Today I tried the game Chronicles of Arax -- more specifically, version 1.2 of the rules. The core rules are available for free through digital download stores such as RPGNow, and many add-ons are sold separately. As with other free products, I'll start with a short review of the book (since others may download it to check for themselves) followed by a playtest review.
Content: The core rulebook of Chronicles of Arax is 17 pages long. You get five pages of rules, two pages on the included hero class, the Adventurer, a quest and tables on artifacts and relics. Enough to evaluate the game and feel if you like it or not, and with some replayability.
Presentation: the book includes a cover simulating a leatherbound volume. The text is laid out in two columns in A4 page format with tight margins, meaning that people will likely have to scale it down when printing. There are some grayscale fantasy illustrations throughout the book. They have different styles and look very nice, although some of them are there more for the mood than to illustrate some part of the text. All things considered, an effective and good-looking package. The only thing I'd change is the use of color to distinguish descriptive text from the rules in the encounters; maybe using another font, since the rest of the book doesn't use different colors or require color printing.
Writing: the writing style is clear and to the point. The simple rules are explained in enough detail, at least to me, and there are some examples included to help the reader. I've checked the game's official FAQ and most of the questions there are already included/corrected in version 1.2. The narrative and descriptive portions of the text give the reader an idea of what the world of Arax is like and, overall, is also a good read. There is one innacuracy in the text, where it mentions a character sheet at the end of the rules when, in fact, it is a separate (also free) download.
Solo-friendliness: Chronicles of Arax is meant to be played solo. The free core rulebook gives a taste of the product and has some replayability, since the encounters you have during the quest are random and randomly ordered.
Playtest session report
In this game, you control a Hero on a Quest. Each hero has a set of eight characteristics, which are rated by different dice types (from six-sided to 20-sided.) The allocation of dice to attribute depends on what type (or class) of hero you are; in the core book there is one hero type, the Adventurer. From what I've read, the additional hero types are more customizable but in the core book, you essentially get a fixed character.
A quest consists in a set of encounters which are faced by the hero. You roll to find out which encounter to face next, adding a increasing modifier that tends to lead you to the end of the quest. Each encounter may involve tests of the hero's characteristics and/or combat with enemies. Combat is resolved with a simple but functional system.
Having read the rules, I named my Adventurer Theros and set out to the Bloodfyre Mountain (the quest included in the core rulebook.) Right at the beginning, while walking down a tunnel, Theros was ambushed by a great orc viciously striking with a large axe. He barely survived the battle, taking the battle axe and a few gold coins from the orc's body.
Trying to find a place to hide and rest after the combat, Theros opened a heavy wooden door and entered a dark room, only to find it filled with animal carcasses. The revulsion caused by sight of the mangled animals and the smell of rotting flesh weakened him even more.
Fleeing that horrible scene, Theros reached a sort of makeshift prison, with several metal doors set against stone cells. From one of the cells, a man asked for help, in a ragged voice. Theros couldn't see clearly the man but still, he tried to force the door open using the battle axe he obtained earlier as an improvised crowbar. Try as he might, the door wouldn't open and having stood there for a while, Theros decided to move on, with a promise to bring back help to the prisoners.
After crossing a dangerous underground river and a devious labyrinth of corridors cut into the rock, Theros found what seemed like a secret passage. Walking through the very narrow and dark corridor, he arrived at a large rock chamber with torches on the walls, along with weapon racks. A large orc was in the middle of the room, shouting at other orcs as though he was some sort of commander. Before Theros could do anything, the muscular creature charged towards him, wielding a huge sword with both hands. Theros even tried to fight back, but the monster didn't seem to feel pain, and his strikes were so hard that he wouldn't try to parry them.
Exhausted from his previous exploits, Theros eventually made a mistake and was nearly cut in half by the orc commander. The end of this adventurer's short carreer and game over. This playtest spanned a total of seven encounters and took about 20 minutes to play. I added a bit of narrative to the report, but most of it was inspired by the bits found in the encounter descriptions.
Chronicles of Arax is another interesting option for solo adventuring. It feels like a mix of "choose your own adventure" books and random dungeon games. The random encounter roll with cumulative modifier, along with a properly planned set of encounters is a clever way to reduce the likelihood of very short or very long adventures. The combat system is deadly, which I find fitting to a solo game