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How to Play Dungeons & Dragons Solo - Part 1 - Which Ruleset? A Solo DnD Tutorial

Hello and welcome to this blog. How to Play Dungeons & Dragons Solo. This blog will explore the concept of playing Dungeons & Dragons solo. This means playing the game completely by yourself with no Dungeon Master.

The idea to write this blog naturally developed from a YouTube video series I created back in July 2020, dedicated to the process of how to start and run a Dungeons & Dragons solo campaign. I was increasingly requested to write all the information down to aid my viewers and provide something that brought all the information together in a concise format.

How to Play Dungeons & Dragons Solo - Part 1 - Which Ruleset? A Solo DnD Tutorial

In this blog I will present the information from the original videos (which I would advise watching in full as a reading accompaniment to obtain the full context) and expand upon it, showing you in further detail how to design and play a solo Dungeons & Dragons campaign by yourself with no involvement from a Dungeon Master. I will show you how to build a system which emulates the role of the DM to allow you to play a satisfactory D&D campaign completely by yourself. I will also include links to the material I draw information from, and links to PDF's where I have produced adapted versions of tables and rules for quick reference.

Quick Note: I have written this blog from a first person point of view. 'We' becomes 'I', 'Us' becomes 'Me' and so on. I have also used present tense. This is to aid in immersing the reader in the development of the ruleset, so it is revealed step by step in the moment.

Which Ruleset?

The first step in the process is to choose a suitable ruleset to use. In other words, which edition of Dungeons & Dragons will work best? Which is the best for the type of DnD solo game I want to play? There are many editions of D&D, ranging from the original rules (also known as the ‘Original Game’) created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson in 1974, to the latest 5th Edition created by Wizards of the Coast.

The rules I will choose to use for this blog are popularly known as Basic D&D. There are several versions of Basic D&D, one of which was published in 1983 and written by Frank Mentzer. These rules are available for purchase as electronic PDF’s through the Dungeon Master’s Guild website as the D&D Basic Set Player's Manual and Dungeon Master’s Rulebook. I recommend these rules for the use of solo gaming. However, you may want to use a different set of rules from a different edition or even a different game system that you are more comfortable with. There is plenty of flexibility and scope for this but for the purposes of this blog, I will focus on the Frank Mentzer Basic Dungeons & Dragons rules.

What is Basic D&D?

Basic D&D has several versions. The first version originally published in 1977 is usually referred to as Holmes Basic because it was written by J. Eric Holmes. This wasn’t intended to be a stand alone ruleset but was created to tidy up the original Dungeons & Dragons rules created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, which were published in three booklets titled Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure and Underworld & Wilderness Adventures.

The Holmes Basic set only covers rules for the first three levels of play in an effort to simplify the game and make it easier to play in order to introduce new players to the game and act like a bridge between the original game and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) also known as 1st Edition D&D, which is more rules heavy than the original game.

Following the release of Holmes Basic, a second version of Basic D&D came along in 1981 commonly known as Moldvay Basic, as this version was written by Tom Moldvay. This ruleset was the first standalone version of Basic D&D and just like the Holmes Basic it only covers the first three levels of play. The Holmes Basic set however, was designed to be followed up by an expert set, which contained rules for higher level characters. This ruleset is often referred to as B/X D&D.

Finally there was Mentzer Basic D&D, which was released in five separate box sets, which were later consolidated into the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia (also available to purchase through the Dungeon Master’s Guild website).

Quick Note: If you would like to own hard copies of the older Dungeons & Dragons rulesets but do not want to have to track down a decent second hand copy and pay a high price, the Dungeon Masters Guild website offers a print on demand service for many of these titles. I bought the Rules Cyclopedia using this service and it looks great!

Why Play Basic D&D?

So why am I choosing Basic D&D as a basis for my solo campaign? And in particular why the Frank Mentzer rules? It’s quite simple really. Firstly the rules written by Frank Mentzer are the final iteration of the Basic D&D rules and secondly the purpose of Basic D&D was to make the game even easier to learn. Thirdly, DnD solo adventures were actually published for use with the Frank Mentzer Dungeons & Dragons rules. The fourth and final reason is that one of the main tools I intend to use for the DnD solo rules system I will introduce in this book, was created for the original game. As I explained, the original game and Basic D&D are very closely related, so this ties in nicely and makes perfect sense.

So now I have chosen a suitable ruleset, the next thing I need is a system of rules to handle the rule of the Dungeon Master so that a satisfying game of Dungeons & Dragons can be played solo. The system I am going to impart to you in this blog will be built up step by step until a consistent and cohesive ruleset is put in place and has a good level of detail and complexity, whilst remaining intuitive and streamlined.

A Random Dungeon Generation Method

The very first thing I will introduce to you, to set the foundations for a solo Dungeons & Dragons campaign and make it immediately playable, is a method of random dungeon generation. In order to do this I’m going to take you back in time to the spring of 1975.

Solo Dungeons & Dragons games have been around since the very beginning. The Strategic Review magazine’s first issue was published in Spring 1975. The front page of the magazine explained:

The Strategic Review is the newsletter of Tactical Studies Rules, which will quite naturally be used to carry advertisements for all of TSR’s product line. However, it will do a lot more than that (Tactical Studies Rules 1975)

One of the things it actually did, which is very useful to the solo gamer was included in the very first issue. It is an article titled “Solo Dungeon Adventures” and this was a special first issue feature. The article was written by Gary Gygax with special thanks given to George A. Lord. Credit is also given to Robert Kuntz and Ernest Gygax for preliminary testing.

Gygax introduces the article by saying:

Although it has been possible for enthusiasts to play solo games of Dungeons & Dragons by means of “Wilderness Adventures”, there has been no uniform method of dungeon exploring, for the campaign referee has [therefore] been required to design dungeon levels. (Gygax 1975)

Through the following series of tables (and considerable dice rolling) it is now possible to adventure alone through an endless series of dungeon mazes! After a time I am certain that there will be some sameness to this however, and for this reason a system of exchange of sealed envelopes for special rooms and tricks/traps is urged. These envelopes can come from any other player and contain monsters and treasure, a whole complex of rooms (unfolded a bit at a time), ancient artefacts, and so forth. All the envelope should say is for what level the contents are for and for what location, i.e. a chamber, room, 20’ wide corridor, etc. Now break out your copy of D&D, your dice, and plenty of graph paper and have fun! (Gygax 1975)

My intention is to use the method given in the "Solo Dungeon Adventures" article as a basis for my solo ruleset, so I can generate random dungeons. The dungeons that are generated could also be used in a group game. The great thing about Dungeons & Dragons is that many things can be repurposed and as Gary Gygax stated himself in the article:

Save what you develop, for if you decide not to continue each solo game as part of a campaign, the levels developed in this manner can often be used in multi-player games. Likewise, keep a side record of all monsters, treasures, tricks/traps, and whatever. If the opportunity ever comes (as it most probably will) you will have an ample supply of dungeon levels and matrices to entertain other players. (Gygax 1976)

A PDF copy of the first issue of Strategic Review containing the "Solo Dungeon Adventures" article written by Gary Gygax can be downloaded from Annarchive at https://annarchive.com/files/Strv101.pdf

A suitable rule set has now been chosen and a means to generate random dungeons has been discovered. Next I’m going to discuss stationary.

Be sure to check for more content. In the meantime:

See you next session...

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References

Tactical Studies Rules, 1975, 'What’s Going on Here?', The Strategic Review Vol.1, No.1, Spring 1975, p.1.

Gygax, G. 1975, 'Solo Dungeon Adventures', The Strategic Review Vol.1, No.1, Spring 1975, pp.3-5.

Comments

  1. What are your thoughts on Basic Fantasy? I find that it has the simplicity of BECMI but with a much more streamlined Players Handbook.

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    Replies
    1. I have a copy of Basic Fantasy and also Swords & Sorcery I bought of Amazon recently. I also picked up a book called White Box a while back. I think they're all based on the 'Original Game' in other words OD&D, but they've been cleaned up and reorganised so they're much easier. I haven't got around to really looking at them in detail but I'd like to! Something has always drawn me to the original edition of D&D and it's nice to have somethings that help me make sense of them. Personally I think BECMI stands on its own as a separate ruleset from OD&D but it's very very close in terms of mechanics.

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    2. Apologies for the name by the way, not sure why it's defaulting to an old name 'negativerecords'. I'm Tom, who writes the blog if you're not sure aka solo dungeon crawler.

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    3. That's fair enough! I find Basic Fantasy amazing because of the sheer amount of free content there is online to support it. I've only dabbled in solo RPGs (mostly just a few solo sessions of Ironsworn and Forbidden Lands) but I can imagine that it helps to have inspiration from dungeon crawlers that are already out there. Thanks for the reply :)

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    4. No probs :) Have you thought about giving Basic Fantasy a go as a solo campaign? I'm definitely curious about how that would play out. I'd love to set aside some time in the near future to have a go at it myself.

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    5. Not yet but your posts are definitely inspiring me to give it a go. If/when I do I'll let you know how it goes!

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    6. There is a podcast that uses Basic Fantasy mixed with something called Mythic(?) to generate a solo game. It’s called Sun-Class Act

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    7. Although I prefer Moldvay and cut my teeth in Mentzer, I have purchased and now use Old School Essentials. That coupled with Solo Dungeon Crawler that is ;)

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    8. I've checked Sub-Class out recently. I really liked it and it was interesting to see how Mythic was being used.

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  2. When I think of systems to use in solo play, I find it easier to use rulesets that resolve
    checks with the statistics that's already in the player's sheet. Roll under strength, for exemple. I suggest you to try Old School Essentials, their SRD site is user-friendly and with some generators

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi there. Do you mean like the later editions of D&D when you do ability checks, such as a dexterity check to see if you can balance on a tight rope and that sort of thing? I'll have a look into Old School Essentials, thanks for the tip!

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  3. I knew some people would recommend other systems. I was raised on BECMI and ran it solo last year so please carry on!

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    1. I think BECMI is my favourite system. I love it for its simplicity and I think the rules are well written. It’s really good for solo as well. In my opinion it’s the best place to start for solo games.

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  4. Hello, Tom. I found your blog last year and really enjoyed the tutorials, even printed out all of the documents you suggested and also the ones you made so I could start doing what you're doing. I didn't want to bother you so I asked everyone else I knew first and no one could answer my question. On the strategic review in the article that Gygax wrote, I'm having a hard time imagining Table III, the 45 degree side passages, and in table II, "ahead/behind, behind/ahead". Is there anywhere I can see examples of these drawn on graph paper? Thanks again, sorry to bother,

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    Replies
    1. Hi Odin. No problem at all. I've done my best to answer your question by writing an article about it: https://solodungeoncrawler.blogspot.com/2022/04/getting-your-angles-right-gary-gygaxs.html I hope it helps!

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