Adventures are a hunger, fundamental to who we are. But what makes them work?
Literally everything we try at Grailrunner is about pushing boundaries in imagination. Often, that takes the form of contorting tabletop game mechanics for experiments in immersive storytelling. Then we give that stuff away for free in case it’s entertaining, though we’ve learned bits and pieces along the way about what makes adventures work…and what is missing when they don’t.
Which is the point.
For example, we built wargame terrain and a narrative scenario to play out a story using the game mechanics of Privateer Press’s popular Warmachine. It was a thrilling ride we called…
The Black Ruins Massacre
Turned out amazing – go follow these links to see what I mean:
One of the more popular things we’ve ever done here on the site was to write up an illustrated recap of a solo Dungeons & Dragons adventure in Wizards Of The Coast’s Tales Of The Yawning Portal. I routinely use a ridiculous D&D character named Firebeetle to try out different roleplaying game rulesets, and in that case, I put him through a harrowing ordeal called Clueless In The Sunless Citadel. Click these guys here to see what that was all about, and download the free pdf. Only takes about a half hour or so to read, but it’s fun.
So anyway, I was in a big old used bookstore called McKay’s in Nashville, TN a few weeks ago. I strolled to the RPG section with no particular goal in mind and found an odd, strangely electrifying, though ultimately unsatisfying hardback called Maze Of The Blue Medusa. I knew as soon as I read the back, felt the weight and texture of it in my hands, as soon as I flipped through a few pages, that this was something special.
Maze Of The Blue Medusa
(I understand there is some controversy around one of the creators behind this book, so I’ll stick to the work itself in my comments.)
The book describes a system-neutral dungeon complete with a detailed map, illustrations, a bestiary and associated encounter dice tables, and intricately detailed descriptions of every one of its over 300 rooms. In every room, something weird is happening, something grotesque and surreal is creeping about, and crumbs of an over-arching story are dropped.
However, unlike so many mega-dungeon books with their Tolkein tropes and endless loot crates and traps, this whopper is written like an art project, with text that reads like it’s for shrewd adults capable of seeing irony and social commentary in its encounters.
I excitedly cracked it open when I got the chance to run young Firebeetle through his paces inside the Maze.
And I wasn’t into it.
It just didn’t click for me. The adventure escaped me, and it was just going through motions with no point. I couldn’t find a story hook that mattered. Each room seemed weird and vaguely interesting, but nothing popped or sparkled for me. The encounters were tedious and amounted to nothing. Here’s a Youtube video of some dudes in an actual play session of Maze Of The Blue Medusa – watch that for a few minutes and I suspect you’ll see what I mean.
Even with a great GM and some funny players, this wasn’t an adventure so much as a haughty stroll through the bohemian part of town where I don’t really fit in. I wanted the awe and danger of exploration inside the covers of a book and found only a meaningless series of weird things. Maybe that was my fault, but the mechanisms available just didn’t work the way I wanted.
That was on my mind when I heard of a little book by Emmy Allen called The Stygian Library, I thought maybe I had found redemption.
The Stygian Library
The Stygian Library bills itself as a dungeon for bibliophiles, promising a procedurally generated fantasy library you can explore in ever deeper levels. That sounded amazing, requiring you to map your way (though you can run blindly and get lost). Much like Blue Medusa, this wasn’t written with solo play in mind, but with enough dice tables and imagination, I figured I could rewire it.
Emmy delivers a wild bestiary including golems made of paper, animated books that follow you around, mysterious creeping librarians working on enigmatic calculations, even a half-man, half octopus that eats brains. Nice.
You roll for the levels you’re entering, details about them at first glance and also if you search around, as well as random events and, when prompted, encounters of a friendly or a violent flavor depending on your choices so far.
I took this idiot inside.
Firebeetle was a name I was given for my very first D&D character back in the day. I recreate him in any game system I’m testing out because he amuses me.
He’s an aimless adventurer, in it for the thrill, always ready to take up a quest or try a mysterious corridor, picking up random things along the way and relying on his luck to seem him through. He’s not really charming, but thinks he is. Loves the ladies. Gets into trouble practically at every destination.
Firebeetle has a tendency to stumble into dimensional portals (as I try new game systems), finding himself in underground dungeons in the Middle Ages (D&D), Viking-era Iceland in an impossible city made of clusters of hot air balloons (Ironsworn RPG system), or in the far future on a dying space station (Starforged RPG system).
He just kind of goes with it. And it all works out in the end.
Neither Blue Medusa, D&D, Ironsworn, nor Starforged were delivering on the premise I was searching for: the awe and danger of exploration inside the covers of a book. Maybe Emmy’s Stygian Library would be the trick. I love libraries.
I put this ridiculous booklet together during conference calls in the COVID-19 quarantine, and I treated it as the opening sequence before entering the Stygian Library. It was going to be called Five Days In Boghallow, a fighting romp with a funny undead sidekick. Literally the only reason I’m including a link here is to give you a feel for this character. He’s such an idiot.
Anyway, I’ll give you the airplane view of what went down inside the Stygian Library and make my point for the day:
On what happened inside the Library…(keep in mind, virtually all of this was determined by dice rolls and game mechanics)
Bereft, the undead knight and Firebeetle entered the Library from the pit into which they’d fallen. They were amused by a couple of animated books that followed them around like cats, though the creepy librarians kept appearing to whisk the books away into the shadows. Something they read inside the cover of one of the books gave them a quest to find some machinery in the deep levels of the endless Library. They encountered bees made of paper (swatted them away) and a golem (ignored it) and paid visits to a planetarium, a pile of treasure, the master catalog of contents, and a hall of taxidermy before managing to be entirely lost and stranded inside an ever-shifting labyrinthine library.
Ahh, I thought. Here’s where things pick up for young Firebeetle. He’s stuck now. Looking for some machines or something.
They kept pressing on, ever deeper, picking up all manner of treasures and vaguely defined books that seemed promising. ‘Let’s see Firebeetle’s careless attitude work his way out of this mess’, I said to myself.
Then inside a giant paper beehive, a bird-like bandersnatch started pecking at Firebeetle’s sword to steal it (because it was shiny). Stupid bird-thing. When they finally killed it, the fact that they were killers turned the Library into a deadlier place. This would pick things up then, as the Library beasties got nastier and the hapless adventurers grew more desperate to find a way out.
In an enormous statuary, Bereft and Firebeetle were accosted by a floating skull, attended by floating teeth that were enthralled with its every word. It grew increasingly insulting, commenting on their appearance and bumbling like they were museum curiosities, before it began to smash itself into Firebeetle muttering something like, “See, students, how a skull may stomp a bug without the need of feet!”.
They ultimately shattered the pompous skull, scattered its minions, and dealt handily with some phantoms the encountered as well. And they did, believe it or not, wind up in the chamber they sought with its outlandish calculation engines, where the hooded Librarians worked their mysterious mathematics.
And would you believe it…and I honestly didn’t make this up at all…the dice rolls delivered Firebeetle an intangibility potion. It’s the one thing that would get him back to an escape from the Library, with treasure and books in hand. I mean…I tried to put the guy in danger and make a madcap adventure of the whole thing, and his ridiculous luck somehow just pulled him out of it.
The Stygian Library was amusing, even interesting and novel, definitely worth your attention if any of this sounded like your cup of tea, but overall it failed to deliver the spice I was seeking: the awe and danger of exploration, except in the covers of a book.
So what am I saying then?
Here’s my point. And I learned this through all these experiments with different game systems through comparison with the one I’m testing now – Forbidden Lands by Free League Publishing. The difference has been night and day. And I believe I know why.
Solo RPG game play is absolutely possible. It’s enjoyable and surprising, stretching your imagination and your sense of fun. It may even rewire your personality as you rip and stretch aspects of yourself that don’t see enough light of day. It takes a few things though, which I’ve found in Forbidden Lands more so than with these other systems, including The Stygian Library:
In my day job when we deal with companies making big changes, we use something called The Airplane Model to define the major elements that make things happen, that drives people to do things. I’m applying this to manufacturing adventure. Hear me out:
Adventures work when:
- (Vision) …there is a meaningful purpose to what the characters are doing – a destination and a clear, important goal that you find interesting. The Forbidden Lands ruleset offers a Legend Generator that covers this well. I believe I was missing this in many of my random exploration experiments.
- (Sense Of Belonging) …the characters matter to you, fleshed out with formative events that made them who they are. I trusted the Formative Events dice tables in the Forbidden Lands to build a person for me, a hunter named Colter, and he’s starting to feel like someone I’ve known a very long time.
- (Sense Of Contributing) …the decisions that your characters make have consequences. I felt in the Maze Of The Blue Medusa and to some extent in The Stygian Library that the random conflicts and odd bits of treasure were irrelevant. Curating good dice tables, like the Action and Theme oracles in Ironsworn and others is fantastic for surprises and a sense of wonder and discovery, but what you do has to mean something or there’s no weight to what’s happening
- (Sense Of Progression) …there is a clear, definable sense that progress is being made against the purpose. Ironsworn, Starforged, and The Stygian Library all three provide an abstract Progress Tracker intended to keep score of how things are going in the story versus goals, but I found that unrelatable in solo play. Boring and meaningless, even. I’ve found I start to give up on the adventure entirely if there isn’t any meaningful progress or sense that things are moving along. In the case of Forbidden Lands, a deliciously detailed map is provided which is incredibly satisfying.
- (Sense Of Urgency) …time is ticking, and there is a real possibility of dying or losing something precious. Particularly in D&D 5th Edition, I feel like it’s kind of hard to die. One thing I’m seeing in the Forbidden Lands ruleset is that the stats are unforgiving, and there are lots of things able to kill my character. It forces me to make Colter plan more, and think creatively about his decisions since he could die so readily.
And that’s what I wanted to say about all this. It’s been interesting, testing all these systems out and trying to use them to breathe life into a story I can experience.
The awe and danger of exploration, except in the covers of a book. Possible?
What do you think?
Till next time,