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Dungeons and Dragons With a Single Player

Over the last year I've been DMing a very unusual game of Dungeons and Dragons. For one it was my first real 4th edition game so I've been learning the rule system and honing my DMing approach to it. For another it's been played over the internet using Skype and Maptools. But the most important thing that makes it unusual is that there is only one player and, for the most part, he plays one character. This provided lots of challenges but also lots of rewards as we worked together to produce what was as much collaborative fiction as it was game.

This is something that I've done on a small scale before. In fact this player and I played our first AD&D 2nd edition games in my parents attic, which we'd renamed The Inn of the Last Home in honor of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman back when we thought they were a duo of female writers. This game however was to last, and did last, for more than the few hours or sessions of my teenage years. It lasted for a year and told a story about a city in the midst of a coup by a demonic entity. We finished a couple of weeks ago with the city being saved but the true extent of the threat being hinted at to set up for next season.

This differs from a traditional group of 3-6 plus DM for D&D (and most RPGs) in many ways. One was that the typical balanced group has characters covering the different aspects required to face any situation. This is more important in 4e D&D than ever where it's pretty explicit that you need one character of each 'role' in order for the balanced combat mathematics that make the game run so smoothly (blandly?) to work. How did we work with this? I provided a party of NPCs that were built as PCs to cover the other roles.

Well actually I built a defender, a controller and a striker. The player created a striker and we were left without a leader. How bad could that be? Pretty bad if you are trying to play 4e straight as it turns out. For the first few sessions it was blind luck and healing potions that got the party though their encounters. It was clear that they were missing the ability to heal. We could have played it as it lay and I could have adjusted the encounters for a party without a leader but I was still new to the system and wanted to continue to play by the rules so I decided on a two pronged attack to combat the situation.

I added a few leader NPCs that would some times be available and sometimes not to join the party. Also I gave the NPC striker a chance to take the Warlord multiclass feat by conveniently levelling up when they were at a training camp run by a warlord. He also took the rest of the multiclass power swap feats as he continued to level up. This provided some healing for the party and also the buffing that was pretty helpful but with two strikers and a heavy hitting defender really wasn't necessary.

The party of NPCs helped to make combats a bit more normal that just the single player. Obviously the strategy for combat was decided by the real player so he pretty soon became the in character leader of the group. Unfortunately I underestimated how much work it would be to run 3 built characters built with full mechanics in combat at higher levels. It became hard at level 3 really. I think combat suffered in that I didn't have enough head space for the monsters to do much that was interesting because I was flipping through sheets of powers deciding what the wizard going to do next.

This also affected the experience of the player. 4e combat is long winded as decisions are made. In combats that had a decent number of monsters it would be quite some time between the player having a turn. During this time it would mostly be me talking and rolling rather than talking and strategizing of other players. Once the player fell asleep while waiting for his turn. While it was late at night where he was, we were playing over Skype because we are 8 time zones apart, it was still a pretty damning commentary on how well I ran the game that day.

The normal table talk between players was, of course, missing as well as talking through problems and decisions. This is part of the fun of playing RPGs so not having it could have been a problem but the player coped pretty well. It allowed him to be the sole decision maker which I think he enjoyed, but there were a couple of decisions which could have done with the sanity check provided by a table full of people. This also put a lot of pressure on both of us due to him being in the spotlight for almost all of the time, which also put me in the spotlight by virtue of being everyone else in the world. I find with my Traveller group I can sit back and watch the players concoct some new trouble between them, which also has the side effect that I have to come up with less trouble for them to have.

Playing the roles of the NPCs that were part of the party was a challenge, but a rewarding one when I was able to pull it off. They needed to be particularly well fleshed out characters and have at least some character development. They also needed to have only the information that would be available to them. When I'm actually playing three quarters of the party that I'm challenging it can be hard not to metagame in their favour. When it all came together though it worked out pretty well and the PC even ended up building a particular mutual respect with one of the NPCs after starting off with a very antagonistic relationship.

All in all I think we did okay with the one on one campaign. We told quite a good story together, had fun, rolled a whole lot of dice and changed the imaginary world. I got away with some stuff I wouldn't normally, including a Dukes of Hazard style wagon run, because it was a single person that I knew well enough to get away with things like that. We would have had a very different experience with more people. But given the time difference and the scheduling problems we had I think that the biggest difference would have been the game would have died before coming to a conclusion.

We are having a hiatus of the D&D 4e game while we try out a few indie RPGs and also the player is due to welcome a new arrival soon but we intend to continue the campaign at some point. It did reach a good stopping point though, whether we come back to it or not.

Let me know in the comments if anyone else has had much success with just one player and one DM, or if you have any tips on how to work it better.

Comments (8) Trackbacks (1)
  1. See, now I’m worried. I figured with the upcoming Pathfinder campaign that I would have throw in some NPCs to round out the party (being only the two of you). Hopefully I won’t get bogged down.

    Then again, the low magic aspect might save my bacon (and a loose interpretation of the behind the scenes mechanics).

    And what possible trouble do we concoct? (now where is that anti-tank rifle?) 🙂

    • 4e offers far more choices than pathfinder for even low level characters. These are somewhat streamlined on the monster side of things and that usually makes combats easier for a DM to run. However when he starts running 3-4 built using the full PC mechanics it gets a bit overwhelming. I would recommend running any companion NPCs as simply (but flavourfully) as possible.

  2. About falling asleep during combat: in my (and your) defence, I had consumed considerable wine
    by that stage.

    Yes, 1 PC was a challenge, but most importantly it was fun.

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