This ultimate guide will teach you how to play a solo RPG in six quick steps and cover some common pitfalls for new solo players.
In this guide, I will discuss:
- What is a solo RPG?
- Preparing your solo RPG
- Playing your solo RPG
- Reflecting on your solo RPG experience
What is a solo RPG?
A solo RPG is just like any other group RPG, except you are both the game master (GM) and the only player. This may seem counterintuitive, however if you shift your focus towards a different outcome of play to the exploration of a narrative, then having the control of the GM and a player work in unison just as they do in group play.
A Solo RPG, like a group RPG, may last a single game session of an hour or more, or can be a sequence of sessions played over weeks, months, or years to form a campaign. If this is your first time, I suggest you start with a single session – there is no need for commitment here.
Much of the advice for running and playing group RPGs is still applicable, so keep your past experiences in mind if you have them. And just like group RPGs, there is no one specific way to play, and it is through play that you will learn how you best enjoy playing solo RPGs.
Preparing your solo RPG
When preparing your solo RPG, it is important to remember that you are both the game master (GM) and the single player. This means you can change anything and everything, and you do not need to follow the four steps presented here. Step 4, in particular, is partially optional. Think of these steps as more of a checklist.
Step 1: Choose a type of solo RPG that interests you
In the solo RPG world, there are two primary types of games: Journaling and Emulators. The primary difference between the two is how play is facilitated from the player perspective:
- Journaling games facilitate play as a player by writing or drawing a response to a provided prompt for a scene to roleplay. These prompts can be pre-constructed alike to the solo wizardry RPG, GRIMOIRE, or randomly generated.
- Emulator games facilitate play as a player in multiple ways, but typically will be more open-ended than journaling games with a less rigid structure imposed on scenes such as in the solo adventure RPG, GOLEM.
Note: Some emulators are not full RPG systems and are designed to work with any RPG. If you choose one of these, I suggest you choose a system you are comfortable with or a simple one to start.
In either case, the GM element is provided by imposing a scene or situation on the player via their character, whether that is a prompt in journaling games, or derived from the systems of the emulator in emulator games alike to the solo mystery RPG, Caught in the Rain.
Furthermore, any of these games may use game structures present in group RPGs such as dungeoncrawls or hexcrawls. Often they will include the relevant mechanisms to support this play.
If you want a more focused and reflective experience that can last as little as a few minutes to a few hours, then I suggest you try a journaling game. Otherwise, if you want a more sprawling and open-ended experience, then I suggest you try using an emulator game.
Note: Most systems will have an implied setting which you can use in your game, however, if the system does not include one or you are not familiar with it, then you should use a setting that you are familiar with or at last a generic genre that you can find inspiration in.
Step 2: Choose a recording method that is easy for you
Recording your solo RPG is an entirely optional endeavour with multiple modes to choose from, but the key is to pick something that is easy for you. Some games, typically journaling games, will specify the manner of recording, though you can usually change it without affecting the game too much.
Like many people in group RPGs, you may not record anything and simply rely on your memory of the sessions. There is nothing wrong with this, however if you want to ensure you remember key moments or just wish to have something to look back on, you may wish to record your game using one of these methods:
- Written prose can be used to turn your notes into something more akin to short fiction.
- Written key points is my preferred method and is what I do when I run group games. I make a few dot points of things that happen during a scene or at the end of the session.
- Audio or video logs can be done by recording your narration with or without video.
- Drawings and comics have become popular recently and are a great way to reflect the action of a given scene. Cartograph has you drawing a map as your explore the world.
You do not need to be a masterful writer, cinematographer, or illustrator; these notes are for you. You just need to pick something that will be easy for you to do either during or after play.
When and how you record will depend on the game and your preference. For example, some people play journling games and generate several prompts at once to then synthesise in one entry after the game whereas others respond to each prompt individually. It is always changeable, so pick something that helps you immerse yourself in the game.
Step 3: Create active character(s)
Creating characters is a common pitfall because if the characters are not active, then one half of the game will not work: the player! A character, or characters if you want to manage multiple, must have clear motivations and drives which they work towards.
If you have ever played a group RPG then you have likely experienced a moment in which there is an awkward silence after the GM has described a scene until someone speaks up meekly to move the game forwards – it happens. It’s not just me. Right?
A common reason for this to happen could be a:
- Lack of incentive for the players to respond.
- Feeling of awkwardness because people are uncomfortable.
- Players not knowing how their character would respond.
In a group RPG, the GM will keep things moving and players will learn about their characters and feel more comfortable as they establish their drives such as “be the best cook in the seven seas” or “eat the world’s largest pancake” (I’m hungry right now).
In solo play, you do not have the luxury of other people. One, very easy, step for you to do before you play is to create a character, you will embody as the player, with a clear and direct drive. Whenever you do not know what to do, then you can narrate how your character is going to work towards their drive.
Step 4: Gather your random tables and oracles
When preparing for your solo RPG, this is the only partially optional step: gather your random tables and oracles. The reason this step is partially optional is because you can play a solo RPG without randomly determining anything and just using an oracle to add twists when required, and journaling games will already have these included where required.
- Random tables are just an organised list of elements you can pick from or randomly determine (using dice or cards) an element from. They are prolific in the TTRPG community and I am sure you have at least seen the term. These tables can include elements from descriptions of what is in a kitchen drawer to more useful things like encounters with people on the road.
- Oracles refer to specific types of random tables. These random tables are designed to provide answers or inspiration to answers for questions you will have as a GM.
At the very least, you should have an oracle chosen that helps you answer binary questions (yes or no). Often, a system will include an oracle, but if not, you can create one very easily by following these instructions:
Create a random table with the elements that provide the answers: “yes”, “no”, “yes and…”, “yes but…”, “no and…”, and “no but…”. This will help you to add twists to your narrative. Weight the answers how you like, the more “and”and “but” you have, the more twists you will have in your game.
Here is an example for you:
(+3 for likely, -3 for unlikely)
To further your oracles, you may find it helpful to have an oracle that provides you with inspiration to help answer open-ended questions. These often come in the form of sets of random tables (usually two or three) to provide you with two or three words in the form of an action, a theme, and sometimes a focus or object. You can create one that is specific to your game idea by following these instructions:
Create two random tables. One is for a list of objects related to your game idea and the other is for a list of themes related to your game idea.
Here is an excerpt from a much larger tables in Caught in the Rain:
Finally, if your game is going to feature specific types of encounters such as monsters by terrain, or you wish to generate the rooms of a dungeon, then gather or create whichever random tables and maps required by the system or adventure. Remember, you do not need these, and an oracle similar to that above can often work in place of these more traditional random tables.
Playing your solo RPG
Now you are ready to play your solo RPG because you have a chosen system, a character with a drive, and some helpful oracles to help you answer questions.
When playing your solo RPG, you can talk out loud, quietly thinking about things silently, or anything in between. You can even change what you do because this is your game – do what feels comfortable and enjoyable (and sometimes try something new a few times despite the awkwardness).
Step 5: Start with action
When you first start, things are going to feel strange and awkward, particularly if you are new to solo RPGs. This is normal. Once you build up some momentum, it will start to feel more natural.
To help accelerate yourself to this natural feeling, start your game in a scene that demands your character to take action towards their drive you created earlier. This will help you to establish what your character is about and through this action, you will have lots of questions at the end of the scene.
Note: When your character takes action, that is when you would likely use the mechanisms to resolve actions in the system if you are using an emulator. Otherwise, follow the procedures in your solo system!
In fact, every scene you pose as you, the GM, to you, the player, should demand action from your character. This scene will continue until you feel a significant action has been taken and the scene is no longer interesting enough. Now you can move to the next scene!
If you are ever stuck on what scene should come next, or even what your first scene should be, use the oracles you created.
Step 6: Ask yourself questions
Asking questions is the core of a solo RPG experience, like in group play, because they help you detail scenes with questions like:
- “Does the wizardly chef want to eat me?” (I Rolled “Yes and…” on the Yes/No oracle and I guess the wizardly chef is not wasting time and is now striding towards me. Yeep!)
- “What happens next?” (I rolled “Guard” and “Clue” on the action and theme oracle, so there is a security camera overlooking the office I need to get into to find the documents. That complicates things!)
As you describe the scenes or the actions taken by characters, ask yourself some questions and use your oracles to help you answer them. If you ask yourself a question and you immediately think of an interesting answer, then go with it – you are not a slave to the tools you have created!
As you ask questions, you will likely develop more questions. This is normal, but an important part of play is to know when to stop asking questions and take action!
- If your character can act, and you think the action they would take makes sense in the fiction, then take the action.
- If you think the scene is boring, too simple for you at the moment, or some key information may change what your character would do, then you should ask a question to find out that information.
Finally, if you are ever stuck, then try asking yourself some of these generic questions:
- What is not as expected here?
- What danger is present here?
- Who is present?
- What is happening here?
And if you want to see someone asking questions in a solo RPG, then I recommend you watch a few seconds from this episode of season 3 of Me, Myself, and Die on Youtube.
Reflecting on your solo RPG experience
Never underestimate the power of reflecting on your solo RPG experience. Be honest with yourself here. The game will feel awkward for a while, just like group play, but it will become easier and will feel more natural over time.
If you find that you are struggling with the game, try doing something different like a different method for recording, a new system, asking less/more questions. Wherever you feel the tension is, try something new.
And, ultimately, you can always start a new game. This is for your enjoyment, so do not worry about finishing games – just try things out in the beginning.
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