Duet Gaming Basics: Guide to One-on-One Roleplaying

Written by Kirk Johnson-Weider, Michelle Johnson-Weider, and Doug Lohse    

  “So what are we doing this week?” asked Dave.
“Finishing our research papers,” said Bill. “That’s why we’re still here for spring break.”
“Sadness, but that can’t take all week, right?”
“Probably not.”
“How about if you run me in a D&D campaign?”
“We don’t have any other players, and I don’t know if I can run with just one.”
“Sure you can! You ran Stephen through that side adventure all by himself! Come on, it would be fun.”
“Well, all right. I’ll check online to see if you can run a game with just one player. Maybe we can give it a try. Hmmm, I already have a cool adventure idea. You start thinking about a character.”
“Great! Let’s go get our gaming books.”
“Yeah, like you said, our papers won’t take us all week. I think I can be ready to DM tonight if I really focus.”
“Then let’s get to it!”

Simply put, a duet campaign is a series of roleplaying adventures in which a GM runs the action for only one player. Two basic types of duet campaigns exist. One is an adventure or series of adventures connected to an ongoing group campaign; pre-adventures for characters just entering play, and side adventures for lone PCs who, for whatever reason, have become separated from the party fall into this category. The other kind-the independent, stand-alone, duet campaign-is the sort we will address here.

Advantages of Duet Campaigns

The D&D game is built and balanced for parties of four or five characters. So how can a DM possibly build an entire solo campaign, and why would she want to? Though duet campaigns vary widely, we can make a few broad generalizations about their advantages over the traditional type.

1) Duet campaigns are faster-paced and have greater depth than the typical group campaign. For a variety of reasons, they also tend to be more challenging for both DM and player.

2) Scheduling for a duet campaign is generally quite flexible.  With only two people involved, arranging meetings that fit both parties’ schedules is fairly simple.

3) A duet campaign is a great opportunity to playtest material, tinker with game rules, and expand an existing campaign setting.

4) Duet campaigns can be specifically tailored to suit the interests of both DM and player.

These advantages make the duet campaign a very attractive choice for working adults, creative DMs, and gamers who live in isolated areas where players are not plentiful.

How the Duet Game Works

Now that you’ve made the decision to run a duet campaign, let’s look at some of the major issues involved.

Communication is Key

“I have a great character concept-Cardigan the Lavender, a water genasi with light purple skin who has become a feared pirate!” said Dave.
“A character called the Purple Sweater? Well, it could be worse. But I wanted to set the campaign in the Endless Sands-you know, the desert part of my campaign world,” replied Bill.
“I was kind of hoping to be a pirate.”
“What if he captains a magic ship that skims over the sands?”
“Cool! Then can I be a swashbuckler-wizard? What level should I be, and where am I from?”

Duet campaigns work best when both DM and player are on the same page. Setting up a campaign that pleases both parties requires good communication right from the start. Typically, the DM chooses the setting and the player picks the character, but each should provide input to the other to make sure their choices mesh well. This process shouldn’t be adversarial; it’s just a friendly negotiation for the purpose of developing a campaign that both DM and player can enjoy.  As the campaign progresses, this communication should continue, though it’s generally better if it can be handled in-game. For example, a player who is getting frustrated with game time spent in dungeons might let her character express those feelings to an NPC. Such a remark is a signal to the DM that maybe he should shelve the dungeons for a while in favor of some different adventure focus. If the DM and player can communicate honestly with one another, the duet campaign becomes far more effective and fun for both.

Filling the Roles

“Well, since you’re the only player, why don’t you create an 8th level gestalt swashbuckler-wizard? We’ll put you in command of the Sirocco, a famed raiding ship with an elite and fearless crew. But you’re also a prince from the city of Sy’narba, and you wield the legendary Crimson Scimitar,” said Bill.
“Wow! I’m a prince?” marveled Dave.
“Why yes, yes you are.”

Like the d20 System, most game systems are founded on the concept of balancing characters so that all the players have an equal chance to shine. But in a duet campaign, party balance isn’t an issue. You have only one player, so make him feel special. Perhaps you don’t want to allow gestalt characters, warlocks, evil PCs, or psionics into your regular group campaign, but in a solo campaign, you can take more chances. So go ahead and let your solo player run the legendary character he wants-it won’t unbalance play for others, and your storyline can take on the proportions of high fantasy. Just don’t start the PC at the height of his power-after all, a solo campaign is about the character’s journey, so you need to leave plenty of room for him to grow and develop.

You may, however, want to start the character at a higher power level than you otherwise would, since a single character is not nearly as durable as a group. If one character in a regular campaign dies or is disabled for a time, the rest can still press onward. But the death of the PC in a duet adventure usually marks the end of the campaign. Thus, strengthening the PC a bit with extra levels or magic items helps to prevent the need for saving him (and thus salvaging the campaign) by DM fiat.

Achieving a Good Fit

“Prince Cardigan has sailed the Sirocco to Naratyr with the intention of raiding the mighty Zobran Caravan,” continued Bill. “Guarded by the Terracotta Legion, this caravan is a richprize indeed, since it carries the annual fealty tax from Vanasa to Emperor Belagon. But raiding is not Cardigan’s only purpose here. He also intends to woo Princess Amelia, since a marriagebetween the royal houses of Sy’narba and Naratyr is likely to strengthen both lands.”
“Wow! I have a princess to woo?” asked Dave.
“Why yes, yes you do.”

When running a duet campaign, it’s best to tailor the action to the player’s preferences and the PC’s strengths. If you don’t know what kind of a game your player likes, take your time developing story arcs and experiment with different types of adventures, then incorporate the ones your player likes best into the fabric of the campaign.  Even if you do know your player’s preferences, it’s wise to start slow and build the story over time, so that you can figure out how your player intends to roleplay his character.  After all, a solo campaign is the PC’s story, so it should be one that your player can enjoy to the fullest.  Though you need to provide enough action to keep your player on his toes, you can take time to smell the roses on occasion as well.

So if your player wants to haggle for an item in the market, indulge him. A duet campaign provides an excellent opportunity for a player to delve into his character and pursue activities that are often skimmed over in group campaigns. Whether your player wants his character to research a new spell, woo a princess, or build a manor house, you can take the time to explore that story with him. But when you sense that he’s getting bored, change the pace by throwing in some action and adventure. With only one player, it’s far easier for you keep your finger on the pulse of the campaign and ensure that both you and your player are happy.

Add Some Interesting NPCs

“Babar, your loxo first mate, pulls you aside before you disembark,” continues Bill. “‘Cap’n, be wary in Naratyr,’ he warns in a low voice. ‘Tis a dangerous port. You should take Elsie and a few men with you.'”
“That’s a good idea, Babar,” says Dave. “I’ll take Elsie, Mawen, and Lorit. But don’t worry; I have a plan.”
“Aye, Cap’n, but your plans have a tendency to get out of hand. No matter what, though, the ship and crew will be ready for action at your command.”
“Good, Babar. I will be careful, and I know I can rely on you.”

More than any other single factor, memorable NPCs can make or break a duet campaign. If you develop your NPCs as fully as you would a PC, your player will feel that she is dealing with a group of real individuals. Here are a few tricks that can help you create effective NPCs for a duet campaign:

1) Practice having conversations with yourself.  If you can play two NPCs holding a conversation with one another, both will become more real. Playing multiple NPCs at once can seem awkward at first, but with practice, the technique creates a very realistic dynamic between the PC and NPCs.

2) Let your NPCs contribute to the campaign. In a duet campaign, you don’t have to worry as much about NPCs outshining the PCs as you do in a regular campaign. Indeed, even if the PC has more than the usual amount of expertise, she can’t fill all the necessary roles that the D&D game demands for a balanced party. Thus, she must depend on the aid of NPCs from time to time-and therefore, she must build relationships with them. Competence and loyalty are the best tools for earning a PC’s trust ingame, so let your NPCs shine. Certainly you’ll want to keep the spotlight on the PC, but give all your key NPCs their moments as well.

3) Make sure that the NPCs grow along with the PC-not just in ability, but also in personality. Do not let them become static. A significant part of the DM’s fun in a duet campaign is the chance to do a lot of roleplaying, and running a multitude of well-developed NPCs helps

you keep your hand in the action. So if you miss playing, try running a solo campaign in which you can share the stage with only one PC and build the story cooperatively with your player.

Managing Combat

“The Terracottan captain hammers Babar with his stone fists, and your first mate crumples to the ground,” says Bill.
“No, not Babar!” cries Dave. “Elsie-heal Babar! I charge the captain with the adamantine hammer and yell to Mawen to start emptying the vault into the bag of holding.”
“All right, Elsie tries to maneuver toward Babar so that she can heal him, and Mawen starts emptying the vault. You step over Lorit’s dead body and face off against the Terracottan captain, whose soulless eyes are fixed on you.”
“Wow! I’m in big trouble!”
“Why yes, yes you are.”

Combat is tricky in any campaign, but in a duet game you have to be particularly careful to avoid situations in which bad luck can cause the death of your one, and only, PC. In particular, spells and effects that require the target to save or die should be directed only at NPCs or reserved for extreme situations, since one unlucky roll can end the campaign.

For example, D&D is founded on the premise that the party is composed of four characters.  When you have only one, you need to adjust the lethality of your encounters-even if the potency of that PC is higher then normal. You can achieve this goal by either reducing the difficulty of each encounter or adding NPCs to the party. The latter option gives you more wiggle room and provides more personalities for the PC to interact with, but it also presents greater logistical and roleplaying challenges for you as DM.

Wrapping Up

“The Royal Guardsmen are marching up the sandstone wharf toward your ship like a sea of steel,” says Bill with a grin. “Princess Amelia must have informed her father that you were the one who sacked the Zobran Caravan.”
“Sadness, I was afraid this might happen,” replies Dave with a sigh. “She didn’t seem too impressed with my derring-do. Babar, get us underway, fast! Mawen, ready the archers in case we have to fight. Elsie, start singing to make the crew work faster.”
“Babar and Elsie get the ship moving out across the Salt Sea. It looks like the enemy isn’t going to pursue-this time. You start heading for Sy’narba. This looks like a good stopping point.”
“This was great! Hey, can we do the homecoming to Sy’narba tomorrow night?”
“Well, we still have a few more days to do those papers. All right, we’ll start up again tomorrow afternoon.”

Duet campaigns can be great experiences for both player and DM, and they’re ideal for introducing new players to the rules, rewarding a player who wants to develop a great character further, and getting some game time in when you’re short of players.  This article has only scratched the surface of solo campaigning, but becoming adept with it really just takes practice. Good luck and happy gaming, but be careful-duet campaigns can be addictive!


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