Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Running a Solo Campaign: Some Observations

I’m currently involved in two solo campaigns with my wife, one as the DM, one as the player. Here are a few of the observations I’ve gathered over the past few months.

Puzzles suck
You know puzzles: you have to put the right thing in the statue’s hand for the door to open, or step on the right blocks on the floor in the right order, or solve some stupid riddle, that kind of thing.

The fun of puzzles is in the interaction between players as they spitball possible solutions and worry about what might happen if they do it wrong. In such a situation the DM can subtly guide the group toward the correct solution. I prefer leaving the solution open-ended and just choosing whichever proposed solution presents the most interesting complication, a method that requires the group to suggest a few different solutions.

You don’t get that with one person. If they’re stumped, the adventure ends there, or it comes down to, “Can I just roll an Intelligence check to see if my character can figure it out?” Either way, not fun. Unless you and your player just love them, skip them all together.

You know, like in a D&D solo campaign: walk from place to place, meet people, get into adventures.

DMPCs suck
It’s no fun as a DM to have to roll all of the monster attacks and then roll for 3-4 NPCs. All of the solo campaigns I’ve played with my wife have involved a powerful animal companion or some kind of loyal servant that can absorb some damage and contribute a little to combat. One campaign I ran years ago began with the PC inheriting a golem. The first session involved finding a crystal that would power up the construct (though obviously it wasn’t as powerful as a golem from the start). This type of companion adds another layer to combat without making it too complicated for the player, but it also raises the stakes in combat: will the player be willing to sacrifice the creature, or will she put her own character in harm’s way to protect it?

You fly through encounters
There are two reasons for this: 1) there is no distracting banter going around the table, and 2) one person can make decisions much faster than a group of people. Four people take fifteen minutes deciding whether to enter the west room or the east room. One person takes 30 seconds. Planning out a series of encounters to fill up a 3 hour session would take forever, so what I do is just come up with a network of 10-15 NPCs for each location (i.e. town, neighborhood, dungeon) and make liberal use of random tables for encounters (both combat and non-combat encounters) and treasure (so I can answer “what’s in that guy’s pocket?” or “what’s in the tavern storeroom?”).

Most solo campaign advice points out that you can really “craft a story around one hero” or something to that effect, but I’ve found the opposite to be true as well: the solo campaign is the perfect vehicle for a minimally-plotted sandbox. Which leads me to my next point:

Reciprocity, generosity, and trust are even more important in a solo campaign
If you’re playing with a creative, clever player, you become more of another player reacting to the actual player’s choice than a “game master” or referee. You learn to let the player take the session where they want to take it sometimes. This happens in a sandbox with a group, of course, but there’s something about the one-on-one dynamic that makes it even more fun. Instead of approaching it like a game of chess, as adversaries, something really great happens when two people receptive to each other’s ideas build something as a team.

But the story thing is true too. When you’re a player who trusts the DM and who is on the same aesthetic wavelength, you can sit back and enjoy the ride the DM has planned for you. My Planescape campaign is a pretty wide-open sandbox because I like reacting to the plans my wife, a very proactive player, comes up with, but the Dark Sun* campaign she is running for me is very much on-the-rails because I’m terribly indecisive as a player if not given direction and because I trust the DM to come up with awesome stuff.

*Planescape, Dark Sun…yes, we were in a 2e mood in the months before 5e came out. We’ve converted the Planescape campaign over to 5e (maybe I’ll post my 5e Githzerai PC race sometime), but the Dark Sun campaign seems to have petered out. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Another Vampire, Why Not

[TW: Suicide]

AC: 18 (2)
HD: 9
AL: Chaotic
Attacks: Bite 1d6+disease, weapon
Special Abilities: become ethereal, dimension door, charm person, polymorph self, cause disease, chill touch, cause wounds

“ImbĂ©cile!—de son empire                                         (Imbecile! If from his empire
Si nos efforts te dĂ©livraient,                                        Our efforts would deliver you,
Tes baisers ressusciteraient                                          Your kisses would resuscitate
Le cadavre de ton vampire!”                                      The corpse of your vampire!)
—Charles Baudelaire, “Le Vampire”

Vampires are the corpses of human suicides who ended their own lives out of despair rather than out of honor. The honorable suicide is an act of self-sacrifice, but the despairing suicide is a blasphemous attempt to defeat death, a vain effort affirm one’s wholeness by ending the process of deaths-upon-deaths that constitutes a life, a defensive act that seeks to shore up the walls of the self rather than to dissolve them completely. As a result of this paradoxical desire, vampires are cursed with an unslakeable lust for annihilation.

Finding solace only in the grave, vampires often sleep for months, rising from their interment periodically to feed. The blood of any creature will sustain the vampire, but it is the blood of sentient creatures—especially the immortal blood of elves—that most thoroughly nourishes the vampire. After feeding, the sated vampire often becomes delirious, as though intoxicated, and it is during this period that the vampire is most likely to reveal itself to others through wanton acts of violence or an obsessive, often romantic, attachment to a single individual. To replenish its arcane power, the vampire will slumber in its own grave, passing ethereally through Earth’s fathoms disturbing neither soil nor sod. The only known means of destroying a vampire are striking the head from the body, plunging a stake through the heart, and burning the body to ash.

Those persons cognizant of the secret of the vampire’s creation have been known to make dark pilgrimages to the Fata Subterrane in order to carry out the desperate, fatal ritual, plunging blades into their hearts or dragging them across their throats, expecting to wake, after a three-day respite in their cavernous graves, imbued with new life. Hoping to midwife companions for themselves, some vampires even court humans of such a dolorous mien, creating around themselves foul cults that culminate in mass suicide. Few if any of these humans are ever reborn as vampires. It seems that only those who truly wish for death are granted the curse of eternal life in undeath. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

1d8 Gems from a Decadent Wizard's Hoard

By way of “What the Sonnet Is” by Eugene Lee-Hamilton (1894)

1.  Fourteen small broidered berries on the hem
     Of Circe’s mantle, each of magic gold;         
2.  Fourteen of lone Calypso’s tears that rolled  
     Into the sea, for pearls to come of them;       
3.  Fourteen clear signs of omen in the gem               
     With which Medea human fate foretold;      
4.  Fourteen small drops, which Faustus, growing old,  
     Craved of the Fiend, to water Life’s dry stem.         
5.  It is the pure white diamond Dante brought 
     To Beatrice; (6.) the sapphire Laura wore        
     When Petrarch cut it sparkling out of thought;         
7.  The ruby Shakespeare hewed from his heart’s core;  
8.  The dark, deep emerald that Rossetti wrought          
     For his own soul, to wear for evermore.