D&D Party of One: Solo Adventuring (Part 2)

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on October 7, 2009

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.

Campaign Objectives

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.

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1 Jamie October 7, 2009 at 5:26 pm

I like the skill challenge advice – it could definitely be disastrous for a single PC to face a skill challenge that doesn’t use any of his/her trained skills.
.-= Jamie´s last blog ..Devil in the Details =-.

2 kij October 7, 2009 at 9:53 pm

I’ve found myself often trying to railroad my solo player around. This may be because my solo games are story-heavy; in the solo of the rogue sneaking into the fortress, he can’t just opt to leave and go kill some dragons, because that would ruin the point of having a solo quest to begin with. Usually my players are pretty good about going where I would like them to go without my railroading in solo games though. Maybe because they know I can screw them over that much more in solo play. Or they might actually like the plot stuff. Pigs can fly, right?

3 Hawke October 11, 2009 at 9:10 pm

I think I’d love to see a series of Solo “Delves” – a few short encounters connected that are designed for solo play just to get my head wrapped around it.

kij makes a good point – I wonder how a solo game might work if the DMs switched off every other session (or arc) but kept in the same universe. Maybe approach the same story from two different ways but have a shared universe. It might make the sense of a shared story clearer.

4 kij October 12, 2009 at 5:46 pm

Mm, we actually tried this for a bit one year at summer camp. I had to keep biting my tongue to prevent myself from saying “stop messing with my universe!” I was worried that my storyline would be interfered with by his. In retrospect, we could have avoided this by just finishing one before starting the other, or having him run his plans by me to avoid having the dwarven nation be on the complete opposite side of the continent than where I put them…

5 Ameron October 20, 2009 at 9:29 am

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

I think too many PCs rely on other members of the party during skill challenges. Balance is important and any PC playing a solo game will find this out in a big hurry.

Players who enjoy solo gaming are probably more accepting of a little nudging in order to keep the story moving in the right direction. As long as the player has some choice in where they go and what they do, I think they’ll usually stick to the bigger arc.

Solo delves, what an excellent idea. I think we may be able to put a few of these together for November.

Let me tell you about my summer of solo gaming. My cousin and I, both experienced gamers, wanted to play but couldn’t find other players. So we tried a solo game of sorts. He rolled up a Rogue and I rolled up a Cleric. Every game we switch between running the two PCs and being the DM. It was a fantastic experience and was a lot of fun. I learned a lot about being a good DM that summer.

I see I’m not the only one who’s taken this approach. Fortunately we relied on Dungeon magazine for a lot of our adventures so messing up the campaign world wasn’t really a problem.

6 dylan February 16, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Recently a friend and I started playing solo games in 3.5e. We started out each rolling a character and we then did a dungeon clearing adventure that I ran and controlled my character as an NPC secondary character aka the flanker. After that we alternated who DMed and ran adventures based out of the same city but with only one PC doing the adventuring.

They are partners in crime. My character is the more combat heavy of the two, his adventures have consisted of taking over a goblin raiding party and “saving” caravans from them. My friend’s character is more stealth and he has a healthy business stealing high end items and fencing them.

It is awesome.

Here is the write up I did of our system.
.-= dylan´s last blog ..Good Job and Special Thanks =-.

7 Rjschwarz February 25, 2015 at 11:44 am

Politics. Its a natural for role playing and far less complicated for solo play. Politics can mean the nation or factions within the thieves guild.

Also use NPCs as guides. Not all knowing guides but suggestions (right and wrong) can help prod a player.

Killing NPC is the long term way of building fear. Hit points heal, but your buddy dismembered leaving you with no one watching your back is another thing entirely.

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