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Single Player 5E: How to Run It

Written by Leonardo Andrade

Leonardo is a writer/narrative designer. He spends most of his time crafting stories or immersed in them. Currently, he partakes in several D&D 5E campaigns and likes messing around with other systems such as Heart, Spire and Rats in The Walls. Here's his portfolio.

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It’s D&D night, and Tylor is running out of time. He saw his target enter the house with three thugs in tow. Another was looking out the upstairs window. Tylor has an hour before the Burgomasters’ niece arrives to complicate matters. He circles to the back of the house, hides in an alley, and sends his sparrowmouse familiar to scout. His eyes roll back as he peers through his little friend’s. No room for error.

Running D&D for a single Player Character (PC) is its own beast. The pacing is faster, the action deadlier, and some effects—like mind control—are better left out of the Dungeon Master’s (DM) toolkit. It also enables deeper relationships between the PC and NPCs, facilitating plot progression. 

Another neat thing about running for a single player, or two, is that it makes scheduling easier. The prep work is just as time-consuming as with a standard four-member party, though. Maybe even more, on occasion. 

In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into what you need to know to run kickass sessions for one or two players.

Tweaking The Game for Single-player Fun

If you’re going to do this, some survivability measures are key to your success. The main difficulty of running for a single PC is how much the action economy is a big deal in 5E. 

The game works based on the ground assumption that a party is four characters with varied strengths and weaknesses. 

The most vanilla party composition possible is a tank, a striker, a support/healer, and a controller. A single PC is only one of these—maybe a hybrid that does two things less well than they’d do a single one if they specialized—and maybe has an NPC sidekick to fulfill another role. Think NPC Watson to the PC’s Sherlock.

There’s little room for mistakes or bad luck. If they screw up, there’s no one there to help (the main draw of sidekicks is counteracting this, somewhat).

Consider this scenario: A 1st level fighter with 13 hit points squares off against two Challenge Rating (CR) 1/8 bandits. Considering just the CR, this might seem okay. Eight bandits against a 1st level party of four is doable, so two against the fighter is okay, right? Wrong.

The fighter has one attack which might kill one of them outright, but that’s unlikely. The bandits combined have two attacks and can attack from a distance, which the fighter might not be able to do. They are more likely to kill him in one round than not, especially if the initiative order favors them. In two rounds, if the fighter doesn’t manage to get rid of one of them, the fighter dies. 

In fact, even a full party is in trouble if they have to fight eight bandits at once, CR be damned. The bandits have twice as many actions between them.

At higher levels, PCs aren’t as squishy, but many enemies have multiattack and special actions. We’re just scratching the surface of how dire things are for a single PC. 

How do we deal with this, as DMs? Here are some important game adjustments to make:

PC tweaks

  • Start at level 3 or higher so that the PC has more things they can do and better HP.
  • Let the PCs have beefier ability scores right off the bat than they would in a normal game. Keep racial bonuses the same. Dice are inherently risky; ditch the standard array and go for a “lone wolf array“: 
    • 18, 16, 14, 12, 12 9
  • When they level up, they always take the maximum possible hit point increase. So a level 3 fighter with +3 Constitution has 39 hit-points.
  • Let the player pick one really useful magic item; work with them on the story of how the PC got it. Typically DMs allow a magic item of a certain rarity or higher; I recommend either Very Rare or select Legendary items. This tool will list all items of whatever rarity, though it isn’t the best for descriptions.

Other rules tweaks

  • Let PCs drink potions as bonus actions!
  • Take save-or-die and save-or-suck spells and effects out of enemy toolkits, or don’t use enemies who have these. There’s no other PC to help them or do anything else cool when a single PC gets mind-controlled. (Suggestion is an example of such spells)
  • Remove legendary and lair actions from enemies; remember that the action economy is how you’re most likely to accidentally kill the PC.
  • Adjust monster HP/capabilities based on the characteristics of the PC. Squishy characters (Read: easily killed, like magic users) would benefit from enemies that deal less damage; brutes (like barbarians) would benefit from not having to roll wisdom saves all the time.
  • When establishing the initiative order in combat, try to distribute enemies evenly across the spectrum, starting at one and going up to 15. This way, the PC is less likely to get tossed off this mortal coil right away because the d20 didn’t cooperate. 

Looking to challenge your players?

Puzzles and Riddles can be tricky! Too easy and they’re pointless; Too hard and it’s pure frustration. What is a DM to do?

Well, our friends over at Dungeon Vault have an assortment of puzzles, riddles, and tokens to enhance your gaming experience. They even have a murder mystery and a political intrigue system!

For easy-to-use resources for any D&D game, check out the selections at Dungeon Vault!


5E Sidekick Rules

Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything (pgs 142-147) brings the most recent iteration of 5E’s sidekick rules, originally introduced as Unearthed Arcana. A sidekick is an NPC that comes along with PC(s) and aids them in their adventuring, and they have special sidekick class options to pick: 

  • Expert: a skillmonkey that functions as a rogue-lite in combat. The ability to help (give advantage to PC attack rolls and ability checks) as bonus action is huge.
  • Spellcaster: these take on the roles of either a mage, healer, or prodigy. Mages cast spells with Intelligence and use the wizard spell list. Healers cast cleric and druid spells with Wisdom. Prodigies cast bard and warlock spells with Charisma.
  • Warrior: They hit hard and can take hard hits. A fighter-lite. They can take on the role of attacker (+2 to their attack rolls) or defender (can impose disadvantage on attacks against the PC if adjacent to an attacker they can see).

A sidekick can complement the PC’s weak points, in and out of combat, as well as serve narrative functions. Questions like “what keeps them and the PC together?”, “what would it take for them to leave?”, “what do they want beyond their shared goals with the PC?” can move a plot forward and provide powerful moments.

It’s also worth mentioning that one of the main things missing from a solo campaign is the party-banter, but a sidekick can help with that.

In a single-player campaign, I believe it safe to say that the DM should roleplay the sidekick to give the player someone else to bounce off of. 

Who controls the sidekick in combat depends on preference. Letting the player do so will let them strategize more and feel more in charge. The DM could still interject in characterful ways if this is the chosen route. If the fight has some personal meaning to the sidekick, they might get a little wild in spite of what the PC thinks is wise, for instance. 

A closing note on sidekicks: other people have made similar things. MCDM’s Strongholds and Followers has “retainer rules” that are worth checking out. 

Now that you’re well versed in the appropriate changes needed to run single-player campaigns, and understand sidekicks, let’s move on to… 


Frighten Your Players

In a dark room, Jon is on the edge of his seat. He’s afraid his next act will be his doom.

Everyone holds their breath—except you, the DM. You enjoy watching them sweat as tension comes to a head.

Do something!” Sara shouts, causing everyone to jump. Rattled, Jon does something stupid.

For less than a Starbucks coffee, gift a thrilling night for you and your crew;

Check out Weeping Walls, our haunted house intended to fit into any campaign.


How to Prepare Single-Player Sessions

As stated at the beginning of this article, single-player games run at a faster pace. There’s no table-chatter, no collective decision-making. The amount of actors in any fight is likewise reduced. This means that you need to prep more content than you otherwise would to play for the same amount of time.

Single-player play offers a lot of freedom for DM improvisation, so even if you come up a bit short, good notes and setting knowledge should enable you to improvise. Due to how quickly a single PC’s resources can be exhausted, these sessions will likely not be combat-centric, so you should be ready for a lot of roleplay and skill challenges

On that note: every fight has to matter. And by matter, I mean have narrative stakes, move the plot forward. Filler, resource-draining fights are the bane of single-player D&D. Also, when preparing fights, remember that CR is limited as a game-balancing tool because it fails to account for the action economy when there’s only one PC or two and lacks specificity

In short, there shouldn’t be a lot of fighting. What else can you do?

  • Stealth sections are great to up the tension, but you need to be mindful of the perception skill floor, and so on. More on this here
  • Social encounters add a lot of color and variety to the game. Nonviolent solutions to problems should be not only enabled but rewarded. Having a strong NPC cast for the PC to interact with will surely take your game to the next level. We have an article on crafting compelling encounters.
  • Mystery! Investigations are a nice way to engage the PC’s noncombat skills, keep the player interested, and encourage more social encounters. See Disco Elysium as a masterful example.

The PC might be a crafter or a performer of some sort, too, which can add more fun things to do outside of combat. Bardic duels of wit and song, dangerous alchemy and component gathering, cook-offs, and more!


Discover Ancient Treasure

The party is tired, hurting, and in need of shelter when they discover a mysterious, ancient stone crypt.

The dusty tomb could hold immense treasure, danger, or both – depending on how they approach it.

Perhaps they’ll foolishly wander into this setting-agnostic, densely-written classic dungeon that provides plenty of unique choices and twists on old favorites.

Check out the promotional version (on the product page) before you buy the Mound of Harald the Conqueror!


Three Campaign Ideas for Single Players

Now that you’re fully equipped to run single-player D&D, you might be thinking about what sorts of campaigns would be the best for this. I have some suggestions:

The Prince

The PC is a young royal bastard. They might have been raised in hiding by an opponent of the king’s, or maybe they grew up in the streets as the only one who knows of their royal blood. Regardless, they will rise to their righteous place in the line of succession or take the crown for themselves. 

Maybe the king is an aloof figure gorging himself on endless feasts while the people hunger, and the PC knows they can do better. Maybe his reign has been a time of unprecedented peace and plenty, but the PC is willing to throw a wrench into this for what their blood entitles them to. 

Both ways require the PC to have a following, power, and influence. This campaign is about building it from the first tier of play onwards.

This one is roleplay-heavy, but the PC will occasionally have to deal death. They may also have a sidekick, who might be a fierce best friend from their years in the street, a young, ambitious noblewoman who sees an opportunity in them, or something altogether different.  

Hardboiled

Plenty of work for an investigator or bounty hunter in the big city, be it Waterdeep, Zadash, or any other. The PC is one such lone operative, maybe with a sidekick, making their living in the seedy underbelly of an urban behemoth. They are also looking for answers about an unresolved matter in their past that haunts them to this day.

Did they lose a loved one at a young age to some act of vile necromancy by hooded figures with unknown motives? Are they the caretakers of a mysterious, crippled magical creature that fled slavery powering something big and arcane hidden somewhere in the city? Both player and DM should work together on this.

Whatever it is, the PC starts out with few allies to rely on. Everyone around them wants something, and some are willing to do questionable things to get their way. The PC might be, too.

Acquisitions Department

The PC is good at finding things, and they’re good at acquiring them. They might be a dangerous sort of librarian hunting forbidden knowledge for an arcane research university, delving into forgotten ruins and hobnobbing with high-society at auctions. Or a thief working for whoever pays best. Maybe a seeker of holy relics serving a high priest.

They are fascinated by some of these incredible things they acquire. Their skill set lends itself to a plethora of other less dangerous, just as lucrative trades, yet they choose this (nearly) every single time. 

They’re bound to get in over their head eventually or find something that changes them or turns their life upside down—but not at the beginning of this campaign. Let it be episodic for a while before introducing an overarching plot. This allows for worldbuilding and context.

Summary

There—all you need to start a single-player campaign right now! Here’s a refresher on all I’ve covered in this article:

  • To run D&D for only one or two players, you need to tweak the rules in favor of survivability and fun. Key tweaks are:
    • allowing PCs to be a little more powerful and beefy
    • letting them drink potions as a bonus action
    • Allow PCs to start at level 3 or higher
    • Grant max hit dice when increasing health when leveling up
    • Removing save-or-die or save-or-suck spells and effects from enemy toolkits, like Suggestion
    • Adjust monster HP and capabilities based on the PC at hand.
  • There are rules for sidekicks in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, and they can be a huge boon to the PC in a single-player campaign. Sidekicks can be experts, spellcasters, and warriors.
  • When preparing a single-player session, you need more content than you would to run the same session length for a full-party. Fights should be few and relevant to the narrative. Use lots of skill challenges and social encounters!

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