DMing For One

A few weeks ago, my new Gamma World campaign was scheduled to start. I run for a group of high school kids, and we meet at the library to play. They’re a new group, so I was excited to meet them, and get things rolling. I had my Escape from the Badder Warren adventure all ready to go. I printed out their character origins cards and their origin power cards. When I got to the room though (in the basement, oddly. Even in a public building, RPG play is relegated to the basement…) only one of my players was there. I knew ahead of time that a couple of them wouldn’t be coming, but I was expecting three, not one.

“You the only one here?”
“Have you heard from the others?”

Decision point. I could just call it off, and tell my one player that because no one showed up, we’d just postpone until next time. Or, I could try a little “DMing for one” experiment.

I will confess that I had considered the possiblity of only one person showing up beforehand. In preparation for that scenario I did come up with the very rough outline of a “campaign backstory” type adventure in my mind. Nothing on paper, just an idea. Of course, there’s no suspense as to what I did next; the title gives it away.

“Ok, you still want to play?”
After ironing out some issues on his character sheet, we were off.

The adventure dealt with how the party came together, and was a mission that was better executed by a single character (or maybe two). Here’s what I learned from the experience, most of which probably seems obvious, but we all need reminders:

Keep in mind that, whatever the objective, your player is most likely going to choose the path of least resistance. What does that mean? Put simply, the player will play to the character’s strengths. Not rocket science, to be sure, but you can get stuck if you don’t think about that ahead of time. For example, the objective I laid out was basically infiltration of a building; the PC was not trained in Stealth, but WAS trained in Interaction. As a result, he tried to talk his way in rather than sneak in – something I should have anticipated (and planned for) from the beginning. Since I’m not the greatest at thinking on my feet (though I’m getting better), I probably made the whole mission more difficult than it needed to be.

Keep combat simple. It’s been stated (quite frequently) that D&D 4e is a tactical game. And I would agree – until you boil the party down to one player. At that point, there are less tactics involved. The character only has so many options, and no teammates to coordinate with or to rely upon. As a result, the combats can still include multiple bad guys and terrain effects, but you don’t need to layer stuff up to quite the same extent you would when planning for a 4-6 player game. Also, don’t be afraid to throw mini combats at the player where they’re squaring off against one or two minions, or a single monster that would take roughly two hits to kill.

Fill in the gaps. As stated earlier, the PC will not have teammates to rely on. Consider temporarily outfitting the character with magical gear that will fill in some of the blank spots in their abilities. The most obvious example would be healing potions, but things like a chime of opening (filling in for a lack of thievery) or Alchemist’s Acid (filling in for a lack of AoE powers) are also things to think about. Better yet, give them a limited selection of items to choose from, and let them either bolster their weaknesses or strengths, at their option. Letting players pick their own gear also gives a greater sense of control over the outcome of the adventure.

I have to say, in the end, I had a lot of fun DMing for one. I think there’s probably a large untapped market for adventures written with 1-3 players as the target party size.

I’m sure that I’m probably discovering something that many people already know, but I thought I’d share my experiences. In the future, I’ll certainly jump at the chance to DM for one.

Have you ever been the DM for a party of one? What was your experience? What lessons did I miss?

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4 Responses to DMing For One

  1. fictive says:

    I am reminded of Fezzik, from Princess Bride; you use different tactics against a half a dozen people than when you only have to worry about one. =)

  2. Thorynn says:

    One thing they did in “Dark Awakening” the DnD 4e solo adventure is provide a sidekick so you could take advantage of flanking tactics. If the player was new it could be run as an NPC by the DM. Just a thought.

    • Benoit says:

      That’s a great idea. I’m reminded of days of yore, where EVERYone played more than one character in an adventure. This would work especially well at lower levels where characters are less complex. Alternatively, you could give the player a Henchman (from Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Emporium).

  3. Kilsek says:

    I don’t think the 3-PC (and thus 4 players with the DM included) party size is that unusual in this day and age, with so many entertainment options alongside gaming. Plus veteran groups seem to have more cancellations due to work or family events or obligations, so getting a consistent large group together regularly for a good 4-5 hour block is that much more difficult.

    I’ve ran 1 and 2 PC games before, but in older D&D editions. I prefer at least 3 PCs for D&D 4e, with one reason being that the party is more dependant on eachother from a role-filling perspective to succeed tactically. Or said another way, teamwork synergy in 4e is an incredibly strong advantage to have on your side.

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