Monday, October 18, 2010

Individual Helping

With roleplaying games traditionally recognized as a social activity, it may seem strange to talk about one-on-one play. Sometimes, though, you don't have the luxury of several players. Either you only have the one friend to play with, or the rest of the group has had some catastrophe and/or scheduling conflict.

But all is not lost. There are ways to make the one-on-one game work. You do need to put a little thought into the system and the scenario, but once you do that, and put out of your mind the notion that multiple players are needed, the game can proceed.

A tradition of multiplayer play, and for good reason

It's no secret that some RPGs are geared for multiple players. Much of the catalog of Evil Hat Productions, for instance relies on multiple players during character creation and/or play. Spirit of the Century and The Dresden Files have the player characters interacting in the later part of generating characters as each has a guest appearance in each others' stories.

Story games like Evil Hat's A Penny For My Thoughts, glyphpress's shock, Ramshead Publishing's Universalis, Bully Pulpit's Fiasco, Hamsterprophet's Timestream, and many others, require multiple players to twist and contort the story during its telling; these will not work for solo play.

Some games rely on the players to have a certain competetive nature, which is written into the setting. Paranoia is the first to come to mind for obvious reasons, but I'd also include Contested Ground Studio's Cold City and Hot War.

And if players get eliminated as the story proceeds, well, one person isn't going to cut it. And yes, there is such a game: The Impossible Dream's Dread is played using a Jenga set, and one player playing it, well, that just gets awkward.

See, in so many cases it's accepted that the gaming table will have more than two people, so much so that games are written that way.

When Looking for Systems, Look for System

Call it a cheesy rule of thumb, if you must. Those game systems that feel predominantly like game systems instead of story skeletons and frameworks, and which don't try so hard to accommodate multiple players, will typically be better suited to playing when you don't have the normal number of players.

Steve Jackson Games' GURPS, anything by Hero Games, and Contested Grounds' a|state, are all rather system-heavy and perfect for this sort of thing. Any RPG generally regarded as "previous gen," which treats characters as single and more or less interchangeable, will work best for this sort of thing.

Of course, this is just a rule of thumb. Lumpley Games' Dogs in the Vineyard is recent and has a sort of story-game feel to it, but there's nothing tying characters to other characters, which makes it excellent for this use. The Dog riding the range could be doing so solo, and that could even become an interesting part of his story. Yes, you lose a little bit of dynamic because there aren't other Dogs along to debate values with you, but that's what NPCs are for, right?

For When You Gotta Have That Group Dynamic

There are corner cases to consider, if you particularly like the setting and the GM doesn't mind doing a little more work.

Some games make such a fuss over balanced teams that it might seem strange to play them solo, but it's possible provided you accept that your character isn't going to be good at everything. Catalyst Games' Shadowrun the Gumshoe games The Esoterrorists and Fear Itself from Pelgrane Press, Croc's (and Steve Jackson Games' by translation) In Nomine, The Whispering Vault (still published as PDFs by Ronin Arts), Spectrum Games' Cartoon Action Hour, and Decipher's Star Trek are all games that work best with ensemble casts with diverse specialties, but could be played one-on-one provided you don't mind the NPCs having some of those specialties and occasionally driving.

Some games may seem like an utter and complete waste without two or more players, but could work better than you expect. Cubicle 7 Entertainment's Doctor Who may seem absurd with just one player and GM, but consider the solo player as companion to a Doctor that tends to keep a lot of secrets. Or the solo player playing the Doctor to a companion who has excess baggage.

And here's one you might not have considered: Dungeons & Dragons.

Yes, really, I went there.

Think about it. Yes, you have a class system which pretty much screams for an assortment of class types. And yes, some character types are less useful by themselves. But while most packaged scenarios are built for 4-6 characters of a close range of levels, the rules allow for customization of encounters: experience has to be spent to buy the monsters, and the system will allow for the creation of an encounter for a single character.

Larger encounters are viable, provided every other character is an NPC. But why should the GM handle both sides of the fight? Hand over pages with the NPCs' powers and let the one player handle the fight for the whole party. He'll still get experience appropriate for one character at the end of it, and it's his opportunity to get to know several different character types in rapid succession. It's a solo smorgasbord!

Gamers Gotta Game

Why play solo? Well, if the alternative is not playing at all, then the choice is clear.

Beyond that, the GM is a sort of player, and between two people there will still be more than a few clever moments, interesting situations, and witty ripostes. Sometimes the setting presented by the game is worth exploring even if you can't do so with a group.

Playing one-on-one is still technically playing, and counts as practice for the day when you do get the group together or find a new one.

And who knows? If you and one friend are playing someplace, and someone else happens by and asks "What are you doing," you've got an interesting story to tell. And possibly a new group to form.

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