Friday, January 23, 2015

Solo Role-Playing Series Part 2: Some Misconceptions We Need to Clear Up

I hesitated to post this next bit mostly because people are probably waiting for something actionable. I'll get there, I promise. Remember, I wrote this as something designed to be a stand-alone publication, separate from my blog. My thought was that, it's possible the reader would be starting from scratch and so I wanted to set down some things that would guide the process. As before, any and all feedback is welcome - at some point I will probably collate the posts into a pdf, and i'd like the final result to be as helpful as possible.

My underlying assumption for all that follows is this: solitaire gaming does not correspond 1:1 to social gaming. I, and many others, have tried to push against that barrier, and I have yet to see anyone convincingly succeed in duplicating the group play experience in a solitaire tabletop environment. Indeed, I, and, again, others, have come to the conclusion that such a goal is misguided.

While playing solo is similar to group play in many respects, and with some game systems, it might be difficult to tell the difference, the differences are there. Certainly, for those who mistake drinking soft drinks and munching on pretzels with friends as an essential part of role-playing, it is nothing at all like social gaming. Regardless, solo RPGing is best thought of as a wildly different animal.

Primarily, your experience will not be entirely that of a player, but rather, you will be a Player with some Game Master duties. For gamers familiar with certain “indie” RPGs, this is nothing unusual, but for those familiar with only traditional RPGs, this might appear to run up against a long established, sacred, and inviolable duality. 

Yet, and I hope this isn't a surprise, there is no law requiring the division of the responsibilities of player and GM, into two different people, despite what your rule books might tell you. This is not to say that we have carte blanche when we act as our own Game Master; solo games are not an exercise in creative writing with dedication to a particular story.

If you want to tell a particular story, you are better off trying your hand at writing a short story or even a novel.

While you may write if you play an RPG solo, at least if you keep a journal of your adventures (and I recommend that you do - more on that later), you are, first and foremost, playing a game. Through the use of randomizers and oracles, liberally mixed with your psychology, the twists and turns will surprise you, often pleasantly, sometimes frustratingly, and take you anywhere but where you thought you would go when you first sat down. Which, as it turns out, is exactly what we want. 

Surprise is key to the long term enjoyment of your solo venture; it is what will bring you back to the table again and again. As a word of warning for those who are invariably going to try to develop a complex AI using dice or cards or something else to GM your tabletop experience: that way lies folly. It is an enjoyable exercise, to be sure, but if you insist that a system take the role of GM 100%, then you are better off with purpose designed solitaire adventures or video games, which possess sophisticated AIs beyond duplication with practical mechanical systems.


  1. Okay, I'm still following you. . . . and I agree that solo play, while it can certainly be interesting and entertaining can not have the same dynamic as social gaming.

    -- Jeff

  2. Good stuff. A little something that I react to here is the idea that telling particular stories is not what a solo rpg experience is about...and to take your point to a [doubtlessly unintended] extreme...that sandbox play is what one should emulate in solo rpg's. However, I *do* want to tell particular stories, and doing it as a solo exercise perhaps allows me to do that more than in a social situation because group consensus and compromise is a non-issue. I sure as hell don't want to actually write a short story or novel, because that's not a game at all, and I have complete providence over all aspects.

    Even though my particular story may only be a setup, I can also have a sometimes extensive shopping list of things I want to check off, including particular baddies, interesting locations, compelling themes and issues. The extent to my demands on particular-ness is irrelevant. I play to see how these things may mix, which will still produce surprising twists along the way, causing the same astonishment and frustrations you mention.

    Going back to your point that all solo rpg's must also include some level of GM decision making, how can it not steer the course of the story in terms of choosiness and a degree of control? Is there a line between too particular or just right to distinguish crafted fiction from a solo game?

    Looking forward to more of these!

    1. Hi Rory,
      Thank you for your comment. I wrestled with that paragraph many times before I gave up and put it in as you see it above. I think you are quite right - because telling particular stories is very often part of solo gaming (even a premise that drips of sandbox play, such as "I want to play a star-faring sorcerer who travels to various worlds to collect alien species" is to wish to tell a story).

      What I unsuccessfully was trying to communicate by the phrase "particular stories" was a story that the player already knows exactly how they want it to go as far as plot, setting, and characters. They have a beginning a middle and an end in mind, and that no matter what the randomizers or oracles suggest, they are going to force everything onto that path.

      To do that in a social game is a railroad in the extreme - surprising twists are unwelcome and actively squashed. As a solitary pursuit, to slavishly stick to some preconceived notion of how things must go, fudging die rolls because they don't go their way, refusing to allow the unexpected result to alter their concept, in essence to railroad oneself, seems to imply to me that the player really should be writing, since they already have it all figured out. (My bias against railroading is quite obvious isn't it?)

      A solo GMs decision making steers the story - even creating your own table of random encounters allows you as solo GM to influence the outcome - but it's one thing to do so while remaining open to the interesting interplay of the elements of the game, and quite another to plot everything out with no room for surprise or deviation from what was conceived before.

      Is there a line between too particular and just right? I don't know. Maybe not a line, but a blurry brush stroke?

      While I can point to the extreme example above and believe many would concede that someone so inclined would be better off writing than claiming to play a game (although they might certainly do so, I think it's debatable whether or not they are), there is a fuzziness as we move away from that and start giving up some level of control, and allowing for the unexpected. As we move farther from rigid adherence to a preconceived story (and here i mean plot, character, setting, dialog, the whole nine yards) , we start to broach the philosophical when we consider at what point something becomes a game vs fiction writing.

      And just to throw this in, since it relates and just occurred to me: From the other side, starting with the idea that I am going to write a story and then using randomizers and oracles, at what point, if ever, am i playing a game? Consider that Mythic:GME is touted not just as a Game Master Emulator, but as a tool for writers. For decades, writers have made use of "inspiration decks." As activities, viewed from the outside, the use of those tools may seem game-like but the result might not be thought of as such. Does it matter if my intent is to write a story?

      Thank you again for your comment. Did i understand your point clearly? It seems we're on the same page - and in an y case, I need to change the wording of that paragraph.


    2. We're on precisely the same page... Love reading your stuff!

  3. excellent stuff... I really liked the following bit:


    "As a word of warning for those who are invariably going to try to develop a complex AI using dice or cards or something else to GM your tabletop experience: that way lies folly."

    Yes, yes, YES. Exactly. Okay, this solo thread now has me hooked and wanting to read more :)))

    1. Thanks Mantic Gnome! I very much enjoy the activity of trying to achieve the result, but those systems invariably are not as satisfying as allowing myself to GM and tempering that with game mechanics, randomizers and oracles.

  4. I agree substantially with what you wrote, but I also agree with Rory's point. And I don't think they're mutually exclusive. When we solo game I think we often have some idea of the "story", at the very least, the setting, and probably some generalities, too. I guess I tend to think of things not as strict categories, but more as continua. So, maybe we have a sandbox type of game towards one end and a more structured game adventure towards the other end, but as solo gamers we usually do want some surprised along the way. What form those surprises take and how much they affect the overall plot (and whether the plot is preconceived or developed along the way) determines where on the continuum a particular game/adventure/session falls. My thinking at this point is to start out sandbox style to explore and discover things in my world, and then later on I expect there will be more sort of predefined plots that arise from that exploration.

    Very thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

    1. Hi Fitz-Badger, I replied to Rory's comment above - I agree with his point as well. I had something very specific in mind when I used the phrase "particular story" and did a poor job of conveying it. Hopefully my comment clears it up a bit. I think you hit on an interesting point with the idea that we might start as a sandbox but over time, plots arise from the exploration - this is how my social games go. When we are the solo GM, we'll very often have ideas as to how they might play out - but it's being open to something unexpected happening despite that, that i think separates game-playing from writing. It is also, quite possible for game playing and fiction writing to mix to varying degrees - what happens between the dungeon visits in the Ever Expanding Dungeon are often fiction without a single reliance on any game mechanism. Clearly, thoughtful or not, there is more thought to be done!
      Thanks for your comment!

    2. Ah, yes. I see what you mean. One reason I play is for the surprises. I don't care for railroading either (not in that sense anyway. lol) We do make decisions that guide things more or less, but like you said it's also good to be open to the unexpected.

  5. Hmmm, that`s interesting. For me, I tend to combine solo role playing (DM-ing and playing a party etc) with story telling. I write a lot of closely linked short stories, battle reports, and updates on characters and any DM changes I make as I go along... like a journal, come log book, come a series of atmospheric `living campaign` write ups. do this over a long period of time... sometimes over years; and the end result can be rather pleasing I find. I keep meaning to add (to my site) maybe one or two full campaign journals from one of my most successful (exciting and enjoyable) solo campaigns to my site some time.

    It is really interesting to see other soloist`s take on all this :))

    1. Manic Gnome, please allow me to enthusiastically endorse your idea for adding that campaign journal to your site!