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Chatty’s Mailbag: Playing 4e with only 1 player

Written by Phil - Published on April 1, 2009

After all this talk of Bloodbowl, I thought it would be nice to have another reader’s mail post.

Today’s questions come from Hermit Dave:

Have you ever solo-gamed (one DM, one player) and how would you handle DMing for such in 4e?

I have, once, with my son Nico.  It works well if you make good use of the tools the game engine gives you.  The Dungeon Master Guide instructs DM to create an encounter with one monster of the party’s average level per PC.  In a solo game, you need to focus on using encounters made up of just one monster, or  about 4 minions.

Ooooh, that mailbox is hot!

Focus on monsters that are no more than 1 level over the PC’s.  If you want to create a “Boss fight”, chose a non-elite, non-solo monster that’s 2-3 level above the PC, but make sure that the character has additional resources that can help him/her in the fight (Healing potions, Safe areas, Interactive terrain that can harm or hinder the opponent, etc)

Since the resources of the lone character are very limited, I suggest that you discuss with the player so he/she chooses a class that has a better chance of being successful alone.

All defender classes: Fighter, Paladin, Swordmage, Warden) are good choices since they dish out significant damage and have superior defenses.

If the player goes for a leader class, I’d suggest they pick Cleric, Shaman or Bard as these classes have a better mix of powers that do not require the presence of other PCs (like the Warlord does).

If a Striker is to be chosen, I’d stay away from the Warlock, Sorcerer or ranged Ranger (not good for melee) and the Rogue (no-one to provide flanking opportunities).  The Barbarian, dual-yielding Ranger and Avenger are all good choices.

I’d stay away from all controller classes given their lower damage output and dependence on powers that often allow attacks of opportunities.

My personal preference lies with the Avenger from the Players Handbook 2.  Its probably the class that allows someone to play the Lone Wolf the best.  As a divine hunter, you can create lots of cool Bounty Hunter type of adventures.

Finally, you’ll have to review how treasure parcels are handed out.  Instead of using the formulas given, I suggest you look at the ‘starting above level 1’ guidelines in the Dungeon Master Guide and provide treasures that give the PC access to one magic item above its level and the money to buy one item of his level.

This would allow the PC to stay roughly on par with higher level monsters when he levels up.

Okay, next questions!

I am not really talking about the idea of one player running 6 characters but more along the idea of a single character/player with maybe one or two NPCs as sidekicks.  Thus the classic hero story.  How do you suggest scaling encounters? What about full adventures?  A standard published dungeon will kill most solo characters pretty quickly.  Strategy between players is not present so encounters & skill challenges would have to differ.

This setup is great to recreate the Sword and Sorcery type of stories where the hero is a Scoundrel who, along with his two buddies, cause havoc in evil temples and bring back booty to spend in taverns and brothels.

If you provide the player with 2 sidekicks of the same level as the PC, you just need to add more monsters and treasure to fit with the advice given in the previous answer.  That means each encounter should have about 3 monsters of the same level or up to 2 level above the party’s average.

To recreate the feeling of an all-out brawl, trade monsters for 4 minions of the same level and your battlemap will become crowded fast enough.  Now if you want a boss, feel free to trade two monsters for an Elite of the same level and you got yourself a significant threat.

If you want to adapt a published adventure, just remove the number of opponents in each fight to fit with the party.  Since encounters are typically written for 5 PCs, remove 2 monsters (or 40%) and you should be good.

I’d suggest dropping skill challenges altogether and replace them with roleplaying scenes or puzzles since you have just one player with a limited set of skills.  Alternatively you can tweak the challenge to focus on skills your player’s PC has.   You could also allow the player to control the whole party and tackle the skill challenge with all characters.

There you have it.  That’s how I’d approach playing D&D 4e with only one player. I’m convinced the game’s engine can handle it but I suggest that you use the “Hero with sidekick” approach to cover a wider range of class roles in the party.

I hope that was useful.

Anyone else with more experience with playing with reduced parties have suggestions to add, feel free to hop right in.


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Written by Phil

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8 Responses to “Chatty’s Mailbag: Playing 4e with only 1 player”
  1. Tim Saint says:

    Living in a small, mountain town, and with only a limited number of non-creatively challenged friends, my girlfriend and I find ourselves, for the most part, playing DnD by ourselves. Our only other keener pal lives one valley over, and so only makes the occasional Rogue appearance (usually with something stolen).

    I scale the games down, of course, using the packaged adventure, and then spending a significant amount of time, each week, tailoring to fit the small size of the group, writing new storyline and subplots, making props and the like (5 hours or so a week, yeesh). Also, we play the side-kick arrangement, with my girlfriend’s Elvish Ranger accompanied by a Dwarf Fighter. He takes the beating, and she dishes out the arrows. I’m a new DM, so while I don’t know how tactically effective this arrangement is, they’re still alive…

    At any rate, it seems to work well enough, the encounters tend to be really, really close (with the Dwarf almost buying it daily). I don’t use minions, for the most part, and like Phil says, I just reduce the numbers by about 40% or so. Oh, and I totally agree that puzzles- as means of evading deadly traps, rather than just skill challenges, are the way to go. A creative challenge for the DM, and a fun, gaming event for the player.

  2. Maniac says:

    Ive been playing with my two roomates quite a bit, and being just the three of us, we had to make some adjustments. We have been using double HP for characters and healing (potions, healing powers ect.), i halve the HP of all the monsters they encounter. They are given 2 action points after a extended rest along with an additional magic item daily power. So far everything has worked out pretty well, they are 5th level right now. I have made minimal adjustments to the pre made adventure material, and homebrew hasnt been overchallenging either, tho i have noticed they struggle with solo monsters, so solo monsters should be a level or two below their current level.

  3. Ameron says:

    I used to play D&D with just two players. I always gave them the option of playing two characters each if they wanted to. Then I’d scale the encounters accordingly.

    I found that the smaller group provided better opportunities for role-playing and character development. As a DM I found it was necessary to advance the characters a little bit more quickly than usual in order to keep them interested and motivated. I also had to keep a tight leash on the distribution of wealth. Providing too much loot, too quickly always lead to problems with over-powered characters.

    I haven’t played 4e with just one or two players but I look forward to trying it should the circumstances permit.

  4. The_Gun_Nut says:

    I disagree with the statement that the rogue is a poor choice for a solo character. The rogue, in fact, is one of the best choices, as there are numerous abilities, feats, and items that allow the rogue to maintain combat advantage over several rounds. In fact, if one were to include the first round of combat in which the rogue attacks a target that has not yet acted in the encounter, a first level rogue can maintain combat advantage for up to four (4) rounds of combat. For a single opponent of equal level, this is a death sentance. For two opponents, one opponent is dead and the other is seriously injured. Since the primary combat attribute of the rogue is dexterity, which figures into the rogues AC as well as Reflex defense, and the rogue is focused on the stealth skill (also dex based) and can remove himself from challenging combats by ducking into concealment, the rogue is the way to go if a player wants to solo.

    Higher level rogues have even more abilities that grant them combat advantage, as well as a few feats that can give it to them through special circumstances, and a few items that can give them this all important bonus.

    Rogues not good solo? Hardly.

  5. Justin says:

    I often times just add npc’s to make up for the solo pc. Some classes(like rogues) benefit more from being alone and can allow you to add a bit more depth to things that would be important to a rogue.

    Adding NPC’s party members adds a new depth to the game for the solo player. They tend to focus quite a bit more on managing friendships with them. They also tend to get really attached to some of them. To the point of getting upset if one of them falls in battle. Another good thing is NPC’s aren’t going to put up with crap. If mistreated they can betray, turn-on, or just plain leave said PC. Use them as tools to add depth and companionship. Good role-players will relish the constant spotlight anyway and find it worth sacrificing some heroic deeds to the npc’s they helped groom.

    Just my thoughts, great blog btw. :)

  6. I’m a bit disapointed that no-one said anything about the little witcheroo we did.

    Oh well.

    @Gun Nut: Good points all around. I haven’t seen a Rogue in play enough to see that there were enough options to help out. Still, by being alone you lose you’re At-Will’s striker potency when you only deal 1d6+5 with sly Flourish.

    @Justin: I wish I could take the credit, but this here blog ain’t mine :)

  7. The_Gun_Nut says:

    @Chatty: Heh, I noticed. I think most of us just took it in stride. April 1st and all.

    For solo play, fighting a correspondingly smaller number of opponents in one encounter, the rogue will have the advantage of having nearly all his combat advantage granting abilities fresh each time. And if the rogue runs out, it can use the Bluff skill (and a smoke bomb for that truly NINJA moment) to create a diversion and stealth away. The rogue can then wait five minutes and jump back in and take out another opponent or two, then smoke away, again.

    I’ve played a rogue for a while in this new edition. They are incredibly self sufficient. Try one out, and keep an eye out for every advantage you can get. After all, this is a rogue, not a paladin. That honor crap is for people six feet under.

  8. DL says:

    A hybrid ranger/fighter is a good choice. Take the hybrid talent feat to gain beast mastery, since a beast companion adds considerably to your manpower.

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