Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Solo Role-Playing Series Part 1: Introduction

For NaGaDeMon 2014, I set about, for the second time, trying to write about how to play an RPG solo. 

Rather than making it into a PDF eventually, I have decided to release it here now,  both to help anyone interested in the topic, but also, as a way to refine it based on whatever feedback it might generate. 

Playing RPGs (and wargames) solo has brought me hours of enjoyment and I hope that for those who are curious about how to go about it, that I can be of some help towards setting them on the path. For those who already play this way, I look forward to your feedback.

And, now, without further ado:


The most common question I get about my solo role-playing activities is “how do you play an RPG by yourself?” This is not only a question driven by assumptions about what it means to play a role-playing game, but, more often than not, people want details, instructions, a guide to follow, so they can do it themselves. There are many tools available to the new solo RPG enthusiast, but surprisingly little is available that illustrates exactly how to put those tools to use.

The most well known solitaire role-playing activity is probably the paragraph-based “Choose your own Adventure”-type. Tunnels and Trolls has dozens of modules designed in this format, and even Dungeons & Dragons has solo modules in its past. These, enjoyable as they are, are limited to the options presented by the author. The adventure is highly structured; in gaming terms, it’s a rail-road.

A similar type of game, with more randomness to it, but still a railroad, is a method I call the H.E.X. method. H.E.X. is a one page RPG, freely available at the time of this writing. The adventure consists of encounters that can occur in any order, determined by the roll of the die. The number of encounters exceeds the count of the die’s sides, so that a mechanic to add to the rolls, usually based on successful encounters, is key to the game. In essence, you can’t leave until you collect the keys.

Both of those types of solo-games are enjoyable, but the player is reliant on someone else to do the legwork of creating an adventure, if there is to be any amount of surprise. For someone interested in something more like they experience in a group setting, free form gaming is the answer.

Free form gaming comes in two flavors: structured and unstructured. 

In the structured game, the events follow a pattern - there is a structure upon which the events hang, but nothing dictates the content of what occurs; it is what some might call, a play ground model. Unlike the railroad, the player has agency within the boundaries of the structure to go and do what they want. Examples of this include using ideas like the 3-Act structure, the heroe's journey, or more specific to role-playing, the 5-Room Dungeon model and John Fiore’s 9Q’s.

The benefit is that, for those who play to tell stories, these games have a satisfying development of the narrative that is not necessarily found in the unstructured game. The unstructured game is as its name implies. This type of gaming is well suited towards games of exploration and discovery, bet it in the dungeons of a pseudo-Western European fantasy world, the icy surface of a distant planet, or the jungles of South America. It is, in gaming terms, sandbox-style play.

I will focus on the latter two options in this document. They require more from the player, but they are more rewarding in the long haul. I will present several tools for your use, but more valuable, I hope, are the walk-throughs of actual plays. The goal is to make it clear how one goes about playing an RPG solo (at least, how I do it), so that those who have been unsure of how to start, can begin their adventures.

Can You Really Play RPGs Solo?

For those new to the idea of solo role-playing, I know it sounds a bit odd. We tend to think of role-playing as something done necessarily with others, as if it’s some essential part of the idea. But, as it turns out, there’s nothing essential about the presence of others to role-playing. 

At it’s core, role-playing is “make believe” and plenty of children demonstrate daily that pretending to be a firefighter, a teacher, a doctor or an antrhopomorphic train can be solitary activities. The difference between what children do, and and a role-playing game is the rules, however many or few there are. 

Finally, for those who believe an RPG must have at least a GM and a player, many indie games have repeatedly illustrated that games can be GM-less, with the role of the GM distributed to the other players.

A Note about Rules Choice

When playing an RPG solo, you have a great deal of latitude when it comes to choice of rules. You are limited only by what you have access to and what appeals most to you, without need to consider what anyone else wants to play. There are very few, if any, role-playing games that cannot be given the solo treatment - even the most rules heavy. At the other end of the spectrum, if you have no rules of choice, it is possible to play a solo role-playing game with no rules at all, other than some of the various systems available here and elsewhere.

If your RPG of choice focuses on gridded surfaces and miniatures in combat, that portion of the game might be better approached as a solo skirmish wargame, with respect to tactical control of your enemy. A great deal has been written regarding solo wargaming, the best known of which is Donald Featherstone's Solo Wargaming, but I also highly recommend a membership in the Solo Wargamers Association, which includes a subscription to Lone Warrior, a quarterly journal dedicated to solo gaming.


  1. Cool! I look forward to reading the upcoming parts.

  2. Very nice beginning. I look forward to more posts.

  3. Looks to be an interesting series. I'm interested in this from the viewpoint of adapting solo games for one-on-one play.

    1. Black Streams is pretty slick for playing published adventures 1-on-1:

  4. Very happy to see this post! I'll be reading with great interest and an eye on stealing some good ideas!

  5. Really intrigued to hear more and see if I cant use some of the ideas to improve my DCC solo campaign.

  6. Nice intro! Your description of "playground" vs "sandbox" games illuminated for me why I'm not a fan of the 9 questions and other structured systems. I guess they are just too structured for my own taste and what I'm looking for in a game. I would say I'm more interested in exploration and discovery and less in making sure it's a good story. :) (I was (and still am) one of those kids who played make believe alone (and with others on occasion))
    Keep up the great work! Looking forward to more.

    1. I would agree while I try to have some story in my solo campaign I can usually use story cubes and Mythic to throw those elements in without wasting too much time.

      I think the hardest thing for me is really getting into character with all of the PCs and making sure they are well represented. Thats part of why I love DCC for my solo campaign because death and randomness are all over the place and kind of tell the story for me.

    2. As always, your site inspires me tremendously. Your latest offering on Solo Role Playing mirrors my own thoughts on the subject exactly.

    3. DCC?
      Nice writeup about solo gaming, MG!

      There is a thriving solo board gamer community on Boardgame Geek in the 1 Player Guild. And recently there was a poll on BGG asking people to vote for a 5-player option or a solo stretch goal for the Tiny Epic Galaxies game on kickstarter. It was neck and neck, but the last I heard I think the solo vote won out by a slight margin. I think there was something in the neighborhood of 500 plus votes for each option.
      Just goes to show that there's a market for solo games and it seems to be on it's way to becoming less of a micro-niche within a niche. :)

    4. Hi Fitz-Badger,
      DCC is Dungeon Crawl Classics. It's a fantastic game that, although mechanically really isn't at all like old school gaming, gives a feel that is perhaps more old school than even playing a traditional old school system. Well, that's how i feel about it though. It's like old school turned up to 11.

      If you're curious about the game, Tenkar has put together links to resources that will let you check it out for little or no money:

    5. @Aaron I address the solo hero vs group thing in the new post. What i didn't talk about is how i do it currently by having blog readers create the characters and dictate the personality. The characters end up more well developed than i'd do on my own (and different too) and it's easier then to figure out what in-game stuff would matter to that character.

    6. Johns spot on DCC is more modern conventions such as Ascending AC and Fort/Reflex/Will saves but everything else is chock full of Appendix N chaos and insanity. One of the many reasons I love it for solo play is at its core its built around complete randomness so I dont feel like im bastardizing the game by letting the dice make decisions for me.

      Well its understandable you dont cover how you do it currently because most of us dont have blogs with people chomping at the bit to make the next doomed character to enter the labyrinth.

  7. Thanks Fitz-Badger, I`m glad you found it interesting..... yeah BGG is great community, I check it out often for snippets of useful info and stuff.

    Solo mainstream hmmmm, that thought almost scares me :))). But a thriving market for more solo oriented material would be a mighty bonus wouldn't it.

    1. Hi Manic Gnome,
      Thanks for the comments. You have a great looking site! (kind of wish i hadn't seen the Prince August stuff. I keep wanting them, and then talking myself out of it. Now, i want them again!). I really like your take on solo wargaming. I have yet to understand why people think of solo wargaming as some inbred cousin to gaming with an opponent. It is probably my favorite past-time, even more so than RPGs.

  8. Thanks everyone. I just put up the second post. Not sure what the posting frequency should be though!

  9. Thank YOU john.... your blog here is one of THE best I have ever enjoyed, and I come here often for inspiration, insight, or just a darn good read (I keep finding more interesting bits I missed the time before). Praise from you is praise indeed, sir. You run my view of the ideal on line site, which I use as the standard I try to attain.

    Yeah, Prince August, I`m sorry john, yes... they really are that delightful and addictive to collect I`m afraid, and from the purely rpg imagi-nation story telling side of my driving passion for the `old school` part of the hobby, making my own figures (for a fraction of the cost), from maids, servants, civilians, market scenes, heroes, soldiers, and every other type of mini I could possibly want, all in nice big 40mm glory, was just too much of a "I MUST HAVE" for me to resist... hehe. I only wish I`d done it a lot earlier on.

    If you ever need any advice on Prince August, just let me know and I`ll happily assist you.... their 28mm fantasy range is to die for btw.

    Steve :)) <-- double underscore between gypsy and dance