Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Solo Role-Playing Series Part 3: The Essential Toolbox

When we consider at the bare minimum what a human Game Master does, we can distill out what is essential to have mechanisms or systems for in our solo toolbox.

What, at the bear minimum, does a GM typically do?

  • They answer our questions about the game world. 
    • Do I recognize the figure in the trench coat? 
    • Which political agents are at work in this town?
  • They adjudicate the success of our actions. 
    • I climb the side of the building, do I make it?
    • I jump into the rough water and attempt to retrieve the sword from the bottom of the river. Do I succeed?
  • They determine the reactions of others to our character. 
    • I hold up my hands in a sign of peace, how do the orcs react?
    • I apologize to the mafia boss for hitting on his wife. Does he accept my apology?
  • They adjudicate conflict, ideally without bias towards a particular outcome. 
    • I offer the merchant 1000 credits for the respirator, does he accept?
    • I attack the guard with my sword. Do I hit or cause damage? 
What you should notice almost immediately is that many of these might be handled by your rules of choice.

This picture of Pumpkin has nothing to do with anything. I just felt like the wall of text needed a picture
Conflict is almost always handled explicitly in RPGs, similarly many systems have Skills or Abilities mechanisms that determine if an attempt to do something succeeds or fails. Reaction tables go back to early versions of D&D, and wargaming before that.

Regardless of how much fluff is included, what isn't so common in a rule book are mechanisms to handle questions about the game world.

Many of our questions about the world will be closed questions (yes or no), and while there are a variety of ways to generate the exact answer, most boil down to 50/50 one way or the other.

Open ended questions, such as “What’s in the room?” or “What does the guard say?” seem more complicated on the surface.

However, they are more easily tackled, if you invoke your role as the part-time GM.

You might:

  • Decide by fiat - arguably the simplest method, but it does little in the way of surprise. However, even here, there are ways to shake things up. 
  • Consult a randomizer (such as cards or dice) with assigned results to each value. Random dungeon generators and room stocking tables are common examples of this. 
    • You can prepare these lists on the fly - using your role as GM to make them more logical and feel less random - or in advance. 
  • Consult an oracle. Here I mean something that gives a non-literal result for you to interpret - be they pictures, random word lists, tarot cards, etc. 
Fiat and randomizers will in part at least, be touched on below, but oracles will merit their own post(s).

Mechanisms to answer our questions about the game world.

A mechanism to adjudicate questions about the game world can also serve to answer questions about the success of our actions, the reactions of others, and adjudicate conflict. 

Indeed, with just this one mechanism, and without a set of rules, you can play a solo role playing game. However, if you are using an RPG system, you will probably defer to those rules when the system already provides the means to answer your question.

Type 1: Natural Language to Percentage Chance

Mechanisms of this type have a form like the following:

A Sure Thing
01 - 90
91 - 100
Very Likely
01 - 75
76 - 100
Somewhat Likely
01 - 60
61 - 100
01 - 50
51 - 100
01 - 40
41 - 100
Very Unlikely
01 - 25
26 - 100
01 - 10
11 - 100

Now you might quibble about the percentages, but the concept is clear, I hope. You pose your yes/no question, decide which adjective best describes the possibility of the hoped for result, and roll using the appropriate row to interpret the results. 

More often than not, you won't know which adjective is the right one, and in that case, go with 50/50.

Mythic: Game Master Emulator, or Mythic : GME,is probably the most well-known example of this kind of Yes/No table. The Mythic results table has more adjectives, and is unusual in that it makes use of an additional attribute which shifts the likelihood of a yes or no result as things go well or badly for your character.

Mythic’s table also includes the possibility that either result might be an extreme example. That is to say, if you roll sufficiently poorly, your result becomes a “No, and” and conversely, rolling well can give you a "Yes, and". I highly recommend purchasing Mythic GME as it is a complete method of solo gaming that offers a number of ideas that I will not be covering.

Wargamers who own Too Fat Lardies Platoon, Forward! will find a similar system to Mythic, without the notion of “Yes, and” or “No, and.” Rather than the granular approach Mythic takes with the d100, Too Fat Lardies use a d10 for percentages.

A free product which I rather like, is a system known as IN-RADIC. It can be found here. The author makes use of 2d6 instead of percentile dice but the approach is the same. In addition, he provides an oracle and a set of pulp wargaming rules that can be used as a rules lite RPG as well.

Type 2: 50/50 Systems

These systems avoid the use of varying chances of yes/no and focus only on the 50/50 outcome. As this is probably the most common choice with the Natural Language to Percentage systems, you can be assured they work quite well.

The most obvious method of deciding a 50/50 question is to flip a coin. Perhaps more common among gamers is to roll 1d6, 1-3 = yes, and 4-6 = no, or perhaps, odds = yes, evens = no.

Either of these methods works perfectly well, but with little effort it’s possible to add interest to your game’s narrative.

Taking a hint from the various bits of advice given to GM’s to say “yes, and” or “yes, but”, we can use the dice to bring in additional details about the game world, our actions or the actions of NPCs.

Here are three such mechanisms, all based on the ubiquitous d6:

The first method essentially replicates the Mythic-type approach to using yes, no and extremes of both.

1 = “No, and “
2-3 = “No.”
4-5 = “Yes.”
6 = “Yes, and ”

Next, we can add the possibility of getting a Yes or No, but not quite exactly what we bargained for:

1 = “No, and “ (Not only no, but extraordinarily so)
2 = “No.”
3 = “No, but <something yes-like>”
4 = “Yes, but <something no-like>”
5 = “Yes.”
6 = “Yes, and “ (Not only yes, but extraordinarily so)

The problem with a straight "yes" or "no" is not unlike the problem with receiving that answer to a question in other day-to-day activities; sometimes it's acceptable, but it's harder to go someplace interesting from that.

So, finally, and my preferred, refinement: 

1 = “No, and “ (Not only no, but extraordinarily so)
2 -3 = “No, but <something yes-like>"
4-5 = “Yes, but <something no-like>”
6 = “Yes, and “ (Not only yes, but extraordinarily so)

An example might make all of this easier to follow.

The Scene:
Inside the tavern, Arnax’s eyes take a minute to adjust to the darkness that envelopes the interior despite the bright sun outside. He saddles up to the bar and the bartender says, “what’ll you have?”

Does he know where I can find the Old Man Who Gives Out Quests?

I roll 1d6. I get a 1, the result of “No and” on all three tables. I come up (i.e. made up, decided by GM fiat) with the following:

No, and he says, “If you value your life, you won’t ask again.”

Notice that the “extraordinarily so” doesn't have to be extreme, but if you want it to be, go for it:

“No, and he pulls a gun and shoots”

Or if surreal and dream-like is your preference:

“No, and he removes his head and punts it to the waitress who takes off running.”

What if I had rolled a 2?

The first and second approach would yield a simple “No”, which results in “No, he doesn't.” Helpful in some respects, but not for driving your game to interesting places.
The third approach could yield something like:
  • No, but he says, “There’s a kid who comes in here everyday and claims to know him.” 
  • Or No, but he says “For 50 gold crowns I might.” 
  • Or No, but he says “if you drink enough, they say he comes to you in your dreams.” 
You can see the benefit of the last approach in that, despite the question being a close-ended question, the results drive the game in new directions.

If you prefer, declare exactly what each result will be prior to the rolling of the die, writing it down to keep yourself honest.
So, for example:

1 = No, and he says, “If you value your life, you won’t ask again.”
2-3 = “No, but there’s a kid who comes in here everyday and claims to know him.”
4-5 “Yes, but it’ll cost you.”
6 - “Yes and he nods to a lone figure bent over a table nursing his drink. ‘That’s him.’”

This approach leads into the next type. 

Type 3: Dicing Between Options aka Featherstone’s Matrix

This method is similar to the last example, although there are two variations that I want to demonstrate.

The first I call “The Featherstone” and it gets its name to from an idea Donald Featherstone presents for playing skirmish wargames solo. As it turns out, it works equally well with role-playing.

The second variation is what I am labeling the Matrix method, based not on the movie of that name but on Engle’s Matrix games. It simply takes the argument resolution method from the Matrix games and uses it for deciding which of several options is, in fact, the case.

The Featherstone:

The Featherstone involves deciding upon the likely outcomes and assigning percentages to each of them, so that totaled, the result is 100%.

A simple yes/no result can be treated as 01-50 and 51-100 ,but you could include the “buts” and “ands” as well.

Does the bartender know where I can find the Old Man Who Gives Out Quests?

01 - 10 = No, and he says, “If you value your life, you won’t ask again.”
11 - 50 = “No, but there’s a kid who comes in here everyday and claims to know him.”
51-89 = “Yes, but it’ll cost you.”
90 - 100 - “Yes and he nods to a lone figure bent over a table nursing his drink. ‘That’s him.’”

But you could take it further:

01-10 No and he threatens you
11-20 No but he tells you a kid comes in everyday who clamis to
21-30 No but for 50 gold crowns he might
31-50 No but the old man comes by from time to time
51-60 Yes but he’s dead.
61-70 Yes, but you’ll need a letter of introduction if you want to meet him
71-80 Yes, but it’ll cost you 50 gold crowns.
81-90 Yes, but he isn’t talking until you order a drink, this isn’t a church.
91-100 “Yes and he nods to a lone figure bent over a table nursing his drink. ‘That’s him.’"

That’s a little extreme, but I wanted to demonstrate the possibility that this method opens up. In actual play, 3 or 4 options are plenty, especially for a yes/no question.


The Matrix method is something of a cross between the Mythic method and the Featherstone. Declare your possible outcomes, decide how likely each one is (called the strength of the argument in Matrix terms) and roll. The exact method and table necessary is illustrated here.

You could use the full Matrix method but it is a bit more time consuming to setup, as it is intended for multiple players.


Obviously, use whichever method most appeals to you, but if you are just starting out, I recommend using:

1= “No, and “ (Not only no, but extraordinarily so)
2 -3 = “No, but <something yes-like>”
4-5 = “Yes, but <something no like>”
6 = “Yes, and “ (Not only yes, but extraordinarily so)

At first, don’t worry about writing things down before you roll - once you find that you like solo gaming, you might not mind the few seconds that takes, but in the beginning, we want the game to move at a good pace to keep your enthusiasm high.

Why this method?

It uses the d6 which in all likelihood, everyone who owns a boardgame owns. It only provides four outputs, which are quickly and easily generated, and all of the results move the story and the game world forward.

So, roll the dice, go with your gut in terms of the result. Later, you can write things down before you roll, or tweak the results by combining them with oracles or random generators.

With our method for resolving questions about the game world, and incidentally, the other questions as well, if our rules of choice do not, we’re ready to play.


  1. Great post John, its always god to see other peoples perspectives on determining events and decisions.


  2. Nice post! I hadn't thought about the problems with the straight yes and no answers.

    1. Thanks Ricardo! The stultifying nature of the straight yes/no issue bothered me early on with Mythic but i was OK with it since after a question or two, Mythic players are encouraged to just go with what seems logical. That was until I encountered systems that incorporate the "and" and "but" into the outcomes. It definitely makes a difference in play.

  3. As usual, a great read John. It makes me appreciate the joys of solo role playing all the more... especially as I am just about to embark on a long solo dungeon crawl adventure/campaign; your thoughts have pushed my mind in a few new directions... which is always a good thing :))

    1. Thanks Manic Gnome! Great to hear you're embarking on a solo dungeon campaign. One of my favorite gaming genres to be sure.

  4. Not to disagree with the overall thrust of this post (which is well done) but for me as a GM, I feel that my primary tasks are to create the atmosphere, keep the story moving and make sure that all of the players are involved.

    While the dice (and script) are helpful, I usually find myself "winging it" to make sure that the three things mentioned above are taking place. For example . . . .

    Well into a battle, it has become obvious that the party will win but there are still baddies to kill . . . rather than take the time to fight it out the rest of the way, I have been known to say, "Okay, as the fight goes on, you kill the rest. Now roll 1d6, subtract 3 and anything left is your further damage. What are you doing now?" . . . This keeps the story moving without taking up too much "boring detail" time.

    But to get to the thrust of your post, I also very much like the "no, but" and "yes, but" concept. Well presented, John.

    -- Jeff

    1. Hi Jeff,

      If by atmosphere you mean in-game details that establish the setting, or the feel of combat, etc. then I believe such a thing falls under my first item: Questions about the world. This is, as I see it, part of the world-building activity a GM does, prior to and during play. The yes-no resolutions I discuss above are capable of this, but I would add that oracles and random generators work more efficiently.

      If you mean something like the out of game environment to give players a sense of immersion (gaming by candle-light only for a horror game, background music/noises, props, etc.) then, while I don't disagree that these things can greatly enhance play, i don't think of them as essential parts of the GM's role.

      None the less, there is no reason why you, as GM/player in a solo game, could not do the same for yourself. I haven't tried it yet, but now I feel i'd like to. I once scared the wits out of myself playing a Lovecraft style scenario solo. It was my first solo rpg experience ever - in fact it only used Mythic for the mechanics. Playing late at night, alone in a quiet apartment gave me the heebie jeebies.

      I agree completely with keeping the story moving - which is why I prefer the last option with yes, and, yes but, no but and no and results. Something is always happening to drive the story in some direction or another, without the dead ends a simple yes/no can bring.

      As for getting all the players involved, as there's only 1, i think solo gaming handles that rather easily :)

      I like your approach to combats that will obviously go in the party's favor. There are times, running both solo and social games, where the outcome is clear and it's just an exercise in tedium to continue the back and forth rolls. I don't know if my players would accept such a method, but I do see its benefit for my solo games and will have to give it a try. Do you just let the party decide what outcome they want at that point or is it always a given that they will kill everything? For example, very often my players like to capture and interrogate humanoids - sometimes releasing them, sometimes not - rather than killing them all outright. The wheels are turning now as i envision the party's desired outcome, but also the possibility that some of their foes might escape - something which is easily handled by the methods above.

      Thanks for your comment, Jeff!

  5. For the most part I agree but I think for a lot of players spending so much time trying to write out a table of possibilities can kill some of the fun.

    My way of doing things is I use Mythic for a question and then if my mind gets locked up on how to flavor things or where to go next ill use some form of story cubes. I have an app of cubes that has been a godsend

    @John I am curious if you handwave any off screen things in your solo games. For instance I had a squire in DCC who through some downtime, mythic, and story cube rolls ended up being recruited by the knight who squired her to go assist in a rescue mission.. Rather than create a brand new mission built around 1 character I used Mythic to ask if she died how the mission went etc... so essentially I handwaved it.

    Im curious if thats how you handle things or if you explore in detail every little podsible quest even if its at the detriment to the rest of your solo party. Before you mention it all the other PCs were i disposed or injured leaving them incapable of helping.

    1. Hi Aaron,
      thanks for the comment!

      I don't encourage new soloists to write down the options - as i mention, I like the yes and/yes but/no but/no and option and coming up with the results on the fly or just in your head. Maintaining enthusiasm in the beginning is far more important than procedure I think.

      I love the story cubes app. I owned the 3 main sets of cubes and still bought the app. It's great for playing when there's a spare moment at work. In a later post, I'll talk about oracles but combining them with the yes/no methods above makes for some interesting results.

      I agree with Fitz-Badger, you, in my mind, play a mini-game for that off screen scenario. Which i rather like.

      In the beginning of the Ever Expanding Dungeon, off screen stuff was just fabricated whole cloth without reference to dice or oracles or anything. While a PC might be featured here or there (Perceval and Sister Linkat often got star billing) they never went off on an adventure that would put them or the party at risk - although it didn't occur to me to do so either (as someone pointed out once, my solo campaign is more about the dungeon itself, and less about the characters that explore it, and I think, very often at least, that is indeed true).

      Today, I mostly use Mythic: Variations, which is not unlike your method. Essentially, I posit what happens, and then roll to see if that's the case, altering as necessary if not.

      It will be more clear as we go on I think, that I use a variety of methods depending on my mood - one of the enjoyable aspects of being a solo gamer. Your method sounds rather fun to me, and requires minimal additional dice rolling, so I will give that a try at some point I am certain.

  6. Jeff, the question is how do you accomplish those GM/DM tasks when you're playing solo? :)

    Aaron, I don't know if I'd call that "hand-waving". I mean, you didn't just decided on a specific outcome, you just played it out in less detail. :) For me, I think it would depend on how interested I was in the "side quest".

    Another thoughtful and thought-provoking post! Great series. Keep up the good work!

    Incidentally, I just found out about this new pdf at - the guy who wrote it posts on BoardGameGeek, about solo rpgs. I don't know anything about what is in his pdf.

    1. Hi Fitz-Badger,
      thanks for the comment and thanks for the link.

      I'll have to check out the PDF.