Thursday, August 16, 2012

DMing a solo player party – Part 1

Two years ago I had a few players drop from my group. It’s typical given where I live. Many westerners that come through Korea are here temporarily, so it is difficult to keep a lot of players for more than a year. So I was at the position of having just one player and ready to wrap up my 4E D&D game until some other time when we could get more around the table.

Thing is the other person did not want to stop. They really enjoyed the game and were perfectly willing to do so as a solo player. I agreed and sat down to try and see if I could make it work. So we played for several months. At the end I can say with confidence that, yes, you can play 4E D&D with a single player party. However you definitely have to alter things to make it work.

Limit options – Here’s a thing about roleplaying major conflicts for players, typically most of it has little to do with the DM. Sure you get some of it as players face off against you through an NPC, but the bulk of the real choices players grapple with around the table has little to do with you. It’s all about the interaction with the other players.

I mean it. Folks don’t want to admit it, but the DM usually just sets the stage. They give the group that quandary to solve. It is the party going back and forth with each other that makes the bulk of your typical engaging RP in D&D. Do you go left or right? Do you go after the crazy wizard or warn the villagers about the goblin horde coming their way? When a group is noodling through a solution in character that is where you get a lot of meaningful RP.

With a single player that is thrown out the window. That person is in charge of where the game goes. Having a ton of options and possible choices might make up for an interesting session in a large group. With a solo player it can become daunting as they get saddled down with so many quests and potential adventures they get lost, or even worse, they feel choices they make have no impact on the world. This leads to a second point…

The story railroad ain’t so bad – Sometimes it isn’t too awful to pull out the story railroad. With a group having players ride along point A, to point B, to point C, can all get very tedious quickly. I think it’s a huge sin to have players get on the rails of a story. However with a single player this can be forgiven as the lack of clear direction on what to do next can be a little frustrating. It’s not something I would do all the time, but it is an option to fall back on when running a solo player game. Sometimes you really need to give the player a little direction and focus. Having sequential goals clearly lined up for a few adventures is not a bad way to DM (something I’d typically avoid with a full group).

There are no 'bad' choices – When that player makes a choice it is the DM’s responsibility to make sure it pushes the story forward. Setbacks are always an avenue for new opportunities (and quite possibly a chance to redeem the character in then end). In a group, the DM can really put them through the wringer if they go a poor route, primarily as the group made a collective decision to go that way. Making a bad decision with a solo party is amplified 10-fold.

Things can get extremely adversarial with a single player if every choice is considered a bonehead idea in the DM’s eyes. A DM has to let that go and run with it. Granted if a player continually pulls out a ‘I jump in the lava’ plan of action, you might have to throw in the towel and just kill the guy off (but if you are at that point, you’ve got bigger problems with your game). However, you have to put yourself in the player’s shoes. They have no one to bounce ideas off of. They are going completely on intuition what they feel is the right course of action. You have to adjust your play style to accommodate them and make sure that they feel the choices made aren’t ‘bad’ ones, just ones that lead to interesting consequences.

The player is the story – With a group sometimes the DM can get away with having a player or two not have a developed background. You can also allow those relationships with the NPCs ferment a little, to the point the player’s have a greater interest in helping them out when needed. Right from the get go with a single player you need to engage them. Just about everything needs to relate back to them somehow either drawing from old acquaintances to events from their past. They have to be the center point.

In a way, it helps move the action along. The DM has an easy time pulling the strings of the player. They know the people near and dear to the PC’s heart. The DM can find it an easy task to get the player moving in the direction needed. It can be a little self indulgent for the player having all this attention, however they have to be the focal point. If the player sees themselves as the driving force for the story, that their actions (or inaction) have consequences for future events, then you’ve got something that keeps the player engaged and having fun.

Next post I’ll go into some more practical advice along the lines of game mechanics for the single player party.