Tabletop roleplaying games were one of the first cooperative games published. I suppose I am using that term ‘cooperative’ a bit loosely all things considered, but the point is that our hobby has for most of its existence been geared towards positive social interaction, rather than social competition as most tabletop games have been until recent years. When you play an rpg competitively, it tends to stand out that this is not what the games were meant to achieve.
Even more difficult than a game where everyone is a backstabbing rogue, however, is the solo campaign. Here you want a player character to work with others towards a common goal, but there actually are not any ‘others’ to speak of playing with you. It is just one player and one GM.
Now someday soon I will probably write about solo games in greater detail (by this I mean games with no GM and only one player), but I want to reflect on some ideas about solo games involving one GM and one player because of the unique challenges it poses and because very few if any game publishing companies address it.
Why A One Player Game?
There are a few instances where two people want to play an RPG together. Two people might be in a romantic relationship and want to play together. Someone interested in tabletop RPGs might want to learn a game but be too nervous about learning with a group. The world might end unless an RPG is played, and there are only 2 of you. You could be trying out a new setting and want feedback from an individual rather than a group.
There may also be reasons for a one-player game even when you have a steady group meeting together. For example, a group might fail to show up for a game save one player. Or a character may want to go on a side quest that would not interest the rest of the party. Or maybe the group has been separated, and you need to deal with each individual on a separate basis.
I am sure if I had time I could get very creative with my reasons, but the fact of the matter is that sometimes you want to try an RPG with just one other person. Of course, most RPGs are designed against this, and it can be very difficult even for an experienced GM to try and figure out how to adjust their game for solo play.
Why Are Games Made Hard For Solo Play
Solo player games are not difficult to run on accident. It is not a matter of gaming companies making rules for this and that and not realizing they are hurting single play opportunities. No, most people making an RPG are purposefully making sure that solo play is difficult, and I suppose for good reason.
When I say good reason, I mean there could be bad reasons that may be involved. There are monetary benefits to making sure more people play your game. There could also be pious attitudes involved: “You will play my game the way I designed it and you will like it!” And I suppose there could be a lazy it-works-this-way-so-why-change-it reason thrown in there. These I would personally consider bad reasons for a making sure solo play is difficult in a game. But really there is a good reason too.
Have you ever played a game where one player tried to do everything? It would be very annoying if it didn’t work, and very boring if it did. I know that at times we all want to have characters be good at everything we try to have them do, but weaknesses and failures define characters as well as create a dependency on other party members.
Think of the typical party in a DnD campaign: cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard. This was the bare minimum party you needed for a dungeon delve. You needed a rogue to pick locks and disable traps. You needed a fighter to take hits and deal damage in combat. You needed a wizard to be able to attack a group of monsters and read those weird languages. And you really needed a cleric to heal, or everyone would die.
Everyone had a job to do, and everyone knew what their job was. If you substituted a class, say a barbarian instead of a fighter, then you had to make sure the new character was doing the old character’s job.
It is very important to the game and the players that everyone has a job to do, a chance for their character to shine! But in a solo campaign, you really do have to have someone that can get everything done. You are not being a bully to other characters because there ARE NO OTHER CHARACTERS.
So enough about the why. Let’s talk about some ideas to make solo player games easier.
NPCs as Party Members
The first and most obvious trick is to give NPC party members to fill in those other roles. But unless a player wants to run multiple characters at once, this has the obvious downside of leaving your only player character out of the spotlight a majority of the time (3/4’s of the spotlight in a 4 character party, for example).
So instead of giving your Halfling rogue an NPC fighter, cleric, and wizard that are as competent as player characters would be, give the PC a party of dwarves that are not very competent. They keep getting caught in traps, losing fights, and are generally terrified of going into dark places first. They still provide numbers in combat (see next point) and can cover mundane tasks such as cooking, keeping lookout, or even basic healing if necessary.
You could also include one powerful wizard to show up every now and then when the player character gets in over their heads and saves the day, but you have to be very careful about using an NPC to rescue a PC too often. Otherwise the story will be about the NPC instead of the PC.
Scale the Encounters
This is the only tip I have seen in printed published materials for games so far, and it usually is meant towards changing a party size from 4 to say 3 or 5 members. Scaling down to 1 player character can be troublesome or unrealistic. After all, what is an alien base that only has one wounded alien in every single room? Or that every time they would die they instead pass out.
But scaling can still be done without reducing the number of monsters in a fight or the number of switches in a puzzle trap. You can leave those things in the background and simply focus on the player character themselves, much as war games will tell you to do with mass combat and a small party.
To continue our example of the Halfling rogue, let’s say you want to have a big fight with a pack of goblins. It sounds much more exciting than a one on one fight, but the rouge would likely die in such a fight. So instead have all those dwarves and goblins fight each other and just focus on the one goblin that the rogue is fighting. It still has the feel of a massive battle if you describe what is happening a bit every round, but mechanically it is still a fight between one player and one monster.
A more challenging alternative to scaling encounters work for players is just changing them outright. If done poorly it can make the character feel like they are not really playing an RPG. After all, if every encounter is a fight or a social challenge, the lack of variety will get boring. But if done correctly, it can really inspire a player and their character to grow.
Let’s say for our running example that the Halfling rogue and band of dwarves have already had some goblin combat encounters, and the player is not doing so well. They build a social character that was only able to be social in the first session where they met the dwarves. So the GM separates the rogue from the dwarves and drops them in a hidden room with just one monster. Only this monster isn’t a fighter. Instead they engage the PC in a contest of riddles, promising to help the player get out of the dungeon if they win.
You can also make combat counters about stealthily avoiding or escaping monsters rather than defeating. Or you could turn social encounters into contest challenges, such as arm wrestling or throwing darts or out drinking the other NPCs involved. Player input will probably help a lot here. If a player finds something that their character is good at, after all, then they will very likely want to think of creative ways that such strengths can be used in unconventional situations.
The final thought I have for making an RPG playable for a single player is to give them extra gear. Yes, this can lead to an overpowered and boring adventure if you give them something overpowered such as an unending bottle of healing potion or a teleport stone that always lets them escape.
Gear can be used for 2 primary purposes: covering a weakness or enhancing a strength. If you don’t have a healer in your party, a stack of healing potions or a wand that can heal is a useful tool for the solo player. Alternatively if they are a healer, giving them something to boost their healing ability or perhaps their ability to use healing spells as attacks is very useful.
For consistency let’s look at our example of a Halfling rogue again. Giving the rogue a magic dagger so that combat is easier will definitely help the rogue when a fight is necessary. Giving the rogue a magic ring of invisibility will also make challenges involving stealth much easier and will allow them to depend on it as a viable solution for problems.
Of course when a fancy piece of gear becomes too useful, a good GM may add a small catch to using it. This should not be punishing but rather interesting, giving the character a reason to choose doing something besides relying on the magical item all the time. Or perhaps secrets about the item can be unlocked, resulting in a good hook for a solo player campaign.
Books and novels about single heroes are a big inspiration for a lot of us that love to game, and while we all want our player characters to be the heroes (or at least the protagonists) of the stories we play in our table top RPGs it can be hard to translate those feelings into an actual game. I would encourage anyone that wants to play a single player game to give it a try. In fact you should keep trying until you can make it work.
If you have any advice that I have not covered, please respond in the comments below. Or shoot us an email if you have any questions. I would love to be able to learn from you.