Single-player tabletop roleplaying games seem like a bit of an oxymoron since one of the most compelling features of tabletop roleplaying is the social interaction. Unfortunately, life often gets in the way of being able to meet and play around a table with others. But, luckily for those burdened by complicated schedules–or for people who just want to try out a solitary experience–solo RPGs can scratch the roleplaying itch.
Many RPGs can be adjusted to fit a single player, and as a result, there are no limits to the stories that can be played alone.
How To Play A Solo RPG
At its core, a solo RPG follows the method of a player reacting to a GM’s plot as in a traditional RPG with multiple players. However, in this case, the player will often react to the story in more ways than playing a single character. They’re the ones filling out the missing pieces of the world and documenting the twists and turns of the story.
To really play through these adventures, many RPGs use letter-writing or journaling to help the player keep track of the story as they progress. Using this helps the player get into the main character’s headspace, and it provides a finished product for the player. Solo RPGs will include instructions for how to play, but they are often inspired by writing prompts as much as they are inspired by RPGs.
Where To Find Solo RPGs
Players can pick up solo RPGs generally wherever they usually get their independent RPGs. RPG designers will sometimes host PDFs for their games on their personal websites or itch.io. DriveThru RPG is also a popular location for traditional and solo RPGs alike. Players can find solo RPGs in every type of genre and setting.
Players can find solo RPGs for every type of game. For horror lovers, there’s Wishing Sigil, an advent calendar inspired game about Krampus. At the end of each writing prompt, players draw a mysterious sigil based on their decisions. Players can also choose their solo RPG based on the type of experience they want to have. For example, All The Love We Leave Behind is a letter writing RPG about someone who has left you. The game uses only a deck of cards and something to record your adventure.
Structuring Solo RPGs
Normally, tabletop RPGs are cooperative storytelling. The same concept applies to solo RPGs. However, while most RPGs are synchronous, with the GM and players creating the story together simultaneously (with the exception of pre-session prepwork), solo RPGs are a form of asynchronous cooperative storytelling. The player and game designer are indirectly working with one another to create a story.
For designers interested in writing solo RPGs, they must prepare the bones of a story. The story should be coherent, but it should also not be restricting. Ultimately, the player will be deciding where the story goes. That isn’t to say that the designer has no say in the story. Ideally, they will be consistent about the amount of story they introduce to the RPG’s canon. Some designers include very little while others will have their players playing the same basic story every time.
Neither option is wrong, but in order to make an effective solo RPG, designers have to be thoughtful and consistent about the story. For instance, a story that has the player create almost everything themselves until the very end of the game must really earn that prescribed ending in a largely freeform RPG.
Mechanics are ultimately what set solo RPGs apart from writing exercises.
When structuring solo RPGs (or shopping for one to play), the rules will affect the player experience. For instance, very rigid rules with detailed option trees will be more reminiscent of a choose-your-own-adventure book than a tabletop RPG. The player should still have room within the game to be creative. Otherwise, it will lack the cooperative element that many RPGs tend to thrive on.
In addition to the story structure, the RPG should include mechanics to introduce randomness or choice. In popular games like Dungeons & Dragons, each roll of the dice helps to determine where the story will go. Will the adventurers slay the dragon, or will the beast best them? For solo RPGs, mechanical randomness is generally used with dice or cards. Playing cards or tarot cards can help determine what happens next in a story. Likewise, dice may determine successes and failures.
This randomization and gamification of the story dictates what the player chronicles. Often, these are fairly vague prompts. A bad roll or card draw will lead to a negative consequence, but it’s up to the player to figure out what the consequence is and how it fits into the narrative.
Game Master Emulators
If players want to convert a traditional game to become a solo game, there are always GM emulators. As their name implies, GM emulators take the place of a real game master. They generally use yes or no questions to create scenarios for the players. These can be used with a group or alone. All the player needs is a concept to start.
Emulators often also rely on randomness to tell a story. When players roll the dice, the result matches up with a result on a table. This could decide everything from location to the mood of random NPCs. At times, this method may feel a bit like playing 20 Questions with a ghost, but it can be an effective way to eliminate the need for additional people around the table.
About Fiona L.F. Kelly
Fiona L.F. Kelly is a professional writer and has been published articles about gaming and pop culture on Project Derailed, The Mary Sue, GeekGals.Co, and websites across the internet. She was also a writer on Onyx Path Publishing’s latest edition of Aberrant. Fiona can also be found on the podcasts Big Streaming Pile and Tales of the Voidfarer.
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