The Smallest of Gaming Groups: DM+1

Posted on November 29, 2010 by


Recently, after a 3 years hiatus due to my son being born, I’ve gotten back into Warcraft.  I played Warcraft before 4e came out in order to satisfy a gaming itch I had, and now the recent Cataclysm event in the game piqued my curiosity.  But this isn’t an article about Warcraft, but rather what Warcraft is teaching me about solo gaming, or in the case of tabletop gaming, DM+1.

I’ve been playing Warcraft a little bit differently this time around, and I am now concentrating on the solo quests portions of the game, and not worrying as much about finding a group, a guild, or dungeons to explore.  That’s the part about Warcraft that turned me off before, and I’m going to stay away from that for the time being.

As I was playing the other day, and loving the heck out of the quest I was on, I thought that this type of game could very well serve as a campaign mode of sorts for people who are perhaps looking to start a D&D game with one other person and are not really sure of how or where to start.

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D&D with one other person only?  Blasphemy!  From the very beginning, and up until now, D&D has long established itself as a game meant to be played with a group.  And 4e (which in this regard borrowed heavily from online games such as Warcraft), emphasized the importance of characters “roles” in battle:  strikers, controllers, and so on.  But does this mean that D&D can’t be played with just one?  No!  And as I put my thoughts out on Twitter the other day, I saw just how many people are playing, or are thinking about playing in this type of game.

And as a DM, what are some of the advantages to running this type of game, and some of the pitfalls you need to look out for?  Well, lets take a look.  Keep in mind now, my thoughts are sort of free form, as I have not had the opportunity to DM a game like this.  I am sure that we’ll see comments from people that have though, and I invite you guys that have experience to please chime in and tell me what I got right or wrong.

Story and Roleplay are Key

When you DM for 1, it gives you an opportunity to craft a story that’s custom made for that particular PC you are running the game for.  Take advantage of that, it’s his or her spotlight-all the time!  In Warcraft, for example, all raves have unique starting areas and quests, so why not try something like that for your PC?

Create a memorable nemesis just for the PC, one that ties into the history of the character.  This could be your chance to create a Professor Moriarty to your PC’s Sherlock Holmes.  Use that!  You don’t need to worry about dividing the time between 5 PC’s, so make sure that the story you are crafting is tailored made for him.  Don’t create a generic adventure and plug the PC into it.

Also, don’t be afraid to roleplay, and often.  The PC is the protagonist in your story, so tell the story.  Stories have characters, so create them.  This could be a great exercise in you NPC design skills, as well as skill challenges, but I’ll get to that in a second…

Rethinking Combat

4e’s emphasis on tactical combat may not be the best thing for a DM+1 game, but it can work if you DM the game in a smart way.  Remember that everything you do in this game is geared for that specific PC, and combat shouldn’t be different.  Your combats are going to feel very different if the PC is a Wizard, as opposed to a Rogue, so think about them before you roll initiative.

The first question you need to ask yourself is the following “is this combat really necessary to advance this PC’s storyline?”.  Once you’ve convinced yourself that it is, then begin to think about the encounter.  What monsters work well for 1 player?  Well, minions come to mind.  The can give a very cinematic feel to an encounter.  Think about the wild barbarian swinging his axe like a mad man, cutting through minions like butter.  Think about the Wizard casting fireball upon countless bad guys rushing towards him.  Can that get boring though?  I imagine it can, so that’s why I think that looking at combats is key here.  Perhaps you can find ways to abstract the combats a bit to get rid of some of the tactical nature of the game?  That could work nicely.  A PC fights an ogre:

PC:  Okay I hit him with my power, but now I want to do something else.  Can I try to run and slide under his open legs, then quickly use my sword as a tool to trip him, knock him prone, and perhaps get some nice damage in there just to finish the move?

DM:  Sure, as a move action, you can run and slide, give me an acrobatics check.  Great, you made it… now as a standard, quickly use your athletics to turn yourself around and trip him with your sword.  Awesome roll, ok, he fell, he’s prone.  He took some damage… Action Point to hurt him while he’s down?

So  not only is the PC coming up with ideas, you’re also suggesting things too, and finding a way to fit it within the context of the 4e rules.  Also, never forget the awesome power of page 42 of the original DMG, which is prime reading for a DM+1 game.

Skill Challenges

Skill Challenges can provide a nice way to let your player get by with wits rather than brawn.  After all, one guy fighting a room full of goblins may not be the best situation he can be in, but perhaps there are other ways to get things done.  Look at Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars for inspiration.  “There are alternatives to fighting” he said.  And he was right.  He had to sneak around the Death Star in order to turn off the tractor beam so the Millennium Falcon could escape.  If that wasn’t a skill challenge on film, I don’t know what was.  Stealth, Acrobatics, Thievery, Bluff.  All those things came together in that scene.  You can do the same.  Remember to reward the player for the challenge, whether he fought or not.  The point of the encounter was to accomplish X, and if X was accomplished without having to fight 5 goblin, the PC should be rewarded.

Look at your PC.  The skill list of a rogue is very different from the skill list of a warden.  You need to always keep in mind who you are making the adventure for, and what abilities are available to him or her.  Don’t create a stealthy, assassination skill challenge for a Paladin, just because you think it’s a cool story you want to tell.  Wait for the player to roll a rogue instead.

Manage your expectations

This applies to both sides of the screen, but obviously a talk about the character, campaign and rules of the game is essential before the campaign starts.  Plan out in advance any house rules you’d like to introduce, and speak with your player about them.  Also, bring up the idea of companion characters as introduced in the DMG2, as there’s always safety in numbers.  Sherlock Holmes always had his Mr. Watson.

Also, don’t expect the same type of game you’d get from a table full of players.  This will most likely be a story driven game, with fewer combats and more role playing.  Embrace that, it gives you more time to tell the story you want to tell for the PC.

What’s the Story?

So I’ll close the article by going back to Warcraft.  I’m really enjoying the solo quests in the game, and how they branch off into further quests and adventures.  This may be a solution for the DM’s out there that perhaps rely on published adventures due to a perceived lack of creativity on their part.  Obviously a published adventure is not a very good choice for a DM+1 scenario .  My advice would be to first stat off with the character that the player wants to play, and work off that.  If his choice is to play a ranger, who tends to keep to himself and not really venture into the city, well, that gives you a good solid base to start with.  Create situations in the wilderness that would lead him into the cities, and take it from there.

There are plenty of characters that fit nicely into a solo archetype.  The rogue, the ranger and druid come to mind.  A monk can live a life of solitude up in the mountains somewhere, while a barbarian may have been raised by feral wolves somewhere in the wilderness.   The key is to have the character’s concept planned out *before* you have the story, that way you can tailor make it for him or her.

Also, don’t be against the idea of allowing the PC to help you in crafting some of the plot and tossing campaign ideas around, after all, it’s his game too, and he needs to be the one that’s ultimately invested in it for it to survive and thrive.

Small quests, like in Warcraft, provide a nice way for the character to get to know how much he can get away with in the game world in as far as his abilities, and also provide a nice way to ease into the roleplaying aspects of the campaign.  Don’t throw the epic plot right off the top, ease into it, give both of you time to learn if you like where it’s going, and if perhaps you’d like a change.

So in closing, if you are planning to start a DM+1 game, think about tailor making it specifically for the PC involved and his abilities, be mindful of combats, and be open to more cooperation and involvement in the plot from the PC.  If any readers have anything to add based on personal experiences, I’d love to read about it, as I’m sure others would as well.