When you read internet forums on things you’re interested in, you’re gonna read stuff that pisses you off. I was recently on a local gaming forum and came upon this:
DnD isn’t 13th age, it needs class spread and doesn’t really work well with fewer than 4 players.
This is, indeed, a common misconception (not about D&D being better or worse than 13th Age; that’s a matter of taste and opinion). And to be sure, most published adventures suggest a group of four to six PCs, and the 5e monster Challenge Ratings, for those who pay attention to them, are balanced for four PCs (so a CR 1 monster should challenge a party of four level 1 characters).
But here’s the thing: finding a group of willing players who can all meet at the same time and place regularly is literally the hardest part about playing D&D. It’s easier to take down the tarrasque than to get a group of five adults in the same room often enough to play through a single adventure, let alone a campaign. Hence this meme:
There are ways around this, of course. You could look for an online group on Roll20 or another online service. You could try Adventurers League (though they have space issues too). But if all else fails, you may have to sit down and run D&D for just one or two people.
It’s like making tamales in foil instead of corn husks: foil tamales are better than no tamales.
The first time I played D&D, I ran a homebrew game for just one person: my (then six-year-old) daughter. Because she was the only one who wanted to play with me. And you know what? It was great, and she’s still my favourite player.
The Original D&D rules from 1974 recommend 1 “Referee” (which was what they called the Dungeon Master back then) and “from four to fifty players”. So it looks like the standard party of four PCs was hardwired into the game from the beginning. But think of the other extreme: 50 players? In one game? How in the hell did that work?
The answer is, they didn’t all play at the same time. Kent David Kelly’s book series, Hawk & Moor, goes into great detail about the early D&D games in Gary Gygax’s basement. In those days, there was no “adventure module”, no “quest”, no “adventure hook”. There was a big bad megadungeon nearby, full of monsters and treasure, and you were going down into it to get the treasure. The dungeon had many levels, each more dangerous than the last, and many entrances and exits. A single session of the game would involve you and any other available players entering the dungeon with a specific goal, say, to clear a certain number of rooms on certain level, or find a specific treasure or magic item you know or suspect was in a certain area. Or get revenge on those ogres who killed your last character. If you survived, you headed back to town to rest, heal up, and replenish your supplies. Then went back, to clear more rooms, kill more monsters, and get more treasure (if the other players hadn’t got there first).
All 50 players were never in the dungeon – and certainly never at the table – at the same time.
The other thing that becomes clear from Kelly’s book is that, while some groups often adventured together, a lot of players did go into the dungeon for solo crawls. In fact, Gary’s own son Ernie, playing the wizard Tenser (of Tenser’s Floating Disk fame), made an impromptu solo delve so that he could be the first to reach the fabled level 13 of the Greyhawk dungeon (totally screwing his frequent companions Robilar the Fighter and Terik the Cleric, in the process). So the first person to face the “Final Boss” of Castle Greyhawk did it as a solo player.
There were also some adventure modules designed specifically for solo play, such as this one for Basic D&D and this one for AD&D. Of course, these modules were designed as introductory or side quests, not for taking a PC from 1st to 20th level, but nevertheless they illustrate that running an adventure for just one player is far from unheard of.
Of course, many aspects of Old School D&D have fallen away, and certainly from 3rd Edition onward both the game mechanics and the published adventures have tended to assume a standard party size of four to six PCs, and one PC per player. This means that if you want to run for a single player, or even just a smaller-than-usual group, you will need to do some tweaking. This article from Geek & Sundry has some helpful advice, and I have some suggestions of my own (some of which are even based on personal experience).
No prizes for guessing that this would be my first suggestion, but homebrewing your own adventures is definitely a way to customize D&D for solo play. Whereas a standard published adventure has a spread of challenges intended to test a wide variety of skills, if you homebrew, you can focus on things that will challenge your player and their character, without being completely insurmountable. A solo wizard will never be a star of melee combat. A solo fighter with no ranged weapons will stand little chance against a tribe of goblins who stay at range and pepper him with arrows. And a cleric will probably not be able to pick a lock or disarm a trap.
For example, homebrewing puts you in control of how much combat is in your adventure, and how combat is handled. Combat can be scary for a lone PC, but if your bog standard published adventure has a series of fights, increasing in difficulty and ending with an epic boss fight, maybe your solo adventure has a series of puzzles, skill checks, and roleplaying encounters, with a bit of combat at the end (perhaps under favourable conditions if the player has succeeded in a lot of the preceding challenges).
And just as you can use homebrewing to avoid challenges that would be impossible for the lone PC, you can also avoid things that will be too difficult for the player. Don’t put in riddles if your player sucks at riddles. But if they love riddles, go for it. With only one player to please, there should be a lot of scope for creating the ideal game to suit them.
And homebrewing doesn’t have to mean starting from scratch. It can also mean taking a published adventure and adapting it for solo play.
Go Old School
There are a lot of things that used to happen in D&D that don’t really happen anymore, but reviving them can be a big help for the solo player.
Henchmen and Hirelings were a part of the core rules right through to AD&D. And if your solo player has some starting gold to spend, why not hire some help, so they don’t have to adventure alone. You can look up some old-school rules for what hirelings cost, but in general, a “commoner” who’s just along to carry stuff and hold a torch is as little as 2 gold pieces per week, while an NPC with actual class abilities will be much, much more expensive. Generally these hirelings expect a share of any treasure recovered (in addition to their fee), and earn a share of Experience Points (even if they don’t level up), which stops a solo PC getting too rich and powerful too fast.
Henchmen generally refers to NPCs who serve out of loyalty. Though they must be “maintained” (the player has to pay for their room, board, and equipment), they don’t necessarily charge fees. Like hirelings, they take a share of treasure (including magic items) and XP, but they can grow in power similar to a PC, and have much more “presence” than a simple red shirt. These are friends or sidekicks. They have names and backstories, and a personal connection to the player. If they die, it’s a big deal. Old School rules used to limit how many of these you could have, based on your Charisma score. For 5e, you might consider allowing a solo player to have a number of henchmen equal to their Charisma bonus. So bards and paladins will do well with this rule.
Another Old School thing no one does anymore is run more than one character. Hirelings and henchmen are both at least partially under the DMs control. They are, when all is said and done, NPCs. But in the olden days, it wasn’t unusual for players to run two characters in the same adventure. It was so common that there were rules forbidding PCs from sharing magic items if they were run by the same player. So allowing your solo player to run two or more PCs could restore some of the balance that modern D&D is built on. Note that this is not a good option for absolute beginners. Generally, it’s enough for first-time players to get to grips with running one PC; adding more is just confusing.
Give them a “friend”
I have more experience running D&D for one player than I have running for groups, and this is something I do pretty much all the time. I’ve tried a few variations on it, some with better results than others, though all of them worked.
The first time I ran D&D, my one player rolled up her character, and then we rolled up three other players to round out a classic “party”. My daughter ran her character, and I ran the others, but purely in the mechanical sense. They took their turns in combat. They made skill checks if they were proficient, and if my daughter suggested it. They didn’t roleplay, or look for clues or any of the fun stuff, firstly because I knew where all the secrets were, so that would be cheating, but mostly because it was my daughter’s game, I didn’t want to spoil her fun.
This is not something I recommend highly, as it too easily descends into one bored player watching the DM roll dice by themselves. And that’s not fun. Also, I feel that, as a DM, I have enough to run without having to be a player as well.
One of the things I’ve tried to improve upon this is running fewer characters. Instead of giving the solo player an entire NPC party, just give them one NPC friend. You’ll want this friend to be a easy to run as possible, and if you’re very comfortable with design, you might consider not making them a character class at all. Just decide what they should be able to do, based on what your player will need help with, and assign them the numbers. If they need a ranged attacker, give them a shortbow, some arrows, and +5 to hit (+3 to damage). If they need some healing, allow them 2 uses of Cure Wounds per day and the Spare the Dying cantrip. But if you’re not ready to play it that fast and loose, build them as a level 1 character class.
The way this differs from rolling up a full party is that it’s less work, and less time spent watching the DM play with themselves. I would also recommend that you gradually relinquish control to the player, asking them for more and more input into what the NPC should do until they’re making pretty much all the decisions. Eventually this could bleed into the player running two characters, but at a pace that allows a beginner to get to grips with it.
The way this differs from traditional henchman and hirelings is that there’s a “story reason” for NPC to come on the adventure, and no money is involved. Sometimes I’ve had these NPCs be someone the player rescues, and then they join forces to escape from the dungeon. Sometimes it has been an NPC with an adventure hook, but instead of sending the PC off on a quest, they come too. Once I even suggested the NPC and the PC were friends before the game began.
Logic would suggest that you give this “friend” abilities the PC doesn’t have, to help round them out, but actually three of the four times I’ve done this, I’ve accidentally given the PC a helper of the same class. And to be honest, I didn’t notice much of a difference in how successful the adventure was. Also, it proved a useful teaching method for beginners. You can have the NPC do something, and then point out that the player’s character can do that too.
As with the “dummy party”, you don’t want this NPC to be leading the adventure. They’re the sidekick at best. The player has to be the star of the show (if you want them to keep playing).
And my last observation is that, of all the times I’ve run D&D for solo players, the most successful PC, who accomplished the most and was consistently in the least danger of dying was a Rogue. Rogue is my favourite class, but they are seriously overpowered in 5e, even at first level. With high dex and finesse weapons, they have decent AC and good attack options in both melee and ranged weapons. With light weapons (and they get two daggers as part of their starting equipment), they can make two melee attacks per round. They have proficiency in more skills than any other class, and are just as good at avoiding danger as they are at facing it. If they continue to fly solo, they can take the Arcane Trickster archetype and access a little magic as well, including some damaging cantrips like Fire Bolt and Shocking Grasp, so they can even respond to threats with resistance to non-magical damage. I’ve never run a solo game for a Bard, but I can only assume that they would be just as, if not more, successful, especially considering their Jack of All Trades feature. So maybe push for the Rogue or Bard, if your potential solo player isn’t sure what to play.
Is running D&D for one player ideal? Absolutely not, nor is it typical of the D&D experience (there’s only so much banter you can have with just two people). But it is fun, it’s better than not playing at all, and is far more doable than you might think.
D&D has always been a “customizable” game, so if you want to run a game and can only find one willing player, don’t think twice. Just jump in and do it. If nothing else, it may inspire you both to put more effort into finding a full group.