This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!
Problem: Only Two Players
I was wondering if there is a special format where only two players can make a game happen in D&D? My husband and I moved to a new area where we can't find players ... so is two players possible?
--Tina, from AskWizards.com
Sure. D&D is possible, in an odd sort of way, with only one person. The 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide had tables in the back for random dungeon generation, and many gamers of my generation used to while away the hours playing "solo D&D" using those. (The 2nd Edition AD&D supplement Dungeon Builder's Guidebook contains an expanded system for the same thing.) It's not exactly the best way to do things, but it is a sorta, kinda D&D-ish experience for times when you want to play but nobody is available.
Two people -- one player, one DM -- is much different from playing by yourself, though. With one person, you know perfectly well that you're faking it, and you are, of course, only on your own honor not to cheat for or against yourself. It would be pretty silly not to play it straight-up, playing the monsters just as you play your characters, but there obviously are limits. If it's just you, you're probably better off finding a nice computer or online RPG and playing that.
Playing with just two, however, opens up a lot of possibilities. Because it is just the two of you, combat moves much more quickly, as you don't have to wait to take turns or for other people to decide on things. Everything, for that matter, moves more quickly, and the game can move as quickly or as slowly as you like. If you find something that is interesting to you, there's no pressure to rush on because other folks are not interested. You can talk to NPCs for as long as you like; you can flirt and have your character fall in love without having to role-play the 'romance' in front of an audience (and playing with your spouse is a big plus in that area). You can follow adventure hooks that tickle your fancy. You have great freedom to decide the structure and flow of the campaign and what it will be.
In terms of everyday game-play, obviously, the game is different. Much of the basic structure of D&D assumes a sort of squad-level tactical approach -- multiple characters with overlapping specialties working together in mutual support. With just one player and one DM, you need to rethink the whole squad concept, because you can't do that if you just have one person playing one character. You have several options.
1. Flying Solo
You can play with just one character. That character should have NPC friends and contacts to rely on for advice and support the way James Bond has Q, M, Felix Leiter, and the occasional other friendly contact. But mostly it's you and you alone out in the field. Adventuring is going to be very different, because the DM has to scale adventures that one person can handle alone. You may do more adventuring in cities and civilized areas, where non-lethal role-playing challenges come up more frequently (though swords will still be crossed on a regular basis) and where emergency assistance is more available. With just one character, you will need to be very careful with save-or-die effects or other situations that can end the campaign with one die roll. There is no one around to help if you get into trouble. You should seriously consider using rules like 'action points' from Unearthed Arcana or the Eberron Campaign Setting if you go this route. You might also start out higher than 1st level. Multiclassing is also much more valuable when there's just one of you, enabling you to cover many skills in one character.
In fact, the lone hero is a traditional approach in mythology and swords-and-sorcery fiction. Larger-than-life figures such as Hercules and Conan made their own way through the world with very little backup. These are perfect models for a one-on-one campaign.
You can play with just one character who has a loyal buddy or sidekick. There are character classes that provide easy routes to this, such as familiars, animal companions, and special mounts. You can also get a cohort and followers with the Leadership feat. These mostly come into play at mid levels, though, so you either need to start there, with the 'buddy' already in place, or waive that requirement so the character can start with a sidekick at low level.
Sidekicks have the advantage of giving you some backup, including providing skills and abilities that you lack. A sidekick is also someone who is clearly subordinate to you as the main character and who is pretty much under your control as a player (less so for hirelings than those who follow you because of your great fame or class abilities). They are clearly not as tough as your main character overall, but they can be very valuable asset.
A variation on this idea is to have ongoing NPCs that the DM controls rather than you. This can help supplement the numbers in your adventure, and it helps you focus on your character, but it may give the DM too much to do. You may also get the feeling that you are becoming the sidekick of the DM-PC, or that the DM-PC becomes a deus ex machina-style crutch as it steadily feeds you crucial information. It can work OK, especially if the DM-PC is more of the brute fighter/bodyguard type to provde some muscle. A DM-PC probably shouldn't be a knowledge or roleplay-intensive class. If there are just the two of you, the DM shouldn't be roleplaying with himself.
A sidekick could also be a hireling rather than a cohort, someone you pay to help you (a salary, a split of the treasure, or both), not just for a single favor or a quick assist but someone to travel and work with you on an ongoing basis. Hirelings were important elements in early versions of D&D that somehow fell out of favor in later editions. It's a concept worth revisiting.
For examples, Fritz Leiber's tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser lead the way. This is an especially popular motif in Westerns, with the Lone Ranger and Tonto, the Cisco Kid and Pancho, Hopalong Cassidy and Windy Halliday. Even Han Solo and Chewbacca fit the bill.
3. The Family Tree
Not a biological family but more like a collection of characters that you play, and not simultaneously but choosing one depending on which seems like the best fit for the current adventure. It's rather like owning a stable of horses -- for this sort of race you bring out Midnight, and for that one you bring out Supercharger. Imagine yourself as playing an adventuring guild rather than a single adventuring character. As you adventure with one of your 'tree' of characters and gain levels, you can automatically bring up the levels of other characters in your group (i.e., when one character earns XPs, they all earn XPs). Unlike methods #1 and #2, this enables you to try different types of characters (in all situations), to use characters you think are the best fit for certain types of adventures, and, if one character fails in a particular endeavor, to tackle it again with a different type of hero. It also provides a ready supply of 'backup' characters in case your 'active' character dies.
4. Play 'Em All and Let the DM Sort 'Em Out
In the olden days, it wasn't unusual for people to play more than one character. It's not ideal from a role-playing perspective, but that is mostly true when you're in a whole party setting. When it's just you and the DM, it is less difficult and confusing to imagine and create a couple of roles and switch between them than when you are managing multiple roles within a group of people who are doing the same thing. It's not the best answer, because it can lead to the game devolving into a kind of tactical exercise. If you find yourself saying "Martavian does this, and then Ascalon does that, and then… " instead of "I do this… ," then you probably should dial it back and play just one at a time. That kind of game is OK, but with just the two of you, roleplaying time and opportunity is your greatest potential strength. Use it.
Have a question for the Save My Game column? Head over to the message boards: What's a DM to Do or What's a Player to Do. Be sure to include "Save My Game" as part of your message's title. Or, send us a question directly, to Ask Wizards -- and again, be sure to include "Save My Game" in the subject line.
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.