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General One Player One GM

Ed Greenwood

Over the years and many, many conventions, I’ve met a lot of lonely gamers. Folks who don’t live within easy reach of a gaming group that can assemble to battle dragons or the legions of evil or evil undying lich-kings every weekend, or as often as they’d like.

If they’re lucky, they can scare up ONE friend who shares their love of fantasy or sf or gaming or all three. They walk around large, busy conventions stunned at the sheer numbers of fellow gamers—their tribe! Just look how many folks like me there are!—but knowing that when they go home again, it’ll be back to loneliness. I know some gamers who are truly alone, who read and re-read not just fantasy fiction, but adventures over and over again, playing them through in their minds, imagining the fights and negotiations and treasure-finding.

Yet I’ve been able to concoct rich and long-running campaigns for those pairs of gamers, when one plays and the other referees. Sometimes I do it in part by answering questions by email or in person, serving momentarily as NPCs or the whim of the world to keep fates from being cold dice rolls or “your friend the Dungeon Master making a mean decision that might kill your character.”

I’d like to share some campaign frameworks that have really worked over the years.

First, a few foundational elements. Being in a crossroads setting seems to help, in which new cargoes and merchants and just plain folks (perhaps a “monster of the week” or a “villain of the week”) come to town often. Being in a large, diverse, busy urban setting can help, too; it lessens the unfair feeling of the DM ever having to say, “Oh, this major trade in shipbuilding or this long-running feud between noble families has been going on under your nose for years, you just didn’t notice it until now, when I needed it for tonight’s story plot.” As with creating too many gods to memorize everything for the Realms, I can overload players with all that’s going on in a way that feels realistic, by having the life of a busy city unfolding on all sides, day and night.

Second, a focus on intrigue and research and other roleplaying tasks that aren’t “fighting with a good chance of getting killed.” This allows for play to avoid having a classic large D&D adventuring party with foes to match, and letting a player portray just one character (with perhaps an apprentice or sibling or friend as an on-the-shelf backup). Not suited to hack-and-slash players, obviously, but everything can be tinkered with to please the interests of individual players.

The first framework has worked superbly on several occasions, and is especially suited to players who are shy: play a lone person who discovers they have the ability to wield magic, and wants to become a wizard, sorcerer, or even (if the DM is willing to plunge into temple politics, and the rayers, devotions, and other daily details of a faith) priest. I mentioned this in a 2nd Edition tome, Volo’s Guide To All Things Magical, and included some “nuts and bolts” spells therein, as that edition of the game, with its spell ink formulae and making spellbooks rules, was ideally suited to researching spells, experimenting with spells, becoming an apprentice, and slowly and painstakingly building up a roster of spells.

In a city, the PC could be sent on all manner of missions to bring back cockatrice feathers or dragon eggs or bat tongues, or even rob this wizard’s tomb or that noble’s garden of particular berries, for an imperious master—who might well be a villain setting up the PC for eventual sacrifice or scapegoating.

If the master is destroyed or kidnapped and in need of rescue at just the right time, the PC is left on their own without guidance, but ready to make their own way in the world.

More familiar to us all, thanks to Hollywood, is the lone cat burglar or equivalent acrobatic thief by stealth, making a living by purloining everything from slices of cheese for their next meal to gleaming

gems as big as their own heads in a large city that’s hopefully plentifully supplied with nobles so rich the gods owe them money, and so stupid or careless as to leave fifth-floor windows open in their castles on warm summer nights, and to hire truly incompetent guards who can’t hit a target in the right city block with a cocked and loaded crossbow. This campaign works best if the thieving PC is under the thumb of someone, like a shadowy local crime boss, who will poison their parents or dagger their sister if they don’t accomplish this or purloin that. In a setting where that crime boss has competitors and foes who come to notice the PC, and manipulate them into doing things that will harm the crime boss but at the same time offer some escape for the PC from the hold the crime boss has over them.

Yet this familiar trope has a flip side and a sister that are only slightly less known.

The flip side campaign is that the PC portrays a lone ‘dirty tricks’ agent of a noble patron or ruler or local government, someone assigned to catch the thieves or rebels or criminal gangs, but who for whatever reason—perhaps nothing darker than operating outside the law—has to work on their own, with not much more than their own wits and perhaps a safe house and emergency healing to call on, rather than having the weight of the authorities on their side.

The sister campaign is the hired investigator. We recognize at a glance the private eye who solves crimes as the bumbling police stumble, but what of the courtesan, hired to attend noble feast after debauched all-night mansion revel to gather hints of a deeply-hidden conspiracy building against the crown, or to identify who among all the loyal oldcoin nobility is secretly part of a gang of smugglers, slavers, and poisoners? Lone PC as partygoer can be an ideal roleplaying setting for the gamer who doesn’t like violence or combat, but is fine with suspense and tension, flirtation and trading barbed witticisms over drinks and canapes. (Kitten in Waterdeep in the mid-1300s DR Realms did this for years, as well gleaning all the intelligence she could while entertaining clients or hiring herself out as to various cults as an altar decoration.) Perhaps the PC is a “deep” royal spy, not part of the rest of the royal intelligence agents so he or she won’t be linked to them by anyone watching. (In Cormyr in the Realms during the reign of Azoun IV, Vangerdahast ran the War Wizards and the Highknights as the spies of the Crown, but the king had his own handful of loyal-to-him agents who kept an eye on Vangerdahast…and Queen Filfaeril had her own handful of agents, and an alliance with local Harpers, in part to keep watch over Vangerdahast and her husband’s agents, to guard against treason and coups.)

In short, just because you can’t assemble four or more friends to crowd around a gaming table, there’s no reason at all that you have to forego the fun.
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Guide of Modos
Here, here! Let there be fun!

I'd like to suggest that lone PC play can still include classic large D&D adventuring party battles, as long as the lone PC only squares off against her share of the opponents (the other adventurers and their opponents become background), or as long as the DM runs the rest of the party (excluding the PC's on-the-shelf backup) in a supportive manner (providing healing for the PC and using class-appropriate tactics).

By the way, I've been writing a "playable" example of what One Player One GM might look like, that pales in comparison to an Ed Greenwood-designed campaign:
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Victoria Rules
Since March, i.e. since covid, I've been running a one-player game for my wife; a continuation/spinoff of the larger campaign already in progress and now on hold. It's a fairly typical adventuring party; she has two PCs, and I fill out the rest with adventuring NPCs who she does the rolling for.

So far, 6 months and about 30 sessions in, it's worked out way better than I thought it would.

And this is something either overlooked or intentionally ignored by @Ed Greenwood: that one player does not necessarily mean only one PC. A good player can easily run two or even three PCs at once, and it doesn't take much from there to make up a party.

I have, on my end, planned to run about three solo campaigns with three people I know. See as how one is familiar with DND and understands DND speak (like knowing a mimic and all that stuff) and two who never played dnd but are geek enough to try it, it is something that I am looking forward to and a bit worried.

Definitely your probably gonna need a few NPC party members so that way if you have say, a lone wizard PC, they aren't surrounded and their D6 HP is hit hard. My one bud I would probably do the Icewind Dale: Rime of The Frostmaiden as his solo campaign since he's actually played the pc games before. My other buddy would be doing a modified version of Dragon of Icespire Castle.

I've also toyed with the idea of, if your strictly doing a Solo campaign and never intend on having the solo PC ever be with other PC characters, then you can bend the rules a little in.

One example, is one person wants to play a Warlock Gunslinger basically. So the idea is a Hexblade pact Warlock with the use of the Invocation to make your Pact Weapon a gun from the Modern Magic UA. But, I'm going even more crazy and allowing the solo player the ability to use the Mercer Gunslinger Trick Shots with the change being 8+Prof rating+CHA modifier or DEX modifier if not going Hexblade. So not only can this Warlock Gunslinger use some magic, but they can Trick Shot as well.

Does it completely break the rules RAW/RAI of 5E? Yes it does. Does it add to the idea of the strictly solo player of said PC being a badass Arcane Gunslinger? Yes, yes it does. But that kind of stuff you would only strictly do if your only ever gonna do a solo campaign with such a character.

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