This is a guest post by Terrence Koch, who also goes by Teviko604. He writes at Tev’s Next Idea, where he posts stories based on his solo RPG campaigns.
Years before I started my own solo RPG, I traveled to a fantasy world every Sunday night with Erik, Arthur, Kurt, Matt, and Mike.
The group would meet, order pizza and soft drinks, and engage in an evening of tabletop roleplaying. We were fighters, wizards, and assassins. We battled monsters, uncovered mysteries, and quested in a world that constantly evolved and changed. Each one of our futures could change with a roll of the dice.
I was first introduced to tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) in junior high. Throughout the rest of my primary and college school years, I participated in several role-playing groups similar to the one described above. While I enjoyed the time hanging out with friends, it was the adventure and story-crafting offered by Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer, and other games that made these sessions special for me.
However, we grew older, got jobs, marriages, and other adult responsibilities that took precedence. Eventually, we set aside game night. While other tabletop gamers have been able to overcome these challenges, that was not the case for me.
Questing for a Solo RPG
Since those days I had made several attempts to recapture those experiences and scratch my adventuring itch. Video games were the most obvious option, as there are a plethora of solo RPGs to choose from digitally.
Another option was Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style game books that merged storytelling with the character creation and dice roll mechanics of a TTRPG. And I would occasionally just read though published TTRPG modules and imagine how I might play a character in that setting.
While all these were fun, none of them quite offered the experience I wanted.
At one point, I stumbled upon a website that claimed to offer a way for a single player to play a solo RPG. I thought my search was at an end. The site would spit out random dice rolls and word combinations, descriptions, and Yes/No responses all depending on what button you clicked.
However, instead of a useful tool, I saw it as a mish-mash of random information. It had no direction, no logical organization, and no cohesiveness. In my opinion, it was a worthless pile of junk.
Nearly two years ago, I discovered an online community of people who had solved my problem playing TTRPGs solo. They had discovered a way to play a roleplaying game so that that you don’t need a group of people.
Instead, virtually any roleplaying game could be played solo, and not just by running a character through a generic dungeon. You didn’t have to just fight randomly generated monsters and collect meaningless loot.
No, these players imagined fantastic worlds filled with engaging locations, people, and creatures. Characters went on involved missions and quests incorporating ancient lore, political systems, and power hungry warlords. Furthermore, they did all this in a way that kept up the intrigue and mystery about what was just around the corner and what surprising bit of information might be learned next. It was all very similar to a traditional group TTRPG experience. Except they were playing their chosen RPG solo.
You can probably guess that I was intrigued. As I dug deeper, I learned that there was no one single way to play a solo RPG. Everyone had their own method, style, and motivation. However, the solo RPG community pretty much universally used certain tools.
Solo Tabletop Tools
The first was something called a GM Emulator. Just like there are many different ways to play a solo RPG, there are also many different GM emulators. They have names like Mythic, CRGE, and MUSE, but they all serve the same basic functions.
First, just like a real GM, they answer questions players might have. Is the chest locked? Are there guards in the hallway? Does the party’s thief turn out to be the King’s secret love-child? The GM emulator can determine all these things. Second, they may interject random events or plot twists into the story. Uh-oh, goblin ambush! Ahh, a dragon!
(By the way, remember that website I mentioned earlier? That was a GM emulator. Ironically, that “worthless pile of junk” has turned out to be one my favorite solo tools.)
Another tool most solo role-players use are random generators and lots of various tables. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of random generators of all kinds that you can find all over the internet.
You can use them to generate NPCs, quests and missions, locations, encounters, lore, conversations, or whatever else you might need to advance a campaign. After that, you take the random results and interject them into your campaign. While this does mean that you, as a player, know more about the obstacles the character will face than in a traditional game with a live GM, these tools certainly help keep things interesting and fresh. And yes, sometimes even unexpected.
Playing a Solo RPG Isn’t for Everyone
As you can imagine, setting up a solo RPG won’t be everyone’s idea of fun.
It might be difficult for some players to improvise and create from given prompts. For instance, if you have to create a crime organization and the GM emulator gives you the two words “overcrowded” and “nature,” what would you do?
In my game, this might be a group of people who admire hunters who thin out the natural animal population, and they then apply that to “hunting” humans. Maybe instead of the generic RPG Assassin’s Guild, I call the group the Huntsmen.
Additionally, someone who plays TTRPGs for the social element of hanging out with their friends might find a solo RPG very boring. It is definitely not a social activity. For me, however, this hobby was just what I was searching for. Or so I thought.
The Unexpected Treasure
As it turns out, I had discovered more than a just way to feed my love of TTRPGs. I found a hobby that satisfied several of my interests at once.
In my research, I came across many bloggers who liked to post their actual game-session reports. Some were little more than a record of the games encounters and rolls. Others used their play as inspiration for imaginative storytelling. These writers would create full narratives that fleshed out their worlds and characters though dialog and drama. I knew right away that I wanted to write and tell stories like this. In fact, I was already mentally doing this as I played.
Starting with my very first solo RPG game, I had planned to write and share a story that I hoped others would find enjoyable. Over the past two years, I have written about siblings who leave their small village to travel to the city to avenge the death of their father and save the king. Later, I wrote about a fantasy “A-Team” who gets hired by a small country to discover why men sent to explore a mysterious island are disappearing. And then I told the story of a clown who (along with the circus lion tamer) seeks out adventure and finds a forest full of giant, hybrid, chicken monsters.
A way that I enhance my posts is to include graphics and illustrations. This idea came from one of my favorite solo RPG bloggers who always included images in his posts. Sometimes they would use these images as a GM tool. Such as choosing a random picture and use it to direct the story.
Most images I find can be used as-is. But every now and then, I have the need for a specific design that doesn’t exist online. It is in those instances, I get to incorporate another of my hobbies: photo manipulation. I have turned photographs into pencil drawings, invented shadow creatures, and even cameoed an adorable, crocheted gaming icon as lucky charm.
Getting into the solo RPG hobby offered me a way to enjoy tabletop gaming despite not having a group to play with. Without finding the extra creative avenues from the hobby, it may have simply become a novelty that I tried, enjoyed, and then set aside. However, the gameplay inspired my writing, artistic expression, and posting stories online. That constantly motivated me to play more.
And maybe most importantly (but not antithetically), during this whole process, I have made friends and acquired followers. So a not-so-social hobby of playing TTRPGs solo became a social outlet after all. Because of all this together, I see myself continuing to play for years to come.
Terrence Koch, who also goes by Teviko604, is the creator of Tev’s Next Idea, where he posts stories based on his solo RPG campaigns.