To play 5th Edition one-on-one, all you need is another person and a free block of time. And it’s an amazing way to introduce a partner, friend, or family member to the game!
Advice for GMs. Before you play, talk to your game partner about their favorite parts of a 5E session. Do they gravitate toward roleplay (or RP), or do they prefer dangerous puzzles, creative combat, political intrigue, or dungeon crawls? As much as possible, tweak the session to emphasize their favorite parts of play while making sure to leave in your preferences too.
During session prep, leave things as open for the PC to drive the narrative forward as possible. That doesn’t mean that you need to prep for every potential turn of events! Instead, try to create space for the player to add to the narrative and move the story forward. Don’t be afraid to present them with a problem you don’t have an iron-clad solution for—the two of you can figure it out together!
At the end of the day, your most important task as GM is for the player to trust you. They need to know that you’re rooting for them and for their character. This will lay the foundation for both of you to have a truly amazing one-on-one session together.
Advice for Players. As a player, your primary job, besides having fun, is to know your character and to be vocal about what they want. The emphasis here is on the second part, communicating your character’s desires to your GM, so they can help you make them a reality.
To do this, your character doesn’t have to be demanding or dramatic, but they should have some kind of goal they’re working to achieve, and you can tell your GM that goal, preferably in character, without being afraid that they’re going to use it to trick or trap you or your PC.
Your GM does a lot of work before the session starts, setting up possible narrative paths for your PC. What this leaves for you then is getting to know the PC really well. Here are a few questions to ask yourself before you play to help you dig deeper into your character:
- What’s going on beneath the surface? How does that contrast with what they’re presenting to others?
- What’s consciously motivating them? What are their subconscious fears and desires?
During Play: Best Practices
GMPCs Are Your Friend. If you’re planning on playing something longer than a one-shot, consider bringing in a GMPC (a PC run by the GM) of some kind. One of the best ways to inspire character growth is through interactions with other characters, and the PC developing a close relationship with someone they know and trust is incredibly powerful.
From a practical standpoint, it’s a lot more engaging for the PC to travel from place to place or try to solve a problem when they have someone else to talk to! Your GMPC is an amazing resource here as they can promote character growth and support the PC during combat while also keeping the two of you immersed in the world of the game.
Everyone Wears Two Hats. One of the best things about one-on-one play is that both the GM and player can experience a melding of their two roles. Players, you are providing the momentum that drives the story forward. Make sure you’re meeting your GM halfway; there isn’t really any downtime or waiting for the narrative waves to wash over you. Remember, you’re holding the oars!
GMs, you’ve already set up the framework, so now you get to enjoy the stage you’ve set and interact with your player. In these sessions, you might have opportunities for more involved RP, which will naturally lead to more fleshed-out NPCs. Plus, there’s lots of room for surprise!
As long as you both trust each other, you’ll be well prepared to collaboratively build a world during the session—that’s really what makes it a duet!
Giving Weight to PC Choices. Often when people discuss this type of play, GMs worry that their GMPC is going to overshadow the PC. The sentiment in these cases is lovely, but it’s slightly misplaced. Instead, make sure that you don’t overshadow your player. Is the person across the table from you getting to make choices that have real stakes? Do they have a say in where the story’s going? Can they help determine the pacing of the game, spending more time on what they enjoy while the two of you handwave parts that neither of you find very exciting?
There is a second caveat here: especially at lower levels, depending on the character class the player has chosen, it’s possible for a PC and GMPC to deal very different amounts of damage in a single round. The simplest solution is for the player to run both the GMPC and the PC during combat and for the GM to run the GMPC during RP. This way, the player can roll the Divine Smite damage and chase away those pesky orcs with a moonbeam.
Combat Considerations. We could dig into the nitty gritty of scaling combat for one-on-one play based on character class and creature type, but instead, to keep things simple, it all comes back to one question. Ask yourself, “What would be the most fun option here?”
During combat, you’ll want to keep an eye on action economy as one PC (and perhaps a GMPC) can easily be overwhelmed by three or four combatants even if they’re low level. Instead, use waves of enemies to give the combat a sense of momentum without your PC getting overwhelmed.
Finally, opt for cascading failure states for skill checks instead of absolute failures that might bring play to a screeching halt. Instead of a failed stealth check to avoid detection, sending the PC into life and death combat, they should instead attract some attention.
You can find lots more advice on one-on-one play at dndduet.com, and be sure to check out Lost and Found!