Solo engines are frequently designed to work with scenes and threads. Scenes are like the scenes of a film. If your characters are in the tavern and then decide to go and seek an audience with the local priest then typically that would be two scenes and you could skip the travel in between. I say typically as you will see later things can happen.
Threads are individual story arcs or plot hooks that can could take the story in a different direction or change the way the character sees things. Typically in a solo game there will be several open threads. You can include the main plot you are on but also any unfinished business in your characters backstory and those from your NPCs backstories just to get you started.
They typical out put from a solo engine is the answer on the yes/no spectrum. In addition to that you can get a variety of other prompts. With these prompts it is up to you to think how can I work this prompt into the story while staying true to the setting.
The grand daddy of all the true solo engines is Mythic. Mythic is both an RPG in its own right but the solo engine is also sold as a separate standalone product. I don’t recommend it as for me it is too slow and too complicated. Mythic has the concept of the interrupted scene. What this means is that although you may decide that you are going to go and see the local lord something will happen before you get there. Interrupted scenes can make the world that the players inhabit seem to have a life of its own. Things happen that complicates their life. It doesn’t have to bad or game changing but if it deflects them from the intended course who knows where that may take them.
Some solo engines have random fact generators. These are typically a pair of words or short phrase, often an adjective and a noun. The idea is that you can try and work that into your game. Imagine it produced the phrase work hard vehicle and you had an interrupted scene. It would be far from unusual for the characters to be walking to see the lord and find the main street in chaos and blocked by an overturned wagon, livestock being chased about and a general chaos of shouting and recriminations over the cause of the accident. Random facts can encourage you to add hints of flavour and texture to your games that you may not have otherwise thought of.
Every solo engine I have looked at has random events. This are short little instructions such as move towards a thread or introduce an NPC. What they mean is not immediately obvious. The first one means that during this scene something should happen that helps the characters advance one of the open threads. You should keep a list of the open threads and of all the NPCs in case you get an event like this and you can just roll randomly to see which thread it applies to. Moving towards a thread could be the characters hearing a rumour or gaining a bit of information. It could be seeing a familiar face in the crowd of people chasing the escaped chickens.
Introducing an NPC is a fairly common event. You should see NPC in its broadest possible definition. The Town Guard as an organisation could be considered as a single NPC just as individual guards can be NPCs. Nothing says how big a role this NPC has to have. It could be that with our overturned wagon we have the town guard turn up and try and impose some control and order the PCs back out of the way and shut the road. That doesn’t sound very exciting but that same guard could crop up again later and recognise the PCs. He could even be there alibi if he can place them at a particular time and place.
So Why Solo?
Solo engines are great prepping tools. It sounds almost counter intuitive but using a dice system can be more creative than your own mind. The reasoning is that we can fall into the habit of making assumptions. We all know what a tavern looks like so just a word or two about the quality of the place and how busy it is is all we give. While you are prepping the PCs visit (if you even do that) if you made a Solo engine roll it could suggest that somehow the stay there should help or hinder the PCs in an unexpected way. I just used the Mythic engine and it came up with Move away from a thread. Waste randomness. So what does that mean? Maybe something will happen at the tavern that will make life harder for the PCs. The waste randomness part to me suggests maybe some form of gambling going on. Would it harm the PCs if they lost heavily at dice? What if even if they won (one of the PCs may be very good at dice) but it turns out they have been palmed off with fake or worthless coins?
In this way each and every locale gets a bit of life or colour that you may not have otherwise thought of.
Keeping hold of the threads
If you keep a list of the story arcs in your campaign from every thread in the characters back story to the major plot lines behind the campaign the solo engine can keep threads active that could otherwise be forgotten. I have a character in my game that, according to his backstory, is supposedly looking for his long lost mother. In fact he has not mentioned her once since the game started and in the past session when an NPC told the party that if they went to a particular location one of them could learn something about their family he just looked blankly at the rest of the group as if that had no meaning to him at all. It is easy for plot hooks or loose ends that you dropped weeks, months or years ago to simply get forgotten. What could take years to play for us players may actually only be a couple of weeks for the characters and they probably would not have forgotten. The solo engines gentle tugging at random threads can prompt you as GM to keep those threads alive and interwoven with the game world.
Finally, and I have only ever done this once, I have run an entire impromptu session with no prep at all, no plot, generic NPCs from the master list in Character Law and no one really noticed. There are several online versions of solo engines that deal with all the dice and tables for you. you just have to keep a list of NPCs and threads and interpret results. In that sort of game the better and more creative your players are the more fun it is!
Next time I will show you how to actually solo play RM using a couple of different solo engines.