Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Solo Play Styles

Currently, I am running a number of different solo projects and sort of dabbing at each. In one of these, I am trying some different options in order to speed up play. As with each style of playing an RPG, there are a number of strengths and weaknesses. In this post, I'll make some observations of some styles I use. Any solo rpg enthusiasts out there should feel free to contribute with some of the ways you play.

“How does one play an rpg solo? I mean, what do you do when you play?”

These are common questions in various discussions with those for whom the concept of playing an rpg solitaire is new. And, it’s a good one.

What do I do?

Some form of journaling seems necessary. Without having a written document of what transpired, it seems hard to say I’ve done anything...however, I’m pushing the envelope.

Journaling can come in a variety of forms: bullet points, brief summaries, or full-on prose. The latter can be nice, but it’s cumbersome and often leads to the endeavor stopping short. My current rate of completion on detailed prosaic campaign/adventures is probably 2%. At some point, it’s necessary to look at this alarming fact and admit that this style simply doesn’t work. I have had some fun moments with those incomplete projects, and sometimes review the journal with hopes of picking up where I’ve left off. However, I rarely even have time enough to sort through all the notes.

But can something really sketchy or reduced to only the fundamental facts lead to a fun experience? I am finding out now.

In my current experiment, I am using my new “Epic” (Mythic D6 Lite variant) to run a quick adventure — by ‘quick’ I don’t mean brief in terms of scope or number of scenes, but rather expedited with a barebones approach to my journaling experience. I tried to accomplish this with my Ultra Minimalist Solo Engine and use of FU, my fastest rpg of choice. However, it’s not so much the system that flaws the attempt — it essentially boils down to the problem of  detailing the experience.

So here’s what I’m doing: I am beginning a scene with a concise phrase of its setup. All the relevant NPC lists are there, of course. I am using Inkflow on my iPad as a scratch pad and note taker. I’ve even thought of carrying a little blank pocketmod around in my back pocket and a few d6’s, but I’m sticking with technology for the moment...I might also pick up an iPad stylus pen to make it easier.

After the setup, I play out the entire scene in my head, crunching any numbers, and resolving game mechanics as needed. When the scene is concluded — completely — I write only a brief paragraph summary of events in the most concise form as possible. This may sound like an obvious route for most, but I have always paused to summarize a few sentences about a particular turn the action has taken, or particular interesting dialogue AS IT IS HAPPENING, rather than when I can sit back at look at the scene as a whole. Then, if I am organized, a scene can play out in as few as ten minutes when I’m done with my written summary. I may even impose a word limit, (but perhaps that’s not necessary). Even though the experience is sketchy and short of detail, I still recall fondly the memories of the exercise and the particulars.

Am I still having fun? As of yet, it might be too early to tell. Part of the fun of rpg’s for me is not so much the characterization (immersion?) of the protagonist, but the weaving together of a good story with lots of twists. On that front, I’m having lots of fun.

I have also considered and experimented with voice recognition software. However, it tends to be fussy, and the frequent use of fantasy names in my games make it difficult and cumbersome. I have also toyed with the idea of simply using a voice recorder. I tend to get a little gun shy in front of a microphone, but I think it might work for some people.

What do you do? A nice discussion of what sorts of journaling techniques work for everyone can be a valuable resource. How much time do you spend writing, talking, or noting your adventures, and how much time do you spend actually playing? Any other tricks that make it a successful experience?


  1. Love what you wrote!

    I run hot and cold with recording my solo adventures. Many years ago, I would scribble the action on graph paper, and the ensuing mess would be my record of events. Back then, I didn't have the time or inclination to write up an AAR in earnest.

    Since then, I've done everything from thorough plot summaries to outlines and even a 9Qs fill-in sheet.

    What I haven't done: run 1 PC and write a first-person account of events. (Still not sure why I don't solo play a single PC...)

    1. Looks like I might be heading in the direction of your early attempts. Not very pretty to look at, but it gets the job done!

  2. I'll apologize in advance if my thoughts are too jumbled to follow.

    For my Ever Expanding Dungeon campaign, i have found that people are as interested in the decision making that leads to the narrative as the story itself. So, when I'm playing, I record mechanical details, including the exact question i'm posing to Mythic (or whatever system I'm using that day), the odds i set, the die roll and notes on how I interpret the results if it's not going to be immediately clear, as well as all rolls for RPG system mechanics that arise in play (combat, listening at doors, etc.). In addition, I note character actions and snippets of dialog.

    My descriptions of actions are always in the present tense, as I'm involved in the game, not writing the summary yet, and I tend to type a slightly more terse version of what i would say at the table if i were the caller for a party:
    "Sister Linkat watches back, Manchiever protects torch, Perceval kicks in door" or "Sister Linkat heals Perceval while Bomgoster checks the chest for traps"

    For the latter example, I'd follow with a note of the result of the die roll for healing as well as the die roll for the detect traps skill.

    If there's dialog, either intra-party or with NPCs/monsters, then i type out the dialog - not grammatically complete, but enough that i can re-asemble what was going on in my head, when i come back to my notes later.

    I really get sucked in when i'm in player mode- i get excited when things go well for my characters and sad when they don't. I try to bring intensity to the role of player - really caring about what happens to my characters and making decisions for each character as if i were that character.

    I try to record both character moments and "player moments", for example, in what seems like a sure-lose combat, things start going my way and then one of my characters hits for max damage and kills the creature, i'm probably saying "F' yeah!" and so i type that along with a quick description of a devastating blow delivered by the PC. I want to remember where the excitement was.

    When things go badly, usually due to my own poor tactical decision making, a string of curse words appear on the page.

    When the session is over, the solo RPG portion is over; what follows is writing up the session summary, which I see as a distinct activity.

    i copy and paste the document into blogger and begin editing it into the narrative that I'll post. Tenses of the verbs are changed to past tense, i flesh out descriptions that I had only briefly notated, I fix grammar and punctuation, and organize the notes on mechanics into the text in a way which i hope will be non-obtrusive for those who don't care about them. I draw on the "player moment" notes to help me remember how the situation felt while I was playing it. And, I'll add some thoughts that my new perspective, as story teller and not participant, has given me.

    1. Okay...I love it, and the result is rewarding and great. Looking through your actual plays, that still accounts for a big investment in time, doesn't it? Two scenes, one of which might feature combat with multiple participants. From beginning (actual role play) to end (publishing on your blog), how much time might these two scenes represent? Perhaps you're more efficient than I. I have to ruminate and consider some actions, or what move to make next.

      For me, the type of notation you're talking about tends to be a killer. I am fighting for something that will give me a few rewarding scenes (say, 3-5) from start to finish within 45 minutes to and hour. Granted, the final format won't be of much interest to other readers unless one takes the time to notate and elaborate on that format.

      However, I agree, seeing some of the mechanical notes gives lots of insight as to decisions that formed results.

    2. I rarely have more than 2 consecutive hours for my solo gaming, and most often, not more than 1. That said, I spend the whole time i have playing (minus setup which, depending how long I've been away, can take a bit - that includes finding the file I store my notes in!).

      Write-ups took a lot longer when I first started my solo RPGing (i had no system of any kind in place and it was a hodge podge of typed notes, pencil and paper notes and my memory), but at this point, it takes 20 minutes to an hour depending on how mechanic heavy the session was - they take a lot of time to identify (sometimes they are buried in the other notes because i was caught up in the action) bracket out and clarify. In the beginning, I didn't include this info, but people requested it and when I go back and read the entries, I appreciate that it's there.

      A lot of dialog also slows the write-up, if only because I need to make clear who is speaking.

      I usually spend my lunch hour the next day doing it - rarely does it take longer, unless the session was longer than usual.

      Because my on-going campaign, at least, is not plot oriented, there are rarely scenes in the sense of say JF's 9Qs or even the 5-Room Dungeon model. When I do use those models, I can play approximately 2- 3 scenes (sometimes less, rarely more) in an hour, depending on what happens in the scene. Honestly, I spend very little time considering my next move because usually, I'm in a dungeon and the next move is either some variation of "keep exploring or get back to town."

      Combat takes about as long as it does when I run a social game - maybe less - and I treat it as such, i.e. I don't take any more time to think about what i'm going to do than i would at a table with others. The social roleplaying, especially dialog, takes a lot longer, as I use Rory's Story Cubes, Mythic and a host of other randomizers to help me construct the NPC responses - sometimes the rolls, several in a row, don't give me anything I can use.

      Where I spend the most time considering options is the "between session" story line, the setup for the current session if I didn't leave off in the middle of an adventure. Here's where I'm doing more writing and less game playing, although I still turn to Mythic and Rory's cubes et al. for the sake of pushing me in directions I might not have considered. My most recent entry (Session 25a)- took an entire lunch hour to write and I hadn't actually DONE anything other than discuss what the characters had been up to since the last, and rather depressing, session.

      All of that said, when I've done more plot-oriented/story oriented games, they have taken considerably longer as there are decisions to be made that are more complicated, and I might end up only playing 1-2 scenes per hour of gaming.

      I also solo wargame, and, for that, i have yet to find a satisfactory system that doesn't detract from the fun/momentum of the game itself. I think I'll borrow your method of concisely summarizing the scene once its done, but replace "scene" with "turn." It seems like that would be far better than the jarring note taking i do now.

    3. I agree that some form of journaling feels necessary to make the session feel like it holds weight. I generally stick to bullet points, unless I think I may need to refer to it again later and then I add some more depth.

      I also like to write as I go, rather than recap after the event/scene/whatever. I keep all my solo notes and printouts in a mini-binder along with the Fate Accelerated rule book.

      I prefer paper notes, and I like structure, so I've been using self made journal templates for my Fate/MGE/9Q's solo games. I'll add a link to the pdf on my google drive in case it might help anyone.


    4. @ JY, by comparison, you are quite efficient if that's all the time it takes you! I often work by mobile devices (phone, iPad), which can slow things down a bit, but even in my barebones notation system of a brief paragraph that I'm using now, I still can only get through about 2 scenes in an hour. My systems tend to be lite, so there's not all that much rolling involved.

      @ Geoff, having a notebook is great. My available times are sometimes between appointments and on the go, so another reason I like something mobile and accessible by iPhone/etc. I would love to have a binder if that fit my style. Writing as things happen seems to be the natural thing. However, by doing that, it seems to fragment the experience.

      Thanks for the link to your sheets. Very nice code! I'd like to see a completed one... ;)

    5. Here's one filled out from the adventure I'm currently playing through. I'm only running a single PC, with the occasional lackey, and he's trying to sneak into a supply base to get at a cache of recently received ancient artifacts.

      Side note, if anyone actually reads it, the Mythic GM actually rejected my proposed roll at one point. I knew I was stretching the use of an Approach and decided to give the d10s the final say. They were not inclined to grant my request ;)


  3. For various games I have a variety of notebooks or 3-ring binders, in which I jot down notes as I go. Usually as bare-bones as I can make it. Sometimes this means I'm not sure about some of the details. Mostly I take these notes for myself. Like you all, and others, have said, keeping some kind of journal(s) or game notes helps make the solo games more concrete, helps keep track of things (especially, if like myself and many other solo gamers you play a variety of games, sometimes not getting back to a particular one for a while), and can be a source of amusement, inspiration, and memories in the future.
    Writing up reports for other people to read takes more time and care. I may create maps, take pictures of the game in progress at key steps, edit the photos, write up my notes into a coherent story. But not a story in the sense of a polished piece of fiction or anything; more of a story of the action/game. If that makes sense? I don't often include specifics of game mechanics, but since I like to see them in other people's reports to some extent I probably should do it myself, too. Doing all the maps, photos, write ups, editing, etc., takes a lot of time for me usually. I'm not very efficient or practiced at it.

  4. I've toyed with recording the action orally, but it wasn't much better than writing and ended up with a lot of "um's" and "aah's" that will need to be edited out. :)

  5. One thing that inspires me on this subject is the mapping portion of the game Chronicles of Skin, and also by How To Build a Dungeon. I have an intuition that somehow mapping out your solo game events might be an ideal way of solo play. The only thing would be coming up ahead of time with enough symbols to represent key aspects of your game.

    Anyway, on a general level, I do think that a satisfying solo game needs some sort of output; just keeping everything  in your head sort of makes it feel like "nothing happened" because for me, when I output something it feels like it has left my head and become something more "substantial" rather than staying as something that is just "potential

    1. I love maps and mapping! Since I like to come back to areas I've been before sometimes it's nice to have something visual to refresh my memory when I do. I also love Oone's Blueprints for some adventures. I recently bought their Great City PDF, and plan to try and solo a fantasy urban mystery game with it.

  6. I agree that some form of record keeping or documentation is necessary. I also find myself still struggling for the perfect way to do it. As you can see and read in my play reports at my solospelunking blog I tend to use full prose which I write as I play. However, sometimes I think I would get more gaming done if I could keep things short and sketchy. So for my last session report (Edge of the Empire Session 2) I had a paper notebook and played the scene in my head while making very short notes (two to three word sentences, without really paying attention to grammar or punctuation) while I was playing. I typed up a session report afterwards using my notes. I documented some game mechanics but not every roll. Judging from this experience it worked fine for me and I will continue this course of action in the future until I feel the need again to do things differently.

    1. Hi Caraten! Glad to hear you are back. I, too have taken a little break due to RL, but am also slowly getting back to it.

      The writing issue is a real dilemma. I have to admit the thought of such brevity is not immediately appealing. However, it still turns out a fine product. I find that when I go over old play journals, I also don't want to read a novelette. Some of the mechanical details also helps understand what transpired.

      I like your newest SW:EotE post!

  7. Hi, I am new to solo roleplaying (and roleplaying), your blog is amazing for showing me how and giving me inspiration to have a go. I really love this post and all the comments about journaling the game and how much detail to use. I think I will probably use lots of detail to start with, and the dice rolls / game mechanics to help me as I am learning, and see if I want to abbreviate it later.

    I plan to learn to play Shadowrun and Dungeons and Dragons, and have recently stumbled across a Warmachine book, which I believe is wargaming rather than RPG? I don't know much about it, but picked it up in a charity shop to check it out!

    Am really excited to find many other Solo RPGers! I have previously questioned RPGers on forums to find they all think it is impossible or pointless to play solo. I am so glad to see your blog and so many comments proving otherwise!

    Many Thanks, and please keep posting!

    1. Thank you for visiting, and your kind words! Don't listen to those folks on traditional forums, and keep doing it whenever you can spare a moment.

      D&D and Shadowrun are some crunchy systems! You will learn a lot, I think, because these will demand much from you. I'm not aware of Warmachine, but sounds interesting.

      Be sure to check out the Google+ Community, Lone Wolf Roleplaying. Many of us active solo players meet up there to discuss. https://plus.google.com/communities/116965157741523529510?cbp=1crz14azkfe17&cid=5&soc-app=115&soc-platform=1&sview=59

      Good luck, and happy gaming!