Analyzing solo procedures - part 1

The last weeks I've been doing a deep dive into playing ttrpgs solo, with a specific focus on solo procedures for games that are not specifically for solo play, as I am planning to add solo procedures to Pine Shallows.

What are the necessary elements to facilitate solo play? What cool tech is out there? How does solo play even work?

Disclaimer: This is not an exhaustive research project, my aim was to learn enough to be able to write my own solo procedures.

So why this article? I'm probably not the only creator that wants to add solo rules to their game, and writing this also helps me structure my thoughts. I do hope this is useful for other people, though. Let me know what you think, and if I missed any cool games!

I've looked at a number of categories of games: games with added solo procedures like Eco Mofos, We Deal in Lead/Runecairn, Cloud Empress, adventures with specific solo procedures like Thousand Empty Light, some solo games like Ironsworn, and some system-agnostic solo procedures like Recluse. I also looked at some games that implement the nice clue/theorize move from Brindlewood Bay, which fits solo play very well (more about this in the next part!).

While I did check out some more exploration driven solo games, like Glide, and some dungeon/hex crawling games, which are pretty cool, they didn't fit very well with the type of narrative game like Pine Shallows.

In this first part I'll look at the following elements:

  • The Game Loop
  • Oracles, specifically:
    • Yes/No Oracles
    • Prompt or Spark Oracles

In the next installment I'll look at providing narrative structure: how to start a game, how to move the plot forward and how to wrap up scenarios.

The Game Loop

Of course every classic roleplaying game has an implicit structure built in: the GM describes a situation, asks 'what do you do?', the players respond, the GM describes the new situation, etc.

To be able to game without a GM, you gotta need some explicit structure. If you start looking for solo play resources, there's so many people that just feel lost on HOW they should actually do it. A loop can be as simple as how Ironsworn presents it:

  • Fiction: what's the situation, what's your intent?
  • Make a move & resolve the outcome
  • Fiction: Apply the outcome to the current situation

Ironsworn Game Loop

(Which deceptively simple, a lot of the Moves in Ironsworn consist of their own loops or procedures, and to be honest this can be found on page 204 of a 260 page book.)

A more extensive loop, the ORACLE system, can be found in the Mothership solo adventure Thousand Empty Light by Alfred Valley (this loop is also used for the solo procedures in the great Eco Mofos by David Blandy, with some very good checklists per step). While more intimidating, these more granular steps are actually really helpful for beginning solo players.

  • Observe: what's the situation? Includes rolling on random tables to add/extend the environment.
  • Resolve: Determine what the character is going to do, and how it should be handled. Simple decision, yes/no oracle or a skill or ability roll.
  • Act: Actually take the decided action.
  • Conclude: Determine the outcome of the action and whether follow-up action is required
  • Leave Evidence: Update character sheets if needed, and depending on your preference make some kind of record of what happened.

Oracles

A lot of the work a game master usually does in a more trad game is replaced by oracles. Basically whenever you normally would ask your GM about the situation, you now either determine it yourself OR ask an oracle. The main two flavors of oracles are yes/no oracles and prompt or spark oracles.

Yes/No Oracles

The simplest (depending on the implementation) are Yes/No oracles. These are used to answer basic questions you might pose about the world that do not involve character abilities. Let's say you're playing in a dungeon, and there is a door. A simple question could be: is the door locked?

In the simplest form you might just make a coin toss, but there's a lot more that can be done with this.

Tweaking the probability

A lot of systems account for cases where the player might already know one of the two options is more likely. By making the roll a percentile roll, and assigning a different number to use as the boundary, this can be achieved easily. Where the systems differ is in how much granularity they add. Some just have 50/50, likely and unlikely, while other systems add more steps in between.

The nice thing about a simple Yes/No oracle is that they are easily replaceable by another. Want more crunch? Pick one where you can decide between multiple steps. Want to let the dice decide all? Just use a 50/50 oracle. For Pine Shallows I'll probably stick with one with a maximum of 3 options.

Adding boons, consequences and twists

Another feature a lot of systems add are the and & but qualifiers. You might have a straight Yes or No, but it could also be a Yes, and, or a Yes, but, etc. Different systems use these in different combinations and with different probabilities.

When using these the game will often ask the player to formulate the question in such a way that Yes is the more positive answer for their character. Usually they're used in this way: Yes, and - Yes with an added boon Yes, but - Yes, however, there is a consequence No, and - It's bad, real bad No, but - It's not all bad.

A lot of oracles also add twists on specific die rolls or card pulls (for example on doubles or a joker). A twist could invite you to roll on a prompt table, or could even throw the posed question into doubt.

Examples

Ironsworn uses a d100 roll, with 5 options going from 'Almost Certain' (10+), Likely (26+), 50/50, Unlikely (76+) or Small Change (91+). On a match (so 11, 22, 33, etc) you can pick to make it an extreme result (basically adding an and to the resulting Yes or No) or roll on a spark table to add a twist to what's going to happen.

On the other hand, in Thousand Empty Light, a Mothership solo adventure, only Yes, Yes, but, No and No, but are used, using the 'but' qualifier to add a twist to the Yes/No, with each of the 4 options with an equal probability.

Alone in the Odd (solo rules for Into the Odd) by Matthew Morris is one the systems that asks the player to formulate the question in such a way that 'Yes' is the more positive answer for their character. This allows for rolls with advantage/disadvantage. A lower result on a d20 is the more positive outcome. In cases where an outcome is likely you roll 2 dice and keep the lower, or when it's unlikely you keep the higher. This gives you 3 options: 50/50, likely or unlikely. Probably enough in most cases. If you roll exactly the target number, there is a plot twist.

In the Recluse solo engine (which is basically a Yes/No oracle, but a very nice one!) you roll two dice, if the one is higher, it's a Yes, if the other's higher it's a No. If they're both low, you add But, if they're both high, you add an And, allowing for all combinations. An extra twist is added if you roll doubles: then your question was wrong: "Does Sam grab the gun from the mobster?”. He isn't a mobster! or It's not a gun!, etc.

Runecairn, a Norse fantasy game, has a themed Yes/No oracle. It results in Favour/Sorrow with a possibility for an extra complication. While this theming fits the game really well, this does mean you'd have to determine which option of a question would favour your character.

2d6 Outcome
2 Favour
3-6 Favour with complication
7 Complication
8-11 Sorrow
12 Sorrow with complication

Prompt or spark oracles

The other main type of oracle is specifically used for open questions. Of course, you could make everything up yourself, but having simple, but evocative prompts helps a lot when playing your game. A lot of solo games offer general oracle tables filled with lists of nouns, verbs and/or adjectives. Mostly these are meant to spark ideas, not give concrete answers.

Let's say you play a game in which you can make an Investigate roll. You might ask the Oracle what the nature is of the clue you find if you succeed. On your Oracle table you roll the word Tool, that's a clear one: you find the murder weapon of the crime you're investigating.

These tables can also be used perfectly to theme the game. We Deal In Lead, a weird west game, and Runecairn both by Colin Le Sueur offer a nice example of this. They both contain a very similar oracle system, which combines three tables:

  • a d10 Focus table, containing 10 verbs
  • a d8 Emotion table, containing emotions based nouns like Wondrous, Forlorn and Bleak
  • a themed d20 table containing highly themed nouns, Runes in the case of Runecairn, and Major Arcana Tarot cards for We Deal in Lead. While the Emotion table is the same, the Focus and Rune/Major Arcana tables contain different words. The Focus table for both games contain Protect and Observe, the Runecairn table contains thematic entries like Delve and the more introspective entries Endure & Ponder, while the table for We Deal in Lead contains terms like Shoot and Aim.

Ironsworn has two main general oracle tables, both d100. The Action oracle contains 100 verbs, from Acquire to Weaken, while the Theme table contains 100 nouns from Ability to Wealth. These could easily be used for a more generic game.

For Pine Shallows I'm leaning towards an Action/Subject combination: a d20 table with verbs, and a d20 table with nouns, which seems like a pretty common approach. This allows for 400 combinations, while making the curation of both lists manageable.

(Although this would mean I'd have to add a second type of dice to the game, all other rolls are d6 rolls. Maybe it should be two d66 tables for a total of 1.296 combinations...)

Up next

With a game loop and an oracle you can go a long way, the simplest solo game systems don't provide much more. But more narrative scaffolding can really help players get the most out of their games. In the next part in this series we'll look at ways to create scenarios, how to keep track of your characters progress and wrapping up the scenarios. Stay tuned!

Appendix N

These are the games mentioned in this part of the series.

Remarks? Additions?

If you have comments, or games/resources to recommend, let me know!

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