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Old Oct 18th, 2020, 02:33 PM
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RPG systems designed for 1-to-1 play

RPG systems designed for 1-to-1 play


Hello, traveller! This article aims to highlight some systems that have been explicitly developed for "solo" (or, better, "1-to-1") playing. There's nothing bad in playing D&D or some other popular system with just a single character, except that... well, in truth, there are a few problems. I will touch upon them briefly, then address a few potential solutions both within and without the realm of D&D-like or d20 games. Here's a tentative table of contents:
  1. Introduction: the specific problems of 1-to-1 playing
  2. "fixing" D&D: Solo Heroes
  3. a whole D&D-like system for 1-to-1 playing: Scarlet Heroes
  4. Investigative systems: the GUMSHOE games (Cthulhu Confidential, Night's Black Agents, The Paragon Blade)
  5. Beowulf, a 1-on-1 system and setting for 5e
However, before we start, let me talk briefly about terminology.

A note about terminologyYep, here at the Bazaar we do solo games. Just like the NPSG, which is an acronym for New Player Solo Games, these involve a single player and a GM. But in truth, "solo" is a very ambiguous term: in the past it's been widely used to refer to GM-less games where the player is actually, utterly alone. I remember several D&D modules which had "SOLO" right there in the product code (MSOLO1, MSOLO2... remember those?); there've been many others in the Tunnels & Trolls line and others. Successful new products like Ironsworn and Thousand Years Old Vampire are GM-less "solo" systems actually written for a single person.

So, what are we going to do? I know it's a little late to be picky, what with the NPSG and the Bazaar's own name, but to avoid any equivocalness we're not going to use "solo" except when it's right there in some product's name, but what can you do?at all. Some refer to the "one player, one GM" setup as duet play, which is clever, but we're striving for maximum clarity and therefore will be using "1-to-1" for our case and "GM-less" for the "true solo" situation (with just a single human being, alone in an empty, dark, damp room). Hopefully, this will make absolutely clear what we're talking about.

Ironsworn, for example, is quite appreciated as a "true solo" (as in, GM-less) system. Scarlet Heroes can function as a GM-less system as well, but we're considering only its function as a 1-to-1 autonomous system or as an overlay on other D&D-like games. So, although the two games are often compared, we are only really interested in Scarlet Heroes.
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Come over at the Solo Bazaar, have a cozy game!
#BARD4LIFE. 'Nuff said.

Last edited by stepanxol; Jan 21st, 2021 at 04:56 PM.
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Old Oct 18th, 2020, 02:36 PM
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Introduction: the specific problems of 1-to-1 playing

Introduction: the specific problems of 1-to-1 playing


There are many problems that a character made for a multiplayer system like D&D is bound to face: I'll touch upon them briefly, before referring to a document that actually tackles non only all these problems, but also the relative solutions.

1) Lone PCs are fragile: the HPs drain away in no time, but most of all, the character is utterly exposed to effects that a party could tackle with relative ease. Consider paralysis: an encounter with ghouls, or carrion crawlers, becomes simply impossible to overcome when as soon as you're down, you're gone.

2) Lone PCs lack skills and abilities: multiclassing can help, but most adventures assume the presence of a party, with many different characters able to heal, find and disable traps, overcome locks, cast spells etc... non to mention the presence of several burly warriors and other damage-dishers. Which brings me to the last and most important point:

3) Enemies don't die quickly enough. Even if you pump up the level, your lone hero just won't be proficient in slaughtering like a full party. Imagine playing out a 1st level D&D encounter with a lone 3rd or 4th level PC. This is going to take many, many rolls, because your damage output will be inferior or, even if similar, will be usually concentrated on a single foe. Put simply: it doesn't matter if you inflict 40 points of damage to that single goblin, there are always going to be 6 more of them! There are house rules that allow to redirect the extra damage to multiple opponents as long as you're felling them one after the other, but they're non-standard, so we're back at square one. And this means that...

4) Wasn't the last one the final point? However, this one is a direct consequence: 1-to-1 playing in pbp is slooooow. In fact, I've been around the Bazaar for a while, I've watched many games start and quickly die, and I'm starting to believe that the single most important reason for failure, by far, is time. The grind. The slog.

You can fudge everything else, playing mostly freeform, but if you use some sort of D&D rules, when the 3rd level fighter above meets a bunch of goblins, the resulting combat will require, I don't know, 10 rolls? More? And this is the most straightforward encounter, with no fancy mechanics or anything. The situation is well-known, the outcome totally obvious, yet we're talking about two or even three weeks of grinding through them pesky humanoids (assuming an average posting rate).

As we shall see, in a similar situation a well-thought system like Scarlet Heroes will allow you to wipe away the opposition with one or two die rolls, three at most. Not to mention new, modern systems: some GUMSHOE games, from Pelgrane Press, are conceived for 1-to-1 play and adopt a totally different approach, with 1-roll Challenges that often are sufficient to resolve a whole encounter.

I think "the slog" is by far the main reason why the vast majority of 1-to-1 games get abandoned. On the other hand, in my experience, it's perfectly possible to finish an average-size 1-to-1 scenario in a couple of months, which doesn't sound like an impressive achievement... unless you have any sort of experience with pbp, in which case it's unbelievably awesome.

In fact, with the correct system 1-on-1 playing can be the quickest game to play on a forum. When you overcome the problems I outlined above, having a single PC makes for a much better posting rate. In multiplayer, there's always that single player who delays their post for some reason; 1-to-1 is practically the only situation in which a GM can manage, when the stars are right, to post multiple times a day.
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Come over at the Solo Bazaar, have a cozy game!
#BARD4LIFE. 'Nuff said.

Last edited by stepanxol; Oct 24th, 2020 at 06:44 PM.
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Old Oct 18th, 2020, 07:13 PM
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"fixing" D&D: Solo Heroes

"fixing" D&D: Solo Heroes


So... did you like the short recap, in the post above, on the problems that burden 1-to-1 d20 games? Quite clever, if I may say so myself? Indeed, I can say so without shame, since it's not my work -- most of it (apart from the final considerations about time and pace, which are mostly relevant to pbp) come from the mind of Kevin Crawford, who many years ago wrote a short, free PDF tackling just this topic. To give it the right relevance, I'm going to put an obvious link here, on its own line:

Solo Heroes, by Kevin Crawford
(You don't even need to download it, drivethru's full-sized preview already shows everything!)

The beauty of Solo heroes is that it's NOT a new system (there are already so many of those...), but a short set of rules that can be overlaid on any d20-like system, keeping its peculiarities (races, classes, spell lists, special abilities, etc.) intact. It's originally written for Labyrinth Lords, but you can play 5e, 13th Age or whatever you want with a single character, whose power is roughly equal to a similar-level full party, with no modification whatsoever to the original module. Since there's a free PDF available, it makes no sense for me to write at length about Kevin Crawford's rules, but here's a short recap of the most important:
  • The main idea is that PC lose HPs normally, but they inflict full hit dice of damage. Hence, your 1-st level humanoids like orcs or goblins are all going to keel over as soon as you touch them with spell or weapon. On top of this, every heroic PC inflicts a full die of damage every round, irrespective of their action. This is called Fray die and is active even when the PC is not attacking, but only against "mooks" (enemies with hit dice equal or lower than the PC's level).
  • To make the whole thing work, though, it's necessary to redefine the damage ranges: a simple conversion maps daggers to 0-1 dam, short swords to 0-2 and so on. Big weapons can inflict up to 4 points of damage (which, remember, become hit dice when it's the PC who's attacking them monsters. And down goes the ogre!)
  • To avoid "save or die" situations, or deadly conditions like paralysis, sleep, drain etc., heroes can try to Defy Death, basically suffering a number of non-curable damage dice equal to their level. These dice start with d4s and "grow" one step to d6s, d8s and finally d10s every time that a PC Defies Death in the same session.
That's basically it! With these rules and a few others, any module becomes instantly playable by a lone hero, without any other modification by the GM.

And what are the parts that these rules leave out? Quite a bit, in fact. Races, classes, the spell system with its different spell lists, the whole skill subsystem, saves, mechanics like advantage/disadvantage, experience and any other peculiarity of the specific system chosen, like status flags (ie conditions like Dazed, Hampered, Stunned etc., which are quite important in many games). The beauty of Solo Heroes, as I said, is that these features can ALL be used as they are, just converting any damage (or healing) to the new mechanics.

You don't have to learn (yet another) new system that nobody has ever heard and will prevent you from ever finding players willing to join: you can play what you want (any D&D edition, all OSR clones, Pathfinder, 13th Age) just applying a small set of very specific rules that make the game more suited, less lethal and -- crucially -- much quicker in a 1-to-1 situation.
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I have sworn the Oath of Sangus
Come over at the Solo Bazaar, have a cozy game!
#BARD4LIFE. 'Nuff said.

Last edited by stepanxol; Oct 24th, 2020 at 06:44 PM.
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Old Oct 21st, 2020, 06:35 PM
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a D&D-like system for 1-to-1 playing: Scarlet Heroes

a D&D-like system for 1-to-1 playing: Scarlet Heroes


Having a set of rules that you can use along with your favorite system is nice. But what if you just want a full system, simple but flexible, ready to go and more or less compatible with the vast trove of old modules you've got laying around? What if it was written by the same guy who spent so much time concocting Solo Heroes, above, and it was free?

Scarlet Heroes is a full-fledged game inspired to old B/X D&D with 4 classes (the base ones, can you guess them?), a small set of spells and everything you need to manage skill checks (more about that below).

As for Solo Heroes, you can play Scarlet Heroes for free: there's a full quickstart!

Scarlet Heroes by Kevin Crawford (free Quickstart)

SH's philosophy and aesthetics are clearly old-school, but the system is anything but: apart from including the rules for 1-to-1 adventuring described above, it integrates a skill system which is very modern, freeform and narrative-oriented.

All skill checks (including the ones for thievery) are based on Traits. These are very similar to 13th Age's Backgrounds, which is my absolute preferred system among the most recent d20 games: basically... you just make up stuff! There's not a list of specific skills that map on possibile actions, all squared up in a little grid that encompasses all the possibile actions. To quote the SRD:

Backgrounds in 13th AgeEach character gets 8 background points, plus any extra that your class’s talents award. When you roll a skill check to find out if you succeed at a task... you choose the background you think is relevant to gain the points you have in that background as a bonus to the skill check.

Confront the above with SH's Traits, who are described as follows (again, I'm quoting from the free quickstart):

Traits in Scarlet HeroesTraits are short phrases describing your hero’s background, special talents, or useful relationships. To make a check, roll 2d8, add your highest relevant trait and your most relevant attribute’s modifier. If the total is equal or higher than the check’s difficulty, you succeed.

Not having to allocate points and fiddle with checks that map on explicit values is incredibly refreshing. Personally I think that the explicit skill system introduced in 3e has done a lot of damage to role-playing: since it ultimately remaps every single action to a specific value, it stifles creativity and pushes the players to consider every problem with an eye on their PCs' skill lists. But I realize that this is a pet peeve of mine, and that's a topic for another article...

To conclude this section, I can say that the full version of Scarlet Heroes includes an interesting asian-tinged setting, with its history, several kingdoms, special races etc, but let's say it: its clear purpose is to allow you to take any module written for a full party (not necessarily the ancient, classic ones) and play it with a single partner with no modification to the original text, in an easy and -- most of all -- much quicker way.
__________________
I have sworn the Oath of Sangus
Come over at the Solo Bazaar, have a cozy game!
#BARD4LIFE. 'Nuff said.

Last edited by stepanxol; Oct 24th, 2020 at 06:50 PM.
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Old Oct 24th, 2020, 06:42 PM
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Investigative systems: the GUMSHOE games (Cthulhu Confidential, Night's Black Agents,

Investigative systems: the GUMSHOE games (Cthulhu Confidential, Night's Black Agents, The Paragon Blade)

And now for something completely different:

GUMSHOE One-2-One is Pelgrane Press' adaptation of its investigative role-playing system. The game's philosophy, like its older brother's, is to never keep information from the player. In other words, you will never have to roll to detect, spot, know or deduce: no more Library Use, Idea rolls and such. The assumption is that crime, thriller or horror stories are not interesting because sometimes the protagonist fails to notice something: the clues and leads are all there, while the challenge lies in putting them together. This allows for the creation of plots that are, on average, more complex than many other systems, where getting the basic info is a (dice-based) challenge in itself. The system is also very combat-light, and light on rolls in general -- the main mechanic, used for every aspect of the game, is the Challenge.

At the end of a Challenge, your die roll total may match or exceed that of an Advance (the best result), or a Hold (an okay or middling result). If not, your Outcome is a Setback, which means that something bad happens.
  • On an Advance you will probably gain an Edge: an advantage you can use later in the scenario.
  • On a Setback, you often gain a Problem.
Edges and Problems are represented by cards (actual, physical cards, or in any case paragraphs of text with a specific, unique effect in-game). Edge cards will tell you how their advantage works, and often you will have to discard the card to gain the advantage. If you reached the Advance threshold without rolling all of the dice you were entitled to, you also gain a Push (see below).

Problems, once again represented by unique cards, are dilemmas, hindrances or impediments that might cause trouble for you later. I say "hindrances", but some of like "Internal bleeding" or "Thrice-shattered mind" them are quite severe -- in fact, certain cards might lead to a terrible end for your detective should you fail to get rid of them before the scenario concludes.
This innovative use of cards means that GUMSHOE players do not have to track hit points, sanity and such: wounds, both physical and psychological, are again managed via Edges and Problems. This also means that it's usually possible to delay the final outcome of a scenario until its actual finale, bringing the story to a nice conclusion even when, well, the hero dies or goes mad and cosmic horrors (or vampires in NBA) triumph.

The only resource that the GUMSHOE player must manage is the Push, an abstract, very cinematic entity that allows you to obtain an important advantage. Basically you can make up a piece of the story, state that the guard at the door is actually an old friend, convince the GM that you have actually I though it was better to be prepared, should it turn out useful!packed a lot of explosive in your trunk, and so on. Pushes are severely limited, but notice that they cannot be spent to help your die-rolling during a Challenge: rather, you have to spend them beforehand, during the investigation, to facilitate it (or to avoid the Challange altogether).

As you can see, the game is totally focused on narration -- it's almost like the GM and player are cooperating in writing a screenplay. This approach pervades the whole system: hence the more "gamey" aspects, notably combat, could seem simplistic to some players. There are some tactical decision on how to spend die and Pushes, but combat is rather simplified (but, on the other hand, much quicker). This does not mean that there are no meaningful decisions: in fact, compared with your usual D&D adventure or AP, sometimes there are some very high-level, abstract decisions that can impact the adventure's whole development (and potentially, the survival of the protagonist!). I say that it's mostly a matter of habit: a competent GM can react and adapt to any input from the player. As I said, on average the scenarios are more complex that your usual investigative ones (let alone fantasy!). Since it's a given that all info, clues, leads etc. will be obtained with no rolls, the main plot can be richer, more intricate and yes, convoluted than, say, an average Call of Cthulhu scenario.

Some critics say that writing/preparing adventures for GUMSHOE (or improvising when the player does something unexpected) is difficult, mostly because of the need to prepare a lot of cards in advance. This is probably true, at least in part, but I think it's also due to the fact that we have so many years of playing D&D-like games, while this approach is new. I mean: do you want me to improvise a D&D encounter with an humanoid tribe in a woodland lair, with a few rooms, traps, original bosses and some treasure? Just give me the target level. But I've been doing this for decades -- I'll throw in some githyanki passing by, just to give it some spice! I bet that if we had the same average experience with a system like GUMSHOE 1-to-1, we'll be all making up Edges, Problems and Challenges on the spot with little or no effort.

Anyway, this is mostly a moot point, since the system is clearly aimed at playing with pregenerated characters, within adventures carefully crafted for them. Which is something I'm not at all against, since again, it lets the author craft a story that would be otherwise impossible with a "generic" investigator. A Cthulhu Confidential game can feature as a protagonist a seller of rare books in 1937 London or a private investigator in L.A. who crosses paths with the likes of Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen -- certainly it's not your generic "side trek in the local woods", with some druids wondering around!

To conclude, here is the complete list of the scenarios now available for Cthulhu Confidential: A Cable's Length from Shore, freely available as part of the Free Rpg Day 2018, includes quickstart rules as well.
__________________
I have sworn the Oath of Sangus
Come over at the Solo Bazaar, have a cozy game!
#BARD4LIFE. 'Nuff said.

Last edited by stepanxol; Jan 21st, 2021 at 05:00 PM.
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Old Jan 19th, 2021, 12:13 PM
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Beowulf, a 1-on-1 system and setting for 5e

Beowulf, a 1-on-1 system and setting for 5e


Beowulf is, to quote the quickstart freely available, "a setting for 5e, specifically designed to work with one player and one GM. Itís structured to create adventures with the feel of the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, which is the root of so many of our fantasy stories and folk tales".

The full game is not released yet, but there's a free adventure-with-rules already available (did I mention it's free?), with maps, VTT tokens, great art -- it's truly a nice package, which in fact has been nominated for two ENnies awards (also, you may like that fact that it's free. OK, I'll stop now...).

BEOWULF: The Hermit's Sanctuary, a free, full-length, introductory adventure

I haven't tried the game, but I'd say the strong point of Beowulf seem to be its setting: mechanically, it does not introduce as many new systems as Scarlet Heroes (which of course will be a huge bonus for many 5e fans). Basically there's the Hero, a new class with different sub-classes based on the different characteristics, which:
  • gets some bonus stats when rolled, like HPs
  • is supported by a cast of Followers; "A Heroís followers are always there in the background, ready to enter an encounter when an appropriate gift is called for". They offer gifts, but some also come with disadvantages ("burdens").
  • enjoys some luck-based mechanics that give them free inspirations when The Dice Are Right(tm)
Also, some rules are provided for journaling the 'off-screen' (downtime) activities of the Followers and Hero.

Along with the setting, one of Beowulf's biggest assets is probably its art: many of the artists have worked on The One Ring, (one, Paul Bourne, was its graphic designer), and it definitely shows. In fact, there's a pretty strong Middle-Earth vibe emanating from the whole thing, which is not surprising, if you think about Tolkien's background and studies! Anyway, the overall package is incredibly polished, and the VTT assets would prove very useful to play by post as well.

So... perhaps somebody will give it a try?
__________________
I have sworn the Oath of Sangus
Come over at the Solo Bazaar, have a cozy game!
#BARD4LIFE. 'Nuff said.

Last edited by stepanxol; Jan 21st, 2021 at 05:04 PM.
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Old Jan 21st, 2021, 04:51 PM
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Please don't post here! This thread is reserved for the article.

If you want to contribute with a new section, or you have comments or suggestions, thanks! Please post in the OOC thread of the Bazaar or PM me
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#BARD4LIFE. 'Nuff said.
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