Sunday, October 3, 2021

Solo Play: What I have Learned

For the last few weeks, I have been playing a more in-depth solo game of BECMI Dungeons & Dragons using a DM simulation tool from Parts Per Milluon. To this point, I had used solo role playing entirely for play testing. For example, when I wanted to understand the mechanics ig Pacts & Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy, I ran a couple of dungeons out of Donjon in order to get a feel for it in play. I've done the same with Index Card RPG Core 2e, Overlight: A Roleplaying Game of Kaleidoscopic Journeys, and Tunnel Goons. 

Because it was so purpose driven, I missed a few things how about solo play that doing so for pleasure has taught me. Although, in retrospect, the way I reported my second and third play tests of Pacts & Blades should have told me how much I enjoy it and what I had to gain from it right away.

So here are a few observations for people who never tried it. Because it is very different from what you might expect.

I will start with the caveat that I went into play hoping to have something to share at the end of the day. I have been inspired by the Keep on the Borderlands comic, Roll to Save's Mörk Borg solo, and above all, the Tale of the Manticore podcast. All of which have created something truly enjoyable. Playing solely for yourself is a different experience as well.

Playing a Solo Game vs. Playing a Game Solo

First off, there's a big difference between playing a solo dungeon crawling game like One Shot in the Dark or Four Against Darkness, and playing a TTRPG made for a group of players using a solo dGMng tool.

Solo Dungeon crawlers are not built with a lot of depth in mind. They provide you with a challenge and a tactical puzzle or two, as you build up a map. You don't really get invested in the characters very much, and the experience is usually a simulation ofabout as vanilla a D&D game as you could ask for. That doesn't mean they're not satisfying: they are a great way to spend a quiet hour, and a great way to generate dungeon maps.

Other games designed for solo, Ike Alone Among the Stars, are purely journal exercises. Most of these provide no challenges and no puzzles, just a way to meditate while writing in a journal. Not my cup of tea, but I could see how some people would enjoy it. I'm not sure I would qualify it as a role-playing game by any stretch of the imagination.

Playing a traditional role-playing game, with all of its open systems and narrative requirements is a lot more challenging. And rewarding and very different ways.

I might put it as the difference between "Playing a Solo Game" and "Playing a Game, Solo." 

This is Not Like Playing a Fighting Fantasy Book

I named the blog after this one! 
I am a huge fan of Ian Livingston and Steve Jackson's Fighting Fantasy books.  I started playing them when I was about 10, and had been playing the choose your own adventure books for a couple of years before that. I have continued enjoying them periodically for most of my life, K still have copies of Deathtrap Dungeon and Citadel of Chaos on my bookshelf. They still get occasional play. And I still haven't completed Citadel of Chaos after 30 years of occasionally dipping in.

I'd assumed with a sufficiently randomized dungeon, a traditional TTRPG played solo would feel somewhat like that;  It doesn't remotely! The Fighting Fantasy books invite you to visit a strange and pulpy world of Sword and Sorcery, and they can certainly be exciting, wondrous, and a head-trip at times, but it each book constrained to a single story, which loses it surprises after a couple of run-through (unless you take breaks for months at time.) And yet, they have to kill you over and over again to create a challenge. Meaning that repetition is necessary.

If you are willing to give up control of your TTRPG played solo to Chaos by letting the dice fall where they may, using random generators for your dungeons, adventure hooks, campaign fronts, and characters, you are guaranteed not to see much repetition. The world is dynamic, with new events each session. The challenge is provided through tactics, logistics, planning, and creative problem solving that a solo book simply cannot provide. 

Because it presents unexpected challenges, often ones involving surprisingly dynamic NPC , you find yourself using a lot more of your imagination. A well-run solo campaign presents you with a lot of surprises. And because it provides at least some of the dynamism of a role-playing game, you will find that you develop a surprising level of immersion into the characters. This is especially true if you use scenarios that rely on NPCs, or have the player characters connect to a home base.

It Scratches a Different Itch 

Playing an RPG solo is not the same as playing a tabletop game. I get different satisfaction from being a player or game mastering that I do from solo play. You are not controlling just one or two characters and immersing yourself in their head alone, as you do as a player. Nor are you focusing solely on building a living world and adapting it to the actions of the players.

What you are doing is somewhat different. You get some of the satisfaction of building a world (although in this case, it is more discovery than creation.) You get some of the satisfaction of making quick changes to the world based on what is happening at the table. You get a lot of the experience of emergent narratives as the campaign or at least the adventure progresses. You come to like the characters and have an idea of what they think and feel. Although, that is greatly helped by having some random generation of their background and motivation.

At the end of the day, you get a little bit of what it is to be a dungeon master, a little bit of what it is to be a player, and it totally different satisfaction from what you've created. Is more akin to writing a novel for a play. It is no wonder so many players create stories, comics and podcasts of their work.

It tests Your Resolve

Character portrait made with Hero Forge
And used in accordance with their EULA

Part of what makes a solo role-playing game challenging is a dedication to letting the dice fall where they may, and responding to them. You are going to naturally root for your player characters, you're going to want to see them win.

Spoilers for Crawling the Purple Islands Ahead

The first time that I had a character who made it past second level receive a lethal attack, I wanted very badly to find a way to spare him. He had built up a fascinating subplot about his romance with a slave-girl who was intending to betray him. Not to mention that he was just about to reach Magic-User level 5, which would have made a huge difference to the party.

During the adventure that killed him, the wandering monster encounters were over the top. The party was being attacked at least every three or four turns on top of set encounters in the dungeon. What should have been a tense but manageable infiltration instead turned into a bloody running battle that they barely survived.

Just as they achieved their goal of claiming the Necronomicon from its hiding place, I rolled the 10th random encounter for their adventure, an ochre jelly, which got surprise. After all that heartache and violence. After losing several trusted NPCs, making allies in the strangest of places, and narrowly escaping death so many times, he was simply grabbed from behind by a completely random mindless sludge and dissolved.

It was a stupid, pointless tragedy right at the moment of his triumph. And had I not been dedicated to actually playing the game as opposed to writing a novel no one would ever read, I might have given them a break from the wandering monster encounters in the first place.

End of Spoilers 

There will times when playing a game solo is going to go badly.  When that happens, when your characters are losing - or dying - that you are going to be tempted to change the rules of the game, and shift the bounds of your agency. But in doing so, you will dilute, possibly cheapen your experience. After all, once you discard the rules you have set out for yourself, why bother continuing to play it as a game? 

Mirdon the Mad Mage
Character portrait made with Hero Forge
And used in accordance with their EULA
The dice, after all, can be perverse consider the fate of Doraleous in my second Pacts & Blades solo adventure: A skilled warrior, who had beaten incredible odds before. The dice, perversely, caused him to be beaten into a bloody paste by a particularly fierce ogre.  Had I not let him perish, the character of Mirdon would not have been so nearly enjoyable on later stories. 

(I was invited to play Mirdon in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign by a group that needed a mid-level wizard. He retired a beloved hero and accomplished Dragon Slayer at 15th level) 

Instead it pays to learn to embrace Player Character death as a part of emergent game play that helps keep it interesting. Even if it is frustrating at the moment.

Playing an RPG solo will test your willingness to play the game straight all the time. You will be tempted to fudge even more than you might at a table with other players. After all, there are no social consequences to it.

It Is a Deep Dive Into Your Psyche

One thing about Role Playing Games is that they are a delve into your own mind. You are going to assign meaning and significance for things. Your character's are going to become a reflection of one of your inner voices, especially if you engage in a high-drama playacting style of play.  You will find that some of the adventures you have scratch some itches.

The difference between Old- and New-School play is how important this side-effect of the game is. Old-School players tend to enjoy it as a pleasant side-effect but one to be moderated, as this is a social experience with specific decorum, and your PCs are ultimately expendable game pieces. New-School players instead see these as a major attraction of the Roleplaying experience, and treat their characters as an a sacred expression of themselves.

To a degree, I would suggest that the world a GM presents is likewise an expression of their inner landscape on many levels. The concepts, villains, conflicts, values, and majority beliefs presented in the world are an interrogation of the world inside the GMs head, fused with the input of the players.

And when you are the players and the GM, you can't help but dive deep. Even if you are using pre-written material, how the actions of the characters look and feel, what the dice mean, how you interpret ambiguous oracles all serve to heavily flavor the game. You are going to learn a little about yourself, even if you are strictly Old-School at heart.

This is something I have noticed both in myself and in the solo podcasts, comics, and other updates I have read; the players can't help but let you know a lot about what's going on in their skull, even if they tend to censor their updates heavily. There is a lot of courage and more than a little exhibitionism in the Solo RPG sphere.

You will find yourself saying things like "Whoah, that's dark!", "Where the hell did that come from?!", and "How did I come up with THAT character?!"

It is Rewarding

I have played Roleplaying Games for around 36 years now, and it wasn't until last year that I tried to play a solo game in this manner. I honestly did not expect it to be this fun, because I always prefer to play with other people. My friendships are mostly built on these games. I expected them to be a pale simulacrum of the real deal.

Instead, they are a very different, but very satisfying experience. A new way to use an old hobby. And one that, I suspect, will help you improve your game at the table.


  1. Good description of your solo discoveries. Thanks for creating this blog and all its contents.

    1. It has been a lot of fun so far. I am looking forward to seeing what else the Purple Islands have in store for me! I have some more thoughts on the way about setting design based a large part on my experience playing Purple, Cha'alt, Alpha Blue, as well as some newer Forgotten Realms and Kutaliak's Hill Cantons. It amazing how much you can shape an experience with a few nuances (or lack thereof) in a setting.

  2. Great write up! When playing D&D, do you fuss much with equipment and keeping track of time? The time thing really breaks character for me, so I'm thinking of just getting rid of it entirely. As for the equipment, I'm thinking something like my character has enough supplies for an adventure. Swords, armor, etc. would be purchased, of course.

    1. I used to be strict in Junior High, then I went free-form for years.

      Recently, with all the streamlining tools our there, I have gone back to strict (streamlined) time and a looser slot-based encumbrance.

      Free form play is relaxing, and time/equipment tracking seems daunting. If you are looking to just chill out and enjoy the ride, they can seem like a distraction. But what I have learned is that:

      1. If you use the right tools a little while it stops feeling like a chore and comes to you smoothly.

      2. It makes the game way more challenging! You actually find yourself worried about bring trapped blind in darkness, you are tempted to big yourself down with heaps of coins, even when it becomes dangerous, wandering monsters that show up as a part of timekeeping add stress. The game can be immersive and scary.

      The strategic elements it adds are really enjoyable. Every foray where you come back alive feels satisfying.

      It is a psychologically different experience that is totally worth a try with an experienced DM who knows how to make it seamless.

    2. Thanks for the quick answer! I'm just starting out solo playing, probably should have mentioned that. But I have heard time adds a certain amount of tension so I will keep going with that and see how it goes. I imagine it does get easier over time...No pun intended. Thanks again!

    3. I am going to post a bit on time tracking in the coming week, as my response required me to organize my thoughts. But here are the highlights.

      Color code dice for random encounters, etc., and roll them all at once at the beginning of your turn. It makes it faster.

      Journal by turn in bullets. It makes writing about it later easy.

      Track light sources with pips somewhere or depletion dice.

      Have a cheat sheet for turn process. Most go pretty fast.

      If you haven't had a chance, give Tale of the Manticore a listen. He is great at describing his process and tools

    4. Thanks for the highlights! I'll be sure and check out Manticore. Thanks again for all the advice!

    5. It is my pleasure. I am hoping that in the future more people will share their creativity like this