The Wonder Of One-On-One Roleplay (Not the kinky kind)

We all have a picture in our head when we hear or read the phrase ‘D&D session’ or ‘RPG night’. We visualise a clutch of bright and esoteric dice, a table, perhaps some bowls of snacks and, if we are a mean and under-informed victim to cliche, the pungent melange of several brands of Axe body-spray hiding odours far worse.

But what we also picture is a games master and several players. And well we might, for two+ players is by far the norm in roleplaying.

Okay, so that’s two characters. Just imagine one of them’s an NPC and thus the GM. Christ, people, do I have to think of everything around here?

But if you’ve never RPG’d with one player and one GM, well, I recommend giving it a go because you’re really missing out. To be clear, I’m not talking about running a quick session with a single player and their character from your regular group. I’m talking about a campaign entirely structured around a single player character from start to finish.

I haven’t run a group game in decades. With all the writing I do it’s never been very practical. But I’ve an old pal from university, Matt, I go and visit once or twice a year and between going to the pub or eating out or whatever, there’s a fair bit of downtime. So we’ve fallen into solo campaigns (Hey, it beats watching Netflix). Yet what started as filler has rather become one of the highlights of my calendar. More people in the mix would knacker things now.

But, hey, this ain’t about me. This is about you trying out 1-on-1. There now follows a list of bullet points resplendent with ‘reasons for’ and ‘tips how to’. Hope some of it proves useful.

 

-The dynamics of intensity. A multi-player game can be phenomenally entertaining, but a one-to-one can be art*. Or, at least, the chances of it becoming art seriously increase.

Usually, a character’s backstory adds flavour to a campaign. Sometimes, a single adventure might be sparked by said backstory. But with a one-player set up the backstory can be the entire campaign, its drive and its theme.

There’s a clarity of narrative here you can’t really achieve in multi-player, not without significantly favouring one player over everyone else. I’ve a campaign going on these last few years with a character who began dissolute, rose to crude vengeance but now maybe, just maybe, has a shot at redemption and grace. Or she may fall back down again. Neither me nor the player know. It’s powerful stuff, if I say so myself, and it’s powerful because it has space to be such.

*(Which is not to say a multi-player game can’t be art)

 

-Character focus (By Crom, the character focus!!!). This is no scene for a generic adventurer. It pays to really develop the character before playing. Take weeks if you have to, it’ll be worth it. Matt has occasionally come to me with a concept for a character and I’ve gone away and developed the whole world and plot around them. I’m not sure that occurs in creating a multi-player campaign.

Whether the character or the world comes first, it’s worth bearing in mind the old novel plotting advice: if you’ve a character but no plot/world, ask yourself what would be the worst/most dramatic/most challenging situation to put a person like that in, or, to reverse the question, if you have a plot/world, what would be the worst/most dramatic/most challenged character to drop in it?

 

-Time runs quicker. Be prepared for that. You can sail through a lot more adventure when you haven’t got five people deciding which direction to take.

 

-You can play on a sofa with a book to roll dice on. Definitely a plus feature. The medical condition known as ‘dungeon-basher’s arse-cramp’ hardly ever occurs in one player games. It’s a set-up more akin to a chat show than a business meeting. Me and Matt tend to throw a bottle of wine or some bourbon into the mix. Loosens the improv muscles, you know.

 

-The GM trusts the Player more. A confession: as a GM I haven’t rolled up a character in decades. Nor have I worked out combat nor learned any system rules beyond the vaguest generalities. I let Matt do almost all that. He enjoys maths and I don’t; I just want to create drama and plot. For all I know it’s a wholly singular way of dividing tasks.

Thing is I couldn’t imagine this method being employed by more than two people. Players get more tribal, more us-against-him/her, as their numbers increase. Well I remember the times players would make a bad roll, think I’d not seen and then rolled again, their comrades diligently feigning ignorance. With a 1-2-1 there’s a greater sense of working together to create a story and not beating the other ‘team’.

(I know what you’re thinking: ‘how’s he know his player isn’t cheating if he’s no handle on the rules?’ Simples: Matt’s characters get f*cked up constantly)

 

-The Player trusts the GM more. Yep, this river runs both ways (Like some crazy-hoo-hoo fantasy world river). With no other players a player can afford to be weak; there’s no other character sheets to sneak an envious peek at.

And you know what? There’s an incredible beauty in weakness, incredible entertainment. Recently we began a light-hearted fantasy campaign where Matt plays a super-bright, lawful-good magic user whose also utterly naive and a bit lonely. I’ve a charismatic rogue who keeps conning the magic user into unknowingly abetting theft. That’s how the adventures kick off. I don’t think you could do that in a group game: six unworldly characters falling for an obvious lie would be too much, even if all the players were game for it. Which, frankly, they wouldn’t be.

 

-So who makes the best player for a one player campaign? Obviously, a real thespian kinda player. You know the type:  someone who wants to experience emotion and narrative drive and, dare I say it, a little theme. Power-gamers and loot-hunters need not apply. A player fuelled by a need for accomplishment alone will tire quickly, for what is accomplishment if there’s no real-life peers to see it?

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-No more arrows to the knee. NPCs truly come to life in a one player campaign. Like our planet after a recent extinction event, there’s a giant hole in the environment for them to fill. Remember that intra-player debate and argument is non-existent here. Therefore, NPCs become fundamental, their thoughts and ambitions contrasting with, or echoing, the player character’s. They’re your best tool for really bringing the intensity of a one player campaign to life. Personally, I’ve had far more satisfaction being NPCs in one-player campaigns than I’ve ever had being an actual player.

 

-Combat is more of a narrative. With regards to our own campaigns, we’ve found it simply isn’t worth keeping check of every detail in every combat round in a one-player adventure.

I’d better clarify here. Every detail involving the player’s character and whoever they are fighting is always accounted for. The rest is a case-by-case affair.

As a general rule, if the player’s side is laying a carefully-planned ambush then it’s miniatures on the table (or hardback book or tray or whatever) and every combatant rolled for, because the tactics (and whether they succeed) are truly what makes the scene. However, if the player’s party is attacked we focus on the player’s character and immediate enemies. At best I might roll a single die for the other fights going on nearby: high means the player’s allies are winning, lows the bad guys. A really low roll and I might inform Matt a comrade is screaming for help or what-have-you. At the end of a fight we tend to look at the state of the playing character and apply similar damages to the friendly NPCs. Whatever feels right.

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This streamlining makes combat feel like it does in a good novel, where everything is filtered through the perception of the viewpoint character. You seriously want to embrace that quality if you’re doing a 1-2-1 scenario. It’s not better than the communal excitement of a multi-player fight- it’s hard to top that, admittedly- it’s just… different. Faster. More visceral. More sensory. It rocks in its own darn way.

 

-The best systems to use. If you’ve read this far and you’re an RPG veteran then you’re likely thinking Call Of Cthulhu. And you’d be right, totally bloody right. Lovecraft’s stories, after all, tend to centre on one isolated, slowly frazzling character. A couple of candles, the lights down low (No Barry White album however), and after an hour or so me and my player have unnerved ourselves wonderfully. Spooky fun.

I imagine Vampire: The Masquerade would be pretty good too. At least, it would make altogether more sense as a one player campaign. Four supernatural apex predators mooching around together doesn’t make all that much sense when you think about it.

But any good RPG system works. I use Fantasy Age rules for the fantasy stuff mainly, but your mileage may vary.

 

-Optimise the art of roleplaying for the art of writing. If you are a writer you’ve even more reason to run or play a one-player campaign. As I’ve mentioned above, it’s inherently more like a novel. There’s one viewpoint, of course, but that also means there’s more time given to looking at the world around that viewpoint.

Many’s the time I’ve ran into a zone of ignorance about the world I’ve created for a campaign, some easily-overlooked thing, and me and Matt have briefly stopped play to discuss how it might work in that world. Two minds are better than one at fleshing out background.

You can consider a one-player adventure a trial run (and feasibility test) for a novel. I took the hard structure for a fantasy novel I’d planned and let Matt take it for a test run. He unknowingly hit almost all the beats, which was very reassuring, and where he didn’t he usually came up with something better in terms of the main character’s reaction. I may have to credit him as a co-writer.

 

So there you go; my thoughts on why you should try the GM and One-Player campaign. It’s easily the most fun two people can have on their own. Well, the most fun two people can have on their own without feelings of regret after…

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