This is a great question, because not all of us can fill an entire table up with gaming friends. Some of my best gaming was done with just one friend over the course of five years (hi Chris, if you’re reading this).
You asked about combat. There are non-combat challenges and opportunities when GMing a single character, but here are a few tips specifically about GMing fights.
Be generous with healing
Methods I’ve used are:
- Lots of healing potions with treasure.
- Cheap healing potions (due to alliance with a faction).
- Common mundane healing (blood honey was a favourite – if the PC could bring back the honey from a certain type of giant wasp, an alchemist would create blood honey for him for free if he could keep half of each batch).
- Membership to a religious order gave low rates on 1st to 3rd level divine spells.
- Cleric NPC tags along.
- Healing rods and wondrous items usable by the PC. I broke the rules on class usage (we were playing D&D 1E at the time) but explained it in-game with a story, and it worked out quite well.
Create a cast of companions
I almost always have one or more NPCs accompany solo PCs. This not only reduces risk of inadvertent PC death, but it gives me an ever-present voice in-game to give feedback, act as a foil, drop clues, and give ideas.
I play to each NPC’s personality and motives (sorry about the assassin “guide”, that time, Chris, but you did insult the King) so these characters are not cardboard cutouts there to serve the PC hand and foot.
Companions are often healers, but not always. A favourite companion type of mine is a barbarian. Loads of hit points and combat skills to believably save the game if TPK looms, but also great fun when the NPC rages on NPCs and gets the player character in all kinds of trouble. I play dumb barbarian companions, so the PC doesn’t come to rely on the NPC for clues, solutions and things the PC should do for himself.
Example of companions:
- Employer. The NPC is hands-on and wants a piece of the action, or perhaps he just doesn’t trust the PCs.
- Apprentice. Even non-magic users can attract followers. The leadership feat in D&D 3.5 especially makes this plausible and accessible.
- Bumbler. Can aid in combat, but like the raging barbarian, sometimes he seems like more trouble then he’s worth.
- Traitor. Avoid over-use, else you make the player so paranoid he refuses the company of all future companions.
- Master. Typically, I just make a mentor two levels or so higher than the PC. This keeps ability levels close so the NPC doesn’t steal the spotlight much.
- Dependant. Perhaps the PC is a single parent, has a slave or has been assigned to protect an NPC for the duration of several encounters, an adventure, or a whole campaign.
Start with weak foes
Until you master the dynamics of DMing a single PC, create several encounters with foes a lot weaker than the PC. Commoners are a great way to start out. So are diseased, venerable or wounded monsters who are low on hit points or do not have a full range of abilities to bring to a fight.
Strike to subdue
Create opponents whose motives are not to kill. City guards, for example, will just want to bring an unruly citizen back in line and be well-behaved, not put him in the graveyard.
Monstrous foes might want to keep food fresh.
Others might be equipped with non-lethal weapons. In a thieves guild style campaign I ran for Chris, the rogues mostly used saps. They always wanted to interrogate beaten foes, plus they were under orders to bring prisoners back to the bosses. Beaten foes sometimes make the best recruits, or at the latest, are more controllable.
Even weak foes can bring down solo PCs quick. Surrounded, a PC can’t escape easily (not without so many attacks of opportunity that the PC is a dead man), plus any movement abilities get nerfed, which isn’t fun if it happens often.
Get some roleplaying done during battles. Trade insults, add flair and style to NPC manoeuvres, avoid going toe-to-toe and experiment with grapplers, bull rushers, and other interesting types. Watch Princess Bride for inspiration.
Get a pet
A pet could be considered a companion, but I wanted to call it out as a special case. Even if the PC is an arcane caster with a familiar, a pet is a boon.
Pets are cheap. You can get a nasty fighting dog without much burden.
Pets don’t speak. Unless the PC has speak with animals, or you conjure a situation so pet and master can communicate (1 hoof means yes, two means no), then you won’t have to carry on a conversation while managing the other aspects of the game, including other NPC companions.
Pets are disposable. While a PC can get quite attached to a pet, especially if they start kitting it out, you can often target the animal in combat without much drama. The more attacks you can spread around instead of focusing on the PC, the longer and healthier life the PC will have.
Get a mount
This gives the PC fast movement, a source of defense (sounding the alarm, for example) and a potential ally in combat.
Though it wasn’t in a solo PC game, a horse ended up saving an unconscious PC to prevent a TPK. It was a trained animal, so not too far-fetched.
Play up monster intelligence
This applies to groups with several PCs as well. Dumb foes will make mistakes in combat. This adds realism and fun to the game. Do not consider it a loss of face, poor game mastering, or being easy on the PC. Roleplay the monster.
Most critters will have natural cunning and basic combat tactics and reactions. They’ve survived this long as an individual and as a species.
However, encourage the player to use his PC’s intelligence and try to trick foes or induce them into making mistakes. This is where great gaming can take place.
Be generous with equipment
Give the PC more options by offering up generous amounts of mundane and magical equipment. Not all of it needs to be treasure, if that starts getting repetitive. You can have the PC befriend merchants, learn of black markets, become a crafter. A smith or bowyer might help upgrade weapons. Wizards could be paid to upgrade magic items or enchant items.
Encourage intelligence gathering
A character operating alone should learn quick not to charge headlong into the darkness.
Encourage the PC to do investigation, scouting and intelligence gathering at every opportunity.
Let him discover foe weaknesses. This doesn’t mean he throw kryptonite and the fight is over in one round. It doesn’t create wimpy adversaries, either. Instead, it gives the PC advantages that he’ll need to press during the combat. This closes the gap a little, but there will still be a lot of drama.
For example, a PC might learn about a foe’s resistance to one particular type of energy. Or a foe might take the same path to head quarters all the time, giving the character an opportunity to lay a trap or stage an ambush.
NPCs for hire are often under-utilized by larger groups who don’t want the complications of more bodies to track and govern.
For the single PC, though, hirelings are a boon. Be sure to give the character enough cash flow so paying others to help is an option.
Potential hirelings are:
- Guards. Guard home base, camp or valuables.
- Mercenaries. The PC leads a band of red shirts into adventure.
- Sages. To help with intel.
- Haulers. Somebody’s gotta carry those 10,000 copper pieces back to town.
- A cook. True story – the cook saved a TPK during an Ars Magica game, once.
Johnn’s answer does a brilliant job of handling the combat side of solo adventuring, so I thought that I would quickly cover a range of twenty other points to be especially mindful of when it comes to solo games – though some of them can be useful tips for any GM.
Reduced Skill Set
With only one PC, your adventuring “party” will generally lack the variety of skill that you would normally expect. This can be compensated for with a reduction in ability and a more liberal spreading-around of skill points, but that in turn means that the character will be less capable within it’s niche than would be the case. To compensate for this, it can be worth considering releasing some “custom” magic items into the game that give the posessor extra skill points each character level.
The character will generally have reduced resources to draw apon in comparison to the standard party – fewer healing potions, less carrying capacity, less money in general, and so on. While only the one character will be drawing apon these resources, the rate of reduction in resource availability is greater than this offset factor. Be more generous with the salting of hoards with potions and other low-level items, and be prepared to be a little more generous in your GM calls than you might otherwise be – holy water might be an effective weapon against undead in a solo campaign where you would rule it less effective or even ineffective in a more typical camapaign, for example.
Restricted Spacial Capability
It’s a lot easier for a group to be in several places at once. While a group taking advantage of this ability can be a real pain for the GM, the absence of that capability can really hinder a solo adventurer. Consider setting up a network of street urchins for hire (Baker street irregulars) that you can give the character access to – for a fee – to help get around these difficulties.
Purity Of Allegiance
With multiple characters, the potential exists for individuals to make the acquantance of members of several rival factions. This provides the group with greater Intelligence (in the military sense) than can be achieved by a lone wolf. Expect the character to know only one side of any given debate within the campaign; this can often require greater exposition by NPCs to “fill in the blanks”.
Reduced Variety Of Ability
Magic, Nimbleness, Healing, Battle Prowess – at least one of these will be shortchanged because the character has access to only one class level per character level. That generally means that for any given character level, three of these will be reduced relative to the capabilities of the typical party. This can severly impact the variety of adventures that you offer – you can’t have one that focusses on magic and then another on the issue of faith vs religion and then a gladatorial combat and then a jewel heist, because the character simply won’t be good at all these things.
It can be tempting to pad the character out with NPC companions to restore some of these imbalances – but doing so can generate as many problems as it solves, as it inevitably moves the campaign closer to duex-ex-machinas and plot trains by taking self-determination away from the character on which the game should be focussed. There’s a fine line between NPCs who can support the PC and NPCs who take over 3/4 of the campaign.
Prestige Class assessment
A consequence of that last point is that character requests for a given prestige class should be assessed a little less stringently than would be the case in a normal campaign, especially if it brings a whole new area of expertise into the character’s grasp. There are Mage prestige classes that confer clerical magics apon a character, for example; I tend to discourage the taking of these in a normal campaign, especially if there is already a cleric in the party, so that each character continues to have a unique niche to occupy. In a solo campaign, I would reverse this policy 180° and even commend the prestige class to the player’s attention. Similarly, there are classes that I consider just plain broken, inherantly unbalanced, available on the net and in sourcebooks; I would be less concerned about these in a solo campaign. Always keep the bigger picture in mind when assessing these player requests.
Variety not intensity
Another consequence of the reduced variety of intensity and the need to focus on prestige classes that broaden a character’s horizons is that the character will tend to be less focussed on their primary schtickh than they would be as a member of a party in a typical campaign. This is worth bearing in mind. As a rule of thumb, I would assess a cleric in a solo campaign to be effectively two levels down on a cleric of the same class level in an adventuring party.
Magic Items should be valued on a different scale
Some magic items give broader capabilites to the character, others make them better at one specific thing. Fighters like Ogre Strength and the like, for example, Rogues like Gloves of Dexterity, and so on. In a solo campaign, these “focussed” items are a little less desireable than items which broaden capabilities. A Dancing Sword, for example, is far more valuable in a solo campaign (where it doubles the number of combatants on the PC’s side) than it is in a 4-character party (a 20% increase in the number of combatants). Summon spells become far more useful in the solo game. These are things that should be borne in mind when placing treasures.
Greater scope for experimentation
A solo campaign typically offers both player and GM greater opportunities to experiment, to try things that they would not otherwise consider. That’s because the necessary preperation and infrastructure requirements are so much less when you only have one PC to worry about, so there is less time and effort involved, and hence a smaller downside if the experiment goes pear-shaped. You don’t necessarily have to experiment if you don’t want to – but you should be aware of the opportunity, at least.
Puzzles & Mysteries are harder to solve
Quite often, in order to solve a puzzle or mystery, a character will need to bounce ideas off someone else. Discussion and different perspectives can often yield clues and insights that set the character on the path to unravelling the challenge before them. In a solo campaign, this “outside source of ideas” is absent, and as a result, any puzzle or mystery becomes harder to solve. The temptations are either to drop hints (which cheapens the whole experience for the player), to have an NPC solve it (in which case why bother putting it into the game in the first place?) or to permit the character to solve it by die roll instead of having the player do so – which is really unsatisfying to all concerned. The better answer is to take the absence of this resource into consideration when designing the puzzle in the first place – and be prepared to let the character take longer to solve it.
CR rises faster than character level
The temptation is always there to simply crack open the monster manual and create an encounter with the same CR as the character has levels. Avoid succumbing to this temptation. One character alone is effectively a party with a CR of 4 less than the character levels (that’s how the math works out) – so the right scale encounter for a character of level 10 is one with an EL of 6. That’s one creature of CR 6 in opposition, or two of CR 4, or four of CR 2, or eight of CR 1. An encounter with the same EL as a solo character has levels is one where they have a fair chance of being killed – even if they start the fight in pristine condition. Bear this in mind.
Be more XP-Generous
Another way of restating the last couple of points is that the character has done better than normal when they succeed in dealing with problems appropriate for a party of equivalent level. You can’t even compare apples with apples, because the solo character is required to spread themselves more thinly over a broader range of abilities, as discussed earlier. In a solo campaign, I would increase the XP rewards given out for success by 10%, 20%, or even 25%.
Assumptions and mistakes
This is a similar point to that made regarding mysteries and puzzles. Because the solo character has no-one to challenge his assumptions (other than the GM), assumptions and mistakes of logic are more likely to be regarded as certainties. That means that the character will make mistakes more often in a solo campaign. Cut the player some slack.
With every extra player in a group, the number of interactions between members of the group incease exponentially, while the amount of attention the GM can give to any one player or PC is reduced. The number of combinations taken 2 at a time is the math of the interaction, but in practical terms it means that the fewer the players, the faster the pacing will inevitably be in the campaign. There’s less discussion of plans and alternatives (no-one to discuss them with), there’s less side-chatter (ditto) and the GM is exclusively dedicated to the one player and his character. Expect the game to run at between five and ten times the pace that would be normal, on average. Sometimes it will be even more, sometimes less. One solo game that I ran disposed of three MONTHS of game-time activities in a single afternoon, when the regular campaign (four players) would have trouble getting through three DAYS of game time in a similar real-time window – a 30-to-1 pacing increase. You should prepare accordingly – you will need more material ready to go. (As a rule of thumb, each additional player halves the rate of progress of a campaign, or more – which gives a figure of 8 times faster pacing).
An additional consequence is that there is much greater focus on the desires, ambitions, and actions of the one PC. The campaign will focus more on the playing style of that lone player, and of the GM – both good and bad will be amplified by this greater focus. In effect, both will be put under the microscope. Be prepared for this effect, and check your egos at the door.
It’s not all downside. The campaign can have far greater flexibility, changing directions more quickly; each additional player also brings the plot equivalent of inertia to the campaign, because they all need to get their share of the attention. With no need to compromise, the campaign can change gears far more quickly. In addition, the more intimate association can often permit the participants to explore themes and social areas that they would be uncomfortable discussing in a more public forum. If your usual games are PG-13, don’t be surprised if you discover the solo campaign treading R-rated territory.
Take more frequent breaks
A more frantic pace, at a higher level of intensity – by now, this hint should be pretty self-evident. Because there’s a lower stress level involved, I would suggest breaking twice as frequently as you would with a four-player group, just to give you time to catch your breath and clear your head.
More can be hand-waved
Because there are fewer PCs to interact with the world, you will find that more can be hand-waved than is the case in the typical campaign. This is another of the factors that leads to faster pacing described previously. More frequently than usual, you will find yourself skipping straight from announcement of action to execution, where in a typical campaign there might have been side encounters and discussions and other plot threads to deal with.
Tactics will change
This is just about the only specifically combat-oriented tip that I’m including, but the principle also applies more generally. Because the character will more frequently be outnumbered, certain tactics become inaccessable to the character and more routine for the opposition to employ. And because there is no-one else to sit in moral judgement of the player, the temptation to employ more… dubious… tactics is ever-present. In a nutshell, as stated under the “Greater Flexibility” heading, approaches that would not normally be considered reasonable will be employed more frequently, even if the PC is a “good guy”. Be prepared for more left-field and/or morally ambiguous approaches to problems, and the accompanying need to think more quickly on your feet in response.
Less need to compromise
The last is an outgrowth of something that I discussed in part 2 of my series on “The Pursuit Of Perfection”: the more players there are in a campaign, the more it needs to compromise in the direction of a common denomenator. With just one player, there will never be less need to compromise your campaign ideas. While this can be a good thing, it is also possible for a GM to get a little silly, effectively drunk on the freedom. I cringe at the memory of some of the things that I pulled off the top of my head the first time I GM’d a solo campaign. (The transvestite bunny in the darth vader costume selling used lightsabres for outrageous prices, for example – it seemed funny at the time). Enjoy the freedom, but keep a stronger grip on your wilder ideas than normal – with so much less time between concept and execution, you can find yourself through the looking-glass faster than you would dream possible.
In conclusion, I would offer the following:
Have fun! Take advantage of the opportunities presented by a solo game, and work hard to minimise the weaknesses that come with such a campaign, and it can become something that you will both remember fondly for many years to come.
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