On Door D&D and its applications to solo games

I'm always saying that I think people write too many theory blog posts, and that game taxonomies are the most boring and least relevant type of theory blog posts, but then I was listening to Between Two Cairns, namely the latest episode that reviews Hidden Hand of the Horla, or rather the first half of it, and like a moth to a flame I started thinking about it.

Door D&D

In it, Brad posited there are three types of D&D (where D&D = any ttrpg): Door D&D, which is about opening doors (roughly what people call OSR), modern D&D which is about fighting things, and "sticky" D&D which is where you roll things and then there are complications and you are in a Situation (PbtA, BitD, etc).

One Breath Left

I've been playing One Breath Left lately, a solo TTRPG with a certain amount of board-game-like structure. I have found that I have trouble getting into board-game-like solo RPGs, because the upfront mechanics take me out of things. Some people love it, but I don't. To date, the two mechanics-heavy solo rpgs I've enjoyed have been Apothecaria and One Breath Left.

There has never been a game more about opening doors than One Breath Left. You do two things: you open doors, and you search the room. But I think if it were just that, I would be bored of it.

What makes it work for me is that they have you slow down and really think about your character. Why are they doing this? What is their relationship with their boss? Why do they need to pick up their drycleaning after this? That, plus generating the job and the ship and I really have an image of this super corporate guy, naive and in over his head.

A brief game summary:

The first mission he does super well even though it's usually a desk job. Though the ship is disintegrating around him, through careful calculation he is able to gather all the evidence and escape before the ship explodes. Everyone is suitably impressed with him, he's a hero among insurance analysts, he buys a pet for his sad apartment (whose floor plan I previously drew) and gets a promotion and a bunch of other great stuff. The second one, the ship is being raided as he is gathering information and while he completes the mission, he does so in the emergency escape pod as he breathes the last bit of air in his suit. I'm probably going to play a third mission which he isn't going to survive.

What makes it work here is that there is a bunch more "stickiness" here. It's not PbtA type "stickiness" but there's a lot of solo journaling in this game, which is adjacent. A lot of solo game oracles do remind me a bit of the tools used in "sticky" games.

OSR has lots of adventures, story games are less about that

And this made me realize something that in retrospect should have been obvious. I like both "story" games and "OSR" games, but you might have noticed that I mostly publish on the OSR side of things. And the reason why is that I like writing adventures and other supplementary modules.

Story games tend to have rules for adding complications and twists and so on to the story. Part of this is that I think the best way to think of story games is that they are games with rules for narrative conventions - some people get mad if I call Blades in the Dark a story game, but I think it's a good example because it has you start in media res and makes a lot of use of flashbacks, for instance.

But, less centrally, they are games that usually don't have adventures written for them. Or dungeons. There are exceptions, but they typically fit on one page. Conversely, adventures are a major part of OSR type games. A good adventure introduces interesting complications in the right places: whether when exploring a dungeon or interacting with NPCs or factions. As a GM, I often write my own adventures, and can improvise fairly well, but learned mostly by a mix of trial and error and seeing other people's adventures. And even so, I find I have a much harder time improvising in other genres than fantasy adventure, because that's where I've built up my repertoire.

Story games however typically do not have those packaged in an adventure. Instead, the GM is given tools to help with deciding when and how to make things more complicated. Also, since most story games tend to be in genres that are less heavily explored in the world of TTRPGs, a bit more guidance can be helpful.

Back to solo games

Where this comes in for solo games is that, since you don't have a GM to read the aventure in advance, often you need a little more help coming up with interesting complications to surprise yourself with. Even when you do run an adventure, people like using a third-party oracle, which usually focuses more on "it's complicated" as a resolution than classic OSR type resolution mechanics. I think it is for this reason that solo games tend to draw a little more from the story game side of things.

Written Jan 21 2023