It’s a mystery (or, how to run one)

I didn’t put much genre-specific advice into the book. I figured it was best to focus the book on the toolkit, add basics that show how it plays and let people hack their own way.  But the guy who built it should probably show how mystery, and mystery horror, can work. Here are some pointers how to structure a mystery using Libre SRP. Strap in: This is going to be a long post with a lot of jargon.

Mystery stories (investigations or horror) require a lot of speaking to people and looking for stuff. That relies heavily on “structured questions for persons” (p.32) for interviews, the tools for “exposing the unknown” (p.31), and its variant that asks for trouble, “exposing the unknown: detecting trouble” (p.36). It’s also nice but not necessary to have an ally in mysteries. Allies can both assist and cause trouble. That’s really helpful.

So, let’s start off with our opening cutscene and get a mission. By the way, while it’s called a mission, it is just a story catalyst to give the player a focus for the protagonist.

  • If your protagonist has a regular patron (person or organization), or is an investigator for hire, might as well use that route to formulate the starting cutscene. But you can take very different routes, too. For a mystery horror story, I once started with a protagonist who moved into an old Victorian house, next to a cemetery at the edge of a rural northern New England town (cliche alert!) That story used a randomly rolled person as the next-door neighbor, and the structured questions from the cordial conversation during move-in day kicked off the mission.
  • Libre SRP always gives you the option to choose your mission (d20) instead of rolling randomly. If you want an investigation, choose “investigate” for crimes or “research” for something more open-ended. Appendix 4 (p.123-124) gives brief descriptions and sample target types (place, person, item) for this type of mission. You may choose, but I find rolling randomly produces results that prompt follow-up yes-no questions and interesting results.
  • Get a good jump on the story by asking all the structured questions and follow-ups you can, and as many yes-no questions as you can think of, in the starting cutscene. For mystery, look for starting answers for who-what-when-where-why? For a horror twist, as with the graveyard-adjacent rural victorian house, tilt your yes-no questions toward the genre. That means follow-ups to your structured questions for further details. Here are some examples:

– ‘does s/he know anything about the house’s last occupants?’ [yes could prompt a person (d100) roll, to describe the people (through a dark lens). You may choose to roll a trait (d20). You may have more detailed questions, if the other person knows and is willing to talk about it, regarding their personality and habits.]

– ‘does s/he know what happened to those occupants?’ [yes could prompt the follow-up question: ‘did they come to a foul end?’ another yes could prompt: ‘do they know who was responsible?’ and that could prompt a person (d100) roll for the perpetrator(s), through a dark lens. No could instead prompt the follow-up question: ‘did they simply disappear?’]

– ‘does the person reference an item to help with the mission:’ You may gather more detailed questions about the item’s relationship to the mystery, if the other person knows and is willing to discuss it.]

– ‘is there another person to contact with more information?’ is a must-ask, generating a person (d100).

– If you decide at some point the protagonist has to make a social skill check to draw out information and it fails, that might invite an immediate empathy skill check follow-up: If successful, it could reveal a rationale (d20) related to the conversation, which the player can use to ask more yes-no questions, and get to the bottom of what the rationale means. An empathy skill check failure typically at least ends the conversation.

On the horror front, there is no sanity mechanic for Libre SRP. I throw it into the big bucket of “asking for trouble”. When the protagonist sees a supernatural phenomenon or unspeakable horror, ask: “does my player’s character go temporarily insane?” You may back it up with yes-no questions such as: “does s/he flee gibbering madly?” or “does s/he faint and collapse, unconscious (treat as incapacitated)?”

On to obstacle scenes. Assuming a gritty setting, most of the protagonist’s time will be spent on research, notice and social skill groups. Sneak, streetwise, athletics and drive skill groups can help round out scenes. Use the information and cues from prior scene(s) to set up the next scene and come up with skill challenges you think you’ll face.

  • As with cutscenes, your investigator needs to ask lots of questions to further the investigation. But in obstacle scenes, at least some of those social skill checks need to be opposed (and moderate difficulty or harder to succeed) to qualify for meaningful success: Your protagonist needs to  draw information out of someone unwilling to disclose it. Brush up on “consequences for failed social skill checks” and “social skill consequences” sidebar (p.30-31). Gather information can be a backdoor alternative that behaves a bit like research and a bit like structured questions, without being either. But information gathering is limited to what can be gleaned from listening in on gossip and general ‘word on the street’. Make sure you have an idea of consequence for failure before making social skill check rolls. Use yes-no questions if you need them to hone in on a consequence if the skill check fails: Try always to have a consequence in your possibilities that is related to the dangers of the mystery.
  • Empathy is a handy skill that can detect a rationale (d20), which usually prompts new ideas and follow-up yes-no questions to clarify the result. That can lead to further insights.
  • Notice is handy for finding hidden compartments in boxes or drawers, secreted passageways behind bookcases, bricked-up ritual rooms, concealed basement trapdoors leading to tunnels, and so forth. With a successful notice you can come up with the most logical thing(s) that might be found, based on what was being searched. Ask yes-no questions (limited by the “rule of three”) about what the found thing might be, and additional yes-no questions to clarify. Notice skill checks typically reveal an item (d100) or a concealed civilized place (d20). As with social skill checks, have the consequences for failure in mind. For notice skill checks, they are usually based off time being wasted, and something bad happening during that time (p.25). The specifics should relate to your own story’s elements. While the protagonist is in the basement, maybe something is stirring in the attic; or the homeowner, home inspector, contractor, nosy neighbor, rival or other problematic unexpected guest shows up. Catching the protagonist acting suspiciously might force an awkward explanation, a follow-up social skill check that might make things better or worse.
  • Research is also handy for uncovering either a new person (d100), or new rationale (d20), or a place (d20). It can reveal insights about places, persons and items. Treat it like notice; consequences for failure tend toward catching unwanted attention; depending who finds out about the investigator’s snooping, repercussions can range from embarrassing to potentially deadly.
  • Throw in the towel a lot. I wrote about this topic separately. In a group RPG, players trying to solve a mystery will prod at ideas and leads, abandon ideas and switch tracks in practical ways. If a scene starts off with failures and the protagonist can close it cleanly (no active conflict, no outstanding trouble/consequences, able to leave the area at will), just shut it down and start fresh with a different route. Why stubbornly persist with a scene that starts with a downward spiral? Push the scene only if you’re already deeply committed — if you have two successful skill checks and asked for trouble twice, and meaningful success is in your grasp.

Unexpected events where a foe shows up can be pivotal to pushing the story forward. You’ll need to decide what random rolled-up foe (if any) makes logical sense, and cross-map to an equivalent alternative foe type as necessary. Zombies, cultists, gangsters — none of the above are likely to show up while the protagonist is searching records at the town hall mid-day. But if the investigator is alone at night? In a gritty setting, even one rolled foe can be a moderate or harder challenge to the protagonist, which means beating that foe can contribute a skill check to meaningful success. Foes can also reveal vital information: There’s structured questions for foes (p.33) for the living. For the dead (or undead) notice and/or follow-up research skill check might also work to reveal a key item, or give an after-the-fact rationale that could be a clue.

How to solve the mystery? There’s a dangerous way: You can aim for an obstacle scene where the protagonist accuses a/the prime suspect as part of the story, and part of the skill check attempts for meaningful success. Maybe you plan to have the protagonist use an intimidate skill check in the scene to force a confession out of the suspect. If you get to that point of the scene smoothly and if the skill check succeeds, it’s a form of exposing the unknown that may either extract a confession (if the follow-up yes-no question fingers the suspect as the criminal), or else double down on proclaiming innocence (if the follow-up yes-no question does not). If the suspect claims innocence, maybe further interrogation might yield some useful information (or not — it’s a continuation of structured questions for foes). Or maybe the investigator just hit a dead end. On the other hand if that intimidate skill check to extract a confession fails, you’re in for an interesting, potentially very messy consequence. Whatever the details of the consequence, it should hamper the protagonist from pulling the same tactic on another suspect in the same scene.

Another, safer way to wrap up a mystery is to get the meaningful successes of the investigation completed first, then use the final cutscene to make an accusation and see what comes of it. You’ve secured what you need for a positive outcome: Whatever happens of the protagonist fingering the suspect (as above), in a final cutscene it won’t totally up-end the scene. But even if all goes horribly wrong for the protagonist in the final cutscene, the positive outcome is already ordained. It means your protagonist might have guessed wrong and bollixed everything, but you can still narrate that authorities then used the investigator’s gathered clues to find and prosecute the right criminal, for example. Or it just means the investigator got paid, and the case remains open but no longer the investigator’s concern: That’s still a positive outcome for the protagonist, right?

So, where lurk the unspeakable eldritch horrors from beyond? Well, if it makes sense in the scene, they can show up with an unexpected event result that generates a “monster/beast”. Or you can put together an encounter scene generate a random monster/beast, and use its point value to spend down the foe budget. You might multiply the number of beasts to spend down the budget, or mix in cultists and other human(oid) foes. But if you choose to put together an encounter scene to confront your foe(s) directly and see who wins — as we’ve all read in the genre stories, that usually doesn’t end well.

That’s all I have for now on mysteries. Tilted yes-no questions, asking for trouble that relates to the mystery, revelations from research / social / streetwise skills and that answer structured questions and expose the unknown, and unexpected events that turn up foes: These are your core tools for these types of stories.

aaand…. action!

The full book is now live on DTRPG/RPGNow, over here. Total 166 pages @8.5″x11″ size. Retail price US$9.95. The preview includes the TOC.

The e-book is not flashy. The small filesize (about 12 MB total) is intentional: Make it fast to navigate and go easy on the ink cartridges.

In case you’re wondering about why the asymmetric page layout and big gutter margin, it’s so you can do this:

tick, tick, tick…

Apparently there’s a long fuse between submitting a new title for publishing and having it post. In the meantime I thought it might be a good idea to make a chapter of the book available to give people a better idea what it looks like. I’ve distilled the chapter on basic character creation. It’s accessible here, and also via the downloads page.

Also a quick note on some information that is not in the book, but that I have on my to-do list  for future resources available on this site.

  • A description of generic window dressing positives and negatives for NPC ally and foe occupations. Players can infer window dressing effects on their own. But it probably would help to have guidelines for each occupation, such as “warrior” and “academic specialist”. What I plan to do, is to take occupations in Appendix 3 and create a table more like Appendix 8. Apologies that this won’t make sense to anyone as the book isn’t out yet.
  • A table of beast/monster special abilities. In the Artanes setting of the book there is a random monster encounter table that lists special abilities such as poison, breath weapon, petrification and immunity.  The book leaves the details of implementing these special abilities up to the player’s imagination. I plan to build a table and descriptions, ideally with an even 10 or 20 categories so people can roll up a random special ability for beasts/monsters if they want.
  • Powers, powers, powers! The book has a framework for building powers and some examples. It could use a list of interesting magic spells, psionic talents and (superheroic) special abilities.

That’s the to-do list for now. Of course there are also further optional rules that didn’t fit into the book, and more play experiences.

3… 2… 1…

On the eve of publishing the book, I have some final thoughts to share. I want to help people make the right decision on whether they should consider buying this game; whether or not it might be a good fit for them.

I’ve decided on a PDF price that is as low as I can go and still cover up-front costs — well, maybe someday.  I don’t care if I lose money. I built Libre SRP because I wanted to play solo a certain way, and couldn’t find anything else that scratched that itch. Libre SRP is the fourth generation, the one where all the mechanics clicked into place and something magical happened. Today, the office is littered with gameplay sheets! And there’s always a new story to tell. After all this time I’m still enthusiastic whenever I have some a couple hours to go back and play another story. I wanted to share that fun with others, by creating (what I hope is) a polished product.

Ok, now to temper my enthusiasm. I do not want anyone to buy this game and hate it, thinking I sold them a bill of goods and they wasted their money.  So I’ll try to present reasons here why you might not want to buy this game.

– It is unashamedly gamist… While I consider Libre SRP a RPG, the player tries to meet requirements that advance to a final victory condition. The player narrative guides what to do in the game; the game informs the player narrative. Nobody knows in advance what a positive outcome might look like for your story. But to get to a happy ending, you (the player) basically have dice challenges that guide the storytelling.

– …and the game will hate you. Well not really. But sometimes the mechanics will make you feel like world’s unluckiest golfer. You need to be mentally prepared to have your player’s character suffer. Related to that, the game doesn’t balance foe groups when a player sets up an encounter scene. The player needs to decide when to engage, when to switch tactics, and when to run. But:

– Don’t buy the game for its combat rules. Combat using the included RPG ruleset is abstract. It’s meant to let a player line up two sides of a tactical battle, add up each side to assess the odds, then dice out what happens without getting bogged down. If you want more detail, you can import your own ruleset to substitute. Which brings us to:

– Its game mechanics are intrusive. Depending on your choices, you might make 3, 6, 10 or more rolls to set up and open a scene. Some skill checks can take 3 rolls to resolve, not counting follow-up questions. Building a totally random foe group might take a dozen or more die rolls. If you combine the GM engine with your own RPG, Libre SRP still needs high overhead to set up scenes, ask yes-no questions, ask for trouble and track plot stress. More than with other solo RPGs, Libre SRP might feel like its mechanics are running the show and your RPG is a sideshow guest. That also brings us to:

– It’s different. Solo RPGers will recognize familiar elements. But (going back to that scratching-the-gaming-itch observation) it doesn’t play like any other solo RPG that I know. The playtests were very favorable, but I also initially guided sessions before others tried it out on their own. Maybe my enthusiasm bubbled over and playtesters humored me. I’ve tried to show off the game mechanics here and elsewhere, but when you play it for yourself I can’t guarantee you will like them. I have no universal reference point, only that it’s like other solo RPG tools, only different (again, far as I know) because the GM engine’s tools incorporate atmosphere and conflict. And finally:

– Maybe the rules are vague or poorly organized, or otherwise impossible to grok. This is still my biggest fear. The GM engine section is 48+ pages of gameplay explanation and examples. I hope it’s an easy, breezy conversational read. But I feared it wasn’t enough, and added 6 pages of Summary Tables for all the game’s core mechanics at the back of the book. Then I thought maybe that wasn’t enough, so I wrote the Training Wheels Adventure; and got my local gaming community to look through the ruleset; and playtested to gather feedback; and created this web site; and most recently, started posting recorded audio gameplay examples and tutorial clips on YouTube.

Anyway, I hope that people can understand the book, and have the patience to learn and try out the rules. If your solo game bombs the first and second time, I also please ask for your patience to review the rules, figure out what went wrong and give the game a chance. I want everyone who buys this game ultimately to enjoy Libre Solo Role Playing as much as I have, and do. If you bought the book, gave it a fair shake and hate the game, then I am truly sorry. I don’t want anyone to feel they’ve been burned.

Tutorial video set

The book is very close to launch, at this point I’m wrapping up loose ends.

Meanwhile, add to the list of resources a YouTube-hosted, 10-part series of video clips that talk about aspects of the game.

You can find the channel – and so far 9 of the 10 parts – over here. Part 6 of the tutorial was blocked by YouTube’s filters for no obvious reason. I’ve appealed to YouTube to release the video so you’ll have access to the whole tutorial set. (update: My appeal was processed. Tutorial Part 6 was released with no further comment from YouTube’s folks). It’s an off-the-cuff discussion of different pieces of the game that should help further bridge the tools in the book with examples of gameplay.

There is a separate channel showing off Libre Solo Role Playing gameplay sessions here. The session with Drew Shannon is a duet (I ran the engine and gave instructions and suggestions, Drew was the player). I’ve done other online duets, but this has been the most compact (if not the most organized) session, and showcases an obstacle scene that goes off the rails.  There is also a set of near-real-time solo sessions I recorded, covering another story about Gortais from the Artanes setting in the book.


People — throw in the towel already!

In playtesting so far, I’m finding that players stubbornly cling to their scenes. Newer players don’t give up, even if it’s easier to start fresh with a different scene.

In a recent session in a modern setting, my investigative journalist planned to do some sleuthing inside a casino built on property with a shady deed. When she got to the entrance, a bouncer intercepted the journalist and told her to scram. Game mechanics-wise, I’d both asked for trouble and failed a skill check right at the start of the scene. The options for my investigative reporter, and the raised stakes of consequences for further failures, weren’t all that appealing. So I pulled the plug: My journalist left the scene and I started fresh with a different angle.

Switching tracks happens all the time in multi-player RPGs: A player tries out an idea (e.g., “I’ll break into the museum”); the GM puts a roadblock in the way (e.g., “the place has security guards, motion sensor alarms and video cameras”); the player then chooses an alternative path, maybe testing the waters before trying a different route.

Provided the scene can be closed cleanly (without forcing a follow-up scene), there’s no reason to brute-force through an obstacle scene that’s off to a bad start. It’s different when the player is close to achieving meaningful success, but consequences are piling up and skill check options are running out. That’s when the player ends up doing something crazy, like the player’s character braining the chief librarian to make a run for it.

Libre SRP Training Wheels Adventure on RPGNow/DTRPG

For anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, Libre Solo Role Playing has a free “Training Wheels Adventure” to introduce people to some of the core concepts while playing through the framework of a branching path adventure. These include scene qualities, how to ask yes-no questions and plot stress. The adventure takes place in Libre Solo Role Playing’s Mill City setting and features my favorite private investigator, Arthur Falcone. It’s a free download right over here.

The Libre Solo Role Playing book proper doesn’t include any branching path adventures. The book focuses on all the rules readers need to tell their own stories, using the setting of their choice. The book doesn’t include adventure frameworks, but it does include two thumbnail sketch sample settings for play (Artanes for pulpy, bronze age low fantasy stories; Mill City for modern-day gritty stories).

Playtesters who were into solo gaming really enjoyed the Training Wheels Adventure. Reactions from people who’ve downloaded the published game so far have been pretty positive, too. I’m thinking it’s possible that even more popular than the Libre Solo Role Playing system itself would be a bigger, open-structured ‘create your adventure’ e-book. It’s eminently doable and (I think) would be very cool to play through. The idea being that the reader generates elements of each scene, then tries to achieve meaningful success for that scene. The player branches to a next scene based on how the current scene plays out. Something to keep in mind for possible future plans…

Bugsquashing II

While waiting for some additional playtest feedback, the proofread is coming down to little things… a tweak to the Persons table, and to the Persons Focus table in Unexpected Events; a couple wording changes for clarity regarding beasts & monsters. Some minor changes to clarify how powers work.

There will be more recordings of gameplay, and I have been double-checking Libre Solo Role Playing’s GM engine with other, mostly rules-light to rules-medium systems. To sum up, as long as there is a traditional GM-player relationship, a dice-based skill system and conflict resolution, the GM engine pretty much works.

What about RPGs without a built-in skill system, for example OSR games? The short answer is that some OSR games do have ways to make skill checks, for example by rolling d20 against an attribute. Almost all of these games also have some variation of saving throws or saving rolls. Making a save to avoid a threat, and the consequence when that save is failed, is equivalent to a skill check. Yeah — the consequences for failed saving rolls in OSR are dangerous or deadly. Building an obstacle scene around saving rolls is brutal. Libre Solo Role Playing’s encounter scenes are a more natural fit with OSR: Libre Solo Role Playing’s random foe group generation can be unforgiving, and the player needs to be shrewd about when and how to engage in conflicts, and when to try and back away carefully.

Diceless games also get weird. The GM engine needs dice. The player rolls to set up scenes, test plot stress, ask yes-no questions and handle unexpected events. It is possible for the player to resolve skill checks in another RPG system without rolling. But many storytelling games operate on consensus, or they have some other structure than a traditional GM-player relationship. It would take some contorting to make the GM engine work that way.

Then there’s this little gem:

Does it play solo?The short answer: “probably not well”. The game doesn’t use scene qualities, and it’s pretty limited to obstacle scenes around testing social skills. Much as I appreciate this game as a product of its time, I’m not in a hurry to find out if it can be shoehorned into solo play.

The big one I’m still unsure about are the PbtA games. I think it should be a solid fit, since PbtA games  treat skill checks and consequences for failure similar to the way Libre Solo Role Playing does. But I don’t have the experience with these games that some of the playtesters do. So I hope to find out more from other folks who are currently still reviewing the book and system.

Recorded gameplay

Lots of exciting news happened over the past week.

One of my big concerns is to make Libre Solo Role Playing digestible. The game rules aren’t all that hard. But explaining how to play this type of game from a book is hard. The book is chock full of rules examples and also includes an extended play session (all straight from real gameplay). But that’s not enough.

I’m addressing that need to show how gameplay works in a couple of ways. First, I’ve put together a 16-page Training Wheels adventure that’s just gone live on DrivethruRPG/RPGNow. It’s free and you can get it here. The point of the Training Wheels Adventure is to introduce some of the concepts from the full game system, but also give someone new to the game guardrails that guide them through the structure of a story.

The other piece I’ve been working on is a YouTube channel that has some actual gameplay. You can find that channel, with some starting live content, over here. I expect there’ll be more, and hopefully more polished, to come.

If you’re interested in the gameplay, as a fair warning, don’t expect polish. I’m not an audio engineer and neither of us were aiming for a public speaking award. This was the first live session ever that ran Libre as a GM-player duet instead of solo. Drew wasn’t familiar with the rules but he had the dice, the story idea and controlled the protagonist and the environment. I had the rules, tables and charts, and guided the results.

So if you listen, expect there to be some bumps along the way from a first-time player. The story is all Drew’s. My role was just to run the GM engine, ask questions and give suggestions. It’s not perfect: We fell slightly short of 100% rules as written. We kept out a lot of the extraneous bits, too, to focus on core gameplay. But the obstacle scene (part 1b) in particular captured what makes Libre Solo Role Playing rock — challenging the protagonist with obstacles, plot twists, setbacks and surprises.


With playtesting, the rules for Libre Solo Role Playing continue to undergo little tweaks to explain the rules more clearly and provide better examples. For example, it wasn’t clear that ally cultures & occupations are part of window dressing that the player could use to get skill check bonuses or penalties.

That one little tweak made for a lot of flow-through changes in the book. Now it’s clear that “dwarven warriors” might have a generic team conflict skill of 0, for example. But they have +1 skill for doing dwarvish warrior things, maybe skill checks for hardy, ax, shield, and repair. They will be at -1 skill for things clearly outside their league such as running, swimming or climbing, any scholarly knowledge, sneak, empathy and animal handling.

The new sections now align with the existing rules about bonuses/penalties for minions and creatures, based on the nature of creatures and minions. Wolves and zombies could both count as minions, for example. But one has a notice bonus, the other a penalty.

This is important to understand because for skill checks, only parties with an effective skill of 0 or better can assist well enough to provide a bonus. That also makes it clearer why well-rounded occupational generalists are valuable. Generalists know a bit of everything: They might not lead skill checks effectively but can always lend a hand.

Another tweak with a lot of flow-through changes are clarifications about follow-up scenes.

Follow-up scenes are particularly nasty because the player character’s group can get trapped in them, unable to escape a threat. The rules are now clear about it. You can’t shut down a scene while it’s in active conflict; you are forced to go directly to a follow-up scene if (a) the player character’s group can’t leave the area freely; or (b) there are outstanding troubles or consequences that haven’t been resolved. 

If there’s no active conflict, the player character group can leave the area freely, and there are no outstanding trouble or consequences, that’s called shutting down a scene “cleanly”. Shutting down a scene cleanly has nothing to do with whether the player achieved meaningful success or threw in the towel for the last scene. It gives the player control over setting up the next scene. Most important, that means the player can decide how much time goes by between scenes, giving the party a chance to rest and recuperate.

And the bugsquashing goes on…