Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Solo gaming apologetics

TLDR: I try to shatter some assumptions about solo RPG play and discuss reasons for trying it.

Prejudices and misunderstandings abound when it comes to solo gaming, and it would try my patience to address all of them here. Snap judgments like "I guess it's okay to just try out the rules" or "Sure, but it's not like really role-playing" are, as of this moment, gently but firmly set aside. I want to begin from a place of no assumptions.
It seems strange to me and totally incongruous with the notion of using one's imagination NOT to enjoy playing alone. – Stephen Gilbert
Why are the majority of wargames played by more than one person in the first place? – Stuart Asquith
These quotes are from blog posts on the hobby of solo wargaming, but I think they are legitimate and disarming questions from which to approach solo RPG play. They invert the assumptions that solo play is something you only do when you can't find other players or that it is inherently weaker, qualitatively, due to the lack of other players.

When playing RPGs what do others bring to the table? More, and more diverse imagination, sure. Also a kind of surprise factor – ideas that originate from outside of our own experiences. Other players help us increase bandwidth so that there can be more things going on and more characters acting simultaneously, with a low cognitive load on each individual player. Other players allow us to immerse in a single role and to not try to imagine what other characters, villains, or monsters are doing, or how the world itself reacts to our probings. Other players make RPG play a social event.

That seems like a lot!

But it would be wrong to think that you can't achieve some of the same diversity and surprise with other tools – dice and tables, primarily. Before you dismiss this idea, think of gamers you have played with before. Can you not imagine what they would do, in character, given certain situations? I won't say that replacing other players is easy, but a sufficiently complex "model" in our heads or in some table-driven programmatic form can give us very similar results. After all, Game Masters do this all the time – jumping from one NPC to another with sometimes radically different backgrounds and agendas.
Additionally, playing alone removes most time constraints, making bandwidth less of an issue. And a degree of social interaction, of a different kind, can be had by sharing your play narratives with others.

It's a good thing when your characters start talking back. :)

To deal with a lack of players.
Some gamers suffer from a lack of other willing players in their area. Of course, the online world has made this less of a problem. With a decent Internet connection and a little exploration to find the right groups on social media platforms, you can find other gamers willing to play with you. (If you aren't a dick, that is.) However, getting an online game started usually requires you to be reasonably flexible in arranging times and chosen systems. Your own "why" could be that you have very little predictable times in which to game or simply that you want to play a specific system or setting that doesn't capture the interest of others.

To learn or practice.
Solo play is an ideal way to learn rules, test modules, practice voices, etc. There are tools out there for working either end of the scenario – tools that simulate parties of adventurers so that you can practice running a game or scenario, as well as tools that emulate the game master so that you can try those same systems or modules out in character.

To entertain.
We can't overlook the argument that it's just plain fun. Maybe you already have a gaming group, but you want to play more than you do currently. Maybe you are looking for something to do when you suffer from insomnia or when you are stuck in a hotel while traveling for work, or as a quiet-time respite from all the computer, tablet, and phone screens you stare at the rest of the day. Don't be embarrassed to embrace solo play. Why is telling yourself stories somehow pathetic but passively absorbing stories through the television an acceptable pastime? No one laughs at writers or artists who imagine cool things when alone!

These points are by no means exhaustive. Feel free to add your own solo play "why" or "why not" in the comments below.


  1. Have you engaged in solo rpg play much? I haven't but feel like I probably should. If nothing else for the learning aspect.

    1. It's a "phase" kind of thing for me. I go through periods when I like to explore it.

  2. To create...playing solo to develop ideas or starting points for other creative media.

  3. I picked up soloing as a busy dad with 3 young kids, a chronically ill wife, and a demanding job. Scheduling with a group, even for Roll20 play, turned out to be frustrating at best. Soloing made tabletop gaming a possibility for me again. And allowed for some much needed escape and stress release.

    I've recently turned to Role Gate (play-by-chat platform) as well, which allows for similar freedom of schedule, but as asynchronous play with others (or solo, too, works well on there). It's a nice change of scenery from soloing and removes the "heavy lifting" of being both player and GM. As a bonus, the techniques (and practice) learned in solo play have applied directly towards GMing my first game (on Role Gate). So, you could file that under the *Learn* heading as well.

    As an aside, I've found Role Gate to be an ideal, low pressure means of making the leap to GMing -- there's plenty of willing players and plenty of time to think (or look up rules) before responding to players.

    Great post, Ray!

    1. P.S. Ray, as a Dungeon World guy, you'd probably dig Ironsworn. It's a very well done PbtA system built with soloing in mind (but also designed for GMless or small group play).

  4. Ironsworn sounds cool, Spencer. And thanks for the praise and the insight into your own journey!

  5. Would love to hear another solo podcast episode. A group chat with Tana Pigeon (Mythic GME), Paul Bimler (5e Solo), Shawn Tomkin (Ironsworn), etc. would be epic. :-)


Comments are moderated; please be patient.