I spend almost all of my evenings on my professional GMing business. My schedule is almost always full and all my games naturally take place in the evenings, when my clients have time to play. This means I am never available in the evenings and therefore can almost never play in a D&D game just for the fun of playing in one. My spare time is entirely in the mornings and early afternoons (day job permitting), which means I’m playing a lot of solo games. Let’s talk about which ones are any good.
Avalon Solo Adventure
I backed this one on Kickstarter recently, and it’s…okay. These are fundamentally Choose Your Own Adventure books where occasionally you stop to play a D&D combat encounter against yourself. It’s kind of like Fighting Fantasy, except instead of one character with two stats, you have four characters with full 5e character sheets. And also the branching paths aren’t total fucking bullshit intended to get you to die and restart like eighteen times until you brute force the solution.
Unfortunately, Avalon Solo Adventure isn’t super well designed. I mean, it’s better than Fighting Fantasy, but that’s a low bar to clear. The lethality of many of the adversaries seems to have been drastically underestimated, with a level 2-3 party being tossed in against ten bandits and a leader not once but multiple times with no opportunity for a long rest. This is insane – according to DMG guidelines, such an encounter would be considered deadly until 8th level. Although their scheme of randomly populating a dungeon allows for loops and branches, their dungeons do not actually contain any of these things, and are all strictly linear. Some of the faction systems are bizarre as well. Most factions you join require you to spend 3-4 days out of a week working for them, but many, many quests take 4+ days, which means joining a faction locks that character permanently out of quite a few quests undertaken for any other faction or for no faction in particular.
There’s also quests only available to people who have at least one point of favor with dwarves or elves, but the only way to get that first point of favor is to have a dwarf or an elf in your party, so if you’re playing the All Dragonborn Party then you get locked out of some content completely. Fair enough that there are some factions who don’t want to hand out their quests until they have a reason to trust you, but there should be some way of earning that trust unless it is specifically an element that dwarves and elves are so deeply xenophobic that they trust nobody who isn’t of the same race, something which doesn’t come across anywhere except in quest prerequisites (including the actual quest text). This element is a weird sort of contradiction where it is simultaneously presumed that dwarves never confide in non-dwarves, but also that most adventuring parties will contain both dwarves and other races.
I like Avalon Solo Adventure in theory, but I can’t really recommend it due to its weak execution.
D6 Shooters is a series of three different western solo print and play board games. Your goal is to get from point A to point B in a certain amount of turns and sometimes accomplish something specific at point B when you get there. Exact rules vary from game to game, but in the first one, you roll five white and three red dice. You’re hoping to avoid 5s and 6s, which are bad, 1s, 2s, and 3s all do a specific something good (although 2s and 3s also require you to have a set of them), while 4s can be spent on a number of different options, all of which are situationally beneficial, but which generally require more dice to accomplish what a 1, 2, or 3 does automatically. For example, you can trade two 4s to move one space on the board, but every 1 rolled moves you one space forward automatically. You can reroll any amount of dice up to two times on each turn, but rerolling red dice is dangerous, because any 5 or 6 rolled on a red die is locked in and cannot be rerolled on subsequent turns. Rerolling anything that isn’t a 5 or 6 can be dangerous, because it could always get worse, but if you’ve got a stray 3 that you can’t make a set with, you may as well try it. So it’s a little bit like Yahtzee, except you’re riding through the Old West trading gunshots with a bandit gang.
The board always contains some branching paths on it (although, of course, everything ultimately leads to a single destination) and some squares are good to end your turn on and others bad, and some ask you to draw a card for a random event, which will often be “give up X resource for Y resource,” sometimes in the form of “spend X resource if you have it to prevent the depletion of mission critical Y resource.” There’s a lot of randomness in the game and enough decisions to make about resource allocation that it feels like you’re doing something while you play, but really the game is almost purely luck-driven. A good run is one in which you, by chance, happen to get lots of good rolls in the right places and are successfully able to predict which resources you’ll need in abundance and which you can trade away. A bad run is one in which you roll poorly or guess the cards in the event deck wrong. Since the event deck is just a randomly shuffled stack of cards, you can’t really predict its contents the way you could try to with a human.
D6 Shooters delivers on providing enough engagement to make it feel like you’re playing a game and that can make the die rolls and card draws exciting, but it would not be inaccurate to say that it’s Candyland with extra steps.
Deep Space D6
We’re going alphabetically, so we get both the titles named for d6s in a row. In Deep Space D6, you are playing as the crew of a space ship that has suddenly come under attack by like sixteen different enemy vessels, which, honestly, kind of seems like cheating to me. On the other hand, your ship has double the hull points plus rapidly regenerating shields as compared to even the strongest enemy vessel. Back on the first hand, your crew are all mad geniuses which means any given station can be anything from super effective to totally inert depending on the roll of the dice.
Deep Space d6 is made by a different guy than d6 Shooters, but it shares a few similarities. You draw cards for bad stuff, roll a set of six dice for good stuff, and hope your good stuff can cancel out your bad stuff. Unlike d6 Shooters, the closest thing to a good card is the “Don’t Panic” cards which have no effect at all, however only the 6s cause something bad to happen: Every time you roll a 6, it gets locked into the sensor array and doesn’t return until you’ve got a full set of three, at which point you return the three 6s to your pool and draw a new card. The other sides of the dice correspond to the five actually useful stations on the ship: Command, Tactical, Engineering, Medical, and Science. Generally speaking, Tactical dice allow you to remove cards that are currently wrecking your ship, Engineering allows you to restore hull points, Medical allows you to restore dice locked to sensors or the infirmary back to your usable pool, and Science has two nifty powers: A science die can recharge your shields to maximum (whereas Engineering restores a certain amount of hull points per die, Science restores shields to 4 no matter how low they are) or fire a stasis beam, which prevents one enemy from doing damage to you for one round. Command allows you to convert one other die to any other face you like or to reroll any number of dice that didn’t get a 6, with the exception of the Command die itself, which is assigned for the turn in order to get the reroll.
There’s a lesser emphasis on rerolls balanced by all the dice almost always being useful for something, except for 6s, which just suck. Whereas in d6 Shooters you mostly wants sets of something – a pair of 4s so you can spend them together to move a space or shelter yourself from a heat wave, or a pair of 2s so you can get some extra food, or whatever – in Deep Space d6 having sets gives a bonus but one die by itself always accomplishes something. One Engineering die recovers one hull point, two dice recover three, for example, so getting two Engineering dice on the same turn is better than getting one after the other, but the one is still good for something.
There’s some special cards that have special rules for resolving them, but you get the basic idea, and it’s ultimately the same concept as d6 Shooters. There’s no board to move across and no time limit except that you draw a new card after every roll, plus maybe an extra if you get too many 6s, but you’re still rolling dice and assigning them and the difference between success and defeat still mostly comes down to luck. When you get a Command die, you have a decision to make: Do you want to reroll dice, or change a die (that didn’t roll a 6) to another face? When you get a Tactical die, you have a math problem to solve: How much damage-per-round am I eliminating on average for each target I hit? There’s a choice to make, but often one of those choices is the right answer based on available information while the others are mathematically wrong (as opposed to Command dice, where you have many options both defensive and offensive and it’s not clear which is best because you don’t know which cards are coming next). When you get an Engineering die, you get extra hull points. There isn’t even an illusion of a choice to make.
A lot of the game that isn’t dictated by die rolls can come down to whether or not you draw a Don’t Panic card and get a bit of a breather to focus on repairs, or whether you end up getting frontloaded Don’t Panic cards when you haven’t even taken much damage and don’t really care or get two of them close to or right on top of one another when you’ve already had a breather and don’t especially benefit from a second one (except sometimes when you’re getting so overwhelmed that having two free turns in a row or at least close together helps you clear the board).
How To Host A Dungeon
This one has a terrible name, because it’s nothing at all to do with those How To Host A Murder parties. It’s just a solo game that generates a dungeon with a random history. Play proceeds through four ages with almost no player input for any of them, rather, dice are rolled, tables are consulted, and drama unfolds almost purely on auto-pilot. In the Primordial Age, some basic terrain features like underground rivers and natural caverns are formed. In the Age of Civilization, either dwarves, dark elves, fiends, or some combination of the three show up and begin carving cities into the place. Here things are less random, as civilizations tend to only resort to rolling dice and tunneling in a random direction when there’s no ore veins to mine or buildings to upgrade or what-have-you. The Age of Civilization ends with a Great Disaster that brings the resident civilization(s) to an end, and ushers in the Age of Monsters. Up top it’s the Age of Humans, and castles and cities and wizard’s towers and such begin to show up on the surface, but down below the tunnels are populated with monster tribes and minor empires of various sorts. The Age of Monsters ends either when one monster group amasses a whole mess of treasure or the humans up above are conquered. This ushers in the Age of Villainy, when an evil super villain shows up to take control of the dungeon, and heroic adventuring parties show up to try and end their reign of terror.
Obviously, this isn’t really a game so much as a toy or an experience or something. The “player” is very occasionally prompted for input when the otherwise algorithmic rules are at an impasse, like when there’s more than one vein of ore for a dwarven colony to start mining in the Age of Civilization or some other Buridan’s Ass kind of scenario. The fun is in watching the history unfold and seeing the map of the dungeon take form.
Mythic GM Emulator
This one wins points for accurate naming. It is what it sounds like, which means it also wins points for being extremely ambitious. It then loses points, however, for requiring a group anyway. It’s less for “I want to play a campaign but no one else is available from 10 AM to 2 PM on Wednesday” and more for “we have an RPG group but none of us wants to be the GM. Like any decent GM Emulator, Mythic is basically an oracle that you ask questions of, generate a random answer to, and then interpret the answer to that question. Like any good GM Emulator, it’s got lots of different mechanisms for generating different answers to different questions. The core of it is yes/no questions answered with the Fate Chart. No relation to the Fate RPG. The Fate Chart cross-references the odds that the answer will be “yes” with the current “chaos rank,” something which goes up over the course of an adventure. The chart gives percentage odds that a thing will occur, and you roll a d100 and see what happens.
Gaming this system is super easy: If you only ask the oracle for good things, then the worst that can happen is you don’t get them, and you’ll become luckier as chaos rank increases. You can always just resolve to ask whatever question pops into your head, but this can sometimes result in consulting the chart for issues which, given even a modicum of thought, prove to be minor enough details that you could just provide an immediate answer. On the other hand, turning a question over in your head for a few seconds will train your subconscious to discard potentially bad things as “random thoughts to discard” and potentially good things as “interesting possibilities to consult the oracle about.”
Having more people around the table can probably help with this, and it probably varies based on temperament, but I wouldn’t know because I’ve spent the last eight months interacting with my friends exclusively through Discord and, when they insist, Facebook Messenger. Instead, I favor this house rule: Instead of a flat chaos rank, have a good fortune rank and a bad fortune rank, which must always sum to 10. If your good fortune rank is 6, your bad fortune rank must be 4, if bad fortune is 9, good fortune must be 1, and so on. Whenever you ask a question and the answer is bad, your good fortune increases to compensate (thus automatically decreasing bad fortune), and when the answer is good, your bad fortune increases (thus decreasing good fortune). If the answer to a question amounts to “nothing happens,” then fortune does not budge, for example, “are there enemy guards in the room?” “No.” Or “is the wizard an old friend?” “No.” You can also give yourself good fortune or bad fortune to compensate for the dice hating or loving you in a specific encounter.
Mythic also comes with event charts, a d100 table each for “action” and “subject,” so used to interpret more complex questions, plus an “event table” for introducing entirely new events to the story. The higher the chaos rank, the more likely that a random event will alter the course of a scene before it begins (if using the good/bad fortune house rule, the higher of the two is your current chaos rank for purposes of an event, and should also be used to color the interpretation, i.e. if your bad fortune is higher than good and you get a random event, interpret the random event in a bad light – although sometimes the event focus will override this).
Here’s an example: We’re playing a standard D&D game and are tracking down some goblins. Next scene is actually traveling through the forest to follow the goblins back to their hideout, while goblin skirmishers attempt to ambush the party and head us off. We’ve rolled a d10 and it was under the current chaos rank of 5, so the next scene is altered by a random event. We roll a d100 three times. The first roll is for the event focus table, and we get a 96: NPC positive. Something positive happens to an NPC, let’s assume for the purpose of the example that the only NPC we’ve met this early on is the town blacksmith who asked us to get after the goblins, so it’s automatically something positive relevant to him. We roll twice more for the Action and Subject tables and get 5 and 100: Recruit information. “Recruit” implies an animate creature of some kind, while information suggests the creature is notable mainly because they know something.
Now I just start spitballing: After thwarting the ambush, we discover a hostage they’ve taken, who has information that is valuable to the blacksmith. He’s a merchant in search of a new supplier of arms and armor now that the workshop he used to rely on got sacked by an enemy force. Right now, this guy’s only relevant because he needs the blacksmith’s services, so while we could roll on the Action and Subject tables right away for more details, we won’t. Someone else probably would’ve come up with a drastically different interpretation, but the point of a GM Emulator is not to provide a consistent experience from one person to the next, but to allow for an RPG to be played without a GM, and you can see from this example that yeah, that’s a plot development that wasn’t obvious and which helped expand the world from a bit that came from rolling for some random words on a table and then making up connections between them.
As mentioned earlier, you can also use Action/Subject rolls to answer questions that can’t be easily phrased as a yes/no question. For example, “is the cave occupied by a monster?” “Yes!” “Okay. Uh. Is it a minotaur?” “No.” “Owlbear?” “No.” “…otyugh?” “Yes!” This works, but you’re basically just going through the Monster Manual looking for beasties. If the RPG you’re using has a limited bestiary, picking random entries and asking yes/no if they’re the monster of the week can get repetitive fast. On the other hand, let’s try rolling for Action/Subject: “Attract inside.” The creature is an alluring siren of some sort, and is much more powerful in its lair than outside of it. It has a beautiful form (perhaps a mimic that looks like treasure if that’s more fitting for the party) and is some kind of closet troll that benefits from getting in close in a tight space before beginning its attack.
For the kinds of thematically strong, well thought out GMing that I advocate in my GM’s guide, there’s no substitute for a real human being and won’t be until we begin to approach the Singularity. That said, Mythic GM Emulator is pretty good at doing the whole oracle thing, and the comparison to a real GM only matters if you have a real GM.