Mention the phrase “solo roleplaying” to many gamers and you’ll be met with a very confused look. “Roleplaying — solo?? How is that even possible?” It’s not just possible, but practical as well — in fact, it’s sometimes the only way to learn a new RPG if no one else in your group has played a particular game before.

Admittedly, solo RPGing is a lot easier for experienced GMs than it is for people who have just played in RPG campaigns but who’ve never gamemastered. After all, what is gamemastering other than writing a short story or novel in which other people will participate instead of just read? Ideally, that’s the whole key to solo roleplaying: you’re writing a story, but you’re randomizing some of the key events. Your task will be to then make the randomized results fit together in a logical manner which will allow the story to continue.

Not all solo RPG campaigns need to be a “story”, either; in fact the easiest way to start out as a solo RPGer is to use a game which itself provides a great deal of structure with minimal decisionmaking. A great example of this was 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, circa 1980. The appendices in the Dungeon Master’s Guide provided a complete set of tables for generating random dungeons, monsters, and treasures. You could roll up four to six characters (usually a couple of fighters, a cleric, a magic-user, and a “wild card” or two), choose one of the provided “dungeon foyers” (starter rooms with stairs/doors leading out of the dungeon), and begin playing. You’d simply kick down doors, kill monsters, and grab treasures — and considering the fact that 90% of the dungeons played in gaming groups worked this exact same way, it really wasn’t difficult to make the transition from group RPGing to solo play.

It doesn’t sound much like a “true” RPG (and it’s not), but this is how most people tend to play AD&D anyway. Interestingly though, after you play a few sessions (and assuming your characters survive long enough) your characters tend to develop their own personalities over time, that is, if you’re putting a little bit of thought into what’s happening in the game and not just “chucking dice”. Your characters become more like real people rather than simply numbers on a piece of paper. (This is also highly unusual for group RPGs, because most players tend to make decisions in RPGs based on what they’d do in real-life anyway, not based on a separate personality they’ve devised for their imaginary character.)

If you have a fair bit of imagination, these personalities won’t be stereotypical, either. Instead of a barbarian swordsman who tries to solve every challenge by either killing or breaking something, it’s much more interesting to play a thoughtful barbarian swordsman who acts with deliberation instead of impulsively — after all, “barbarian” doesn’t equate with “stupid”. Historically, “barbarians” were simply members of non-Roman European tribes, not apish Neanderthal brutes; it’s only been in the last fifteen hundred years that the word’s usage has changed to evoke a different connotation. So why not have a thoughtful uncivilized swordsman? How about a cleric who struggles with “anger management”, a thief with a guilty conscience, or a magic-user whose first reaction to danger is to try blasting it to bits with a spell? I’ve attempted to play characters like these in group RPGs, and I’ve come to find that many other players don’t appreciate the extra effort, primarily because it makes them feel like they’re not really trying to “role play”; in reality all they really want to do is “level up” to play a more powerful character (e.g. one with bigger numbers on his sheet).

From a gamemastering standpoint, I’ve also discovered that many players don’t want to engage in problem-solving exercises involving complicated, interwoven plots and sub-plots, games in which actions and events in one session carry over into the next session. They just want to kick down doors, kill monsters, collect “stuff”, and rack up points. That’s why I have to laugh when old-time RPGers complain that “tabletop/paper and pencil” RPGs have been “replaced by video games”; most of the people I’ve gamed with play RPGs like they’re video games anyway, and if a campaign doesn’t allow them to “level up” at least once (or more!) every session, it’s branded a “failure”. I rather suspect this is why the more intricate RPGs and settings (such as the many incarnations of Tekumel which have been issued by different publishers over the years) never catch on; they’re too much work for players whose only goal is to achieve larger and larger numbers on a sheet of paper.

This is also why some of the most satisfying RPGs I’ve ever played have been solo campaigns. When you take your time with them and think about what you’re doing as you play, solo RPGs have the potential to become richly textured and highly entertaining “living stories” which can rival anything you’ve ever watched or read.

The first step in solo RPGing is, of course, to create your character(s). Whether you’re rolling a character’s stats randomly or “modeling” a character (using “point buy” systems, which seems to be the case with most latter day RPGs), the most important thing you’ll do isn’t the act of generating numbers and stats — it’s the act of creating a background and personality for your character. Who is this person? Is their overall outlook positive or negative — are they happy or angry? What is their family like? Who are the character’s friends? Other questions you should ask are dictated in large measure by the genre of RPG you’re playing. How did the character get his superpowers? How did she first get interested in casting spells? Why did the character join the CIA? How did the character learn to fly a starfighter? Simply answering these questions can give you many adventure/scenario ideas.

This brings us to the next step: now that you have some characters, what do you do with them? If you’ve never solo RPG’d before, this is where your choice of genre can be a huge help. If you’re playing a superhero RPG, there’s nothing wrong with starting out with a simple slugfest: create a villain (or a group of armed “normals” like bank robbers or terrorists) and go to town (or just wreck the town, if you feel like it). If it’s a “space opera” sci-fi game, have the character’s starship get boarded and hijacked by pirates. Cyberpunk (which, by the way, is a great “lost” RPG genre)? Have your character catch someone trying to boost his laptop. A “mean streets” game? Have a drug deal go sour just before the guns come out. Play your RPG like a “skirmish” wargame. This will help you get to know your new characters (as well as help you understand the rules if it’s a RPG you’ve never played before).

Assuming your characters survive the first encounter (sometimes they don’t — been there, done that), what do you do for an encore?

Sometimes the events of the first session/scenario you play will suggest the plot for the second. But assuming that they don’t, random tables for generating encounters or scenarios can be your best friends. If the game you’re playing doesn’t include random tables, just crib from a different game. This is one reason why I own dozens of RPGs, not just because of their divergent genres, but also because I very often find elements of one game which can easily be grafted onto another.

Here’s an example. I was heavily involved in Tekumel roleplaying back in the mid-1990’s. Tekumel is an impossibly baroque semi-sword and sorcery world setting which has been published multiple times (using different rules sets by various publishers) over the last thirty-five years. At that time I was gaming Tekumel using a mix of the Gardasiyal and Swords & Glory rules. I created a young Tsolyani character named Churak hiMrukkal as my main character, along with a secondary character who was Churak’s clan brother. Stuck for an idea as to what to do with these guys, I pulled the rules for Spacemaster (sci-fi rules, a completely different genre) off the shelf and found a set of charts for creating random “adventure seeds”. After chucking some dice I looked up the result and saw “Survey/cartographic mission” (or somesuch) and I instantly knew what I wanted to do. Churak’s clan had recently acquired a small holding in the southern part of Tsolyanu, near the border. He and his clan brother were tasked with traveling southward (itself a fairly long task) to make a map of the newly acquired fief. This was a veritable goldmine of possibilities for a solo campaign. Our boys could get into all kinds of trouble on the journey southward, in the new fief itself there could well be some serious resentment against the “new landlords”, the fief was so close to the Tsolyani border that there was the potential for an “international incident” (possibly accidental, possibly not), plus there was the usual byzantine Tekumel bag of conflicting clan, religious, and political loyalties to create endless complications. The result was a solo campaign which lasted for months, the plot of which became the most complicated can of worms I’ve ever seen this side of The Count of Monte Cristo: treasure, betrayal, duplicity, divided loyalties, backstabbing, sex, vendettas, double-dealing — these were the key elements, with more than a dozen major characters besides Churak and his hapless troublemaker of a clan brother all battling physically, emotionally, intellectually, and politically to see who would come out on top. And it all started with just a couple of dice rolls.

I once posted a brief synopsis of the plot online, to which a hardcore Tekumel player replied, “This is a SOLO campaign??!!?” After I answered in the affirmative, his reply was memorable for its laserlike accuracy and has resonated with me ever since. He mentioned that every major player in my little drama had acted using “enlightened self-interest” — and therein lies the proverbial “key to the solo RPG kingdom: every player character, non-player character, animal, semi-sentient being, etc., will tend to act with its own best interests at heart. That’s exactly how you determine the actions of the various characters and NPCs in your solo dramas: they will act according to their personalities and motivations, and usually in their own self-interest.

It’s exactly like writing a novel or short story, but with an important (and entertaining) difference. Sometimes random events (Lady Luck, freak chance, call it what you will) in the form of dice rolls will throw a monkey wrench into the works and cause something unforeseen to occur. The manner in which you’ll integrate these unplanned events into your campaign will affect (even drive) its plot and will largely determine its tone and character.

There’s a lot more to cover on this topic of solo RPGing and we’ll certainly come back to it later. Meanwhile, just give these ideas some thought — kick them around in your head a bit — and maybe give some solo RPGing a try. You might be surprised at what you’ll discover lurking in the nooks and crannies of your mind just waiting to come out.

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2010, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.