Solo Traveller - thoughts


I intended to post this in the other thread on Traveller solo but it ran so long I thought it best to start a new thread - hope that is OK!!

I must admit I am relatively new to traveller but have a lifetime of experience with solo rpgs (first due to friends with no interest in rpgs, then because it’s fun). There seems to be a debate running over whether a solo RPG is a worthwhile and viable activity. In my view, people who dismiss the concept of solo (solitaire) play need to try it and should consider whether they would give up the hobby if they didn’t have a regular group. In my view, the marketplace needs a really good solo RPG to be published to end this debate and I am writing this post to try and help Mongoose to be this publisher with Solo Traveller.

I apologise for the fact that this post is so long (and may make some people eyes bleed) but I hope it’s constructive and someone will enjoy the read!

Why Play Solo Traveller?

The main reason people engage in (solo) rpgs is for entertainment. It’s similar to reading a book or watching a movie but you have direct control over the exact genre, quality and direction of the storyline. Think of your favourite TV series, book or movie and I am willing to bet that the best thing about them is the characters and storylines. Character and story needs to be the focus of the game rather than the technology, combat system, the load-out of ships or how many credits were made on the last drop of Biochemicals to Pheonix.

Consider the interactions between the crew who each have their own backgrounds and storylines: the mechanic who falls in and out of love with the captain until her past catches up with her, the gun-slinging pilot who would betray the others to make a quick buck until they risk their lives to save him, the secretive medic who is on the run from a major criminal organisation. Running the crew and its interactions with one another is a minefield of plot hooks and storylines which the solo game needs to tap.

Consider the plots which can arise out of the group being regulars in Rusty Jack’s Spaceport Bar. The contracts computer sits in the corner filled with mercenary contracts or trade run requirements, but the crew also know the bouncer with his underworld connections, they know the barman and his young family that he is desperate to protect, they see a churn of temporary staff and entertainers come through each with their own private issues. Then there are the regulars, the retired navy general who does a small amount of private security work on the side, the local politician or noble who stops by covertly for a quiet drink or the small-time crook whose next job might be the big one if the mafia don’t catch up with him first. One seedy bar is a hive of potential storylines and plot hooks and each planet has many such places and each has potential contacts and connections that breathe continuity and life into the universe and a solo rpg needs to exploit this.

Consider also the impact of the bigger story arc that runs through the campaign (or series) the war effort against an aggressive empire, or the trade war between corporations, a psychic sickness in the core worlds or a strange demonic invasion into border space. These generate more plot and story ideas but also serves to hold everything together much like a campaign for a group

This is the stuff that movies, TV series and books are made of. This is the stuff that RPGs are made of. For me, to ignore this aspect of the game is to miss the point of playing entirely.

The PC

A Solo RPG requires the player to do the job of both Referee and Player. They must run and manage the crew of a ship and the universe, not just a single character. There needs to be interaction and friction/romance between the crew members and each must have their own desires and needs which impact the story. As the crew are all NPCs they can reveal motives and personalities which surprise the player (see below). Surprising quirks and goals can be there beneath the surface and only come to light when relevant to the story and that when they do they can influence the future activity and motivations of the characters as they spring into life. Also, as they are NPCs, crew members can arrive and die off without ruining the game, and the mortality of favoured characters can create a sense of real tragedy.

The Episode Idea

I visualise the system as having an episodic feel to it much like a SciFi TV show may do. The idea is to have a play session equate to roughly one episode of a TV series.

Phase One – The Hook

The introductory phase to the episode consists of the player making decisions about the goals of the ship and crew. Are they bounty hunting? looking to purchase trade goods? Mining? Mission running for the navy or a corporation? Are they jsut relaxing in Rusty Jack’s Spaceport Bar? Or (this is the good stuff) do they have a player defined goal from an earlier adventure they want to explore?

There could always be a chance that no adventure takes place and the crew just go about that activity with no interruptions in which case the trade just goes ahead, or the crew gain extra healing, mine resources, collect navy pay etc, some bonus that comes form a week of usual business and the episode comes to a swift uneventful conclusion.

In most episodes however the intended activity will set the tone for the nature of a random plot hook and patron. This will in turn define a setting and goal for adventure. The adventure is then played out as the player sets out to tackle the issue.

Rolling on good quality random generators can generate an infinite combination of good ideas for an episode plot. Similar tables can also generate good patrons. ‘Existing Contacts’ and ‘Crew Members’ should also be options for the adventure patron and act as a source of adventure hooks. This requires the player to keep a log of contacts in the universe they have met with which will put a slant on the random plot hook and build meaning and continuity into the story. For example, an assassination plot hook for the crew means so much more when it is the crew’s medic who is desperate to have that politician eliminated or their arch nemesis is behind the nefarious scheme they are to investigate.

Phase Two – The Crew (Subplot)

Once the hook is generated, but before the adventure takes place, the next phase focuses on shifting relationships between the crew members. This involves selecting a random crew member for a random event which in turn may involve one or more other characters. This could include the crew member having their own agenda tied to the plot or setting for the adventure, having their own secrets, deterioration of relationships, having family problems outside the ship, engaging in sabotage of the crew or embezzlement of crew funds, having legal or criminal problems or any other issues which can occur on a personal level. Investigation into why they have engaged in the activity or behaviour can form a subplot for the episode, reveal new traits, create mission complications, or a new story goal for a later episode.

Developing the Episodic Ideas

Rolling on tables to generate a hook for a patron or to define crew activity only goes so far. Solo systems such as The 9Qs or Mythic use a random answer to direct questions which create surprises and force the player to think outside the box. Both have systems where there are degrees of yes and no also, such that a result could be an ‘extreme yes’, or a ‘no but….’ This fires the imagination and leads the player to think outside the box for answers. The player needs to receive answers that don’t necessarily follow on from his own immediate thoughts.

For example, asking the question ‘is there an attraction between the mechanic and captain?’ the player expects a ‘yes’ answer but a ‘no, but….’ Result is generated forcing the player to think ‘no but’ what?

‘No, but…’ She hates him. Why? Maybe she harbours and ambition to captain the ship herself? Or she secretly hates him for killing her brother?

Or ‘No, but…’ She is attracted to the gun-slinging pilot. What might this lead to? maybe we have a love triangle forming within the crew? Or they plan to abandon ship and run away together?

Or ‘No, but…’ the gun-slinging pilot is the one who is attracted to the captain? So his over aggressive nature compensates for his suppressed homosexuality? Or he is really a unique military cyborg who has imprinted on the captain?

Whatever the player can think of can be the answer he goes with, but the story moves along and is developed in an unexpected direction. Sometimes this has no direct impact at the time but reveals characterisation that may provide a context for future ambiguous questions. This can be prompted further by the use of randomly selected words suggestive of meaning if this is desired to help. Mythic uses tables of words but there are other methods such as Rory’s Story Dice.

These kinds of mechanisms are essential to solo rpgs where the player needs to be surprised by what is happening, and ask themselves questions about what is going on. This creates suspense and twists which generate interest and intrigue.

Phase Three – The Storyline & Conflict

Mythic or The 9Q system both have methods for running the adventure once the goal and setting are established. The player will need to think about the activity of the crew in order to resolve the adventure.

There could be a chance that the crew’s approach triggers a random complication or a twist to mix things up a bit. Even a basic trade run can become complicated when the cargo turns out to be something unexpected such as illegal drugs or an escaped political prisoner. Mythic does a great job of unexpectedly changing scenes by using a ‘chaos factor’.

At the heart of any episode will be an element of conflict. This may involve fighting between starships as the crew try to run a blockade, or the crew storming undead-infested ruin to recover ancient technology. The key to the system working for a solo player is that it has to be simple and cinematic. One player has to monitor everything going on in the conflict and can easily get bogged down in a more crunchy system where they need to track locations of several character’s range and actions, the effects of multiple wounds or the speed and direction of several star ships.

This extends to the system generally in that the persistent rolling of dice bogs down the solo player to a point where they are just rolling dice and recording results rather than focusing on story. This can make them feel like they are doing their household accounts rather than playing a game. Therefore the system needs to stay story focused and minimise the number of required dice rolls.

An example of how this can be achieved for example when looking at plot hooks is to roll a d100 (sacrilegious for the die-hard traveller player?) to select both patron and plot hook. This could be via a single larger table or by reversing the tens and units dice? So 54 on one table is 45 on the other requiring just one roll. In combat, there should preferably be just one or two rolls (though they can be of several dice at a time) for each side in any given round perhaps with that roll generating a number of successes.

Likewise, the degree or arithmetic should be simple and easy rather than constantly require the use of calculators for complex functions as these too can bog the player down. Simplification is key as the opportunity to play may only arise after a hard days work, or when the kids are tucked up in bed after playing up all evening and therefore player may be tired.

Eventually the Mission succeeds or fails, the payola is collected and the episode nears its completion.

Phase Four – The Universe (Or Whilst You Were Away)

The final phase of the episode focuses on the shifting activity within the universe or home planet so that things in the wider universe feel dynamic and real. This should take place after the adventure climax but should serve to offer a bit of a cliff hanger and motivating events for the next episode. For example this could be delivered via the news on TV when a neighbouring stellar empire declares war on the home planet, a leading film star is assassinated, the crook who they just double crossed lets the crew know he is on to them, or (god forbid) Rusty Jack’s Spaceport Bar is blown to smithereens as the crew are walking away from it.

Phase Five – Between Episodes

Finally, between episodes a maintenance phase takes place where healing takes place, improvements to ships or equipment are purchased, running costs are paid for, cargo is delivered and sold etc.

Final Thoughts

So there you have it – the ramblings of a madman. I appreciate my thoughts are idealistic and perhaps too much so but I have a dream of a product so awesome that it will revolutionise the concept of the solo RPG and silence the debate forever on whether or not it is a worthwhile and viable activity.
The only thought I can add is that a randomized table or card set to help keep some of the unexpected for the player. Tables or decks, I believe, should incorporate not only encounters but things such as npc hooks or universe tweaks something to give a solo player a chance to have a fresh perspective while playing. The framework you laid out gives me not only an idea for a solo game but also for when I run on Skype. Thanks
Great read, thank you. Some good ideas in there, I like phase 4
'While you where away...'

2300 has some character motivations decided by a deck
of cards. Applies to npcs too. You may find that useful.
Traveller needs its own answer to the Oracles available on DriveThruRPG, particularly oracles like the ones sold by Parts per Million.

There used to be a Campaign Guide for players and referees in 1 Edition Mongoose Traveller. Perhaps we could create something similar for 2e.

Another tool we could explore is bullet journaling for solo Traveller players and bullet journaling for referees to keep track of campaigns.
I like the idea of having random endings and plot changes. A deck of cards would be great. There's a card game called Once Upon a Time which might provide inspiration
I like the idea of having random endings and plot changes. A deck of cards would be great. There's a card game called Once Upon a Time which might provide inspiration
Once Upon a Time is a great story telling game. We use it in the library often.
I haven't actually tried it out, but Zozer Games has a product called SOLO that is for playing Traveller solo. They also have Star Trader, which can be used for solo play or to help with space trading in your campaign.