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Two to Tango: GMing a Solo Campaign

Running a solo campaign — one GM, one player — is a different experience from running a traditional multi-player RPG. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and it might not always be your first choice, but it can be a lot of fun.

For one thing, solo campaigns are intimate and collaborative in ways that traditional games are not.

The Basics

A solo campaign is a game played with one GM and one player. This is completely distinct from games with one GM and two players, as well as pseudo-RPGs with only one player (like Choose Your Own Adventure books).

Apart from that, running a solo campaign isn’t fundamentally different from running an RPG for a group. Structurally, they’re almost identical. The differences lie in the details.

My Background

This post is being written with the benefit of plenty of hindsight, but it’s been long enough since I last ran a solo game that I want you to have a definite idea of where I’m coming from.

From 1987, when I first started playing RPGs, until 1991 (my first year of high school), nearly all of my experience as a player and a GM was with solo campaigns. I had several friends who gamed, but they went to different schools and didn’t really know each other. Solo gaming was a pretty good solution to that problem.

Three of my all-time favorite campaigns [1] grew out of this period, including the game in the #1 spot. I learned the ropes playing solo — and had a lot of fun doing it — and it’s probably colored my GMing style in ways I’m not even aware of.

Highlights of Solo Gaming

Solo games are generally more intimate: Running a solo campaign, everything that happens in the game is focused on one player. The level of rapport is quite high, and there’s a connection there that’s harder to achieve with a group — you’re collaborating much more directly to tell a story.

You can cover a lot of ground: With just one player, you can play out sprawling epics that are much harder to handle with a group. It’s much easier for two people to avoid distractions than it is for a whole group to stay focused, and the direct connection between player and GM tends to lead to faster play.

Your player gets to do everything: If you include NPC allies in the game (which you should — see below for tips), your player should play most of those characters. That lets them try out a wide range of character types, abilities and builds, which is harder to do in a group game (barring troupe play, like Ars Magica).

Shorter prep time: Even though you’re doing more stuff in a single session, you only have one player to take into account — even if they’re playing the whole party. No matter how well you know you’re group, it’s always harder to come up with contingency plans and side plots with several players than it is for one.

Downsides of Solo Gaming

You miss out on the group experience: There’s nothing quite like sitting down to game with a group of friends. Even with its pluses, I’d take a good group game over a good solo game any day — that social aspect of group play is very important to me.

Less feedback can create problems: Getting player feedback [2] is incredibly important, and when you only have one player you don’t get as much of it. If that player isn’t naturally inclined to give feedback (and it can be tough in a solo game just because of how personal it is), it’s a bit like wearing blinders.

One player means one skillset: If your player isn’t into, say, political intrigue, you won’t get to introduce much political intrigue into your game (that would just be mean). With a group, you’d have a variety of tastes to accomodate — and therefore more opportunities to flex your GMing muscles.

Fewer surprises: Just as fewer people means less prep, running a game for one player means only one person can surprise you. No matter how creative that player is, you’ll have fewer of those awesome Oh, shit! I really wasn’t expecting that! moments than you would with a group. Similarly, players surprise other players, too — so your player will be missing out on this aspect of gaming as well.

Tips

Include plenty of NPCs: If you’re running a party-oriented game (like D&D), you need a party. When I ran solo games, I found that even when I introduced the NPCs, both of us changed them in ways we didn’t expect — which rocked.

Let your player play as many of these NPC allies as she can handle. There’s no universal number — my best friend growing up played three NPCs; when I played in a solo Marvel Super Heroes campaign, I ran my whole super-team.

Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate!: Take advantage of the rapport that tends to develop in solo games, and work with your player to develop a really cool story. Even if you’re used to a more traditional division (GM: plot, players: action, for example), don’t be afraid to mix it up and try a different formula — one where both of you are involved in plotting out the game.

Avoid puzzles: Challenges that rely on player knowledge and skills — like riddles and puzzles — become dramatically more difficult when there’s only one player. If you do include puzzles, make sure they’re sidelights, not highlights — i.e., figuring them out isn’t required to make progress. (This isn’t bad advice for group games, either, but it’s crucial in solo games.)

Take your player’s pulse more often: Partly because I was new to gaming, I introduced some godawful stuff into my solo games — both rules and plot elements. I think the low point was along the lines of, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if this NPC ally had a pegleg? Okay, the monster bites off his leg.” What can I say, I was young.

The point is that what I should have done was asked my player about it beforehand — and in general, asked a lot more questions about introducing anything new to the game.

Experiment: When there are only two of you, experiments that go awry (on either side of the screen) can only tick off one person — rather than a whole group. You and your player should both take advantage of this, and get out of your comfort zone [3] more often than you otherwise might.

And from Scott M. [4], in the comments:

Wing it: “I’d also emphasize that a lot more happens in one hour – you can’t rely on prep as much, because one player will blow through material very quickly. Solo play is a great place to expand your improvisation skills – because without them, you won’t get to go very far before you have to stop and prep again.”

What’s the Verdict?

In the balance, solo gaming has a lot going for it, but it also has some definite downsides. Whether the pluses or minuses come out ahead for you will depend on your personality, your GMing style, your player’s personality and playing style — and what the two of you are looking to get out of the game.

Looking back on the solo games I’ve run and played in, the thing I liked most was the rapport and intimacy of the collaboration involved. There was a sense not only that the game was ours, but that the characters were, too, and I really dug that.

Have you ever played in or GMed a solo campaign? What did you like and dislike about it — and what did I forget?

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Two to Tango: GMing a Solo Campaign"

#1 Comment By Carolina aka Troy Taylor On August 23, 2006 @ 8:51 am

I had never really considered a solo campaign .. but it sounds intriguing. As a GM who rarely gets to play, this might have possibilities — if I can find willing GM to run the adventure for me!

#2 Comment By Avlor On August 23, 2006 @ 8:54 am

My first stint GMing was a 1 on 1 with my hubby, and a not too stressful way to jump into GMing. I learned alot about the view from the GM chair vs the player chair.

It was fun, and a came away with alot learned. My temptations were 1) to make everything always turn out ok, because the game session was a valentine’s gift and 2) I tended to railroad (not a surprise for a new GM) and I think it was easier to do with one player.

We did ok with one skill set. I put in NPCs that could assist with small parts that the PC couldn’t. And tried to make sections where the PC could shine.

Feedback – it was just one adventure and player was hesitant to say much until I volunteered what I saw as weaknesses in how things went and what I did (with out giving things away of course). Hubby really did miss interacting with other players. Something I may experiment with next time is letting him have 2 characters, or a give him a very interactive familiar that he controls. That may provide a few more jumping off points for him to play off of.

Someday when I can continue that storyline, I will also prep a bit less and definately try to take the players pulse more often.

#3 Comment By ScottM On August 23, 2006 @ 9:00 am

I haven’t done much solo roleplaying in a very long time. In a strange way, planning out sessions with a co-GM can be very similar– a collaborative fusion of ideas and creativity sparking off one another.

I’d also emphasize that a lot more happens in one hour– you can’t rely on prep as much, because one player will blow through material very quickly. Solo play is a great place to expand your improvisation skills– because without them, you won’t get to go very far before you have to stop and prep again.

#4 Comment By Frank On August 23, 2006 @ 9:42 am

I’ve dabbled with solo play at various times. In high school, I did some solo play with my younger sister (including once when I got her to GM), most of this occurred on our summer trip across the country.

I also ran various solo with various players through this time (including one guy from my high school).

In college, I ran some solo Cold Iron with one of the players. Most of the solo play there was on the spirit plane, though we did run a couple dungeon scenarios.

After college, I ran a few solo games for a caver friend who was also a gamer. We tried out 7th Sea and Deadlands, but those were basically one session each.

A college years Traveller campaign at MIT was a semi-solo campaign. We almost always had other players, but they were never really committed to the game, so it really was one player, with various guest stars. I think once or twice we did actually run solo.

But I’ve never really set out to run a full campaign (short or long) with a single player.

Frank

#5 Comment By adrianbrooks On August 23, 2006 @ 2:03 pm

In my group we often have little bouts of solo gaming between the group play. Usually it is some sort of party split, or when someone wants to catch up with a character who’s been out of the limelight for a while. Usually when this happens the actual playing out of it waits until Wednesday night when the GM and Player both have off work or something, as to avoid the rest of the group being bored out of their minds on game night.

I’ve never actually done an entire campaign in this way before, but I definitely think that in small doses, when a character wouldn’t or can’t be in a group it is a good go.

#6 Comment By Drew On August 23, 2006 @ 3:59 pm

I’ve been more or less solo gaming since I started playing RPGS. Getting together more than one friend to play has always been a rare treat for us, so from the start we really excelled in solo games. I’ve found too, that with multiple solo games running concurrently in the same gameworld makes for some interesting effects on a global scale that affects other characters.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve transitioned into play by post on my wikispaces site, and I’ve found that under this kind of environment, the solo game really seems to soar.

Since I’m working and in grad school full time, there isn’t any time to sit down for a regular session, but my wife and I can happily hack away one post at a time over on the wiki.

The only drawback I’ve ever seen with the solo game is that I start to lose form when I have more than four concurrent NPCs to manage (I never have my players take an NPC), so I try to keep the group sizes smallish or if there are a lot of NPCs, I try to have them pop in and out to keep things fresh.

#7 Comment By maikeru On August 23, 2006 @ 6:43 pm

I am glad that there is some positive for solo games, as that is probably all I will be able to get since I just moved recently.

#8 Comment By Martin On August 24, 2006 @ 7:12 am

Apart from single-session preludes for White Wolf games, I hadn’t thought about non-campaign solo play at all. Interesting.

(Scott) I’d also emphasize that a lot more happens in one hour– you can’t rely on prep as much, because one player will blow through material very quickly. Solo play is a great place to expand your improvisation skills– because without them, you won’t get to go very far before you have to stop and prep again.

This should have been in my post, and it’s 100% true. I love to improvise when I GM, and I think it grew out of my solo gaming. I hadn’t made the connection between covering a lot of ground and needing to improvise more, but it’s definitely the case.

maikeru: You might also consider online gaming, in any of its many forms — play-by-post or -email, forum, blog, etc.

#9 Comment By Cliff Nickerson On August 25, 2006 @ 12:17 pm

Unfortunately, finding committed groups for campaign play in Poços de Caldas, Brazil, is difficult. Also, being a married employed father seriously gets in the way of my gaming. My only gaming these days is solo, mostly online, punctuated with very occasional live sessions.
I’ve gotten so used to the dynamics of solo gaming that when I tried to run a group last year in D&D 3.5 I bombed it in the third or fourth session. I feel that there is a lot less role playing and actual interest in characterization in groups.
That’s not to say I wouldn’t like to run a four player group, if I could find people who were serious gamers and who liked to role play.

#10 Comment By Martin On August 28, 2006 @ 7:19 am

Cliff: Do you find solo gaming online to differ substantially from solo gaming in person? I’ve only done solo games in person, and I can speculate that the differences would be similar to the difference between group play in person vs. online, but I don’t know for sure.