I confess to have not delved into Dungeons and Dragons since my 20’s in the late 1980’s so felt a complete novice when I decided to open a new BSoMT section to explore solo roleplay…what a ludicrous idea. Roleplay For One…
…But it does exist. It really does. I discovered this little book and asked a question or two about it… and to my surprise the author sent me a copy. If that wasn’t enough, he most kindly agreed to do some dreaded writted type wordings for A Guest Knows Best.
It really gives me immense pleasure to introduce the genius Paul Bimler…
A completely unrelated but nonetheless dungeonesque ambience to accompany your read
SOME THOUGHTS ON D&D SOLO ADVENTURES
By Paul Bimler (of 5e Solo Gamebooks)
Giles approached me to write an article for Both Sides of My Table on the area of solo adventures for D&D. I won’t call myself an expert on the topic, but I do spend a lot of time thinking about, writing solo adventures, experimenting with mechanics and playing a lot of other solo games (in addition to playing and DMing group games).
I have written five gamebooks for D&D, and a guide to solo adventuring named The Solo Adventurer’s Toolbox. Some of my gamebooks are The Death Knights Squire, Tyrant of Zhentil Keep, and Tables of Doom. In the course of creating these resources have made quite a few discoveries regarding the nature of solo adventures.
The first thing that I’d like to address is the most obvious – the sheer convenience of solo adventures for those who struggle to find a game. When I first encountered D&D in the early 80s, I was immediately drawn in by the short solo adventure that was offered in the Player’s Handbook of the classic Red Box set. I played through it countless times until I knew every single option and where it would lead.
Thank the old gods for Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, founders of Games Workshop and the authors of the immortal and legendary Fighting Fantasy Gamebook series. I wasn’t always able to find a D&D game back then, but I always had something to do quest-wise, thanks to these amazing works of interactive fiction.
Fast forward to Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons, and with the appearance of the publishing platform Dungeon Master’s Guild, I saw an opportunity to create similar solo adventures for players of D&D. I especially wanted to capture the same vibe that I felt on playing that first Red Box solo adventure. That was my goal, so initially, I focussed on trying to bring a very classic D&D feel to my adventures.
As time went on, however, I wanted to come up with more creative approaches to creating solo quests. My love of board games has figured strongly inspiration-wise in my adventure writing process. Specifically, certain games that have a time pressure factor were a big influence on me. So, I introduced a mechanic known as “progress points” where certain adventure entries tell you to add a progress point, and you only have a limited amount of them to spend in the completion of the adventure. I think this adds a good dynamic, in that players realize they cannot explore absolutely everything in the course of the adventure. They must choose which things to explore, which reinforces the concept of player agency.
Actually, player agency is an important point.
For a solo adventure to be meaningful, I think choices need to have consequences and need to result in diverse outcomes. Writing a solo adventure is a massive undertaking. To write something that will keep a player engaged for 3-4 hours, you’re looking at about 50k words which is basically a novel. You need to have the discipline to reach a daily word count and need to be quite strict with yourself in reaching those benchmarks. When I’m in the thick of writing, I try to get 14 entries done per day. This means that the rough draft of the adventure should take a little over a month. Then, of course, there is art and map creation, encounter testing, sending it out to playtesters, editing, proofreading… all these things take time. But all are necessary for the creation of a balanced adventure.
Coming back to the concept of player agency: One thing you want to avoid like the plague is a storyline that is too linear, and in doing so a high word count is inevitable. It is easy to spot a solo adventure that the author has not spent sufficient time on. The hallmark of such adventures is that, no matter what choices the player makes, the story will still follow the same basic narrative. In the case of adventures such as this, player agency is an illusion. It doesn’t matter what the player does, the outcome will probably be the same. This is just lazy writing. You need to create a wide range of choices and have those choices lead to significantly different outcomes. Progress Points is one way to do this. You might also decide that certain items found within the quest will influence the quest in a certain direction. Or you might want to create another mechanic that tweaks gameplay even further.
In many gamebooks, you enter a dungeon and soon reach a junction where you may go left, right or straight ahead. Three paths.
Generally, when I structure a gamebook, this is how I do it. Not literally with a junction, but with a minimum of three separate paths through the quest (two for shorter quests, perhaps). Each of those paths will have encounters on it, which you can only experience if you take those paths. Boons and banes can be gained on those paths, clues discovered, and monsters defeated. This ensures replayability. I think a good solo adventure should have a minimum threshold of two plays. It should be literally impossible to discover everything during one playthrough of the quest. The effect of this is that, as players play through the quest and glimpse entries and monsters and encounters that they are not coming across, it gives the overall impression that their choices really do matter: their choices have led them to where they are in the quest, and if they had made different choices, they might be experiencing some of those other things and not the encounters they are actually experiencing.
Player agency. Hugely important. Not just in solo adventures, either. Many party adventures written for D&D are guilty of railroading also, as we are all aware.
By offering multiple choices, and giving those choices different outcomes, we are more closely emulating what a full party adventure might feel like if run by a creative DM who is able to respond intuitively to his or her players.
There is another level of solo adventuring also, one that is much more freeform than gamebook-style quests. This is solo adventuring where the player acts as DM and player, deciding on events that happen to their PC or PCs and playing through the consequences. This is what I tried to create with my product The Solo Adventurer’s Toolbox. This book takes inspiration from the Mythic GM Emulator, but also from a wide variety of resources that I have been using to run my own solo adventures (most notably the Dungeon Master’s Guide), and combines original versions of these resources into one comprehensive volume. The result is a system where a PC can journey through a landscape, generating the dungeon/terrain and its contents as they go. It allows you to create an adventure as you experience it and relies heavily on personal creativity and storytelling. The feedback is that many people have been waiting a long time for a product of this sort, and, as of the second week of November 2018, it has been sitting at the number 1 spot on Dungeon Master’s Guild for the last two months.
How might a session using this system work? Let me give you an example. Using the random terrain generator found in Chapter 9 of the book, two PCs (being controlled by the player) journey through a range of mountains. Every five miles, they roll a d100 to see if they happen upon a minor feature. At some stage, they determine that they happen upon a small alpine lake, with a town at its edge. This then allows them to move to Chapter 10 which allows the player to determine what merchants are found in this town, so that they may spend gold recently gained by exploring a dungeon (randomly generated using Chapter 8: Random Dungeon Generation). During their exploration of this town, they meet an NPC (generated using the Urban Encounter d100 table in Chapter 5) who gives them a quest (the nature of which is determined using the Quest Generation tables in Chapter 7). Using the Question / Answer Mechanic, they are able to fill in the details of this quest, and so they embark on the next stage of their adventure!
That is a roundly summarised example of how a typical session using this system might work. There is a more in-depth example of gameplay included within the product itself, but broadly speaking it allows you to create immersive, detailed and meaningful solo adventures not limited by a set number of choices. The only limit on these adventures are the limits of your imagination. The mechanics are set up in such a way that anything is possible. This is what I was trying to achieve when I created The Solo Adventurer’s Toolbox, and I’m confident the product does a good job.
Currently, I am writing the fourth gamebook in my Forgotten Realms series, and it’s shaping up well. If you are interested in Dungeons & Dragons Solo Adventures, search for our Facebook page (called Dungeons & Dragons Solo Adventures, funnily enough) and come and explore what solo adventures are all about. You might find something to fill a few hours with when your DM is too busy doing boring non-D&D stuff!
Edit: There lies a copy of the Solo Adventurer’s Toolbox in the digital memory of the decrepit BSoMT ipad. Said rules of this work of art have been digested and are currently being tested in preparation for a review in December 2018. (Link coming soon)
…in the meantime, a couple of useful links for your perusal
The Solo Adventurer’s Toolbox:
Paul Bimler on Twitter: