One of the reasons we started writing about playing 5th Edition with just two people was that it brought us together and gave us something fun to do. Playing in our duet is our go-to way to wind down from the stress and frustrations of the week while sharing some laughs and telling stories. But we also wanted to help GMs with some of the mechanical shifts and concerns involved in adapting what is traditionally a group game for one-on-one and small-party play.
This post covers several of the conceptual adjustments that GMs can make in order to adapt 5E rules and table dynamics to parties of two. We discuss the foundation for these shifts first—cooperation at the table between the player and the GM. Then we dive into some of the most difficult situations to navigate—PC death and incapacitating effects. Of course, these adjustments will vary depending on your individual table’s preferences, but we think of these as best practices to consider for shoring up the bones of your campaign.
Cooperation is Critical
Many of us have played at a table where it seemed that the GM was working out some sort of childhood injustice and the players were in the path of their wrath. Maybe we even enjoyed the challenge, relishing in the small wins against seemingly impossible odds and surviving deadly traps by the closest of rolls. Grimdark, gritty, grueling games like these can be fun, but playing at a table where the GM-player dynamic turns adversarial rarely is. This is especially true for one-on-one 5E.
When running a two-person game, it is important for GMs to remember that even when presenting a fun challenge to the hero, you are still rooting for your baddies to eventually fall. GMs should cultivate trust at the table and an understanding that as dire as things get both parties are on the same side (probably that of the PC and the overarching story).
Players, you maintain a critical role in this too! Being in charge of the PC at a table of two means you’ll need to be active and decisive. While your pre-session prep won’t look like flipping through books of monsters and lore, you will need to be prepared to take risks, make choices, and drive the plot forward. (GMs, this is where cooperation comes back around for you too. You can foster this decision-making and confidence in your player by encouraging and empowering them to play an active role in shaping the story of the campaign.)
Death is only the beginning
We frequently get asked, “What happens in your one-on-one game when the PC dies?” Is the game just… over? And now we have to hope there’s something good on TV? (There isn’t.)
One instinct might be to have the GM pull critical punches. Whether that looks like a devastating coup de grace that mysteriously misses the mark or the dastardly villain making crucial blunders in the execution of their world-endangering schemes, heroes (and the person playing them) don’t feel heroic if they can see that the heinous abomination from beyond the realms of reality is in fact a kittycat in a trench coat. It’s not satisfying, so it’s not worth doing!
Instead, keep the stakes high but have contingency plans. Primary PC defeat could be a real problem in your one-on-one game if the GM hasn’t planned for such an eventuality. I use the word defeat in the previous sentence intentionally to highlight the fact that not all combats that end in the player failing death saves actually have to end in their demise. The GM could have their villain shift to capturing instead of killing the hero. Now you have a cool dungeon escape session in the works! Or perhaps they get saved at the last moment from a heretofore unannounced celestial patron who chases off the bad guy in the last moments?
Or maybe the PC dies. That’s ok. Death in fantasy settings is way more exciting than a long sleep. GMs need only look to the Greek classics for inspiration involving treks away from death and back toward the land of the living. The afterlife can be an exciting setting for your PC to have some of their most consequential adventures yet!
Finally, death/defeat offers an exciting story beat that great GMs can leverage for narrative weight and fun. Some of our favorite sessions have been when the GM has the player change to a minor/supporting character for a session or two, leaving the fate of the PC ambiguous. This adds excitement and anticipation around the PC while simultaneously providing the chance to develop another character in your shared world.
The Best Way to Save Against Stun
More times than I’d like to admit, even as a seasoned GM of one-on-one play, I’ll excitedly roll out a new and terrifying monster only to have combat go sideways in the first round or so. The culprit is almost always the same: “save-or-stuck” spells and effects. It seems that many of the more unique or strange monsters have something like this in their arsenal. For instance, a creature might have an effect that emits a cone wherein all players must succeed on an Intelligence save or be stunned. The stun condition (and paralysis) can be especially tricky for one-on-one play, but there is one surefire way to make sure these abilities don’t derail your combats!
To save against effects that render your PC totally helpless to whatever nefariousness they face, we recommend adjusting the mechanics for how those effects play out in-game. For instance, many of the save-or-stuck effects call for a saving throw at the end of a character’s turn. Instead, consider allowing the PC to make the save at the beginning of their turn, so they can still be involved in the action. It’s not fun to be totally helpless and just sitting there as the bad guys decimate your health. Involving the party members (such as a GMPC or adventuring companion) helps as well. Can they come to the rescue in time? But if you’re adventuring alone or with only one ally, use caution when incorporating these effects as the likelihood is greater for them to create the not-fun scenario described above.
One place that I don’t totally hate save-or-stuck effects is in BBEG monologues or roleplay. Even here I make sure that, if the bad guy has the party locked or stunned or something, they still get the occasional chances to break free from the effect and cut off the diatribe.
We hope that these ideas help prepare you for super successful one-on-one 5E games in the future. Duet-style games work just fine without too many tweaks, but keeping these concepts in mind as you set up your duet campaign will ensure that you have the smoothest experience possible.
You can find more advice and ideas for one-on-one play at dndduet.com.