Ever since we started podcasting together, Senda and I have always talked about doing a one-on-one campaign. We even tried doing it as part of Panda’s Talking Games, but it did not work out. I have for some time been curious about GMing a one-on-one campaign, as it is one of the few things I have not done as a GM. I was so curious about it, that I created a supplement for Dungeon World called the Legacy Weapon in order to try it out, but even then it was just one-shots. Finally, the stars aligned, and Senda and I found a campaign that we were interested to try playing one-on-one. So now I have a chance to learn as I go, and in the spirit of the season, I am going to share what I am learning with you.
For the most part, the “typical” RPG consists of several players (2, 3, or a bunch more) playing characters and one player acting as the GM. In a one-on-one game, there is one player who is playing a character and one player who is the GM. While this configuration is a scaled-down version of the “typical” RPG, it does present some unique challenges.
Challenges with One-on-One Games
Unless the game in question is made for one-on-one play, there are a few challenges that come up when you run one-on-one.
Access to All Abilities
The average RPG assumes 3-4 players and thus characters are designed to be able to access only a portion of the character abilities and options. In class-based games, like D&D, that means that a single player cannot be all the classes that make up a typical party. In other systems, such as point-buy systems, the character won’t have any restrictions in terms of abilities, but will likely not have the points to buy everything they need at a competent level. Other games, such as superhero games, will turn out to be pretty tolerant to having a single character.
In the games where it is an issue, the solo character has the challenge of how to have access to abilities needed in order to thrive in the game. If we look at D&D, a solo rogue is playable but they lack access to both arcane magic (often useful against more powerful creatures and overcoming various challenges) as well as divine magic (healing). Without that access, the GM will have to do a lot of work to overcome the design of the game to allow the character to thrive.
There are solutions for this issue. The Legacy Weapon does this for Dungeon World. You can do this with some multiclassing and house rules for some games. You can solve it with magical items (rod of healing) or technology (AI hacker). You can also solve it with NPCs (see below).
Another challenge that a GM has when making an RPG into a one-on-one game is getting the scaling of encounters correct. While this is a challenge in many games, with a one-on-one game you have very little room for error. When you have more players there is some buffering for bad rolls among the players. One player could be rolling badly that day, but another is rolling well and things work out in the end. With a solo character, if they are rolling badly, things do not go well. This puts a bit of a challenge on the GM for how to make this work.
In games that have a lot of combat, this is a challenge. A poor rolling solo character is on their own, and through attrition can be killed. In games where the GM has some input on failure, such as games that are Powered by the Apocalypse, the GM has options on how to translate failures – giving them options beyond just doing damage – which can help buffer those bad rolls, to a point.
A party of characters is its own support system. They often have what they need to get into trouble and recover afterward. In a solo game, the character is on their own, which means they will need some NPCs for support. If the game is centered in a location, then the NPCs can just be part of the location, and the solo character can come and visit when they are in need of support.
If the character is doing something like delving into dungeons far from town, then that support needs to be closer. That may mean an NPC who travels with the character, or some way that the support can help remotely. In a fantasy game that may mean having a cleric who travels with the solo character as they explore ruins. In a cyberpunk game, it may mean having a hacker friend who is held up in a secret location but shares a comm channel with the character.
This last issue is something that happens with any one-on-one game regardless of whether it was made for solo play or not, meaning the spotlight of the story remains on that player for the entire session. Consider that in a four-player game with a GM, the spotlight is on a given player around 20% of the time. In a solo game that percentage goes up to 50% or more.
This means that the player will have to speak more, make more decisions, take more actions, make more checks/rolls, etc. That can lead to fatigue. For the GM this is also true. They also have more spotlight time as there are no character-character interactions occurring.
This means that session length and pacing may be different than in more typical group play. You may find that you tire in a shorter amount of time or need more breaks. You may also progress through stories faster.
Long Live The Queen
The campaign Senda and I decided to play was one that we created while developing a Fate game that never really worked the way we wanted it to. We liked the setting but not what we were doing with the rules (not Fate’s fault, just the way we were trying to implement it). We both really liked the setting so we decided to use it.
Borrowing from Jason Pitre’s Four Structures here is what we are planning to play.
Based on a short story called Motzart in Mirrorshades, by Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner, this is Musketeer France that has been visited by a time-traveling Corporation, called Chronos. Chronos makes a deal with the King to trade technology and science for unused natural resources (which Chronos sends forward in time). While the King and his court are enamored with their new friends, Queen Anne and her Musketeers are suspicious.
Rather than doing this in Fate, this time we decided that we wanted to try the setting out in Thirsty Sword Lesbians. We went with this for a few reasons. The first was that we liked the idea of female musketeers crossing swords with futuristic security guards, in a background of a queer and progressive Paris. TSL seemed like a perfect fit.
In addition, TSL is a Powered by the Apocalypse game, meaning that failure is narrated by the GM, which, as mentioned above, gives some latitude for dealing with failures. In addition, the playbooks for TSL are not really niche classes so having a single character would not be lacking any critical abilities. Finally, there are some optional rules for solo play in the Advanced Lovers & Lesbian supplement, meaning that there were some rules for how to handle the parts of the game that relied on having other players (the Emotional Support move).
The situation is that Senda’s character will be a Musketeer in service to the Queen. She will undertake missions for the Queen, France, and the Timeline. This will help with the start of the campaign, as the Queen can assign missions. I expect that over time we will still have missions, but as the game takes on a life of its own, Senda will direct more of how the game will go through what she does with her Musketeer.
With our setting we have some subtext about colonization and its evils, and TSL has some subtext about queerness, both of which we are very comfortable with and are looking to explore. I suspect that as the game develops we will discover other subtexts as well.
Getting Started but Finishing This Article
At this point, Senda and I have finished our Session Zero and are going to be starting our first session in 2022. If you want to hear how our Session Zero went, you can check our December 13th podcast episode.
In my next article, I will talk about some of the things we modified to make TSL work for our solo game, as well as hopefully have some info on how the game ran.
Until then, have you run many solo games? What systems do you like for solo games? What challenges have you encountered in running solo games? What are your favorite things about running solo games?