In the previous installment of Tabletop for one, my solo RPG play character Jindra the female dwarf shield fighter was crouched in a thicket outside the entrance to a goblin “eating cave,” a hideout used by the Cragmaw tribe to launch ambushes along the Triboar Trail. After <barely> surviving an ambush herself, she completed her goal of delivering a wagonload of goods to Phandalin – along with a goblin prisoner – and headed back out to investigate this hideout and hopefully find and rescue Sildar Hallwinter. Sildar, a human warrior, was taken along with Jindra’s friend and patron Gundren Rockseeker. The latter was absconded with to Cragmaw Castle, a fortress many miles away. Closer at hand was this cave, and with any luck Jindra could enlist Sildar’s help in mounting a rescue operation.
In order to differentiate between the narrative retelling of the adventure experience and the insights into solo play that i had, going forward i’ll put those observations in italics. A few people who i’ve been communicating with about this experiment have expressed interest in learning what insights i gain to this style of play and applying it to their own gaming hobby.
i’m also very interested myself in seeing where this method of play goes after completing (or dying trying to complete) The Lost Mine of Phandelver. Specifically, how higher-level D&D games might play out and also what other game systems might be fun to try. Over the decades i’ve been an RPG-enthusiast, i’ve come across myriad games that i wanted to play but never did, or played only once or twice, so this is a good opportunity to revisit some of those.
But, for the nonce, let’s see how 1st-level Jindra fared at…
The Cragmaw Hideout
Hiding in the thicket for several hours, Jindra observed the cave entrance to gather intel, which paid off during a shift change for a pair of goblin guards using a blind to the east to monitor the opening to the cave. The goblin guards appear to be rather inattentive for the most part, and Jindra waits until nightfall to make her move. Because of their general laziness and the cover of night, i figure advantage on a Stealth check is okay, but due to Jindra’s chainmail that gives disadvantage, it’s a wash.
Despite a relieving roll of 17, my hopes at a stealthy approach were dashed by an even higher Perception check from the goblins. To spice things up, i thought maybe Jindra miscalculated her timing and makes her approach during a shift change, meaning she then had four goblins to contend with. It was a difficult battle for the lone adventurer, but i got extremely lucky with the dice rolls and survived with only a minor injury. i thought about taking a short rest, but figured it might raise suspicion if the guards coming off duty never returned, so i concealed their bodies and crept inside.
It is right after this encounter that i thought to myself “a stealthy character would go a long way towards survivability in a solo game.” When i was creating Jindra, my thinking was a tanky, high-AC character was most important, especially at low levels where her 19 AC would make it very difficult for enemies to hit her. For the most part that has proven true. But stealth would allow me to avoid encounters and get the drop on bad guys more often. On the other hand, my role model for this experiment, Rob Kuntz’s Robilar character that i talked about last time, was a fighter in plate mail armor and he did okay (with a ring of invisibility though).
Again with the Stealth disadvantage, i manage a 15 (for real – not fudging character dice rolls are one of the defining guidelines of this experiment) and creep on into the save. The sound of snarling greets Jindra’s ears, and she peers around a corner into the first chamber she comes across to spot a number of nasty, hungry-looking wolves chained up. Hungry, huh? Fortunately, Jindra has four fresh goblin steaks-to-be stashed nearby, and returns with one of them in short order, which the wolves are all too happy to set upon. The sound of rushing water from a stream cascading from the cave entrance provides a good noisy cover for these actions from any baddies further inside. The wolves, occupied with their meal and a barely-made Animal Handling check, remain distracted enough for Jindra to explore the chamber a bit.
In the back of the chamber is what is basically a garbage chute, a fissure in the stone leading upwards. With Jindra’s proficiency in Athletics, climbing the chute was very easy (rolled 25) and she scaled her way up it with aplomb. Peeking out the top of the fissure, she spots a bugbear (could this be the Klarg that her goblin captive mentioned?) and a mangy wolf relaxing by a large fire across the room.
Here is another situation where solo play was handy for a couple of reasons. First, in a group of players, not everyone might have the physical skills to successfully climb up the fissure, making any plans to go this way mean the party would split up (never a good idea) or require time and planning to get everyone up that had the potential to cause alarm or bring unwanted attention to the endeavor. Second, not everyone might want to even pursue this course of action to begin with. Maybe some disagreement, or a player feeling like their character, who in their imagination would absolutely go this way, was being short shrifted into going another way. Incidentally, i could take all the time i wanted to consider my options too, since no one was waiting on me.
Although i did not read ahead in the adventure, it is maybe a little metagaming to think going this way wasn’t the default linear path through the cave. On the other hand, it did exist as a option, and i imagined that if Jindra thought this bugbear was the boss, he might have the captive Sildar nearby. Perhaps she could start at the end essentially, skip past scraping her way through a bunch of other fights (which would leave her low on resources to take on this boss monster) and get out of there quickly.
So, she went for it.
The loud sound of rushing water from a nearby chamber, the crackling fire and the relaxed state of the bugbear and the wolf i figured gave Jindra a surprise round to take her action. Who’s going to expect a heavily-armored dwarf to crawl out of a garbage chute while you’re chilling in your lair, anyway?
The brutish Klarg the bugbear hits like a sonovabitch!
The plan: bum rush the bugbear and knock him into the fire, then try to eliminate that wolf as quickly as possible. If the fire doesn’t take out the bugbear, at least he’d be hurt.
Amazingly enough, the encounter went according to plan! Klarg had a hefty amount of hit points, but the charging attack and fall into the fire took out a good chunk during the surprise round. And since Jindra won the initiative, she bashed the wolf pretty good while the mangy thing missed her.
Klarg, who likes to speak in the third person, was furious naturally. And also singed, taking an extra point of fire damage while he got up out of the fire. He called to Ripper, the wolf, to rip me apart while taking a wild swing himself and missing. The next round, the wolf went down, and Klarg missed again.
The menacing bugbear connected during the following round, a shot that nearly killed Jindra in a single blow, from full health. Bugbears have an ability called “Brute” that deals extra damage when they hit, and it is most definitely brutish!
A couple of rounds (and thankfully misses from Klarg) later, and Jindra stood victorious. The final blow was made more dramatic because it was a critical hit.
Standing at 2hp, it seemed wise to take a short rest. The way i saw things, it was night, so it was plausible Klarg would be sleeping and not disturbed, and the loud noise from the adjoining chamber covered the sound of battle, so Jindra would be safe for an hour. That potion of healing i bought before starting play was well worth it at this point.
This battle taught me some things. First off, carrying and using potions of healing is a good investment. Often in both video games and tabletop games, i tend to hoard this sorts of things “for when i really need them.” When you’re on your own, those situations arise much more often. Next, coming up with a plan and some tactics is a good idea whenever possible! If you have the opportunity to observe and plan ahead, take it! At this point, i was looking forward to living long enough to take the Battle Master subclass, thinking those maneuvers would really open up some interesting options. i was also flirting with the notion of multiclassing, something i’m typically loathe to do.
Back to the adventure at hand, there are no signs of Sildar’s whereabouts in Klarg’s lair. There is, however, a nice amount of treasure! Included in that treasure was two more potions of healing, thank goodness. There’s also a significant amount of supplies marked with the symbol of a blue lion, which Jindra recalls seeing on a store placard in Phandalin.
Continuing with my disadvantageous attempts at Stealth, Jindra began working her way essentially backwards through the cave system, managing to surprise the goblins in the chamber next to Klarg’s and dispatching them quickly, racking up another crit in the process. Those are always fun. These goblins were manning a makeshift trap, prepared to release crude barricades to a pool where a waterfall spilled into the chamber and flood the tunnels below, which is the way adventurers would have to go if they didn’t climb up the fissure.
A rickety bridge overpass further in was manned by another goblin guard, who despite being hidden was easily spotted by Jindra. With a 20 foot drop to the cavern below, she went for another shove (it worked on Klarg!) and the hapless creature plummeted to its death.
Wheeling and dealing
Ahead, the tunnel opened up into a chamber the goblins were using as a sort of barracks. One of the creatures was tending a cooking pot, while two more were lounging about. Remember those ball bearings Jindra bought for her starting gear? She spread a bag of those out on where the tunnel opened into the barracks and called out a challenge to those inside. Predictably, a couple of goblins came rushing to fight her, and both fell prone when they slipped on the ball bearings. Moving carefully towards them, a crit right off the bat took care of one of them.
From inside the barracks, a goblin boss shouted out a threat to the invading dwarf. Identifying himself as Yeemik, the boss held a captive human over the edge of a ledge and threatened to push him off unless i gave him a chance to talk. The fella looked pretty beat up and worse for wear to begin with, so Jindra acquiesced.
The conniving Yeemik was tired of taking orders from the larger, meaner, nastier Klarg, and wanted to be the big boss himself. His deal was, if i took down Klarg and brought back his head, he’d release his prisoner (presumably Sildar). At least, i hoped it was Sildar, and the stew on the fire didn’t have anything to do with his whereabouts.
Jindra tells Yeemik, if he wants Klarg’s head, he can go get it himself – it’s currently laid out with his mangy mutt Ripper back the way she came from. Past the corpses of the bridge guard, and the goblins manning a waterfall trap. Oh, and the guards outside. And on the road. And the one in the town jail. Just for shiggles i roll an Intimidate check – 16. Yeemik is terrified.
Instead, i have a counter proposal: release Sildar, stop ambushing travelers, and help me return the stolen supplies to town. Become a different kind of boss, and maybe work on establishing a better relationship with Phandalin. While there, i pledge to protect him and speak on his behalf to get his goblin buddy released from jail.
Sildar is skeptical of this whole deal, weakly telling me not to trust Yeemik. But Jindra believes even a goblin can change and become a better person. Yeemik is naturally skeptical as well, but Jindra reassures him she’ll protect him as long as he stays calm.
Heading back into Phandalin on another wagon, laden with stolen supplies to return, a weary Sildar and an unshackled goblin drew plenty of suspicious looks. At the Townmaster’s Hall, after some heavy negotiating and assurances from Sildar, a deal is made. Sildar, who reveals himself as an agent of the Lords Alliance, sets himself up there and to some extent pulls rank with Harbin, as he aims to establish some law and order to these parts. Yeemik and Sildar reach a grudging respect of sorts, and we escort the goblins to the edge of town.
Impressed with Jindra’s work, Sildar awards her 50gp and enlists her help to continue to work on taming this part of the world, and also to rescue Gundren and deal with the main force of Cragmaw goblins. Linene Graywind, who runs the Lionshield Coster where the stolen supplies are from (the place with the blue lion on the sign) rewards Jindra another 50gp for returning the stuff and agrees to help any way she can.
And that was it for this segment.
The greatest takeaway from the last bit of this adventure was that, even though a group of players crafting a shared narrative together is an important part of tabletop RPGs, it is not that difficult to accomplish this alone. Because i didn’t read ahead in the adventure, it was easier to avoid any player knowledge bleeding over into character knowledge. The encounters could be steered any way that i wanted, and therefore the narrative much more controlled. i’m not saying it’s better than playing in a group, but it was certainly fun to have things play out the way i imagined them. It is very likely that a full group of players would have wiped out all the goblins in the hideout, including Yeemik. But because i had to be more cautious, and actually try not to get in a ton of fights due to much more restricted resources, i think the story became a lot more interesting.
From this point, Jindra has quite a few avenues to pursue. She is primarily invested in rescuing Gundren, and that feels like the most pressing thing to take care of. An ongoing orc threat and a gang of town ruffians should be dealt with, but a captive friend in great danger i think would trump all of that.
i’m going to see The Lost Mine of Phandelver through to whatever conclusion Jindra arrives at. Afterwards, i don’t know for sure.
Lots of people have been sharing their thoughts and ideas with me about other editions of D&D, other RPGs that might lend themselves to solo play and various options that already exist in all these games for solo play.
Thank you to everyone who has commented, written, Tweeted and shared your thoughts on this topic. Please feel free to continue to do so, i appreciate every one of the interactions!