Game Mastering
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ID: 2103


December 26, 2005, 4:25 am

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One player campaigns


One player. One Game Master. Roleplaying in this way is slightly different than with a group.

For quite some time I have been*  in a strange situation: I GM two players, both unwilling to play with another. Given the lack of other players, and an unstable time-table, I had to GM two “campaigns” this way. I hope the few things I learned may be useful for someone.

(* note: not longer true)

Be sure to feel comfortable with the player
There are many people great to have in a group, even excellent people, but some may not be good for this kind of campaign. This is a deeply personal decision, but if you feel alright about it, forget any doubts. Just picture you will spend a lot of time with that person alone.

Be sure to feel comfortable with the character
In a group, any weird PC can (and will!) show up. A lonely character should be chosen carefully. It begins with the class: rangers are excellent as loners, wizards are hard to keep alive or challenged, rogues do well. A unique race pre-sets much of the role-playing, as any kind of uniqueness around the character. In some ways the world exists only for this one character, so the base of all efforts will be oriented towards his development and enjoyment. Irrelevant details are great, but the bulk should be of interest to this one character directly.

Be sure to feel comfortable with the player’s expectations
What does (s)he want? Even ego trips are OK, if you are willing. ‘Exploring the world’ may become a nightmare if you thought 1 PC == less preparation. On the other hand, it can be a great first playtest of your new world, with a tolerant player. Either way, you better know this beforehand.

Be prepared for NPCs
A group can have whole adventures without actually talking to NPCs! Unless this campaign is a ‘Me killing da world and everyone’, the character HAS to talk to someone. (S)he does not want to feel absolutely lonely, and (s)he does not have all the knowledge in the world. You the GM will be the other side in every single communication, unless the character starts talking to himself! (Did not have this one, at least not yet!)

Be prepared to drop the rules
Playing this way is simply different, and the rules get simplified over and over, up to the point of dropping most rules in most cases, agreement being reached through talking, not rolling. There was one or two sessions a dice was not thrown at all, and I don’t remember recent sessions with more than 10 rolls total, be it saving rolls, attack hits, whatever. THAT simple can it get. You roll only for things that are important on the larger scale, or just want to decide randomly for what reason/whim ever.

The greatest problems will arise from here. How to choose/adapt/create adventures that are challenging, but not overpowering? I have still not solved this problem. Occasionally, even adventures for a whole group can be used, just be sure the player/character is willing to retreat if needed. Sneaky characters are good for this: killing everyone is not always a solution.

A lonely character needs company. Give him some! Maybe no one to swing the sword, but having someone to talk to is very useful. Reminder: seen one way or another, there are only two people sitting in the room.

First come two special categories:

...meaning animal companions. Companions come from a character’s background, and are emotionally close to him/her. For a lonesome character is his horse a partner to talk! Give the character a companion, and give the companion character. It must be named, and have quirk or two (still remember a pony, trusty and obedient, with those little smelly digestive problems…).

Animals have keen senses and so are useful for GM’s. Even if you fail with a description, you can easily convey emotions and foreshadow important events/monsters/NPCs with companions, lone characters are much more attentive to this! Companions can be threatened, but should not be really harmed, even less than the character. Never harm a companion just for a bit of drama!

Family can make the biggest part of the character’s background. If nothing else, it shows where the PC is from, what way (s)he was raised, or what might (s)he reject. Even a complete orphan cannot escape its family: genes (or what?) determine odd-looking birth-marks, deformities, strange abilities, talents, ye-olde-family-curses… other words, plot hooks.

Now the basic NPC categorisation:

...are people, that are friendly to the character and generally helpful. It is necessary to give the PC at least a few allies, from the background and during the first adventure. A single PC cannot have all the skills and knowledge in the world. There have to be people a PC can ALWAYS ask, people that know other people. People willing to support the PC even in harder times. Allies are one of the things that can silently draw a PC to stay around one location. Allies don’t always need a strong motivation, sometimes a “Somehow I like this guy” is enough.

Good enemies are hard to come by… or maybe not? Enemies have to be carefully chosen, and re-used. Some may even be upgraded into the glorious status of a villain. But not all enemies are out to kill you, some simply don’t like you, that’s life. Enemies are more than willing to make a PC’s life harder.

Anyone that is not ally or enemy, but is significant enough to be remembered, falls into this category.

Officials, shopkeepers, teachers, legendary heroes, kings, captain of the guard, important priests, guildmembers, sages, village fools…

The Mob
All the little people whose name need not be remembered are here, stepping out to serve their purpose, then retreating back into this shadow zone, probably never to be heard of again.

In combat, special care should be given to what I call ‘blind monsters’.

Glossary: blind monsters may or may not be initially hostile to the PC, but once they are, they have no reason to stop fighting. These monsters are extremely hard to parley with, appease or scare away. Typical examples are lower undead and insectoids, but certain aggressive flesh-eaters and man-eaters may fall into this category, as sick or crazed animals and mad characters.

Lesson: when using blind monsters, have some other being at hand, that could theoretically save a wounded character, for what reason ever. Even orcs may be good for this purpose. You can make the saving some kind of mystery, but not every time. Extra care to monsters able to kill with one special attack!

Note: Moreover, re-think the traps you use. Instant-killers? Hmmm…

A well-running campaign and a well-prepared GM needs few props, occasionally none. The GM has to know the NPCs, and the Worldpack should be at hand. Note about maps:

To say it clearly, unless it serves a plot-relevant purpose (part of a riddle, attached to the plot-hook, one of the rewards), FORGET detailed and complex maps. Keep a simple map if needed, sketch some important locations for the player, but most of the time a map will be useless. It does not work, or at least did not for me.

Note: Does not apply to the world map or area map, where the campaign is located.

Player’s block
Just one more thing: no matter how good or bad you GM, there inevitably comes a certain moment…  when the clues are sooo obvious, and hints hint where they should… but the darned player simply does not get it! Having at least two solutions to important problems is good for you, having good clues or expert advice is great for the character, but sometimes it just does not work. You and the player are not the same person, and he sees the world through different eyes. Misunderstanding is often the killer, too. In a group, you can subtly support the player with the “best” hypothesis :wink:, but a single player very often produces only one.

Well, you better know this kind of thing can happen, and in a one-player campaign, it is much more serious. Knowing of the danger is almost like being prepared.

(Note: there is a bit more on Player’s Block in the Scroll below.)

Additional Ideas (5)

That is a bizarre situation, Manfred. But it's not only for such eventualities that single-player campaigns are a good idea...

I'm firmly of the opinion that all campaigns should start off with single-player adventures. It gives the players a chance to develop and become familiar with the characters they're playing and gives a much better way of getting them into the adventure than simply sticking a randomly selected group together in a convenient tavern and saying "an old man approaches you". This is the sequence of stages I would usually try and go through to introduce players to a long campaign.

1. Start with a set of single-player adventures, one for each player. This gives their player a background which is much more vivid and memorable than the brief paragraph they might write on the back of their character record sheet.

2. Move on to a set of two-player adventures as the characters meet up. This allows them to establish relationships and friendships between themselves and calls for a much greater degree of roleplaying. Some characters (loners like rangers or druids) might still be adventuring alone at this stage.

3. Finally have the smaller groups amalgamate and the full adventure can begin. Make it a memorable meeting: maybe it begins as a hostile encounter and only eventually turns out to be the foundation of a solid adventuring group.

I think that by following these stages you will achieve a more satisfying result, and I think Manfred's advice is highly pertinent in achieving the first (and to some extent the second) of these stages.


2005-12-25 03:56 PM » Link: [2103#10185|text]
I have found also solid advice at good ole GameGrene, in an article called Gaming For Two.

The least bit of advice one should take is this: have one 'good' (major, important, interesting, etc) NPC at a time. Not only one interesting NPC per session, just take care no two NPC's start to have some extended talk, with the poor DM switching funny voices, the player beginning to yawn and feel left out.

2005-12-25 03:56 PM » Link: [2103#10186|text]
Player's block

To the theme of the One-player campaigns, I want to address a specific topic: Player's Block. There are many advices on DM's Block (too bad I don't remember them when needed badly :/ ), do you have any if this happens to a player?

There are two heads on this beast:
1. Creative overcalculation. A plan is created. Fine, no problem. It's just this CANNOT work. Never, oh never can such a stupidity survive the contact with the slightest sign of reality! Don't you/he/she/they see it? They don't see it. Whatever happens, they think it's the best plan ever. And usually, (Murphy's Laws rule) the situation leads directly to a Player Death.

The question is, how to make them feel not too stupid (or dead), but make them abandon the plan?

2. Mind Block. A player's brain boycotts and refuses to serve its master. Not that bad in a group, as long as there are other players with functional brains. But the player may have talent for something (roleplaying, strategy, good spatial imagination...), and cannot help in a critical moment. Game stops. In a one-player game, this creates lots of great words like 'ummmm...', 'ehhhh...', 'well,...' and many more.

What to do then? Got any fast player-relaxing technique? To have a short pause is helpful, but it does not always help, and may be unwished in tense game moments.

Here come two solutions, good to be used only _very_ sparingly. Apply only if you feel like it.

Character battling a large insectoid, player thinks of a great heroic plan:
"I slip under it and kill it, it must have a soft spot down there!"
Insectoid in question is just large enough for a character to lie under it,
and there is theoretically enough space to stab it with a sword.

Weak Points of the Plan:
- 'slipping under it' may cause an attack of opportunity
- trying to stab it may fail (+another attack)
- soft spots are not guaranteed
- even a soft spot may not kill it
- and even if, what if it kills the PC in it's death throes? Easily possible.

Conclusion: this plan will most probably kill the PC.

DM: "That was not a good idea..."
Player stops smiling.
DM: "...that was a STUPID idea."
Player begins to look horrified!
DM: "Now that was actually so stupid..."
Player begins to mourn over his character...
DM: "...that it might really work!"

And give the player a mighty bonus, or downright fudge the rolls to make it work! Ever seen a movie? Very often, it's the dumbest plans and impossible chances that save the world! Game needs to be fun, and the PCs should be at least occasionally succesful.

Very rarely, use the worst possible rolls to create weird to spectacular results, but good for the character.

An NPC taunts a hiding PC.
PC: "Hrmpf, what did he say? Ha, I... I throw a stone right into his face!"
The roll fails horribly.
DM: "Oh, you miss, you don't even manage to hit anywhere near him..."
Player feels down.
DM: "... but you hit his companion in the foot!" "Ow! You %$#&@! You..."
Player laughs heartily, and enjoys the curses that companion screams, his fall right on his nose and further insults.

... this can cheer up a player more than any won sword-fight. Schadenfreude. :)

2005-12-25 04:01 PM » Link: [2103#10188|text]
That last bit of advice is perfect for any size campaign. What is the fun of playing the hero if he can't do some heroic stuff. Swing froma chandelier and make it fall on a group of baddies, cause an explosion and ride the shockwave on a table, or have two people run a rope into a group of baddies sending them all to the ground.

All *really* unrealistic, but all somewhat creative and used in fun adventure movies all the time. I agree, explain it is stupid BUT the logic behind it is sound even though it would never really work. Let it happen, gets them to be more creative then just frontal attacks all the time.

All your tips are pretty much dead on Manfred and it is a great article. The comfort thoughts are *very* important because it can quickly get awkward if you aren't 100% comfortable with the person, character, or how they plan on playing it. It is much more intimate so things that happen in a group go right out the window.

I have only done this a few times, most of the time we are so pressed for time that we simply do a small background paper on each character, but even in the middle of a campaign some quick solo adventuring is required to move a certain point or give a certain character some necessary freedom from the group persuasion.

2005-12-25 04:01 PM » Link: [2103#10189|text]
I have not been able to retrieve my main email for the last 2 months. So I was just catching up on the last 8 or so Roleplaying tips from Roleplaying I discovered this very issue was covered by them as well.

2005-12-25 04:03 PM » Link: [2103#10190|text]
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Comments ( 13 )
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December 25, 2005, 15:57
What if I feel you are very right in this particular case?

I must say that I am very happy with all the stuff that you have jotted down at the top end. I has given me some more perspective on being the DM and my tasks and how I should handle the situation I currently am in.

Yours gratefully,

December 26, 2005, 4:28
Finally, my precious is here in the new Citadel. It is old but I still like it. :)

Note: parts this article were featured in THE RPG Tips!
Voted KendraHeart
December 27, 2005, 19:44
Single player games are a great deal of fun. It is a duet between you and the GM. In some ways you are also a GM. You add more to the story because you are 50% of the game with the GM being the other 50%.

Sure, you might have to do some NPCs for the GM. You need to pick up some of the slack.

The mini-series and one shot format, taken from comic books works pretty well. The two of you playing out special scenes and sidequests is very successful. It allows you and the GM to bring more back to the table.
Ancient Gamer
January 2, 2006, 6:45
Ah, I will GM a one player campaign this spring. This article will sure come in handy. And, as an added bonus, I will make sure to post my experiences in this thread. :)
Voted Mourngrymn
January 11, 2006, 11:26
While I enjoyed this very much and it is nice to know there is a lot of things that need ot be altered just for a one on one session. I tend to dislike single player campaigns. They lack the flavor and creativity of a full blown four plus player campaign.

I have been privy to one myself, and while it was entertaining it lacked a certain fun that I get when playing with other people. The random nature of humanity can be expected when dealing with more people. A single person you can lead very easy to the way you want.

Still a good sub though.
June 15, 2006, 0:10
This one hits home. I once spent 5 years running an OPC. Great Article! (and I'm not usually a fan of articles) ;)

Its not letting me vote though for some reason.
Voted Murometz
December 12, 2007, 14:53
And now years later, it /is/ letting me vote! :) Great article.

I'm running a two-PC show this weekend, but most of this applies anyway.
Voted Michael Jotne Slayer
September 27, 2010, 14:56
Once again I encounter a submission that I have read several times and appreciated but somehow failed to comment on. Error corrected and shame on me.

This is a splendid article and I found myself nodding my head at most points as I read trough it again.
Voted MysticMoon
March 29, 2011, 23:48

Some interesting considerations. I was once on the player's side of the equation for most of a summer and I agree with what has been said. Game mechanics were mostly ignored in favor of heavier role-playing. I rarely interacted with more than one NPC at a time. I got myself into a few jams, similar to what has been described (no other players to reality check my ideas.) I was lucky to have a creative and forgiving GM.

Good article manfred. I especially liked ephe's idea about using solo gaming to warm up a group.

Voted valadaar
November 27, 2012, 9:24
This plus the excellent comments and added ideas is awesome.

I ran a single player campaign back a looong time ago. It would have been very useful back then.

Voted Gossamer
September 14, 2013, 7:26
Good advice, albeit somewhat genre specific. In 4E, a Fighter or a Cleric would probably be the best for a single player campaign. That being said, in my Campaign my one player plays a Rogue, and I have a few other PCs controlled by me follow him, I usually let him Control more than one though during battles, otherwise it would get boring just getting to act once per round (I tend to throw a lot of enemies in there).

But what I've found hard, is finding the incentive for characters to follow him, that's where it would have helped to have a group form naturally, even though in all fairness, PCs are usually forced together for the silliest of reasons anyhow.
Voted Father Stabbingston
March 1, 2015, 14:58
Exceptional , I already tend to this style but will undoubtedly incorporate some ideas into future campaigns (love the idea to bring a party together as a true back-story).
Voted Aramax
March 1, 2015, 15:23
5/5 Ive only run one very long OPC and it was a blast Taking Star Fleet Cadet Horst Bock to Sta Fleet Captain/Klingon Admiral was a hoot. I look forward to doing this again someday


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