Analyzing solo procedures - part 2

Welcome to the second part in my article series analyzing solo procedures. This part of my deep dive into playing ttrpgs solo, with a specific focus on games that are not specifically for solo play, as I am planning to add solo procedures to Pine Shallows.

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 series? 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!

In the first part I looked at the game loop, and oracles. In this part I'm looking at narrative scaffolding that really helps players get the most out of their games. We'll look at ways to create scenarios, how to keep track of your characters progress and wrapping up the scenarios.

Providing narrative structure

Solo games need an alternative to a GM telling you a stranger approaches your party in the tavern. How do you get your story started, how do you track progress and how do you resolve them?

Setting up the game

Most games I checked use random tables to generate scenarios or at least a situation to kick off the adventure. A nice quote from the We Deal In Lead SRD:

Use random tables and generators to develop situations, not stories or plots.

Two approaches are the character based versus the mission based scenarios. Of course these can be both used, or combined in different ways. The character based approach is often seen in games that aim for campaign play, while purely the mission based approach is often seen in games that work especially well for one shots.

For the character based approach during character creation one of the steps is to give the character a goal to achieve, this will be their primary motivation.

In Ironsworn every character starts with a background vow: their primary quest to solve. While trying to achieve this, they might swear new vows: other (side) quests to embark on. By starting with this background vow, there is an immediate reason to start an adventure.

Cloud Empress is one of the few games I checked that assume you'll play a party instead of a single character. It combines the character and mission based scenarios.

The party starts with a mission, called a Goal, which is created by rolling an action (Deliver/Steal/Hunt), a subject and a location. When a Goal is achieved, it is replaced by a new Goal. The number of successful reached goals is tracked. During game play you'll also keep track of the success and failure of each skill check.

The rotating of characters is baked into the solo procedures: besides the party Goal each character starts with their own Outlook, which determines when they leave the party. A Pessimist leaves the party when the party fails try times in a row, a Half-hearted character leaves after the party reaches their first Goal. The game offers 10 different Outlooks.

Variations of the objective + subject + location Goal generator as seen in Cloud Empress is something you'll see a lot in mission based games.

Eco Mofo's Job Table

A basic example are the job tables in Eco Mofos. You roll 3d6, first die determines the Action, the second the Subject, and the third a time limit. Creature/Loot/Person each have their own d6 table to offer more options. Simple, but effective.

Stravagante! Adventure Generator

Stravagante! by Penflower Ink is a whimsical fantasy adventure game. It's a few small booklets, but packed with random tables. By combining Verb, Object, Person, Location tables with a few extra Adjectives, it is possible to create endless adventure seeds.

Inciting Incident

Not seen in all games, but a very useful starting point is a way to create a specific Inciting Incident: a starting point to kick off the scenario. Of course if you generated a job or mission, you can easily start in media res and have your character on their way to your location, but having some random rolls giving you something weird that happened, a location or a clue is a good way to start.

If you add some guidance to your game on how to create an initial situation even if it's as simple as rolling on a Location and a Person table, it will be very helpful to new players especially.

Moving the story forward

After creating an initial hook, it can help to offer a way to keep the story moving. Part of this is done by the game loop (see part 1), but for different plot lines it is very helpful to have a way to track your progress.

Specific game loops

More exploration based games offer specialized game loops for dungeon or hex crawling. The Delve Generator in RuneCairn combines generating even more specific missions with an extensive game loop in the form of a flowchart. The size of the Delve determines the number of required encounters, which can be with monsters or NPCs, but also specific items, scenes or non-combat obstacles.

If a typical story in the genre of your game follows some specific beats, it might be interesting to dive into games with very specific game loops to see if you can create a flowchart to emulate these stories.

Ironsworn has simpler subsystems. As a PbtA game it utilizes moves. Some moves like 'Gather Information' or 'Resupply' are very pretty simple: you roll once and the dice determine the outcome, but the more complicated moves like 'Undertake a Journey' or 'Enter the Fray' function as game loops of their own, sometimes with other moves as part of them. They use tracks to mark progress of the journey, combat or quest.

Tracks/clocks

Since they've been popularized by Blades in the Dark, progress clocks found their way to a lot of games. Clocks or tracks are basically just a circle or bar divided into segments with the amount of filled in segments showing the progress toward a goal (or threat of course). Depending on type of clock usually you fill segments of the clock on successful actions for progress clocks, or failed actions for threat clocks. When a clock is filled you have reached your goal (or the threat is triggered). In games with partial success or complications there's often extra rules for the number of segments filled for each type of failure/success.

Tracks in Ironsworn are always 10 segments long. Depending on the complexity of the Vow, the quest, when you make progress you fill multiple segments at a time, just one segment, or even just part of a segment for extremely hard tasks. Another nice way to add more player agency is the fact that you don't have to fill a track completely. All types of tracks have a specific progress move you can make, where you roll 2d10 and try to roll both under the number of completely filled in segments. If both are under the progress score you get a hit: you fulfilled the quest. If one is under, you fulfill the quest, but get a complication or twist. If both are equal or over you've failed. Depending on the type of track, failure can reset the track, and move up the complexity of the task, setting the player back a long way or just mean your character will have to face the consequences of failure.

Clues & Mysteries

While Brindlewood Bay is not a solo game the main clue collection & mystery solving mechanism is great tech for solo games. In short the game emulates Murder She Wrote style mysteries, but mysteries have no set solution: even the GM does not know who committed the crime central in each mystery.

During play you gather clues, with each adventure providing their own pick list, and similar to the Progress moves from Ironsworn, it's open to players to decide when to 'solve' the mystery. When they think they are ready, they can make the Theorize Move: a 2d6 roll + the number of clues incorporated in the solution of the crime.

Clues from Brindlewood Bay

Paranormal Inc, one of the earliest Carved from Brindlewood games already updated the Brindlewood system to be GM-less coop mode by adding a card mechanism for random locations, NPCs and conflicts. From there it's a small step to complete solo mode.

Little Town, a Twin Peaks inspired game, is a great implementation of a solo Carved from Brindlewood game. Locations, NPCs and clues are all discovered in a random, but structured way, depending on the success of actions you take, allowing for very organic mystery solving. The game works in Scenes taking place in a specific location, when you leave the location, you move to a new scene.

The upcoming Substratum Protocol combines the Hints and Hijinx system with the clue collection and open-ended mystery from Brindlewood Bay in an exciting way. You're part of a team descending deep into the Earth, trying to find out what the anomaly at the Earth's core is. It also offers a great solo procedure. The game world is divided in sectors. While group play is a bit more open-ended, solo play adds a structured way of moving through the sectors, using each sector as a 'scene'.

Clues in these types of games are often very open in their specifics: you'll find a note, overhear a conversation etc, but the content of the knowledge you gain is open. While this might seem too open, it really helps the player create their own theory, and make the mystery a surprise. Basically these clues act as very flavorful oracle tables. Some games have pretty generic clue tables, usable for each adventure, but games like Brindlewood Bay and Paranormal Inc have specific clue lists for each prewritten adventure.

Random Tables Galore

With random tables for oracles and mission generators there is a good foundation, but for solo players having more tables is certainly better. While not every table is as important, anything that can help quickly flesh out locations, items and NPCs is making playing the game as frictionless as possible. These will also be helpful for GMs running your game traditionally, not just for solo players.

What does your game need to offer depends a lot on the themes and genre, but a number of tables will always be helpful. Some possible types of tables:

  • People: personality, appearance, profession, goals, motivations, quirks, names, factions
  • Locations: terrain, settlements, shops, buildings, names, encounter table
  • Creatures: monsters, animals
  • Items: weapons, tools, equipment, vehicles, ingredients, treasure, books, traps, magical items, gadgets
  • Clues
  • Events: weather, dangers, complications, political events, holidays

Of course a lot of these can also be done with combinations between Adjective & Noun tables, it's a fine line between offering enough for players to create unique stuff, and having them roll endless tables to create anything. One trick to extend your tables is to cross reference them. For example in Pine Shallows the NPC table contains just 3 different entries, these entries being ADULT, KID and ANIMAL, each referencing another table.

Swapping out random tables for different scenarios or regions is also a very good way to extend your game and add more replayability and flavour.

Wrapping up

With the elements described in this article you should have a good starting point to create solo procedures for your own games, but believe me, these two articles only scratch the surface of what's possible with solo procedures. I mostly stuck to certain types of games, but there are so much more games to investigate: GM-less games, solo board games, roll & write games.

I might come back to this topic, but for now I'm wrapping up. Next up for me, is putting this research into practice: adding solo procedures to my own game, Pine Shallows. With the Pine Shallows - Guide to Adventure (available for every owner of Pine Shallows) I have a good foundation to start adding solo procedures, as it contains quite a bunch of random tables. Now to add a good game loop, oracles & even more tables!

Appendix N

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

Looking for more inspiration for your random tables? Check games like Into the Odd or Vaults of Vaarn.

Remarks? Additions?

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

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