4
Jun

One-on-One RPGs

One Game-Master. One player. Two gamers enter, both gamers leave… after having had fun playing an RPG! A one-on-one game is unconventional for some, but becomes the perfect solution for others who need flexibility, focus, and customization for their dicey diversions. It’s a chance to take center stage and tell a story between two people. How does it work and what pitfalls await a pair of performing game-players?

 

Preparing Pairs

One-on-one games require a different level of preparation. The first item on the agenda is to discuss what both people want out of the game – this is one of the few times where a game can truly be customized for a single person, and you should make the most of that opportunity. Genre, setting, mechanics, pacing, focus, theme – this is the moment for a player to ask about that one oddball character that they’ve had in the back of their mind since they started playing RPGs: you know, the time-traveling vampire that’s possessed by the multiple personalities of several intelligent items that he’s cursed to bear? What other game are you ever going to get approval for that guy? And don’t forget to include a discussion about what the GM wants, because if either participant loses interest, there’s no one else to hold the game together.

Some game systems lend themselves well to 2-person games and others are written specifically for that purpose: AD&D Challenge Modules, Beast Hunters, Burning Wheel, Call of Cthulu, Dogs in the Vineyard, Freemarket, Gumshoe, Mouse Guard, Mythic, Pendragon, Primetime Adventures, Scarlet Heroes, Silver Age Sentinels, Sorcerer, Trollbabe, and any World of Darkness game, just to name a few. But really, just about any game can be customized and tweaked to fit the mold. You may wish to avoid rule-sets that incorporate or require lots of “shared-party” game mechanics – like obstacles that can’t be beaten unless multiple party members gang up on it. For other games, you might be forced to skip over features like teamwork feats, multi-caster spells, and even elements that are critical to a character class like group buffs or group heals. So, be mindful of the rules before you begin.

GM’s should prepare more notes than they’re used to for a multi-player group because you will typically plow through your storyline much more quickly than a standard game – five plus people taking turns roleplaying and rolling dice eats up more minutes than two, focused individuals. And since you’re the only person for the player to talk to, you’re going to need to have plenty of NPCs ready to go. This faster pace will mean less rest for both of you in between turns, so you may find yourselves wearing out more swiftly – take more breaks and/or arrange for shorter gaming times. With both GM and player focused on the back-and-forth of speedy play, you may not need a typical four-hour session to tell the story of the week.

Duo Downsides

There are a handful of issues that will become apparent when you start playing a one-on-one game. Mechanically, most TTRPGs are written with rules that compliment a party of somewhere between three and six protagonists and they run into mathematical problems when scaled down to a solo hero. For example, there is the potential for a single player to quickly become overwhelmed in combat when faced with multiple enemies. The economy of action is a concept that states whichever side has more actions has an advantage. If your lone wolf adventurer is surrounded by a pack of actual wolves, she will be at a disadvantage if the pack can perform more actions than she can per round, even if she’s moderately stronger, stat-wise. This requires a kind of balancing act on the GM’s part that you only really get a feel for by trying it out and sensing the level of the challenge needed to be both not-boring and not-deadly.

A few tricks to mitigate the economy of action problem: give the player an extra action, or make certain actions (like drinking a healing potion) free, once per round. Consider allowing more than one character run by the single player. Also consider pets, familiars, followers, hirelings, or GM-run party-members to supplement the group from time to time. It’s more work, but it does help balance games that were not written with two people in mind. Also on the same note, you may want to have a “voice-in-the-ear” run by the GM to give the main character someone to talk to – maybe a ghostly guide, an A.I. helper linked into the comm-system, a mission specialist running the operation from the safety of headquarters, or an annoying sprite that can’t help in combat but who has a few of the skills that the hero doesn’t. This is a well-used trick in movies and TV shows so the actor doesn’t have to spend twenty minutes of screen-time speechless. A word of caution, however – make sure that the main character stays the main character. They should be the focus and remain in the spotlight whenever possible.

Another downside is death – what do you do when the solo hero fails? Is the game over? Or, do you start again with another character who picks up where the fallen hero left off? If death would derail your game entirely, ponder instead the possibility of grievous injury, loss, and/or imprisonment – “your vision goes black as the soldiers pummel you with their rifle butts and you awaken much later, aching, tied to a tree at the edge of their camp, your left leg in a medical brace and your equipment in a neat pile several meters out of reach.” Plan for failure, even non-lethal failure, and come up with how you’re going to deal with it ahead of time.

One final aspect of the one-on-one game is the one that prevents a lot of people from trying them out in the first place. Two-person activities are more intimate and some people have problems dealing with that level of intensity. Think about going out to dinner. If it’s a larger group of diners, you can get lost in the crowd a little bit and the attention is not always on you, nor are you expected to carry the conversation the entire time. But when going out to eat with one other person, you are the focus of the only other person there and the pressure is on to “perform.” Amplify this feeling for games where your words and actions are judged and your “performance” dictates if it’s a good time or a waste of time. And amplify it even more if the person you’re playing with is not a great friend with whom you are comfortable. This level of closeness can feel like claustrophobia for many people, especially ones who suffer from various forms of sensory-input, social, or mental issues. So, be sensitive to such possibilities, create the most relaxed and welcoming game you can, and don’t get your feelings hurt if somebody says no to your game idea – it’s probably this more often than any other issue.

Team of two tactics

The advantages of a one-on-one game make any extra work well worth it. They’re great for introducing new players or young kids to roleplaying games and they’re perfect vehicles for play-by-post games and other situations where scheduling meet-ups is cumbersome. You can incorporate them into your standard, multi-player games by using them for side-quests, character flashback stories, or behind-the-scenes moments that don’t need to happen at the big table – you can even include a player who can’t make it to the regular game night by letting his solo adventure happen in parallel to the larger group’s missions. Here are a just a few of the cool tricks you can pull off with a one-on-one game:

  • Build the adventure for the character in front of you. Did you ever notice how the hero of the book always seems to have just exactly the right skills, items, and knowledge to overcome the unstoppable adversary? You can do that, too. Make your challenges fit the skills of your star.
  • If your player has always wanted to be “The Chosen One,” now is the time to let them go crazy with it. They can’t annoy other players with spotlight-stealing because there are no other players. Help them get it out of their system. This game is their escape from being Phillip the Stock Clerk – let them be Philliparion Goldcloak, King of Clerkaria who drives off the Warlords who happen to resemble his annoying managers at work!
  • Stealth missions work much better when it’s one guy instead of a big group of steel-clad, armored warriors with glowing weapons and swirling orbs of magical light. You can do a whole stealth campaign, if you want to!
  • Games centered around hacking into computer systems suddenly become viable when you don’t have to worry about the rest of the party getting bored. As do detective stories, political intrigue games, and other scenarios involving solo social interaction.
  • Enemies often underestimate the threat of a lone individual and may not commit their full force if they don’t perceive the danger. Have the leader show off by dueling the protagonist and the rest of the baddies cheer on their boss (and maybe choose the better part of valor if she loses).
  • Both the GM and player can help “fill out” the gameplay by expanding their descriptions in a more narrative style. Because you’re not taking time away from anybody else’s turn, you can both illustrate the story with more detail – “I shoot the musket for 12 damage” becomes “Captain Keel spins beneath the sweep of swords and boarding-ladders, leaping away from the falling, burning mast to ram the barrel of his musket into the abdomen of the mutinous first mate. He smiles with his tarnished, silver teeth and whispers above the din of battle, ‘I always knew,’ before pulling the trigger, dealing 12 damage.”
  • Bend rules to see what works best for the kind of story you both want to tell. Allow the player more leeway when they need to overcome a challenge meant for more people.
  • Go diceless and just describe what happens, either based on logic or with an alternative system of random success (White Wolf’s “Mind’s Eye Theatre” did this with a rock-paper-scissors mechanic). This is great for road trips, phone conversations, online play where no dice-roller is available, bedtime games with kids, or other social settings where dice are just inconvenient.
  • Play by post. Leave messages for each other via chat app, message board, text message, or via log posts on Obsidian Portal. You can take all the time you need and really get into the descriptions about what the character does and what consequences await them. This helps avoid the intimacy-overload issue. You could even customize posts to fit the theme of the game – calligraphy-laden letters with wax seals or cryptic, tech-savvy posts full of hacker-laden jargon.
  • Take turns GMing. Swap jobs each act, chapter, scene, or region on the map to keep things interesting, or run parallel stories with different characters in the same world. Share a single character or make a pool of them to choose from each time you switch. Play games in different time periods to show the effects from one character on another down the road. The sky is the limit!

For those who are interested in getting a sense of what actual one-on-one gameplay is like, be sure to check out the Party of One podcast. And if you’re having trouble even getting one person to join you, fear not! This blog has a giant list of solo RPG resources, many of which are useful no matter what size your group.

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