By Clare C. Marshall
Around the beginning of the pandemic, I felt like I lost the ability to tell a good story.
I wasn’t invested in anything I’d created—or had planned to create. Not ideal for someone whose income relies on creative output.
Burnt out from the publishing/selling loop I’d created for myself, I sought escape in entertainment only to become frustrated with every offering. My Steam library is bursting with amazing RPGs and 4X strategy games, yet only in the theatre of the mind can Commander Shepard run around the other levels of the Citadel or can Pathfinder Ryder explore other sectors of Andromeda.
Eventually, the story will end. And then I can’t experience it again for the first time.
Board games and mystery subscription boxes also engaged my mind, yet they too were finite. I wanted something that challenged me. That didn't make me feel like I was solving theme-of-the-month word puzzles and make me pay an arm and a leg for shipping to Canada.
Just before the pandemic, I’d participated in a one-shot Star Wars campaign when I’d visited my friends. The fond experience burned in the back of my mind as I wondered: how can I recreate this, without relying on participation or interest from others?
I wanted a narrative-based game that would retaliate against me as I played and delight me with the element of surprise. I wanted to create and experience and play, simultaneously.
And I wanted to play this Magical Game That Doesn't Exist on my own terms. No waiting for other interested players to join me.
It was an impossible laundry list of features surrounding an entertainment experience I couldn’t search for because it didn’t seem to have a name. You don’t know what you don’t know.
So, throughout the pandemic, I casually browsed the various D&D subreddits and searched for board games, card games, and new releases on Steam that had a hint of the experience I craved.
In November 2020, disparate thoughts melded together and became a delicate buzz in my ear: surely there are other people who are like me who want this kind of experience as well. After all, if there’s anything I’ve learned in my decade in publishing, it’s that people’s tastes are rarely singular.
I went hunting on Reddit, and sure enough, what I had been thinking about and hoping for had a NAME: Solo RPGing. In other words, playing tabletop roleplaying games by yourself.
What a rush of relief when it clicked into place. Knowing a thing’s name gives you power, especially in the age of SEO.
I devoured all information I could find about solo RPG. I bought PDFs: game emulators, RPG supplements, and RPG systems. I dug out dice I hadn't touched in a decade. I played with different systems and tables and tools. I could generate a story for my character, and experience it, and watch it evolve--and I didn't need anyone else.
After nearly a decade of writing for pay, I was finally creating something just for me. You don’t know how nourishing private creation can be as a professional artist until you make space for it.
So, your interest in solo RPG is piqued. How can you get started?
1. Choose your system. Start with an RPG system you know well and think about how it could be adapted for solo play. Depending on the system, you may need to choose an emulator to act as GM/DM. If you don’t have a system, you may end up creating or adapting one from multiple systems through trial and error (like I did!).
2. Choose your emulator. This is (usually) a separate system that stacks on top of your RPG that, well, emulates and replaces the GM/DM role. You’ll need an RPG system and an emulator or an RPG system designed for solo play, which means it has a built-in emulator. Ironsworn is an example of a TTRPG with solo-first design.
3. Read the next article in the series! Next time, I’ll detail the tools I use to play solo RPGs, where you can get them, and which tool can be used for what kind of play.
Clare C. Marshall is the author-publisher behind Faery Ink Press. She also blogs about her publishing experiences and experiments and explores the connection between storytelling and solo RPG on her YouTube channel.