Sunday, August 25, 2013

Ghosts of Gaming Past

One of the fundamental things that drives me towards roleplaying games boils down to one thing and one thing only…the fiction.

I know that there are debates about what gaming is, and that there is a divide between rpg gamers and story gamers. An rpg is a GAME involving a gamemaster and players who seek immersion through the perspective of their fictional counterparts, while a story game is like an rpg, but is more about GENERATING STORIES with a collaborative approach to the experience using fictional characters and slightly different mechanics for steering and controlling narrative on a more democratic level.

Although the latter approach appeals to me more, I don’t participate in or give a hoot about these arguments. The bottom line is that it still produces fiction…stories. Whether generated by this, that, or the other approach, we are entertained through participating in, actively, some form of storytelling.

That’s no brilliant or original conclusion, for sure. The thing about this form of active storytelling that I like are the memories of the good ones (and often not-so-good ones) that I carry with me. These are my ghosts…my gaming past.

The older I get, the more this form of nostalgia takes a hold of my tendencies in by-myself roleplaying/story gaming. What would it have been like if that particular cast of characters had continued before all of us moved away? What would have happened if that other game would have taken the alternate course and not gained the king’s favor? I find that reminiscing about old games, or revisiting old characters is something I can fully explore in my solo games. I am more in control of the story themes and direction when I game without others, and I won’t have a disagreement with something another player does that will ruin my fun.

So, why don’t you just write stories?

That’s an argument I read about all the time. What difference does it make to you how I have my fun? That’s my first response — and why would my personal gaming fun offend anyone else? If you don’t like it, then don’t do it. Another answer is that I don’t want to write stories. Firstly, I wouldn’t come up with the same plots and complications if I was in 100% narrative control. Two, I’m not that creative. And lastly, I want to play a game. I freely admit it. I like dice. I like fussy, geeky little rules. I like qualifying and quantifying aspects about fictitious personalities, and I like the unpredictability of outcomes generated by the rpg system I have chosen. Yet, my ultimate goal is that I will find a bit of cinematic conflict unique or memorable, or that I will remember a great campaign, whether in odd moments, or culminating in the ultimate triumph for the protagonist.

Memories of games from days gone are my gaming ghosts of the past, and I find them more and more infiltrating my present endeavors. Since I don’t have other players off of which to bounce ideas, my past serves as inspiration for solo games I plan. It keeps me involved with the exercise, because I already know a lot about the character, and a care about him or her on a personal level. Original characters can sometimes fall flat unless I take the time to flesh out a detailed backstory (which I’m reluctant to do because of my time-challenged nature), and I do need help sustaining the will to carry a solo game on.

That brings me to my hurdles. I have many issues that oppose continuity in my solo sessions (“sessions” sounds too formal — how about “moments”?). Obviously time, or lack thereof, is the main no-brainer. Can’t fix that.

The question is the format of the solo game. How does one go about playing a game alone without a GM? There are numerous tools out there, John Fiore’s Nine Questions for one (a personal favorite), the Mythic GM EmulatorRory’s Story Cubes, and a slew of others. I don’t mean that — although I’ll undoubtedly touch on those tools in future posts — but rather in what form does an actual game take? Do I imagine the action in my head and take a few notes? Do a record a turn-by-turn journal of the action as it is taking place?

I tend to be verbose in the journaling that I do of my solo games. I enjoy reading them, and feel a bit more connected to the story. Obviously, it takes a great deal more time, and time is a roadblock. With few blocks available, anything that slows it down can eventually be an inspiration killer. I can enjoy a form of journaling in which a scene is outlined in a brief paragraph, but somehow I also feel more disconnected from the fiction this way. Where is the balance? There needs to be something —  some form of notation. This is something I struggle with a great deal. In hindsight, however, I do tend to return more often to an adventure or series if the degree of detail is higher. As I read through old games, I tend to get excited after an intervening break and want to return again. They are just painfully slow (to me) to journal.

The other thing that is my bane is a terrible case of gamer ADD. Regarding systems, I don’t really have too many between which I float. I like light narrative-based systems that allow me to move through the action quickly (FU rpgPDQ, and currently I’m on a Fate Accelerated kick). However, a game (character-wise, adventure-wise, premise-wise) has to click well or I’m off thinking of a new setting, character, or idea.

Among other solo gamers, what are your dilemmas?


  1. Hi Chris, Rory here (of Rory's Story Cubes). The question you pose is the exact reason why I have not yet embraced Solo RPG's. How do you run solo RPG moments, when (in my case) you don't enjoy writing and have gamer ADD?

    I love John's 9Q's and REALLY want to Solo RPG. I even started a Dungeon World session and got to Q4, but had to stop and never returned! I have bought FU on your recommendation and will keep you posted on how that one goes! Keep up the great posts.

    1. Hello Rory! So nice to hear from you! And thanks to you and your team for your fantastic RSC line. If there's one most important tool for my solo RPGs, it's those.

      Regarding your question, I wish I had a sure answer. I certainly have lots of experience trying different ways. I think it's something all solo gamers have some issues with to some degree. If you don't like writing, I think there's no avoiding some form of notation. But, here's a few ideas:

      1. Use FU for a 9Qs session. On a notepad (or perhaps nine sheets of paper wit h one of the Q's pre-printed on each), write the briefest, most concise sentence you can summarizing how the action begins: "Belgrok faces a score of orcs in a forest." Then, write purely mechanical notes for each segment. FU uses those closed questions and answers. "Does Belgrok hold his own on the field? No, but... (Slowed)". And just like this, put a one or two word Condition, Detail, or action result. In this way, you see the outline of the emergent story. FU is similar in some ways to the Dungeon World mechanic, as far as results, so it WILL push the story forward with the right interpretation.

      2. For a little more writing, use JF's fillable forms:
      With these, one has a finite amount of space to write. At least there will be more flow and narrative sense this way.

      3. Use a two minute timer to set each scene from the time you read the question and make rolls to the time the proceeding action happens. If the brain is slow (not being prompted by other players), the timer may add some drama to find logical and/or exciting scene elements.

      Just some thoughts. If I come up with more ideas, I'll definitely put them here in the blog.