Saturday 23 April 2011

How to create a solo adventure from beginning to end

I've been thinking recently about writing solo adventures for systems other than Tunnels & Trolls, such as Swords & Wizardry or Call of Cthulhu. It's a great feeling when you've finished writing a solo adventure and you play through it for the first time, ironing out the bugs and unleashing it upon the world as I've recently done with Depths of the Devilmancer. But how do you go about writing a solo from scratch?

1. Think of a story

This could be the easiest or toughest part, depending on how much you like writing plots. Many Tunnels & Trolls plots are very thin, with just the bare bones of a story as to instead focus more on the dungeon environment. Of course, this would be different for, say, Call of Cthulhu, where story is absolutely key to the quality of the adventure. It's really up to you what style you want your solo to be. If it's pure hack 'n' slash then you don't need much  of a story.

2. Map it up

The next step is to map up your world. You only need to sketch out a crude map with key locations you'll be using, as you may fill in a bit more as you write. You may need multiple maps if your adventure takes the player over the wilderness and into a dungeon - as you would need a map of the surrounding area as well as a dungeon map. Mark your starting location as 1. Give the player multiple routes to success, but maybe put more hazards in their path in one route than another.

3. Begin to populate

Things actually need to happen in your adventure, so for each location annotate your map/s as to what could be in there e.g. monsters, NPCs, treasure. You might want to colour code each type of encounter just to make it clearer when you come to writing it up. I use red for monsters, yellow for NPCs, green for treasure and blue for traps.

4. Start numbering

Make a spreadsheet with all the paragraph numbers you're going to use. Devilmancer has 40 paras so I wrote 1-40 in columns of 10. You'll also need to make a colour-coded key to show when a paragraph has been completed, whether it's in the middle of completion and if it's a 'dead zone' (where the character's adventure is over).

5. Start writing

Now we're into the meat of it. Begin with writing the first paragraph, which will end with some options (no more than 3 is probably best) that tell the reader to turn to the appropriate paragraph. You don't want that para to be close to the current one, so choose one that is at least 1 column away from the one this para sits in. Once you have written the linking paras, block them out on the spreadsheet to show they have been completed. Rinse and repeat until all spreadsheets cells are blocked out. Congratulations! You have written your first solo adventure. Now for the final step...

6. Playtest, playtest, playtest

You will need to go through the book multiple times, taking every route possible to find any bugs such as infinite loops, broken paths and things the player could exploit. Once you've done this, hand it to friends or family to go through, looking for typos and grammar errors that can be difficult to spot on your own. If possible, get people in the industry to playtest, as they will be able to point out balancing issues and specific rules that need changing.

7. Release it

Once you've had a thourough amount of playtesting it's time to put it on the market. It's up to you how far you want to go with this, but always make sure you've got all the appropriate copyright fluff in the book. There are quite a few places on the web that do royalty free artwork, which can be great to break up long sections of text. is a really good way to self-publish your materials, as you can also opt for PDF version of your book as well as the print copy. For a fee you can set up an author's account on sites like RPGNow or DriveThruRPG.


  1. My own view is that theme and having a good back story are very important, which falls under your #1.

    Great solos have a back story that the player can discover bit by bit, as they continue to explore and advance. Related to this is having a solid theme from which to draw from, which will also help one (#3) populate the adventure.

    I generally don't like to complete a story as the player; I'm the type that likes to make his own story from the events that transpired in game.

  2. @Bree I'ma story guy myself, but I know that it really depends on what you're writing for. With T&T it's much more hack 'n' slash, which doesn't really warrant a big story, but something like Fighting Fantasy definitely does.

    Have you played the Fabled Lands books? Those sound up your street.

  3. No, I've never heard of them before. Are they any good?

    Before you answer that, please keep in mind that the last thing I need is more stuff to buy. =)

  4. Definitely in favor of story lines in solos. It's creative writing, the rules of creative writing should follow--plot, characterization, mood, setting, characters (NPCs) should all be developed and strong, and most important (to me) the tale should be engrossing, immersive. Unfortunately, it's not as easy as it sounds.

    One of the things that's been mystifying to me in the "Old School Movement" is designers' enthusiasm of having PCs wander around and just discover an adventure (I think they call this a "sandbox" approach, but as I've seen sandbox defined different ways I'm not sure). Really, this is a horrible way to design an adventure. Whether, it's a GM adventure, or solo it's far better to go with a mission (for lack of a better word). The solo is then focused, if nothing else, and the sense of blandness that comes with this "sandbox" doesn't enter into the picture.

  5. The Lone Wolf series by Joe Dever was a crucial part of me ever becoming a fantasy roleplayer (euphemism for weird-to-dangerous nerd-punk). Decades ago. I always missed out on Tunnels & Trolls, and never expected a place in Trollhalla either. Thanks for this helpful article.

  6. Thanks for this article. I'm writing my first solo now (for T&T) and your tips were helpful. I started by writing a lengthy backstory, none of which will appear in the solo. I then wrote a "recent backstory" that influences and appears briefly in the adventure. Then I've written characters that are influenced by the recent backstory and gives rise to their motivations. My hope is for a coherent adventure with realistic npc characters and logical choices for the character.