Wednesday 3 July 2013

One Player Roleplaying

I've known for some time that some of the original D&D games involved single player sessions (as well as sessions involving a larger number of players than contemporary RPGs cater for). Typically, though, these involved higher level characters, who had outgrown the 'party model' of adventuring. Wayne Rossi has recently written about this model for high level play in a post called Party versus Retinue. However, sometimes - like when your gaming group involves people trying to finish PhDs, start second(!) PhDs, pursue anti-folk music stardom, or just people trying to manage the mundane demands of adult life - you have one player and would like to not only run a one-shot, but run a (parallel) single player campaign. In my case, with my wife. Aside from starting at a high level (which is perfectly possible), what other options are there? What games/settings are better suited for running a single-player campaign?

This book is on my office shelf. Didn't give me much advice on running single player RPG campaigns...

Old School D&D seems a bad fit. At lower levels it is dependent on the party dynamic, in which each character fills a particular niche, a combination of which are required for successful dungeoneering. The single player would either have to play a number of PCs, or there would need to be a retinue of levelled DMPCs accompanying the PC, neither seem particularly satisfying. Of course, D&D doesn't need to be about dungeoneering, or a version of wilderness exploration that replicates many of the dynamics of the dungeon. It doesn't have to involve adventures built on the model of published modules, featuring multiple PCs. That said, there was the HHQ (Head to Head Quest - a title I don't like as it sounds too adversarial) series of Fighter's/Wizard's/etc. Challenge modules, but these look to be more a model for a single player 'fill-in' adventure than a model for an ongoing campaign. You could take a leaf from the advice in some of AD&D2e's Complete [X's] Handbooks, which contained advice on running campaigns without the traditional spread of party roles (transforming an 'all Fighter' campaign into a 'only one Fighter' campaign shouldn't be too hard). Or, also from the 2e era, the historical reference books contain plenty of advice for running games that do not feature dungeons or dragons. But if that is the sort of thing that you are going to use D&D for, aren't there better systems for that kind of play? 

Specifically those systems with a weaker degree of 'niche protection'. A skill-based system? King Arthur Pendragon obviously springs to mind. Everyone is a knight. A discussion about player character roles in KAP would run something like this; What's your characters' role? He's a knight. And yours? My character is  a knight. And you? Also a knight. More, the source material involves knights spending years questing alone (often, seemingly, without their knightly retinue!). I know that David Larkins has been running the Great Pendragon Campaign with his wife as the only player, but while I pluck the GPC off my shelf every once in a while I find the whole thing just so... intimidating. Call of Cthulhu also features plenty of solo 'adventurers' in its source material - but they don't tend to last long enough to get a 'campaign' going, and without 'party backup' even a brief spell of insanity - a likely outcome for a PC in CoC - might be an adventure/campaign ender. Which fits with the source material, but I'm not into RPGs as fiction emulators (why would I be, I've got fiction for that), but as games. There is always the option of the retinue - an primary investigator and his or her NPC companions/employees. Or contacts - not all of an investigator's 'resources' need be mobile, the action doesn't take place in a dungeon so having expertise distributed about the city (or other setting) is no handicap, and prevents the PC being accompanied everywhere by a largely silent, mostly invisible, and almost will-less party of NPC niche-fillers. But, for proper solo player fun, Unbound Publishing has produced a very nice looking collection of adventures for single investigators. And it is FREE - Monophobia: A Fear of Solitude. 

Single player science fiction gaming tends to face the problem of spaceship crews, in which it is assumed that the 'party' will be a captain and his or her senior officers. But crews can be so large that they are a collection of unnamed, undefined NPCs, so what is the problem if there a few named and defined NPCs under the command of Captain James PC Kirk? In fact, in situations in which command and decision making is so heavily invested in one character, and thus, possibly, in one player, might not space-faring sci-fi be the ideal setting for single player roleplay gaming? On my shelves I have Stars Without Number (which has the 'niche protection' problem of all OSR games), Mongoose Traveller (which has starting characters begin play a bit less than Captain Kirk), and Rogue Trader (in which one player - the Rogue Trader - is essentially Captain Kirk with skullz! all over his or her uniform, in command of a gothic cathedral of a spaceship exploring the stars beyond the Imperium).

But what about something more like 'traditional' fantasy? A skill-based game with less emphasis on combat seems the best fit. A d100 system (OpenQuest, Magic World, RuneQuest) has obvious attractions, particularly those that have systems to create characters with a bit more experience. With more organic character improvement, they provide scope for a solo player to explore the world according to their interests, and be shaped (mechanically) by those experiences. While my tastes, 'crunch' wise, typically tend towards running simpler systems - OpenQuest over RuneQuest, for example - with just a single player / single PC (perhaps with hirelings/henchmen/sidekick) the crunch factor weighs less heavily, and with fewer characters in play I'd be happy (even welcome the chance) to play with slightly more complex mechanics. An opportunity to put the Combat Manoeuvres of Mongoose RQII (or their evolution in RuneQuest 6, if the book ever finds its way into the hands of a UK distributor) into action, without keeping track of a handful of PCs controlled by players struggling with the rules?  

But my eyes keep falling on my big, fat Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (1e/2e) books. The career system is the signature feature of WFRP, but in my experience it isn't fully exploited in multiple player campaigns. If a PC really is going to become a Mercenary Captain, he or she needs to go out and do that, not investigate the Purple Hand. If they are going to become an Assassin, they need to set themselves up as Murder, Inc. If they want to be a Demogogue, they need to get rabble rousing. And so on... In a multiple player game, these things are either handled 'offstage' (an informal 'Winter Phase'), which reduces the career system to 'levelling up', or the players need to bring the advancement priorities of their PCs into alignment. A single player campaign, on the other hand, allows movement though the career system to be much more organic, a feature of the play itself, as the PC explores the Old World.

All this said, Solo Heroes from Sine Nomine Press - who never seem to put out a bad book - is not only free, but boasts of being a hack to Old School D&D (specifically, Labyrinth Lord) to enable single player gaming. I'll have to put it through its paces at some point, but at a glance the hack fundamentally shifts the balance of risk in D&D, and for this outing I want the game to (mechanically, at least) run the same whether I have one player or five, to allow the integration of extra players without calling for a 'reality shift'.

Anyway... what system would you use? What would you want to use? What experiences of running single player RPGs do you have?

[edited a little, as it read as if 'you' would want to play a single player campaign with my wife!]


  1. The temptation would be to use WHFRP, but with a new approach. In an environment where I can get a single mate to game with me quite easily but can't get all my gaming buddies in the same room hardly ever I would consider running them through their 'career' individually. Bob* does some rat-catching one week (no doubt running into the occasional Skaven) while Dave* does a spot of bounty-hunting the next. Eventually you get these guys to sit down, having all made some individual progress, and run them as a party through a single session adventure.

    I have had no joy getting RPG sessions to catch on since I moved a few years ago and back home there was an embarrassment of riches where players were concerned so I have never run a solo campaign, but now I'm thinking it could be a useful way to get some sessions in.

    *Names have been changed to protect identities.

    1. "Eventually you get these guys to sit down, having all made some individual progress, and run them as a party through a single session adventure."

      Another reason to use WFRP (or a RQ variant) - to my mind the fact that these systems have a more shallow 'power curve' than found in D&Dish games (plus the emphasis on non-combat encounters and skills) means that quite advanced characters can always benefit from comparatively inexperienced companions.

  2. I ran a "Lone Wolf" 2nd edition AD&D game in which the player started at 1st level as a ranger and adventured alone. I think he made it up to 6-7 level before he joined a party of other adventurers (our other gaming buddies) and then was killed by something.... we were young and we used to game almost everyday after school.

    I also played a wizard in Greyhawk and adventured on my own and made it up to 11th level mostly through solo adventures. I learned to run (later supplanted with Dimension Door and Teleport - A LOT!), purchase healing potions, and know your limits...

  3. Which fits with the source material, but I'm not into RPGs as fiction emulators (why would I be, I've got fiction for that), but as games.

    Yes. A million times yes.

  4. I have run one-on-one games with my wife using Risus, Tunnels & Trolls and OD&D. What game works best will depend on your wife's approach to gaming. My wife has a natural inclination to assemble a party of NPCs so older edition D&D was a natural fit. I actually converted what had been her T&T character to OD&D because the number of dice that I had to roll for her companions had gotten unwieldy for me. The Wizardawn website has some handy generators that can be tailored to a single character. Mutant Future or an older edition of Gamma World could work well especially given the number of hit points the average PC begins with. In my experience, one of the thing that can sour a new gamer's impression of RPGs is dying before anything cool happens. Solo play can be awesome & offers some unique situations that ordinary party play can't. I remember one session where it was just my wife's character shopping & trying to get the lowdown on the city by talking with the merchants. It was one of the best role playing sessions that I have ever had as a GM or player.

    1. Mphs.Steve: I'm leaning towards WFRP. I'm always leaning towards WFRP, even when I'm playing something else. In this case, I think that Fate Points, and the (relative) focus on non-combat activities in adventures (while still retaining most of the fantasy tropes we're/she's familiar with) makes it a viable option.

  5. Sorry for the late responses.

    Rich: Perhaps there is also the question of what sort of characters are suitable for 'solo' roleplaying, and what sort of campaigns are they suitable for. Thinking about it, more that a few of the 'Advanced' D&D classes aren't much suited to party-style adventure; you could make the argument that the Ranger, the Druid, the Paladin, the Cavalier, even the Barbarian all have characteristics that have to be glossed over in the context of a campaign spanning multiple adventures (unless the campaign is about them, with the other PCs as support).

  6. I think I can split my attempts to run solo adventures into two eras. The first can be dismissed, as it was during the junior high phase of the game when we hadn't grown a group of players yet or at least a group which lived within biking range. It was basically one guy running a variable number of characters (often six)in a rather straight forward, military manner. We were junior high nerds, we had time on our hands.

    The second came about as a result due to the heavy drinking and work hours of my Sunday group, which was an all day a marathon group, filled with an amorphous group of rotating people, who often didn't show up if they were hung over or during football season. People went missing and were rude enough to just not show up. The only real constant was me, because it was my apartment and at most someone would climb the tree and into my kitchen. Came a Sunday with a snow storm, only one dedicated guy showed up. So after an hour of deriding everyone else, we decided to just do a solo adventure and had enough fun that we started to do it during the week at times as well. Just to hang out.

    I'd say the easiest and most natural character class to do this with is the thief, as the thief's powers quite often don't mesh that well with other people. He's just the weak fighter, that in small parties has to fight. He's the guy who has to spring the traps.

    Everyone has had the experience of the party thief and the GM basically abandoning the group and going into the kitchen to "preserve secrecy" for what is supposed to be two minutes and instead turns into a half hour. Then they come back in and the GM says "how long do you wait for him to come back?", the thief gives a description of what was down the hole while the Gm draws the room, or the thief says it's a dead end and has a shiny new ring he doesn't care to discuss. The players are distracted from the game and usually playing "No I can kick your ass" while the anal retentive treasure guy is copying over his lists in the corner.

    Well we took that half hour in the kitchen doing reconnaissance and ran with it. I borrowed a lot of ideas from an old D&D alternate known as Thieves Guild by GameLords, supplements I'd bought and never used, mostly because they got sold off cheap. This was one of those short lived alternate systems, that nobody ever played, because everyone already knew D&D. It's entire focus was the thief in his natural environment the city (the other reason I'd bought it, having a city fetish.)

    So I coupled this with the current campaign we were playing at the time, which without getting too far into it was based in a densely packed central city ruled by a corrupt and totalitarian theocracy. He spent his time breaking into houses, mugging people in alleys,occasionally robbing a tomb, and doing black market deals. Sometimes we "wrote" in his adventures into the general campaign, as when he broke into a bishop's study and stole a map, or he'd be fencing the black Niborg for the party when the cops showed up. So he often acted as the party's fence or agent, for a fee of course. A bit like that scene in the Godfather, where Vito gets his friends to give him a hundred bucks and he'll take care of the negotiations, only to go shoot the guy.

    I think to run a good solo adventure, you need to step back and rethink your basic adventuring ideas. Scale them down and keep in mind his skill set. I'm sure you could model it around a knight errant, but you also need to rethink something as basic as puzzles or traps, because there is no group mind to come up with solutions.