I once read a funny definition of tabletop roleplaying. It is the exchange of emails detailing calendar conflicts in the faint hopes of gathering for a few hours. There is a lot of truth to that, at least in my experience. Our GMs have to really have an idea in their campaign for easy exit when a player can’t make it for the weekend. We have backup plans of board games and card games. It takes a lot of work, contingency, and flexibility to come together for our favorite hobby.
It was even worse when I had to move a few states away.
During that dark time I found a hidden movement within RPG gamers for solo gaming. It feels contradictory in a way. Here is a hobby built on social gatherings and interactions. Why play it solo? I’ll get back to that. First I want to talk about how.
There are a few systems I’ve seen to solo RPG. Some are run as adventures very similar to a Choose Your Own Adventure-style book. Others are more open ended.
While it has some flaws, my go to system for solo RPGs is the Mythic GM Emulator (GME). I like it because it is a pretty good system, and it can be used with your favorite RPG. The crux of GME is the player asking questions, deciding likelihood of the answer, and then rolling to get an answer. It’s all about context, and narrowing the scope of possibilities. An example in a Walking Dead-themed RPG might be:
Is there someone in the house? Yes. Is it a zombie? No.
Then the player has to decide whether they “know” or keep asking. It is a bit of an art to give up control while keeping the flow moving. Getting bogged down in questions is not the way to play a game. In an earlier scene the player might have heard about a gang of looters. A looter becomes an obvious non-zombie answer to someone being in the house. Alternatively, if the player asked if the-someone-in-the-house was a looter and the answer was no, the obvious choice is “it’s a zombie.”
GME adds some changeups with random events and extreme answers. If the answer to is there someone on the house is “exceptional yes” then that person might be living there. Alternatively, a random event could take the direction of the scene in wild directions. GME is all about context. Never ignore the context of the game, situation, or character. Those should be ruling influences.
Besides the system I play in and GME, I use another tool I created called UNE – the universal NPC emulator. I felt that GME does a great job creating situations, but I was finding that whenever an NPC interaction occurred I was pretty unhappy with the result. Either I felt that I was too heavy-handed in control or that GME did not provide anything useful. UNE was built to create interesting NPCs and interesting interactions. (I am working on another supplement called BoLD – the book of legendary deeds, but I’ll save that for a future post when I get it in better shape.)
The best reason for why to do this is to create stories within your favorite role-playing game. It’s a totally different experience from the social interaction of conventional tabletop roleplaying. I have dozens of role-playing books where the adventures have only existed in my mind. There is simply not enough time to make use of all the systems and content I own (and love).
When I first started using GME, I was doing so in a campaign sense. An early example is A Tale of Two Brooklyns campaign I did involving a vampire in Brooklyn at night (Ci) and her human brother in Brooklyn by day. I loved that campaign, but the reason I quit writing it was I had no idea where it was going. It was getting way too complex with Ci’s relationship to the Prince, her secret society, how to handle her brother, and the culminating story. I feel in a conventional setting the GM would have trimmed the fat down to the core. In a solo game the possibilities were endless.
It was after reading a piece of Exalted fiction that I realized there might be a better way for me. I wanted to find stories in all the content I owned. I wanted to play a werewolf fighting evil corporations, or a treasure-hunter digging into a Kaer, or a superhero, and even a troll in Dungeons & Dragons. There was no way I could hit all those with endless campaigns.
The piece of Exalted fiction was a very narrow story. It basically has three parts: a conversation leading to the birth of a hero, the hero getting a very short amount of time to learn to be Exalted, and then the battle with the Fair Folk. Three perfect scenes and an entire story was told. Since then I’ve been playing more along that route.
I force the story to conclude earlier rather than linger on. Doesn’t mean I can’t come back to that character to tell another story (unless they die), but it does mean that the character has that story.
A solo RPG system can grow beyond solo play. I have used GME successfully in having a play-by-post campaign where there was no GM between the three of us. I’ve also read plenty of discussion where GME was used at the tabletop to create a shared roleplaying experience. I’ve never done it because a few players in my gaming group believe that crafted stories are better than these filthy randomly-generated stories. I would agree if I have not seen beautiful stories come out of playing.
I would highly recommend joining the GME Yahoo Group, and here again are my online public postings: A Tale of Two Brooklyns and Solo Savage Species. Currently I am testing out BoLD by solo playing a crafted adventure (not really GME). I still use GME and UNE as necessary, but there is less need for those since context and direction are pretty fixed. BoLD is all about the player’s “moves”. Also check out Solo RPG, which is a neat tool to help.