The Solitaire Adventure That Changed My Life
As you all know by now, this Kickstarter is about writing great adventure modules. The designers involved all took inspiration from the adventure-designers who came before them. As part of the Kickstarter we've asked the contributors to discuss the great adventures that inspired them. Previously we've heard about The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, Secret of the Slavers Stockade, Castle Amber, The Desert of Desolation, and Against the Giants. Today we take our first look at a solitaire module - and a non-TSR module as well.
The Solitaire Adventure That Changed My Life
By Lester Smith
A good thirty years ago, an old friend named Jim insisted on GMing solitaire adventures for me. I think it’s just that he had enjoyed them himself, wanted me to share that enjoyment, and wished to see my reactions as each adventure unfolded.
Our favorite RPG at the time was The Fantasy Trip (by Steve Jackson before he went on to create GURPS). So Jim ran me through TFT’s Death Test and Death Test 2, and the rather amazing Grail Quest. But the adventure I remember most was a little one in a fantasy magazine. I think it was in an early issue of Space Gamer, though I’ve scoured my collection, and unless it’s in the elusive #5, I may be misremembering. And I think the title was Thief’s Quest, but I can’t be sure.
What I do remember clearly was it opening with my character gaining consciousness in an alley, where he’d been mugged and left with nothing but his clothes and a small knife. Across the street was a jewelry shop, closed for the night--a tempting target for my thief. So he crossed the street, picked the lock with his knife, slipped inside, and was promptly killed by two guard dogs.
I renamed the character and started again, this time scaling a wall of the shop to gain the roof, looking for another way in. While he was up there, a city guard wandered by. Thankfully the character was alert and stealthy enough to slip away from sight before being spotted. He finished scouting the roof, found no other way in, and returned to the street.
After that, he wandered the city for a bit, dodging more guards while seeking some sort of real weapon for fighting the dogs. (He shouldn’t have had that advance knowledge, but I did, so Jim ruled they’d been growling behind the door.) Eventually he entered a bustling tavern and made friends with a burly guy who bought him a drink and agreed to help rob the jewelry store. We left and accosted a passerby to get my character a sword and a leather tunic. Then we returned to the shop; my thief picked the lock; and we rushed inside. The thief jumped up on a side table for height advantage (a +2 modifier in TFT), while his new friend bore the brunt of the dog attacks, and the beasts were soon defeated.
Two interior doors now faced us. My thief chose the left (I’m a sucker for the left) and his companion stepped inside, to immediately be fatally immolated by a fireball from a wizard night guard. My thief then managed to surprise and quickly dispatch the mage. (Wizards are generally fragile, and in TFT they spend health to cast spells, the fireball being exceptionally draining).
After scouring the room and turning up nothing of worth, my thief returned to check the righthand door, which proved to open into an office full of portable wealth. He loaded up, wandered the city some more, and had a generally good time with a variety of encounters, before Jim called it a night and left the magazine for me to read while he was gone.
Inside those pages I found nothing but three pages of numbered paragraphs with the usual “which way” decisions: ”If you do this, go to paragraph XX”: “If you choose this instead, go to paragraph YY”; and the words “If you choose something else, go to paragraph ZZ.” Paragraph ZZ had a table with references to other paragraphs, based on a bunch of possible actions, followed by the injunction that if yours didn’t appear there, roll a D6, and on a result of 6 create a random encounter with the TFT rules.
There was no city. There was no tavern. There was no new friend waiting, no passerby to accost on the way back. There were no streets for a night out on the town afterward. All that existed was three rooms holding two guard dogs, one wizard, and some treasure.
That adventure experience changed my life. I’d just had an object lesson in extemporizing from a basic framework. Up to that point, adventures I’d experienced tended to be dungeon crawls, with limited choices for moving forward, and italicized flavor text for the GM to read aloud. Many modern adventures still use that format.
But here was a solitaire adventure that broke the solitaire mold with that “If you do something else” option. And I’d just seen a GM create a city outside even those boundaries, based just on the words, “if you roll a 6, create a new character to encounter.”
Since that time, I’ve experienced some other very creative solitaire adventures: A later edition of Space Gamer was my first introduction to Call of Cthulhu, and it had a mechanic for tracking time as you went, with a deadline before horror engulfed the city; an issue of White Dwarf revealed an island map hex by hex, paragraph by paragraph, so that you had to draw it as you explored; and the Middle Earth Quest paperbacks from ICE included in just two pages a set of RPG rules so rich I adopted them alone to GM a Conan campaign.
Nevertheless, that three-room adventure sticks with me the most and has had the biggest effect. My article in How to Write Adventure Modules That Don’t Suck reflects what I learned from it: Be prepared with a basic story mapped and statted out (I use three acts), but be ready to extemporize from the player characters’ actions.
Thank you, Jim. And thank you forgotten author of that unforgettable adventure. You two changed my life. I’m a writer and game designer today largely because of it.
Lester Smith is an award-winning game designer, poet, and writer. He has more than fifty published game credits alone, along with a multitude in poetry, fiction, and educational titles. His recent work includes the one-stat, multi-genre D6xD6 role-playing game, whose core rules are free online at www.d6xd6.com. Visit www.lestersmith.com for more information or to contact him.