Normally when I know I only have one player available, I just cancel the session and pick up next time. Last week, however, I made an exception for a few reasons.
- The player was behind on experience from the rest of the group
- We had already skipped a few weeks beforehand
- We were between major story arcs
- I had a really good idea
In the previous dungeon, the group had rescued a pair of cats and taken them as pets. These cats could easily have been forgotten, but maybe the local wizard helped turn one of the cats into a familiar. Then, the cat would not only be a fun narrative bit but also useful for gameplay.
Reflecting on the experience, I have a few ideas on how I would run a solo adventure differently next time.
A brief recap
The player character (PC) speaks to the wizard, who suggests that he can help to turn the cat into a familiar. The wizard empties out a Bag of Holding to use it as a pocket dimension for the cat’s spirit. The PC just needs to go in and bind the spirit to a place of comfort.
The PC goes into a meditative state, whereupon the wizard pushes the cat and the PC into the bag. The PC falls and drifts through darkness like Alice heading to Wonderland. He sees a farmhouse below and lands.
The PC fights a Azer guarding the farmhouse but fails and goes unconscious. After succeeding on all of the death saving throws, he comes back and uses the rest of his spell slots to defeat the Azer. The Azer turns into a glowing, floating orb.
The PC goes into the farmhouse and finds the cat curled up under the bed. He makes friends with the cat and puzzles about what to do next. Eventually, he realizes he needs to take the orb and put it under the bed. It turns into a ball of yarn, the cat curls up, and he falls asleep on the bed.
He is roused by the wizard back in the material plane and successfully turned the cat into a familiar. He also receives the Bag of Holding as a reward.
What went right
Overall, I was quite pleased with how the adventure went. We finished in about an hour and accomplished everything I intended.
I was always reluctant to run solo games because it didn’t seem like a good use of time. For how much effort it takes to prepare for D&D, I want the effort to be appreciated by more than just one person. However, since I run such short sessions for this particular group, it didn’t take much time at all.
I used a rough 5 Room Dungeon concept, and it more or less worked.
I actually found the experience quite engaging. Honestly, I find that TTRPGs often drag, whether from turn-based combat, unnecessary planning, or whatever else. In a solo game, however, it’s just a constant back-and-forth that keeps moving.
What went wrong
Fortunately, the adventure all went well in the end, but there were two scary moments for me.
First, when the PC went down to zero hit points, we had a 50-50 life-or-death situation. If he had failed, I probably would have excused it as a dream-like pocket dimension experience where he didn’t die but still failed to complete the quest.
Second, when the PC was inside the farmhouse, he got stuck. It was a puzzle, and he didn’t know the solution. I wanted to prompt him in some way either to remind him of some previous information or brainstorm. However, I had difficulty figuring out how to do that without meta-gaming as the GM and giving him advice.
How I would fix it
Coincidentally, in the week since that session, both of my favorite D&D blogs had articles addressing this situation.
The Angry GM wrote about how he uses NPCs. Specifically, he shares his ideas about companion NPCs that follow around the party.
Sly Flourish had an article on One-on-One games. He has a variety of tips, including having a sidekick.
And that’s the solution.
Ideally, the sidekick is a persistent but background figure: they can appear as needed but otherwise let the PC shine.
In combat, the sidekick provides a little bit of wiggle room and also can stabilize a PC. I like Sly Flourish’s tip to let the player run the sidekick in combat.
In puzzles, the sidekick can just be there to recall past information or bounce around ideas. I like Angry’s idea of being very narrow and purposeful in including the sidekick.
In the adventure above, the cat could have been a companion. I didn’t think to have the cat intervene in the death saves, but it could have worked. In the puzzle, I didn’t have the cat add anything, but I used the cat as a hot-and-cold test for whether the player was on the right track or not.
Having run a solo session once, I would definitely do it again. I’m not sure I would commit to a solo campaign: I’m not sure I would want to do full world building and preparation. But if I have one enthusiastic player who showed up, I think we can both enjoy the experience.