You can duet with your wife. You can duet with a friend. Just the other week I got to duet with a professor. If you want to run games that are more focused on story and easier to get together, find someone to duet with now!
One on one Dungeons & Dragons holds a special place in my heart. It’s how I was first introduced to the game by my library summer camp buddy at a tender, young, and awkward age. In recent years it was a way to connect with my partner (at one time while she was laid-up in bed with debilitating back-pain. Tough to roll a d20 on a duvet by the way.) and more recently a way to create a very intimate and nuanced D&D actual play podcast. But they’re a bit of a different animal, and they’re not easy.
Duet campaigns fail quicker than traditional campaigns. Because there are fewer people, there is less beer and candy camaraderie to make a meh session still a fun hangout. Because of the intensity of effort required, you’ll find if there is something more relaxed and more fun you could be doing, you’ll quickly be doing that instead.
If you are invested, and open to each other, they can be wildly rewarding.
I like the term duet instead of one-on-one because its says something about the cooperation and trust needed between player and game-master to make the game sing. This is not a competitive sport. Duet play is intimate. Without a group of people to laugh readily, play is more dramatic. Because there is no one to argue with over plans, gameplay moves quickly. It’s intense.
I’ve run half a dozen duet campaigns, and have come across a few ideas that are make-or-break for the format. If you are entertaining inviting a loved one to sidle up and roleplay, please read on for five tips to get a head start on making it awesome the first time.
1. Player Agency is Vital
With multiple gamers at the table, it’s reasonable to expect players to bend their character concepts a little to be interested in the quest at hand. The group works together to imagine how the characters come to work together.
In a duet, there is no practical reason for the PC to stay with a certain group. There aren’t other players; you actually can’t split the party. This makes duet play often less predictable for the game master. A half-dozen players tend to average out each other’s choices you can have confidence in the shape of a campaign. A single player with no such averaging force can turn the direction of a campaign upside down with a single choice, easily and often.
You must embrace this as a feature not a flaw. If you fail to embrace changes in direction and push the campaign where you desire, if you restrict player agency, the campaign will fall apart. With only two people at the table, if one’s choices are not honoured, you’re not really playing anymore.
In a duet I ran with my wife in early days she was escorting an engineer to dismantle a dam that goblins had cobbled together on the river far above her town. She and the engineer were ambushed and the engineer was killed. My wife’s character (Sam, a paladin), was despondent and convinced that without the engineer there was no point in going forward. I had invested great energy in building the dam as an adventure, and pushed her to go on, knowing that she could achieve her goal (at extra effort) without the engineer. I was stressed about all that work never being seen.
That was the last session of that campaign. When she felt her instinct that Sam would return to her monastery claiming failure wasn’t acceptable to me, she lost her spark of interest in that adventure.
And yet… the story of the young paladin who returned a failure, then witnessed the town rocked by a surging flood when the goblins released the dam would have been an interesting one. How would she have responded to the disaster? Would she have blamed herself? Would she seek retribution on the goblins? Crumble and hide or find new resolve?
Players in a duet will surprise you. If you hold on to the story going the way you planned it (even more-so than in a traditional game), you or your player or both of you will be frustrated. Instead become obsessed with discovering exactly what this character’s story will be. Embrace their agency.
2. Forks not Fail States
An important tool for embracing player agency is to think about what failure is in your campaign. A single character will have a less complete toolset than a party of adventurers. They’ll have big gaps in their abilities, and be vulnerable in combat. Failure is possible, likely even.
Failure is great if it changes the direction of the story, increases stakes, forces new tactics. Failure is terrible, frustrating, and boring if it ends the story. “You can’t pick the lock on that vault? Okay, I guess we stop here. Without the macguffin nothing more can be done.”
When you build your encounters don’t think of them as obstacles in your character’s path they must overcome. “There are guards outside the councillor’s chamber, the player must get past them to interrogate the councillor.”Instead think of them as forks: places the direction of the story can change. “There are guards outside the councillor’s chamber, the player could fight or talk their way past the guards to interrogate the councillor, or if the guards overcome them they’ll be thrown into the dungeons where the councillor will interrogate and blackmail them.”
You’ll never plan all the forks players may take, but think of your job as discovering how any choices the player makes progresses their character’s story. For better or worse. Progressing a story isn’t the same as getting closer to a character’s goals. It can also be adding complications and stakes. If you can find a way to make failure as much fun as success you are going to have a great game.
Dilemmas are useful in duets. I once had a player who played Cassandra a bard from Neverwinter trying to make it big in Waterdeep. She was freshly arrived in the big city and staying with her friend Silda who’d been struggling as a singer in Waterdeep for years already. Silda takes Cassandra out to an open stage she’s been singing at for years and Cassandra attracts the notice of Ruldie Barrenweather an important rep for a musicians guild in the city, who invites her out to an exclusive party. Cassandra is forced to choose between dumping her (jealous but polite) friend / host and working on her career, or keeping her date with her friend and missing a big opportunity. I delighted in watching my player squirm as she struggled with the decision, and roleplaying the spurned Silda was awesome.
Death is the most obvious fail state. “Forks Not Fail States” doesn’t mean characters should be invulnerable (though a healthy dose of being taken prisoner is useful). It’s important to have death as a possibility in a duet game. It’s presence creates stakes. I’ve offered to my players in the past that if their character dies they could pick an NPC they liked and take on their story. This turns the fail state of death into a fork where the player gets to explore the setting and plot from a new perspective. Still… it’s not a bad idea to make death a little less imminent.
3. Buff the PC
Duets present an opportunity to explore the motivations and flaws of a character in a more focused way than larger party games. You’ll find great satisfaction diving into the relationships and psychology of your player’s character. You’ll do well to provide lots of non-combat challenges. But fighting is dramatic too. How will the lonely player character survive?
Firstly, don’t get too concerned about balance. The intimate nature of duet play leads to lots of opportunities to vastly change the circumstances of a fight when it does happen, so any stressing you do over balance is likely to get thrown out the window by your player’s unpredictability anyways.
Then, since you’re not too worried about balance anyway, give your PC some buffs. For D&D 5e, I give duet PCs double HP to start with, and let them take max HP increases for the next two levels. This is a simple way to get them past the fresh squishy new character hump.
I’ve also made companions an integral part of low levels. A first quest for one of my duets was to find evidence clearing an imprisoned ranger’s name. This mean that the first session of play wasn’t combat reliant, and in the next few sessions she had a grateful ranger companion (that she played in combat) to help her out.
The community of allies a player cultivates in a duet game becomes very important. You could run your duet like the infinity engine D&D video games where they can pick up allies and play them in combat. I love duets for their focus on the main character so I never want too many lackeys taking front and centre, so I don’t let players roleplay their allies in a duet.
I often give other benefits or buffs to players in duets I wouldn’t hand out in more traditional play. I gave a +1 sword inherited from a mysterious benefactor to a paladin, and I’ve created rules for an addictive drug that gives the benefits of a haste spell for a player who created a street urchin ne’er do well character.
In a traditional D&D game the PCs are special people. They may have once been simple farm kids, but at level 1 they are already individuals of rare talents in the world. In duet play the PC can be even more special. Give them something to help them survive long enough to do interesting stuff.
4. Make the World Interested in the PC
In a duet, the game master is responsible for the entire world but one character, who is played by the player. Duet games are much more intense to game master than the traditional game. When you have six players, they can spend huge swathes of game talking to each other, leaving you the hell alone to make notes or come up with what’s around the corner. In a duet game, every damn time the PC talks they’re talking to someone you are playing.
And… if you don’t allow them to have agency (translate: do whatever they want), it’s not going to be fun.
How do you maintain some control over the game while still giving agency? You make sure the world has agency too. You make the PC important enough to people in the world that people in the world will try to get stuff from the PC.
If you think you’ll lay out the vast city and let the player go and do whatever they want, you are more prepared, a better improviser, or more of a sucker for punishment than me. The way to get some predictability (and to make your prep worthwhile) into a duet game is to give some NPCs strong motivations that involve the PC.
I got overwhelmed running a duet with the bard Cassandra in Waterdeep. I had the Vornheim: The Complete City Kit book (which is awesome btw) for guidance on generating cities on the fly and let her run free. She had a great time but I imploded under the pressure of making sure there was something interesting to do in every dark corner she looked.
I had a plot about the Zhentarim and the Xanathar Thieves Guild going to war in Waterdeep and planned on her getting drawn into it, but didn’t plan a strong reason for her to get involved. I had soft reasons and was waiting for it to happen organically. In the meantime her exploration overwhelmed me. If I were to do it again I would put her at the centre of the plot immediately, so that wherever she goes I have a reason for my hard prep work to go and find her. Perhaps both the Zhents and the XTG are aware of a vault of riches that can only be opened by the song of the purest singer in the land, and so both have heavily invested in competing musical guilds to mill through talent, testing them against the vault door, and disappearing the failures.
Dig into the player’s character sheet and concept. Talk to them about what story they are interested in. My most recent duet player, for the podcast, gave me a one-pager with notes from a dream, just images and feelings he had about his character. A couple of themes he wanted to explore. I built a whole new part of my world to make him as central as possible to the plot, so that even when he didn’t know what he wanted to do, there were plenty of people and factions in the world who knew what they wanted from him.
You can’t control what your PC is interested in. They must have agency. You can absolutely control who is interested in your PC and thus steer plot without steering the player.
5. Embrace the Unexplored
This one is weird. The DM’s lament is always for the hard work they put into the corridor on the left that the players never went down. This feeling of frustration at the secret doors not found and paths not taken seems amplified in the duet format. Because the player has no other players to talk over plans with, they may dismiss looking into your chamber of secrets with nary a consideration. You don’t even get a chance to say “well you do catch a sniff of myrrh wafting from that direction.”
Badgering your player into exploring more or further is a no-no. You can either learn to deal with the frustration of undiscovered territory, or you can love it. Flip the switch in your brain that goes from “aww they didn’t see the thing i made” to “haha, they didn’t find the thing. This is gonna go badly for them.” Make not discovering things as important to the story as discovering things.
Delight in finding ways you can loop the stuff they didn’t see back into the story. They hear that the restaurant they didn’t visit burnt down. The neighbour kid pried open the chest in the basement with a crowbar and discovered a magical artifact. They discover a villains journal later that tells of all the sick loot behind that curtain the player didn’t look behind in that dungeon the player was in during the first session.
If you’ve gotten this far, perhaps you’ve got some ideas rattling around in your noggin about the campaign you’re going to run. Please do try a duet. It’s a great training ground for developing your dramatic narrative chops.
To give credit where it’s due, when I began searching for resources on how to run duet games a thread of articles by Kirk Johnson-Weider were inspirational. If you’d like a lot of detail about one experienced game-master’s insights on duets, go there.
If you’d like to hear me run a duet you can! My podcast Shadows of Pindus: A Croak for Help is me running a game in my homebrewed arcanepunk setting for a friend who plays a street urchin Drow. You can subscribe now on iTunes. I think you’ll love it. First episodes drop June 18, 2018.