Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Returning to the Solo Adventure Format

I’m wrapping up one project – finalizing layout and waiting on artwork for a system-neutral, medieval fantasy setting – so I’m starting to look toward the next concept to bring to publication. I have a long, oft-revised list of gaming ideas for development. I prioritize these on a number of qualifications, including their level of development and completion, size of expected complications, ease of acquiring artwork and other graphic elements, and suitability for various gaming markets. But I’m easily diverted from what might seem the next logical project, preferring to channel my immediate enthusiasm for an unexpected, exciting idea rather than slog away at something that doesn’t quite engage me at the moment. Right now I really should be reviewing and polishing material for an Infinite Cathedral Patreon (something I’ve considered for quite some time). So I’m naturally disappearing down the rabbit hole of an entirely unrelated project to capitalize on my immediate interest: a science fiction D6 solo adventure. Where the heck did that come from?

Longtime readers might recall I worked five years as a Star Wars roleplaying game editor at West End Games, including work (on staff and freelance) for various D6 games like Indiana Jones, Hercules & Xena, and Men in Black. I’ve also enjoyed running D6 games ever since West End released the groundbreaking Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game back in 1987. I’ve used the system for my home games. I wrote material for several supplements for the revised edition after Purgatory Publishing acquired the rights to the D6 System and published the D6 Space, D6 Adventure, and D6 Fantasy trilogy. After Purgatory released the mechanics into the wild through the Open Game License (OGL) I contributed to other companies’ D6 releases, including Wicked North Games’ Westward game and the occasionally published D6 Magazine. I’d count the system among my favorite roleplaying game engines, along with house-ruled Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons, Risus: The Anything RPG, and Hero Kids. I’ve not involved myself much with OGL material since the early 2000s when it provided opportunities during my “Desperate Freelance Years.” With the recent appearance of more OpenD6 OGL publications, Nocturnal Media’s acquisition of West End Games in 2016 and its intention to publish D6 System material (and it’s agreement with Gallant Knight Games to develop such projects), and even Fantasy Flight Games; 30th anniversary release of a deluxe, two-volume slipcased set of the original Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game rules, I’m encouraged to overcome my professional trepidation publishing under the OGL and see if my love for D6 and my vision for game projects can engage gamers.

With this project I’m looking to combine several elements I particularly enjoy: the programmed, solitaire game adventure format; themes I like from my own appreciation of science fiction; an atmosphere evocative of GDW’s venerable Traveller (as presented in the “classic” pre-Imperium little black books edition); and a chance to flex my creative and game design muscles on something different. It’s an attempt to reconnect with the joy and satisfaction found in the process of creation (apart from the joy and satisfaction in finally publishing a product). The format enables me to provide a complete, stand-alone game experience without the need for a ponderous tome of rules and massive setting resources...something a gamer casually interested in a science fiction adventure can pick up, scan the relatively simple D6 rules, and play in an afternoon (and revisit at their leisure to explore other paths).

My love for programmed solo adventures is no surprise. I’ve previously discussed the form and its relation to roleplaying games in Hobby Games Recce blog posts like “Curling Up with Solitaire Gamebooks,” “Halthrag Keep Hits the Solo OSR Spot,” and “Solitaire RPG Tutorial Adventures.” Goodness knows I’ve written my fill of such fare, particularly solitaire tutorial adventures teaching new players about the rules and introducing them to a new game setting through a programmed scenario. I suppose I was first inspired by this format in the second edition Paranoia boxed set, in which a short solo adventure demonstrated both the core rules and the dark, twisted reality of life in Alpha Complex. The James Bond 007 roleplaying game also included a solo adventure, “The Island of Dr. No,” enabling readers to sample the game rules and tone immediately. Certainly the solo adventure “Regina Cayli” in Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game helped fuel my immersion in that game by affirming my understanding of the intuitive core rules concepts and giving me the instant satisfaction of getting to play the game without waiting to prepare a scenario and gather some gaming friends.

I’ve often wished some of the games I’ve enjoyed over the years came with solo tutorial scenarios to better demonstrate rules and setting concepts that took me more time and focus to digest. Having such an adventure in Basic D&D (the Moldvay edition) would have made comprehending the more esoteric rules far easier for a complete roleplaying game neophyte than reading and re-reading the rulebook non-stop over the course of an entire weekend. (I’m not familiar enough with the Mentzer red-cover edition to comment on its solo tutorial adventure, though I read/played it once or twice; no doubt it would have accelerated my immersion in D&D.) Call of Cthulhu could have benefited from such a scenario illustrating its menacing tone and different play paradigm. Such innovative games as Space 1889, Legend of the Five Rings Cyberpunk, and even Traveller (published well before the concept of solo tutorials) could have drawn me in faster if I could have played a solo adventure right out of the box. The absence of solo tutorial scenarios didn’t detract from my appreciation of these games; it just meant I took a little longer to understand the rules (for the most part), fully engage with the setting, and start playing right away.

Designing a solitaire adventure – however long or tutorial – presents numerous challenges and playful opportunities. By its very format a programmed solo adventure limits tactical infinity. It can only offer a finite number of actions and paths within the printed pages (though electronic “interactive fiction” can offer a seemingly less restrictive buffet of options through the command system, as artfully and wittily demonstrated in S. John Ross’ Treasures of A Slaver’s Kingdom). This seems inimical to the concept that “anything can be attempted” central to roleplaying games. Yet the solo adventure format demands this compromise to achieve other goals. To provide a scenario one can enjoy without any other players – including a gamemaster – requires a programmed script (tutorial or otherwise) that by its very nature limits player choices by accommodating a set number of options at each decision point. Designing a scenario under these constraints offers a different challenge than, say, creating an open sandbox setting or a dungeon crawl. Certainly skills useful in those other formats come into play with solo adventures, but they’re overshadowed by the designer’s main responsibility to create intriguing encounters with all the possible logical player choices (and occasionally illogical ones). I think therein lies an opportunity: a chance for me to entertain the reader with options for relevant choices and a means through which I can have some fun designing (and resolving) them.

I’ll see where this takes me in the coming weeks...and if my enthusiasm for the project and format builds or fades. Part of the challenge for me remains finding the fun in all of it, whether a particular tone, indulging in my little “in jokes,” discovering new options to explore with the setting and character choices, having fun exploring a setting and game I enjoy...and hoping that enjoyment eventually finds its way to ultimately infect readers with my excitement for a good solo sci-fi adventure.