As I embark on my solo TTRPG journey, I got thinking about the core elements needed to run a game. I want my process to be as lean as possible, and I don’t want any impediments to playing a game. If I only have ten minutes to play, I need to marshal my resources as quickly and efficiently as possible. And besides, the more complicated a system is, the more that can go wrong.
After some thought, and pursuing several YouTube channels on the subject, I boiled it down to a set of rules, an artificial game master, and a means to record and journal my game.
While a Solo TTRPG game is heavy on the narrative (at least that’s how I’ll play), it’s still a game and games have rules. Without a ruleset, I’m not playing a game, I’m just writing a story — something I already do and enjoy, but I’m seeking a different experience.
The ruleset governs the basic elements of play — how characters are constructed and levelled up how characters interact with the world and its inhabitants, and how combat is initiated and resolved, and more. The rules provide a structure and framework for the game.
When most people think of a TTRPG they think of Dungeons & Dragons, and rightly so — with an active player base of 50 million people, it’s probably the most popular system. While I love D&D, its current incarnation (fifth edition) is rather heavy on the rules for solo play, at least for my needs. I want a lean system that I can hold in my head, not spend time flicking through rules.
Fortunately, there’s a wealth of other systems that meet my preference for simplicity — and many of them are better optimised for solo play. I’ll return to my process for choosing a ruleset in a later post.
In a traditional game with multiple players, a facilitator (typically called a Dungeon or Game Master), is responsible for establishing the story and world, running NPCs and monsters, and acting as referee and arbitrator. In a solo game, the soloist must act as both player and GM.
To play the part of the GM, most soloists rely on two tools: an oracle and generative or narrative prompts.
The Oracle is a simple AI designed to answer the kinds of questions a player would typically ask a GM. Is the door trapped? Is there a horse I can steal? How much is lodgings in this village? What are those dodgy-looking bastards whispering about?
At its simplest, an oracle returns a yes/no answer, with some oracles providing a graduated or variable likelihood based on the context of the game or narrative at that moment.
Oracles can also attempt to answer qualitative questions too, usually by returning a string of evocative words a player must then interrupt. The source material can be anything from a table of words, a deck of cards (including tarot), or even a passage from a suitably thematic book.
The best-known, and certainly most comprehensive oracle system is the Mythic GM Emulator, which not only contains an oracle, but a complete system and process for running solo games. I like Mythic a lot, and will address it more fully in a later post. Mythic certainly isn’t the only choice, however, and some rulesets specifically written for solo play typically include some kind of simplified oracle.
Generative prompts allow solo players to built aspects of their world, or serve as plot prompts. The most common is a roll table — a matrix, a list of options correlating to the results of a die roll. Consider this example to determine a dungeon’s form (source 60 Second Dungeon Design) — roll a ten-sided dice (d10) to determine the outcome.
|1||A former prison.|
|2||A fortress or castle.|
|3||A monster’s lair.|
|4||A mountainside cave.|
|5||A secret hideout.|
|6||A subterranean cavern.|
|7||A tomb or crypt.|
|8||An abandoned mine.|
|9||An ancient temple.|
|10||An underground sewer.|
Random tables such as these are made by the million by game publishers, writers (both traditional and indie), and GMs freely sharing content across the web. They can help you build your game’s world, populate it with characters, monsters, actions, and events — all on the fly.
Random tables can also be fantastic for prompting the soloist to move the story forward, or introduce unexpected twists in the narrative.
In addition to tables, randomness can be provided by cards, including playing cards, tarot, or cards printed with quests, evocative images and vignettes, map segments, characters, or even an oracle system.
Collecting a good selection of generative tools, relevant to your game system and setting, is certainly a worthwhile endeavour. However, I will admit there’s so much choice, it’s easy to become overwhelmed or acquire so many that you’d never use them. In a later post, I’ll share my favourite sources of generative assets, and offer my thoughts on how to manage and use collections.
The final element might either be the most or least important aspect of solo play. Certainly, it’s the most personal choice. You need rules, and I’d argue that you need at least some generative tools, but strictly speaking, you don’t need to journal the passage play other than to keep track of game between sessions.
Journalling is the artefact of play, the act of committing a record to what transpired and where we are in the story. This could be as simple as a character sheet, and a running list of events, or a more detailed narrative laid out as a story, or in-character diary, or even letters. As someone who enjoys writing stories, I lean towards the side of detailed narrative, but that’s by no means a requirement.
As for the methods of journaling… well, whatever floats your boat. I’m green with envy when I see people online sharing their beautifully written journals inscribed in exquisite hand-made journals. My handwriting is dreadful, so I prefer to type. Then there are the incredible people who can live play their sessions on YouTube or record them as podcasts — again, a form of expression to which I’m quite ill-suited. Regardless of what you do, just remember there’s no right way to journal your game, nor should you feel inadequate or inauthentic if you choose a medium that suits your preferences, abilities, and resources. Do what feels best.
The more I ponder this strange, niche hobby, the more enthused I am to explore and learn more. I’ve boiled down the core elements I think I need to play a solo TTRPG based on my personnel preferences, experience, and watching others more thoughtful and experienced than I.
Have I missed or overlooked something? What are the core elements of a solo RPG to you? Or indeed, what does this hobby mean to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences, so please sign up and comment!