We’ve written previously in this series about the importance of approaching a one-on-one 5E game as a co-creative storytelling process. At the table, this looks like the player taking on some roles of the GM and vice-versa.
- Players, for more ideas to actively take part in your one-on-one 5E game, click here.
- GMs, click here to read more about GMPCs and the ways in which one-on-one games allow you to be both a GM and player.
In this post, we cover a few more ways GMs and players can work together in collaborative storytelling. Primarily, we’ll cover three different strategies: using “yes, and” responses at the table, engaging character backstory, and incorporating cascading failure states.
“Yes, and . . .”
Jonathan and I had an interesting conversation about this prepping for this post—this is an approach he uses often whether he’s the player or the GM, but I tend to think about the collaborative process more as a series of building questions.
But first, what is it?
You may have played “yes, and . . .” in your high school theater class or seen it depicted on TV as an improv warm-up exercise. The basic idea is to take in what the other person is saying—”yes”—and then add to it—”and.”
So let’s say you’re fighting a fire elemental. The player rolls an attack that hits. At this point, the GM can ask what their attack looks like or describe the agony blazing across the creature’s face as an ice knife explodes over its head.
But here’s the important bit: whether the GM or the player is the first to describe the attack, the other person should feel free, encouraged even, to add to what their partner has already contributed. So if the GM lays out an initial description, players, go ahead and add your own specific effects to it that feel true to your character. Does your PC cheer after making their attack? Are they surprised at the strength of their strike? Keep painting the scene!
You may find that one or the other of you is particularly great in a certain “yes, and” area of your game. Jonathan, for instance, always has creative additions for combats with dramatic results of attacks that help to flesh out the space we’re imagining and creating together. Whether I’m the GM or the player, I love to get his help in describing those scenes.
In a group game, it can feel concerning to spend too long on any one effect or character, but remember, in a one-on-one game, you can take as much or as little time as you like in each phase of your narrative and play so long as you’re both happy!
Incorporating Character Backstory
This is one of our favorite ways of bringing in the other person’s storytelling and narration ideas: ask the player to incorporate details from their character’s backstory.
Let’s look at how to do this with location. If the PC is visiting somewhere they’ve never been before, you might ask them what their home’s impression of this particular place is—what is its reputation like? What does the PC expect to see there? Perhaps they’ve been somewhere similar and can discuss that experience and how it has set up their anticipation (or lack thereof) to explore this new location. Maybe they always visit a bakery first thing when they get to a new city?
A quick word of warning—GMs, your player might feel nervous about this process at first. Especially when I started playing, I was worried that I would get a detail “wrong,” not yet understanding that Jonathan wanted to incorporate my ideas into the sketches of the world he’d already created. If your player is feeling hesitant, try to ask them more specific questions while also reassuring them that it’s fine if they’re making something up on the fly.
This process is even easier and can be even more fun if you’re returning to a location the PC has visited before. Players, this is on you—where does your PC want to go? Who do they want to see? Are they avoiding anyone? Are there any intriguing shops or sites nearby?
Engaging Cascading Failure States
Last but not least, cascading failure states! By cascading failure states, we refer to the GM tempering the effects of a skill check, so regardless of the roll, the narrative moves forward.
For instance, if the PC needs to jump over a river of lava and you ask for a DC 15 Dexterity (Acrobatics) roll, you would treat the PC rolling a 1, 10, and 25 differently. I’m going to assume you don’t want them to fall into the lava, so maybe on a 1, they suffer a serious injury that reduces their movement or max hp until they take a long rest. On a 10, perhaps they lose an item of some significance, like a +1 crossbow. Neither of these instances are make-or-break for the PC, which is most often what we’re going for in a one-on-one game since the narrative revolves around the PC.
If they rolled incredibly high, you can add something small like have them do a flip over the lava that’s very impressive or allow them to help one of their adventuring companions or the GMPC navigate the river of lava. The goal for any of these instances is to move the narrative forward.
Putting together “yes, and” and cascading failure states makes for great moments for the player to get involved in the storytelling. How would they narrate their natural 1 on a Dexterity (Stealth) check? With a low Wisdom (Perception) check, did they sneeze and miss the assassin sneaking past?
We hope these suggestions have been helpful for inspiring co-creation at your one-on-one gaming table!
Overall, if you maintain a mindset of taking equal responsibility for the narrative, you’ll be well set for collaborating effectively in both building a world and filling it with vivid details, session by session.
You can find more advice and ideas for one-on-one play at dndduet.com.