The Smallest Available Group: 1-on-1 one-shot gaming

I blogged about online gaming here, and I’ve certainly had a lot of that going on this year, but I’ve also run and played some 1-on-1 games; one GM, one player. With social restrictions likely to continue well into 2021, it’s never been a better time to embrace the smallest possible gaming group.

This makes quite a big difference to the gaming experience – it’s a different way to play than a more tradition gaming group, with it’s own advantages and foibles. I’m going to talk about the three systems I’ve used for it this year, and the pros and cons of each, as well as some general thoughts/advice about how I think it works best.

Gumshoe One-2-One

Pelgrane Press currently have two published games for 1-on-1 play – Cthulhu Confidential, a spin off of Trail of Cthulhu where a solo investigator encounters Lovecraftian horrors, and Nights Black Agents: Solo Ops, where an amnesiac vampire conspiracy survivor (or another PC – you can generate your own) uncovers a conspiracy of bloodsucking undead. It has a simple, small dice pool-ish system for resolving conflict and each conflict is a different table of results, potentially making writing your own mysteries time-consuming – but that probably isn’t a concern, and they have quite a bit of stuff out for it anyway.

I’ve run Cthulhu Confidential, guiding hard-boiled P.I. Dex Raymond through a mystery, and played NBA: Solo Ops, where my vampire escapee just about managed to survive and get the hell out of Budapest.

Pros: As with every Gumshoe game, this is amazingly good for investigative / clue-based games. Other styles of play work less well – although NBA:SO is good for pulse-pounding action, and my game of it was definitely intense and threatening. There’s a level of genuine peril in the system – you can’t die or go insane during the game, but you might at the end if you still have injuries or madnesses hanging over you, and the card-based consequences work really well.

Cons: It is prep-heavy, even if you use their pre-written mysteries. They are heavily scaffolded to make it easy to run, but reading then and keeping the stuff in my head was tricky, and playing online you’ll want the cards as handouts which will take some setup.

Ironsworn

Ironsworn is a PBTA-adjacent game of grimdark fantasy, and has a really good system for tracking quests and objectives – you Swear an Iron Vow when you get a quest, and then can attempt to resolve it when you’ve made some progress along its track. This track-based resolution works for every task in the game, and it’s a really clever system where the basics are simple, but your traits (available as cards) give you neat edges and advantages.

It’s full of oracle tables and random generators (it’s designed to also be playable solo, as well as with a group) and so it suits a more improvisational style of play. When I ran it, I had a loose idea of some raiders based in an ancient shipwreck, and the tables were enough to flesh that out with the usual PBTA player-input into conflicts. It has a supplement, Delve, that applies the same principles to location-based adventuring (fill the Delve’s track and try to resolve it) – I haven’t used this, but it looks excellent.

Pros: The setup and setting is explained well and quite intuitive if you follow the steps involved – the shared world-building really builds a unique dark fantasy setting. The system shines out as a genuinely original way of resolving stuff, and I’m planning on giving it a proper run-out as a group game soon.

Cons: The improv-heavy nature, while making setup easy, does sometimes feel like another thing to think about. I’m generally more comfortable with a ready-baked adventure for 1-on-1 play, despite being a bit more loosey-goosey in one-shots generally, so be aware you’ll have to think on your feet a bit and lean on the oracles.

D&D5e

Wait, what? Well, I discovered some excellent stuff from Sly Flourish, so I’ve run a couple of sessions of D&D 1-on-1. The post above has the guidance I used in it, but basically we played with a group of 2 PCs, one played by the GM during roleplaying scenes, but controlled by the player in combat or dice-based challenges. Fights take a bit of balancing, and I think being a few levels above what an adventure recommends and eyeballing using the rules in Xanathar’s Guide for CR helped to make the combats a sufficient challenge.

There’s loads of published stuff, obviously, for this, and it being a familiar system makes it feel easier than it is – despite D&D being quite crunchy compared to the previous posts. I’m guessing this system would work well for any ‘trad’ game – and the 2-PC 1-player thing seemed to be both manageable for the player and made it more fun for me as GM.

Pros: Loads of stuff available, easy to get into the swing of things because we all know what D&D is. D&D tropes feel familiar (to me at least) so this was the least stressful system to run.

Cons: There might be published stuff, but you do need to check the combat encounters and try to rebalance them, and maybe make some judgements on the fly. I found genuine peril a bit hard to get in these game – that’s D&D5e for you I guess – which may be more of an issue for you and your player.

General Tips

There are many other ways to run 1-on-1 games, and as I’ve said the D&D method above will work for any ‘trad’ system, but there are a few general tips that I’ve found useful:

  • Shorter sessions, or regular breaks, work best. 1-on-1 play is intense, and you won’t have time to catch you breath (as a player) in a regular game. Things move fast, so you might be able to get a 1H1S in, or at least have a pause each hour to check in and rest a little
  • Embrace side chatter. As above, with only two of you, the normal table chatter will be absent, so you can be a bit more relaxed about off-topic conversation and sidetracked roleplaying. This goes with the previous point, that you need some low intensity bits, and so be prepared to roleplay some shopkeepers or bystanders even if they aren’t plot-relevant
  • Consider published adventures. Normally I’m an advocate of either baking your own, or heavily adapting published material, but in 1-on-1 play it’s one less thing to worry about. Long campaigns can be tricky, but there’s so much stuff out there, you can do yourself a favour and pick something up and enjoy the ride as GM yourself.
  • Think about theatre of the mind. Again, with two of you have time to explore descriptions and share the action in your imagination – you’ll have less need of a combat map, too, with fewer PCs and fewer opponents. This can add to the immersion and intensity well.

So, I hope you get chance to try some 1-on-1 gaming over the holidays. There are plenty of other systems that support this explicitly, so please link them in the comments if they work well – along with what’s good (or bad) about them.

One Comment

  1. Wow, what a timely post. Thanks! Pelgrane’s offerings sound great. I’ve downloaded Ironsworn, but was intimidated by its sheer length. The Watson and Holmes method is also really nice, for any system (I don’t own D&D).

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