Forging The Realms: The Lone Wizard

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Forging The Realms
The Lone Wizard

By Ed Greenwood

Looking for a slower or smaller campaign to run? Ed might have something for you to consider this week. Come take a look.

Talk about this column here.

Ends Are Sometimes Better Left Loose

Yan
Montréal, Canada
@Plaguescarred on twitter

Anyone ever play in campaigns with one player and one DM?

If yes, was it a hit or miss? Anything notable you remember?

I ran a solo campaign for a few weeks for my wife, until new players joined and we got up to a group of 5 (including me as DM).
Yeah, nightly, for the last 20 years.  Well, several different campaigns over the years, but you get the idea.  I'd say it was a pretty good hit, considering we (my wife and me) don't watch television in favor of it.

"Be careful to choose your enemies well.  Friends don't much matter.  But the choice of enemies is very important."  

- Oscar Wilde

Yeah, nightly, for the last 20 years.  Well, several different campaigns over the years, but you get the idea.  I'd say it was a pretty good hit, considering we (my wife and me) don't watch television in favor of it.

20 years! That's pretty awesome.

OK, I have to ask: with 20 years experience, through several campaigns, how do you keep things fresh?

I suppose a spouse can be forgiving if a plot or encounter comes up that's similar to what came before--it's all in good fun, right? But how do you keep things lively?

Different rules systems? Different game types? No-combat sessions? All roleplaying sessions?

Color me curious.

Mutants and Masterminds 3e thus far has been our favorite ruleset... hard to go back to strict level based stuff after working with it shortly after DCA was released.  Prior to that SW Saga edition, and a little bit of Pathfinders ruleset, though once I gave GRs stuff a try, I haven't really looked back.

As to sessions... there's very little combat actually, and its mostly all RP stuff, with a little bit of combat tossed in to keep things lively at key moments, largely for dramatic purposes on my part.  As to keeping it fresh, there are a lot of ways to work similar plots in very different ways so long as the NPCs are used creatively.  Really, there's only so many plots one can launch before repitition sets in, so the key way to differentiate is to present the same idea in different ways, close enough so that they can feel comfortable and familiar, but with the details different enough so that it keeps them guessing a little.  Of course there are times when you don't have to do that as much, and you can use that familiarity to impart a good sense of experience 'with those sorts of problems', and it can lead to some great one-liner opportunities for your player if they're clever enough, which while a little cheesy, can be fun anyway, and definitely leave them feeling like an old pro.

As to encounters, one thing I've found is that a lot of it depends on how you set up the basic terrain, and what obstacles you stick in the way. And to understand the best way to use said terrain at different skill levels. What can be a cakewalk with a bunch of inexperienced foes can quickly turn into a major chokepoint against more competent opponents. Depends on what you're trying to accomplish with the encounter, which is something I try to keep in mind at all times. Why is it there, and how does it move the story forward.  If I can't answer those questions in my own mind, I tend to think its time to reconsider the encounter entirely, or at least restructure it so that it does contribute to things.

I think that's largely why I've abandoned level-based stuff, since most of those systems I've seen advance the character due to combat experience, rather than character development, which isn't quite as tangible I know, and much harder to define mechanically. Generally speaking I tend to be of the mindset that people learn more from their mistakes and failures than they do from their successes, so it's something I take into account when doling out the PP/XP.

"Be careful to choose your enemies well.  Friends don't much matter.  But the choice of enemies is very important."  

- Oscar Wilde

That was a great read, Stigger. Particularly:
Generally speaking I tend to be of the mindset that people learn more from their mistakes and failures than they do from their successes, so it's something I take into account when doling out the PP/XP.

I hope this finds its way into the D&D Next/5E Dungeon Master's guide, even if it's only a sidebar option on how to do things differently.

A follow up question: For all practical purposes, in a solo campaign if the one player's character dies, that's a TPK.

How do you handle character death? Is it a matter of fudging die rolls? Or more of a "if it happens, it happens" kind of thing? Or perhaps there are backup characters at the ready that will take up where the fallen character left off?

Or something else?

I found myself wondering this when reading your description of how you approach encounters.

I tend to let the die fall where they may, and just handle survival through story complications, making things that much harder for the failure, rather than just killing off the character.  I tend to use a incapacitation and capture approach rather than just straight death, which I'm sure will upset a few people as it's not a 'realistic' consequence of failure, but I don't really see the issue, since one of my own conceits is that most villains would like to know not just who they dealt with, but also if anyone sent them, or if anyone else knows about something the villain would rather not have known.  I tend to take my cues from the espionage game, where it's not often lethal for actual agents, but tendings towards really lethal for the locals they recruit to spy for them.

That said, if my wife were to do something really stupid and end up getting herself killed, then I'm perfectly willing to let that ride and move on the story through someone else if it fit the character concept and wasn't just a stupid mistake that never should have been allowed.  Thankfully, she actually runs several different characters, only rarely at the same time, with the spotlight changing focus as our moods and story demands take us, so even if one were to be killed, it doesn't really affect the overall game.

For instance, we were running a story about street mages using Mage: The Ascension rules a while back, and her group was ambushed by some local vampires looking to score some mage blood (vampire drugs sort of thing). She made some bad rolls and got her throat torn out, so decided to immolate her character to wipe the rest of the vampires and save her friends with the very last bit of her strength. Provided a memorable end to a cool character really, one we brought up several times when she was playing that character's mentor.  I think that's kinda the thing with player death though, it's up to the DM/GM to let any deaths have some meaning (as in there's a unspoken "no dying in what are essentially minion/mook encounters" rule I operate by) in the game world, so that it takes away the sting of losing that character while hopefully also providing flavor to the game world and making its history that much richer.

"Be careful to choose your enemies well.  Friends don't much matter.  But the choice of enemies is very important."  

- Oscar Wilde

(...)but I don't really see the issue, since one of my own conceits is that most villains would like to know not just who they dealt with, but also if anyone sent them, or if anyone else knows about something the villain would rather not have known.

This is a good point (and a good DMing tip).

I read this and found my mind thinking about a scenario where a PC dies, only to wake up on a slab of cold stone with the villain or Big Bad Evil Guy/Gal leaning over the PC with a crooked smile before saying, "Did you really think it was all over? Now then, tell me what I want to know."

Instant great RPing opportunity.

Thankfully, she actually runs several different characters, only rarely at the same time, with the spotlight changing focus as our moods and story demands take us, so even if one were to be killed, it doesn't really affect the overall game.

Was this always true for your early games with your wife?

That is, I run an off and on (now off, because of our conflicing work schedules) solo game for my wife, and she's really focused on the one character she's made for D&D. Did you have to encourage your wife to make multiple NPCs or did she gravitate towards it herself.

If the former, how did you go about it?

I like the idea and I'd like to encourage my wife to expand her horizons with new characters.

(...)Provided a memorable end to a cool character really, one we brought up several times when she was playing that character's mentor.  I think that's kinda the thing with player death though, it's up to the DM/GM to let any deaths have some meaning (as in there's a unspoken "no dying in what are essentially minion/mook encounters" rule I operate by) in the game world, so that it takes away the sting of losing that character while hopefully also providing flavor to the game world and making its history that much richer.

Interesting.

I've never played Mage, though I played plenty of Vampire: The Masquerade back in the 90s.

Have you ever run into any game systems that included a "if you're going to die, go out with a bang" mechanic?

Makes me wonder if it's a good idea to include a final death magic item or spell for my wife's PC. I wonder if she'd use it?

Thanks Stigger.

Nah, didn't have to encourage her at all about having multiple characters, it was something both of us just gravitated towards since at first we both served as GM for a couple of different games, which she has since given up, preferring to shift that onus on to me... but whatcha gonna do I guess, since no one else wants to step up.  Which I guess is kinda flattering, if annoying at times.

Part of the thing with GMing though is that we both got used to juggling many, many, many different NPCs, and with coming up with backstory and such for them on the fly, since our groups style sort of demands that skill.  None of that "I ask him..." stuff, it's all RPed out in-character, which can eat up time, but we've found it suits us just fine. Start running stories like that, and you kinda have to develop the ability to run multiple characters at once if you're doing it really immersively.

As to 'out with a bang' mechanics, nothing that wasn't optional, and even then only once. Mage sort of did with 'Heartsblood' spells, where you used up the magickal energy that kept you alive and died at the end of it, but it was  only mentioned in one book, and most people I've talked mage with where the subject has come up never seemed aware of it. The completist obsessive personality in me strikes again I guess. Having said all that though, there certainly isn't anything stopping one from house ruling it in, no matter what game system you might use.  Certainly wouldn't be hard with 3e M&M. D&D might be a little daunting though... but there are a few spells out there that let wizards pull it off from the 2e/3e eras that could probably be converted... Mycontil's Last Resort (I think that was from 3e Shining South, off the top of my head) being the big one that comes to mind.

"Be careful to choose your enemies well.  Friends don't much matter.  But the choice of enemies is very important."  

- Oscar Wilde

Ah...so you both were GMing at one point. That's not something my wife has done yet.

Thank you, Stigger.
I like to think of it as a cooperative narrative more than who's GMing what night... 

One thing though, I've found that in solo play, you have to be ready to go off on those tangents a lot more often, and be willing to let the player slip in bits and pieces here and there of things they want to see in the game. You have to get really good at reading the subtext of what they're saying, but also take that input as a compliment rather than as a challenge, because it means they're getting invested in the story.  It can get a little weird at times, and a willingness to just call a night a do-over really helps, since it's amazing how one can paint themselves into a corner when you start improvising on stuff.

"Be careful to choose your enemies well.  Friends don't much matter.  But the choice of enemies is very important."  

- Oscar Wilde