D&D Party of One: Solo Adventuring (Part 1)

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on October 2, 2009

When was the last time you played D&D and it was just one PC and one DM? I’d be amazed if anyone can say that they’ve done this since the release of 4e D&D. The changes that accompanied 4e make solo gaming almost too difficult to be practical. That’s not to say that it’s impossible, but it’s a lot more work for a DM to create and run a game with just one player in 4e then it ever was in previous editions.

Some of the most memorable and enjoyable games of D&D I ever played had only one player. It’s an entirely different way to experience D&D regardless of which side of the screen you’re on. As much as I like 4e and as much as I believe it’s a vastly improved system over its predecessors, these improvements have come with some sacrifices. One of those sacrifices is the feasibility of the one player game.

Creating and running a one player game is a lot of work. It presents a new set of challenges for the DM and the player, even more so since the release of 4e.

This is the first article in a series we’ll be running throughout October in which we look at how to overcome the difficulties or running and playing a solo adventure. In part 1 and part 2 we’ll provide tips for the DM and then end the series with tips for players.

Creating a game that focuses on just one player can be very rewarding. In fact, I enjoy this kind of adventure more than those designed for large parties. It gives you the opportunity to weave a very intricate story that revolves around one hero. This kind of adventure is a lot more challenging to run and create. It’s not something I’d recommend for new or timid DMs.

When there’s only one PC you have to take a whole bunch of new factors into considerations when planning each encounter. Combat encounters are going to present issues you wouldn’t normally have to worry about in a traditional game. Combat in 4e is designed with a party in mind. Different classes and different roles all have a purpose and a place on the battlefield. The absence of one or two roles isn’t a big deal if you’re still running a party of five. It’s a huge deal for a party of one. Some roles and classes are definitely more suited to solo games than others, but any PC who finds himself alone in combat should be weary.

When you’re in an adventuring party and you fall unconscious during combat one of your allies can revive you. If you’re all by yourself and fall below 0 hit points it’s probably game over. There may be rare occasions when the monster or villain has a really good reason to keep you alive, but this should be the exception and not the norm

It’s up to the DM to make sure that the solo PC isn’t forced into situations where his demise is all but a sure thing. Give the PC options. If he chooses to fight, it should be within his abilities to win. It doesn’t have to be a cake walk, but it should be possible.

In order to keep combat encounters balanced you should keep the monsters a few levels below that of the PC. This level difference will give the PC increased hit points, defenses and attack scores – all of which provide him with an edge.

Another option is to throw the PC a life line. Maybe he has a couple of NPCs accompanying him on his mission or quest. They’venot active combatants but they can jump in if things go really wrong. Personally, I’d discourage this approach. As the DM you’ve got enough to do without having to keep track of a coupe more NPCs. Supporting characters should definitely be a part of the story, but try to leave them out of combat.

Any PC who is willing to adventure on his own is clearly a cut above normal PCs. DMsmay want to give this exceptional PC an additional edge by granting a couple of bonus feats. Durability, Toughness, and Human Perseverance are all great utility feats that make any solo adventurer more potent on his own.

This is just the tip of the ice burg, but it’s a good start. Designing an adventure for one PC is tough, but these suggestions should make things a little bit easier. In part two of this series we’ll provide some suggestions for running solo skill challenges as well as things to remember regarding the larger campaign. Later articles will provide the would-be solo player with things to keep in mind should they find himself in a solo game.

For more tips on how to run a game for just one PC, check out D&D Party of One (Part 2). And in D&D Party of One (Part 3) we provide tips for players.

Have you played or run a solo game in 4e? What challenges did you experiences? Did the game work out as you expected or did you find the 4e mechanics to prohibitive for this kind of adventure?

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dyson Logos October 2, 2009 at 10:59 am

Of the three 4e games I’ve played, one was one-on-one.

The DM said he liked it better because he wasn’t dealing with all the teamwork-based synergies that he wasn’t 100% familiar with yet, and because social role-playing is typically more prevalent in one-on-one games.

In all he said it was no different than running one-on-one in any other edition – the whole game power premise shifts drastically when you reduce the party from the expected 10-18 characters in OD&D or when you reduce the party from the expected 4 characters in 3.x or 6 characters in 4e.

His other comment was that 4e was more forgiving in one-on-one because of the much higher hit points for a starting character.
.-= Dyson Logos´s last blog ..[Friday Map] Beneath the Temple =-.

2 greywulf October 2, 2009 at 12:09 pm

I’m a big fan of one-on-one gaming. It’s a different experience to group play, and gives you chance to really shine a spotlight on one single character for an entire session (or even campaign). When superhero gaming we regularly run 1-on-1 sessions and it really helps to bring out the personalities and styles of the different heroes.

Over in 4e D&D-land we’ve played a few 1-on-1 sessions and they’ve worked very well, especially if you’re playing with a gamer who is happiest when the sessions are role-playing intensive and relatively combat light.

But, we’ve found there’s a few things to bear in mind. Some classes just aren’t built for solo play at all. Warlord, I’m looking at you. That’s not to say you can’t – just that it might be worth giving the player some NPCs to boss around on the battlefield too :D

Other classes are likely to lose the use of one or more class features without similar NPC treatment, most notably Marking effects. That’s not a major loss, but it might be worth offering to trade it out for something else – a free Magic Item, or a free Feat, perhaps.

Looking forward to upcoming posts!
.-= greywulf´s last blog ..The things you find in old warehouses =-.

3 Wyatt October 2, 2009 at 1:17 pm

I’m not a fan of one on one gaming because one of the reasons I play D&D is for a story on the ongoing exploits of the PCs in a world, and I think a variety of personalities and people makes that more enjoyable. Playing one on one would grate on my nerves after some time, at least as a DM.
.-= Wyatt´s last blog ..Combat Styles Post Part 2: Combat Boogaloo =-.

4 kij October 2, 2009 at 9:21 pm

I enjoy solo adventuring, particularly with the guy who plays a paladin in my group. He’s a huge role-player. I usually keep the sessions relatively short, though. Long solo play gets bland pretty fast.

I use solo play to “skip” events that really only relate to one character. For example, I put the paladin in situations that put his faith to the test, the rogue infiltrates a castle to learn state secrets, or the Eladrin discovers that things are not quite all right at home. If I put those events in the main sessions, it would be favoring the individual over the party.

5 Ameron October 5, 2009 at 8:15 am

@Dyson Logos
Teamwork synergies really do change combat and not having these resources at your disposal during a solo adventure certainly makes combat more difficult. You just have to play smarter. The increased hit points reduce the likelihood of your solo character falling just because the DM’s dice got hot.

@greywulf
I believe that solo games (in 4e D&D) have to be role-playing heavy if they’re going to work. You’re absolutely correct about some classes being more suited to solo gaming than others. I never thought about the marking effects being less useful, but I suppose you’re right. After all if you’re the only target what difference does it make if the opponent is marked? I think swapping out a class feature for something more useful is a great suggestion.

@Wyatt
Solo gaming does eliminate a lot of the great camaraderie of RPGs. The shared experience and the teamwork are obviously absent. This style of play certainly isn’t for everyone. If the dynamic isn’t working for the DM or player then it can get ugly fast.

@kij
I think short games are better for solo gaming. It gives the PC a chance to accomplish very specific goals, rest, and then reconsider the idea of solo adventuring. For a strong role-player these games are great opportunities to develop the character.

6 Chase_Dagger October 5, 2009 at 1:59 pm

I’m really glad this topic is up on DungeonsMaster and I’m glad it has multiple parts article. Thanks Ameron.

To me this Article is key because:

1. People miss game sessions (A solo mission could be a good substitute)\

2. New people want to join (A solo or maybe even a 2 PCs mission would be a cool way to bridge the new people into the game.)

3. Sometimes the story would be better if the characters did some solo stuff. (I feel kij already addressed the reasons for #3.)

This article seems to be heading in a direction that will help me out.

On their own, I’m not interested in running solo missions.
I just see the need for solo missions within my regular game.

Will this article get into bridging between solo and regular games?

7 Ameron October 20, 2009 at 9:18 am

@Chase_Dagger
Sorry for the delayed response, I was on vacation last week.

I really like the idea of using solo games to introduce new players. I used to do this all the time in previous editions of D&D. This worked if we brought someone new to the game table or if an existing player’s PC died. In either case it let the player try out the new character before bringing him to main campaign. It also let me as the DM work on side quests and plots within plots.

I didn’t really cover the aspect of bridging solo and regular games, but it’s an excellent idea. Perhaps a fourth part needs to be written. Thanks.

8 Paulius October 8, 2010 at 4:40 am

I’ve ran a few single player games in 4e, and it really is difficult to balance combat. For a first level player, even a handful of minions can end the adventure prematurely.

For example, a Wizard starts with approximately 20 hit points at level one. Put them up against 4 minions (the equivalent of one monster) and if the minions go first, your Wizard is either dead or bloodied.

The only way I’ve found that works is to give your player a few extra healing surges, allow them an extra second wind or two, and make second wind a minor action rather than a standard.

That way, they have a fair healing ability…and also allows them to attack on the same turn they heal themselves.

It’s not perfect, but I’ve found for single player parties in 4E, the line between making an encounter impossible and far too easy is very thin indeed.

One other addition I came up with was a vial the character wears around their neck that shatters when they fall down, granting them a healing surge…essentially giving them an extra life.

9 chase_dagger January 10, 2011 at 3:17 pm

@Paulius

Your vial suggestion reminds me so much of Zelda 3 for the SNES. You catch a fairy in a bottle, when you die she is released, heals you and then escapes.

The legend of Zelda, classic solo mission.

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