Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. Today we look at a variation of typical gaming that takes a bit more thought: two-player gaming, with just one player and one GM! Ready to stare into someone’s eyes and tell them to roll initiative? Read on.
In the modern era of tabletop role-playing games, four players is considered the default. While most gaming tables work perfectly fine with anywhere from about three to six, four is considered the platonic ideal, with many more mechanically intensive games building rules assumptions around that number. Once you go too low the typical “party” mechanics begin to fall apart, and once you go too high characters begin stepping on each other’s toes. In both of these cases there are ways around this.
Playing a two person game, though, is a unique challenge. When I say two person game, I mean one player and one GM. Instead of feeling like a group social gathering, a two person game is more like an intense conversation between two people, and requires both of these people to devote most of their attention to each other throughout the game. For this reason, one of the most common circumstances for two person games are couples who want to have a game together.
If you’re interested in playing or running a two person game with someone else, it will not come together in the same way as a typical group session. However, you can have some deeply rewarding role-playing experiences that aren’t often seen in a group.
Running a game for one other person means you are focusing all of your attention on them. For this reason, many elements of a game will play out differently than you may be used to. First, look at your typical session time and reduce it. If your gaming groups run four hours or so, a two person game should run about two. While you as the GM may be used to being “on” all the time, your player will usually not, and two hours of making all the play decisions and trying to be in character may be even more stressful than your job of setting the scene.
Your player being the center of attention makes it even more important to write the game around them and their character. If your player has written a backstory, it is incumbent on you to read this and adapt your game to it. While you are able to set aside your duties towards game balance and spotlight management, the other side of the coin is that you are running a game for one person and one person alone. Make them feel like it’s their story.
Be aware that games are typically designed for party play. As a result, characters are intended to have things they’re good at and things they aren’t so good at, so that a party of roughly four adventurers will balance out each other’s strengths and weaknesses. You can get around this by using more flexible systems, but even games like D&D have some allowances for broader character builds through multi-classing and feats. Even if broad characters can be mechanically deficient in games like D&D (and your party optimizer will know if this is the case for your preferred system), that doesn’t matter in single-player games. Let your player make whatever advancement decisions they like, and adjust encounter difficulty to whatever’s fun.
There are games that work better for two players. Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games usually have pretty strong hooks for each individual character playbook, and the mechanics aren’t designed for mechanical balance. Do be aware that PbtA games often have strong character linkage mechanisms, so you’ll have to figure out how best to remove or de-emphasize them for a solo game. Games like D&D and virtually any other class/archetype game will have key abilities spread across character classes. Working around this will require paring back on certain challenges (like traps if there’s no rogue or undead if there’s no cleric), or alternatively providing NPC helpers. Even with NPCs, though, your player’s character should still be the star of the show.
When you are half of a gaming group, GM included, you will find yourself doing a bit more heavy lifting. When you create your character, consider that your choices are broadcasting to your GM what sort of activities you would like to be primary in the game. This is true in any game, but in a two person game it sets the tone for the entire campaign. This should be a two-way conversation; if your GM has determined certain activities will come up they should tell you what skills may be useful, and if you want certain activities to come up you should tell the GM you’re interested.
Beyond having more directed and intense game sessions, you should be prepared for the pre-game stage to be more intensive as well. PbtA is an example of a system that uses a “session zero” for setting ground rules and expectations prior to a game, but this is a practice that can be ported to pretty much any game system. This is another example of a practice that can help with any game, but is particularly useful in a two person setting. As the player, you should be prepared to contribute your thoughts and concerns about the GM’s intended setting and plot arc, something which may not always happen in a group game.
If you find that you as a player are more drawn to supporting roles, either mechanically or within the story, you should be aware that there is no room for this in a two person game. As the sole player, your character will be the protagonist and will make decisions that drive the story forward. This is a perfect time to take some risks and make interesting, flawed characters that will give the GM plenty of fodder to complicate your life. In a two person game, character death and failure are going to work out differently, because the story is on you…character death is a less useful option, for example, because with only one character the story will end if that character dies. Use this extra layer of protagonist “plot armor” to make decisions you may have otherwise shied away from; it will make the game more interesting for you and give your GM more to work with.
Two person games require both more intense interaction between player and GM as well as a “protagonist” character that likely won’t exactly fit with conventional character creation assumptions. Beyond that, there are a couple things that can help with two person games. Games where character progression has a strong narrative arc or central conflict are going to provide a great scaffolding for a two-person game. PbtA was mentioned above, and D&D can provide this as well, at least in Fifth edition. Classes with external associations give some great story hooks that may be lost in a party game: Bard colleges, Druid circles, and Warlock patrons all can be fleshed out narratively to give the protagonist more links to the world. Another great set of mechanics are any which allow the player to contribute narrative direction. The most succinct example of this would be Beliefs from the Burning Wheel games, including Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard, and Torchbearer. Beliefs give the player a way to express their character’s desires and reactions to the situation they’re in, and also give mechanical rewards for testing those beliefs and learning more about the character and how they think as the game goes on. There are other games with systems like this, but Burning Wheel has one that is both punchy and, for the rules hackers out there, almost completely portable (you can check out the beliefs rules in the free “Hub and Spokes” Burning Wheel quickstart).
A two person game is going to be intense. This intensity is rewarded with more opportunities for interaction and some more complex plotting, all made possible by dispensing with the need to balance for multiple players. In the end, both the player and the GM are going to need to do more work: the GM has to develop a laser-focused campaign, and the player needs to build a character who can be more than just a party member. By choosing a system that facilitates this and having both player and GM help each other with their respective heavy lifting, a two player game can be a different feel of game that’s just as easy as a typical party campaign. If you know someone you’d actually be comfortable speaking to for two hours straight, you too can enjoy the experience of a two person game.