This week my wife and I took our kids on their first camping trip. Our destination was Healesville, in the heart of the picturesque Yarra Valley, a place made famous by the Healesville Sanctuary — a conservation zoo for Australia’s unique wildlife. We picked a shocking week, coinciding with a polar blast from Antartica that send temperatures plummeting and winds gusting. My wife also fell ill, and when we returned home today, she toddled herself off for a Covid-19 test.
Still, I think we all enjoyed the experience, and it’s something we’ll continue to do as a family, especially with International travel effectively banned to and from Australia.
Anyway, one the things I packed along with our copy of the game Pandemic, was my solo RPG kit. My kit fits inside an A4 document wallet and comprises a set of dice, a moleskin journal, and an A5 ring folder containing my favourite rules-light systems, random tables and a simple oracle. I didn’t feel like running a D&D 5e game, and packing all the paraphernalia that entails, and instead wanted something lightweight I could use to build a narrative game on the fly. Even so, my youngest son wanted to play too, so we each generated a character and built the story together.
I made game play intensionally simple; I was more interested in creating a story than in tactical game play. That said, the system I adopted can be used for tactical combat and my kit includes gridded paper and tokens.
As a framework, I mashed together my favourite rules-light systems, and used random tables to generate a quest idea and a bunch of obstacles. To provide some spatial structure, I generated a random hex map and together our characters undertook a hex crawl.
Each time our characters entered a new hex, we rolled for the terrain and vegetation, and then generated encounters. Where we needed to ask questions, we rolled against a fairly typical oracle table to provide us with yes/no/but answers with some outcomes leading to complications, or plot twists.
With each passage of play (think turns in a regular RPG) — be it travel, an event or encounter, or the outcome of questions to the oracle — I penciled the flow of the descriptive and narrative elements as bullet points. Where I felt inclined, I expanded and extrapolated the bullet as my imagination wandered. This semi-structured game framework proved to be an excellent seed for the imagination, with lots more ideas emerging than we had time to explore in the couple of hours we killed before dinner time.
Session notes and hex map
For completeness, I include my session notes below. As noted, I penned these out on paper as we explored our impromptu world and story with our characters.
Session #1 -- 13/4 * BLAXTON and SILAS are two adventurer's seeking an old foe in a distant forest. * They start in a simple village build along a lake, admist an otherwise uninteresting grassy plain. * They journey north-east, following the river when a sudden illness strikes BLAXTON. It's not serious, but it forces them to make camp and stay in the area longer than anticipated, eating up rations. * When BLAXTON recovers, they explore the wilderness and hunt obtaining 6 days rations (that was quite a good a roll!) * The next day, BLAXTON and SILAS set off, again following the river as it meanders to the north-east. * After several hours they encounter a creature (a PIXIE). Though friendly and playful, the PIXIE does not permit BLAXTON and SILAS to pass. * BLAXTON and SILAS decide to talk to the PIXIE, and after a combination of oracle questions and rolls against random tables, the PIXIE reveals she will let them pass if they agree to kidnap a TINKER. * BLAXTON and SILAS ask why the PIXIE wants the TINKER but she refuses to answer, but does promise that she doesn't intend to harm the TINKER. * BLAXTON and SILAS decide they don't want to take up the PIXIE's quest, and instead leave, heading north-west to search out a new route to their destination. * They backtrack a few miles and follow a tributary of the river north-west. Here the terrain changes to foothills. They follow the river until they encounter an enourmous waterfall.
Below is the hex map we used for our crawl. I generated hexes as we explored them, making the experience akin to exploring a game world with fog of war like Starcraft or Command and Conquer (yes, I’m showing my age here).
Originally, I drew the map on blank hexes printed on A5 paper. For this post, I’ve recreated the map in Procreate on my iPad because it was quicker to redraw it than it was to dust off my old scanner.
I must say, this was a pleasant way to pass an afternoon. Though not strictly a solo affair, as my sons joined in, this wasn’t exactly a classic D&D experience where a Dungeon Master runs an adventure for a bunch of players. Using a simple framework and some random tables, we developed a story collaboratively. Granted our sessions wasn’t action packed, and we didn’t get too far (dinner time beckoned), but we had fun learning the framework and creating the story.
I plan on persisting with this pastime; it’s exactly the sort of creative exercise I can turn to when I need a break from writing novels. It also lets me explore RPGs without having to join and maintain a group of real players, something that many an aspiring player will tell you can be bloody hard. The cost of entry is little more than pencil and paper, some dice and an imagination. Add random tables and the rule set of your choice, and you’ve got a portable activity offering almost limitless fun.