Updated 18 April 2021
New entries marked *
My interest in GM emulators began in June 2020, when I wanted to play Forbidden Lands with some friends—but I wanted to play a character alongside them, not just run the game for them. From there, my interest grew, and I started researching additional tools and resources.
This bibliography collects that research and provides an overview and some quick insight for other players and designers. Each item listed is system agnostic and suitable for use with your game of choice.
Beyond solo play, these tools are equally useful for:
- GMs who don’t have a lot of prep time and/or who desire some assistance with in-game decisioning.
- groups of players seeking a mechanical framework that enables symmetrical play and facilitates collaborative storytelling.
Some of these resources are ongoing projects, so depending on when you read this (and them), they may differ from what I describe here. I’ll do my best to keep this bibliography as up-to-date as possible to reflect these products’ development.
Heavy GM Emulators/Oracles/Engines
These are in-depth systems that take up the space of a small book. They’ll require a bit of time to read and familiarize yourself with, but they offer robust and varied tools for creating more authentic-feeling gaming experiences.
Nathan Rockwood, Larcenous Designs
Designed as a standalone, narrative-based solo RPG, but its procedures can be combined with other systems and used for group GMless play. The system will help you establish narrative elements and overall situation, engage with NPCs, play out scenes, etc. while maintaining a level of uncertainty as to immediate and ultimate outcomes.
ALONe uses various components from Game Master’s Apprentice card decks to answer yes/no questions, establish task difficulty and impose consequences for failure, add twists, and the like. The system measures plot tension numerically, with higher scores introducing more random events into the story; it offers multiple options for building tension throughout the game.
The instructions feature a detailed walkthrough for framing and asking effective questions that facilitate a satisfying experience, getting an adventure started and running, and establishing and playing various types of scenes. It also provides sheets for tracking details and tables for sparking player creativity.
Zach Best, Conjecture Games
CRGE is a broad tool for answering yes/no questions and helping players guide scenes and plot progression. The Loom of Fate is the core table that provides yes/no answers with qualifiers based on a d100 roll and the plot’s current phase (equivalent to 3-act structure). The Surge Count fluctuates based on Loom rolls, and its value modifies Loom rolls to help pace the game. Besides the mechanics, the manual contains copious advice and examples for asking questions, establishing/developing/advancing the plot, and alternating control amongst multiple players.
Peter Casey, Thought Police Interactive
This resource’s core is a three-point oracle. The first die determines a yes-no-maybe response. The second provides the degree or quality of that response. The third die adds flavor—favorability, weirdness, danger, or rarity—to lend more color and character to the result.
Beyond the core oracle, MSE provides targeted modules and patches. These include resources for developing and running NPCs, introducing large-scale world events, introducing complications and twists, adding tension to plots, and tailoring play to particular genres or scenarios.
The various options make this a fairly hefty toolbox, but MSE includes a set of handy quick-reference sheets for the oracle, module, and patches to assist players and keep the game flowing.
Tana Pigeon, Word Mill Publishing
This resource’s workhorse is a table called the Fate Chart. When players need a GM decision, they set the likelihood of a “yes” answer on a scale of 1 to 11; that value in tandem with a chaos rating (based on how out of control previous scenes have been) will determine the precise probability of a yes or no answer (including extreme positive and negative responses). One of this system’s strongest points, in my opinion, is the variability of positive outcomes based on the characters’ current situation.
Besides the Fate Chart, MGME also includes mechanics for adding twists to scenes by altering or interrupting their premises, and there’s a separate mechanism for introducing new story events. The latter is supported by a pair of 100-point tables that provide inspiration for subjects and actions.
Lite GM Emulators & Oracles
These smaller systems—typically only a page or two—are fairly easy to pick up and use without a lot of prep time. They are, however, less versatile and (by necessity) more simplistic than the heavier systems described above.
This document is divided into sections pertaining to the game world, NPCs, and PC success/failure. The world detail oracle is a yes/no table supplemented with and/but tables to add some qualitative variability; this is also incorporated into additional mechanics for resolving environmental change. The NPC actions and reactions tables are more detailed and nuanced than others I’ve seen, and mechanics for PC success & failure combine outcome and degree into a single roll.
SoloRPG (John Lopez)
This 1d6-based oracle orients itself on resolving narrative conflict—overcoming obstacles and achieving a goal. These tasks are facilitated and hindered by snags and edges, which emerge through play. In addition to a basic mechanic for answering yes/no questions, it includes tables for adding additional complexity and character to the results.
This is a very straightforward d100-based oracle system. Negative and positive responses are at the low and high ends, respectively, with indeterminate answers (which also induce twists or complications) in the middle. Likelihood is adjusted after the roll by adding or subtracting a fixed value to/from the result.
Caveat: it’s one page front and back. But this engine packs a lot of features in a relatively small space. It provides a standard yes/no oracle with optional qualifiers as well as tables for pacing, complications and twists, plot hooks, NPCs, and adventure locations. Using this tool requires dice and a deck of playing cards, and it also includes a page of design rationale notes and tips for use.
This concisely named tool incorporates uncertainty, instability, and narrative complexity into an elegant system using 3d6 (one of one color, two of another, and yes it matters) and a table similar to the Mythic GME’s. It’s doesn’t provide the same level of granularity, but it is faster and simpler to use.
This one-page engine prioritizes simplicity and speed. The core procedure involves rolling two differently colored dice, each representing a yes or no answer, and whichever rolls highest is the result. Optionally, if both results are low or high, you can add an “and” or “but” qualifier to the outcome, and if you roll doubles, you get a twist that upends the question’s presuppositions. Using a third die of one color or the other weights probability for more or less likely answers.
Victor A. Gonzalez, Curse Night Games
Rather than asking a yes/no question to resolve a situation, players establish three potential outcomes and then roll to see which occurs. Results dynamically adjust the likelihood of future outcomes based on the quality of immediately preceding rolls.
Player & Character Emulators
Instead of emulating a GM, these tools are designed to mimic the behaviors of players running characters in a game. They may be useful for people who just want to GM, those who want to test a system before running it for real people, or to fill empty spots in a party.
Peter Casey, Thought Police Interactive
A complement to the Motif Story Engine, this tool mimics character and player behaviors. The base mechanic is a customizable three-point system consisting of a yes/no die and two other variables organized into sets that are deployed based on the particular character and situation. Also included are tools for establishing character background as well a patch for emulating large groups.
As the name suggests, this tool exclusively emulates human players. It uses keywords (tags) to designate player personalities and desires that determine how they engage the game. The basic tag rules and the Evolution mechanic allow players to develop and change over time. This is a relatively complex system that packs a lot of power into a 2-page document.
Zach Best, Conjecture Games
UNE is divided into two general parts. The first is the creation tables, which establish class/profession/archetype, power level, and motivation. The second is the interaction tables, which set the character’s mood, bearing, and focus for a given interaction. Accompanying these are examples and guidance for using the tool and for creating characters with depth.
Zach Best, Conjecture Games
BOLD isn’t an emulator itself, but it’s a handy supplement for adding additional character history and crafting interpersonal connections.
Finally, here are some additional resources dedicated to solo play. They provide thoughtful discussions, play reports, links to additional materials and media, and related sundries.
alea iactanda est is a blog that includes narratives based on solo play as well as a variety of tools and resources; these include random tables for rumors and dungeons as well as some add-ons, extra rules, and accessories.
Coffee With Dice has some very detailed actual-play reports and discussions of relevant games and materials (not to mention a nicely designed website).
The Crimson Scholar provides an in-depth discussion of solo roleplaying as well as links to further discussions, demonstrations, and relevant games.
Notathread’s article “Dancing With Myself” discusses the finer points of using oracles.
*Guide to Playing Alone is a short introduction to GMless roleplaying that includes discussion of the process, player intentions, useful tools, and some advice from a solo roleplaying standpoint.
r/Solo_Roleplaying is (as the name suggests) a Reddit board home to a community of solo play enthusiasts.
Solo RPG Resources is a sprawling roster of solo play tools as well as other media resources for players.
Do you know of a tool or resource that isn’t on this list? Please let me know so I can add it to the collection.
On facilitating and incentivizing character depth in TTRPG systems
An overview of your rights and publishers’ responsibilities
Acid Western roleplaying on the Lost Frontier