So you’re interested in playing with yourself. Well, by yourself anyways. That’s right, we’re talking about the rising interest in solo RPGs and how to play a solo RPG using the fifth edition of the world’s most popular RPG, Dungeons & Dragons. Interest in solo RPGs really exploded, thanks to tabletop RPG streaming. Many fans of TTRPG struggle to find groups or find time with those groups when they can actually play. The interest in this was cranked up to 11 with the COVID-19 pandemic. But before we learn how to run a solo RPG with Dungeons & Dragons, we should probably clarify what a solo RPG is and if it’s right for you.
What is a Solo RPG?
Well, it’s like any group-based tabletop RPG you are familiar with, except there’s only one player and one Game Master, and they are the same person: you. That’s right, unfortunately, no current oracle or AI can yet replicate what it takes to be a GM. So in that way, solo RPGs are very much not like video games. You cannot be only a player, a strict consumer of someone else’s work to create a story or world for you.
I admit I came late to the solo variant of my favorite hobby. I think that’s because I tried it a few times as a kid when I had no one else to play with, and I couldn’t quite get where I needed to be to make it consistently fun. Primarily, I didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t have exposure to the knowledge and cool tools that make it much easier now.
I gave solo RPGs a second chance for a few reasons—first, scheduling. A dry spell of scheduling conflicts in my in-person games meant the only way to get my D&D fix was to do it myself. Second, I like being a DM and want to keep honing my craft. Currently, I’m playing in two different groups but not running anything other than the occasional one-shot. Using D&D to play a solo RPG experience affords me the opportunity to flex my Dungeon Master muscles, even if it’s only for personal enjoyment. Also, as an only child in the days before high-speed internet access, self-entertainment is a well-honed skill of mine. My partner easily concurs that I can always find some way to entertain myself.
If any of that sounds like you, solo RPG play may just be what you’re looking for. You may wonder what you need to play Dungeons & Dragons by yourself. You certainly don’t have to, there are plenty of RPG systems that can all be run as solo RPGs. Some are even built with solo play in mind. So think about your choice in system when it comes to trying solo RPG play.
Pick An RPG You Like & Know Well
Familiarity is a top factor when considering an RPG to use for solo play. Because you will need to straddle the line between player and game master, consider what systems you know really well so you don’t spend most of your time looking up rules clarifications or get stuck not knowing how to improvise or adjudicate a situation using the RPG’s rules.
Just as important is the ease of the system because, for most RPGs, you will need to tack on a secondary system called an “Oracle” that helps you inject surprise and answer questions that come up in play. It’s why many veteran solo RPG players use rules-lite systems to stay focused on playing and handling the secondary system of an oracle without getting bogged down in their RPG.
It’s imperative you choose an RPG system you feel comfortable improvising because much of solo play is improvisation. Along with that is a critical tip for success. Try to rely on your system’s resolution mechanics as much as possible. Avoid going first to the oracle or supplements to try and resolve something that can be done within your chosen rules system.
Why Choose D&D to Play a Solo RPG?
Well, because it’s most people’s entry point into the hobby of tabletop RPGs. That means it’s familiar to most players. Also, the fifth edition ruleset is pretty simple while being robust enough to easily improvise and adjudicate most situations that come up in the process of fantasy roleplaying. All key aspects we noted when choosing an RPG system to use. Because we still need to layer that second mechanical framework of an oracle on top of the existing game to help us RPG solo.
Another thing Dungeons & Dragons has going for it is its popularity. That means there’s plenty of first and third-party support for helping to play the game better, faster, and in different ways. Comparative to other RPG systems, there is an absolute mountain of supplemental materials, resources, and helpful references for an aspiring solo RPG enthusiast.
Dungeons & Dragons may be the right choice for your solo RPG adventurers because of its focus on heroic fantasy mixed with the apparent deadliness of low-level play. I think modern D&D works well for solo play because of its narrative focus and hardy player characters, especially at low-level. OSR systems are great, but a 1d4 wizard with a single spell has an abysmal average life expectancy adventuring on their own.
Fifth-edition low-level play is still scary. A critical hit at the wrong time can still spell easy death for a fledgling PC. Especially if you don’t have anyone to stabilize you to avoid making death saves! I enjoy low-level 5e gameplay because it reaffirms that avoiding combat is usually a best scenario, but tempers it with PCs that are hale enough to survive combat or at least survive trying to flee combat.
Great, whether you’ve chosen Dungeons & Dragons for your solo RPG play or another system, the next step in preparing yourself for solo play is choosing a setting.
Pick a Well-Known or Create-As-You-Go Setting
Choosing the setting for your solo game is almost as important as choosing your rules system. I see the dichotomy as two ends of a slider. Do you want to explore an already-established and robust world setting, injecting your player character into settings you want to explore? Or, are you more interested in the focus on your specific character and their exploits? The setting is of a much lesser concern.
Personally, I move the slider pretty far toward the latter. Not because I dislike setting, I am an explorer and storyteller archetype, I love discovering stuff about the world my characters inhabit, world building, and how to weave it into the narrative of my character. And I think that is the distinction. I like “discovering” new things in a world. I don’t want to have to read Forgotten Realms campaign setting guides from three different editions along with a half-dozen Drizz’t novels to feel knowledgeable about the setting. However, lots of people love those settings and know them very well. I can totally understand wanting to inject your own character into that robust tapestry—more power to you.
Another major concern in picking a setting for your solo D&D game is the tone, style, or genre of the game you want to play. You want a marriage of setting and system that complements the type of game you want to play. For example, Eberron as a setting has plenty of noir, Cold War espionage trappings but D&D isn’t really built to accommodate fulfilling mystery, intrigue, or cloak & dagger adventures. Tonally D&D is less China Town and more Big Trouble in Little China. Something to keep in mind when thinking about what type of adventure you want to play as an RPG soloist.
Your setting and chosen rules system will inform the type of character you’ll be able to create and play. But it’s essential you make a player character that helps make solo RPG play easier.
Make a D&D Character That Works for Solo RPG
Make a character that works for solo RPG play. What does that mean? solo RPGs are very character-centric by nature. There are no other main characters in a solo RPG with which you need to share the spotlight. So you need a character with some drama, a bit of a hot mess. Your need unresolved backstory plots, family, friends, and connections: allies, adversaries, and acquaintances. Most of all your need a background for your PC that provides actionable conflict. To that end, here are some basic questions I’ve used over multiple games to create a PC with baggage rife with actionable conflict.
Solo RPG Character-Building Questions
- Who are your family and close friends?
- Who are your rivals and enemies?
- What were you doing before you became and adventurer?
- Why did you leave that life behind?
- What are you running from or chasing after?
- What’s something valuable you left behind because of it? (Person, Item, Sense of Self, etc.)
- What vice, fear, or secret will get you in trouble if it comes up?
- I will immediately throw down if someone…
- I would die to defend/protect…
The answer to questions six and seven should be different. You would die to protect your sibling, but you can also be ready to throw down if you see someone being robbed, not just your sibling.
Grab a Sidekick for Your Solo RPG Journey
Probably my favorite bits published in the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons is “This is Your Life” from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and the Sidekick rules from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. Both are fantastic for playing D&D as a solo RPG. Sidekicks in 5e function as 50-75% of a normal player character. What’s better is they are not restricted to the playable races, and many types of creatures from the monster roster work as sidekicks.
A great sidekick is helpful but doesn’t pull focus away from your main character. They should also have skills and abilities that complement your player character. Suppose you want to play a beefy melee character. In that case, you may want to bring along a wry thief or knowledgable spell caster to help diversify the challenges your character can reasonably overcome. Also towing around a helper character is an excellent way to hedge against unexpected combat death.
And you don’t have to be stuck with a single sidekick character. Your solo RPG play may feature a rotating cask of sidekicks that drop in and out of the adventuring party as the adventure concerns them. Think of them as recurring special guests, on-and-off-again adventure partners. I typically keep their stats on an index card and tuck them away when they’re off-screen.
For example, I have played a few Dungeons & Dragons solo RPG sessions with a svirfneblin fighter. In her travels, she agreed to help an undead mage fix a botched phylactery problem that is creating undead in the local area. A couple of sessions later, I sent him ahead to deliver critical medicine for the current quest while my PC stayed behind to deal with an attack on a local hold. Well, thanks to the oracle the undead mage ended up chasing down a lead on his personal quest… luckily AFTER he delivered the medicine. So, for the time being, he is MIA, and my fighter has little chance of advancing that plot to conclusion until he jumps back into the story.
Bringing in a colorful cast of side characters is a great way to keep yourself interested and engaged during Solo play sessions.
How to Turn D&D Into a Solo RPG
Remember that oracle we mentioned earlier? It goes here. The most basic oracle helps you to answer yes/no questions and injects some randomness into your expectations. Many robust oracle systems also include ways to find answers for questions that aren’t binary. The gold standard for solo RPG oracles is certainly the Mythic GM Emulator. I’ve used it, I like it, but it was also a bit more cumbersome for what I wanted.
Now, I use a modified 1d20 oracle which streamlines with D&D rolls rather than using Mythic’s d100 table. The roll can be modified by how likely or unlikely I think an answer of YES should be. I also have a secondary chart to roll on for results, including an AND or BUT. Taking this table I combine it with the d100 charts from Mythic. I may replace these charts with others or create my own in the future.
1d20 Game Master Oracle for Solo Play
|PC’s Choice, BUT…
Solo GM Oracle Likelihood Modifiers
- +/-3 Likely/Unlikely
- +/-5 Very Likely/Unlikely
Useful Supplements for Playing D&D as a Solo RPG
- Random Names/NPCs
- Quest Generator
- Difficulty Generator
- Random Challenges
- Location Generator
- Item/Treasure Generator
Given the highly improvisational nature of solo RPG, it is up to you to come up with NPCs and names for people, places, and things on the spot. As a Dungeon Master running standard group D&D, I find a long list of random names something that isn’t usually worth prepping. But, playing alone, you will likely encounter far more NPCs because there is minimal intra-party dialog. New information needs to come from an external source.
Probably the most popular NPC generator is the one used by Trevor Devall in his YouTube solo RPG play series: Me, Myself, and Die. It’s called UNE, the Universal NPC Emulator. I don’t have any personal experience with it. I instead use a quick homebrew system for random NPCs. Like with running a standard game of D&D for friends, I like to prep around five drafted-up NPCs that I can drop into any game session as needed.
Whether it’s your first session playing D&D as a solo RPG or your hundredth, you’ll likely reach a spot where you wonder what to do next. A simple random quest generator is an excellent resource to quickly get a new adventure seed into your hands and your PC moving towards a new goal. I have many different Dungeon Master sources I’ve collected over the years to help me generate adventure ideas quickly. For new solo RPG players I would suggest using a generator you probably already own, like the ones found in the D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide and Paizo’s Gamemastery Guide.
Since we’re talking about playing D&D as a solo RPG, you will need some way to generate DCs (Difficulty Classes) for ability check rolls. I use a simple 3d6 roll, where 2d6 sets the DC foundation and the remaining die is used to modify that number. I find it useful and due to its bell curve nature usually puts DCs right in the 5e average DC wheelhouse of 11-16.
For solo play I also advise co-opting the room/scene DC idea from Runehammer’s ICRPG. That means setting a flat DC for the entire room/scene. So a room with a DC 14 means that jumping the chasm, deciphering the arcane runes, and resisting the room’s mold spores are all the same DC 14.
Like normal Dungeons & Dragons, you will have a better time if you diversify the type of challenges your player character faces. For things like overland travel, I have two lists for each biome/environment type. One is a random encounters list, and the other is a random dressing list. The former has random creature groups to encounter and the latter has primarily non-creature obstacles and minor interests to help pad out play.
Here’s a 1d8 challenge roll table you may find helpful to get started.
1d8 Random Challenges
- Obstacle or Trick
- Hazard or Trap
- Puzzle, Riddle, Code/Cryptogram, or Missing Element (Cog/Key/Lever)
- Roleplay (Bargain, Deceive, Interrogate, Intimidate, Persuade, Plead)
- Exploration (Explore & Discover)
- Investigation (Seek & Deduce)
Dungeons & Dragons is primarily a location-based adventure game. Dungeons is right there in the name, even before Dragons. Having a way to help you generate wilderness, settlements, and dungeon locations on the fly will help keep you focused on playing the game and not prepping for the game. Again, I would recommend following the guidelines for creating these locations in the D&D DMG and Pathfinder’s Gamemastery Guide.
Everyone loves getting loot. Having a quick reference to roll for random treasure is very useful. While I may use something like 5e’s treasure hoards for a dungeon or major antagonist, I primarily use my own treasure tables and pocket content tables for minor challenges and combats. I would also consider using a trinket or magic item customization table to make the loot more evocative.
It’s not just a +1 Cloak of Protection you found, it’s Duilthene’s Raiment. What does that mean, who is Duilthene? That way, even your treasure helps to generate more possible things to explore in-game.
Supplements I’ve Used to Solo RPG Dungeons & Dragons
Here’s a snippet of resources I’ve successfully used before to play D&D as a solo RPG.
D&D Solo RPG Combat
- Kobold + Fight Club – For balancing encounters
- Monster Stats – Monster Manual, Volo’s Guide, and third-party monsters
- Homebrew generator for battle details (distance, visibility, tactical advantages, morale, etc.)
D&D Solo RPG Exploration
- Worldbuilding Process Hex Mapping – very familiar to me and easy to generate new hexes and locations as my PC explores
- GM’s Miscellany Wilderness Dressing – helpful resource for generating random bits of wilderness
- Hextml – Free browser-based hex-mapping solution. It allows me to add notes and save the HTML file between sessions
- Skill Challenge Rules – An easy way to model a protracted exploration challenge/encounter
- Resource Management Die – Simplifies and adds unsureness to reliability of consumables (Food, Water, Ammunition, Spell components, etc.)
D&D Solo RPG Social
- NPC Reaction Roll – The starting point for how NPCs feel about your PC
- Skill Challenge Rules – An easy way to model a protracted social challenge/encounter
There are also well-known resources you can check out. We have already talked about the Mythic GM Emulator and UNE (Universal NPC Emulator), but there’s also the Tome of Adventure Design, The Game Master’s Book of Random Encounters, The Book of Random Tables, Table Fables, The Solo Adventurer’s Toolbox, and the Solo Game Master’s Guide.
If you continue to play RPGs solo, you will probably start tweaking, updating, and creating your own homebrew tables to replace some of your supplements. Doing so will help you customize your solo RPG game experience to fit exactly how you like to play. One thing you do want to avoid when putting together your supplemental materials is to avoid using too many different sources, especially redundant sources. I like to say, “prep all your need, but use all your prep.”
If you find yourself going multiple sessions without referencing a supplement, drop it from your prep work and see what happens. Because solo RPG playing can get out of hand fast, I think it’s best to keep everything as simple as possible.
KISS – Keep it Simple Stupid
You can probably see by now how playing Dungeons & Dragons by yourself can quickly become very complex, overwhelming, and not fun. Your best defense is to keep it simple stupid. Start off your solo RPG voyage small in scope and scale. Don’t pressure yourself into running a 1-20 level epic D&D campaign. Instead, try solo play by doing low-level adventures around a small local area sandbox.
Another smart way to get into playing D&D as a solo RPG is to focus on creating characters and running 1-3 session adventures. This shotgun approach to solo RPG will help you quickly understand how the solo RPG framework performs and how to use it to create your PC’s story. Once you get a handle on the oracle and other mechanics, you tap into the cadence of how a solo RPG session goes, then you can start exploring more long-form solo gameplay.
Also, I briefly mentioned it earlier, but kill your supplement darlings. Many of the superb resources I listed above, like: GM’s Miscellany series, Book of Random Tables series, Solo Adventurer’s Toolkit, and the Tome of Adventure Design have an extreme amount of overlapping material. Be specific and purposeful in the materials you use. Try to narrow your focus down to only a handful of the most valuable tables and references you need. Doing so will significantly decrease the amount of time you spend trying to find that one specific random roll table in this book… or was it that book?
General Solo RPG Advice & Tips
Here are a few general solo RPG tips I’ve picked up along the way that can help you have more fun playing Dungeons & Dragons as a solo RPG.
Focus on the Fun
Playing D&D, or any RPG, by yourself is quite a bit of work, but the tradeoff is that you’re the DM and the player so you can focus on the aspect of RPGs that are most fun to you. If you see something blocking you from having fun, change it. It’s your game after all, you’re the audience to be entertained by it.
One way to interpret this is to ensure your scenes/encounters are lean and exciting. Follow the old writer’s advice: “enter the scene late and leave early.” It’s the reason people don’t say goodbye on the phones in television and movies. Don’t force yourself to roleplay downtime, basic shopping trips, or uneventful travel sequences. Skip to the fun, juicy bits.
Keep Conflict Steady
According to friends and the internet, one of the significant struggles people have with playing D&D or any other rules set as a solo RPG is they don’t have anything to do. And that comes down to a lack of conflict in your game. You have probably experienced this as a player or DM in a standard tabletop RPG group. When the party doesn’t have a clear goal and path to follow they can grow listless and just kind of sit around doing nothing.
An RPG session without conflict is just as dull as reading a story without it. You can use the writing trick, “Someone wants something very much and is having difficulty gaining it.” The “difficulty” is the conflict, what stands in the way of what the PC wants. This challenge or antagonist usually falls into Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, or Man vs. Self archetypes.
If you created a PC with an actionable backstory you should always have some form of character-based conflict to challenge you as you play. If you’re playing along and things are going smoothly, you may be doing something wrong… or just getting lucky on your adventure. Often it can mean you’re not asking yourself enough questions to generate those AND/BUT complications.
And don’t forget, because you’re the player and the DM, you can alter the narrative to make it more fun. Add an unexpected complication, insert a combat encounter, or introduce a hiccup that is going to make the game more fun for you to play.
Not Every Faction & NPC is Memorable
Just because an NPC or faction shows up in your game, doesn’t mean you need to be tracking them. Sometimes an NPC shopkeeper is just a shopkeeper. They don’t need a description, backstory, or tie-in with your PC or ongoing adventure threads. The same is true with a faction. A good rule of thumb is only to start tracking an NPC or faction once there is dramatic tension between your PC(s) and them. For instance, if your PC stole from the aforementioned shopkeeper or ripped them off, that may be worth putting into your notes as an NPC and ongoing thread.
Keep the Story Loose
If you have itchy world-builder fingers that want to flare up the keyboard every time your PC visits a new location or meets a new NPC, you’ll want to pressure yourself to leave lots of voids to use for wiggle room later. Don’t flesh out everything, especially the first time you encounter it.
Does this new plot-relevant NPC have a family? Don’t know, don’t care, until I need to care. To make your highly improvised story more cohesive, you want to create details and connections only as necessary. Leave plenty of space to keep all the elements of your solo RPG adventure/saga malleable so they can be what they need to be later down the road when the oracle tells you that a random NPC or faction benefits from the outcome of the otherwise unrelated quest you are on. Oh, well of course, because one of the people my PC saved is that random NPC’s sibling.
Cheat the Story, Not the Game
Keep the story loose so you can capitalize on a flash of inspiration when it happens. A good idea should always trump your oracle rolls and random tables. This is also part of focusing on the fun to keep you engaged and excited to play D&D as a solo RPG. A fun premise or realization that strengthens the weave of your solo play story is worth a hundred random rolls. So, trust you gut on random rolls. If you struggle to interpret story rolls, roll again for better inspiration or go with your best idea in the moment.
But, just as crucial to cheating the story is not to cheat at the game. As much as possible, you want to resolve whatever’s going on in your solo RPG game using the mechanics provided by Dungeons & Dragons. It is tuned to provide you with challenging conflict and means to resolve it. Also, it offers danger and that’s a vital thing. Because if you remove the randomness of the universe represented by dice rolls you cheapen the experience. There’s no tension, drama, or conflict if there’s no chance your PC will fail, be harmed, or even die.
So feel free to cheat the story to make it more fun, but don’t cheat the game or you will find yourself quickly bored with the experience.
Death is Not the End
You especially don’t want to cheat the game by trying to downplay significant consequences, like death. The threat of death is what adds tension to any combat encounter. Remember, you are the architect of your PC’s narrative with some help from the dice. Death need not be the end of the adventure. First, some powerful creature could deus ex machina your PC out of death. The important thing is that they would only do that because the PC can be helpful to them. Being saved from death only to swear loyalty to a bizarre, unknowable aberration sounds like a great twist to add to your PC’s story. It makes for more adventure, not less.
Or you could let your PC die. You could change them to a revenant/undead and have them wake up a day later, or create an adventure where they have to figure out how to jailbreak themselves out of the afterlife.
But, maybe you’re excited to play a new character. You can start over in a new game with a new character and world. You could create a new PC in the same world as your former PC. They could be hired to find the missing and dead PC from before. You could also jump locations or time in your established world setting and run different adventures with some of the same themes.
And of course, you can look at what NPCs are in your game. Why not upgrade one of them to new PC status in a very Game of Thrones style of storytelling? The point is not to cheapen the tension in your game and fudge the game rules, especially around death.
Organized Notes Are Critical to Solo RPG Success
Depending on the game you are trying to play, setting up for a solo RPG with D&D or another rules system can be a lot of work. And, if you like the story and your character, you will likely want to play multiple sessions going on adventures and exploring their game world. That’s why organized notes are so important.
How often have you sat down to a game of D&D with friends and thought, “wait, what were we doing?” Well, in a solo RPG experience you don’t have a group to help you cobble together the memories of the last session and ongoing narrative. But, that’s OK with a bit of preparation and practice you should have no trouble playing D&D as a solo RPG over multiple sessions.
Organize Your Notes with Lists
Create a living document, either digital or analog that you will change and update as you play. You will want to create a numbered list for PCs, Factions, NPCs, Threads/Story Beats, and Unresolved Treasure. If you are creating this document in preparation for your first session, you want to take the answers from your PC’s background questions and add them to these lists.
For example, you want to add your PC and potentially your sidekick to the PC list, family, friends, rivals, and enemies to the NPC list. The tension between your PC and background NPCs should be added to the Threads/Story Beats list. As for the Unresolved Treasure list, I find it very useful to keep all the non-useful gear picked up during adventuring in one place along with its expected resale value. That makes it easy when playing Solo not to need to skim my character sheet or session notes every time I have an in-game shopping opportunity.
Prep Your Solo RPG Starting Area Map
Whether you plan to homebrew a new world as you play, use a published setting, or dive into a setting from a different type of game or fiction, it’s important to set yourself up for success before you start playing. And that means making some preparation for your starting area. Start by choosing or creating a central home base or hub to use as your starting location, like a village. It should give you a place to return to after adventuring and meet the 5R’s needed for a settlement:
You can learn more about those principles in our Practical Settlement Design feature. You will also want to fill in some nearby adventure locations, important NPCs, and points of interest to investigate. All that information is broken down in detail in our Fast D&D Campaign Starter.
And, the last thing you want to ensure when setting up your starting area map is to use an additive mapping solution. Longtime readers know I’m partial to the browser-based Hextml, noted previously. Choose something you’re familiar with because you’re liable to spend a lot of time with the system. As you adventure session after session, you will move outside your starting area and need to start mapping new locations, adventure sites, and POIs.
Get Ready to Journal!
Another useful tip is to have a physical journal or word document, someplace to keep an ongoing journal of your D&D solo RPG adventure sessions. Your journal doesn’t need to be exhaustive or written in prose. Essentially your journal is just a way to keep track of the significant events that happen per play session so you can reference them later. So when you have that moment of “what happened last session,” you can skim your journal for the last session’s play notes.
A completed journal is also a nice memento of your time spent with a specific player character or game world. And for the inspired, it makes for a good outline tool to draft your own RPG-based story, novel, or play.
Develop Common Procedure Checklists
I wouldn’t be able to remember how many times playing D&D, or another solo RPG, I would diverge or contradict from what I’ve done before. Now, this isn’t as much of a concern for someone starting their first solo RPG session, but it’s helpful to engender consistency for multi-session adventures. So as you play, don’t learn the hard way like me, make a note of how you want to determine and track portions of the game as you play.
For example, when you reach a new random settlement what do you need to know about it and in what supplemental resources will you go to find that out? How will you determine the occurrence of random encounters and what type of monsters are included? Are you going to track resources, how? What will you use to track time spent and travel, what about in-game resources like rations and ammunition? How do you determine where an adventure location or POI will appear on the map?
These aren’t immediate concerns for the absolute solo RPG newbie, but it will be something you want to figure out quickly if you want to continue playing D&D by yourself time and time again. Creating these little procedure checklists will help you spend more time playing and less time thinking about how to play, while preserving a consistent approach to your solo RPG play.
Prepare Your Play Space
When I play and run D&D with a group, I don’t often use mood lighting, music, or tactile aids. However, when prepping your play space for solo D&D RPG fun, it’s something to consider. Because you don’t have any other players or a DM to bounce ideas and conversations off, putting a little effort into immersion can go a long way to keep you in the zone.
Take the time to set a mood by choosing your lighting and having some thematic music ready. Also try grabbing a miniature or piece of art to represent your player character and place it out of the way, but still where you can see it. I use noise-canceling headphones with music when I play solo RPGs and I cannot recommend it enough as a helpful way to avoid distractions.
I also recommend stocking yourself up with refreshments to avoid running back and forth for drinks and snacks. Also, use the restroom before you start playing. Take care of anything that might cause you to get up and leave your play space.
As for the rest of your play space. Make sure you have plenty of dice or a digital dice roller loaded to help you roll for all your oracle questions and random tables. Speaking of, make sure to have your play aids like randomizers and tables ready to go. If you’re using books, I suggest flagging the pages you need with a sticky note or bookmark. Alternatively, if you’re only using one or two tables from a specific resource, print/copy the pages and compile them to create your own customized player aid resource. If you’re using PDFs, make sure they’re all open and ready to reference.
And with all your prep work completed, refreshments within reach, and character sheet in hand, you’re ready to start playing D&D Solo or any solo RPG.
How to Actually Start a Solo RPG Session with D&D
RPGs designed for solo play often offer an easy way to start playing. But, talking to other people who have tried solo RPGs and seeing people’s issues online, it’s clear that getting started, getting off the blank page, is the most challenging step in the entire process of playing D&D and other RPGs by yourself.
I found it best to approach starting a solo RPG session in the same manner I would as a Dungeon Master for a typical session of D&D. RRF readers will know that for me, the successful kickoff of a D&D session comes down one thing: a purposeful start. Here are three easy ways to help you start playing your first session of D&D as a solo RPG.
Create & Interrupt a Random Scene
First, use your random roll materials or GM oracle supplement to draft a random scene. What the scene is doesn’t matter. Then grab one or two random NPCs to add to the scene. I have a list of 100 random NPCs that’s really useful for times like these when I just need a warm body for a scene. After that, drop your player character into the scene and consider what these 2-3 characters might be doing together in the scene. The final flourish to your introductory solo RPG scene is to roll up an intrusive scene that calls your player character to action.
This first method will help you create an opening like your PC enjoying a card game in the inn with two NPCs. Then suddenly the door bursts open and a rough-looking bounty hunter grabs one of your PC’s new friends from the seat and starts dragging them outside. Now all you need to determine is why your PC needs to stop this from happening. Maybe the NPC in question owes you a fair bit of money or gambled away an item, trinket, or piece of information your PC is eager to get their hands on. Guess you need to stop that bounty hunter!
Kick Off with a Fight
The second option is to begin with a random combat encounter and ask questions as the fight rages on. As you go through the turns in combat start asking questions like: where are we? Why are we here? Who are the people/creatures we’re fighting? Why are we fighting? By the resolution of combat you should start to be able to piece together the setup for the combat scene. Search the dead, talk to any survivors, start asking your solo RPG oracle more questions to pin down the specifics. Before you know it you should have an idea of what your PC would do next.
Start at the Dungeon
And the final option is to plop your player character down at the entrance to a dungeon. Like playing D&D with a fresh group of PCs, it can be more advantageous to make it easy to start adventuring. As you investigate the dungeon’s entrance and begin delving, you can start to fill in the backstory. Consider how you found the dungeon, what’s rumored to be within, and figure out why that’s important to your player character.
The best part about starting your D&D solo RPG adventure is that it’s the most difficult step. In my experience, playing D&D Solo is like an engine, once you start it up and get it running it will continue under its own power. Each question you answer will provide you insight and context about what’s going on, and most importantly, it will create new questions you will need to fill with answers. That’s the solo RPG core game loop you’ll become very familiar with using.
Let’s break it down.
How to Solo RPG – The Core Gameplay Loop
If the GM Oracle is the engine of solo RPG gameplay, then questions are the fuel that makes it run. Try to avoid assumptions and when something pops into your mind ask a question. Be curious and use the tools at your disposal. The more you ask the more you will learn about the adventure, the characters, and the world they live within.
And don’t forget that you can go beyond Yes/No questions. Especially look for opportunities to ask yourself HOW and WHY questions as they offer the most potential for elucidation. Use your supplemental roll tables as appropriate to create clues to answer those non-binary questions.
Solo RPG Gameplay Loop
- Set the Scene (Actors, Location, Time, Purpose/Goal)
- Ask a Question About the Scene
- Roll on Oracle/Tables
- Interpret Results
- Act on New Information in Scene
- Resolve Action
- Repeat with Same/New Scene
It’s pretty simple for a game mechanic and is not all that different than what a Dungeon Master does running a game. Think about it, you describe the scene for your players. They probably have some questions about the scene. You answer player questions and clarify details to ensure they have a firm grasp of what’s happening in the scene. Then player characters act in the scene and any NPCs or monsters you have will react. Then you resolve the actions taken and reset the scene or transition to a new scene if it’s concluded.
D&D as a Solo RPG: Beyond Session One
Look, there’s nothing wrong with playing a bunch of one-shots as your solo RPG experience. According to Geek Gamers, one of the premier solo RPGists on YouTube, that’s how she primarily plays solo RPGs, whether it’s Dungeons & Dragons or any system.
But, maybe you like the player character, want to learn more about the world, heck, maybe you just want to find out what happens next! Certainly channels like Trevor Devall’s Me, Myself, and Die adventures and Matt’s The Bad Spot podcast have shown how fun a long-form campaign of solo play can be.
That’s all well and good, but I suspect you’re thinking, HOW do I keep it going? No problem, here are a few tips that have made playing multiple sessions of an ongoing solo D&D campaign easy for me.
You Have to Be Having Fun
It’s a game not a chore, being entertained and having fun is the point. You will not have long-term success playing Dungeons & Dragons as a solo RPG if you’re not having fun. Having fun was mentioned earlier but it’s imperative when it comes to multiple-session games. Your excitement to discover what happens next has to carry you between sessions, just like you want to discover what happens next in a classic game of D&D.
If you’re not having fun, change things until it is fun. If you find yourself not loving the character, make a new one. It’s worth running number of one-shot solo RPG games until you hit a PC, plot thread, or setting that excites you. Don’t set yourself up for failure by trying to grind out a solo D&D game with a bunch of elements that leave a bad taste in your mouth.
Why Does This Setting Need Adventurers?
Adventurers need, well, adventures to… adventure. They need things to do and people who need them to do those things. If you want to run multiple adventures in the same setting, it will help you a lot if you take a moment after your first adventure to consider what role adventurers serve in the setting and why people want them, or at least need them?
Is this a Points of Light Setting? The safe places of the world are few and far apart, which means traveling between them is a dangerous ordeal. Outside those havens are all sorts of dangers and when anyone needs something beyond the boundary of their little safe haven they call an adventurer.
The point is you will have a much easier time coming up with adventures and answers to questions about the setting if you can nail down what sort of tasks and missions are the adventurers’ stock-in-trade in the setting.
Hack the 5×5 Method to Daisy-Chain Adventures
You can read all about the 5×5 Method and Its Many Uses. By creating points of connection between your solo D&D adventures, you can organically create an ongoing campaign that feels natural and not like you’re moving between levels of a video game.
How Does It Work?
Let’s say you’re finishing up an adventure, getting those sweet quest rewards, and trying to figure out what to do next. Now, do it if you have something in your story/plot threads that makes sense for your PC to go after. But, if you’re feeling stuck, take an aspect from the adventure you just completed. It could be an item, location, quest giver, piece of lore, villain, NPC, creature, etc., pick one that seems like it would be fun to continue using.
Now create a new adventure that includes that piece of the prior adventure. The common element will serve as a natural bridge between the adventures. It can be as easy as the same quest giver, now confident in the PC’s capabilities, wants them to take on a new challenge. The element doesn’t even need to be in the adventure. Say you killed the villain in the previous adventure, but they can still serve as the bridge. Villains have lieutenants, family, or bosses who may want revenge!
You can use this to daisy-chain adventures together to create a very organic feeling D&D solo campaign.
Keep Your D&D Solo RPG Information Organized
Nothing is going to kill your session two as quickly as not being able to find your character sheet, notes, or solo supplements. It’s like showing up to play soccer and forgetting the ball. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot with disorganization.
I use a physical folder in which I put the character sheet, NPC stat blocks, notes, and standalone randomizers. Then that folder goes in a specific spot on my bookshelf with any big books of tables and other physical supplements I’m using for the solo D&D campaign.
Make a physical space for your solo D&D campaign and keep everything there. Put it back every time you’re finished playing a session, and you won’t accidentally cheat yourself out of an ongoing solo D&D campaign. I would also suggest putting your crafting skills to work or purchasing a special container (box, folder, etc.) to keep everything together. And, put it somewhere where you’ll see it. You want the opposite of “out of sight, out of mind.” You want it in your line of sight so you will start thinking about when you can play next.
Those little flourishes help to make the solo RPG experience a little more fun and a little more exciting to look forward to playing next time.
End on the Tension
This last tip is a common bit of Dungeon Master and showmanship advice. You want to leave them wanting more. Them is the audience, which in this instance is you. And, you can create situations where you want to know what happens next in your game. Cut yourself off when the tension in the game spikes.
Did your PC trigger a trap in the dungeon? Consider ending the session just as they hear the trigger click beneath their foot. That way you will spend your free time thinking about what kind of trap it is, what’s going to happen, wait how much HP do they have, will they survive, will the trap alert the dungeon’s occupants?
Cutting off your session as the drama and tension reaches its zenith will help keep you invested when you’re away from the table and looking for an opportunity to jump back into the game for another session.
Now You’re Ready to Play D&D as a Solo RPG
Does it sound fun? It is. However, playing D&D without a DM doesn’t necessarily mean playing alone. Instead of playing D&D as a solo RPG consider grabbing a couple of friends to play together. The solo RPG or DM-less/headless approach to Dungeons & Dragons group play can be a lot of fun.
I played with two other Dungeon Master friends, one of whom was struggling to get into solo play, and we had a blast. They said it was some of the most fun they had ever had playing D&D, full stop. That’s a ringing endorsement for sure.
Playing D&D as a solo RPG is also a great stepping stone for players who are interested in becoming a DM, but feel they need experience before stepping behind the screen with confidence. It gives you the unique opportunity to play D&D from both sides of the DM screen simultaneously.
solo RPG play forces you to think on your feet, deal with randomness, and improvise as both the player character and their antagonists. That’s valuable experience that directly translates to the skills that will help make you a successful Dungeon Master.
Solo play also does an excellent job of introducing sandbox-style play and providing a method to try and knit disparate elements of a campaign into a cohesive narrative that is rewarding and makes sense.
Well, that’s it for this one. Hope you enjoyed it and if you’ve never tried Solo play with Dungeons & Dragons or any other rules system I hope you’re encouraged to check it out. It can be a gratifying experience that can help make you a better D&D player and Dungeon Master.