If there’s one silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that many of us have more time for our gaming hobbies than ever before. Some are finally getting around to painting their neglected armies, some are participating in WotC’s FNM at Home Through MTG Arena, and others are gathering in Roll20, Zoom chats, and Discord servers to play their favorite RPGs with friends.
Unfortunately, that might not always be possible for everyone. Whether you don’t have enough friends interested in putting a game together, don’t have the hardware or stable enough internet to support online platforms, or just want something new to try while socially distancing with your roommate or partner, I’m here to tell you that you can still scratch that itch.
Why Play a One-on-One Campaign?
I’d read some articles on this unusual style of play, and became more and more interested the more I learned.
Personally, I’ve never been a fan of big tables. The more players you have, the more scheduling conflicts there are, getting together to play can be a hassle, table space becomes a precious commodity, and combat can take forever.
As a dungeon master, I like smaller parties. Three players is ideal, four is average, and my absolute maximum is six. The fewer players you have, the more meaningful their character choices become, and the more time you have to spend on their personal backstories and growth without rushing to give everyone else some spotlight.
A single-player game takes this logic to its logical extreme. With only one player, sitting down together can happen whenever the two of you have an hour or two to spare. Everything happens so much faster, and the player gets to be the main character in the story.
Meeting the Challenge
Running a one-on-one game of Dungeons & Dragons is very different from your average game. While it shares all the same mechanics of 5th Edition, it’s almost an entirely different kind of game altogether.
While a DM should always adapt their game to the players to some degree, it is still entirely normal to create the adventure and then let the players create their characters. In this style of game, though, that’s simply not possible. For a single-player campaign to work, it must be tailored to the player’s character and the type of game they want to play. After all, it would be silly to put a druid in a high-combat urban game, or a barbarian in a game that’s mostly roleplaying and intrigue.
For my game, my player and I settled on a Thief-like game. He would play a master burglar, charming his criminal contacts with his wit, and liberating priceless treasures for the thrill of it.
This highlighted a problem in the mechanics, though. A rogue’s primary ability is their sneak attack. How do they get sneak attack? By either having advantage on their attack roll, or having an ally in melee range of the enemy. In a single-player game, the latter is literally impossible, effectively hobbling the player’s most valuable tool.
This is one of the situations where the rules need to be slightly adjusted for the sake of fun and balance. In my case, I adjusted the conditions for sneak attack. Instead of requiring an ally to be within melee range of the target, I changed it so that sneak attack would trigger so long as there weren’t any enemies within melee range of the player.
The biggest thing to keep in mind is that combat is going to be very different from your standard game. Combat in D&D is balanced around the concept of a group. The challenge rating, or CR, assigned to every monster in the game is meant to represent the challenge level relative to a party of four of the same level. So a monster with a CR of one is meant to be a balanced encounter for a party of four level one characters.
Any combat encounter, even against a single enemy, is going to be a risk for your player. It’s important that the player have multiple options for any given situation. Is there a way around the guard that avoids combat entirely? Is a ledge above or below them that would allow a powerful sneak attack? Perhaps they can be distracted or bribed? Be open to creative solutions.
Another idea is to change the way death works in your game. Instead of dying when beaten in combat, maybe the player wakes up with a permanent injury, or captured by guards and thrown in jail. Without allies to heal them when they go down, getting knocked unconscious is nearly instant death in any fight, so think of ways to keep a few bad dice rolls from ending the game early.
The Benefits of Duet D&D
The main benefit of playing this kind of game is that it trims a lot of the fat found in D&D otherwise. In my sessions, we get through the same amount of content in two hours that takes a normal group four. Everything happens faster. Deciding when to sit down for a session is orders of magnitude easier, and the time commitment needed isn’t nearly as steep as a normal session.
The game is also much more intimate. It feels much more like a conversation than a game of waiting for your turn. Whether DM or player, you’re constantly active and engaged with the game.
Surprisingly, many of the things that make single-player D&D great can also manifest as drawbacks for some. Some DMs and players might grow tired of being constantly engaged. Many players enjoy the breathing room of letting other party members handle the talking and problem-solving once in a while, but on a solo adventure, you don’t get that time to relax. Every choice and strategy falls to you.
Similarly, as a DM, some of the best moments in a game are when you get a chance to sit back and let the group talk through a puzzle or roleplay with each other to come to an important decision. Here, though, if the player is talking to someone, it’s you. Furthermore, the rapid pace at which a single player can move through content means having to do extra prep or risk hitting a wall too soon.
It’s also quite easy to paint yourself into a corner as a result of not closely considering the mechanics in play and how they are affected by a party-of-one dynamic.
Find Out More
If this sounds like the kind of challenge you’d like to take on, I urge you to do some more reading and dive right in! There are a number of great resources for one-on-one dungeons and dragons games:
- DnD Beyond recently released an article and video on the subject, as well as links to a few pre-made solo adventures.
- Matthew Colville has an in-depth video as well.
- Matt Mercer even ran a solo one-shot for Stephen Colbert.
So grab a player and some dice, and set off on an adventure together!
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