Dungeons and Dragons is a game designed to be the ultimate cooperative experience. It’s so well established at this point that the features of D&D have become tropes in our modern culture. The kids from Stranger Things all sitting round the table as a group in their basement is this distillation of old nerd culture. The ideal adventuring party we usually see in popular culture is comprised of a team with varying different roles, not a one-person show. No character can function solely on their own, each is a part of a greater whole: from powerful wizard to cunning thief, paragons of holiness to dudes that just hit stuff really well I guess. It is baked into the design ethos of the game that D&D is meant to be played with a group and playing with other people is always when the game shines its brightest.
The problem with this is that arranging multiple people’s schedules to find time to play together can be as difficult as riding a unicycle across a tightrope. Blindfolded. With a monkey on your back. And you have to clap your hands every three seconds or the monkey will pull a knife out and cut the rope. In simpler terms, very difficult. It’s been even more difficult recently considering the world has only just come out of a major pandemic. Games have been confined to online platforms, or outright made unavailable due to standard limitations, such as how many people we’re allowed to have in our homes at a given time. Though the world is opening back up and we can now indulge in our communal roleplaying again, I feel it’s important to note that the standard method of D&D isn’t the only method out there for people. Some, the socially anxious or even just new prospective players, might prefer a more personal introduction to the hobby. Which brings up the question: can you run D&D solo?
Welcome to From the DM’s Chair. I’m Shadowonthewall, and today, we’re going to be discussing playing D&D one on one: is it possible, is it worth doing and, if both of those things are true, how can we do it well?
Before we begin, it is important to note that it is technically impossible to play a game of Dungeons and Dragons just by yourself. The key dynamic in the game of DM and player suggests a core difference in hierarchy between two sides, in which the DM acts as narrator and referee for the player, who acts as the agent of change against the pre-established world in turn. It’s impossible to really play both roles at the same time with any kind of objectivity. In my last blog post, I commented that if you want to play a solo RPG style game, you might have more luck writing a novel. In hindsight, this was probably a harsher comment than I meant it to be, especially since there are games out there designed for solo style play, if that’s the kind of thing you’re after. Obviously, there’s a variety of single player RPG video games, but there are board games available for the genre too. Colostle is one I bought recently at a tabletop and boardgame convention that I’m having a really good time with. It’s this lovely little system that works as a combination between a card game with a standard deck and a writing pitch generator. Apawthecaria is another great suggestion I can recommend for those interested in solo style play. Unfortunately, great as these games are, they’re not exactly what we mean when we usually talk about playing solo D&D.
When we talk about playing solo D&D, we are usually referring to what it called a ‘duet campaign’, a game with one player and one DM. The fact that this concept has actually been named should answer your first question about this: yes, you can actually run Dungeons and Dragons for only one other person. It’s not something the game was designed for, but, then again, D&D 5E is also pretty loose on rules from a design standpoint anyway. Challenge rating for monsters doesn’t work as effectively as you might think and the XP calculator isn’t an exact science either. Fifth edition was designed to be a much freer interpretation of the old rules. The maths were flattened to make things more balanced and the gameplay oriented around ‘fun’, more than any actual semblance of logic.
The spell Fireball is a great example. It’s only a third level spell but does an insane 8D6 damage in a 20ft sphere at a range of 150ft. At level 5, a wizard can get access to fireball and with one shot, deal enough damage to down the entire party from half an American football field away. It’s even worse when you consider that wild magic sorcerers might cast this spell at random due to their magic surges: a power they get at 2nd level. Roll the dice wrong and your players can instantly blow up in a total party kill. That sucks, but you can’t deny that the thought of clicking your fingers and blasting enemies away with a ball of fire doesn’t sound cool. This is the kind of core sentiment that really enriches the duet campaign environment and makes a single player campaign a viable option: that Fifth Edition, by its nature, is a little unbalanced in the favour of fun.
This isn’t just a theory either. Since 2020, I have managed to run quite a few duets campaigns and smaller one-shots for various friends, so I knew it can be done. Some were at the start of lockdown online, when friends wanted a very particular itch scratching for a D&D fix, but most of the recent ones have been in-person games I run at my place, something extra to entertain friends with when they come to visit. As a bonus, it lets me show off my fancy miniatures and dungeon tiles, so that’s a plus too. From these various misadventures, I’ve gained a lot of experience and perspective on running solo D&D that I can now share with all of you, as well as the various tales my players have experienced.
The Overview: Why Solo-play? Advantages and Disadvantages
The greatest strength of a duet campaign is the increased level of personal focus. At most D&D tables, players often have to clamber over each other for a piece of the action, meaning for most DMs, game time begins this weird balancing act of content, trying to keep every player hooked and invested all at once. With duet campaigns, there is no other member of the party to fight with for attention: just the DM, and the player. Because of this, the stories you can get out of this set-up and the level of personal involvement players can have with the plots becomes much greater. Everything is a little more heightened because you can be that bit more specific with genres and ideas for sessions, creating narratives that an individual player can really mesh with. I’ve run a whole spectrum of duet sessions with varying tones and completely different genres, from a murder mystery to a coming-of-age adventure to a gritty military campaign. You can do this in normal D&D too, of course, but the singular audience provides a whole new level of focus and depth you might not otherwise be able to go into. Because you’re DMing for one person, assumedly one you know very well, you can much more freely cater a story to their solo tastes and preferences, rather than a vaguer concept designed to better gel with a multitude of players.
This increased focus does come with a downside. The greatest strength of a duet campaign is that one player gets all that attention, but the greatest downside is the same. Whereas parties often pause the game to discuss their thoughts and schemes, or lean on their other allies for strategies in battle, a solo campaign doesn’t have any of these release valves built in. One player has your entire focus and they will usually devour any content you have ready if you’re not careful. Combat goes a lot faster, because there’s less people to keep track of, conversations breeze by and some plotlines and ideas might not be as important as first thought if your player doesn’t vibe with them immediately. This is because in a duet campaign, your player occupies a different role in the narrative than in others.
In most D&D games, the player is part of a larger ensemble cast and we shame those who try to steal the spotlight and deny it to their fellow players. For a duet campaign though, your singular player is literally the main character of this story. Their choices, for good or ill, will decide everything about your duet campaign going forward and this enables them with much greater narrative agency than most games. They should be the one to make the big decisions, to choose the paths to take. It’s alright for players to have sidekicks and followers to help with the action economy and advise them on their quest, though this will result in extra work from a DM perspective, but the solo player really should be willing to play an active role in the narrative. If your player normally feels like a side character in other campaigns, maybe they will enjoy this new focus from a solo perspective, but if your player is usually quite comfortable on the side-lines, a duet campaign might lose steam very quickly without the DM’s guiding hand.
It’s important to preface that one-on-one D&D experiences aren’t for everyone. D&D is still built around the team based dynamic and I still think it’s a game best enjoyed with many friends, but there are specific virtues to this style of play that can’t be ignored. The emotional highs are more intense due to a personal experience, combat feels much more thrilling and lethal and the story as a whole can be much more engaging as a result of catering to a player’s focus. In fact, all in all, running D&D one on one is quite literally just a heightened version of the usual game: its positives become beacons of enjoyment and its problems become troublesome faults. But, at the end of the day, solo D&D is literally just another way to explore a game system we love with the people we care about. It might mean more fiddling with dice rolls and numbers, more spontaneous changes to your plot, but I feel those are common at every other table too. So long as you and your friend are having fun, then that should be all that matters. Everyone wants the chance to be told a story, to live their adventure, and truly, there is no better way for a person to get the truest form of that excitement than with a duet campaign.
To sum up, if you’ve run a regular campaign for players, a solo campaign doesn’t require much more work, except perhaps some more free form thinking on your feet in the actual session. Some might still have some trepidation at this still, but, like all things, it’s best to just dive in and see how things go. Here are some examples of the duet campaigns I’ve run to give you an idea on how to make the most of this style of play and learn from my experiences for yourself
What I learned in the Fire-Keeper Campaign
Danyella Misthaven has always felt like an outsider. A Tabaxi Monk raised on the island nation of Kirai, Dany has struggled to fit in with a culture and people she has felt constantly adrift from. Whispers of criticism for her foreign heritage follow her through the streets. Even the love and acceptance of her extended family at the Firekeeper Shrine can do little to ground her restless spirit and fierce passion for life. On the night of the Rising Phoenix festival, disaster strikes Dany’s isolated home of Yamano in the form of a hobgoblin horde, led by the abandoned apprentice of her old master, a fierce draconic monk known as Tao Linn. As the forces of dark ambition begin to engulf the land of Kirai, standing on the brink of civil war, Dany is forced to accept her new destiny. She must stand as the new chosen of the Phoenix and the holder of Suzaku’s tailfeather. If legend is true, Dany must travel the land of Kirai, locate the Arms of the Sacred Beasts and master their powers in order to save Kirai from disaster. Alas, fate is cruel, and though Dany finds herself travelling with strong allies, such as the playful Vanara Monk Sato and the loyal Fire-Genasi Samurai Ash, she is also hunted by her oldest friend: her adoptive sister and daughter of her greatest enemy, Tao Jun.
My friend Kat was fairly easy-going when it came to choosing what she wanted for her duet campaign. She was fine to just play D&D since it was offered, and even let me choose a place in my homebrew world to start off in. This is not usually something I recommend when running a duet campaign of your own though, as I feel it’s really important that your player has to care about the adventure they’ll be interacting with. If they choose their adventure, your player will be more likely to want to engage with your content. However, with Kat giving me free reign for what to run, I was put in a very unique situation with a simple challenge: make Kat care about something new
For my first session, I knew I would need to hook Kat completely on this new story or else the entire campaign would fall apart. She would have to fully fall in love with a world she had never experienced and fictional people she had no cause to care for right out of the gate. I would have to bring my A-game. And so, my advice to all DMs who are in this impossible position is simple: write a game that you will love. Your passion will speak for itself and your enjoyment will quickly turn contagious.
Considering I had just finished the first season of Demon Slayer at the time, I was feeling a strong passion for Japanese culture. Wikipedia articles about Legend of the Five Rings and a Netflix documentary on the Sengoku Jidai helped spur me onwards until I was ready to develop the setting: the ruby of the sunrise sea, the island of Kirai. Much like the periods of Japanese history that held my interest, Kirai was an honour bound society on the edge of civil war with warring clans waiting to crown themselves ruler. Whilst developing the culture, I stumbled upon the idea that the people of Kirai venerated fate and destiny. Without even realising it, I had already picked the perfect theme for the adventure to come.
Communication with your players is important, but this duet campaign let me do something I had never done with a player before: collaborate. As I was still inventing the continent, Kat was still inventing Dany and the two of us compared our work to craft something we could both work with. Kat gave me her character’s backstory and a list of some family members to look through (Dany was the only girl among a small army of brothers). I got the chance to review the list and work out where they might all be and which ones she was still in contact with (the eldest, Ichiro, the others were scattered to the winds). In turn, Kat looked over as much info as I could give her about the Firekeeper shrine, learning character names and working out her relationship with the residents. I remember when Kat suggested that despite being a Kirian native, Dany actually took a few years out to explore the rest of the world, I felt a little worried. Maybe she didn’t like the setting, I considered, maybe she wanted something different. However, in supporting Kat with the character she wanted to play, she managed to craft an interesting persona for Dany rather than reducing her to the typical stereotype of a monk: this young little firebrand ready to strike out on her own, full of strength and speed but not yet the wisdom of a true master.
One moment, in particular, strikes me in hindsight as the perfect ‘happy little accident’. Whilst looking over the names, Kat saw the name Tao Jun and immediately latched onto this new character.
“Oh,” she said with this happy chirp, “Dany probably sees her as a sister, if they were raised together.”
I remember nodding and agreeing, whilst internally screaming. I had my own plans for Jun at that point and they suddenly seemed under threat. I remember worrying I had made the wrong call and would ruin Kat’s plans all the way up until the day we played. But I put my work in, I knew exactly what I wanted out of the first session. As a piece of advice, we should never attempt to stray away from the things we enjoy. If there is a narrative you like, if there’s a story you enjoy, take as much as you can from it and use it to your benefit.
One of my fondest video game memories is the opening to Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. It’s a relaxed, slow and spun-out start, mainly about steadily introducing the player to the village they live in and getting them attached to the characters there. I structured my opening for Kat in similar way: Dany was woken up for her morning sparring session and engaged in a battle with the various monks of the temple. The goofy Sato, too busy flirting with the female combatants, lost in the first round, as did the clumsy rookie, Fuku-san. Jun and Dany met in the final round, allowing I and Kat to warm up to the new combat pacing with solo play. Jun won the fight, easily. It was this beautiful moment where the dice had set the stage for what was to come: Jun was the best fighter, Dany coming second out of the sisters.
After a short rest and a reassuring talk with the grandmaster, Tao Ryo, Dany took to the village itself and started doing some odd jobs: she visited a shrine, sparred with a cute Fire Genasi guard whilst giving a letter to the town watch, and got supplies for the temple. As this went on, I took every second to introduce one of the town’s many NPCs. My goal wasn’t to necessarily make them interesting, that was up to Sato and Jun, who quickly began a double act of goofy romantic and sarcastic sister. The main point of the other NPCs was to establish a lived in place and a community.
If you put a group of random NPCs in front of a player, the chances are that your player will care about at least one of them. It’s human nature to gravitate towards people, and Kat quickly latched onto her core three NPCs: Sato, Jun and Ash, and developed a sweet spot for the other members of the temple, Watchman Goro-San and head maid Hayasaka. As her newfound consist made their way out into the night in fancy kimonos and dress robes for the Phoenix festival, I laid all my cards carefully prepared on the table. There were games, drinking matches and this air of celebration. This, I thought, was Dany’s home. A home that Kat could fall in love with.
And then I flipped the table.
Those who have played Twilight Princess will know that its opening act exists to make the player care about the world as much as possible before it puts it under threat. That was exactly the technique I wanted to use here. As soon as I had pulled Kat in, I began to put the torch to my own creation. Cannons tore through her the village, NPCs she had met and talked to became the first casualties of the Hobgoblin invasion, and all the while, as combat rolled on, the dice continued to twist the coming knife. Despite her initial victory in the opening sparring session, Jun proved hopeless against the incoming Hobgoblins. My rolls for her were abysmal, and Jun continued to spiral. In the end, it was Dany leading Sato and Ash in defence of their village, whilst Jun crumbled under the pressure at the moment of destiny.
The main format of the battle was an endurance fight. Dany was level 6, had three allies on the field and a variety of low CR hobgoblins that refreshed their number at the start of each round. At the end of each turn of combat, I had Kat roll the dice to determine how many of the villagers had successfully escaped, and we played each round of combat until the number of villagers reached the maximum. Having battles with different win conditions like this really helps make a combat more interesting, and it’s especially useful in a duet campaign, where victory isn’t always an option a player can have on the table. A unique win condition, like ‘let the villagers escape’ gave Dany the time to look awesome and be involved in combat, but also kept the threat real as there was no way she could destroy an entire army. Also, the alternate condition gave me an out for a retreat with an alternate fail condition. Rather than Dany dying being the default condition for failure, which would have ended the campaign and led to an annoyed Kat, the villagers would be the victims instead.
With the initial attack repulsed, Dany and her friends regrouped at the temple, only for her and Jun to be brought aside by Grandmaster Tao Ryo. It was here that I played my gambit, a plan that could not have gone more perfectly. The dice were giving me the justification for all that would happen next. Ryo instructed Dany and gave her the chosen quest: to take the sacred sword of the phoenix to the temple on Mount Hiyami. In doing so, Ryo pushed his own granddaughter, Jun, aside. Now, the events of the day already showed why Dany deserved her chosen destiny: she was kind, flexible and fierce. Jun, brutal perfectionist that she was, remained rigid in her beliefs and unable to change to the developing world. Jun got angry at this, terribly so. She screamed that Dany ‘wasn’t even in the family’, before her grandfather excused her. “You dishonour yourself.” I remember Kat giving me this sad look when she realised that she was stealing her sister’s fate, the fate Jun had trained all her life for.
After an impressive set piece of reclaiming the legendary sword from a fiery pagoda, Dany emerged into a nearby brush to find Tao Linn, the banished son of Tao Ryo and the central antagonist of the campaign, climbing the steps to meet his father. Flanked by his four generals, he accused his father of treachery and demanded to have the sword. Ryo stayed loyal to Dany and told Linn that the sword was long gone. This was when Jun intervened.
“No, it’s not. It’s still here. It’s with Danyella Misthaven. And I can take you to her.”
I remember the look of absolute betrayal on Kat’s face as the NPC she had placed such a connection on so early had betrayed her, seeking power and acceptance over sisterhood.
Tao Linn and Tao Jun have been characters in my head for a long time prior to their appearance here: a strange fusion of Ozai and Azula’s dynamic from Avatar and Lan Di from Shenmue. I began plotting Jun’s betrayal of Dany early in the development of the adventure, something that wouldn’t have hit as hard as it did if Kat hadn’t chosen to make the connection with her. In my original pitch, Jun was going to be this hard cold manipulative person, a rival to Dany that honestly feels like a caricature now. Thanks to Kat’s interest in the character and improved roleplay in the moment, I managed to flesh her out instead as this desperately insecure person trying to achieve something of worth with her life. My initial concept was taken by Kat’s involvement but the dice rolls and the act of play crafted a better version of that story than I could ever imagine.
As Dany engaged in the last combat of the session, her new alternate victory condition became ‘escape’. She watched from afar, amidst fending off Jun and the hobgoblins, as Tao Linn attacked and savagely struck down Tao Ryo in a horrible battle. The Grandmaster’s final words were ‘Danyella Misthaven, I’m glad I met you’. Kat was literally in tears. I felt terrible about it, shoving tissues over to her in order to ease some pain and constantly checking in that she was alright to keep going.
Yet, as strange as it sounds, moments like this are the reason why I run D&D. Not to see my players cry, of course, but to give them that emotional experience, to make them care and engage. Because the session was one on one, Kat was allowed to become invested and more vulnerable and thus she was able to have that greater reaction to the events that unfolded. By the end of the session, my goal was complete. Kat had fallen in love with this story and these characters and was all in, excited for future sessions.
Since then, we’ve played twice more and the story has developed fairly naturally from this first bold step. As if by luck, Kat ended up backtracking due to numerous random encounters and managed to engage with every piece of content I’ve written about so far. Sato, dismayed at having lost Jun to the dark side, was injured in a scuffle with bandits, forcing Dany to take refuge at the local Daimyo’s fortress, Higaki. Whilst staying there, Dany managed to assist a group of Drow Shinobi in an escape attempt, fended off an attack from Tao Linn’s forces and even felled one of Tao Linn’s generals, Garunga the Tortle.
The main reason why Kat was able to do all these heroic things was because on top of her monk skill set, I had given her a superb magical item: Suzaku’s Tailfeather. The sword of the Phoenix had a lot of powers built into it, more than I would usually give a standard magical item in a normal D&D campaign, but because of this, Dany was able to engage in daring set pieces that wouldn’t normally be viable in regular play. Strong magic items are a must in solo games, something to keep the drama high and the fights intense. When she finally took down Garunga, I remember Kat breathed this deep sigh of relief and revealed she was only on two hit points. I’d somehow made the ultimately balanced encounter in the middle of this chaotic siege, another happy accident.
The following session saw even more dramatic events unfold. Tao Jun finally had another confrontation with Dany, chasing her by airship across the land. As Dany beat a hasty retreat, easily avoiding the guards Jun sent to engage her, Jun engaged in a new strategy: capturing Ash and taking him back to her father’s local compound, knowing Dany would come for them. Dany’s attempt to engage them was stopped by the griffin riders of Higaki temple, upon discovering her aid in the escape of the shinobi. Dany was brought to trial for her actions, Kat engaging in some passionate roleplaying with the captain of the fort. Ultimately, she was released by said captain, Shizuka, one of the Daimyo’s daughters, known to the men as ‘The Sunset Sister’. Though she still wanted Dany to face justice, she swore to help her rescue her friends and finish her quest…before returning to commit Dany to her fate. From there, Sato, Shizuka and Dany mounted a daring rescue on Tao Lin’s local village base. It was an intense stealth mission, with Dany passing in disguised in armour inches from the father and daughter duo to rescue Ash and, eventually, escaping in a dramatic retreat from Tao Linn’s draconic form (oh yeah, Tao Linn has the stats of an Ancient Red Dragon. DID I FORGET TO MENTION THAT? BECAUSE KAT DEFINITELY KEEPS BRINGING IT UP.)
It was a really engaging session, a prime example of how a solo session should be done: enabling risky player decisions for better plot, solid roleplaying opportunities, and ending with this satisfying moment where Tao Linn emerged from a crash site, alive and well, as our heroes soared into the distance, free but still hunted as Jun began her hunt for her former sister once more.
The main issue with the session was that it didn’t end there. Kat and I decided to try playing for another few hours, making this one of the longest sessions I’ve ever done in recent years. The next section of the plot was another remix of a Twilight Princess plotline: the Twilight invasion of Kakariko village. Dany and her friends arrived in an abandoned village at the foot of the mountain following their escape and discovered that the people of the village were in hiding from a group of patrolling Githzerai. The main twist on the conflict for this set piece was supposed to be that the Gith were laying siege to the village because one of the villagers was infected by a Slaad tadpole and thus, the villagers had a parasite hidden amongst them.
Unfortunately, this attempt at a desperate homage to The Thing really fell flat. Kat wasn’t engaged with the mystery, and after the excitement of the first few events, it was clear she was just ready to move on and keep the story going. With solid roleplay, the entire situation just boiled down to a really rubbish combat segment. It was a nice moment of humility after all the highs of the campaign thus far and a reminder to cater the kind of things in your games to your players. Kat was wanting a standard action-adventure affair, like the first few session, and my weird inclusion of some complicated horror/thriller elements just didn’t quite land. Plus, this was the second half of a really long session, which is another reminder to everyone that there can be too much of a good thing. Take breaks in your games and if you’ve been playing for a while, consider pulling your session to an end. Better quality over quantity every time, in any game.
What I learned in the Hellbound Campaign
The end has come for Kassadin Lightfade. Crushed under the heel of his devilish sire and abandoned by ally and enemy alike, Kass finds himself once more dying on the battlefield, broken and alone. But the end is only just a new beginning. As Kassadin fades from the world, he finds himself awakened in the one below: a new denizen of hell. Forced into the fiendish Brymm, Kassadin is remade and emerges as a full blooded devil: new power and new ambition coursing through his veins. His quest: to kill the archdevil architect of his agony. Gathering a questionable alliance of junk dealers, ex-slaves and fiendish experiments, Kassadin begins his new journey, an arduous trek up the great spire of brimstone at the hell’s centre, to commit the greatest assassination attempt in history on the Devil himself. The task will the most difficult he has ever undertaken, pitting our Tiefling Fighter and his loyal followers against the political machinations of Hell, the Seven Sins of Hell and their new master, Kassadin’s over-sire: Dormin.
Those of you who have read my Dorvine blogs may recognise the character name Kassadin Lightfade. During events in the Dorvine campaign beyond what I recorded in the blog, Kassadin ended up departing the party and the character never really got to have any proper resolution to their arc in the story. Cut to years later, I and Dion were talking a lot of hypotheticals about what could have happened to Kassadin after the game. I kept the exit ambiguous in order for Dion to use the character again, but he was reticent too. So much of Kassadin was based in my lore and my world that he felt it just wouldn’t fit anywhere else. Considering I was in the process of fleshing out the Infernal plane in my new homebrew world and I was feeling guilty that Dion never got any real closure with the character, I mentioned that I had run Kat through a duet campaign. Dion was floored at the idea.
“You can do that?”
And thus, my second duet campaign began.
Kassadin: Hellbound is probably the solo campaign I’ve run the most. This is mainly because, out of all the solo games I’ve offered to run for people, I feel it’s the easiest to prep for. My initial planning for Kassadin was simple, so simple that I actually planned enough content for three separate sessions a few minutes before each session needed to be ready. I don’t recommend this usually, but the vague structural nature of Hellbound actually ended up being a massive strength to the campaign.
Before the campaign even started, I sent Dion a patchwork map of the first layer of Hell, known as the Brymm, and sold him the entire campaign premise. The map was for the lowest region of hell, filled with those unclaimed by the sins and isolated from the main central structure and the domains above. The idea for the campaign was that each session Kassadin would recruit and accrue more allies and followers to his cause until he was able to begin launching attacks on the upper levels of hell. In true game-mechanic fashion, Kassadin would thus have to fight his way through each of hell’s seven layers and kill the arch-devil of each region, before moving on to the next. When all seven realms of hell had fallen and each archdevil of the sins killed, Kassadin would finally be able to move onto the final boss, Dormin, hopefully as a level 20 character with an actual army at his back for a viable chance at felling the literal devil.
Unlike the other campaigns I run, which are much more focused on a free-form action/adventure style, I tried to treat each session of Kassadin as a self-confined mission. Plot elements and story focus would continue on, but each session was a one and done style of encounter with minimal planning needed to affect the pace. Dion always said the design of the sessions felt very ‘Mass Effect’, collecting followers and doing their personal missions before moving on to the next. I found that strange since I’ve never really played Mass Effect, but I appreciate the sentiment. Mass Effect is acclaimed for a reason and Dion seems very fond of the Hellbound.
Each session for Hellbound was constructed in two parts: introducing and developing characters and the central concept of the mission at hand, both of which actually prove relatively easy to throw together. For creating NPCs, I decided to do an old trick that I’m loathe to actually try nowadays: I look at a franchise or a set of characters I like and I vaguely adapt them into the game. I say vaguely because the most fun part of this process is adapting a vague outline or theme of a character and seeing how differently they end up from their initial concept over the course of natural gameplay. For the first session of the campaign, I introduced the Tiefling duo Kalina and Ozlin. Both scrappers manning a small salvage sky-ship over the lava straits, Kalina was the young ambitious mechanic, innocent but intelligent, and Ozlin was the grumbling old man who complained at everything, wizened but sceptical. In each session, I attempted to introduce characters or develop them in pairs as I found it helps compare and contrast their development cycles and relationships. For example, Kalina as the naïve inventor, was amazed to have pulled a person out of the Brymm intact and doted on helping Kassadin settle in. Ozlin, on the other hand, was just uncomfortable to have to share his ship with another person and constantly badmouthed the new member. Between these two initial extremes, I gave Dion a lot of options with how to proceed and who to speak with. This was a dynamic I continued on with each following session and each new set of companions. In the second session, I introduced Yoren, a Tiefling bard that talks too much, opposite Shelyn, an Elven Monk that was silent but capable. Then came the Aasimar sisters: Nora, the cool-headed sharpshooter, and Zoni, the stressed out battle cleric. With each new member to his party, Kassadin gained new perspectives and information about the world around him and new allies that he could choose to take on his dangerous missions.
Speaking of the missions, they were the second part of each session and honestly took up the majority of my short planning time. Each session started around a central concept or set-piece for the action. Then, once I had worked that out, I just threw in a rough collection of enemies that fit and let the dice fall where they would. It’s really refreshing to say that, at the time, I didn’t worry too much about a lot of story or character arcs and became more focused on just having fun. I was confident enough in my abilities adlibbing to know that I could probably pull something together for each character as and when needed. These set-piece ideas went over really well with Dion: starting with a tense sky-ship chase fighting against Merregon, to a bar-room brawl against barbed devils, to a wild mad-max style rescue mission against goblins riding infernal motorbikes. I honestly put minimal thought or plans into the initial work beyond ‘let’s make something fun’ and the result was some of the best sessions I’ve ever played in. As someone who usually runs D&D for the story and lore above all things, it was really nice to develop some satisfying encounters first and foremost and I’m looking forward to possibly using these more of these smaller scale set piece ideas in normal campaigns.
As well as this basic framework, one thing that helped with the campaign was Kassadin himself. Kassadin was already an established character that both Dion and I knew, so we both knew exactly what kind of adventure we were in for. At the start of the campaign, Kassadin was level 8 and after emerging from the thick magma of the Brymm in the opening session, I added a variety of new abilities to him so Dion could make the most out of his action economy: his horns now functioned like a Minotaur’s, he had a Dragonborn’s breath weapon attack and a pair of wings that gave him a fly speed. Because 5e is normally unbalanced in the meaning of fun, these extra abilities for Kassadin, plus the others that he acquired as the game played on, allowed him to stick it out against harder fights and ultimately, gave Dion more freedom as a player to engage with the sessions how he wanted. Now, Dion is keeping a ‘Brymm count’ for every enemy he manages to yeet into the lava. He is having fun and, surprisingly, so am I. It’s refreshing that for once that I don’t have to worry too hard about the plot and just focus on giving fun and meaningful interactions in the moment. Usually, in D&D, antagonists are the ones working from behind the scenes with complex goals and desires, looking to alter and change the status quo. However, due to the nature of this solo campaign, Kassadin and his forces are the real driving influence which frees me up to react to the story as well, rather than plotting it out and amending for player’s actions. Other devils in the realms may have their own antagonisms and have become their own characters, but at the end of the day, the story of Hellbound is less about exploring a world than it is about fighting villains and ending Dormin’s reign of terror.
The only part of Hellbound that has been more complicated than intended was the introduction of the ‘Infernal Engines’. Dion and I had recently finished watching through Gundam Iron Blooded Orphans, which is a phenomenal series if you like breaking your heart whilst watching cool robots hitting each other. Cool robots hitting each other became a source of inspiration in the campaign and, since duet campaigns are all about putting niche things in that you and your friend will enjoy, I introduced mechs to the setting in the form of the Infernal Engines. Named for former roman emperors and built on a strange mix of blood magic and infernal technology, the Infernal Engines act as one would expect a mech too: a character piloting it from the inside, getting to use its unique abilities and size in battle. Logically in the world, they existed in order for weaker devils to fight stronger ones, but this is admittedly merely an excuse to put mechs in D&D. Because, as I’m sure you’ll agree, mechs are pretty damn cool.
The only problem with this idea is that each mech needed to have its own stat block, meaning Dion had to put away Kassadin’s character sheet and use a separate stat sheet of my own design for each Infernal Engine used. Originally, the Infernal Engine stats were based off of various giant templates from the Monster Manual and Volo’s Guide to Monsters, but the higher level Kassadin gets, the more fiddly these attempts have become. Judging player levels against CR is far easier than trying to compare different CR creatures, which makes trying to balance the Engines harder than one might first think. In addition, Dion voiced his own interest in upgrading Kass’ engine, Valerion, as the story continues. This is cool and helps mirror Kassadin’s growth in a nice organic way but it also means that Valerion’s stats get about one battle of use before I have to redraft them completely and change them. It’s a lot of number crunching, which is usually the thing I hate the most about DM planning, but it’s an example of going the extra mile to make specialised content like this viable. If this came up in another campaign, though I don’t think it ever will, I’d probably suggest changing over to a different game system entirely, or for a more narrative based one like Fate to get the same experience.
Hellbound is also the campaign where I have become most aware of how hard it is to run an entire army of supporting characters and antagonists when Dion only has to worry about Kassadin. In order to make Hell feel alive and the battles intense, I usually end up fielding a lot of enemies against Kass, whilst also running Kassadin’s party. This is not a thing I recommend for those who want to try similarly large parties in your duet campaigns. The action is supposed to be focused mainly on the hero and, even though Dion likes his extended crew, it can be quite chaotic when he insists he would like them all to go on a mission, meaning I have to run six or seven other characters as well as the monsters. In situations like this where things get a bit crazy, it’s best to be open and willing to compromise. A discussion with the player about limiting the amount of people on their team is one approach, which I did, but another could be to make use of the sidekick rules in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. These simplified character sheets are fun and easy to run (speaking from experience) and are less effort for a player to run than a whole team of other characters.
At the end of the day, though, run however many elements as you’re comfortable with, advice for both you and your player. You know your own limits, just don’t be afraid to change around the number of elements in a given situation if you’re ever feeling a bit swamped. If all else fails, discuss it with your player. Communication is important and with only you and your friend at the table, there’s no reason you can’t have an honest talk about what you can both do to maximise the fun.
What I learned in the Call of the Wilds campaign
Sintil is a survivor. Born in the aftermath of the greatest calamity of the age and raised in the wilds by their father, Sintil has learned from a young age how to live in a fierce world that wants them dead. Alone, since the death of their father, Sintil has spent their years moving from place to place in the great stretch of forest they call home, waiting for a call to action. Their chance is coming, sooner than they expect. After a chance encounter with a group of water nymphs, Sintil finds themselves drawn into a growing conspiracy within the Wild Corner. The woods of Guileholt have been growing darker as of late. The isolated tribes hide or flee from the brutal elves of a fallen nation, who hunt all they see and kill without hesitation. To the East, a thread of fledgling civilised culture attempts to rebuild in the wreckage of a millennia past. Hidden from the gaze of all, a creature of great ambition stirs. He is Kagnazo, the King of Beasts, and he will suffer no equal. By his will, all of Guileholt shall be crushed under his heel, evidence of his apparent divinity and majesty. There is only one threat to his plans of ravage and murder. The future of the Wild Corner and the lives of its people rest on the shoulders of the wary Sintil and his ability to find and protect Vesper Sione: a young stranger who flees from the raging hunts. Little does Sintil know, they and Vesper have destiny itself bound about their necks in the shape of a small prism stone, its purpose unknown but its fate certain.
In contrast to my thoughts on Hellbound, I can say without any doubt that Call of the Wilds is one of the hardest campaigns I have ever run, duet campaign or otherwise. More than Hellbound, and even to an extent, Fire-Keeper, I have had to put a massive amount of work into the world building process, NPC creation and keep a very focused eye on tone in my creative process. The main reason for this intense workload is because of the level of specificity built into the heart of the campaign pitch.
My friend Steven hadn’t played D&D in a long time when I mentioned I was running one-on-one games for Kat and Dion. The last time we had played together was in a module run of White plume Mountain in Tales of the Yawning Portal that only lasted a single session. The idea of getting to play again in a single player experience interested them immediately.
“You can do that?”
And, at those knowing words, I realised I was on for a third duet campaign on my hands.
I don’t mean to sound bitter about that, reader. I love running D&D in general, it’s one of my great passions, and another occasional campaign session isn’t much of a bother to my schedule. Most of these duet campaigns are run irregularly with usually a two to three month gap between each one, specifically so I can avoid the burnout I mentioned in my last blog. Steven is also one of my best friends, who I love spending time with, so I don’t want this section of the blog to seem like I’m smearing them or anything, quite the opposite.
It is just that Steven understood the strengths of a solo campaign well and had exactly the kind of adventure they wanted for themselves all worked out: an adventure that was both impressive in scope and incredibly daunting from a DM perspective. Steven’s ideas were very particular, and all of them seemed to go against my own expectations of how solo sessions could be run.
Firstly, they wanted to start the campaign at first level. They even suggested that if there was a way to do zero level play, they would prefer engaging with that. I shut down the zero level play idea instantly. Combat in solo D&D is immensely difficult at first level, so to go even lower than that seemed mad to me. Steven’s reasoning for this, though, was because of the specific pitch they had in mind: an exploration and survival campaign. They wanted Sintil to be isolated in an unknown land, a proper Breath of the Wild experience, getting to travel into strange new locations and adventure in a place where natural issues such as ‘where to sleep’, and ‘where is the next clean source of water’ were common. Death would be around every turn and enemies were to be escaped and outrun in a predator vs. prey mentality.
As wonderful as Steven’s suggestion sounded, I remember paling the instant we began discussing it. As you may have noticed in all my other duet campaigns listed here, I start with the players at a far higher level: at least six or eight. This is because combat is one of, if not the, central pillar of D&D game design. The whole idea of the system is to delve into Dungeons and fight the Dragons. Admittedly, D&D has changed a lot since its inception, becoming more about a social environment and storytelling.
The problem was that Steven’s ‘solo survival’ campaign was also shifting away from this style of play. Whilst Steven did want to eventually have a story, the core of the experience was focused around living and exploring in the harsh world and the conflict of predators and prey. This meant that game mechanics, from skill checks to combat, would be at the heart of the story. I remember feeling anxious whenever I considered the first level Sintil failing dice rolls and getting into a fight with something stronger than them. A party of low-level adventurers can do incredible things, and a mid-level solo adventurer can achieve similar great feats. However, at low-level play, a single zombie could spell death for an isolated adventurer. This was my main concern when plotting for Steven. I had run so many campaigns centred around powerful fantasies and heroic adventurers. They were easy to prepare and simple to make fun. I wasn’t at all prepared to run a more grounded gritty exploration experience. I didn’t even know how to start with that.
I remember it was about that time in the planning phase that I tried doing a bit of research. I started a Minecraft hardcore mode again, began researching how other people might have run games like this and I downloaded ARK: Survival Evolved, one of the main inspirations Steven had for his ‘wild world’ aesthetic. I was so worried about getting the tone and everything just right. I remember Steven just reassured me, they said they’d love anything I did, but I still wanted to create the best experience possible and craft a great story.
I think a lot of my anxiety came from the fact that, despite all my planning, the actual main issues of the campaign were something I could only settle in the moment, at the table. I couldn’t plan for how to get Sintil out of dangerous situations, I would just have to trust my instincts. In addition, part of the problem with running this style of game was that I had to draw up a lot of planning for the world. I decided to set the adventure in Alarn, a part of my homebrew world I was already familiar with. Called ‘The Wild Corner’ by the locals, it was a completely untamed natural landscape that I could begin to develop. The issue was that because Sintil had no real goal, besides survival, or the like, I had no real way to ensure Steven was going to choose to head in a direction I had content ready for. Now, in hindsight, the smart thing to do here would have been to plan a small series of random encounters and about two central locations and just make it so that whichever direction Sintil headed in, they would encounter those elements.
Unfortunately, I am not a person who likes to do thing in half measures.
Instead, I drew up the entire map of Guileholt woods in Wonderdraft for Steven to explore. I added a series of scattered settlements of varying cultures and other areas and made notes on each of the important NPCs present, some outlines for various quests, etc. It was at this point that I managed to hone in on a central villain for the first part of Sintil’s story. Steven wanted a survival experience, so the only real challenge at this stage was to create something that represented the Apex Predator. Thus, I created the idea of Kagnazo: King of Beasts, a monster that represented the kind of hunting ideal that Sintil would be afraid of. Feeding from creatures, absorbing their power, and navigating the woods with monstrous stamina and a cunning guile that allowed it to manipulate the forces of the woods to its own end. Kagnazo was one of the few solid ideas I had going into the first session.
The other solid idea I had to lean on was the concept of Sione Vesper. When Steven discussed things they wanted to occur in the game, one of their suggestions was that they wanted Sintil to have a magical prism stone, similar to an item they themselves owned in real life, but this in-game prism would have an unknown purpose. This, I decided, sounded like a wonderful chance for a plot mcguffin. Finally, some semblance of a story was starting to form in my head.
Crucially though, I realised that I could solve two issues in one solid stroke. Sintil was alone and if a fight broke out, was likely to die very quickly. If I couldn’t convince Steven to start at a higher level, then I needed to give them a set of allies to aid them in the early stages of his quest. Enter Sione Vesper.
Sione Vesper was the first of these imagined allies: an Eladrin hunted by the Elves for their secrets. I had a lot of high concept ideas with Vesper that I’d been wanting to explore in a campaign for sometime, mainly the everchanging ethereal nature of Eladrin. However, if there was one weakness to this character, it was that Sione lacked any real character. It’s something I want to fix in future sessions, as I feel they came off quite flat. They had a desire, though, and a goal: one that I could tangibly link to Sintil’s story and Steven’s own desires.
Steven was against running a milestone level up campaign and instead, wanted old-fashioned XP. When I showed them the XP tree for 5e, I remember they looked disappointed. They wanted to be a lower level for longer, something that frustrated me to no end.
“I want to give you powerful things so you don’t lose!” I was thinking, “Stop trying to lose!”
But, in the end, we stuck with the XP track. When I explained to Steven the existence of subclasses in D&D at level 3, I remember they struggled with the choice. They knew they wanted to be a magic user, but weren’t sure of exactly how they wanted Sintil to get there.
That was fine, I insisted.
Steven had given me all I needed to plan the next stage of the adventure. If Sintil was going to become a magic user, than logically, Sione Vesper’s goal would be to find safety with a magic user: a friend of their parents and a future mentor for Sintil. Kagnazo’s goal, therefore, was to stop this for reasons too full of spoilers to explain here (just in case Steven is reading).
After a few solid weeks of planning, I had done all I could, invited Steven into my home for a lovely nerd weekend and began running the first session of their duet campaign. We started in an isolated clearing where Sintil’s backstory had ended, staring at a row of ivy against the trees, like a curtain. Behind this natural curtain, a mysterious figure spoke with Sintil before disappearing beyond the vines. Sintil fled and we began session.
Within the first few minutes, Sintil turned North and I realised that none of my plans lined up with that direction. Caught between panicked screaming and an anxious breakdown, I began to lean on my improvisation to narrate Sintil’s troubles. Luckily, I had help due to a gift from a friend: a new wilderness travel DM screen and a special table that allowed Steven to keep track of Sintil’s food and provisions. Most of that session proceeded with me desperately looking to my notes and eventually, surrendering to the chaos entirely and pulling random characters and situations out of my rear.
And honestly, it was some of the most fun and some of the best D&D I have ever played.
Remember at the start of this blog when I said a strength of running one-on-one is giving all your attention to one person? This is why I am saying that from experience. I approached a campaign premise that I had no idea how to work. It was a story I was uncertain about telling and a playstyle that I wasn’t sure I could even attempt, and yet, the finished article was wonderous. I managed to capture the highs and lows of emotions and somehow, managed to improvise a profound story into my notes.
Sintil’s travels meant a set of random encounter rolls as they moved through the Woods. These various rolls involved hunting for food, rescuing a trapped wolf and even fleeing a set of elven hunters. Eventually, Sintil found a water source, a stream trickling down round in a circle, flowing up and along back to the pond where it had started. Intrigued, Sintil followed, only to find the pond was inhabited by a trio of water nymphs.
The nymphs, being the first real people Sintil had ever seen, shocked them to their core. Eventually, the nymphs spotted Sintil, causing the young adventurer to flee back to their camp. Over the next hour or so, I engaged in some of the deepest and most complex roleplay I have ever experienced. Sintil and the nymphs attempted to ascertain each other’s loyalty, each other’s intentions and, finally, settled in this strange kind of peace. Falling back on my solid character build ideas, I made each nymph an example of a simple viewpoint. Aria, the leader of the Nymphs, was fond of Sintil and wanted them safe. Another, Neri, was distant to Sintil and wanted her sisters to keep away from the stranger. Leli was the nymph caught in the middle, lighthearted and ambitionless but fun and easily amused. I watched as these characters, born from nothing but a sudden idea at the table, morphed into real characters. I can only imagine how it looked from the outside looking in. Steven probably had no idea I was pulling all these people out of nowhere, as they kept emerging so fully formed. Aria was revealed to be fond of Sintil because they reminded her of her lost child, Neri was wary of Sintil not because she hated them, but because she recognised how unhealthy Aria’s relationship to them was becoming. The two both needed one another, but Neri thought it was unfair for Aria to use Sintil as an outlet for her own grief over her own lost child. It was deep stuff! I remember Steven was in awe at how interesting all these nymphs were suddenly becoming. I was honestly the same.
Over the next few in-game days, Sintil settled into their new shelter and got more friendly with the nymphs. They learned the Nymphs tragic curse, that they could only travel to where there was water, allowing them to walk along their pond and the river but not far out. The nymphs explained how they served a mysterious Fae patron known as ‘The Ulcha Baern’, and even invited Sintil onto a candlelit walk around the river. When Sintil was truly settled, Steven turned to me and nodded.
“Yeah, this is good. I’m ready for the story now.”
Immediately, I panicked. What was I to even do? I reached back through my mind, thinking of the correct approach. All I found was exactly what I had done to Kat months before.
Set your cards out on the table.
Flip the table.
The next night, Elven hunters surged through the woods. As wild creatures ran amuck, I awoke Sintil to the revelation that he was being hunted again. Hunted by Kagnazo. I remember putting down a miniature frame of a large creature beside Sintil’s sketched hut, showing it moving along and around past Sintil on the board. I remember Steven’s immediate panic, this wonderful sudden energy at my sound effects.
“What the hell is that?”
I didn’t say as the creature lumbered along and past towards the lake, sniffing the air and growling. Sintil finally shook free of their fear and attempted to follow, hoping to check on the fate of the Nymphs…only to watch as the strange monster felled Neri and Leli in strong blows of it’s paw. Neri screamed for Sintil to run, desperately tried to fight off the beast. Then, the beast turned to Sintil. And Sintil ran.
What followed was the most tense chase I have ever run in D&D. Pulling random chase complications from my mind, Steven rolled a series of checks to escape the chasing creature: a monster that surpassed Sintil in speed. Each victory was close, and short lived. I remember Steven cursing and panicking as I inched the beast’s base closer to his playing piece. The fear was real and Steven was genuinely desperate for any means of escape.
“I’m sorry,” I remember them shouting incredulously at one point, “it can FLY?”
Yes, Kagnazo had a fly speed. And Sintil did not. As the beast finally closed the distance, I watched Steven’s pale face panic as the monster pinned Sintil to the ground, ready to feast. It was then I revealed that Sintil’s flight had not been in vain. They had retreated back to the clearing where their journey had first started. And the creature from behind the veil of ivy issued forth…
The Ulcha Bearn, a woman standing tall with owl wings folded about her like a cape, demanded Kagnazo release the child. Kagnazo threatened her in turn, and Sintil, that this was his forest. The Ulcha Bearn dismissed his words and spoke instead to Sintil, telling them to ‘find Sione Vesper, the one the Elves hunt. Head East. Keep them safe’. As the tension peaked and Kagnazo threatened Sintil once more, it began to rain. And Steven’s face lit up. He knew exactly where this was heading. Water nymphs could only travel from their pond to where it was connected to water. With the rain, water was now everywhere. Aria emerged from the undergrowth, a torrent of water at her back, and she clashed with Kagnazo, allowing Sintil to escape and find their destiny.
The rest of the session went in a fairly predictable manner after that: Sintil found Sione with the help of their wolf companion, joined them in travelling to the tower of the wizard Pelidon, and had their first meeting with the civilised tribes. The session ended on a tense attack on a water barge, but the rest of the session could hardly compare with that opening segment. Steven was happy, I was satisfied and we were both eager for the next session.
If this campaign has taught me anything about running D&D, let alone running duet campaigns, it is that we are all more capable than we think we are. I was so worried about planning and matching tone, that I forgot my core strengths as a DM would be enough to carry me through. I’m still waiting on our next chance to follow up on Sintil’s adventures, but now, I think I’m much more confident at approaching the game that Steven wants to run, knowing now it’s a game I can run and that I enjoy doing so.
TLDR: In Summary
-Playing One-on-One D&D is definitely possible and a viable method of play.
-It usually requires more effort and planning, but its strengths are its specificity in focus and ability for personal resonance with a player.
-For Duet campaigns, don’t be afraid to give your player overly powered magical items. They’ll need them to keep up. For example: almost everyone of my duet campaigns, players have an item that gives a healing factor of some sort, usually linked to proficiency, to keep them fighting longer.
-Give your player followers if that’s the kind of game they want to play.
-Build a personal experience that you and your player can both enjoy, don’t be afraid to get niche.
-Be aware of the amount of work you’re willing to do. Use sidekicks if preferable, or just streamline the combat process as and when needed.
-Chances are your players will love whatever you run and you can run a better game than you think.
-Trust yourself, trust your dice. Have fun.
That’s going to be all from this segment of From the DM’s Chair. I apologise for the lengthy anecdotes but, honestly, these are some stories and experiences I’ve wanted to share for a long time. I hope you all got something useful from this that might help you out in the future, maybe even the drive to try your own solo campaigns with a friend or a partner, if that’s the sort of thing you’d both enjoy. Until next time, thank you everyone for reading and I hope you all enjoyed today’s session of From the DM’s Chair.