I’ve been working on a gamebook for over a year (almost 2?), and I recently participated in the 24-hour RPG design contest on RPGGeek, my entry being a solo RPG called Premonitions. The contest is almost over, but I’ve been thinking about the system I created and how it might be applied to other themes. But the structure might not fit other themes as easily, and this led me to a problem. The structure is what makes it a solo RPG and not a gamebook, but when I started futzing around with the structure, it lost the role-playing aspect. So what happened? What makes a game just a game, and what makes it a role-playing game, even when solitaire? Why do many solo games call themselves RPGs when they have no role-playing?
Game Structure and Buttons
I started to think of the mechanisms and systems as a series of buttons. Attribute tests are a set of buttons; combat is a series of buttons; rewards are a series of buttons; etc. In a board game or gamebook, the rules create the structure of the game and this determines which buttons to push. When do you need to make an attribute test? When do you enter combat? In many games that call themselves solo RPGs, they’re table-driven. This means somewhere in the rules, you’re presented with a table that perhaps gives you your villain. You roll on it and get an answer. Another table gives you the villain’s location, the dungeon you have to enter to defeat them. You roll and get an answer. Then you roll on some tables to generate the dungeon. Then you go inside and start fighting the generated denizens.
The structure informed you on the buttons to push. At no point were you prompted for an answer, only questions for the system to answer. One of the best examples of this is Four Against Darkness (though it makes no claim to be an RPG, it has the same structure as others that do). You use tables and stats to run the game. It’s the same structure as a board game, but with the components changed. A deck of cards are often replaced with tables, and anything you might track with tokens, you track on a character sheet.
In other types of gamebooks, such as the one I’m working on, the structure is more rigid because it follows a pre-existing narrative. It’s in the style of a choose-your-own-adventure where the text of the narrative is the structure rather than tables, but the result is more or less the same as far as the topic is concerned; your options exist within the limitations of what the game tells you.
Narrative Structure and Buttons
So where does role-playing come from in a solo game? How does it manifest without players to interact with? Well, if all other characters are NPCs, and a GM would normally run those NPCs, couldn’t you run those NPCs using a system to keep things uncertain? In essence, you have to run NPCs and the world around your hero the same way a GM would run the game for you. You become your own GM. Probably the most popular example of this style is Ironsworn. The trick is in the structure.
In this case, you still have many of the same buttons described above, but the game won’t tell you which ones to push. You start by crafting a narrative. Where is your character? What are their goals? What stands in the way of their goals? How do you overcome those obstacles? You are prompted to answer these questions, though these games often include an “oracle,” a table of prompts (usually one word) to roll on if you need some inspiration. But it still comes down to you to piece together the story and set the scene. The game won’t do it for you. So you get to choose where you are, what you need to do, and how you need to proceed. You pick the buttons to push by framing the narrative. Want a dungeon crawl full of fighting monsters? You can just frame the story around dungeons and off you go.
NPC interactions often involve asking yes/no questions, setting a % likelihood, then rolling on a table to determine if the answer is yes or no. But you are often encouraged to only use this when truly uncertain, and that sometimes, the logic of the story will dictate yes or no already. If it looks like a dragon, smells like a dragon, and breaths fire like a dragon, you don’t need to roll on a table to determine if it’s a dragon. Though, a confident story-teller might be willing to roll anyway and have an idea of where to go next if the answer is no. But for many players, dealing with uncertain twists can be difficult, so it’s best to follow the logic and not let rolls over-complicate the story.
This is the structure, more or less, in Premonitions. You get to frame your investigation, set your scenes, and even choose how to interpret your Premonitions (a card mechanic in the game that creates scene-specific benefits). There is a table to roll on if you need guidance (though I didn’t have time to prepare an oracle), but ultimately, you’re in charge of the story, and the story’s logic should dictate which buttons need pushing—when do you make an attribute test, or when do you enter combat.
So, if the game’s structure tells you what your options are, it’s a gamebook (as far as we’re discussing here); if you get to build the narrative, and the narrative determines the options, it’s an RPG. Going forward, now understanding the structure and how it affects a player’s ability to role-play, I have a better idea of what I can do with the Premonitions system. I think for many games that attempt to emulate the game structure of an RPG, the idea that stats and levels equal role-playing leads them to leave out the real role-playing. Don’t get me wrong, it can be fun to play within a rigid structure and level up, fight monsters, etc. (my favorite board game, Runebound, does this, replicating the structure of an RPG without the role-playing). But I think real agency over the story is necessary for recreating the experience of a role-playing game. The organic structure, though maybe more difficult to grasp, is where role-playing comes from. It can be emulated to some degree if the game offers plenty of options, but it’ll never quite have the same effect.
Knowing and understanding this difference is important when trying to envision the game you want to make.