Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Solitaire RPG Tutorial Adventures

Game companies have used solitaire “tutorial” adventures to introduce new players to rules and settings since the “Dawn of Roleplaying" in the 1980s.
Solo scenarios, especially introductory ones, provide better insight into a new game’s mechanics and universe than the often over-hyped back-cover copy advertising a game book. Few game companies offer a short solo adventure as a promotional giveaway to encourage sales. The lack of a quick solitaire adventure to play immediately sometimes deters me from purchasing a new roleplaying game book, even those that catch my interest.

I’ve written a number of solitaire tutorial scenarios for game systems published by the late West End Games: introductory solo adventures for the d6 Star Wars Roleplaying Game, the MasterBook World of Indiana Jones -- and later one for Indiana Jones Adventures which translated the game engine to the D6 System -- the Men in Black Roleplaying Game, and Hercules & Xena Roleplaying Game. For licensed roleplaying games these solo adventures entice non-gaming fans who purchase the game to give it a try on their own. Original roleplaying games used tutorial scenarios to teach innovative rules concepts and introduce setting concepts.

Few new roleplaying games today incorporate solitaire tutorial adventures into the overall approach to teaching rules and setting. Many cater primarily to those already initiated into the mysteries of roleplaying games, people who can easily peruse, grasp, and implement new rule mechanics and who easily absorb revolutionary setting concepts.

Perusing the roleplaying game shelves and combing through my foggy memory, I’ve found a number of notable solitaire tutorial scenarios that helped introduce new game systems and settings over the years:

Basic Dungeons & Dragons (TSR): The Players Manual in the Basic D&D boxed set from the “Dawn of Roleplaying” (the one with the Larry Elmore red dragon attacking the barbarian cover, not the iconic Erol Otus fighter and magic user attacking the green dragon) seemed built around introducing players to fantasy roleplaying by outlining basic character concepts followed by a solitaire tutorial scenario simply called “solo adventure.” Readers could use the sample character introduced earlier, or pick standard class-based heroes to use from subsequent chapters that outlined major player concepts. The scenario walked the player through a typical adventure process, starting with an outline of “Town Business,” then a review of rules procedures in “Battles,” and finally the adventure itself, “Into the Caves.” The set’s Dungeon Masters Rulebook contained a section called “Your First Game” with a group adventure in the form of a programmed scenario for the gamemaster, who shared “read-aloud” sections with players and looked up subsequent entries based on the heroes’ actions, all with relevant stats for combat, encounters, traps, and treasure. Wizards of the Coast (which bought financially troubled TSR and its intellectual properties in 1997) recently released a new Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set using the classic “red box” graphics and updating the material inside to mesh with the D&D 4th edition rules…including a solitaire adventure (though I’ve not seen it myself).

Regina Cayli” in the Star Wars Roleplaying Game (West End Games, first edition). A pretty standard set-up -- leave an escape pod, evade Imperial patrols, and enter a scout ship -- drew players into typical Star Wars action while teaching the then-revolutionary and relatively simple cinematic D6 System rules. Using heroes from examples of character creation and gameplay helped create a continuity within the rulebook. (This scenario inspired me to write “Cantina Breakout,” the solitaire tutorial scenario for the Star Wars roleplaying game’s “revised and expanded” edition years later.)

Paranoia, 2nd Edition (West End Games). Although the game system wasn’t too complex, the concepts behind the game world were humorously twisted. The solo scenario in this edition immersed readers immediately into the immense catch-22 that was life in Alpha Complex.

Adventures on Tekumel (Theatre of the Mind). Professor M. A. R. Barker’s Tekumel has come and gone from the roleplaying game circuit in several incarnations. The world and its cultures can seem incomprehensible to the uninitiated. These solitaire adventures supported Theatre of the Mind’s version of the game, helping to overcome unfamiliar settings and cultural references and immersing readers in the rich, exotic Tekumel setting. The initial adventures picked up right where the rulebook’s character creation section left off.

“The Island of Dr. No in the James Bond 007 game (Victory Games). Seemingly added to the back of this rulebook in lieu of a group adventure, “The Island of Dr. No” let readers test drive the 007 rules as their agent infiltrates Dr. No’s secret research facility in the Caribbean. It ably demonstrated the rules for one of the earlier games that relied on task resolution based on individual skills instead of level-based, attribute-modified “to hit” and “armor class” numbers. It even provided the suggestion that a gamemaster could run the scenario for players simply by reading entries aloud and elaborating on the action. Victory Games later published an entire boxed epic solitaire adventure, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, loosely based on the film of the same name.

The Lord of the Rings Adventure Game (Iron Crown Enterprises). My attraction to this product was mainly professional…at the time I was developing the Star Wars Introductory Adventure Game and sought inspiration for new ways to teach rules to new players and cultivate new gamemasters. This game and its subsequent scenarios all took the form of programmed adventures for the gamemaster, who shared “read-aloud” sections with players and looked up subsequent entries based on the heroes’ actions.

Notable Non-Tutorial Solo Games

Some solitaire roleplaying adventures deserve mention even though they weren’t included in core rulebooks or weren’t intended to teach game and setting concepts.

Ghost of Lion Castle, Lathan’s Gold (TSR). I wouldn’t consider these Basic and Expert Dungeons & Dragons adventures among the best solitaire adventures out there, but as Dungeons & Dragons solo scenarios, these fit the bill. Ghost of Lion Castle is a standard dungeon crawl with wandering monsters and an old ghost. Lathan’s Gold contains a classic treasure hunt, with lots of record-keeping, gold-hoarding goodness.

Ring of Thieves (Cumberland Games). In Ring of Thieves a trouble-prone halfling must find and rescue his companion from unknown assailants in an immense and strange city. An enormous fantasy adventure by S. John Ross using his innovative and intuitive Risus game rules. For a system that emphasizes humor, its simple mechanics prove remarkably well-suited for games with more serious themes. Get it for free from S. John’s Cumberland Games & Diversions free downloads page.

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! (Penguin Books). The progenitor of the “fighting fantasy” gamebook genre presented a simple game system for combat and spell-casting allowing readers to partake in an epic, four-book, world-spanning quest. Every encounter, character, and location exuded an exotic sense of this rich medieval fantasy world. After overcoming the excitement of killing beasts and grabbing their treasure, readers could enjoy puzzle-solving and some character interaction.

Solitaire roleplaying adventures have their place, though it rarely seems a very respectable one. Solo scenarios offer an opportunity to explore a new game’s universe and learn the rules on one’s own, without assembling a group of friends to try creating characters for and gamemastering a new genre. They’re similar to the tutorials for various computer games where you can test out the keyboard controls and gain a sense of the strategy in a short scenario before diving into a full-blown game. But the allure goes beyond the instructional. On one hand they provide an opportunity to game when nobody else is around. They’re also a guilty, selfish pleasure. For those who frequently serve as the gamemaster, it’s a welcome break to play an adventure, even a solo one, without spending hours reading the scenario and preparing the game. Solo players aren’t vying against others for the gamemaster’s time and attention; they’re the only one playing, their character is the central protagonist, and all the action focuses on them. It’s a selfish pleasure, but it’s also a treat. Every now and then we all need the satisfaction of a selfish treat.

Where Are the Recent Releases?

I can’t claim to have a comprehensive knowledge of new roleplaying games and their contents, but few recently released games employ solitaire tutorial adventures as instructional elements in rulebooks to introduce players to game systems and settings. The only recent one that comes to mind released with Wizards of the Coast’s new Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set to introduce new players to the current D&D 4th edition rules.

Are solitaire tutorial adventures no longer viewed as effective? Do publishers feel they don’t warrant the time and effort to design, or the space in the rulebook? Or do today’s games cater more to established roleplayers rather than taking on the greater mission of recruiting new players to the hobby? Is the solitaire roleplaying game adventure a dying or dead breed?