One-on-One Roleplay

Today David Clark of To Have And To Roll is writing about one-on-one roleplaying.

You find yourself in a room. You have no memory of how you got here or why you are here. All you have is the clothes on your back, the feeling of cold stone beneath your feet, and a faint shaft of torchlight, streaming in from the edges of a trapdoor above you. The door is too high for your to reach on your own. Looking about, the only notable object in the room is a heavy stone lever. What do you do?

This is my way of introducing people to tabletop roleplaying games. No dice. No rulebooks. Only a scenario with an open-ended solution. It is the simplest way to get someone into the action and playing a game, and it is also the simplest form of a one-on-one roleplaying game.

When a coworker or an acquaintance asks you what this whole tabletop thing is about, you can respond by telling them about your last session, how the rules work, when your gaming group meets, etc. Or you can simply show them. Tell them they find themselves in a room, give them some sort of means of escape, and tailor what they find along the way to match with their interests. I have brought many a friend into the hobby this way and it has always at least provided a window into what I find so enjoyable about gaming.

As soon as your friend starts making decisions or asking questions, they’re playing the game. Pull the lever, and the walls start closing in. I’ve had people jump out, wait until the walls are close enough to brace themselves and climb through, or just wait and die, praying for a god to watch over their soul when they are gone. Does this provoke a divine intervention? Does the story then shift to the journey of their soul through the afterlife? All of these are relevant paths. The important part about this scenario is that it is a learning experience. Your only goal is to convey why people play tabletop games, not how. Once out of the room, they might find themselves in an orc camp or an orbital prison. They could be in the depths of a drow stronghold, seeking escape from torment and slavery. They might be in a medical ward, with no memory of how they got there and no staff to answer their questions, only bloody footprints and a chained door that rattles and shakes from time to time. Whatever brings the spark of interest to the player’s eye is the right answer, and things that don’t can be glossed over as you present them with more points of interest.

For more experienced players seeking a longer format game than “you find yourself in a room,” you can use mechanics as deep as they want. You could have a single player character with nothing but their starting equipment on their back and a single plot hook to get them on the path to adventure. Your player could run an entire adventure path, complete with a full party of 4-6 adventurers, all crafted and piloted by your one player. They could be a monarch in charge of a kingdom at war, with a full mass combat and resource management system at their disposal. The level of detail is something you will want to discuss beforehand.

One-on-one games often have a more personal tone, which can be both a benefit and a challenge. On one hand, there are some stories that would be too personal to cover in a large group. A personal vendetta with a master assassin or vengeful rival might have more chance to develop when it’s only the Player Character and their nemesis in the room. Scheduling becomes much easier, pacing is handled at whatever rate the two of you care to form, and cancellations are as easily solved as finding the next time two of you have a couple of hours free. If you’re playing with someone you already spend a lot of time with, you can have impromptu sessions when you’re just hanging out. The next time you are waiting for a pizza delivery, just hit them with “When last we left our hero…” On the other hand, there is no group for the player to discuss their plans with. Roleplaying will have less banter and more direct interaction with the world. Combats are much more involved, as there is no time to plan your turns or to relax while others take their actions.

To run a one-on-one game, there are few considerations that must be taken into account before you begin. Many of these aspects will depend on what type of game you want to run, and what level of involvement your player wants in the mechanics and planning.

If you seek to run a traditional homebrew campaign or pre-written adventure, expect a level of adaptation. Both rules and content may need to change to suit your needs. In a one-player run of Pathfinder’s Curse of the Crimson Throne, my player has elected to run a four-person party. One of our early discoveries was simply the need to call for rolls that other players might ask for in a large group. Don’t be afraid to remind your player to doubt someone’s story or check for traps from time to time. In a large group, these are things that someone usually interjects with, but when it’s only you and a single player, sometimes you may need to break the immersion to remind them of mechanics, or point out a plot hook that has special resonance with one character if they are controlling multiples. In these instances, it’s only too much if your player says so.

Running a multi-character party may also necessitate a change in scope. Rather than inhabiting a singleplayer character’s perspective and abilities, the player will be acting more like a manager of the party, as one might find in a video game. They could choose to have a single point-of-view character with NPC companions or alternate between party members. If they chose to have NPC companions, make sure these companions aren’t stealing the spotlight. They can have their own stories and their own moments, but ultimately they are there to complement the point-of-view character.

If you player chooses to act as a manager for a group entirely consisting of Player Characters, it may be best for both of you to treat the game as taking more of a third-person perspective. Conversations among group members can involve swapping off who has control of which character, with the Game Master taking control of player characters in ways that you and your player have worked out. You might describe actions in longer form, much like a novel. If your player likes acting out their characters, don’t be afraid to stop and ask who’s talking at any given time, as this can also get confusing if there is less distinction between individual character voices. Append descriptions of action to break up dialogue. Take a step back from their character perspective and talk about the events of the game in a more omniscient tone.

As the only other person involved in the game, you will also have to do more book-keeping if you elect to run a more traditional party-based game. Tasks which could usually be delegated to other players, such as managing inventory or keeping a journal of quest activities and plot points will have to be managed by either you or your player. Most likely, you will both find yourselves doing these things to make sure everything is recorded accurately. If neither of you care for those things, feel free to reduce all loot to money that can be spent on gear, or just give more experience.

All-in-all, with the proper set-up, and the proper mindset, a one-on-one game can be a great way to fill in for days that you can’t organize a large group. It is, however, by no means a replacement for gaming in a group. By its nature, the stories you tell will tend to be more limited in scope, as you are not seeking to entertain an entire table. There is no reason you can’t face down an ancient dragon, blow up a planet-destroying space laser, or bring a mafia boss to justice in this format. But the scale will almost certainly change to accommodate the smaller pool of participants. There is also nothing that beats the harebrained schemes that a full party of 4 or more players can come up with.

For those that seek to play more games or just have an easy fall-back when larger sessions cancel, this can be a great extra tool to have in your Game-Mastering repertoire. So grab one of your favorite players, find a time that works for both of you, and try a one-on-one. The best way to learn is to play.

About the Author:

David Clark is the Game Master and producer of To Have and To Roll, the treasurer for the Plot Bubble podcast network, and an active participant in many online tabletop discussion groups. If you would like to hear some of these techniques in practice, check out tohaveandtoroll.com, where he and his wife are recording Paizo’s Curse of the Crimson Throne Adventure Path for Pathfinder First Edition as an actual-play podcast. You can follow the podcast @tohaveandtoroll on Twitter or on Tumblr at tohaveandtoroll.tumblr.com. David is active on twitter as @rane0

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