Finding enough of the right players for a game is a pain point I hear all too often, so it’s past time to talk about the real numbers we’re dealing with when it comes to filling the other side of the table:
It only takes one.
A few years back I was introduced to the idea of one-on-one tabletop gaming, which I find academically awesome if also emotionally intimidating as heck. Lately I’ve been hearing more and more buzz about broadening the idea to other systems, settings and platforms, and it’s bringing me back to all the things I find fascinating (and terrifying) about the concept.
I’ve been lucky enough to have regularly had at least 3-5 players to game with in a more classic RPG environment, but I know for a fact that there are some games that would be of interest to at most two of the people I know (and possibly two people ever, one of whom might just be humoring me).
A historical romance game set at the height of the Mali empire. A Martian survival game about dealing with the psychological impacts of months of isolation. An aquatic campaign about sea elves wrestling with internal rebellion over trade interactions with surface-dwellers. Et cetera.
So duet gaming has the obvious advantage of reducing the number of players I need to pitch a winning concept to, and there’s certainly the logistical ease of not trying to wrangle a whole table. One-on-one games also create an opportunity for unmatched exploration of character depth that there’s simply no time for (or too much fear of embarrassment over) in a group game.
To me, duet gaming looks fantastic on paper, but in practice, there are some major pitfalls to be prepared for – and they don’t at all line up with the ones you might be used to from classic GMing challenges.
First, recognize just how intimate duet gaming is going to feel. There’s little chance for a light-and-fluffy or beer-and-pretzels one-on-one game. That much focus on a single player adds an automatic intensity to the situation that may make you or your player uncomfortable quickly if you’re unprepared for it.
Talk it over with your player ahead of time and agree on a tone, and invite them to talk through any concerns they have before you kick off the game. Be sure to check for feedback after the first few sessions to make adjustments so that you can both wrangle the intensity as needed.
The second issue is space. In a group game, often tracking details and coming up with ideas is a shared responsibility. In duet gaming, a lot of weight suddenly falls on the lone player. Give them plenty of time when they’re debating how to approach a problem, and be ready for long silences as they catch up taking notes after discovering a key clue. Be patient, and reassure them that it’s okay if they begin to apologize or rush through their notes.
If the silence becomes a problem for either of you, write up “fluff” elements that you can continue describing while your player is busy writing or thinking. They shouldn’t have an impact on the game or require interaction for the character, they just serve to fill the air until the player is ready to make their next move.
Let your player know to keep going with their notetaking when you start on the fluff segments, since they may not automatically register that it’s not more details they should pay attention to. If you keep the fluff light and humorous, it can also help defray some of the emotional intensity that comes with most duet gaming.
Alternatively, prepare important clues on index cards for them so that they don’t have to jot things down to begin with. Include cards for key NPCs they meet or important events in game. For instance, if you plan to have the local bartender mention the recent disappearances, put their name, the name of the bar, and when they said the disappearances started on the card.
Your player will still likely take notes you haven’t anticipated, but at least they’ll be confident you’ll be giving them all the things you think are key, so they hopefully won’t need to spend as much time writing.
The last big challenge for duet gaming is how to design challenges and encounters. There’s no more party balance at play, and there’s usually just one die rolling per action, which leads to a far more random (and less predictable or reliable) PC element than you’re likely used to from group gaming.
Have your safety nets ready and be prepared to help the PC “fail forward,” with each action still leading to progress even if they fail. Hopefully your system is set up to handle this already (Fate’s aspects, Eclipse Phase’s Stress system, Cypher’s intrusions, etc.), but if not have a plan with each challenge for how it might go wrong while still moving forward with the scene.
Encounters are both simpler and trickier. Most adversaries in systems designed for a group do not scale cleanly into one-on-one encounters, and our usual suggestion to replace one titanic baddie with a horde of little ones isn’t usually the best solution for a duet. Fights tending to be more personal, and with only one PC to worry about contributing to the fight, having a lone big-bad with an interesting set of abilities is a unique opportunity for you an your player that shouldn’t be overlooked.
My hallmark for boss monsters in group games, debilitating abilities that weaken a PC or render their abilities ineffective – are often a terrible idea in duet gaming. Instead, look for movement powers or acrobatic tricks that turn the fight into a mini-chase, buying time and avoiding the “I hit it with my sword again” repetition.
Alternatively, make the boss a puzzle room, of sorts – immune to most direct effects until the PC triggers something in the room to break their wards – then it’s clobberin’ time. By then even a short fight feels immensely satisfying. And as always, be prepared for a streak of bad rolls, and have a backup plan ready just in case.
Generally speaking, unless you’re running Feng Shui in duet, combat encounters will make up a thinner slice of one-on-one gaming than they do in classic group settings. With all the focus on one player, skill tests become much more compelling and no one is ever sitting by, listening to someone else try to pick a lock, so you can afford to spend a lot of time making a given combat encounter interesting and complicated, since you’re not likely to have more than a few per game.
I’m hoping to see more game designers investigate duet gaming options in the near future, but in the meantime, I hope these tips will help you run just about anything you like, even if you can only find one other person to play it with.