When you’re a kid, you don’t realize how much you’re taking the concept of “reading for pleasure” for granted. Elementary school allows for plenty of opportunities to indulge in it, too. Book fairs, after-school reading clubs, and field trips to the local library (depending on the neighborhood) are just some of the ways teachers encouraged kids to pick up a book and start straining their eyesight. I was one of the students who didn’t need much encouragement.
From the moment I picked up a Choose Your Own Adventure book, it was inevitable that I would become interested in tabletop RPGs. The idea that a story could be influenced by me each time I read it was novel to me. Video games, interactive as they were, couldn’t even do that. You could start a new world in Banjo-Kazooie, but once you knew the ins and outs and where all the collectibles were, there was nothing new to learn if you came back to the world later.
In practice, the only practical skill I picked up from the CYOA books was how to use your fingers as bookmarks in case you wanted to go back and do a choice over. But the point remained: I loved having a choice. I was killed 13 different ways by the Cave of Time, I gave myself goosebumps in the Little Comic Shop of Horrors, and tried being an Animorph for a book or two but I don’t recommend those.
Solo role-playing takes what I liked about those books and asks, “What if the burden of coming up with all the twists and turns hung on me and some dice?”
Trying to turn “Write Your Own Choose Your Own Adventure Book From Scratch Using RPG Mechanics” into an acronym gives you an unwieldy mess, but that is what a player is doing when they are solo role-playing. They create a character using the guidelines in the RPG rules. They establish why the adventure is happening and why it matters. And, instead of having their choices laid out for them, the player comes up with their own course of action from every possible action. It’s more work than choosing to either flip to page 47 or go to page 86.
So why do it?
Why invest time in an activity that can be reduced to a structured daydream? I can think of a couple of reasons.
You want to learn a new rule system.
Everyone and their mother knows the d20 system. You roll the dice, add a number, and then you check if it was high enough to beat another number. That’s simple arithmetic, with a binary pass/fail result. This isn’t knocking on the most popular role-playing game, either. There’s a reason I don’t even have to mention it by name. It’s easy to teach and easy to learn.
On the other hand, rulesets like One Roll Engine (ORE) or the Apocalypse Engine take a little more interpretation. If you and your game group wanted to play a game using either of those, at least one of you should be familiar enough to teach the rules to the rest of the group. Players don’t read anything, that means you, Game Master.
Since there’s no better way to learn something than to just jump in and start experiencing it for yourself, and here solo role-playing can really shine. You have more time to think through your rulings as a GM. You can pore over your list of GM Principles more than you would than if you were sitting at the table.
You want to use your generated material with your game group.
One of the unwritten rules that I’ve picked up about being a Game Master is to never throw anything away. Which applies to writing in general, but this is a post about D&D. Dungeons can be reused, NPCs can be repurposed, and plot points can be allocated to a random table when you need inspiration for your next campaign. There’s that saying about how there’s nothing new under the sun, just new coats of paint.
Playing Freebooters on the Frontier solo gave me a quick five-room dungeon, the beginnings of a hex map, reskinned halflings (can we call them Hobbits yet?), and a potential villain. And it’s all going in the GM’s Notebook. That material also comes with the benefit of already having been playtested. I know what the kinks are, and what to fix if it goes live. (So yes, I agree, the monster in the creator ruins did feel like an afterthought.)
Depending on your GMing style, game prep can be the most time-consuming part of the hobby. That’s why many Game Masters buy modules, or adventures, or dungeon starters, or whatever we’re calling them now, and tweak those purchases for their game. I remember many times I’ve used someone else’s material for my group, but creating is fulfilling and you should give it a go if you have the time.
You think it’s fun.
This is a cop-out, and I know it. Even with with all of the resources that exist now for being able to play RPGs online, sometimes you just don’t have a group to play with. But the itch is still there. You might roll up characters you’ll never use, or learn a countless number of games you think you’ll never play. That’s where solo-roleplaying comes in. You can finally send everyone in your Character Sheets folder into a proper dungeon to die in.
Sure, you might feel like a sad sack for playing tabletop role-playing games—an activity that is a social one, if anything—all by your lonesome. But, activities that can be done with a group can always be done alone, and can even be more rewarding for it. Video games, going to the movies, eating out, you name it. Although I’m sure that says more about me, though.
In the solo role-playing series that I started out with the Freebooters game, Perilous Wilds to supplement, plus Mythic Game Emulator on top of that, along with some Story Cubes, and a small personality table too. As the game progressed, I started dropping the latter three crutches I had set up for myself. They were getting in the way of the fun. That independence owes a lot to the ruleset and how it encourages structured improvisation. I’m curious to see what the experience would be like with the more traditional D&D.
If you’ve tried it out before, let me know in the comments. What was easy for you? What was more difficult? Did you have to use rules supplements?
Reign, my favorite game featuring the ORE ruleset
Speaking of the Apocalypse Engine, the second edition of Apocalypse World is out
Tips on creating interesting dungeons from Johnn Four
God’s Teeth was a masterful campaign written by Role Playing Public Radio’s Caleb Stokes