Failing at a Solo RPG

~1100 words, ~6 min reading time

I haven’t posted a playthrough of a solo RPG for a while. So, I thought I’d share some of my recent experience, where I feel like I’ve “failed” a bit.

I know, it’s weird to think of “failing” at a solo RPG. Like, what does that even mean? I’ve had characters die MANY times – in fact, character death is how I generally know that it’s time to try a new game (the exception being the character I had that ended up with a life sentence in prison).

In solo RPGing – rather like with any leisure activity, really – success and failure are highly subjective. Personally, I generally judge by whether the leisure “feels right” – and this is true whether I’m watching a TV show, playing a video game, or solo RPGing. At the end, there’s a sense of satisfaction (though not always the *same* sense of satisfaction!) when things went well. This is “success” for me.

Anyway, I have recently been soloing Ironsworn: Starforged, which I preordered. The physical book is expected in October, but we got the PDF immediately with the preorder. So, I read it, got a reasonable sense of the setting (which is cool) and the system (which is mostly Ironsworn, but with a couple of nice tweaks), and jumped in.

I followed the advice in the book for setting details creation and character creation, except that I tried to make everything that I could random. I rolled on tables for every detail about the universe and sector. I drew my character background basically at random (though I assigned the stats based on the randomly drawn “assets”).

Then, I started to play. For a few sessions, everything felt like it was going well. I mean, yeah, terrible things were happening (a temporal anomaly killed over half of the settlement I started at, since we failed to evacuate everyone in time). But, there was a clear forward action.

Then, I hit a wall. Things started feeling *wrong* – aimless. Not like I was *stuck*, more like I didn’t know which direction was forward. I wasn’t sure what was wrong. I did managed to regain *some* sense of direction, but things still don’t feel quite *right*. After some thought, I have a sense of what went wrong – and it’s really three-fold.

(1) Relying too much on randomness. Now, there’s nothing wrong with rolling on random tables – but what ended up happening here was that I created a universe randomly and then created a character randomly and then created an initial quest randomly. The result was that the pieces didn’t really cohere very well. The universe, allegedly, has wars happening all over the place as shipwrights engage in arms races to design more powerful ways of killing each other. But, the sector I was in had one obviously dominant planet, and a bunch that weren’t particularly interested in war, it seemed. Then, my character had backgrounds as a mercenary and diplomat – a cool background for the universe, but not the sector. The initial quest involved saving the settlement from this approaching anomaly. Again, a cool quest – more on that in a minute – but why in the world would a mercenary/diplomat be involved with saving people from a SCIENTIFIC problem. (Eventually, I figured out he could negotiate with a neighboring settlement to take them in – but it took a strange amount of time – and failing at scientific scans that he was no good at – for me to figure that solution out.) Anyway, I should have relied less on randomness – specifically, I should have paid more attention to the universe when creating the sector and the character. If wars are everywhere, and my character is a mercenary, then odds are good there should be war in the sector where play begins! In the balance of “logic” to “surprise”, I really should have used a bit more logic in setting things up. In addition, my poor initial design was made WORSE by the fact that I rely a lot on randomness when I play. In itself, not a problem – EXCEPT that I end up with a lot of disconnected elements. I need to do better keeping the number of elements a bit more limited!

(2) Poor character design – the player character is given a “Background Vow” – which is a background motivation. I decided that diplomat and mercenary are, fundamentally, about politically uniting people – either through negotiation or conquest. So, I made the background vow “Unify the Forge”. Apart from that, I was VERY lazy about character design – very little backstory. I skipped basically *all* the backstory exercises in the book. So, while I had a motivation, that motivation was so broad – and, frankly, impossible – that it really didn’t work in providing a sense of direction. While diplomat/mercenary is a weird choice for someone to solve a temporal anomaly, saving people from a temporal anomaly is a pretty clear goal that you can either succeed or fail at. However, the equivalent of “World Peace”, while a nice ideal, is a very poor motivation for action. It’s much too broad!

(3) Lack of time limit – the “deal with the anomaly” quest had continuous pressure on. The clock was ticking (though with a bit of randomness) – so I knew that I only had about 4-5 sessions (maybe a bit more, if I rolled very luckily) to solve the problem. And, in the end, I *didn’t* – at least not entirely. Not quite half of the population escaped. That was a pretty great dramatic story, even if the ending wasn’t happy. But, after that, nothing had a time limit any more. It kind of felt like I could just sit around and things would be fine – bad for motivation!

I have since tried to solve some of these problems. (1) I’ve cut back on how much I introduce new random elements a bit. (2) I’ve ignored some of the more incoherent parts of the universe design. I’ve figured out that my version of the universe is not one filled with wars – it’s one where settlements are very isolated from one another. So, unification is a combination of exploration and negotiation. (3) I recently added an “explorer” trait to the character, which goes well with the unification direction in the kind of universe I *actually* have.

At the same time, I’m engaging in a significant internal debate: is it time to put this character to rest and start over?

That’s a major challenge of solo RPGing that I’ve not yet figured out – how to know when to stop. (Thus why my characters almost all end up dead.) But, it’s something worth thinking about.

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