Gamemaster’s Guidepost: Flying Solo

Guest Post by Scott Rochat

Sam Spade. Wonder Woman. Lara Croft. James Bond.  What do all these famous fictional heroes have in common?

Simple: they’re nearly impossible to play in the typical RPG campaign.

Oh, they’re easy enough to build mechanically. But each of them is typically a solo act (Justice League notwithstanding). They star in the story while other supporting characters move in and out, the classic NPCs. It’s a lot of fun to read and watch their adventures … and extremely frustrating to recreate them in a group of three to five players, most of whom don’t want to be “Bond’s Jamaican Contact Who Dies Horribly Before the Climactic Battle.”

But what if you didn’t have the big group of players? What if, in fact, you could GM for a party of one? That opens up a new vista of challenges and opportunities.

Even before the pandemic, most of my GMing has been one-on-one. It can happen for a number of reasons: clashing schedules (or even time zones), few friends who game, or even just a desire to explore stories that are closer to Spider-Man than The Avengers. After years of playing this way, I can safely say that it be every bit as rich and rewarding as the more traditional party, and sometimes even more so: a tight focus can enable amazing depth when you don’t have to worry about someone taking up too much “spotlight time.”

But because most games are designed for parties, it does take some extra thought beforehand. Before embarking on a gaming pas de deux, consider the following:

Personality and Expectations

This blog has frequently made the point that before you start play, you need to know what you’re getting into – both with your players and with everyone’s expectations.  This becomes even more important when there’s only one other face at the table!

Take extra time on Session Zero to make sure that you both want the same things out of the campaign … not to mention whether your personalities mesh at all. The old saying about “It’s easier to turn friends into gamers than gamers into friends” takes on extra resonance in a one-on-one. If you can’t stand the company, it’s going to be a long road ahead – or maybe a very short one.

A Matter of Genre

When you know a 1-on-1 is in the offing, give extra consideration to the type of story you’re telling. Some genres are a natural fit for a solitary hero: pulp serials, mysteries, superheroes, and classic action-adventure all come to mind. Others can be more challenging. A Dungeon Fantasy or World War II campaign both assume a squad of specialists that can take on a broad array of tasks … and that can take casualties without upending the adventure. Neither of those assumptions automatically hold for the saga of Brave Sir Robin and his Annoying NPC Minstrels.

It’s Not the Points, It’s the Capability

With one player at the table, it’s tempting to throw a ton of points at the PC so they can take on the world. But once again, the real question is expectations: can the PC handle the most important aspects of the campaign? If it’s the world of James Bond, can they shoot, drive, gamble and seduce? If the hero is a would-be Indiana Jones, do they have the lore skills as well as the fisticuffs … and maybe just a bit of old-fashioned luck?

Once you’ve determined the core areas, supplementary skills can be covered by NPCs, or even by creative interpretations of the abilities Our Hero already has. (Indy forgot to put points into Jumping? Maybe that Whip skill can help him clear the canyon in time.) Either way, the message is the same – the character doesn’t have to do everything, they just have to do enough things.

Staying Fresh, Staying Fun

With two people at the table, it’s easy to fall into favorite “bits” without a third party to shake things up. Make sure to regularly review your notes (and/or check in with your player) to make sure your plot hasn’t stalled or a particular shtick isn’t getting stale. But if you’re both still enjoying it – hey, who else is going to complain?

The Big Question: Lethality

The elephant in the room with a 1-on-1 game is risk. How do you give a campaign that dangerous feel when you both know a dead character equals “Game Over?”

This topic could be an entire blog in itself, but some simple tools can be of service:

  • If using a published adventure, review the challenges before coming to the table and be prepared to scale them down. Run a practice combat or two by yourself to see how good the PC’s chances are.
  • Make sure your adventures include alternatives to fighting for the smart, the sneaky and the desperate. Your player may think of a few more themselves (“What if I try to con the white dragon?”); be ready to roll with suggestions.
  • Not all high-stakes situations have to involve combat. In Casino Royale, if Bond goes broke at the card table, his mission has failed. Sherlock Holmes is rarely at physical risk, but a failed deduction could lead to prison or death for an innocent. A game of soap-opera style plotting and maneuvering could leave reputations and social standing in shreds without a bullet being fired.
  • In some worlds, death can be temporary but really In the world of In Nomine, mere physical death will simply send you back to Heaven or Hell, but cost you time as you recover from Trauma and possibly leave you with lasting disadvantages. A GURPS Cliffhangers world might use a deadly result as an excuse for a short break for refreshments (“To Be Continued…”) and then resume with a pulp-worthy explanation of why the PC didn’t die but is now in an even worse situation. To paraphrase the Fate Core RPG, killing a hero is never as much fun as putting them through hell.
  • For genres like slasher-film horror, consider making three or four low-to-medium power characters with the player, choosing one as the initial PC and the others as supports. If the PC is an early casualty, move to the next victim … er, protagonist.

Final Thoughts

The moral of the story: the same GMing skills that make a great traditional campaign work equally well for a one-on-one if enough attention is paid. And with a lower logistical bar to cross (“Want to play tonight?” “Sure!”), it can be a fun, flexible alternative that you come back to again and again.

Heaven knows I have.

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