Solitary TTRPG Play with Scarlet Heroes
Of late, I’ve been toying around with various approaches to solitary (i.e. GM-less/self-GM) TTRPG play. Initially, I had wanted my first post on the matter to talk about Four Against Darkness, but then I realized that I’d been giving my characters far too many chances to gain levels on accident (from a combination of trying to read too quickly and poor presentation on the default record sheets), so I’ll need more time to give an informed assessment of that game.
Four Against Darkness really is more of its own stand-alone game, though. Delaying that post in favor of this one might be for the best in the long run.
Given how often I seem to mention Star Without Number and Silent Legions these days, it’s no secret that I’m a fan of Kevin Crawford’s TTRPG work. While I can’t say that I’m interested in all of his products (particularly since the GM-aid content in Godbound or Worlds Without Number has a lot of overlap with Stars Without Number), Scarlet Heroes is significantly different in that it’s a system tuned for play by a single PC. And, in classic Kevin Crawford fashion, if that’s all you’re interested in, that part of the rules is mostly available for free as the stand-alone Black Streams: Solo Heroes.
I like DM+1 play, as should be evident from my Going Alone series. Solo Heroes didn’t show me much that I didn’t know already, but it did include a damage conversion system to enable single PCs to approximate the staying power of a group. While I’ve gotten comfortable running for a single PC without needing to change damage, that was a simpler adjustment than needing to kludge the damage roll formulae for every single thing that can hurt a PC, so I bought the full Scarlet Heroes rules in support of Crawford’s effort.
However, what wasn’t entirely clear from either the preview PDFs or the product summary for Scarlet Heroes is that the last chapter is aimed at a single person playing as their own GM. That was a nice surprise.
It starts with providing general tables for determining whether or not something is true based on how likely it seems, for inspiration on complications when something isn’t entirely true/false, for determining distance (indoors and outdoors) and weather, for creating quick and simple NPCs, and for adding descriptive flavor. Following those, there are three procedural frameworks for generating adventures, based on the general type of adventure (investigative/urban, exploratory/wilderness, and operative/dungeon).
The urban adventure framework is the one that I’ve used to most, and it’s pretty good. There’s a Victory Point mechanic for adding time pressure (by both gating how quickly you can reach the climax and setting a goalpost for the antagonist to complete their objectives), which can be a bit drawn out, but at least it’s a clear way of tracking progress that isn’t hard to adjust once you’re used to it. Encounters are broken up into Investigation Scenes (which give Clues towards Action Scenes on a successful completion), Conflict Scenes (which remove a Victory Point from the antagonist on a successful completion), and Action Scenes (which require a Clue to unlock but give two Victory Points on a successful completion). As with many of the procedural systems in Crawford’s other works, the actual scene descriptions are in general terms, albeit with some more emphasis on combat since Scarlet Heroes PCs are hardier (e.g. “Trick an Actor into revealing a Clue. Roll a die; on an odd result you face a Fight whether or not you succeed on the check.”).
I wouldn’t have minded more entries on some tables (the plot seeds table is particularly short, with only eight entries), and the Fight Difficulty table can be very swingy, but as a whole, the framework strikes a nice compromise between providing enough guidance to keep things moving and allowing space for personal interpretation and spontaneous inspiration. The resulting adventures tend to be slightly on the easy side as presented (even without using the damage conversion for solo PCs and with using multiple skill checks to judge success/failure for non-Fight scenes), but again, it’s not complex to tune that as needed after getting a little experience with it.
I haven’t played with the wilderness adventure framework yet, but of all three frameworks, it’s definitely the least developed. While I appreciate that it includes weather/terrain-related events to throw random obstacles in the way in addition to random encounters and location features, the events are mostly in the form of “a bad thing is happening; make a check to avoid losing supplies/items/time”. That’s a rather boring random tax. There are more interesting events, too (like “Meet an Encounter stranded in the mud” in wet season weather or “A winding tunnel leads to a Dungeon” in hills/mountain terrain), so Crawford was clearly aware that events needn’t boil down to a spin on a slot machine. Other questionable choices like referring only to the book’s bestiary for encounter details (which the other two frameworks don’t do) or having only about a 1% chance for encounters with multiple conflicting parties (which can’t even happen as a random encounter because it’s keyed as a possibility at location features) are also irksome at face value.
Ultimately, this feels thrown in more because it fits a classical mode of adventuring rather than because it’s good, though I can’t be too harsh on it without having actually played through the framework. I’ll give it a try at some point, but I’m not about to hold my breath.
Lastly, there is the dungeon adventure framework, which includes the most mechanics (four pages of tables, as opposed to three for urban adventures and two for wilderness adventures). It takes a lot of rolling (four checks per room), but it actually does a decent job of approximating the feeling of exploring dungeons made with old school procedural mechanics. I would’ve liked a way of determining the number of connections to a given room, and especially a way of including secret doors, but aside from that gripe, it covers its bases well. In particular, I like the inclusion of a random adjustment to the Threat (a mechanic for keying the difficulty) beyond the general “PC level + 1d4 - 1d4” suggestion for all of the frameworks and the advice for running dungeons as lairs or as nigh-inexhaustible strongholds.
It would’ve been nice if the room details could influence the contents, perhaps by having ranges of results that give +1 chance for a special feature or -1 chance for an encounter, but it’s hard to complain too much when the framework gives so much already. Besides, that’s something which can be tacked on if desired, either with some rolls on the true/false oracles or by adding personal footnotes to those room results.
As an aside, I plan on making use of this dungeon generator when building up Factory-Hall of the Iron Shaman, so you can look forward to that if you want some examples of this system in action.
I can’t say how Scarlet Heroes ranks compared to other solitary play systems like Ironsworn or Peter Rudin-Burgess’s Players Guide to Solo Roleplaying for the Cepheus Engine game system because I haven’t taken the time to play those yet. However, judging it strictly in a vacuum, this is a fantastic resource that I’d say is worth the cost of the whole book.
While there is inevitably some assumed setting influence on certain tables (like urban locations or common dungeon inhabitants), I was able to translate the results into sensible equivalents for other settings both quite similar (Lamentations of the Flame Princess) and very different (Stars Without Numbers) without any major hassles. That said, I’m very used to doing that from drawing on a wide array of references when I run games, so people who aren’t comfortable with converting Armor Class scales or substituting creatures with equivalent combat roles on the fly might struggle more on that front. Fortunately, Scarlet Heroes includes a good amount of well-developed setting information (as usual for Crawford) and a bestiary (on par with Godbound), so the information is included to support that approach.
For people who have never been a GM, this can be a nice way of getting introduced to that side of things and practicing without needing to perform for an audience immediately. Even if you don’t care about that, at the very least, it can help with learning game systems by giving a way of testing them in their entirety beyond merely imagining how all the different pieces fit together.
For people who are forever-GMs, it can provide a way of offloading a large chunk of that responsibility and enjoying “just” being a player. Not only does that give a different way of enjoying the game, but playing without nigh-omnipotent control and knowledge can help with becoming a better GM by giving a better understanding of the perspective from that side of the game.
For people who are GMs, it provides more procedural tools, suitable for use either between sessions (by giving ideas for adventure design) or during sessions (by giving tools for shaping how you play NPCs or the greater world with quick and simple prompts). Obviously, those tools won’t be equally valuable for all GMs and/or all game systems, but it’s impossible to use a tool without first having access to it (which is why I keep getting rules for game systems that I don’t actually play).