Tabletop for one: me, myself and D&D

Before i get started on this installment of the single-player version of D&D i’m experimenting with, let me first just say: wow!

If my first post on this topic is any indication, there is a lot of interest about the possibilities and potential for tabletop RPG solo play. The Long Shot had a ton of visitors, and more importantly a lot of engagement from people who have played RPGs on their own, or for whom the idea is interesting and exciting enough to try themselves.

dice weapon

On Twitter, Master Gorfordel pointed out that 4E Starter Set came packaged with a single player choose-your-own-adventure sort of quest called Ghost Tower of the Witchlight Fens. And several people commented to me that they started playing D&D on their own due to various reasons. Late last night i came across The Indie Dragon/The Lone Crusader whose website offers tips and suggestions for solo play.

The DM whose Princes of the Apocalypse campaign i was playing here in Austin until my work schedule changed told me his own solo RPG experience starting with him

“making characters and going up against what ever monster i randomly opened the monster manual to.  pretty soon i had my own adventuring party.  i still do it today to test scenarios for my home game – helps with the mechanics and makes me a better DM.”

What i’m getting at is my wonderment at the number of gamers out there who are intrigued by or already participate in solo tabletop RPG play. So, i don’t feel quite as weird about it today…although i didn’t feel that strange to begin with. Like i mentioned before, it’s not much different than playing a video game with a guide book, except more imagination and less looking at a screen, which puts it in the win column for me.

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.

Where were we?

Oh, yes. The Triboar Trail on the way to deliver a wagonload of goods to Phandalin for Jindra’s old friend Gundren Rockseeker. The erstwhile dwarven Shield Maiden and now adventurer found the road blocked by a pair of dead horses, felled by black-shafted arrows. Since there was no getting the wagon around them, it looked like the oxen would have to be used to pull them aside in order to move forward.

Unfortunately, Jindra got her first lesson in Adventuring 101 as she approached the horses to get a closer look.

Goblin ambush

Yep, those sneaky little buggers had set a trap for unsuspecting travelers, and Jindra the Green Adventurer fell right into it. (she did make a point to be wary, but a failed Perception vs. Stealth roll of the dice is what it is.)

goblin

One of those black arrows got her pretty good, knocking out about 1/3 of her hit points right off the bat during a surprise round. Already, i was starting to think of a new character to roll up.

But things went better from there. Her Second Wind ability gave me a cushion, and one of the two goblins who charged from the cover of the thickets along the side of the road went down hard to a shield bash.

The other melee goblin and she traded misses back and forth for a couple of rounds, while the one with the bow continued to fire wide as well. Finally, a solid hit took the melee goblin down, at which point the archer decided to flee. Jindra gave pursuit, catching up to him pretty quick, knocking him out and putting those manacles to use.

At the ambush site, she discovers the horses belonged to Gundren and the human fella he set out with, Sildar Hallwinter. Tossed to the side is am empty leather map case.

The captive goblin yields some intel, informing Jindra that the dwarf was brought to King Grol, the leader of his Cragmaw tribe, while the human was brought to the “eating cave.” That doesn’t sound too good. Whoever this King Grol is, he dwells at Cragmaw Castle, a ruins the tribe occupies about 20 miles northeast of the nearby cave hideout. The hideout is manned by about ten more goblins and led by a nasty bugbear named Klarg. A few days ago, Klarg got a message from Grol about Gundren’s trip. Apparently, someone calling themselves The Black Spider paid Grol to set an ambush for Gundren, and deliver the dwarf and his belongings to Cragmaw Castle.

Jindra assures her goblin prisoner that she’ll be sure to mention his cooperation in being forthcoming when she delivers him to the authorities in Phandalin. What to do with the captive is something i thought about for a bit. Most parties i’ve played in would pump the creature for info then kill it anyway, or it would never have survived the initial encounter. So here is one example of how solo play allowed me to play the game on my own terms.

One of things i’ve noticed as i’ve gotten older is that i respond to situations in these games more realistically. It’s neither fun nor satisfying to go around like the stereotypical murderhobo, solving all the problems with violence. Likewise, i tend not to consider sentient monsters as simply obstacles to be fought or even just “the evil thing that must be slain.” In this situation, the goblin was defeated, shackled, and willing to tell me things about his tribe’s plans – without the threat of violence – presumably to save his own skin. Would it be right to essentially just murder the poor creature when i got what i wanted?

The adventure text leads me to believe that most parties would head for the goblin hideout at this point, or possibly even towards Cragmaw Castle. After considering the situation, i decided Jindra would continue towards Phandalin first. She had a job to do – deliver these goods – and without knowing what she might be facing or how long it could take, it felt more prudent to complete that task first. Besides, what is she supposed to do, go rolling up on a goblin hideout with a wagonload of provisions? Also, she had her goblin prisoner to deal with.

Phandalin, ho!

Jindra got some sidelong glances coming into Phandalin with a shackled goblin riding shotgun, but some military jargon about battlefield prisoners’ rights were a good enough explanation, and a helpful townsperson pointed her to the Townmaster’s Hall, the default seat of city government.

Outside the hall is basically a help wanted sign, indicating that a band of orcs has been menacing travelers to the east along the Triboar Trail at a place called Wyvern Tor. There’s a 100gp reward for dealing with the situation. That’s a lotta coin!

Inside, Jindra meets Harbin Wester, a fat, sweaty human who is the townmaster. He is a bit taken aback by the goblin captive, but since the hall does have a jail cell, he locks the pitiful creature up there until he can figure out what to do with him.

He tries to convince Jindra to take up the job of dealing with the orcs, and she does plan to give it some thought, but she has more pressing concerns beyond delivering the goods. There’s the matter of her captive friend and his companion to deal with first. For his part, Wester doesn’t have any resources to spare. His jurisdiction ends at the road out of town, apparently, so Jindra is on her own.

A couple of things came to mind during this part of the adventure. One is that Jindra’s personality began to develop more concretely here: she has a singular purpose and sticks to that directly. First, it was delivering the goods. Then seeing about rescuing Gundren and Sildar. Aside from the orc problem, the adventure text gives numerous options for side quests here in town. A full party of players would more than likely spend some time exploring town, talking to people, learning of these quests, and probably even a good amount of time right there in the Townmaster’s Hall asking Harbin tons of questions. As a solo player, my character is in charge of her time, direction and destiny, and right now she’s no-nonsense: drop off the prisoner, deliver the goods, rescue her friends.

Barthen’s Provisions is easy enough to find, and the proprietor Elmar Barthen pays the promised 10gp for delivery. He and Gundren are well-acquainted, and he is sad to hear about his capture, surmising that it could have something to do with the exciting discovery of the lost mine of Phandelver’s Pact. A failed History check leaves Jindra wondering what the heck that is, and she files the information away for later investigation. Elmar notes that Gundren’s two brothers, Nundro and Tharden, had set up a camp somewhere outside town, but he’s not sure where exactly, nor why they would camp outside town and not stay somewhere in town (which is where Jindra will head next to get some rest – she’s only got 3hp!). When the time comes to head off to Cragmaw Castle, it might be wise to enlist the brothers’ help, and Jindra tells Elmar that if he sees them, to let them know about me. Before parting, Elmar’s recommends the Stonehill Inn and cautions against the Sleeping Giant, known as a hangout of a nasty gang called the Redbrands.

The Redbrands again come up at the Stonehill Inn, when the innkeeper Tolbin offhandedly mentions his concerns about them, how they’ve been shaking down local business owners, terrorizing the town, and Harbin Wester not doing anything about it. People are afraid to take matters into their own hands or stir up trouble out of fear for their safety and that of their families, like Tolbin’s wife and children.

Sounds like this town needs some good leadership!

But that all can wait for another time, as Jindra pays for a hearty meal and a private room to get some much-needed rest. The following day, she strikes out early and returns to the ambush site. Off the road to the north, she discovers a trail that the goblin captive indicated led to their hideout cave. There are a large number of footprints, but Jindra is unable to discern any greater details (failed Survival check).

With great care and caution, she follows the trail north. Despite being overly careful, she misses spotting a snare trap set along the path, although she is able to nimbly jump out of the way and avoid getting strung up in the air.

Further down the trail, she does spot a concealed pit trap and avoids that one completely. Fool me once, shame on you, goblins. Fool me twice…better not fool me again.

Finally, Jindra arrives at a clearing leading up to a cave entrance. A stream flows from the mouth of the cave, and thickets along the hillside give her cover to creep up and get a closer look.

At this point, i’m reminded of stories i read about game sessions with Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz back in the early, early, early days of D&D. Kuntz had a character named Robilar, a fighter who often played solo games with Gary as the DM. Robilar was very and able to accomplish a lot of dungeon-clearing on his own. Part of that was due to some extremely useful magical items, but more than that, it was because of caution and patience.

Robilar

So, i took a play out of his playbook and decided Jindra would hide there in the thicket and observe the cave entrance for a while to see what she could find out. This is another instance where a full party would more than likely just head right in. Maybe a rogue or ranger would scout ahead a little bit first, but ultimately, a team is able to take more risks because they have each other to rely on. Jindra the Solitary Adventurer didn’t have any companions to save her bacon, so charging inside would probably just wind up getting her killed. Again, i’m not averse to character death in this solo gaming adventure, but i’m going to try and stick to the rules and play Jindra to win, so i’m not taking any unnecessary chances. The best part is, i’m not holding any other players up or taking away from their experience.

And that’s where we’ll leave Jindra today. Did she gather any useful intelligence? What fate awaits her inside the Cragmaw Hideout?

Before you find out with the next installment, i am super curious about other people’s experiences with solo tabletop RPG play. Please share in the comments if you’ve tried this, still play this way, are curious about it yourself and what sorts of things you’ve learned from it, questions or concerns you have, tips, strategies, suggestions, advice. i am really amazed to discover how many people are interested in this and would like to connect with more of you!

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