Being into tabletop roleplaying games but unable to find enough friends who are willing and able to play them can be a serious bum deal. Playing RPGs is usually thought of as being a social activity, where everyone bundles up together to create a story, and it may seem pretty pointless without other players to roll dice and tell tales with.
Best solo RPGs
- Gentleman Bandit: Unearth the secret motivations behind a villainous figure in this poetry writing roleplaying game.
- Ex Novo: Create your own living city with a history of events and its own population in a civilisation building RPG.
- Alone Among the Stars: This solo RPG has the player exploring a universe filled with different planetary wonders.
- The Machine: A horror RPG about being consumed by a terrible contraption that the main protagonist will never complete.
- Quill: Can you persuade and impress your medieval readers with literary wit in this letter writing RPG?
However, do not despair, because when extroversion is at an all time low, the space is cleared and prepped for introspection. You might be completely unaware of the deeply fascinating and innovative space that is the solo roleplaying game. Solo RPGs can be just as creative and rewarding, if not more so than their group counterparts. Turns out making persuasion rolls and stabbing things with swords isn’t the only way to play a character in a story.
1. Gentleman Bandit
Channel the poetry of a rougish anti-hero in this wild west themed RPG
Everyone adores a villain. The charismatic rogue, the silver tongued devil that thwarts the attempts of our heroes. It’s often in the shoes of the villain that we learn the most about ourselves and our flaws, and Gentleman Bandit by Allison Arth invites you to not just inhabit that space but to write poetry about it. The gentleman bandit is a social pariah, in the words of the rulebook - ‘They call you a monster, a villain, a dealer of death. They call you all manner of Unsavory, the most feeble epithets from shriveled minds; they call you Devil.’ They don’t know you though, sure you’re a murderer but you have a poet’s heart.
As the player you’ll be drawing cards from a standard deck of playing cards and using the values printed on them to prompt each line of your poem. If you’ve already written before then the poker hands you’ve formed with your previous draw will set up a position for the poem you’re writing this session. Draw a Royal Flush and you’re at the top of your game - untouchable. But if your hands start to fail you, if you draw something more lowly like a straight, then you might find yourself unable to sleep, haunting the midnight highway for some intangible absence inside of you.
For each suit in the deck that you could draw there is a different motif that the line of poetry you’re writing will concern itself with. For instance, spades will draw on the subject of loss, whereas clubs will be more focussed on fear. The matter of the line is determined by the card’s value. An 8 might ask you where you’re going? A Queen ask what brought you to this fate. With these tools you’ll expand on the myth of the gentleman bandit, building on the brief but flavorful description at the start of the book. Your narrative will unfold over time and you might even see the bandit brought to justice should you deem it appropriate.
Buy The Gentleman Bandit from Allison Arth's Itch.io page.
2. Ex Novo
An entire city civilisation springs from your mind when playing Ex Novo
There’s something magical about creating your own little world. It’s part of human nature to construct myths and imagine an existence outside of our own where life is a little different. A little more magical, more interesting, more enticing. It’s no wonder that most GMs like to form their own little townships in pre-existing settings, fill it with their own NPCs and buildings and landmarks, and imagine its history, culture and quirks. Some will go the extra mile and construct entire worlds for their players to inhabit. But there’s still something intangibly personal about building a city.
Ex Novo by Martin Nerurkarand Konstantinos Dimopoulos is a city building and map drawing game that can be played solo or in groups in which you’ll go through a long list of commands which, by the end of your session, will form a rich and diverse history of a city. You’ll map out terrain, districts and landmarks of your city on a large piece of paper in the centre of the table. Index cards will show the timeline of events that took place in your city and the major factions that exist in its walls. From the get go your city is completely customisable allowing you to set how old it will be by the end, and the size of its population tracked by tokens that move between districts and factions.
The main chunk of play sees you rolling a number of six-sided dice and determining the results on a table, which will instruct you to add or subtract from the map you’ve already made. At the start you’ll determine the landscape you’re surrounded by and the reason your people settled there. You’ll then pick up all three of your six sided dice and roll for the event table. The amount of events your city will go through is dependent on the age of the city - something you determine at the start - with the age also deciding how many rounds you go through. These events can take you through natural disasters, important discoveries, times of war, internal struggles of power and far far more.
Ex Novo is a great little story game to play, but the great joy of creating something like this is that your creation doesn’t have to end here. You can live in this world now that it’s been created, grab another ruleset to play as townsfolk inside its streets or adventurers who have arrived seeking to make a name for themselves in the fabled land you’ve dreamt up.
Buy Ex Novo from the Shark Bombs Itch.io page.
3. Alone Among the Stars
There are countless planets and discovers out there to explore in this solo roleplaying experience
Alone Among the Stars is a simple solo RPG by designer Takuma Okada about creating planets and exploring them as a lone adventurer. In some ways, it’s like a beautifully simple tabletop system for procedurally generating worlds in the same way as popular video games such as Minecraft, Terraria and No Man’s Sky.
All you need is a single six-sided die, a pack of normal playing cards and a journal or piece of paper to write on. You roll the d6 to determine how many cards you draw from the deck, placing them facedown on the table. These are locations on your planet. Before you turn over a card, you roll the die again to see how you discover each location. Your adventurer might stumble across something suddenly, undergo an arduous journey or chance upon it while taking a breather.
Then, the card is flipped. This creates a location on your planet, with the card suit and value relating to a table of potential details. You could embark on a trek to a canyon full of plants, discover ruins on a glacier or encounter living beings while resting under the light of the moon. The game’s simple descriptions do plenty to spark your imagination and allow you to colour in the gaps as you like, without being too vague or generic. That’s key, because you record your traveller’s experience of each place - what it was like, what you did and how it made you feel - in your log. You might spend one day swimming in the hot springs of a deep underground temple, find a crashed spaceship in a towering treetop or experience all manner of natural phenomena on the edge of a bubbling volcano.
When you reach the end of the line of cards, you name your planet, before jetting off to a new world and discovering more corners of your personal universe. You could spend a week exploring one planet each day, or visit several in the space of a few hours.The rules for Alone Among the Stars are just three pages long, but it’s a game with limitless potential, letting your mind spill forth with just a little encouragement and inspiration. As well as being a calm and creative exercise in its own right, it doubles as a fast and effective way of coming up with places for your next adventure in another roleplaying game or other stories.
Buy Alone Among the Stars from No Road Home Itch.io page.
4. The Machine
Tell a sordid tale about one person's struggle against an irresistible force before passing the duty onto someone else
The Machine is a game that you play alone AND with other people. Adira and Fen Slattery’s RPG plays like a dark, twisted version of Pass the Parcel played in reverse, as you and your friends take turns to add new layers to a story - with no happy endings in sight.
Like many RPGs, you create a character - here, by picking two or three words from a list of evocative descriptions. You might end up with a manic, penniless magician, a weary musician or a brave, vulgar rat catcher. Your unfortunate soul has been cursed, unable to stop thinking about The Machine - a mysterious contraption that haunts your waking mind. You must build it, even if it leads to your own destruction.
Your efforts to construct the instrument of your doom are recorded in a diary-like journal. The Machine is a game played over days, weeks and even months of real time. Each time you go to add an entry to your character’s record, you draw a card from a standard deck of playing cards and see the emotions and events you must describe. There may be a sudden breakthrough in your endless attempts to bring The Machine to life that surprises you, or you may find yourself slipping into anger and guilt as things stall, secrets arise and you find yourself unable to escape its pernicious draw.
After drawing three face or Ace cards, your inevitable doom takes place. While your character is left unable to complete their infernal task, the journal passes onto another who finds themselves afflicted by the curse. In real-life terms, this means passing on your journal to the next player, who creates a character from the unused traits left over. Their character is able to read the knowledge of their predecessors and continue the work on The Machine, not knowing they are just as doomed to eventual failure.
The Machine tells an intense shared story of obsession and downfall in pursuit of an impossible task. The bleak outcome for its characters means that it’s a game that won’t suit everyone, and requires some careful and sensitive handling of its more difficult themes. If your group is prepared to tell a dark tale together, it presents a brilliantly powerful canvas for you to each add a layer to with every new entry.
Buy The Machine from Adira Slattery and Fen Slattery's Itch.io page.
This roleplaying game tests your skills as a letter writer and persuasive sweet-talker
Quill is a solo RPG by designer Scott Malthouse about writing letters to impress people in a light medieval fantasy world. You are one of several character classes. But not a fighter, rogue or wizard - rather more of a monk, knight, poet, aristocrat or someone else with a knack for brain over brawn. Your traits aren’t how good you are at chopping goblins into mincemeat with a sword or pickpocketing unsuspecting guards, but the visual appeal of your handwriting, your eloquence and vocabulary, and your ability to write from the heart to spark emotion and persuade.
Each of the game’s scenarios tasks you with writing a letter to someone specific. You might be enquiring about buying a painting but want to sensitively question whether it’s the real deal, or expressing your grief at the sudden passing of a childhood friend. Happily, you don’t need to be a genius writer to succeed in Quill. While you’re able to write as much as you like for each paragraph, the game features a robust scoring system to determine how well your words are received. Each paragraph must include a word or phrase from a list specific to that scenario. You roll up to three six-sided dice to see if you’re able to summon the right words in the moment, and choose whether to risk another roll for the flourish of an extra adverb or adjective. Succeed, and you’ll collect points that count towards your final score. Fail and you’ll have to settle for a less impressive alternative, risking your letter struggling to convey your feelings accurately.
Sure, you could just roll for each keyword and ignore the option to dress them up with your own creativity, but half the fun of Quill is getting into the mindset of a concerned courtier or slightly stuffy scholar, each with their own specialties on the page. The scenarios introduce extra rules and a variety of different pen pals as you go, throwing up different requirements and consequences depending on the strength of your letter.
Quill cleverly balances the open creativity of writing a letter with the guidance and framework of its dice-based gameplay and objectives. It’s excellent fun - and once you’re done with the scenarios in the original game, there are expansions inspired by writing love letters, finding out how D&D-stock fantasy classes would fare by swapping their swords for pens, and even a mini-campaign about writing letters in the midst of a Lovecraftian cosmic horror nightmare. Who knows, maybe it’ll even convince you to swap that keyboard for calligraphy in real life.