Friday, July 7, 2023

My Solo Play Evolution

 I have done a lt of solo play in TTRPGs over the last three years. It honestly never occured to me to use my games for solo adventuring until I started writing this blog and needed a way to test the games that I was reviewing.

Delve 2e
has built in solo gaming to introduce itself to the player, borrowing a note from the Mentzer Basic Dungeons & Dragons set that I though was a clever stroke. Some of my early reviews, like Tunnel Goons and Index Card RPG Core 2e were tested with my wife, but she doesn't have my head for rules and finds too many new games overwhelming. 

When Lucas Rolim sent me Pacts & Blades: Moorcockian Fantasy for review, she tapped out, and so I needed to figue out how to give it a really good shake. That's when I thought about by experience with Delve 2e, and decided to try playing it solo.

Random Dungeon Crawling

My first solo run involved logging into Donjon, and generating a random AD&D dungeon. I tend to stick to 

  • Tiny size
  • Medium Rooms
  • Polymorphic Rooms
  • Square Grid
  • Errant Corridors
  • No Stairs
  • Peripheral Entrance
  • Dungeon Level 1
  • Crosshatch Map Style

This is especially handy when you are playing an OSR games, as the monsters will be immediately usable with the game you are playing.

Donjon includes a tool for star systems, outer space freight jobs, aliens, blade runner cases, and much more these days. You could probably run almost any game you are looking for with Donjon or a similar tool.

How this method works:

The trick to running in this style is to generate the dungeon, then not read it. Instead move through with strict observation of the per turn checklist as you explore. Read point of interest indicators as you come on them.

If you are coming up on a trap or similar, give yourself a 2 in 6 chance of there being enough clues for your PCs to get suspicious before you start rolling for triggering, and check to see if your established dungeon crawling SOP might have done the same.

Only read a room entry when your characters enter it.  IIf they make significant noise, scan the immediately neighbouring rooms for creatures and roll to see if they hear you, if they don't, then don't read any further in their description.

Tom Scutt's DM Yourself has excellent guidance on this method. 

This Method Has Serious Weaknesses:

Namely it is limited purely to dungeon crawling, and not particularly spontaneous dungeon crawling. Once you have mastered this method, it can be used for exploring large dungeon modules like DNGN or Rappan Athuk.

It works best in systems like AD&D where tools like random encounters, NPC reaction rolls, morale, etc. that takes some of the guesswork out of this playstyle.

My Examples:

Pacts & Blades 1 2, ArĂȘte.

Randomized Encounter Crawl

One of the things I love about Lucas Rolim, is that every time he hands me a review, it turns into a challenge. I enjoyed the solo play I got out of Pacts & Blades so much that when he asked me to test out the additional mechanics in Salamandur Household, I planned out an adventure immediately.

Rather than a random dungeon, I decided that my PCs would be climbing slowly into a volcano to collect a rare and valuable substance. But rather than planning out the adventure, I made a massive table of encounters that might happen.

How This System Works:

Similar to the Darkness mechanic in Alan Bahr's Tombpunk, I created a scoring system. For every encounter, I gained points that indicated that I was closing in on my goal.  With each encounter, I made sure to use random tools like NPC reactions to randomize them even further.

The resulting crawl went nothing like how I envisioned it would, and was a harrowing trek into a pretty hellish underworld.

I can envision making this even more complex using a stack of index cards full of encounters apropos to a hex flower and all the dark places beneath it, and drawing them at random over time.

Different Approach, Different Weaknesses

By drawing encounters out of a large random pool of ideas, you create something more internally  consistent and approximate to what you were hoping for... but it comes at the cost of requiring more work from you and draining some of the spontaneity out of the game. You get an adventure,  but a managed one.

You cannot mitigate this with large collections of random tables and encounters,  such as the Dungeon Dozen or the Lands of Legend series from Axian Spice (Mundane, Grim, Fairy, & Holy), which is a series I love and have raved about in the past. I might also recommend mechanics like Baldrage's Doom Die from The Dozen Dooms.

My Examples:

Pacts & Blades with Salamandur Household part 1, part 2 part 3

Playimg A Solo-Oriented Game

I have tried several games specifically made for solo play. They are a very mixed experience. 

Some solo games in my collection like The Thousand Year Old Vampire and Alone Among the Stars are essentially prompted journal exercises. These alone are not my cup of tea. If you just want a little chaos to prompt your creativity,  but are more interested in creating a narrative  than playing a game,  this is a good option.

One Shot in the Dark is a simple game that simulates a classic 4-player foray into a dungeon by mapping and stocking a dungeon using a deck of cards. It assumes that your PCs are on a mission to slay a terrible creature latrine on the 4th floor. The dice mechanics to handle traps and combat are loosely D&D inspired using standard polyhedral dice. It is a fun 15-40 minute exercise that gives you a good dungeon crawl experience to scratch that itch on a lunch break or while your toddler is napping.

Four Against Darkness is a far more detailed experience.  It is a d6-based rules-light TTRPG that was built with solo play in mind, but can be used as a GMed or cooperative game fairly easily. In many ways it noat strongly of all these games resembles the advice on solo play in the appendices of the AD&D1e Dungeon Master's Guide (which I am sure is a surprise to many readers to hear exists.) Players use a randomized (in this case d66) table to randomly select room and corridor shapes and draw a map on graph paper as they meander through a dungeon hunting its "Master". Each room has random events that may include healing, friendly NPCs, strange events, unusual discoveries, empty places, or four categories of monster: "vermin', "minion", "strange", or 'boss", with rules to bribe or fight each type and a random chance each boss or strange monster was the enemy the PCs were seeking all along. 

Four Against Darkness is a fun way to pass time, and pretty dynamic compared to the others here, but ultimately,  I find I like it because at the end of the game you have a winding old-school feeling map, already stocked with encounters you can keep or discard, which are easily translated into an OSR game. Many of the dungeons in My Silver Gull Campaign were designed by playing a round of 4AD.

Making These Into Tools:

That may be the crux of these rules-light solo games: they make good tools for prompting or facilitating play in another system. 4AD creates good maps.

If I wanted something that felt like my current video game jam: No Man's Sky Beyond, I could create a prompt using Alone Among the Stars to create initial planetary discoveries, flesh out the planet with the help of Donjon, give it life with an oracle tool (see below) and play through my encounters with alien dangers with Star Adventurer or Alpha Blue, and create that lonely, wandering, mysterious experience on pen and paper.

One Shot in the Dark might be a great fit with a solo tool for creating an abstract dungeon on the fly as an adventure either for an oracle-driven game, or for a GM to use for a game where dungeons are handled as abstract strings of encounters,  such as in Ryuutama or Fabula Ultima

Adding A Simple Oracle

Oracles are one of the signature tools of more complex tools kits for solo play. 

Oracles offer you information about your campaign world in the same way a GM might. The simplest ones offer you a "Yes" or "No" answer to questions about the Setting. As they player, you will use the same skills you might to as questions to lead the GM.  For example, if having a battle in a dining room, you might ask "Is their a chandelier I can swing on to get over the table?"

This is the same sort of mechanic as the 1-in-6 or 2-in-6 chance tool that is often suggested to GMs.

Most of the oracles out there offer a bit more complexity than a simple "yes" or "no" system, however. The Parts Per Million oracle in their books like Dungeon Crawl Solo uses the structure of improv theatre: 1 is "No and..." (the situation is even worse or more antithetical to the question than might be suspected.) 2 is "No", 3 is "No, but..." (offer a different opportunity to achieve the desired result, or things are better than they seem." 4 is "Yes, but..." (There is a complication, exception, or new problem.) 5 is "Yes" and 6 is "Yes, and..." (there is another opportunity, this is even better than expected")

Many of these Oracles offer some sort of general random information generator. In the case of Parts Per Million, this is several d66 tables of random abstract symbols. In the case of Mythic GME it is a set of random d100 tables that offer a Subject, Verb, Object combination. I also have a set of Story Cubes that offer random images to interpret.

You might check the icons to answer a less binary question like "What kind of troubles does this village have?" Or "What can the Sage tell us about the strange magic item?"

Both "yes/no" answers, random word soup, or icons are all exercises in using logic and intuition to come up with something that makes sense in the context of the narrative. And that requires a certain level of restraint and honesty in order not to abuse.

Simple Oracles Have Limits... And Suggest Requirements

Simpler Oracles should be used sparingly to get the best effect. When you should use them, and when you should just make something logical up is a bit of a trick. You have to use a bit of trial-and-error finding a way to use it effectively.

One thing the oracles are good at is producing a more complex and self-sustaining narrative. But they accordingly take more time and mental effort. After a few sessions you want them to feel like they are going to pay off. And accordingly, the effort of using an Oracle begs to produce something at the end of the project. A novella, a blog, a podcast. I have found, and almost every solo gamer that I have talked to seems to agree with me, that at the end of the day, a solo game is a pretty involved creative project.

My Example

Using Dungeon Crawl Solo, my trusty Rules Cyclopedia, and the incredible The Dozen Dooms, I ran a year-long campaign in The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence that I turned into a novella and some serialized fiction. (And it's earlier TPK.)

More Complex Oracles

Mythic GM Emulator offers a similar  "Extreme No" "No", "Yes" or "Extreme Yes" option with the probability of each weighted based on how likely the answer is to be "yes" and adjusted with sliding probabilities based of the amount of chaos in the narrative measured by a shifting "Chaos factor."

This Chaos factor adjusts the chance of each answer based on how far out of control the narrative is from the PC's standpoint. At low chaos factors, "Yes" answers are less common, and "Extreme Yes" vanishingly rare. When Chaos is high "Yes" and "Extreme Yes" are very high. This means that the game itself is designed to be self-correcting, with players more likely to find advantages, escapes, and information when things are spiraling out of control.

The Chaos Factor in Mythic GME also helps to direct gameplay: every time a character is about to enter a new scene, a roll against chaos factor determines if the PCs are interrupted by some unexpected event on the way, or if the scene becomes something radically different to what they had expected.

The oracle they offer, which generates a Subject, Object, and Verb combination which you interpret to figure out how to alter the scene. 

Likewise, double-digit "Yes" answers also trigger off an unexpected even in mid-scene.

I have done only a little with this system, but I find that it offers a highly dynamic experience as compared to the simpler oracles. The game develops a mind of its own. I intend to share a more elaborate example of these tha I had posted in my review of Mythic as the Summer rolls on and I have a chance to evolve things.

1 comment:

  1. This is a fantastic read. So many good tidbits of information relating to solo gaming, with lots of links to further details. Love it! Thank you for posting.