I guess, at one time or another, we have all fallen foul of having a great game we want to play, but no one to play it with. Some of us are lucky to have a good group of friends to roleplay with, but there have been a couple of times over my 40 years of playing where that hasn’t been the case and I’ve played and GMd games with only one player.
Obviously roleplaying is at its best when a group of characters are working and growing together, and playing with only one player brings up a few issues to bear in mind. But for me it certainly doesn’t mean that the player and GM can’t still have a great time: after all, don’t forget that the GM is a player too, and some of my best roleplaying moments have been between a player character and an NPC played by the GM.
This question has recently come up in relation to Forbidden Lands, and I think there are a few ways you could handle it (and, of course, some of these tips will work for any RPG one-to-one situation).
The first thing I will say is this: Year Zero games tend to be tough and unforgiving. Death is always just one or two dodgy dice rolls away and can happen very fast, before you even know it. And being alone might make staying alive in the Forbidden Lands even harder.
So, you could allow the player to play multiple PCs.
One of my earliest RPG experiences, when I was 10 or 11, was playing DND with my brother as GM. He ran module Q1, the Queen of the Demonweb Pits, and I played 5 characters. I still remember it 40 years on and it was great. But that said, my preference is for roleplaying just one character, for all the various RPG reasons I don’t need to go into with you.
Alternatively, you could give the player some allies, henchmen or servants?
They allow you to focus your attention on your PC, whilst having the back up of other characters and remove some of the problems of travelling through the Forbidden Lands on your lonesome. Also, it can be great fun for a player to build up their little coterie or entourage, and how you behave towards them, how you came to have them in your employ, and how you reward them all plays into an exciting wider story without diluting the top billing of your actual PC.
- Have you enslaved and dominated them? They might do your bidding without thought of resistance, and this might work well most of the time. But how hard will they try to pull your unconscious and bleeding body from the clutches of some beastly creature in a dark dungeon? Or will they just run and leave you to die? They may even actively connive at your downfall. After all, living under the yoke won’t be fun, and they might actually want their freedom, and to see you fall.
- Or, are you too kind? Will they be loyal for your kindness, or will they see it as weakness and take advantage?
The idea of having henchmen is one I really like in Forbidden Lands, and it’s certainly not just for games with only one player. But it could really come into its own in a game with only one player, adding even more depth to a mechanic that’s principally intended to support the creation of your Stronghold (I also love the idea of the Stronghold, akin to the Ark in Mutant Year Zero, but unless your GM is very generous it’s something that only really opens up later in a campaign, as your characters need to build up enough treasure or income to pay for the high costs of having a Stronghold).
But, if you wanted to go solo in Forbidden Lands there is one area that is going to cause you trouble, and that’s Travelling.
Remember, each quarter day a character can do one (or sometimes two, combined) actions. Everyone can HIKE (i.e., march across the lands), and you can combine that with either LEAD THE WAY (i.e., find a good path through the lands) or KEEP WATCH (i.e., keep your eyes open for beasties and bad guys). But, critically for an explorer going solo, you cannot combine both LEAD THE WAY and KEEP WATCH.
- So, if you fail – or choose to not even attempt – to LEAD THE WAY, you suffer a Mishap, ranging from simple blocked terrain, to fog or blundering into the den of a savage animal that attacks you. Not good…
- But then, if you fail – or choose to not even attempt – to KEEP WATCH, you fail to spot any random encounters the GM may (or will…) roll for you.
KEEP WATCH is also useful when you do anything else, so a solo traveller will never be able to do this while doing any other action (like MAKE CAMP, FORAGE, REST and SLEEP). All sounds a bit tough to me.
So how might a GM modify this to make it more manageable for a single player?
Well, I reckon there are a few things that you could consider:
Give the PC a servant or an entourage. These NPCs could then fulfil these roles and you don’t need to tinker with the rules at all.
But if your player was determined to go it completely alone:
Don’t modify a thing and see how it plays out. This might be a bit harsh but again doesn’t need any house-ruling and might be fun to see how long a lone character might survive;
You could allow the character to do 2 Travelling actions, but at a -2 dice modifier on both. After all, you could go FORAGING whilst KEEPING WATCH, but you’d find it harder to find forage, as you’re always looking over your shoulder, and you’d be worse at spotting trouble as you’d always have one eye to the ground looking for food. So perhaps a modifier of -2 dice to both rolls sounds reasonable. You could also apply this to any other action you wanted to double-up (remembering that you can already double-up HIKE with KEEP WATCH or LEAD THE WAY for free as it were). This also sticks to the general philosophy used by Fria Ligan in Coriolis, with the cumulative negative modifiers for every different action you try to combine in ship combat.
You could go one step further, and say you could triple-up certain actions but at a -3 dice modifier on each. This would apply well to actually Travelling: I can’t see a good reason why a character couldn’t HIKE while LEADING THE WAY (you are going to look where you’re going, after all) and KEEPING WATCH (of course you’re going to look out for trouble as you go). But each task would be at -3 dice, and progress might be much slower (at the GM’s discretion).
Is there an action you can’t really double-up? Well, I think SLEEP is probably the only one. If you’re alone and asleep then there’s no one to KEEP WATCH. And you have to sleep at some time or another, and it won’t always be in the comfy confines of a warm tavern or behind some high stone walls (and even then you might want to KEEP WATCH, depending on how friendly the town is!).
A kind GM might allow you to take longer to MAKE CAMP, two quarters instead of one. Ok, your journeys take longer, but you might have a better hope of living to tell the tale! This extra time to MAKE CAMP might represent you finding a great hidey hole to build your camp in, or setting some rudimentary traps that would snap and alert you to the arrival of something sneaking up on you. It might not stop the beasty being right on top of you, but at least the first you hear of it won’t be when it’s eating your donkey!
In dice terms I think I’d let you make two rolls to MAKE CAMP and add all the successes up into one total (not forgetting that you might be at a -2 dice modifier anyway if you’re KEEPING WATCH whilst you MAKE CAMP).
- One success means you have only managed to make a normal camp, you didn’t find anywhere really suitable and your traps all look a bit weak to you (in game terms, you MADE CAMP but your camp failed its KEEP WATCH roll). You can choose then to sleep and hope for the best, or stay awake, KEEP WATCH yourself, and become Sleepy.
- Two successes means your camp is perfect and anything sneaking up on you in your sleep will trip your traps (in game terms your camp has made its KEEP WATCH roll).
- Three or more successes and I’d be tempted, as a GM, to say one of your traps has caught something, or someone, in the night and they are now stuck and in your power…