I succeeded. I realized that the hero, the one who sacrifices themselves for the greater good, doesn’t know if their sacrifice actually made a difference. They just have to hope that it will.

Isn’t that something?”

The hero marches on, back into the fog, the melancholy still clinging to them.

The Veiled One

Four days pass, and a persistent drizzle comes To The Dregs. A veiled figure comes to the dock, struggling to get out of the boat and into my stall, clearly exhausted. I pour the cloud dew into the pot for another Tea of Mirth. This kind of visit may desperately need it.

The steam from the pot rises to the rafters and stays there, growing, causing mist to drift down the walls and over the various trinkets. The veil turns to look, their gaze clearly landing on the librarian’s book. You saw something unusual. What did you see?

“A prophecy thought true ignored. My downfall was supposed to come from a band of rebels, or a legion of foes,not a single person smuggled in a cart. One person isn’t supposed to be enough to make a difference. Only by blending the strengths of many should it be possible to change the world. Yet one person is what brought me down.”

How did you know the hero?

“Besides ending one another? We were allies once. Raiders came out of the north, and we were the heroes who stopped them. I came to believe the unification of abilities was what made the difference, they valued the freedom and diversity of our perspectives as the true cause for our victory.”

They finish their tea before the laughter begins, clutching at their sides. What do you regret?

“That I lacked perspective. I see it now. The signet dagger my forces never found. The prophecy that was never fully understood, its secrets lost to this pass. The merchant and their cart, the hero on their own. Big things are made of small things, history is cumulative, but the significance of the parts is not always obvious, and I missed them. If I hadn’t, perhaps I would not be here.”

The veiled one stands, nods, and turns for the door. 

What happens next?

“We leave the world to the living, and see what’s ahead of us.”

Designed by Spring Villager, Last Tea Shop is “a one-page solo game about tea and conversation. Set up your stall and wait for visitors to emerge out of the mist. Over a cup of tea, chat to the visitor about their life and help prepare them for their trip into the Lands of the Dead. Record their thoughts, fears, dreams and hopes in your journal for posterity.” Pretty much exactly what it says on the tin, although the itch page points out that you could easily make it a two-player game by turning it into a series of conversations with one player as the tea shop owner and the other cycling between visitors.

You’ll need some quiet time, writing utensils of choice, one or two six-sided dice, and tea (optional, but recommended, and conveniently I happen to drink quite a bit). Setting up shop is simple. You roll 1d6 or choose a location, such as the mountain pass above or a back alley in Old Town or a windy cliff overlooking the ocean. You choose two affinities such as lost objects, moonlight, luck, incense, and so on. You take all of this and describe your stall on a sheet that is provided for that propose; while naming the stall is not mentioned in the game itself (which consists of a single page), there is a spot on the stall sheet for it.

You then roll 2d6 on the Supplies table, with one die determining the column and one the row, getting you a single ingredient such as kawakawa leaf, feather moss, or a giant puffball. You do this until you have three ingredients (we’ll talk about what you get for those ingredients in a bit). Then, on the first day you roll 1d6 for how many days have passed: there is a 24-entry long list, and how many days have passed determines which Visitor you get. If you roll a 1, it’s a Gambler, and a 6 a Baker.

Upon finding out who your visitor is going to be, you also roll 1d6 to determine the weather, which in turn determines the emotional tone of the visit, such as a bruised purple fog and a pained visitor. You then look at your Recipes and decide what kind of brew you are going to make. Each has an emotional impact – gumboot tea simply “warms the soul”, but the Tea of Mirth leads to “an hour spent laughing at everything and nothing”, and Distance Tea is drunk to “calm a difficult memory.” Gumboot tea is also the only recipe that doesn’t require an ingredient. Otherwise, you need to pick an ingredient from your Supplies that is one of the options for your chosen recipe and cross it off of your sheet, such as reindeer lichen for a Tea of Mirth or some bird nest fungi for a Distance Tea.

While you are preparing the tea, it is time to ask the visitor a question. There are ten prompts provided, so you may like to have a d10 along for the ride just in case, or you can make up your own. You record an “evocative response” from the visitor, keeping in mind their emotional state. After serving the tea, you ask a second question, and this time you also factor in what effects your chosen recipe should have on the visitor. When the tea is done, the visitor leaves, and you note their state as they depart. Finally, you note what gift or bonus the visitor gives you. Not all visitors will have such a mechanic, but if they do there will be one of three: they give you a random ingredient (the only way to gain more ingredients), you roll 2d6 and take the highest on the next weather check (increasing the odds of calm and gentle sunbeams), or you add two to the result of your next days roll.

Speaking of days, after the first visitor and every proceeding visitor, you roll 1d6 to determine how many days pass, adding to your existing total. If your first visitor was a roll of 4 for a sailor and you roll a 5 (then add 2, as the sailor has that particular mechanic) you end up with 11 days total, and the Minstrel arrives. Play is almost identical for visitors after the first – determining weather, picking a recipe and spending ingredients, asking questions – with the exception that at some point you also ask “How did you know my last customer?” If possible, this is where you involve an affinity, describing how it transforms or eases things.

Play continues until 24 or more days have passed in total, and the Veiled One arrives. You play out the visit like any other, but as the Veiled One leaves you ask a final question: “What happens next?”

I’m not sure how I feel about the ‘knowing the previous visitor’ questions. Since every character besides the first knows and is known by one other character each, and every game ends with the Veiled One, there’s an implication of connection through the whole lot, which to my brain sort of implies an overarching story of sorts. How do you write out a story when you don’t know who all the characters will be, or in what condition they are? The Veiled One also has the least evocative title, and you could say it’s dependent on what came before, making the idea of a story as opposed to separate tales harder to grasp. On the other hand though, if they are all connected you’re sort of… I want to say writing that story backwards, which is so unique I wouldn’t want to get rid of it. Final conclusion on the matter is that, like any other solo game, there’s nobody to tell you you’re playing it wrong, so do what you’re comfortable with.

Other than that there’s a lot I like about this one. The settings, the ingredients, the recipes, the weather and the emotions, the variety of visitors, they pack a lot of flavor into a single page. The question prompts are varied and, while the answers are entirely up to the player, focused enough to give you direction. I also like how bounded the Last Tea Shop is while still having a randomly determined length. Some solo games, like ones that require a certain card to be drawn in order to trigger the end game, can actually go on for quite a long period of time, which I’m not always up for. Last Tea Shop could have as few as four visitors, and while there are 24 visitors listed you’ll never meet them all in a single playthrough even if you roll all 1s because of the mechanics (4/6 of the first die’s worth of visitors add +2 to the next days roll, for example). The estimated time of an hour or so is quite accurate.

I will add that this is a game that’s so focused on creating an atmosphere that I personally found it very helpful/satisfying to have some instrumental music of my choosing playing in the background, so consider doing the same.

Oh, and one last thing: Last Tea Shop gave me an excuse to have a relaxing cup of tea for the cuppa’s own sake, as opposed to needing to stay awake for work or soothing a newborn, and that’s got a value all its own.

You can get Last Tea Shop for free, although like the visitors you should consider leaving a little gift of your own. 

It’s drizzling outside, the pot is heating up, and you’ve got nowhere to be. So, tell me about your journey to this humble tea house…

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