What is Solo Roleplaying and how do you get started are two of the most common questions we hear on the Lone Wolf Discord server. I have put this page together to try and answer some of those questions. These are not definitive answers, and this page is not set in stone, it will undoubtedly evolve over time.
What is solo play?
We are talking about one player, no game master, or no human game master. Beyond that, there are so many different options that it gets hard to define anything that remains true for all. I will list a few of the most common forms, make some recommendations and point to a few resources for each form. You can try most of these for free.
This was the gateway drug to all roleplaying for many people. Fighting Fantasy is one of the biggest names in this space, followed by Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA). There are Dungeons & Dragons modules, Call of Cthulhu adventures, and many Tunnels & Trolls adventures that use this same basic structure.
Gamebooks use a numbered paragraph structure. The paragraphs are all numbered and listed out of order. When you have a choice you are offered two or more paragraph numbers to turn to. This gives you some control over the flow of the adventure. You also have a character and rules to resolve things like combat and skill challenges. Some gamebooks use very simple characters, some use full characters from traditional roleplaying games. If you have not played a gamebook you can find many on the FFProject pages. You can play these entirely on your own, and replay them several times taking a different route through the adventure by making different choices.
Journal games or storytelling games give you prompts that you use to write scenes in a journal. You write as much or as little as you like. The prompts are set up to lead you to a conclusion, but your route through it will be entirely unique. They often use cards to give you random questions. English Eerie is extremely popular. You can download the game for free, and if you enjoy it, go back and make a donation to the author.
Solo Roleplaying Games
A solo roleplaying game is a game that plays like a traditional roleplaying game but has additional rules, and often random tables, to allow you to play it without a GM. The undoubted king of the hill is Ironsworn. Every time you would instinctively ask a GM a question, you consult the appropriate table and get your answer from there. Because all the tables are tightly themed around the central themes of the game, the answers tend to work.
There are a growing number of variations on the Ironsworn game, spreading it into different genres.
Where Ironsworn has many custom random tables to answer questions Oracles can be completely generic or loosely themed. There tend to be two basic forms of Oracle. The first is a yes-no question oracle, and the second gives random concepts. It falls on you to take into account, the style of adventure you want to have, what has gone before, and the answer you got from the oracle to decide what the answer actually means.
The yes-no oracle often gives you several shades of grey, from absolutely not, to definitely yes, often referred to as ‘no, and…’ to ‘yes, and…’. You would formulate your question, decide if the answer is more likely to be biased towards yes or no, and then roll your dice, or draw a card, or whatever format the oracle is in. Once you have an answer you try and rationalize what that answer means to your character.
The concepts oracle is used for questions that cannot be answered yes-no. Asking if a box is locked is yes-no, asking what is in the box cannot be answered that way. The concept answers are often pairs of words or images. You then have to make up an answer that embodies the concept, in the context of what could be in the box.
The tables are generic because they can be applied to any situation or question. They can also be played with any roleplaying game.
Interpreting answers can put a lot of pressure on the player. If you get an answer that really means nothing to you it can bring your game to a crashing halt. Some oracles are specifically keyed to be used adjacent to specific games. This creates a halfway house between a generic oracle and something like Ironsworn. The countless little books that I sell on this site mostly fall into this category. I shouldn’t tell you this, but they are really easy to make for your own favorite games. Just keep a mental note of the kinds of questions you find yourself asking, and then start to build random tables that give you answers to those questions.
Other big names in this are Paul Bimler who created the Solo Investigator’s handbook, for Call of Cthulhu, and The Solo Adventurer’s Toolbox for D&D 5e. There is also DM Yourself. Solo by Zozer Games is a specialist solo system for Traveller and Cepheus System. There really are too many to mention.
All of the above systems can be labeled as Authoring Solo. This does not mean that you have to write everything down. What it refers to is that all the details of your game world come from within you. Just as an author has to create every detail of their fictional worlds.
With every question, the onus falls on the player to come up with interesting and fitting answers to the questions.
Non-authoring tries to use tools to answer questions that introduce facts that come from outside the player. Just as a human game master creates interesting scenes for the players, the non-authoring system should do the same.
AI is a potential form of non-authoring solo playing. The AI is trained to behave as the GM and you then react to its responses. AI Dungeon is a potential option, and is getting better over time. I have also seen AI chatbots being trained for this purpose.
I have little or no experience of doing this, and every example I have seen has been rather hit and miss. I have faith that it will improve, and there are techniques to improve the AI responses.
Blackout Poetry is a technique where you create a mask, as simple as a bookmark or sheet of paper with slots cut out of it. You then lay this over a page of text and use the words that appear in the slots to answer your questions. If you are playing a sword and sorcery game and you use a fantasy novel, the words and phrases revealed by the mask are more likely to be matching to your genre. Move the mask to a book on submarine warfare and you can use the same mask to run a WWII game set on submarines.
Generic oracles tend to give you a couple of words to work with, a blackout poetry mask can give you many words from which to derive meaning.
Cut-Ups take a text and cut it into short word groups and then jumbles them up. When you want the game master’s input you draw snippets of text at random and then try and fit them together so that they make sense. Matching the genre of the text with the genre of the game gives a very thematic solution.
There are many text processing tools that will cut up texts for you. Ant-conc was one that was recommended to me. Would I recommend this as a way of getting into solo play? I probably wouldn’t. Of all the non-authoring techniques I have tried this is the one that worked best for me, but it took a long time to get to grips with it. You will find cut-up books on this site, but they are not free.
Other cut-up tools to look into are TTRPG Spark Tables.
Cut-up tools are easy to make yourself and can be made for free, You can just get a text on your computer and pretty return after every 5-8 words to create a list of short phrases. It will be time-consuming and not very exciting but easily done. You could then use the built-in Find function to jump to bits of text that have a word you are interested in.
What Game to Play?
With a generic or system-specific oracle, you can solo play any game. At least in theory. A lot of experienced solo players end up using very simple games. The reason for this is that the fewer rules there are, the easier it is to keep them in memory. It results in less time spent looking up rules, and more time playing with the character and the adventure.
There is an idea in game design called the creative void. The more rules and facts a game has, the less room there is for the player to be creative. Very simple games provide you with a large creative void. In the absence of hard and fast rules, you can make rulings as you play.
There is a game that is very well suited as a first simple system if you want to try using a very simple game. Adventurers! by GRAmel has a free two-page version that is easily adapted to any setting. There are many other great little games out there, but this is the system that I suggest to most new solo players.
When you can solo play Adventurers! solo, it is easier to step up to more complex games, the solo principles remain the same.