Monday, January 16, 2012

cRPGs: The best solo play solution?

It's been a long time. I spent the summer finishing up my dissertation, and then I started another degree in the fall. The combination of teaching, taking classes, and trying to do research consumed me. I haven't had any time for gaming in months--and that sucks.

The last project I worked on during the summer was a playing-card-based dungeon-generation system. The idea is to quickly generate rooms, encounters, features, etc. I've been browsing a few other card-based approaches, and even found a Sudoku-based approach.

My idea here is that a gaming/generation system that allows for solo-play would also allow for GM-less group-play. But the trick here is balancing random generation with pre-stacking the deck and interpreting the results. Too much randomness sucks, producing a stale or discordant dungeon experience without a decent story behind it. Too much interpretation requires the player(s) to be rather schizophrenic, switching between omniscient DM and world-ignorant character.

So what's the best blend here for solo play?

Random generation: Dungeon-generation tables have been around for decades, and now numerous online apps will do all the tedious rolls and lookups for you. However, I find the results to be exactly that: random, discordant dungeons that you have to grind through. They usually lack structure--both narratively in terms of the quest/story and logically in terms of architecture and monster assortment. Simply replacing a dungeon generation die-roll table with cards won't improve this random flavor at all. There needs to be some way to tweak or interpret the cards--either beforehand or during the game--to produce a coherent emergent structure.

Solitaire systems: This is includes Choose Your Own Adventure books, gamebooks, solitaire adventure scenarios, etc. These have a pre-authored plot, and so the quality is better than random generation. But your options tend to be rather limited here to a couple options at a time. More than this and you need to start DMing in order to keep the story moving along its designed path. But DMing requires knowledge of the story, which brings us back to the schizophrenic scenario of solo DM/player.

Balance: So, again, how to balance author-provided quality with user choices and the openness of random generation?

For a little more money, there's a lot of board-game-like dungeon games out there which shoot for this. They provide a quest structure and then board-game rules for playing out the encounters along the way. Indeed, these were the original inspiration for my home-brewed zilch/card-generation system.

But there's another genre out there that does this even better: computer games! Aren't these the perfect solo RPG experience? Rich immersive multimedia experience, randomly generated content for maximum replay value, all with an authored storyline laid over it. Why not just play cRPGs then?

I've already started this exploration. I'm looking at NetHack, Diablo, DiabloII, and NWN. I already know that there's something different about a solitaire table-top RPG vs a cRPG experience, but I'd like to try to nail down just what that is.

I'll let you know what I find out...

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