I've been an avid tabletop roleplaying gamer since the Satanic Panic, and while I'd played with using random tables or oracles to try to run solo games to feed my thirst to play, they didn't flow well or reproduce the thrill of "playing to find out". The closest I came to solo roleplaying success might have been old Traveller's character generation, where as I rolled the career that the character went through, I imagined what each roll of the dice meant. What happened during that period of service to get the character that +1 in Bribery? Of course, the fact that a character could die during character creation added some of the surprise or thrill that seemed to be missing from other attempts at solo play.
Fast forward to the pandemic in 2020, and even though I had been playing games online for years, I found that because of work and the pandemic, I couldn't often seem to find the time or energy for online sessions. This has made me think about solo gaming both as a form of entertainment and as a way to prep for running games for others: what better way to learn the ropes of a system than to try it out solo first?
Geek Gamers, on the other hand, came to solo roleplaying as a natural step from a childhood: "the way I make up stories comes from years of spending time alone as an only child and using my mind to create other worlds. Often those places had magic. They were always escapes." (p.2)
Later, their love of interactive fiction games (such as Zork), loving RPGs but not having a group to game with. Having a degree in Victorian Literature also seems to have informed Geek Gamers development as a solo RPGer in that they have a solid understanding of how plots develop and scenes are written to be engaging. In their own words, the purpose of this book "is [to] explain some basic tenets of storytelling and narrative and apply them to working with RPG rules, mechanics, and constructs. These are the strategies I turn to in my mind when I’m playing. These are what give my sessions the compelling stories you see developing. And these concepts are what I’ve put into words for you, here in this book." p.2
Even Character Creation is Play
Geek Gamers definitely delivers on laying out how to make solo gaming compelling and entertaining. First, they lay out that "Solo RPGing is what you want it to be, not what someone tell you it is." (p9) In other words, they give you the permission to bend or ignore rules in order to make the game entertaining. Some may think this strange, but for many following the rules is seen as being true to the game or author, so explicitly being given permission to do that in order to make a solo game fun is necessary for those people. Solo gaming is, after all, "all about story." (p.10)
How do you make solo play interesting?
This is the meat of the book. It is not full of oracles / random tables to help you along. Instead, they lay out the approach to setting up the scaffolding for a good story. Going against how the majority of RPG rulebooks are laid out, they say to start with the setting and hook over character development. Many of the tips are ingenious in their simplicity, such as:
- Setting a rule for when to cut a scene after 1d6 actions, which helps keep the story moving along and keeps scenes from stagnating
- How to avoid using dice when just picturing yourself in the scene could give you the answer.
- Don't start with character creation, but build the setting first, so that you're setting the stage for the story. What's the history of the place? You don't need it all, just the big picture or most relevant/interesting, of course.
- Start with a trinket to "anchor your character to the physical world." What's its history? Why is it important to the character?
- "[A]llow random table results to be interpreted as thematic results, not just literal ones." This helps to create a story with an arc and richness, rather than a cluster of random events and places.
- Use non-gaming books, such as novels to generate ideas by randomly flipping to a page or rolling dice to determine the page number, then read from the page to find the ideas you need.
- Don't look to tables to provide direction, but embellishment.
The book goes on to provide several other ways to come up with ideas to push the story forward and avoid the common dead ends that players often experience in solo games by using basic oracle tables. One of my favorites is creating your own random tables, and making them nested to provide more emotional or evocative places. Even the table titles can be made to be evocative: not "Wandering monsters" but "Escapees from the wizard's laboratory".
Needless to say, there is much more detail and guidance in the book to make you realize that solo rpging can be a narrative puzzle that can keep you engaged for hours. To help you along, the author includes a how-to-start-your-first-session checklist, as well as a recommended reading list that in many ways is for fiction writers or movie script writers. Then again, isn't that what we are doing in our minds -- creating a movie?
I give this 5 stars because it definitely succeeded in its goals, introduced me to new ideas and approaches, and it is a book I will be returning to reread on a regular basis as I sharpen my solo-roleplaying skills.