Solo Roleplaying for The Fantasy Trip, Part I

Solo Roleplaying for The Fantasy Trip

Not long ago, I discovered solo roleplaying. Before I got back into gaming, I always thought solo roleplaying was the classic Metagaming number by number programmed adventure–the old Death Test model. Then I discovered the Mythic GM Emulator… and everything changed.

When I first started gaming, and discovered The Fantasy Trip, most of the time I played by myself. Most of my buddies played AD&D, not that weird other game. I would play out arena games with my favorite character, or set up combat situations that seemed like fun. I had a blast. Little did I know that I was already solo roleplaying.

Why Solo Gaming?

But now things are different. Why do this by yourself? Why not play with a group of gamers? Well, the biggest reason for solo gaming is still because you don’t have anyone else to play with. Maybe you moved to a new area, or maybe you don’t have the time for regular sessions. Maybe you just can’t match up schedules with anyone else.

Another reason people talk about is to try out new rulesets before you play them with a full group. This can be handy if you want to learn the rules or see how they work before you have to explain them to anyone, but I’m not sure this would be a big driver for me. I would have everyone read the rules and then say “let’s play!”

BUT maybe, just maybe, you want to play some classic, old game that no one else wants to. Sound familiar to anyone?

Anyway, the bottom line is that sometimes roleplaying with a group is not feasible.

How Solo Gaming Works

So how does this work? Well, the basic premise for solo gaming is to have a combination of a ruleset plus what is called a GM emulator or engine. You can dress up different parts of the various systems, but at the end of the day–that’s it.

What this boils down to is having a story setting and basic plot, and then using some kind of random generator to move the plot along and introduce changes into the story to keep the player surprised. Your favorite RPG rules can be used to resolve conflicts, combat or success/failures. (Some solo systems take this as far as resolving conflicts with simple dice rolls, just like story changes). All of this replaces someone else writing up the number by number adventures for solo roleplaying like in the past.

Games can also be be played completely solo, as a group with no GM, or even as a group with a GM using the solo engine to randomly alter plots or surprises in the scenes. It’s up to you. The end goal is to bring the surprises to the player that are normally provided by a creative human GM.

There are a number of different sole engines or systems out there to choose from–see for a great list of systems and advice. Sophia has a fantastic site, with a ton of articles about solo play (and more).

That being said, HOW you play an RPG solo is kinda up to you. The exact mechanics varies between systems, but essentially you start with a scene, or place where something is about to happen. That scene has some kind of plot line. A character tries to do something or a question is asked, some dice are rolled and the solo engine tells you what happened.

This can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it. In fact, you can have the whole scene and plot be generated by the engine or random content tables, and go from there. Entire campaign worlds can be generated at random–or by your own creative mind. It is up to you.

The engine then gives you some clues about what happened, or what happens next. This usually involves some interpretation by the player. The engine may give you words like “pursue” and “death,” which need to be used to give some meaningful way forward. These two words could mean that the player should choose a particularly risky course of action, maybe even go out in a blaze of glory–it is up to you.

That action or course is then used to determine the next scene, and so on. If there are any combats to resolve, you play them out with dice rolls or with your favorite ruleset (The Fantasy Trip, of course…)

As you go about doing this, most systems suggest that you write down what happened and why, forming it into some kind of narrative. Some people post these stories online, some just have basic notes for future reference. You do not have to do that, but keeping some records of NPCs encountered, etc., does help for future scenes. How much you do is all up to you.

But How Does That Make You Feel?

To be honest, I’m still trying to decide. The first system I read was the Mythic GM Emulator, from Word Mill. I like the structure of it, even though it uses d100 and not my beloved d6. Still, there are a number of other ones that have great parts, too. Solo by Zozer is a great science fiction engine, and even the dirt simple, minimalist engines like Miso have their advantages, too. I like bits and pieces of each.

Where I have my biggest problem is finding the balance between random world (scene) and plot generation, and my love for worldbuilding. You could also see this as the conflict between random generation and playing a pre-made or planned adventure. The question is: how do you maintain surprise?

One option is to just let it all go and let the dice determine everything. This is great if you have no ideas going into the session, and just want to play. I’m too much of a control freak to do things this way, though. I want to have some level of worldbuilding for my characters to work with.

Another option is to keep everything pre-planned and just live with the foreknowledge. I have thought about doing this. You have to be careful to only let the characters act on knowledge that they actually have–not what you have. It is much more of a simulationist way of doing things, but it could work.

A compromise is to strip the details down as much as you can, treat anything pre-written or pre-planned as rumors, have a few different options–and let the dice introduce randomness. You still have your campaign setting, you determine the basic scene and plot line, but let the dice randomize as much as possible. (This is a lot like what Metagaming did for some of the old micro-adventures back in the day, with random encounters. This just takes it further).

I kinda like the last approach the best. I get to keep my campaign world and get to decide the basic plot for my characters, but I also will get surprised along the way. I could even let the engine alter the plot in ways I did not expect. That would make things more fun–but I still get to have some control.

The drawback is still knowing some of the major things that otherwise would be a surprise. That brings me out of the character and back as a GM. I think I can live with that, though, if I set up multiple paths for the story to go, or even let it happen randomly.

As I work through the different systems and play some games, I’ll write those comments up and post them on the site.

What Next?

So–this article is part one of a three part series on solo gaming. Part Two will cover the mechanics of solo gaming in terms of TFT, along with suggestions for engines and random content. Part Three will include a conversion of Death Test into a solo game using the Mythic GM Emulator or the CRGE system.

This is very much a work in progress for me. If you have used any of the existing solo engines for The Fantasy Trip, please drop me a line and let me know how that worked out! I’m very interested in your comments and feedback!

Marko ∞


  1. Marko,
    This how I how play solo as well.
    I have a set of plots that I want to play out and then let the dice fall as they may regarding scene surprises and battles.
    When meeting with a heavy hitter( like a dragon or demon with melee, spells, missle attacks and more), I use a random dice roll sheet that I created determine the monsters attack.
    For example: 1d6
    1-2 melee attack
    3-4 spell cast
    5-6 missle or breath weapon

    Then I break it down further again if there are multiple attacks in each field. 1d6 spell cast
    1 charm person
    2-3 magic missle
    4-5 flaming hands
    6 sleep

    I do this before the battle and preferably the day or 2 to keep me from putting the odds in my characters favor.

    Can’t wait to read the next 2 articles, thanks Mister.
    Mark Maloney

  2. Thanks, Mark!

    Part 2 comes out Friday. I like your idea for random tactics. I need to fold that in. I have been playing kinda like chess against myself—just turning the table and looking for the best objective play. That may not be the best, though.

  3. I’m re-reading this series, and just want to comment on the evolution of the mind-set of a possibly atypical solo player (me).

    I started solo gaming when I was about 12 years old (1972) — with wargames. In effect, you simply play both sides as best you can, and try not to let your personal prejudices influence your moves. I had to do this because my older brother began having less and less time to play them with me (he was in High School and increasingly busy with school things). Both of us were, and remained, avid wargamers from then on — I still am, he unexpectedly passed away eight years ago now; a loss I still feel to this day, not least because my most reliable wargaming partner is gone forever.

    Anyway, when I first started solo-ing, it was hard — my knowledge of both sides status and strengths completely prevented any possibility of surprise, and my lack of maturity with regard to “favorite” sides made it harder to play “fair” and win “honestly.” As time went on, I began to realize that “winning” wasn’t the point in a solitaire game, it was playing the game and seeing what happened during the course of it. This gradually began to outweigh my old non-solo playing habits and as the years progressed almost all of my wargaming has remained solitaire. It is still enormously fun, and I’ve learned to experiment with different battle and campaign plans for both sides during a game in order to see how those options play out — the ultimate in “what if” question-answering for a trained historian (which I am). Plus, no one actually gets killed along the way! ;-)

    Solo playing an RPG has gone through a very similar evolution for me — initially my “loyalty” to my character, interfered with and blocked my ability to let the chips fall where they may. Oddly enough, it was with “Grailquest” that I first learned to disassociate myself from my specific character; and simply enjoy the experience for what it was; in effect, it didn’t matter if I lived or died, but the adventure I was on was important (my character was a very cynical knight of the Round Table, and probably would have been “defrocked” by his fellow knights had they been aware of my actions during the game — I generally did the “right” thing in the game, but I enjoyed “breaking the rules” (of knightly behavior) during the game as well — it allowed me to sail successfully through a couple of encounters where, had I adhered strictly to the Knightly Code, I would have been in some serious trouble, though I no longer recall the details. This did two things — it cemented “Grailquest” as my absolute favorite TFT programmed adventure, and it taught me, once again, that “the play’s the thing.”

    Once you make that mental transition, I think the mere mechanics (programmed adventure, GM emulator, random dice rolls, whatever) really don’t matter as much — at least as long as you don’t demand a coherent plot line from the game (because, frankly, that won’t happen). So what that tells me is that plot arcs are not a thing for solitaire (except by sheer accident) but “sandboxing” definitely is. Time to break out the “Majestic Wilderlands” and start converting the monsters/whatevers in the hexes and towns and cities to TFT terms! Heck, I even can build character stories in a background that rich, and since the whole thing is normally based off of bad choices made by characters who have no idea what’s really out there anyway (even in group play), an oracle table or a few dice rolls actually kind of enhance that situation by taking the control out of my hands and making it the sort of near random decision making that I would see in a group in that world anyway!

    The key, I think is to have a fairly robust sandbox world to start with — so things like Majestic Wilderlands, Rob Conley’s “Points of Light” or even “Blackmarsh” books, or even something as small as “Dolmenwood” work just fine for solitaire backgrounds. Can I indulge in world building? Well, yes and no — no, I don’t get to design the world that way, but yes, I get to have an IMPACT on it, and that changes the way it looks, which maybe is enough for a solitaire game. Plus, I get some personal war-stories that may never be shared with anyone else, but definitely are fun to remember; and, at the end of the day, I guess that’s really a big piece of why I play anything! ;-)

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