Just as I started to feel a yen for some solo SF gaming again, along comes Solo…
In a Nutshell: Solo RPG campaigns for the Cepheus Engine (actually, any version of Traveller). 153 page PDF from Zozer Games, written by Paul Elliot, $10 or so at time of writing. This is a much expanded version of the earlier Star Trader, which I reviewed here.
Solo games often drown in dice-rolling, and Solo handles this by abstracting the equivalent of encounters or sessions into a single dice roll; see The Plan for details.
The player also has a small troupe, two or more characters, rather than just one. This allows for the character interactions one would get in group play.
The overall principle is that the few dice rolls tell you what happened, and you as the player explain how.
Why Solo? (1 page): Why would you want to do this? Basically because you can’t get the players, or you want to test something before introducing it to them.
The Solo Approach (3 pages): These are designer’s notes, explaining why the author chose to abstract things to the group/session level rather than the character/skill check level – essentially to stop the game drowning in dice rolls. This approach means that you first find out the situation, then make a plan to deal with it, make no more than a couple of dice rolls to determine what the outcome was, and then go back and fill in the narrative explaining what happened. It also summarises the four campaign types detailed in later sections, and lists the required resources.
Player Characters (10 pages): The player is advised to make a small group of PCs, how many exactly depends on the type of campaign envisaged. The main benefit of this is that the random interactions between them inject more drama and plot into the game; a secondary advantage is that it gives the player a broader range of skills to apply to problems. There are also a couple of modifications to the normal character generation sequence; the chief one is that each PC should have three Life Events, which can be inferred from extreme rolls during the character’s creation or diced for separately on a d66 table provided.
Character Reactions (4 pages): Another d66 table is used to give each PC a relationship with one of the others, such as “secretly in love with” or “knows a dark secret”. At various times during the game, a PC checks whether or not they’ve had a bad reaction to something, and if so rolls for what they do about it; recent events, the Life Events and the PC’s relationship are used as inspiration by the player to weave a narrative around the dice rolls. Reactions and relationships essentially inspire the player’s narrative explanation of the dice-mandated outcomes.
The Plan (6 pages): Here’s the guts of the system; a scene, or encounter, resolution mechanic. In other solo game engines, the player controls one of the PCs and is (say) part of the team infiltrating the Big Bad’s remote island base. In Solo, the player is more like the “guy in the van”, watching things over a video link and issuing general orders, trusting the team to resolve individual problems as they arise. So, play throws up a situation – a reason to storm the island base, in this case – and the player comes up with a plan, 3-4 sentences long; perhaps swimming ashore at night to sneak inside and steal the McGuffin, heavily armed in case things go south and equipped with night vision gear and other goodies. The player now looks at his plan as dispassionately as he can: Is it shaky, solid or foolproof? Is it safe or dangerous? The answer to the first question defines the roll required for success on 2d6, with a couple of modifiers applied depending on how well-suited the characters and their gear are for the plan. A second roll against the same target number then determines the unforeseen consequences, which are good if the roll succeeds, and bad if it doesn’t – note that this is independent of whether the plan succeeded or not. Bad consequences include injury or death for one of the PCs, goods ones include making a contact or discovering valuable information.
Write it Down (3 pages): The player is encouraged to keep a written record of what happened, for two reasons; first, to declare actions – once you’ve written something down, it happened or is now an established fact in the setting, no do-overs. Second, to help you pick up where you left off at the start of the next session. The author recommends using a notebook, with an unstructured diary for the events of the game, and lists of friends, foes, neutral NPCs, starships encountered, and storylines (see below). An example page from one of the author’s own games is shown for clarification.
NPCs: Contacts and Enemies (2 pages): These are acquired in play, as the PCs interact with NPCs encountered as they go; the player decides, based on events, which NPCs will become recurring allies or villains, and who is encountered when. The purpose of contacts and enemies is to connect events; when it is suitably dramatic, a freshly-rolled NPC encounter is replaced by someone the PCs already know.
Storylines (3 pages): As with NPCs, these connect random events and characters’ Life Events into a plot. In that sense they are like Mythic’s “plot threads”, although while Mythic has no limit on concurrent plot threads, Solo recommends limiting yourself to one or two at a time. Storylines are optional, though.
Random Rolls (11 pages): A selection of tables to generate random encounters and events, thus introducing new ideas and plots into the session; NPC and ship reactions, colourful locals, starport and ship encounters, and so forth.
Example of Play 1 (6 pages): Exactly what it says on the tin; four randomly-generated PCs hop across a handful of worlds, making Plans and executing them, encountering random NPCs and commissions.
So far, everything has been applicable to any campaign. The book now moves to consider four principal types of game, each of which has additional random encounter and event tables and specific rules.
Campaign: Travellers (8 pages): The default game; a mixed group of travellers, moving from world to world causing (or resolving) problems. This campaign starts In Media Res with a randomly generated event. New random tables here include patrons, missions and their targets.
Campaign: Star Traders (17 pages): This is basically the previous iteration of the system, which I reviewed here, with what looks like a few minor tweaks. The PCs are the crew of a small merchant ship, trading across a subsector; an example showing 5 weeks in the life of such a group is included.
Campaign: Naval Officers (24 pages): In this campaign, the PCs are the officers and senior ratings on a small patrol vessel, pounding a beat around the subsector or a specific world, rooting out pirates and assisting law-abiding merchants. Which is which? Well, you have to get right up close to tell. This section has a lot of exposition on why and how patrol squadrons are organised, and what they do. Character generation is modified to ensure the characters will fit their assigned roles aboard ship. The campaign begins in a pre-launch briefing; the dice identify likely trouble spots, and the player plots his course accordingly. This section has modified ship encounter tables and rules for fast-play space combat.
Campaign: Survey Scouts (38 pages): Unlike the other campaigns, which rely on the player previously selecting or creating a subsector, the scout campaign begins with a partly-generated subsector, with only the size, atmosphere and hydrographics of the worlds known, except for one world which is the PCs’ base of operations. On arrival in a new system, the PCs scan it and identify places and phenomena of interest, called survey targets; there is a problem to overcome at each site, and progress overall is measured in “survey points”. Character generation is modified much as in the Naval Officers game, and like the patrol ship, the scouts plot a route for their ship. This section has modified system generation rules, the usual focussed encounter and event tables, and tables for things to survey; The Plan isn’t used much in this game, it’s more about the PCs reacting to randomly-generated dangers.
Example of Play 2 (5 pages): This is focussed on a team of four scouts surveying an unknown system.
…and we conclude with assorted legal information and blank forms.
Green and black cover wrapped around single-column black text on white, occasional black and white illustrations. Simple, effective, easy on the eye and the printer.
SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT
The one classic type of Traveller campaign not covered in detail is the small mercenary unit; maybe in the next expansion? In many ways it would be a mixture of the Travellers and Naval Officers campaign types, but the number of allied characters the player would need to keep track of would require a further level of abstraction.
A minor nitpick: I’m not sure why deckplans are a required resource, given that play doesn’t seem to require them.
Although aimed at the various editions of Traveller, Solo is so loosely connected with them that you could easily use another RPG instead; my thoughts immediately went to Savage Worlds, because that’s what I usually play, but I’ve decided to take a look at the Cepheus Engine itself first. With suitable changes to the random tables, Solo could be used for other genres as well; the core mechanic, The Plan, would work with any game.
I’m very impressed with this product, and see it as the probable next evolution in my solo SF gaming – which has moved from playing with the rules as written, to adding Mythic, to Two Hour Wargames (which have gradually increased their own level of abstraction) to Solo. Full marks, Mr Elliot.
This will get used, though not right away; first I want to look at a couple of other things, including Cepheus, and second, I want to select, or generate, a subsector in which play of the various campaign types above can occur. It’s tempting to begin with a Survey Scouts campaign, then jump forward a few centuries and use the other campaign types. That might be better done in flashback, methinks.
Oh, and third, there’s a busy couple of months coming up, with the Pawns of Destiny, Team Robot and Team Dragon each lined up for several sessions. I haven’t played this much since the ’70s!
Overall Rating: 5 out of 5.