Tabletop: One-on-one campaigns

Pretty much all of my roleplaying these days involves one-on-one campaigns. I GM and my spouse plays. It’s very rewarding: she’s a hell of a player any way you slice it, whether it’s character management or role immersion or puzzle solving or simply outthinking the GM. Her level of play makes me a better GM, which allows her to up her game, and thus we’re locked in one of the few positive recursive loops one can encounter in life.

When my spouse decided to try law school, the University of Mississippi was willing to give her almost a free ride; I had family somewhat nearby, so we relocated. Her own family was now over 1300 miles away, and we had no friendbase in the area, so to occupy ourselves in our free time I started a new D&D campaign. I went all out with worldbuilding. I carefully crafted a cosmology, the political climate, unique aspects of the world which would Increase Verisimilitude and Provide an Immersive Environment. I dropped her freshly-rolled character into my finely balanced world, and she immediately proceeded to break it. Suddenly I was foundering, and the distraction tricks I had developed for group roleplay which would give me time to fix problems as they came up wouldn’t work with a single player. At the time I was frustrated, but now I look on it as one of the best experiences I’ve had. It changed my outlook on roleplaying (and I’m sure it’s full of life lessons I should be applying more broadly as well). Here are the most important ones:

  • Trust your single player. She knows you’re going through a lot of effort just for her. In my experience, it’s more difficult to prepare for a single player session than one with six of your buds. Somehow, the mistakes and inconsistencies seem more glaring. Don’t get frustrated! She’ll be willing to overlook them, or give you time to fix them, or work with you to make them into something more interesting than what it would have been without the mistake.
  • Reverse your roles. With multiple players, the focus is on the party as a whole and the world at large. As the DM, you’re the guide – even if you give the players a total sandbox and you’re simply throwing plot-hook spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks, a party won’t change courses unless pushed. Groups of people are large, slow-moving animals; a party has a lot of inertia. When they start down a path, it’s generally hard to abandon it at a moment’s notice. Single-player campaigns are much more concentrated. One person is a lot freer to change tack suddenly and head off into the wind. She has no one to hold her back from following her whim (except your beloved pet DMPCs, and if you’re doing your job, they’re not going to get in her way). In other words, she is the leader. It’s your job to follow her lead. You have the luxury to craft a world focused around a single character. Let the rest of the world sort itself as you hone in on the things which involve and interest her most. Watch where she’s pointed and focus your efforts almost entirely on that horizon (but don’t forget to keep an eye on that dragon poised to move into the valley the moment she leaves).
  • Make your NPCs worth her time. Without fellow players, there’s no predetermined group of people who will be of paramount interest to your player or her character. That role is entirely yours to fill. NPCs are much more important in the single-player campaign. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of up-front investment, though I didn’t get it at the time. At first I felt it was just hit or miss.¬†Sometimes I would introduce a character who was intended to be a major fixture but who simply didn’t click – into the round file you go, would-be rival mage! Other times someone intended to be temporary, a bit of plot grease or set dressing, would take on importance and evolve into a primary NPC. I’ve finally learned how to hook onto a couple of distinguishing characteristics and goals for each NPC. Back history, personality, and connections will evolve naturally as each NPC gets camera exposure. Eventually they become real people on their own – if she invites them to come back to the table. Let your player and her character decide who will be the important people in her life.
  • Be flexible about encounters you prepare. These days I don’t blink an eye when a carefully crafted location or encounter gets bypassed with hardly a glance. If she’s not interested now, that’s fine. I can adapt those preparations to future encounters, or simply let them roll in the background. Her decision to pass them by has consequences for the game world (and not always for ill – don’t punish her for not doing the adventure you planned to run).
  • Unless you’re openly and specifically running a combat-heavy game, be prepared to tone down the fighting. For one thing, most systems are designed for party combat; single characters often struggle to survive even minor encounters until their capabilities advance significantly. You’ll have to pull punches to make combat work, and that’s a transparent and unsatisfying fix. But more importantly, the table dynamic is much different. With a group of friends, the bigger part of combat is often the table talk, whether it’s tactical discussion or joking around while the dice are rolled. With your single player, combat raises the GM screen. She’s got no buddies at the table for chatter. If you can manage to run GMPCs and antagonists simultaneously in such a way that it feels like both you and your player are on the same side of the table, working together against a self-determinant force, you can afford to have more fighting. Ultimately, follow her lead, but be aware of the paradigm shift.

As I noted in the first bullet, GMing for a single player is more difficult overall than running a group game. But it’s also a deeper experience, and with the right GM and player, it can be much more rewarding. Try it and see if you don’t learn some things which can enhance your group game experience.

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