Solo RPG: playing on your own

And so you found yourself playing alone…. Maybe you bought yet another game, but no one wants to play it with you. Maybe you’re cooped up in your mountain cabin 50 kilometers away from the first city, with no stable connection, and on a cold and boring evening you get the urge to role-play…

Whatever your motivation, know that solo gaming is not the child of a lesser god and has always been an option. And that there is the presence of a sizable school of solo gamers out there.

Premises:

  1. If you are not interested in the “historical” aspect but only in the “practical” one, you can safely skip the relevant section.
  2. For the purposes of this article, gamebooks (aka “choose your own adventure”) are not considered solo role-playing systems.

TL;DR

  1. You like OSR and
    1. you have some gold pieces to spend: get Scarlet Heroes
    2. you are broke: retroclone of preference (free version) + (optional: Black Streams Solo Heroes) + a free oracle (see below)
  2. You like the old-school vibe but prefer PbtA (Dungeon World): get Ironsworn
  3. You already have your own system (or want to test one) to play solo and
    1. you have 5$ left over: Mythic Game Master Emulator.
    2. you are broke: Conjectural Roleplaying Gamemaster Emulator (CRGE) (PWYW)

Playing OSR solo

I’ll clarify that I love Four Against Darkness. It is a pen-and-paper dungeon crawler that recall some mechanics and tropes of old school gdr, but it is not and do not claim to be complete RPG (nevertheless I recommend it anyway).

It is totally possible to play OSR solo and to do so you need:

  1. An oracle (see below).
  2. Many random tables (but you already have them, I don’t have to suggest them to you, do I?): tavern entries, bait and hooks for the adventure, patrons, NPCs, descriptions of environments, sounds, noises etc etc.
  3. Procedural wilderness and dungeon generators. Optional and not strictly necessary, you could use pre-generated maps and just roll for content. I personally prefer the element of surprise and then generate everything as I am exploring. A great place to start is with Appendix A and B of the AD&D DMG. I’ll also link at the bottom to some free resources. But you know you have to buy the DMG anyway, right?
  4. Scalability. OSR games are mostly designed for party play. This results in an even higher mortality than usual if you play only one character without tricks, so you can:
    • Make a sheet for an entire party and move all the characters around: it’s tiring, but if you like it why not? Also you can play relationships between characters if you want more fiction.
    • Use only one PC and surround him with mercenaries and henchmen: go on derogation and use them already at low levels. They will only be pawns to be used in battle. They generate less fiction, of course, but for quick dungeon crawls there is less to manage.
    • Use a resolution method that allows you to play only one PC while keeping your opponents’ stats intact. Here’s just one alternative I can think of: Black Streams Solo Heroes by Kevin Crawford (later developed into Scarlet Heroes, see below).

There is only one limitation on which there is no shared codified solution: how to handle traps and puzzles? In an OSR there is no such thing as “looking for traps” and indeed one of the staples is to leave it to exploration and creative solutions to overcome obstacles. It is clear that as players/arbitrators all-in-one even if you randomly pull for a trap and pretend that the PG does not know, in any case the surprise effect is well and truly gone. I haven’t found any solutions yet and I invite you to suggest them in the comments.

A bit of history (in brief)

Ok, so roleplaying is a social activity, who denies that. It started with groups of wargamers (that’s a fact) who used to hang out in basements moving miniatures. And they were large groups, in numbers that a current RPG would struggle to handle. Original Dungeons & Dragons even provides that there can be 50 players (!) at the table, with a referee/players ratio of about 1/20.
The first RPG authors, however, knew well that outside their circles the new type of game would not have large groups of players right away. It was a real possibility that a new player would buy the manual and find himself without a group.
That’s why already in the first issue of the original TSR zine “The Strategic Review” (Spring 1975), Gigax published the famous guide to “Solo Dungeons Adventures” (which was included 4 years later in Appendix A of the Dungeon Master Guide of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons), in whose introduction he quotes:

Although it has been possible for enthusiasts to play solo games of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS by means of “Wilderness Adventures, there has been no uniform method of dungeon exploring, for the campaign referee has heretofor been required to design dungeon levels. Through the following series of tables (and considerable dice rolling) it is now possible to adventure alone through endless series of dungeon mazes!

Here Gigax clarifies two somewhat implicit aspects of OD&D:

  1. solo play has always been possible; the third booklet contains the procedural material to do so;
  2. in his opinion, solo play must be supported by “considerable dice rolling” on random tables.

A couple of years later Traveller is published, and here too the solitaire option is contemplated and even made explicit in a special paragraph in the introduction of Book 1: Characters and Combat:

The Solitaire Game: One player undertakes some journey or adventure alone. He or she handles the effects of the rules as the situation progresses. Solitaire is ideal for players who are isolated by situation or geography. In addition, there are many aspects ideally suited to solitaire consideration. A single player can spend the time generating characters, designing starships, generating worlds and subsectors, planning situations, and mapping out ideas to use in later group adventures.

In Traveller, the solo game is seen as a complement rather than a substitute for the group game, which makes use of the mini-games in the rules to generate material for the Referee. We will see that in recent times also for this type of games a “only” complete solution has been thought.

Without bothering gamebooks, which were born more as interactive narrative supported by minimal RPG mechanics, that came to the fore in the 80s, even considering the “pure” role-playing game, the solitary option has always been on the table.

A lone player should not feel like a second rate player, nor a “hack writer”, but simply a player who by choice or necessity does not operate in a group.

How to play solo: the general theory

The solo player has before them an interesting and potentially fatal challenge: to separate the knowledge of “master” from that of “player”. It is clear that, in a role-playing game that provides for this, the Master/Narrator/Referee is in control of the game world. The Master/Narrator/Referee is in control of the game world, answering questions about the setting and the players’ scope of action, and controlling the environment, threats and NPCs. In a solo game, however, the two figures are overlapped, because the player has to move the Playing Character and the Game World at the same time.

A dilemma arises: how to avoid predictability and fall into boredom or worse “cheap writer syndrome”? Our purpose is to play (overcome challenges, discover the World, interact with it), not to write a story…

It is therefore necessary to delegate some functions to chance and procedural generation, exactly as Gigax thought for his dungeon generator.

If we wanted to reduce to the bone the necessary tools we need:

  1. an oracle, a device (I mean that in a broad sense) of some kind that answers our questions;
  2. tables, tables and more tables, which allow the introduction of unpredictable elements in the game scenes.

These two elements in and of themselves make it possible to play (and want to test) any rulebook.

We are still, however, on the nebulous theoretical level. Let us now descend to the practical level.

How to generate answers

An oracle, at minimum, is a mechanism that provides answers to closed questions.

“Is the room lit?” - “YES”
“Do I hear noises?” - “NO”

Clearly, closed-ended questions can require a very long process of bickering, which can be mitigated by two methods:

  1. Ask precise, detailed, yet closed questions (“If I hear noises, do I confirm my suspicion that they are goblins?” - “YES”)
  2. Place a limit on the number of questions you can ask for a given situation. This is something that all solo RPG rulesets actually recommend: limit yourself to a maximum of three questions.

The most popular oracle is the one created by Nathan Russell for Freeform/Universal RPG. In his game (designed for group games) it is to all intents and purposes the only system for resolving any action. To consult it you roll a d6 and read the following table:

  1. No, and.
  2. No
  3. No, but…
  4. Yes, but…
  5. Yes
  6. Yes, and…

The concept of “but…” and “and…” in the answer is to complicate the answer. “No/Yes, and…” are critical failure/success. An extremely unfavorable or favorable event is added to the answer: “Is the door open?” “No, and it’s so rusty you make a devil of a noise to open it!”
“No/Yes, but…” mitigate the effects of the answer: “Can I open the door?” “Yes, but a goblin is waiting for you behind it!”.

Mythic Game Master Emulator

A binary answer is sufficient in itself in many situations, but it doesn’t cover all cases.

This is why we introduce the concept of “Master Emulator” which is a refinement of the oracle concept:

  1. The probabilities of binary outcome are influenced by the chances of the current situation.
  2. Under certain conditions (e.g. particular dice result) an unpredictable event is triggered to be drawn on random tables.

The best known, most venerable and well-tested master emulator is Mythic by Tana Pidgeon. She essentially introduced this method, which supports any rulebook in a generic way:

  1. The session is divided into scenes.
  2. You determine (by rolling the dice or inferring from context) a “chaos factor” of the scene (basically how adverse the situation is to the character).
  3. Based on: 1) the chaos factor and 2) the probability of the answer being successful, you roll a d100 on a matrix that crosses the two factors and have a positive or negative answer to the question with extremes of critical success or failure (given by the upper or lower percentile of the roll as appropriate).
  4. In certain cases (when the two d10 dice have essentially the same number) a “twist” is also triggered. In this case you roll on two extensive d100 tables containing actions and descriptors carefully chosen to be vague and elicit loose association.

GAME EXAMPLE

Hesiell has penetrated a wreck adrift in space. The environment is dark, barely illuminated by the helmet flashlight.

The scene presents hazards, but there is no immediate danger, so my chaos factor is medium; I also determine that the probability that Hesiell is there alone is high so I question the oracle

"Hesiell is alone" - unfortunate shot, despite the odds in my favor, the oracle answers me with a critical "Absolutely NO!"

"Are they aliens?" - at this point I roll a double and have to query the random tables. --> "Happily Refuse"

I interpret that Hesiell is convincing himself that he is imagining the presence of aliens. This makes him unaware and the situation potentially becomes even more dangerous for him.

The random action and descriptor roll method is also used by Mythic to answer the open-ended question. In this case clearly the answer must be interpreted with respect to the context.

Solo RPG engines

Okay, so far so good. Maybe a little bit brainy, but harder to explain than to play, believe me.

If you really want to play in solitaire, what systems are around that support it?

As I said the father of all emulators is Mythic, but for some is complex or is not always considered the most functional solution for a quick game (I do not agree, once grasped the mechanics is very fast to run…).

So many have created their own leaner engine.

The most known and successful are:

Dedicated solo systems

Oracle Cards

“Complete” solo game systems.

Procedural Generators

Digital Tools