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. 

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