Thursday, January 5, 2012

Better Fewer, But Better?

I have been noticing traffic flowing to the HC from Big Purple for several days now. The RPGnet thread that is spawning the page views is—for a refreshing change—near and dear to this blog's heart, posing the question: when did domain-level play drop out of D&D as a major play area?

The various responses are uneven, but interesting. The most interesting dropping (perhaps not surprisingly) from Michael Mornard aka the Old Geezer, one of the most OG of the hobby's pioneering souls having having hit the trifecta as a player in the original Greyhawk, Blackmoor, and Barker's Tekumel campaigns.

I could spend several posts parsing his comments in that thread and linking back to thoughts about Borderlands and domain-level play in general. But one somewhat tangential one stuck out for me. He answers some of the out-loud wondering about what was particular about play groups back then that more readily supported his concept by saying:
“Remember that 'the group is one, solid, and indissoluble' was not a concept. We were all roving adventurers who would band together at times, but the highest form of play was to play solo. So once strongholds were built, one player might be a wizard staying in his tower and sending minions out to gather components for spell research, one might be building a mighty army, one interacting in the political intrigue, etc.”
The FLAILSNAILS experience developing on Google+--an ongoing series of mostly old school D&D dungeoneering linking by my guess a 100 or so players to more than a dozen different campaign worlds--seems to model more and more the open world feel of the big tent original campaigns. Players float in and out in mostly ad hoc combinations between the various campaigns, maps and magical items are bartered between sessions.

While I have been running the hell out of my Hyborian Age, Petal Throne, and Domain Game II campaigns in that pocket universe, until this week I have been merely a player and not a GM of these games. Last week I finally threw my hat in the ring and ran two open world sessions in my home face-to-face campaign in the eponymous Hill Cantons (session report from the foray into the Golden Domed Battle Barge coming later).

All tremendous fun, but I keep thinking about the second part of that middle sentence “the highest form of play was to play solo.” Big tent type of play, lots of players moving between worlds, was part of my own experience of the game even as late as 1981, but more frequently were the near-daily games we ran for several years with small groups.

As our early characters ramped up the power arc more and more there would be these sessions with one player. Back then it would have taken no effort to pull in at least another smallish group, but it was something of a prestige thing. Indeed it was a badge of “making it” as a player to be tough enough to tromp around the Suss Forest, either alone or with a private army of few NPC henchmen and men-at-arms.

And as a DM there was a certain quality of play that I enjoyed about those solo forays. You didn't have the rollicking camaraderie of a group, but you did get this laser-beam focus, a certain deeper intensity of play. And yes, as name-level crept in there was the stronghold building, the wilderness clearing, the army raising, and all the elements—come to think of it they were always in those intense me with the player sessions. Building plans would be drawn, great menaces to the freehold dealt with, mass battles run with small hordes of Heritage and Ral Parthas.

I find myself yearning for that “quality time” again as much as I do the big tent. Two of my current campaigns really lend themselves to it in fact.

Some of my best experiences playing and running Conan/ZeFRS have come with only two players, the system with its focus on high action, swashbuckling like the genre it emulates really lends itself to a smaller cast. And given what raised the question, the Domain Game II is also crying out for at least a session or two of such play (of course, most will still be the bigger "y'all come" sessions.)

Is any feeling this too? Or running or playing in solo games out of choice or necessity that you enjoy? Why so? What do you get out of them (or hope to) then you don't get in the troupe sessions?


  1. I don't like solo sessions. If I don't have at least two players, I'm just not into it.

  2. Is it a time/energy cost thing? Or just the group dynamic is important? Both or something else?

    I dug immensely the "dynamic duo" feel of both Conan sessions I ran and played in with two players. I would miss that banter.

  3. Something about me talking to just one player breaks the enchantment. Where three or more are gathered, there I can DM.

  4. I am still curious about what that is specifically.

    I had a blast running a FLAILSNAILS game last night with five players(we started with six but something gave technically). When the group really gels it's a beautiful thing, I dig the funnier than the sum of our parts kinda vibe. So there must be that on the positive side.

  5. I've been running a 1 0n 1 game at work for the past few months. We've been playing pathfinder, and he picked a barbarian so I have been running him with some Conan style play. He is new to the game, and granted we are at work so I think with only one player customer distractions don't really interrupt play...(or does play not interfere with helping customers?)

    I may actually have a customer join us soon, but I think to really entice him I will have to switch to a Star Wars Rpg.

  6. No, never did solo games unless we were really hard up for getting a group together. Never saw the attraction, and when we were kids it was annoying for the other members of our gaming group when the guy who lived over the road from the DM would turn up with a whole bunch more XP and items than the rest of us because they had got bored midweek and had an extra session.

  7. Oh, most certainly I pine for the solo adventuring. About half of my 33 years of adventuring was solo (I always found myself the referee, though.) It was deeply intense.

    The problem is that much solo play involved a pretty easy glimpse into my troubled psyche and required equally twisted players.

  8. Oh, and here's a really good solo adventure log:

  9. Feh. I am Banned For Life from the Big Purple - bunch Hot House Flowers over there. Still, if it working for you man, more power to you and keep it up.

  10. @Eric Wilde
    "The problem is that much solo play involved a pretty easy glimpse into my troubled psyche and required equally twisted players."

    And there-in likely lies the reason I like you as a player in Domain Game II. Peas in a pod.

    Sir Larkins reports on his Pendragon campaign (when he still does them these days) are easily among my favorite play reports. Great, inspiring stuff that shows that there is much to mine with that kind of play.

    You will note that I don't post over there. Lurking is about right for me and my tolerance level for gaming forums.

  11. I run a lot of solo games. It's fun, but it's a second choice. The interaction between players gives the referee a lot of ammunition; I miss that with solo play.

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  13. The notion of solo games kinda freak me out. Have you ever listened to the second 'Dead Ale Wives' D&D parody with the creepy end-scene wish fulfillment? While it's been a damn long time since I've done a solo game (on either side of the screen), that creepy image is what comes to mind.
    Solo roleplaying on webcam... need I say more?

    On the other hand, 'back in the day', individual play was a part of the game. The difference was that the solo sessions were intermingled with group sessions and other solo sessions as various agendas and time (limitless in our lives back then) permitted. While necessary for fulfilling individual agendas at times (at lower levels, usually assassins and thieves), I think they were a lower priority for the DMs time.

    That campaign never made it to name level, but the traditional end game was understood. (In fact, I think the whole mysterious 'trip to the Druid' referenced in my blog past was consulting with THE Druid for where to stake their claim for an eventual stronghold.