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The Joy of playing Solo TTRPGs

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Gamer nerdity ahead, you have been warned.

Role-playing games are by their nature a social activity. Most of the time, at a bare minimum, you have two players. One is the Game Master (GM), who sets up the scenarios, tells the players what is going on in the game, interprets and adjudicates the rules, and more. The other is the Player, who creates a character that will interact with the world created by the GM. Usually you have several players, each with their own character, who work as a team to overcome the obstacles put forth by the GM in the game.

What happens, though, if your group can’t get together to play, and you’re just jonesing for a session of your favorite TTRPG? That’s where solo gaming comes in.

How do you take a group activity and play the game by yourself? I’m glad you asked that rhetorical question, dear reader. You can use an ‘oracle’, a system that takes the place of the GM, that will answer your questions and move the game along. No, it isn’t an AI program (although several of them exist) but something a little more old school. Dice and random tables.

There are many oracle systems out there, but my favorite is the granddaddy of them all, The Mythic Game Master Emulator, 2nd Ed. Written by Tana Pigeon, this book has much to offer solo role-players.

The basic mechanic is the Fate Chart. The chart has different levels of odds (Impossible, Not Likely, Certain, Sure Thing, etc.) and a Chaos Factor. The player asks a Yes / No question that they might ask their GM, but roll on the table to get the answer.

Say you have a barbarian fighter character, someone like Conan the Barbarian for example, and he is facing off against a three-headed beast. He is crouched in a defensive position, sword drawn, waiting to see what the beast does. Normally, the GM would be running the beast in this scenario, and would tell you what the beast does. If you’re playing solo, you put the question to the oracle. So your barbarian might ask “Does the beast attack?”

You may not have a feel for what the beast might do, so you set the odds at 50 / 50. Let’s say the Chaos Factor (an indicator of how much your barbarian has had things under control during the adventure) is at 5. You look at the table and find where the odds (50/50) meet with the Chaos Factor (5) meet. The table might have something like this : 20 50 80.

You’d roll percentile dice (which give you a result from 1 – 100) and compare it to the numbers. If you rolled exactly or below the center number (50) you get a ‘Yes’ answer, and if you roll above it you get a ‘No’ answer. If you roll under the left number (20), you get an ‘Exceptional Yes’. If you roll above the right number (80) you get an ‘Exceptional No.’

Now, back to our barbarian and his beast. You pose the question “Does the beast attack?” and roll percentile dice. Let’s say you roll 50, so you get a ‘Yes’. The beast attacks. Or you roll a 16, which is lower than the left number (20) and you get an ‘Exceptional Yes’. Not only does the beast attack, but a second one shows up to see what the kerfuffle is about. If you roll a 61, then you get a ‘No’ answer. The beast doesn’t attack. If you roll a 99, which is higher than the right number (80), then you get an ‘Exceptional No’. The beast doesn’t attack, and it nudges you towards a nearby set of bushes and you see a baby beast hiding there.

By asking Yes/No questions you can cover a lot of ground in your game, and you don’t need the GM to tell you what happens. You interpret how the situation goes, according to how you want your adventure to run, how the mechanics of the game system you are running, and other factors.

There is much more to the Mythic GM Emulator 2nd Ed., including how to answer more complex questions (What rumors does the barkeep share?), throw in random events, and fine-tune your adventure to genre expectations. I may cover these in a later missive.

Just why would you play solo? Well, you may want to try a game system that the rest of your group doesn’t want to play. They will not play anything other than Dungeons and Dragons, and you want to try Savage Worlds instead. Or you group always wants to play the sci-fi genre, and you want to play a spy in the 1960s. Or your group is scattered across the United States and you no longer have anyone to play with.

Is solo gaming a perfect substitute for playing with a group of friends? Of course not. Part of the fun is input from the other players, bouncing ideas off each other and laughing about the crazy stuff you do. But it can help satisfy your desire to see how the story of the game unfolds in a surprising manner.

I’ll probably do a few solo RPG sessions as part of the 6X6 TTRPG Challenge just because I won’t have time to get together with my group to get all the gaming sessions in. If I do, I’ll let you know how it goes.

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