Lonely Fun in the NSR

When I GM, I love playing and running games in the style of the New School Revolution, with simple systems focused on rulings over rules, player skill over character skill, quick character creation, etc. My main group of players, however, couldn’t get invested in the NSR games I tried to introduce to them, and always wanted to go back to D&D 5e. I struggled with this for a while. Most advice I found on introducing 5e players to this style of play was along the lines of “once they actually try it, they’ll like it!” or, even worse, “it doesn’t matter what the players want, you’re the GM, they can play with someone else if they don’t want to play the way you want”. This advice is dismissive of players wants, obviously, but it also misunderstands one of the selling points of 5e for certain players.

Lonely Fun

This old Reddit post on “Lonely Fun” and why some players really enjoy 5e (as well as Pathfinder) was eye-opening for me. Lonely fun is all of the ways that people engage with tabletop RPGs, without anyone else involved, beyond the table. Solo roleplaying is an immediately recognizable type of lonely fun. GMs are also very familiar with lonely fun: worldbuilding, reading and prepping adventures, and all of the other necessities of preparing for a game often involve plenty of lonely fun. Stars Without Number and the other Without Number games have tons of support for GM lonely fun (enough to even build a whole website from, which I have admittedly spent hours playing with).

Before I continue, I think it’s important to note that lonely fun, whether for GMs or for players, should always be optional. No one likes homework for their fun hobby gaming, and lonely fun is only worth it if it’s, well, fun! When I talk about lonely fun in this post, it is always with the caveat that it is best as an optional addition to a game, and not a requirement of play.

Some players (like my primary playing group) love lonely fun. For them, lonely fun as a player in 5e takes the form of creating a dozen character builds, watching and reading about the game (either Actual Play, or just people talking about the game itself), poring over supplements to find new character options, reading up on years and years of lore. For many of us in the NSR, most of these are specifically what we dislike about GMing for 5e, largely because they also increase the burden on the GM significantly. Learning all of the possible 5e character builds, which ones are best and which are doomed to create an irrelevant character, is an entire hobby in itself, and it’s one that NSR GMs (myself included) don’t have the time or motivation to engage with. Extensive lore can be an issue for GMs too, who feel they need to be experts to run a game in that world (see: anti-canon by Luka Rejec).

In ditching this type of player-facing lonely fun, however, NSR games cater to GMs at the expense of lonely-fun-loving players. Lack of player-facing content is often a selling point for NSR games: there are very few rules for players to learn, and character creation is deliberately simple. For players who just want to show up and play without ever thinking of the game outside of that, this is great. For those like my play group, it leaves them with no lonely fun to think about when we can’t play.

Character Building in the NSR

For the most part, the approach by much of the NSR to this problem so far seems to have been “these players won’t enjoy the NSR and that’s okay.” I can understand this response, but it isn’t very satisfying when these types players are my friends, and I want to play games with them! I’m not the only one either: Brighter Worlds uses Cairn as a base, but adds in a decent amount of character customization to try to solve this problem. Glaive is another game trying to tackle this problem, although I admittedly haven’t checked this one out yet. I’d love to see more exploration of this concept in the NSR; I think there is a lot of room for supporting character building in an otherwise NSR-type framework.

For my part, I wrote (and am writing, along with my co-designer) The Years of Adventure to serve as an intersection between NSR-favoring GMs, and 5e/Pathfinder favoring players. Lonely fun for players is a crucial part of this, and it’s one reason why The Years of Adventure has extensive character options through the skills and techniques system. For players who want to engage in that type of lonely fun, there is enough flexibility and content to spend hours thinking about a character, and being class-less means even more flexibility to create anything you can think of. Meanwhile, pre-made “Character Origins” keep things simple for players who just want to get in the game as fast as possible, and the rest of the game pulls heavily from the NSR to keep the expectations of fast and consequential combat, rulings over rules, and a living world that builds an emergent narrative out of sandbox play.

Lonely Fun Beyond Character Building

While character building is one of the most obvious, and popular, types of lonely fun for players, it’s far from the only one. This is very new ground in the NSR, but I’d love to see what types of lonely fun we can build for players with an NSR mindset. Can you have player-facing lore books in a scene defined by anti-canon? (I think you can, and I’d argue Glorantha is already doing it). What types of lonely fun can we provide for players without the constraints of 5e and that way of thinking?

For one example, The Years of Adventure has a pretty extensive Domain and Factions system, as well as procedures for managing structures (from an inn up to a city), which are built first and foremost for players. It’s pretty easy to engage with these procedures as a form of lonely fun as a player, and then bring that fun back to the table to feed into play.

So far, lonely fun for players has been an afterthought, if anything, in the NSR. I understand why, but I think we miss out on a lot of cool game design by ignoring it. I hope to see more designers start to take the concept more seriously in this scene, and really push the boundaries of what is possible there. And if you’re working on something like that, please send it my way! I, and my players, would love to see it.