A nice post at H'rrrothgarrr's Hovel on solo design has motivated me to write about my own thoughts on the subject. So I will take a break from my posts on rules elaborations and complications. I am by no means an expert on solo design. I have two completed solos that I am happy with, two that are in progress, and some others that are (and likely will remain) unfinished. I would like to present some of my thoughts on the subject, however, as much for my own benefit as for anyone else.
Obviously, the first thing you need in order to design a solo adventure is an idea. Big surprise right? But you don't necessarily need an idea for an entire adventure. It could just be an idea for a single encounter or event that does not yet have a context. House in the Hills started with an idea about a fireplace. Everything else was built around that one idea about a single part of one room that I had while driving from Ohio to New York. From there I simply had to find a reason for the player to be in the house. Of course you could always start with a larger idea and then fill in the details. This does tend to be a bit easier, but is never necessary. If you have an idea, always write it down. You never know where a great adventure will start.
Because solos are guided adventures, it is generally a good idea to have a set goal other than simply acquiring some loot. Plundering a local tunnel complex may be good for a GM adventure where you have the GM and other players to add to the experience, but it often makes for a rather lackluster solo unless it is done really well. Of course, opinions vary. The goal could be as simple as trying to escape from a prison, recovering a lost artifact, assassinating a villain, or rescuing a prisoner. The goal could also be as complicated as trying to stop a war. When first starting out in solo writing, stick with the simple goals. That's where I like to stay and I still end up with solos with 100+ paragraphs. But you can do a lot with simple goals, especially when you add plot twists and complications (more on this in a later post).
With your adventure idea there should also be a location. I like to keep things local: a house, a small tomb, a small town. If your adventuring area gets too large you'll end up with 100s of paragraphs and a game (and writing project) that never seems to end. If your adventure takes place in a house or other closed structure, keep it to 10-12 rooms. You can do a lot with those 10 rooms, you'd be surprised. It is far better to have a handful of carefully designed rooms with multiple traps, tricks, treasures, and creatures in every one, than 10s of room with one feature each. That being said, not every room needs to contain something of interest. Empty rooms can be equally unnerving especially if you describe them in a way that suggests that it could not possibly be empty.
With your location in mind, you'll need to draw a map. I've found it's best to do this before you write too much, or anything at all. Maps keep you organized and on track and can serve as a well-structured outline. It does not need to be elaborate, no one else is going to see it; the map could simply be a series of squares connected by lines. Each square can represent a room in your tomb or a location where some action will take place (an entire house, a field, a canyon, etc.). Label each of these action sites with a designator (A, B, C, I, II, III, etc.). Use these to organize your paragraphs in the text. Each room or event should be keyed the same way when you are writing (A1, A2, A3, A4, etc.). Scramble the paragraphs and give them consecutive numbers or letters only after you have finished writing, editing, and play testing the adventure yourself. This makes it much easier to correct problems that will always appear. This is the same system mentioned by H'rrrothgarrr in his post and I must say it is the one that I am happiest with.
Next up: Obstacles and encounters in solos. How to kill delvers only most of the time.