Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Group vs. Solo Adventure Design

The difference between designing a solo adventure and a traditional adventure is the difference between a monk and a monkey (to paraphrase Twain). In a traditional adventure, you focus on creating a location or environment for the heroes to explore, hopefully crafting an interesting story into which the heroes can insert themselves and play some role.

In a solo adventure, you focus on scripting the story, and giving the player choices (and including the random nature of the dice) in shaping the story’s ultimate outcome. The solo adventure ends up far less open-ended as a consequence; however, the trick is to keep it from becoming a railroad with one clear path to ‘win’. Choices the player makes should be meaningful and have an impact on the ways in which the scenario plays out.

My first such adventure, A Dwarf’s Tale, is relatively straightforward. You make decisions, and these decisions can lead to your fortune, moderate success, mere survival, or death. There are four distinct ‘roads’ you can ultimately take, with dozens of avenues through them and places where they overlap. That’s not bad, but it’s still a sliding scale of one level of possible result- from terrible to great in terms of success...

For my next adventure, I want to work on one of two things:

The tale of a young thief sent on a dangerous errand assigned by his powerful guild in a major city
The tale of a young apprentice wizard undertaking a task to prove his worth to join a powerful wizard brotherhood.

In both cases, I want the sliding scale to include not only degrees of success of the mission itself, but choices that shape the character’s place in the game world. For the young thief, these should include decisions about whether or not to join one of two rival guilds, and his role in the development of the guilds going forward. For the apprentice wizard, these choices include whether to follow the path of good or evil, whether to seek power or knowledge. I can see how these work in principal, but as a story flowchart, they become quite difficult to manage...

Once your apprentice wizard selects the path of power over knowledge (for instance), certain options may no longer be available to him. To whit, your fledgling wizard visits the apothecary’s shop. His choice of whether to offer to help the apothecary with a personal problem (at no apparent benefit to himself) would be an option only if you have chosen the path of Law (or if you still are on the path of Neutral). However, if you’ve followed the path of Chaos, different options present themselves.

The danger here is that the branches run too far from the core story, and take you off in unusual directions. While it’s somewhat of a railroad to say that all decisions regarding the apothecary ultimately lead you into the nearby woods in search of a rare mushroom, your approach, the things you learn, and the ways in which your character grows are distinctly shaped through these choices, determined by the arteries you pursue off of the main path. At the end of the adventure, you are a more learned and more powerful wizard ready to take on the big challenge at the end, but the way your character views the world- and in fact, the way in which you overcome this final obstacle, is largely determined by the choices you’ve made throughout.

It’s a complex flow chart, but I see this working as a campaign-building tool for solo play.

The criticism of the solo adventures I’ve read through is that they are too generic. Since you can play ‘anyone’ you want, you end up with a very dry and somewhat vanilla adventure. I want these adventures to be dynamic and interesting, so I need to have specific characters in mind as I write. The good news is that characters, like people, do not always respond the same way in every situation, and you can create a wide range of options in most situations that are ‘true’ for a character, even when they are vastly different options.


  1. These solo adventures sound great! Even though I'm a fan of self-made characters, playing 'pregen' characters would be fine if the story is specifically crafted for them!

    Can't wait to buy them. =)

  2. I have the first inklings of an idea for an extended campaign where you develop your own hero, but the little bit of reading I've done of other companies' published solo adventures tend towards vanilla... "you walk into a chamber and a skeleton leaps out and attacks!" strikes me as particularly bland. For me, the flavor of the story itself is part of the appeal. I don't know yet quite how to find that balance between totally unique characters and a dynamic story rooted in character... but I'm working on it!

  3. Wow. That was a bigger answer than I was expecting, but thanks a bunch fro really stepping up to the plate on this one. Great stuff!

  4. It seems that Tunnels and Trolls has done a good job establishing a niche in the game community for its solo adventures... I know that for myself, much of my gameplay happens either solo or with one other person. To actively support this style of play seems to make sense for the game, and also for the development of the game's identity and community. We'll see where this takes us...