Never split the party. The very tagline of 4e D&D implies that adventures should revolve around an entire party and not one lone hero. But that doesn’t mean that an adventure can’t revolve around a party of one.
In this article we continue with our look at how to run a game for just one PC. In D&D Party of One (Part 1) we explored the ups and downs of combat encounters during solo games. Today we’re going to look at skill challenges and the unique role-play opportunities that solo gaming presents. In D&D Party of One (Part 3) we’ll be focusing on the solo game from the PC’s perspective.
Role-Playing and Skill Challenges
Solo adventures need to focus more on role-playing and less on combat. Most classes are not suited to solo combat – at least not with any regularity. Although D&D is a role-playing game, many DMs don’t spend a lot of time focusing on the role-playing. Jumping into a solo adventure may require the DM to adjustment their approach to DMing a little bit.
An adventure featuring just one PC is an excellent opportunity to run skill challenges as a way to reward good role-playing. Skill challenges are intended to provide PCs with potentially as much XP as a combat encounter of similar level. Keep that in mind when setting DCs and determining the level of your skill challenges in this circumstance. Complexity 1 skill challenges (4 successes before 3 failures) are a good place to start. As the solo game persists, increase the complexity of the skill challenges.
Many DMs forget that you don’t have to complete an entire skill challenge before beginning another one. Think of it like a Nintendo game. The complexity 5 skill challenge requires Mario to collect all the hidden stars from the entire level of the dungeon. Along the way he has some combat encounters and a few category 1, 2 and 3 skill challenges representing puzzles and social encounters. The success or failure of the combat or the smaller skill challenges may not have any bearing on the ongoing complexity 5 skill challenge. Of course, you could throw the PC a bone and give him a success towards the larger challenge is he completes the smaller challenges without accumulating any failures or if he defeats the monsters without expending a healing surge.
The mechanics of skill challenges need to be tweaked when there’s just one PC. Most notably a lone PC doesn’t have party members to assist him. So the +2 assist bonus that many players are accustomed to getting in a party situation is gone. Be mindful of this and try to create opportunities for the PC to use secondary skills. Each successful use of a secondary skill won’t count as a success or failure but will provide the PC with a +2 bonus on a subsequent check. In essence he can assist himself.
The number of skills the PC is trained in and the number of skills he’s good at will vary drastically depending on his class. PCs designed for combat that have high ability scores in Str, Con and Dex are a lot less likely to perform well during skill challenges. Since 12 of the 17 skills rely on Int, Wis and Cha it’s almost essential that a PC playing a solo game has a decent score in at least one of these three abilities.
When creating skill challenges, regardless of the number of PCs, the DM needs to be aware of which classes are trained in which skills. In the Interesting Observations section of our Skill Matrix article, we provide a breakdown of the most and least commonly available skills by class. If the DM is tailoring the adventure for one specific PC then this may not be as relevant. After all you can just look at the character sheet and present challenges that make use of the skills he best at.
Once you’ve determined where the PC’s strengths lie, play to them. If the PC is only good at Athletics and Endurance then try to include these skills in your skill challenges. I wouldn’t make them primary skills in every skill challenge, but they should be optional a lot. After all, the PC wouldn’t be on this adventure if he lacked the proper skill-set.
Just because the PC can use his best skills a lot doesn’t mean that he should have an easy go of it. Vary the DCs and make it clear that sometimes using another skill is more appropriate and therefore has much lower DC. Using Athletics may be an option, but it may be the most difficult one.
It’s up to the DM to challenge the PC. Make a few of his good skills count towards success, but force him to use a few other skills once and a while. If it’s a long-term solo campaign where the PC is expected to level a couple of time, he’s more likely to take feats and powers that will address his deficiencies. If he knows he can get an automatic success every time by using Athletics then skill challenges will get boring and repetitive.
Having a clear goal or objective is probably more important in a solo game than in a typical adventure. Without the benefit of bouncing ideas off of other players, the PC needs to know without a doubt that he’s on the right track. But don’t confuse clear with easy. Just because the PC has to rescue the princes, recover the stolen documents, track down the escaped prisoner or slay the rampaging dragon doesn’t mean that it’s as simple as A-B-C. Create layers into the adventure. Provide opportunities for the PC to gather information and equipment that will make his task easier.
Once you’ve established what the objective is, make sure there are multiple solutions. Some should clearly play to the PC’s strengths, but don’t assume that just because there’s only one player that there should only be one path to success. I’ve found that I’m more inclined to railroad a PC is he’s the only one at the table. By providing multiple options the PC can try the approach that he likes best. Remember that the option you think he’ll pick may not be the one that he actually wants to do, so be prepared.
Creating various ways to accomplish the objective allows the PC to make mistakes and learn from them. If the PC realizes that there are different ways to complete the objective, he’s less likely to be discouraged if he meets with resistance and fails at his first attempt.
Running a solo game is tough. I’d say it’s tougher than running a traditional party-based adventure. The game tends to move a lot faster since the PC is making all the decisions himself. We’ve tried to present some advice on how to make the DM’s job easier when running adventures for just one PC, but nothing beats experience. The more you run solo games the better you’ll get at it.
What other advice would you give to DMs preparing to run their first 4e solo adventure? Are there any topics around solo gaming that we didn’t cover that you’d be interested in reading about? Part 3 in this series will shift to the players, but we can always revisit tips for the DM if you’d like us to.