Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Limitations of Programmed Solo Adventures

I’m wrapping up work on two programmed solitaire adventures, a 20th anniversary revision of my Trapped in the Museum free adventure and a much more substantial science fiction scenario, The Asturia Incident, each using the OpenD6 system. I enjoyed working on them. They offered a break from more traditional roleplaying game writing and allowed me to have fun exploring elements within each genre. Both serve as tutorial adventures walking players through the skill-roll process in numerous situations, though this proved a bit more difficult to adjudicate thoroughly in the longer scenario. And while I’m thinking about developing a substantial pulp-themed solo adventure (a sequel of sorts to Trapped in the Museum), I feel I need some time to cleanse my palate from the rigors of programmed solo scenario writing. As entertaining as I hope the final product might seem, writing a programmed solo adventure takes a great deal of creative effort and has limited appeal in the roleplaying gamer market.

The form has many advantages for both author and players. As a designer I can infuse the text with my own gamemastering style. I can take the time to walk players through the intricacies of the game system – much as I would at the live game table – in the familiar role of a solitaire tutorial adventure (a frequent topic of mine). I can drop clever references, have fun inviting readers to explore odd tangents, and riddle the choices with hard-to-find “easter eggs.” Players seeking a solo roleplaying experience have everything set before them. Though they can’t always use their own character, they have fully developed encounters and a storyline, with little left for them to fill in with oracles, story dice, and other contrivances requiring the reader to fill in the gaps and combine the various elements into a cohesive, fulfilling story.

The form has disadvantages as well. Each skill roll requires the developer to determine the effects of success as well as failure. Experienced gamemsters do this on the fly at the game table and often have a host of players helping to move the action along. Adjudicating failure while maintaining the experience for a single character can sometimes prove daunting, especially if that leads to an entirely new story branch to develop. Providing meaningful choices remains challenging: each choice requires another entry to resolve (if not more), but one wants to offer readers enough good choices so they don’t feel they’re railroaded along the plot (whereas at the game table players can do what they like with their characters, with anything possible, for the gamemaster to adjudicate in the moment). The adventure path must meander long enough to maintain the reader’s interest without resolving in complete failure too early on. The programmed entry format may seem like it offers great replay value, but it’s only as satisfying as the reader’s interest in exploring the limited possibilities the creator has mapped out.

These days I can’t help but feel like programmed entry solo adventures and gamebooks are lumbering, near-extinct dinosaurs. Sure, the classics still stand on their own – I’m looking at you Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! and the Fighting Fantasy gamebook series – and I have a few cherished standouts on my solo gaming shelf: S. John Ross’ Ring of Thieves and Noah Steven’s The Hounds of Halthrag Keep come to mind, but I’m also fond of Merle Rasmussen’s Ghost of Lion Castle for B/X Dungeons & Dragons. I like exploring solo tutorial adventures in new rulebooks to help me learn both mechanics and setting elements...goodness knows I’ve written enough of them over the years. But I feel these are relics of a bygone era. Gamers seem far more likely to indulge in free-form solitaire play within their favorite game system using oracles, cards, dice, random tables, and other methods to generate an adventuring environment and plot for their characters to explore. Releases from the Old School Renaissance movement (OSR) – such as Ruins of the Undercity and the D30 Sandbox Companion (among numerous others) – often rely on pages of tables to lead characters into randomly generated dungeons or hexcrawls (a format I briefly explored in Schweig’sThemed Dungeon Generator). Look around the interwebzes and you’ll find gamers engaged in interesting free-form solitaire roleplaying. My own explorations of Tékumel through solo play (which I’ve discussed previously) have already provided enjoyment beyond the programmed solo adventure format. As contrived as Ironsworn might seem to me in its challenge resolution procedures it certainly works for inspiring solitaire play, all within the context of a grim setting with greater emphasis on lone individuals fulfilling their quests (and I’ve heard the designers are currently developing a solo dungeon-delving version that has great promise). These provide players with greater latitude in creating characters and choosing actions while offering fewer limitations on the setting and scope of the story.

The programmed solo adventure format can only offer brief originality in the face of individual player imagination. Solo gamebooks provide limited play opportunities and an extremely finite repeat play experience. I feel they work best in the role of a solo tutorial adventure in a core rulebook where they can demonstrate both mechanics and setting concepts during a meaningful play session. (I’ve heard the recently released Starfinder Beginner Box, a descendent of Pathfinder, includes a solo adventure.) As full adventure experiences they remain novelties with limited appeal to a broad player base.

That isn’t to say I won’t return to the format as either a player or designer. I’m always keen on discovering how other authors approach programmed solo adventures and I can rarely resist exploring them when I feel the solo gaming urge. As a writer the programmed format gives me the opportunity to create new game experiences as if I were running them (in absentia) for a table of live players, indulging in my favorite genres and encounter tropes while imbuing the text with some of my own gamemaster style (such as it is). As more of a setting and adventure developer I don’t get the opportunity to create solo tutorial scenarios for new rulebooks, though I’ve thought about developing one to demonstrate setting elements; the lack of system – indeed catering to generic systems – provides its own daunting challenge for task resolution. I’ve long advocated programmed solo adventures for introducing players to new rules and settings; solo games on their own, however, remain an extremely niche market in the overall gaming landscape. My programmed solo adventures remain personal vanities with little merit among the greater gamer audience. While I certainly hope folks purchase and enjoy my solitaire work, I have no doubts they’ll make little more than a momentary splash in the vast galactic deluge of new, weekly roleplaying game releases (if noticed at all). Solo roleplaying game play is moving away from programmed adventures and toward more free-form storytelling approaches; both offer entertaining solitaire diversions, but the latter has greater current appeal and a naturally longer play life for gamers.


  1. Peter---

    You may want to check out David Konkol's Castle of Blackwood Moors @ https://www.amazon.com/Castle-Blackwood-Moors-David-Konkol/dp/1535373644

    He gave me a copy at GaryCon a few years ago, and it's pretty good.


  2. Thanks for the suggestion, Allan. I'll have to put that on my "to acquire" list; looks pretty hefty!


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