A brief recap:
This is the third part in a detailed reexamination of singe-player campaigns. If you want to see the full Table Of Contents, it was included in Part One. In today’s article, I am going to look at how Plots and Play change in a single-player game. Let’s dive right in…
Heading Due North
While simple player questions are usually quickly answered in an RPG, more substantial decisions take more time in most games. Groups are all about compromise and consensus; while it’s sometimes the case that one dominant personality will make the decisions for all, it’s usually the case that there are several suggestions, and then discussion, and then more suggestions, and then more discussion, and still more discussion, until either a compromise choice is made by the party/group leader, game time for discussion runs out, or everyone agrees – at which point, more discussion often ensues, decisions sometimes get changed, and sometimes the players end up back at square one!
Things can be almost as anarchic when the players have to head into the unknown. Speculation about what might be found there, preparations for just about every possibility, and so on.
Things aren’t like that when you have a single-player game. No group consensus, no compromise. One person decides where to go and what to do, possibly after a brief internal debate – and then does it.
Multi-prong Plot Vectoring
This has some unexpected impact on plots and plot structure. Surprisingly, it’s even easier to railroad your plots – because the options are subjected to far less intense scrutiny, there is far less opportunity for the game to go off-track, but when it does, it will do so with the same speed as everything else.
The best counter to this is to present the player with multiple directions in which to head. Instead of treating information dumps and problems as single scenes or encounters, break them into multiple pieces, each incomplete without the others. The illustration depicts three, which is a nice solid number, but use the number that the information/events naturally break into; if the natural division gives two, four, five, or even six, go with it.
Each piece of the “puzzle” then provides context for the others; it doesn’t matter which one the player chooses to investigate first, because ultimately he will get all of them, one way or another.
There are two big advantages to this approach: first, the player is less likely to go off the reservation when he has multiple choices already on offer; and second, if he does, the fact that you have more than one direction in which to steer things back makes recovery easier. The big problem is that it’s more work.
As an aside, I use the same approach for some situations in group games, where the natural division is “one piece to each PC” – and where, if someone goes off-track, I let them go. They usually won’t get the information or plot advancement that they would otherwise have received, at least not at the time (the exception is when they have been Very Clever) and they may get themselves deeper in trouble in the process (even if they have been Very Clever), but the consensus/discussion effect means that anything that’s missing can often be deduced or inferred from having most of the information.
Because greater effort is involved, I do employ this technique as sparingly as I think I can get away with. That entails assessing each scene and plot point more rigorously for opportunities for the character to divert from the expected (not mandatory) path.
Critical Path Redundancy
A variation is employed when the information absolutely has to be delivered to the PC so that the player can correctly evaluate the in-game situation and decide what to do about it. When there’s a piece of information that absolutely has to be delivered, I put some time and effort into coming up with multiple ways for that data to be delivered, or at least drop clues and hints to it through various means.
For example, a scientist might offer a flawed theory, an engineer might offer some measurements and an obviously incorrect interpretation, a military man might make an assessment through tactical awareness but overlook a critical factor known to the player, and a psychic might get a vague impression that is correct but badly incomplete. In roleplay, the PC can become aware of the flaw in the picture presented by the NPC, and develop the correct interpretation. In none of these cases would the solution simply be dropped in the players’ lap; but the raw materials for uncovering the right answer are provided.
This does mean that occasionally, the PC will have to take action without fully understanding some aspect of the situation – at least until after they are committed. You can get away with more of that sort of thing in a single-player campaign, because there’s only one PC to keep track of; It’s actually much harder in a group setting, where there’s the potential for each member of the group to go off in a different direction.
To explain why that matters, here’s an anecdote from an adventure a year or two ago in the Zenith-3 Campaign. Each of the PCs received part of the information about what was going on, but none got the whole story. For that, they would have to talk to each other (shocking idea, I know).
Every single one of them tried to interpret the information they had received and then reported that interpretation, and not the raw information, to the others, and in every single case the interpretation was so wrong that the critical piece of their information were dismissed as irrelevant – and contradicted all the other interpretations, a sure sign that something is being reported incorrectly. I’ve seen it happen with one or two players at the same time, but this was the first time that all four decided to reject the facts in preference to their own theories. For some odd reason, they had trouble making sense of what was going on…. they sorted it out eventually, but there was quite a bit of confusion for a while.
A large part of the reason for this spate of interpretation was that I am only one person, and can only be at one place at a time. That necessitated giving the information sequentially, even though in-game it was supposedly happening simultaneously. That meant that they couldn’t discuss their experiences until each PC had his share of the information. That caused memory failure on the part of those who went first – so they fell victim to the “Eyewitness Unreliability” effect – despite my telling each of them to take notes, at the time. (They wrote down their interpretations, not the raw facts, and confused some of the facts in the process).
Many heads are not always better than one. If there had been a single PC, he would have been a single collection point for all the information, and would at least have had a fighting chance to get the right answers.
Accommodating The Compass Needle
If you are going to have a fur-ball instead of a nice neat plot point / info-dump, the plot itself needs to make room to accommodate the additional interactions. That requires more space for roleplay and less for plot complexity. I’ll come back to this point in a moment or two.
Global Plot Thinking
One thought that I have found useful from time to time is to visualize your plot as being painted on the surface of a ball in little blocks that are connected to show the relationships between them. The rules of the game are to get from any arbitrary starting point to the Big Finish, touching each block at least once. You don’t have to read much topology to realize that it’s not always possible – see the Seven Bridges of Königsberg problem.
But we aren’t bound by the same restrictions as that classic problem; we can combine two boxes, split one into two, or add more as necessary. The key point, however, is this: that it doesn’t matter where we start, as long as we achieve a valid solution at the end. Most importantly, we don’t have to use all the available “bridges” in our plotting!
The diagram to the left shows an example of what I mean. There are many possible ways of configuring this adventure – I put together the two examples shown more-or-less at random. The first is roughly a capital N, and the second is a very distorted S with a couple of flourishes and twists.
But neither of these needs to be the originally intended layout – when I put the diagram together, I started with the end-point (16), provided three different “final pieces of the puzzle” (6, 7, and 15 in the top diagram), then a layer of three sub-scenes (5, 8, and 14) below that, another trio (4, 9, and 12), a pair (3 and 13), an initial trio (2, 10, and 11) and the starting point (1). Each of these groups represents what would originally have been a single stage of the plot, which had just seven parts.
Are there any ways of getting trapped? Yes, there are, but not too many of them. In terms of the basic plotline, we introduce the situation (using a flash-forward ‘teaser’ in diagram number 2), and give the player the choice of three directions in which to go. Whichever one he chooses then adds more possibilities to his choices of direction, while sometimes subtracting others (NPCs are busy elsewhere or whatever). Aside from the occasional nudge to prevent a blind alley, how the player finds his way from one encounter to the next is up to him.
I might go further, and define each of these not as a fixed event, but as a process – early or preliminary if they receive low numbers, “progressing” with middle numbers, “almost complete” with late numbers – and in that way ensure that the entire adventure (and the game world) is dynamic – from the player’s perspective. More likely, a few would be so treated, while others would represent fixed events – “Professor Plum’s body is discovered in the Dining Room”, that sort of thing.
This particular example has rather more connections than are usually the case (I got a little carried away, I admit) – but that only simplifies the task, in many respects, while increasing the danger of getting stuck in a dead-end with no obvious exit point.
The real point is that I can start the adventure almost anywhere except at one of those final three pieces of the puzzle, or the final confrontation. I would never attempt to run anything this complicated in a group situation; discussion of choices alone would waste half the day, if not more. But it’s completely reasonable as a structure for a single-player adventure.
It’s a paradox: When only one point of view rules, even more global thinking about plot structure than usual is needed. You have more freedom and more flexibility, and you can even pass most of that on to the player; but this is only possible if you have designed your adventure to accommodate it.
The Complexity Conflict
It’s been established that solo games proceed at a faster pace than group games – scratch that; a “MUCH faster pace”, but we’re still working through the ramifications, which turn so many established fundamentals of the usual game on their heads, producing complications, conundrums, and contradictions. The “Due North” phenomenon introduces yet another.
I’ve just recommended simpler plots to make room for additional roleplay resulting from splitting up roleplay encounters into multiple smaller game events that make it easier to keep those plots on track. Yet, the greater pace demands moreplot, not less.
These are, of course, contradictory requirements, and this contradiction is central to plotting for solo games. That’s why I’ve given it a fancy name – “The Complexity Conflict” – and parked it in a section of it’s very own.
Knocking down the Straw Man
The “Complexity Conflict” turns out to be a literary straw man, existing only because certain words have been interpreted to mean the same thing; a lingual relationship that might be true in a group game, but which is not true when it comes to solo games. Length doesn’t equal complexity; perhaps it equals complexity plus detail plus substance plus a few other things, or these have some other relationship to Length, but the point is that the two are not synonymous.
Breaking one piece of plot into multiple smaller pieces of plot (the “Due North” phenomenon) doesn’t increase overall playing length by very much, just the number of paths through the plot that the player can choose to take. Is that an increase in complexity? Yes, a bit, by virtue of the fact that each NPC delivering a piece of the puzzle should have his own personality and ambitions with which to ‘tint’ the information being delivered. But, by and large, there in fact is no contradiction.
- Room to Explore -
The solo game gives more room to explore ramifications and reactions and interesting by-products and side-alleys to the main plot. These all test the internal logic and depth of the GMs’ creativity, without adding to the overall complexity of the main plot. There’s room for NPCs to be more than information- and plot- delivery systems; they don’t have to get to the point, but can engage in repartee and exchanges of personality. Because parts of the plot will go faster, there is time to let it go slower than there is in a group game.
You have time, in other words, to personalize the game and play to your specific audience of one. This fascinating person, the PC, has just swooped into the lives of these NPCs, turning those lives – temporarily – upside down, upsetting established rhythms and routine work practices, dripping with melodrama and life. Explore that, it’s a rare opportunity.
Find out what interests your player – by trial and error, if necessary – and write to those subjects. Give your NPCs some additional color that lets them engage with the player as much as with the PC. The solo game gives you room to stretch, to exercise your capacities for depth, and character, and substance, and significance, and trivia, and fun, and creativity.
Play to the strengths of the one, and be respectful of the limitations of the one, and of the weaknesses that derive from the one being on his own.
The Hollywood Analogy
Here’s a useful way to think of the difference: Take the basic plot and turn it into a two hour movie of reasonable-to-unlimited budget – that’s the group game. Take the same basic plot and turn it into a 10-hour television miniseries of more modest budget but much more screen time, and that’s the solo game. The two, when filmed, are likely to take a similar time-frame – but the movie as filmed is full of bits that will get cut in the final edit. The miniseries will not only have a much tighter ratio of filmed-time to screen-time, it’s even probable that additional material will have to be created and inserted to fill the required number of screen hours. You can either make these vacuous time-fillers, or use them to explore everything in the plot more thoroughly.
The War Of The Worlds is a great example. When you get down to it, there are three groups of lives that produce significant characters within the plot – there’s the Narrator, and his relationships; there’s Pastor Nathaniel and his wife; and there’s the Infantryman. Were I to create a miniseries based on War Of The Worlds, I would spend almost the entire first episode describing normality for these people, building up suspense because everyone knows the invasion is coming. About two-thirds of the way through episode 1, the green flashes on the surface of Mars get noticed for the first time, and the Astronomer, Ogilvy, who was earlier interviewed by the protagonist (a newspaper/magazine writer) gets excited and contacts the protagonist. Only at the cliffhanger climax of the first episode does the first cylinder land.
A movie version, on the other hand, would want to get to this point within the first ten or fifteen minutes of screen time at most to leave room for all the action to come. I might even show the green flashes while the screen credits roll, ending them with the first landing, and the second, and the third – and then introducing the characters as they try to understand the significance of the event. The newspaperman tries to get the inside story, the Pastor gets to preach a sermon on the trickery of the devil disrupting their lives, the artilleryman gets put on standby for crowd control, and so on. No real buildup, just a full-throttle wham! between the eyes.
Do as I say, Not as I say
A bit of an afterthought, this. An awful lot of the advice on Campaign Mastery and almost all the advice you will see elsewhere will assume a group of players. Certainly, some of the best advice I’ve offered, such as the use of Partial NPCs, is designed to make room for inter-player and group dynamics, or to take advantage of those interactions. Unless a piece of advice explicitly specifies that it applies to single-player games, take it with an extra-large grain of salt, because it might not apply.
Take the article linked to, a moment ago. I still make extensive use of partial NPCs for my mono-player campaigns – but the reasons are completely different, and so is the application. I use this character-generation shortcut to have more time to invest in the aspects of the character that are likely to matter in roleplay. In other words, I use it to simplify game mechanics so that I can spend more time developing a rich characterization.
This is almost a complete repudiation of the basic principle offered in the article that describes the technique, which is concerned with using abstract qualities to replace complex skill and characterization. Its value as advice is therefore reduced under the one-player circumstance, but at the same time, it becomes possible to load still more value into it; defining the resulting simplified characters as the “core” of the character defines the development of that character in detail as shaping or refining facets of the “skin” around that unchanged core.
Think about a friend, someone that you’ve known for a long time and who you see regularly. The core of their personalities don’t change, but from week to week there will be variations. Some weeks, the friend may be distracted, or moody, or tired, or unwell, or in the mood to crack jokes. Some days they will be at their sharpest, and other times they may struggle with nuance. Some days, they will be chatty, and other days sullen. That’s the sort of subtle and rich characterization that you need to spend the time on, in a single-player campaign.
While the overall trend is for adventures to go faster, implying the need for more content within the adventure, a number of the measures proposed in the previous section act to moderate that increase. What should also be clear is that there is far more scope for variability in a one-player game. There is no-one to cover for that player if he has an off-day, or if he just doesn’t get what the GM (speaking through NPCs) is driving at. At the same time, one flash of insight can shortcut great swathes of planned adventure because decision is synonymous with action (in a group game, the correct aphorism is usually “indecision is synonymous with inaction”).
Flexibility in adventure content is required so that you can pad or trim the adventure as needed, especially to accommodate greater losses to confusion and misdirection. And you can expect such confusion to appear from time to time, simply because there is only one mind trying to understand the circumstances within the game and formulate a response. Multi-track thinking is much more difficult for one player than it is for a group, who can – and will naturally tend to – divide and conquer.
There are three tools that can be used to control the pace in addition to the measures described earlier. The first of these are Optional Complications.
There’s a great tendency to plot in a linear fashion (figure 1), simply because that’s simplest. Even added subplots (figure 2) tend to proceed in a linear fashion, ultimately becoming nothing more than two parallel plotlines (figure 3). There is a natural tendency, whenever we think of something that would complicate a problem, to instantly throw it into the mix as an additional challenge to be overcome. This is especially the case when playing off the cuff. Taking some of those ideas and setting them aside to be used only if necessary is a very effective technique for slowing the pace if it looks like you’re heading for a premature finish.
These can be anything from the enemy getting an unexpected ally or bonus, something needed by the PC is lost, stolen, or sabotaged, a key NPC is injured or taken hostage, or simply suffers a mechanical breakdown en route to wherever he is next supposed to be. Mistaken identities are always a good one. The list of possible complications is endless; pick something that fits the plotline and then put it on standby.
Figure 4 shows the effect of this, plus the other strategies discussed so far: Part A of the plot is divided into three separate scenes to allow for additional roleplay. After the first, the GM has the option of going to subplot part a or diverting via optional complication 1 and then moving into subplot part a. This allows for play starting earlier than expected, which may be rare but does happen. From subplot a, the GM can either go back and finish A, or – if he wants to, he can assume that the player will work out the rest of A and go directly to B1 and then B2. From B2, the plot goes to subplot part b1, at which point the GM can either move directly to b2 or he can introduce Optional Complication 2 along the way. From b2, the player has the option of proceeding with the main plot part C or resolving the complication (optional complication 3a), little knowing that the GM has another standby curve-ball in place (optional complication 3b). Either way, it’s then to main plot part C1, subplot part c1, main plot part C2, main plot part D1, subplot resolution c2, and finally main plot D2, which leads to the big finish of the adventure. But all the A parts are interchangeable, the B parts are interchangeable, the C parts are interchangeable, the D parts are interchangeable, and the b and c subplot parts are interchangeable, so the player still has control over his priorities and choices.
Optional Clarification Scenes
If you have optional complications to add complexity and playing time to the adventure, it only makes sense to have the opposite – optional clarification scenes, where someone can say nothing consequential and simply display their personality, or can make sense of something that is puzzling the player – or at least drop a hint or two. This is both a backstop to prevent the player becoming so confused that the adventure grinds to a halt, and a way to speed the adventure up if time is growing short.
Optional Adventure Shortcuts
Of course, that might not be enough if too much time has been lost early in the game session, if play started late, if the need to implement an optional clarification scene wasn’t recognized early enough, or if the adventure was too big or complicated to fit the available game time to start with. When that happens, it’s time to wheel out the big gun – a shortcut that will avoid the need for one or more scenes completely. These are not easy to create.
- The worst approach is to hand-wave the need for a problem to be solved by the player. Such a deus-ex-machina has even stronger negative effects in a single player campaign than it does in a group game, sucking all the fun, all the challenge, and all the life out of the game.
- The easiest solution is to have the villains underestimate not the PC but one of the PC’s allies, who – while not being able to solve the main problem – can simplify it, cutting away the complications, but that won’t work on every occasion.
- A more generally-applicable solution is to treat even those complications that are not “optional” as though they were. This generally mandates not introducing them up front; instead, they need to be discovered as the adventure proceeds. This can require a complete rearrangement of the adventure – so it’s a lot less work to build this capacity into the adventure from the start.
Set a Kickoff deadline
When creating an adventure, I first produce a rough outline. I then estimate how long the final confrontation or climax of the adventure, plus any epilogue/ending sequences, are going to take to play – in fact, I estimate the minimum and maximum time they
will take. Working backwards from the desired end-of-play time gives me an absolute kickoff deadline for starting that confrontation (using the minimum play time) and a kick-off threshold before which the conclusion should not start.
Because you’re working with a single encounter and a defined amount of time allotted for after-climax roleplay, you can probably estimate these values fairly accurately. i round both estimates up to the nearest 5 or 10 minute mark, just to allow a little buffer – if you run a minute or two late, you can soak it up in abbreviated roleplay, and if you finish a minute or two early, that’s not a problem to cause undue concern.
I then break the rest of the adventure into more or less equal parts, in terms of game play. The exact number varies, depending on what seems natural – no more than eight, no less than 3, as a rough guide. Using the conclusion kickoff threshold and expected start time, I divide the playing time available into that number of segments, separated by milestones.
That gives me a deadline for each part of the adventure to end and the next one to start. Whatever the difference was between conclusion threshold and conclusion deadline, I halve it, round up to the next 5 minute mark, and apply the result as a plus-or-minus margin to those milestones, defining a window within which I want to hit the relevant milestone.
For example, let’s say that play is to start at PM and finish at 6PM, less 10 minutes for packing up. The adventure breaks naturally into three pieces plus conclusion, and I think that conclusion will take at least 25 minutes but not more than 40 minutes to play, plus about 7 minutes of roleplay afterwards – a five-minute scene and a 2-minute scene. I round these up from 32 to 35 and 47 to 50, respectively.
- So the conclusion deadline is 5:50 PM – 35 = 5:15 PM; and the conclusion threshold is 5:50 PM – 50 = 5 PM.
- The gap from PM to 5 PM is 4 hours exactly, so dividing that by three gives each part of the adventure a length of roughly 1 hour 20 minutes.
- The difference between threshold and deadline is 15 minutes, and half this (7.5) rounded up to a five-minute mark is 10 minutes.
That means that the game play schedule is:
- Start – PM
- Milestone 1 – 2:20 PM ±10 = 2:10 to 2:40 PM
- Milestone 2 – 3:40 PM ±10 = 3:30 to 3:50 PM
- Revised Conclusion Threshold & Deadline – 5 PM ±10 = 4:50 to 5:10 PM
- This means that the game should finish between 5:22 and 5:57 PM.
- Assuming that the most likely finish in the middle of that range, 5:40 is estimated completion.
- That means that I have 10 minutes up my sleeve for optional extra play along the way, or for distribution as breaks in play.
But the most important numbers here are the ±10 minutes and the 1 hour 20 minutes.
- 1 hr 20 is the target length that I should write toward.
- Optional Complications should add about 10 minutes (the ±value) each, and two or three should be prepared for each section of play.
- Optional Clarification scenes should be about 10 minutes long (the ±value).
- Optional Shortcuts should cut 20 minutes out of each section.
By combining these in various ways, I can add two hours to the adventure (complications + clarifications) or take an hour out of it – and the timing can be fine-tuned to within ten minutes of each milestone.
Inevitably, you will produce an overcomplicated plot at some point. Most of the time, once you get used to the pace, all will be fine, but no-one is right all the time, especially in something so variable as the actual playing time of an adventure within a single-player campaign.
The milestones are your warning signs, as are the clarification scenes. If you reach an indicated milestone time with 20 minutes play remaining, you’re right on the edge of running out of time; if you have more than 20 minutes play remaining before achieving the scheduled milestone, you’re behind. Anything less can be accommodated.
- Can you apply the shortcut for this part of the adventure?
- If not, plan immediately to implement the shortcut for the next part of the adventure.
As soon as you need to pull a clarification scene out of your back pocket and put it into play, you’ve added playing time to the game, possibly quite a bit. The same two questions apply; it’s always better to come in under time and implement a complication or two to fine-tune the timing.
Of course, these are only general guidelines, because they presuppose that the adventure has been evenly divided. With people in the equation, that’s never something that can be taken for granted; the player might struggle in part one, but solve the conundrums of part two easily.
Eighty minutes – in fact, any span greater than about half an hour – is just too broad to be estimated with any certainty, and even that is problematic. For that reason, I tend to “unofficially” subdivide each section of the gameplay when it is of that sort of length. Half of eighty minutes is 40 minutes, so in the example above, after 40 minutes after achieving each milestone, I should be roughly half-way to the next one. If I’m not, I can start thinking about remedial action in advance of being certain that I will need it. Similarly, the 20 minutes and 1 hour marks should be roughly 1/4 and 3/4 respectively. Subdivide the spans between milestones as often as you have to.
It’s better to use a shortcut and follow that with a complication than it is to be forced to rush the end of the adventure. so come in short, use your safety nets when you have to, and pad with complications.
Equally inevitably, at some point you will oversimplify your planned plotline. Once again, having these remedial measures built into the plot in advance will come to the rescue. I find it helpful to grade my optional complications according to how difficult – in terms of playing time – I think the complication will make the plot. This lets me choose between them according to the severity of need.
“Nothing in my left hand”
The final essential tool in my kit is Misdirection. This should never be applied on an ad-hoc basis, but should be built into every adventure; it’s essential to verisimilitude and avoidance of overly-simple plots.
The first point is probably in need of some amplification. It doesn’t matter who your villain is, or how much credit he wants for what is occurring, or how big his ego is – if he doesn’t want to be stopped, he will do his best to either misdirect people about his identity, his motives, his goals, and/or his plans. How effective these deceptions will be is another question entirely. If your villain doesn’t employ misdirection in at least one of these areas, even expecting anyone with half a brain to see through it, he will not seem realistic.
“It is better to deceive and be discovered than never to have obfuscated at all” should be your mantra. Smarter villains will go further, and employ layers of deception like Russian dolls, one layer nested within another. And, what appears to be a loose end betraying one level of deception might well be a hook designed to snare the clever in the next layer of deceit.
These subjects of deception are not equal in effectiveness. Deep layers of concealment about identity tends to be nothing more than confusing – no more than two such layers of deception should be allowed, except in very unusual circumstances. Motives should be self-evident once the true identity and the the goals are known, but can be buried under as many layers as you like until then – they are of little consequence. Goals and plans, that’s where things get interesting. Predictability is your enemy here, and yet there should be a sense of inevitability about these once those layers (and those belonging to other aspects of the adventure) are penetrated, ideally at the eleventh hour. There’s not much worse than having to explain, after he’s been stopped, what the antagonist wanted and how he intended to get it. So concealment of these is fine provided that these camouflages will be exposed and the underlying truth made self-evident in the course of the adventure.
One of the best ways of going about this is the use of misdirection – appearing to have one goal or plan, when the goal and the plan for achieving it are something else entirely, and in which the activities in pursuit of the real goal can be buried beneath those that are required for the apparent goal.
Of course, there should be clues that the apparent goal is not the true goal – but these should come in two different grades: extremely subtle, and a bit more obvious (not much more, though). The first are provided in the course of play, the second saved until the time within the plot to discover the real plot begins to get close.
It’s too easy to make any single clue overly-obvious when you only rely on the one big tip-off; this opens the door to a flash of insight on the part of the player that may be premature. Therefore it’s preferable to accumulate a swarm of little details that don’t quite add up rather than having a more overt clue to the fact of the deception.
“…what’s this, in my Right?”
It’s also essential that facial expression and body language on the part of the GM don’t give the game away. I have one simple technique for achieving this: give the antagonist two goals and two plans, and a way that each can give the NPC success in attaining his ultimate goal. One of these will be overt, and the other covert; if the player detects the covert plan through anomalies in the pursuit of the overt plan, and begins to work to overcome the covert plan, assume that this is a double-bluff and the overt plan was the real plan all along – unless you can think of s third plan, one perhaps that can only succeed if the PC is deceived into working to counter the second.
By not deciding which is the real objective until the final confrontation, you can’t give the game away. You can’t reveal what you don’t know yourself.
The Persuasion Effect
It’s time to introduce a new term into the discussion: Clarity. When people say they are aiming for simple plotlines, what they really mean – most of the time – is that they want their plots to have clarity.
While it’s true that too much complexity can obscure the essential details that provide clarity, the two are not necessarily mutually contradictory. This is true to some extent in group games, but the combination of multiple fallible memories and the persuasion effect limit the tolerance for complexity.
“The Persuasion Effect?” I can hear people saying. “What’s that?”
When you have a group of people who are unsure of exactly what they saw or heard, such as a group of witnesses, a sufficiently sure opinion expressed with conviction can persuade the others that they saw a detail that was never there, or that they saw something that they didn’t. I don’t know what the real term for the phenomenon is, but I refer to it as the Persuasion Effect.
I saw it in a demonstration of witness fallibility that was part of a TV show. The question was asked, “What color was the woman’s coat”, and a planted stooge amongst the witnesses responded with great certainty that it was red. Several of the jury agreed, while another planted witness said that it was white. The others couldn’t remember what the color was. In actual fact, the woman had not been wearing a coat at all, but that was the one fact that they all agreed on – after this question was asked.
The same thing happens in a group RPG that has a fair amount of complexity. One or two players misplace or get confused about something, another reports what they thought happened, leaving out the details that don’t fit their explanation, and convinces the others about something that never happened at all, because he has assumed that it had happened and then forgotten that it was an assumption. Instead of reporting the facts they received, they report their impression, explanation, or interpretation as fact.
That doesn’t happen in single player games – not as often, anyway. The player will still occasionally forget what they were told or what they saw in favor of their explanation, impression, or interpretation, but there’s no-one to persuade them of anything except the voices in their own heads.
The Clarity Minefield
Why is the Persuasion Effect important? Because, as GMs, we learn ways of overcoming it, or at least minimizing it, through our plot designs. And when you write an adventure for a solo game, you throw your weight against that door through force of habit, only to discover that it wasn’t closed in the first place. In other words, in the quest for clarity, we either overdo it and oversimplify, or work so hard to avoid doing so that we over-complicate things.
The absence of the Persuasion Effect and the lack of distraction of the one player by another permits greater complexity in your plots than you are used to – so long as you retain clarity – but trying to achieve clarity can lead to oversimplification. A little bit too much one way and you begin to bore your player, a little bit to far in the other, and you can confuse him. This is the Clarity Minefield.
Fortunately, the same mechanisms introduced to control game pace also let you control complexity and clarity. Optional complications and as-necessary optional Clarification Scenes can do the job. But that’s actually a problem, because you can’t separate the two effects. Adding a complication will increase complexity, and playing time. Using a clarification scene will use playing time. You can easily sacrifice game pace control for clarity; the result is a delicate ongoing balancing act.
The other solution is to ensure clarity exists during the creation of the adventure, saving troubleshooting for when you need it. There are four simple criteria that I employ to achieve this.
- Each scene of the adventure must be capable of description with a single sentence, with no compound or complex structure. If you aren’t sure of what a compound or complex sentence is, have a read of this wikipedia page, but in a nutshell, it means no “and”s, “but”s, “or”s, or conditions.
- That sentence should make sense in association with those before and after it in the planned plot sequence, joining together to tell a brutally simple version of the story.
- Each such sentence should make a vital contribution to the plot. Taking it out must cause a breakdown in the logic of the plotline, a character doing things without explanation or justification within the adventure.
- Finally, there must be no additional information required in order to understand the story; it must be self-contained.
One or two violations of these criteria are fine; three or four are cause for concern; five or six are becoming alarming; seven or more and the adventure should be redesigned to improve its score.
That doesn’t sound so hard, does it? But for every point at which a logical conclusion is required of the PC in order for the adventure to proceed, or at which he has to analyze something that he has seen but understood only partially, if at all, I score two points extra. So it only takes a couple of such critical points in the adventure, one or two opportunities for confusion, and a reasonably clear adventure (three points) becomes one in need of a redesign.
You can’t do away with all these critical points; they are the opportunities for the player to make a significant difference in the adventure, you could even say they were the whole reason for the adventure, with everything else providing context. The only solution is to aim for a better score from the four criteria.
It’s called the Clarity Minefield because one misstep and the whole adventure could blow up in your face. Getting this part of the adventure design right is one of the most important aspects of the creative process.
The “Due North” phenomenon can chew up lots of extra time as the player chases dead ends. It’s an iron-clad certainty that he will diverge from the script at some point! Manipulate the time lost to such events to pad or shorten adventures, and make the phenomenon work to your advantage. Think of these as player-introduced optional complications!
Of course, if the digression goes on for too long, or the player is about to perform an action that will irrevocably preclude completing the adventure, you might want to consider intervening. Remember that while a PC death in a group situation can be ruinous to a campaign, you can usually find some way around the consequences; in a single-player campaign, though, the death of the solitary PC is usually nothing short of cataclysmic to the campaign.
Trimming The Fat for a faster resolution
One thing that you definitely don’t want to do in a group adventure is to slam on the brakes just as things are approaching a climax. But, bad though this is, it pales in comparison to the level of anticlimax that results when you make this mistake in a solo game. In the group game, this is like slamming the brakes on in a vehicle big enough to carry the entire group, with you in the driver’s seat. A solo game, in comparison, is a two-seater sports car. It not only travels faster, it feels natural for it to do so, and its brakes are even more effective.
Everything that can be removed from that final run at a climax has to excised and moved to somewhere else in the plot. Your plotline at the point of resolution should have been reduced to the minimum possible story. Loose ends should either have been wrapped up already, or can dangle until after the climax – if they can’t, rewrite things until they can.
Secret shortcuts to success
Although I’ve rarely had to use one, I usually prepare a secret shortcut to success when its’ critical. Success, in this case, is the bare minimum outcome that lets the campaign proceed, which usually sets the bar a lot lower than people initially think. This doesn’t have to be the equivalent of the bacteriological vulnerability that finally ended the Martian invasion in War Of The Worlds – unless they had plans to overcome the problem by, say, grafting human DNA into their own genetic code. If the PCs fail as badly as the protagonist did in that book, I would have no compunctions about letting the Martians – almost – win. A desperate hope, quickly dashed unless taken advantage of immediately and in an organized way. Victory has to be heroic or its’ not going to be satisfying.
Quite often, the secret shortcut that I provide will be almost as bad as total defeat – the keyword is “almost”. It usually hits from a completely unexpected direction, and it can even qualify as a deus-ex-machina (though I have usually dropped a single hint early on in the adventure to justify it – while distracting attention with something flashy). It will also usually rely on a domino effect of some sort. The goal isn’t to win the adventure for an undeserving PC, it’s to give the player a chance to extricate some sort of solution out of the mess that he’s made.
Serendipity is your Secret Weapon
To that end, I employ Serendipity as a secret weapon. While totally unacceptable as a means of solving the main plot, serendipity as a means to giving an advantage to an ally who, on his own, cannot hope to achieve victory, but can sufficiently change the situation to give the PC an 11th-hour chance is quite acceptable.
Those are the secrets of the technique: never affect the PC or the enemy directly, always affect an ally; and the more distance you can put between cause and effect, the better, provided that each link in the cause-and-effect sequence beyond that first lucky break can be perceived as inevitable, given the circumstances and personalities involved.
I would never employ this technique (as described) in a group campaign; there are more players there to think of things, so there is less justification for the GM pulling strings. But a solo campaign is a different story; this is just one of many differences.
Additional Padding with Idle Conversation
This should seem obvious, but there are a couple of wrinkles to take note of.
- With only one PC to focus on, minor interactions with that character become more important.
- Top-and-tail encounters and other plot developments with casual conversation.
- Use idle conversations that you would not normally roleplay as a way to soak up extra time,
Typical adventure length
I guess I can’t dodge the question any longer; this is the final section on the subject of adventure-level solo-player games. So, how much game should you prep?
Even with all the ways of filling up corners and manipulating pace, the solo game still runs at a pace and intensity that simply can’t be believed if you haven’t experienced it before. I once formulated the expression
P(Np) = P(Np-1) / [ 2.25^(Np-1) ]
in an attempt to quantify just how much adding an extra player slowed a game, but I was never completely confident of the analysis. I knew that it was an exponential effect, increasing with each additional player, and that going from two to four players more than halved the pace of play.
But going from N players to 1 player is a special case; so many things change, and you have access to plotting tools that you are normally not able to use in a group game. So I doubt this even holds true in the case of Np=1.
Instead, I rely on my experience, and the tools I’ve described in this article, and a simple rule of thumb: prepare between 125 and 300% as much game as you usually would for the amount of time spend playing with a group. The larger the group being used as a comparison basis, the closer to the high end of that range you want to be. Something like: 2 players = 125-150%; 3 players, 150-175%; 4 players, 175-200%; 5 players 200-250%; 6 players, 250%-300%; 7 or more, 300%.
It’s impossible to be more accurate; there are too many levels of compression that alter how much gameplay there is to each page of adventure plan.
For the first game session or two, both you and the player will be getting used to everything, so don’t expect to need the full amount at first. You will have time to get your act in gear. And that’s a very good thing – because you’re going to need it!
When you string more than one adventure together with the same PCs – or PC in this case – you’re starting to talk about campaigns. And, believe it or not, there’s almost as much to discuss at this topmost level of RPG architecture – when you’re comparing group and solo games, that is…