Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Solo RPG Podcasts

 One of the things I have come to really enjoy in the last year are solo play podcasts and comics. I first stumbled across them when I was looking for an example of play of a couple of games, and was immediately hooked on them. 

In particular, there is a bevy of podcasts that play OSR games that I look forward to. i check spotify every morning to see what is updated, and then spend much of the morning in anticipation of when I can steal a few minutes to myself to just relax and let the story wash over me.

If you are interested in solo gaming, most of these podcasts go into great detail about what is going on "Behind the screen" in break segments. They discuss their toolkits, their oracles of choice, rules adjustments, etc. as they play.

The Iron Realm

Using the solo-oriented d10 PbtA game, Ironsworn, The Iron Realm is the first podcast of its sort. I enjoy it less than some of the later, more polished, podcasts, and mechanically it will not be as helpful as some of the others in this list, unless you are going to play Ironsworn.

Ironsworn, FWIW is a pretty compelling addition to the PbtA catalogue. It uses d10s instead of d6s, and has an extensive set of oracles and solo play tools integrated into it. It uses a clock system similar to Blades in the Dark as well, where your character works towards fulfilling an Oath made in reaction to the first encounter. Each encounter thereafter is a hardship or temptation that threatens to prevent the character from fulfiling their oath. When they have completed their clock, a final encounter occurs that allows the Oath to be fulfilled. You can freely download it here.

Tale of the Manticore

I think it is safe to say that I am a Tale of the Manticore fan. I reviewed the creator's first game One Shot in the Dark some time ago, and now automatically buy anything else he releases to support the show, his setting encyclopedia, and his solo or team setting creation tool Pendulum. There is an incredile font of creativity here.

TotM is the podcast that launched the genre as it is currently done. The setting is a brooding dark fantasy setting run with a mix of simple oracles, Moldvay B/X, and a few house rules. The stories are grim and the struggles facing the PCs are often genuinely gortesque and horrifying.

TotM's style is to start by narrating the events of the campaign in the style of a novel, which he has written based on the events of his solo play.

Various segments are broken up both by naming the segment like a regular podcast feature and using sound cues and background music that sets the narration apart from the metagame speak effectively. They are always framed by parts of the narrative that are broken into "Chapters" and "Scenes"

After major breaks in the action, "party status" segments remind the listener of hit point totals, special effects, and the spell resources available to the party. 

Combat is given as a play-by-play as he rolls the dice and narrates the outcomes in visceral detail, often with sound effects added in post-producition.

Character and NPC backstory as it emerges are narrated as well in separate "dramatis personae" segments to break up the main narrative.

After events where complex mechanics or solo tools have been employed, the show switches to a "behind the screen"

After every 10 episodes a bonus episode that summarizes the last 10 is also added.

As the campaigns have progressed, John has often recruited other amateurs from the OSR blog, vlog, and podcasting spheres to come on as guest voice actors for recurring NPCs, which has added a great deal of flavor and variety to the story. (Hey John, I'm open, and I act for a living!)

<mild spoilers>

Tale of the Manticore's creator, John, cleaves very stronly to the rules and doesn't fudge the dice. This has led to a lot of surprising twists and turns, including six PC deaths in the first campaign, and the second campaign starting with a TPK, and causing the author to switch perspectives to the side he had planned on using as the "Bad guys." Along with sevearl PC deaths so far in the second campaign. Often the character who has been most loved and developed in previous episodes. Just as the first campaign was developing a heroic leader, that character was eaten alive, and you could hear the whole arc of the campaign as John had expected ti to go come to a screeching halt mid-episode.

</mild spoilers>

The first campaign of TotM has a stong focus on dungeon crawling and hex crawling, and plays them very much according to the B/X or BECMI rules. Only the last few chapters of the first campaign allows dungeons to become more abstract, as the characters are lost in a massive megadungeon that would have been tedious to run using standard play.

The Second Campaign is far more tied up into urban adventuring and so plays a little more loosely when the PCs are in town, but snaps right back into using standard crawling rules the moment the PCs step out the gates or start intruding on a large building.

The sum of the two campaigns is now approaching 200episodes once you count in bonus content, and well worth the listen. I have enjoyed the first campaign twice.

Legend of the Bones

Legend of the Bones was one of the first podcasts to come on the heels of Tale of the Manticore. It follows the TotM formula very tightly, but it's creator, Simon, has a very different style of narration, and uses different solo tools behind the screen. Recently, they did a feature podcast together to discuss their tools and experiences producing podcasts which gives some fantastic perspective to a solo gamer.

Legend of the Bones has a rich, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon flavor to the lore and structure of the campaign. It digs deep into it's creator's roots and that gives its world an incredible richness that makes it stand out.

Legends from the Fireside

A newer podcast in the vein of Tale of the Manticore, Legends from the Fireside makes one departure that I enjoy: combat is narrated without the play-by-play. It adds a different flavor that is neither better nor worse, but adds some variety to what has become an established format.

Legends' is proudly a Dungeons & Dragons game; it is grim and usually quite serious, but it is also weird, pulpy, and leans into D&D lore in a way that TotM and LotB intentionally lean away from. Mad assassins, silly gnomes, evil bards, brutal but totally self-serving gnolls all make an appearance.

It is also bloody as hell! The PCs in Legends from the Firseide have incredible bad luck, with PCs dying at an alarming rate. This feels like the bloodiest BECMI games I played as a kid cranked up to 11.

Stories from the First Watch

A new podcast, Stories from the First Watch shares LftF's choice not to give combat play-by-plays. It is also much lighter on metagame chatter than many of the others.

Like Tale of the Manticore, the PCs in Stories from the First Watch are discovering a unique setting that is evolving as the story does.  It has a somewhat more heroic tone than TotM or LotB. And there is a lot more focus thus far on discovery.

The Lone Adventurer

While it deinitely draws some of its ideas from Tale of the Manticore, The Lone Adventurer is a very different beast in many ways. The first "Season" of TLA was played in D&D5e using tweaks to make the single PC in the campaign feel a little more heroic. It uses many of the same house rules suggested in Tom Scutt's DM Yourself, and runs on Mythic Game Master Emulator to create a much more flowing modern story style.

The actual format of The Lone Adventurer is very similar to Tale of the Manticore, but also chooses not to give a play-by-play of the dice rolls the way TotM does. It also pays a lot of attention to the use of Mythic GME and the solo tools in a technical way that makes them much easier to understand.

As TLA has evolved, Carl White, the GM has switched systems, using Blades in the Dark instead of D&D5e for the second season of the campaign, and using a whole team of characters (in fact, the team itself is as much a character as the PCs are in BitD) who felt like the villains of the first season. It is an excellent narrative shift from the first season that keeps the story fresh.

While most of the games on this list focus on brooding fantasy, TLA is defintiely a steampunked action movie in tone. The heroine of the first season feels like a fantasy James Bond, while the second season reminds me more of heist films like Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

The Lone Adventurer uses a pre-established home game setting from the creator's home game, which is a rich blend of manapunk, high-fantasy, and gritty urban fantasy in turns. Where he has gaps, he borrows liberally from BitD's Duskwall, reimagining it to fit his much higher-magic setting.

Bonus Item: Keep on the Borderlands

Fantasy artist and illustrator Justin Pfeil hs done his own Tale of the Manticore inspired solo game playing B/X D&D using a few solo tools and B-2: Keep on the Borderlands module, mixed with elements of GAZ-1: The Grand Duchy of Karameikos, and I-1: Wrath of the Immortals and a few options imported from Old School Essentials. Instead of a podcast however, he has given us a long, and beautifully illustrated webcomic.

His Keep on the Borderlands game is absolutely lavish with Easter Eggs for fans of Mystara, and he gives a lot of love to both the Mystara setting and B-2.

Even more interestingly, he has managed to have this campaign go so amazingly awry and out of control that I am frequently blow away by how wild his KotB experience was1

It is well worth the read!

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