One-on-One Roleplaying: Pros and Cons

With all of our moving around over the last few years, I’ve gotten to play in and game master (GM) one-on-one (or “solo”) games, where there’s a single GM and a single player. I find them pretty interesting–my love of dissecting the roleplaying experience means that I can’t help observing the things that seem easier, the things that seem harder, the differences, the similarities… And, of course, we’ve had to experiment with some methods for fixing”\ things that we’ve considered to be problems. I’ll share what we’ve found, and hopefully it’ll help you to fine-tune your own gaming experience.

Similarities And Differences

Roleplaying is still roleplaying, whether you have one player, five, ten, or twenty. You’ll do a lot of the same things in the same ways. You still need stories, non-player characters (NPCs), interesting plot hooks and twists, and so on. There are some interesting considerations to take into account, however.

Character Interactions

Negatives: The GM can’t sit back and let the player characters (PCs) talk things out between themselves. All character interactions take place between NPCs and the single PC, or different NPCs. It tends to be harder to avoid NPC-to-NPC interactions, which are often necessary and can be interesting, but can also leave the player bored or alienated if carried on too long. It also tends to create a lot of work for the GM, who has to shoulder a much larger percentage of the conversation and interaction; he may also have to keep a larger number of personalities than usual straight in his head. He can no longer simply sit back at times, listen to the PCs plot and scheme, and use that time to think about the next part of the adventure.

1. The player could play more than one PC: This gets a bit tricky, but some players feel comfortable playing more than one PC. This only slightly alleviates the problem, since it gets tough to carry on a conversation with one’s self for too long (the same problem the GM has). It can also be difficult to pay equal attention to multiple characters.

2. The GM and player could pick a high-combat low-story game: If the GM and player don’t care all that much about character interactions and story, or don’t mind taking a break from them for a while, a game that doesn’t involve much character interaction is one possible solution. Of course this solution creates its own problems, but we’ll get to those in a moment (see “Combat,” below).

3. The player could take on a larger role in the administration of the game: Some players/GMs feel comfortable allowing the player to take on a larger role in running the game. For instance, the player might have control over several supporting NPCs. This allows for a greater range of interaction between various combinations of PC-NPC and NPC-NPC. Either these NPCs should be ones that wholly support the PC, or the GM should be sure he’s very familiar with his player’s gaming style and can fully trust the player’s ability to run those NPCs impartially (not generally recommended, but I’ve known players who can pull it off). This way the player has one primary character to concentrate on, but she can spice things up with a few extra personalities.

4. The GM could take breaks more often and possibly run shorter game sessions: Taking frequent breaks can give the GM a chance to think and to rest his voice for a moment. If he gets really wiped out he can run shorter sessions — after all, the single player is getting a greater share of the spotlight time, so she’s fitting more roleplaying into a shorter amount of time. Breaking early for the night is probably also going to be a lot easier when the GM only has to worry about sending one player home early rather than five.

5. The GM could concentrate on just a few NPCs: The fewer the NPCs the GM needs to fully detail and play in great depth, the less of a strain it can be to play those characters often and in real depth. The GM can pick one to three NPCs to “showcase” in any given adventure or storyline, and try to limit others to minor supporting roles. Obviously player choices could derail these plans, but more often than not it should work. If a player seems to want to interact with a certain NPC then the GM can detail that NPC more fully.

6. Keep conversational notes: When the GM preps material for a session, he can also prep some conversational notes. For instance, if he wants to make sure that several of his minor NPCs still get to show their personality without his having to keep a dozen people constantly in mind, he could write down one or two one-line observations each of those characters might make about various in-game circumstances. It’s best to keep these short and simple so they’re more likely to remain usable. They should also be things that display an NPC’s personality at least a little, and care should be taken to keep them in the character’s voice (they can be read aloud ahead of time to make sure they sound natural).

Positives: If the GM and player enjoy deep story elements and long personal conversations this gives them the chance to play with that to the fullest. There’s no worry that an hour-long in-game conversation will bore other players. There’s no worry about whether or not the PC should go off by herself and risk sidelining all the other players for a while.

There’s incredible opportunity for development in characters, relationships between characters, background, world, complex storylines, and so forth (over time). The GM only has to concentrate on one character’s development needs, which makes it easier to put effort into working that character’s interests, relationships and background into the game. This can make for a very intense, personalized roleplaying experience.

No more arguments between PCs who get angry at each other’s actions, or players who don’t agree with each other’s gaming styles. While PC disagreements can be great when they’re all in fun, they can really tear a group apart when they spill over to the players–and this eliminates that problem entirely.

Figuring things out

Negatives:
The player no longer has other people around to brainstorm with. Since everyone has their blind spots, their slow moments, and their “off” nights, this can make it harder for a solo player to solve a puzzle or mystery, figure out a viable solution to a plot, or decide on a course of action.


1. Allow NPCs to help:
The GM can allow the PC to talk things over and brainstorm with NPCs. The worry here is that the GM will somehow end up handing the answer to the player, but there are ways to avoid that:

  • Decide ahead of time exactly what relevant information each NPC has. Make sure some of it will fit with information the PC already has to hopefully lead to new conclusions and progress.
  • Decide ahead of time which conclusions an NPC is likely to draw from the information available, and how.
  • Have NPCs lie and cheat where appropriate. Make sure ahead of time the player knows the NPCs are capable of this–some people don’t get this and can become upset when it happens.
  • Have NPCs draw incorrect conclusions from the evidence where appropriate (having a fully-fleshed personality for an NPC can make it easy to see how his biases could taint his thinking). Again, make sure ahead of time the player knows NPCs are capable of this.
  • Have different NPCs give the PC differing suggestions or opinions — it’s up to the PC to sift through and evaluate them. This can be a good way to drive home the point that NPCs aren’t always right.
  • Have one NPC declare another NPC’s opinion or suggestion to be a lie or incorrect.

Even if the PC can’t get a direct answer out of such interactions, the process of seeing things in a new light can sometimes spur her to make progress on her own.

2. Make mysteries more easily solvable: No one’s saying that mysteries and puzzles in a one-person game have to be simple, but there’s only one pair of eyes/ears, and only one mind doing the thinking. The GM can make sure there are a few redundant clues. He can keep mysteries a little simpler than usual. He can put more care into making certain that there are ways to get enough information. The amount of simplifying needed depends strongly on the individual player (and PC), so this is something each GM has to play around with until he finds the right balance.

3. Provide an emergency switch: The GM can provide an in-game means for the player to get a hint now and then; the actual means depends on the genre. Some games include rituals or spells that provide information; in a more modern game the PC might be able to get advice from a knowledgeable mentor. Some games provide “action dice” or similar mechanics that can be spent to gain flashes of inspiration. Any emergency switch should be difficult, dangerous, of limited use, or costly so the PC won’t simply run to it every time she gets a little stuck.

4. Present mysteries in stages: Different clues fit together to lead the PC to new clues, which fit together to lead to new information, etc. Thus, NPCs can help with difficult parts of the puzzle while still leaving portions of the puzzle that the PC must ultimately solve herself. This can also provide something for the PC to feel a sense of accomplishment about even if she doesn’t solve the ultimat mystery. If some of the pieces can be worked on in parallel, this can also let her work on one thing while allowing another part of the puzzle that she doesn’t understand to wait until she’s thought it through some more or found more clues.

Positives: No more waiting for five (or eight, or twelve) people to come to some sort of consensus about what they’re going to do. No more three-hour circular arguments over which of two courses of action to take. While there might be times when the player is frozen into inaction because she isn’t sure what to do next, at least there won’t be any spats that grow out of differences of opinion regarding how the party should carry something out or which solution to a puzzle or mystery is actually correct. Also, once the GM becomes familiar with a given player’s thought processes, he might find it easier to predict what she’ll figure out and what she won’t, making it easier for him to tailor the mysteries to her ability level and interests.

Combat

Negatives: If the GM has to run every character other than the single PC, combat can become more cumbersome. Combats can end up with the PC taking his action, and then waiting for ten minutes while everyone else takes theirs.

1. Let the player run more than one character in combat: This spreads the effort and time taken out a bit more evenly. It does make it harder for the GM to have the PC’s companions do unexpected things during combat; however, he still has the option to take control of an NPC for a round or two as desired.

2. Prepare heavily: When I’m writing up a mission for the “Stargate SG-1” roleplaying game and planning for a combat, I do some fairly extensive preparation. I keep a generic spreadsheeet template around with columns for most of the numbers and statistics I’m likely to need during combat, such as attack bonuses, defense scores, save bonuses, special abilities, weapon damage, and so on. I keep a version of the template tailored to the specific gaming run that has pre-loaded the scores for the regular NPCs on the same team as the PC; when writing up the mission I put together a section for each combat I think might potentially occur (even if it’s unlikely). I even roll up things like initiative (things that get determined at the start of combat) ahead of time.

I keep a quick write-up of each NPC involved in the combat nearby (along with weapon information, etc.), so I can look things up very easily without having to take up a lot of time. During combat I make notations directly on the computer, altering the spreadsheet as I go. This tends to make combat go much more quickly, and the preparation doesn’t take as long as you might think. Particularly after a session or two, once you find that you tend to re-use information from one game to the next and can copy-paste some of it.

3. Find excuses to keep combat small and/or simple: If the number of PCs is smaller, the GM could keep the combats smaller as well. He could make them two on-two, for example, instead of five-on-five, or simplify them by involving as few different weapons and abilities as possible. I also often take groups of generic bad guys and give them a set of stats, initiative roll, and so on as a group instead of individually, which makes things much faster (however, they still need to be listed separately on any combat templates, as different things will happen to them during combat).

Positives: There tends to be a lot of adrenaline going during game combats (in my experience). This can cause excited, tense players to talk over each other even when they don’t intend to. When there’s only one player there’s no risk of this. Things are simpler; the GM and player take turns as dictated by initiative (or whatever), and that’s that.

There’s little chance that a player will end up feeling as though his character was overshadowed by everyone else’s or didn’t get a chance to do anything. Unless the GM is having the NPCs overshadow him (which is a whole other problem that usually extends a lot farther than combat when it occurs), he’s inherently the c enter of the GM’s attention even if he’s among NPCs who do most of the fighting. Also, since he’s the only PC, the GM should have spent some time during the adventure preparation making sure there would be things for him to do or focus on during combat.

Coordinating

Negatives: If there are any misunderstandings about the game between player and GM, they’re going to be a lot more glaring and intrusive. They’ll have a much greater affect on the game and how enjoyable it is to both parties.

1. Communicate–before, during, and after: With only one GM and one player, it should be easy for both to find time to sit down and discuss the game before it starts. They can talk about their expectations: what they want from the game, what they hope for, what they don’t like when roleplaying, what they do like, and so on. They can discuss genre, character options, preferred plot types, playing styles, GMing styles, the unusual aspects of solo gaming and how to handle them, and so forth. Now and then, they can stop a nd chat about how things are going, how the game is living up to both parties’ expectations, and how it can be changed for the better (if necessary).

Positives: It’s much easier for two people to coordinate (their desires, their schedules, their mind-sets) than it is for five. It should also be more obvious up-front if they just aren’t going to be able to mesh.

Interests and needs

Negatives: There may end up being less variation in plot types if the player simply doesn’t like some styles of play or types of plot. This isn’t necessarily a big deal unless their preferences seem to make things prohibitively restrictive.

1. Ask the player to try new things: While it generally isn’t a good. idea for a GM to deliberately work in a plot type he knows his player doesn’t tend to like, it never hurts to ask when he has a specific idea he’d like to try out. If the player has actually agreed to try something new she’s more likely to enjoy it (or at least not be upset by it).

2. Gently push the boundaries: Rather than completely breaking with the player’s desires, the GM can gently push the boundaries and see how things go. If the player shows no interest in the new alternatives presented to her (for instance, she prefers combat solutions to plots and the GM set up an alternative political solution that she ignores), the n the GM knows it’s time to back off and go back to what the player enjoys.

3. Allow NPCs to push the boundaries: NPCs can engage in bits and pieces of different types of activity around the PC, while leaving room for the PC to still do her thing. For example, the PC enjoys the aforementioned combat solution to plots, rather than political. But the current plot requires her to get information from an NPC who is engaged in political dealings in order for her to carry out her combat portion of things. This can allow for a wider variation in plot-types. This is also one way to accomplish solution #2, because the PC can start helping out these NPCs if she gets interested in what they’re doing.

4. Start up a second game: If all else fails and the GM gets sick and tired of only one type of plot or game-play, he can always play in or run a second game with someone else. This can help to keep him from getting too tired of one player’s interests. Or, he can simply run sessions a little less frequently than he might normally.

Positives: There’s no balancing act in which the GM tries to give one player her politics, another his romance, and another her combat. The GM only has to satisfy one set of needs and interests. Even if the player has a wide range of interests, the GM doesn’t have to satisfy as many of them at once–he can spread them out over time. He only has to work one PC’s background and interests into his storylines. He only has to figure out how to draw one person into each plot.

Game balance

Negatives: If gaming groups enjoy having rivalries, backstabbing and betrayal between PCs in their games, some of this gets lost in a solo game. While NPCs can fill this role to a certain extent, one of the things that can keep it “all in fun” for PCs is the sense that there’s a level playing field, with no special knowledge or lack of limitations on the part of the other characters. NPCs as rivals are something different (not necessarily better or worse — just different), and they occupy a different need and niche.

1. Create a rival that is equal in stature to the PC: If the player enjoys these sorts of interactions, the GM can create teammates and/or rivals who are equal in stature to the PC. The GM must be careful to play these NPCs in as impartial a manner as possible, without giving them special knowledge or information that another PC, if there was one, couldn’t pick up.

2. Make sure NPCs are an appropriate challenge for the PCs: For players who like to have that sense of rivalry, it becomes particularly important for the GM to make sure that NPC-created challenges are not only appropria te to the abilities and stature of the PC, but also clearly appropriate.

3. Create NPC allies and teammates who aren’t entirely loyal to the PC: For some people there’s a certain thrill and challenge out of plots that involve finding out that your “allies” aren’t necessarily as loyal as you thought. In this case the GM can make sure there are plenty of potential allies and teammates for the PC over the course of an ongoing game, and that some of these people have their own agendas that don’t necessarily match up with the PC’s. They don’t necessarily have to be out-and-out traitors; development of NPCs with depth can help a GM to figure out what interesting agenda an NPC might have.

4. Create friction: Even people who are loyal to each other have disagreements, arguments, and fights. These sorts of relationships can add helpful and interesting complications (and dimensions) to nearly any plot. Used with care, they can help to stand in for the entertaining aspects of friction between PCs.

Positives:
Since the GM can almost always find some way to create an appropriate challenge for a PC, “game balance” as an actual problem is often more about making sure that the PCs are on a fairly level playing field with one another than it is about balancing PCs with NPCs. This is a major reason why so many games have strict character creation guidelines. When there’s only one player there’s more room for creativity when drawing up a character, assuming the GM feels up to accommodating that creativity.

There’s no worry over whether someone’s trying to out-shine the other players, because there are no other players to out-shine. There’s no worry that a PC will make the other PCs look powerless in comparison because there are no other PCs. If a player wants to play a particularly high-powered, low-powered, or just plain weird game (or the GM wants to run such a game), there’s no worry about what the other players want. And if the experiment goes badly, it’ll be easier to bring the game back on track (or start over again with something new) when there’s only one PC to deal with. It becomes easier to play with unusual ideas, experiment with strange plots and characters, and so on.

…And more

Socializing: A one-on-one game is great for two friends (or spouses, or family members) who want some quality time together. (Speaking from experience, I think it’s particularly handy for spouses.) If someone’s looking for a more social experience, however, this isn’t really the way to get it. That person will probably enjoy a larger game more. One possible compromise, however, if there are other people who are interested in the game but can’t make it regularly enough to play true PCs, is to bring in “guest stars” to play interesting NPCs. This is particularly viable in mission-style games, which tend to bring in NPCs for one plot or two and then leave them behind again, bringing them back quite some time later if at all.

Preparation:The GM probably needs to prepare extra material–he can’t rely on having a handful of PCs to interject more of their own actions and conversations into the game. He’s on stage for a greater percentage of the night (although if he has a play er who likes to engage in long conversations with NPCs, he might be able to get farther with less information). However, the GM only has to account for one player/PC’s probable choices when figuring out what to spend the most time preparing, and if he grows to know his player well this can drastically shorten the amount of material he needs to prepare.

Assistance:One of the handy things about a multi-player game is that the GM can sit back, listen to player/PC speculation as to what’s going on, and maybe steal some ideas here and there to make sure the plot stays interesting. Even if the players realize he’s doing this, it won’t help them much if they tossed out ten ideas and they know he only picked one (and probably twisted it up a bit to keep them guessing). When a GM only has one player tossing out ideas, it takes more work to find those bits of inspiration, plug up those unexpected plot holes, and keep the player from figuring out what’s going on. It’s still possible, of course — it just requires a little more thought and effort to rework the player’s thoughts or to use her ideas as a springboard to something totally different.

I happen to think that one-on-one games are neither inherently better nor inherently worse than games with fferent ways. It’s just one more option when you’re considering what you’d enjoy when gaming!

Posted in Gaming

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