How would _you_ design a mechanically mainstream action-adventure RPG for 1 on 1 play?

This thought came up in another thread, but the more I thought about it, the more curious I became about the topic.

How would you go about it?

Let's pretend that you're tasked with creating a (relatively) mechanically mainstream RPG that starts with the assumption that it will be played 1 on 1 ( one GM, one character player).

It's going to be action-adventure largely, regardless of genre. Our hero is going to be getting into trouble a lot, and a fair bit of it physical danger.

By mechanically mainstream, I just mean that the sort of general stuff you see is present: stats, skills, hit points/wound levels. A little dirty-hippy, maybe, but mostly recognizable to someone not familiar with SGs.

Bonus points:
Once you've got that, how do you modify that if/when more players want to participate in a session?

And...go!

Comments

  • This is an old idea I've got lying in the desk drawer, basically James Bond the RPG: the hero is created by the character-player to emblematize their desired political, sexual, cultural themes, and then said secret agent character gets to go to exotic locations and either charm or shoot their way out of villainous perils.

    The innovative part would be extreme focus on spatially intricate action sequences in setpiece locations: the GM player preps specific architectural spaces in which play occurs, and which are utilized by the game's mechanical process: the intersection of the PC swashbuckling process and the GM terrain prep becomes the "action" that occurs. I envision a playstyle heavy in visual aids, where the GM introduces new locations with photographs and maps as the super agent observes their environment in the lull before action may or may not be engaged. While the particular qualities of the foes and the hero may play a part, the action resolution is much more focused on issues like positioning and the specific opportunities presented by the architecture and gear than the abilities and skills of the characters; it's a given that you can take them out one by one, but does a choke-point exist that allows you to avoid being surrounded?

    This combination of structural approach and genre will make it natural for the game to consist of a series of setpiece locations, which may then be viewed as creative correspondence from the GM player to the agent player, which is an appropriate creative dynamic for a 2-player rpg: here you get to see what details I find enticing about the mysterious city of Shanghai or whatever, and then you get to show me how, exactly, your hero conducts himself in my colorful location. Plot is secondary, just like it is for the movie genre inspiring the game; character, milieu and fleeting situation are paramount.

    For the bonus round, I'll say that the first extra player gets to be a helper GM: the GM's tasks are split into refereeing and running the NPCs, and the helper GM does the latter. The second extra player gets to play a similar role for the super agent, running companions and allies for them. The game may also support super agent teams to a degree, but only on a case by case basis - I will not give an inch in terms of literary style and credibility for the sake of supporting party-based play. Thus, for long-term multiplayer play the best option is to run multiple super agents on more or less parallel missions, occasionally crossing paths to join forces or even oppose each other.
  • Eero: That's a pretty cool concept. You're right, a big chunk of the fun of Bond movies is the visuals of the exotic locales where the action sequences take place.

    Funny thing was in reading that, it seemed like a bit of parallel evolution. I know of a miniatures demi-rpg that works very similarly in broad outline. It's based on old time serial cliffhanger movies. Essentially, each game session is a chance for the players to go to an exotic location right at the cusp of when action is about to break out, with some fairly thin narration tying each session together. Even the GM duty split you mentioned is fairly similar, with spare players in a session jumping in as that specific session's baddies and/or NPCs, while playing parallel good guy missions in other sessions.

    There's Eero's concept. What do you other readers have for me?

    Here some points that I was thinking about ( and they aren't nearly as advanced as Eero's thoughts)

    What about character competency?

    Solo main characters seem to be pretty good at what they do, in a way usually covered by teams of characters in the more normal team RPG set up. How can we adjust for that?

    How do we kink up things like wounds/Hit Points when there's only 1 character and they sorta have to go onwards? What about danger/death?

    Advancement?Players seem to love that, but we probably need to start with a fairly competent character already. How does advancement work under those kinds of 1 on 1 situations?

    Setting up challenging situations that don't overwhelm a single character. even with your pretty well know approach to mook rules, mainstream RPGs can really leave a solo character in situations where they're just plain going to lose ( and not in a fun way) or seem to go the opposite direction where the character is sooooo powerful, that they're never in danger. Where's the happy middle ground? How do we get it?

    Okay, that's it for now. Hit me with ideas.
  • Tangent:

    Thinking about Eero's game (but maybe more broadly applicable)

    So, when it comes to action-sequences, maybe Hero Guy's rolls are about how long it takes to defeat lesser enemies. It isn't about ( directly) hitting and damaging baddies. We now the HG is going to win most of the time, eventually.

    For now, let's keep the concept simple. HG and the GM baddies each roll d6. If the HG rolls higher, the currently engaged baddie mook ( BM) is outright defeated. If the BM team as a whole rolls higher, the currently engaged BM is still defeated, but the different between the HG roll and the BM team roll is the number of actions that the rest of the BM team can take before HG gets to do anything else.

    Those actions are limited in scope. Think slo-mo/bullet-time style. The number of actions are spread through the whole team, not each BM individually, so not every BM is likely to take an action. Regular BMs might get a maximum of one action, better BMs might get two at most. And do mean, really limited.

    Example:
    HG is fighting a single guard. There are a total of 4 baddies elsewhere in the locale.
    HG rolls 3, BM team rolls 5.
    The guard is defeated, but the other four BMs have a total of two actions to split between them, with no BM able to take more than one action.

    Okay, thinking slo-mo/bullet time style, BM Guard#2 can see HG, so draws and levels his revolver. BM Guard #4 moves around corner and can now view HG.

    That's the 2 actions. There are none left to spend, so the other two mooks take no actions.

    Now go back to HG and what they want to do.

    Sketchy thoughts, but that's the basic rub of it. More geared towards Bourne or Bond, but again, maybe applicable elsewhere.
  • I actually can't find too many issues that would require a different system to be used for 1 on 1 play. At least nothing that couldn't be solved either with the usual balancing tools or GM criteria.

    Gameplay definitely goes faster, there's no need for keeping track of the turns beyond I go - you go.

    You can treat a whole group of baddies as a single group sharing a single HP pool if you're too worried about them wiping out the player.

    You can go the AW way, so player can continue attacking until he fails a roll, then her next
    action will be defensive, or you can trigger another approaching danger to add tension without seizing the player's initiative.

    You can be a bit more flexible about multiclassing or help the player with items that give her temporal access to other skills.

    You can let that player handle a group of NPCs and when additional players arrive, they can either use one of those NPCs or create a new character.

    Try this experiment for your next session: instead of starting to play when everyone arrives, start playing when the first player arrives, and let the ones that come next incorporate as they come. It's kinda tricky and works better when the setting is a city or any other place where casually finding another random PC feels believable. You will probably found you've already got the tools you would need.

    This happened three or four times with our D&D group, so I had to improvise a flashback scene where the PCs met or got separated from the group for other reasons, so it made believable that other PCs could join when their players arrived.
  • I actually can't find too many issues that would require a different system to be used for 1 on 1 play. At least nothing that couldn't be solved either with the usual balancing tools or GM criteria.

    Gameplay definitely goes faster, there's no need for keeping track of the turns beyond I go - you go.

    You can treat a whole group of baddies as a single group sharing a single HP pool if you're too worried about them wiping out the player.

    You can go the AW way, so player can continue attacking until he fails a roll, then her next action will be defensive, or you can trigger another approaching danger to add tension without seizing the player's initiative.

    You can be a bit more flexible about multiclassing or help the player with items that give her temporal access to other skills.

    You can let that player handle a group of NPCs and when additional players arrive, they can either use one of those NPCs or create a new character.

    Try this experiment for your next session: instead of starting to play when everyone arrives, start playing when the first player arrives, and let the ones that come next incorporate as they come. It's kinda tricky and works better when the setting is a city or any other place where casually finding another random PC feels believable. You will probably found you've already got the tools you would need.

    This happened three or four times with our D&D group, so I had to improvise a flashback scene where the PCs met or got separated from the group for other reasons, so it made believable that other PCs could join when their players arrived.
    First, those are great suggestions.

    What I'm getting at more though is, how do you do that from step one, rather than back-hacking to achieve it?

    As background to the question, it came to me after a thread was talking about how games could potentially be designed to be more accessible to the general population. One of my thoughts was: make them for two players.

    If nothing else, grabbing one other player is easier than rounding up three other players.

    [Admittedly, my own mind first went to OSR style games and how I would alter them significantly. Geez, Moldvay/Cook B/X really is my mental touchpoint for games and altering them even after all of these years and all of the games I've played...]

    Anyways, the floor is still open. All ideas welcome.
  • Just some thoughts about solo heroes in general, in action packed genres

    They're generally pretty competent for the dangers/problems they face. They have a fairly broad range of skills, and only rarely need to call on friends or contacts for aiding them. When they do, the task/challenge is so extreme that it really requires a specialist
    background. The Hero has Science (3), but his friend has Biology (7).

    They tend to get dinged up a lot, but also seem to bounce back from that pretty quick.
    Even if they suffer some grievous harm ( a busted leg or arm, for example) they seem to amazingly go on and that doesn't stop them a whole lot, although enemies who see those things will make a point of smacking them every now and then in those damaged limbs.

    There's often the threat of death, but it rarely happens. OTOH, it still needs to be there, both for genre reasons and game reasons. Having said that, it's pretty amazing how often heroes have the same kinds of near miss escapes that villains in comic books seem to have. All your pals just saw you fly over the cliff! Oh, look at that, their belt caught on the one branch sticking out of the cliff side! Whoddathunkit?

    Advancement? Hmm. Not so much genre, but more of a fun game thing. OTOH, action heroes seem to pop out with lots of previously unknown, unmentioned skills plenty of times. Or they have a gear stash nearby. Or a buddy/contact that can help that has never been mentioned before. Or some supplies back at the workshop that can be banged together to make a special gadget.

    They often do face a significant number of enemies, but rarely all at once. There are 12 baddies chasing them with guns through some sort of maze of terrain, but it seems like only one of them is really, truly actively taking shots at them, while the rest are maneuvering and blazing away at the landscape in the general vicinity of the hero. If the baddies are a little more H2H oriented, the hero seems to encounter them in 1-3, rather than most of them at once.

    If a Hero does come under ranged fire, almost any quick defensive measure taken will save them. Two mooks burst into the room with SMGs blazing! Quick, dive behind the couch and start crawling towards the window, ducking briefly behind the recliner! That stuff is suddenly either made of Kevlar or amazingly confusing concealment! Really, almost anything other than diretly attacking a baddy with a gun while in the open will save you. And, if they're close enough, sometimes just charging them does work!

    Occasionally the Hero gets captured, but gee whiz, he's a dangerous guy to be around if you're his friend, family member, or contact. Those folks are constantly getting captured or killed! Now, your chance of surviving does go up if you're tight with the hero, as opposed to a casual or old acquaintance. Unless the main villain is involved at that moment and no other friends/family have yet been threatened in the current adventure (and this is a return encounter with a villain from a previous adventure, out for revenge). In that case, being a close friend of the hero is definitely bad for your health and mental well-being.
  • Interesting topic. Some random thoughts:

    1. Not mechanically mainstream, perhaps, but here's my take on a 1-on-1 game:

    Thus Began...

    2. For a more action-hero kind of thing, a la James Bond, here are some thoughts:

    * Use structured GM prep and a clear mission structure, so that there's no waffling about while trying to decide "what to do". The Hero goes on missions (whether assigned from above, or falling into his lap, either way we the *players* know that there is a distinct goal in mind), period.

    * The missions have different possible objectives, some known and some hidden. For instance, the Hero's girlfriend has been kidnapped - getting her back is a known objective. But the bad guys are also trying to implant her with a time bomb/secret drug stash/important documents - that's a hidden objective, which the Hero may or may not discover before it's too late.

    * When the Hero "fails" or wastes time, he loses some of these objectives - the bad guys' plans advance. This way you can have rare "total" failures (like the Hero being captured or shot or whatever), but most failures are just the Hero being badass but not quite badass *enough* to solve everything - his enemy escapes, he doesn't make it in time to stop them blowing up the bank, etc.

    * When the hero suffers personal defeats, like injuries or captures, the way he recovers from them is to forge connections with our people (something he doesn't have by default). While a prisoner of the villain, you befriend the villain's daughter, and she falls in love with you. That allows you to recover from an injury or break out of your cell or whatever other thing - this person's help pulls you out of trouble.

    * However, making personal connections is costly. First of all, you must make yourself vulnerable to do so. (This could be as simple as telling them a story about your past and your troubling thoughts, gradually fleshing out the Hero's personality as we play, or more complex, like giving them leverage over you.) Second, these people are now in danger - inevitably, your presence in their life makes them a target. So the Hero must juggle the moral weight of relying on innocent people and then seeing them become victims of the dangerous life he is pulling them into.

  • I would start with one on one basketball. The GM is on defense.
  • Sometimes even I have a hard time figuring out what your posts mean JDC.

    Was that one of those kidding on the square ones that has a greater point?
  • It's a little bit kidding on the square, yeah.

    So in one on one basketball, the defender creates the obstacles for the player who has the ball. The defender is the "level designer" against the offensive player.

    In this situation, I would have each "volley" of play represent a single task in an overall situation. Until the GM gets the ball, the player's character continues to make progress towards their goal. The roles switch when the GM gets the ball. You stop at the time of turnovers in order to reset the situation and resolve the previous scene.
  • So like, we meet at half court. You have the ball. I say:

    "There's no way your character is going to get to dance with the Princess"
    "Yes, he totally is" you say, and you drive on me. I block you, I dodge, you dodge, you shoot, you miss, you rebound, you shoot, you score.

    We stop, I say, "Damn, you managed to sneak past the guards, swipe some clothes from a nobleman's wardrobe, and get the Princess to dance with you. Now it's my turn. I want to consolidate my power among the pickpocketing gangs."
    "Not going to happen," you say, and I drive on you, I shoot, I miss, you rebound. We pause.

    "Told you. The pickpockets don't go for it. In fact several of the higher ranking lifters have a bounty out on you now. And they're good with knives."

    And so on.
  • PS This is more mechanically mainstream than any RPG that exists.
  • JD, you just pointed out what's wrong with having no social skills in roleplaying games in favor of "roleplaying" it.
  • edited July 2016
    1-1 is going to be intense. The fewer players, the more is demanded from the game master. Having 7-8 players, to give an example, is like a mini-LARP where the game master should be less noticeable (for it to even be possible).

    So I would design a game that gives the game master a structure to be able to improvise around. Prep can still be possible but the game mechanics would focus more on how the prep can bring consequences to the player's actions, or how to move on from one situation to another.

    I would design a game that relieves the game master as much as possible so that person can focus on one thing: activating the player. This would mean that the game would assist the game master with everything that might take up any brain power, from knowing rules and describing environment to improvise and responding in an engaging way. Some input could come from the game elements, but some could come from the other player in form of suggestions of what the person would like to see or not see happening in a situation.

    By expanding the number of players, they would start to build on each new idea - perhaps all their actions are described as one, or they have to take something that a previous player has said (the game master is considered a player too) and include that in their description of the next action.
  • Great comments.

    I agree with JD: a great way to do this would be to create a game where each player GMs, in turn, for the other, and the system arbitrates between them. I made a game like many years ago, but never got to play it. I think it's an excellent design space to explore!
  • So, a gamey-game seems like the majority opinion then?

    And a flip/flop Gm position too.

    Okay, well, let's tackle that part.

    Each player is going to flip/flop in as the GM playing the opposition elements.

    So who are the two main characters? What is their relationship?

    Are they simply two wildly different, unrelated characters on entirely separate missions? Perhaps not even in the same genre or universe? or is there some sort of connection?
  • My thought was that they would be in the same "universe", but otherwise entirely unconnected. Just so that events effected by one character could appear in the other's storyline, perhaps.

    The Lord of the Rings is a good example of this in fiction: we could have one player as Frodo, carrying the Ring to Mount Doom, while the other plays Aragorn, trying to save Minas Tirith from Sauron's armies.

    I could also imagine a pretty interesting version where the characters do know each other and interact, but are living different stories. Imagine, say, a game about Peter Parker (Spiderman) and Mary Jane. They're a couple and we would have some (non-story-important) scenes with the two of them, when they have tea with their grandmother or whatever. Meanwhile, Spiderman is out fighting supervillains and trying to make sure no one finds out who he is, and Mary Jane is, perhaps struggling with her job or investigating crime or some other such thing. They can affect each other indirectly (the supervillain was selling guns to the crime ring), but their common scenes would just be "downtime" scenes, talking and reminiscing and hanging out with family and such.

    This could be really fun if the two stories were totally different in style/genre/mood.

    (I might be getting away from the "mainstream action adventure" slant of this thread, though!)
  • I've played one-on-one games in a few different styles and the biggest problem compared to >2 player games I've noticed is the lack of an audience. Character drama is a bit awkward when you're playing a conversation with only one person. The other player's full attention is fixed on you, like you're reciting poetry. This seems to happen to a lesser extent in investigative games where you're trying to describe situations colorfully, as well as in cinematic/AW-engine games where GM moves need a certain flair to be punchy.

    Challenge-oriented D&D seems to be the exception. You follow rigorous procedures, state facts and point at the map like it's a boardgame. Thus I'd take rules-light D&D as my starting point, but instead of having a PC with a bunch of hirelings I'd go for a bit more heroic style with a strong lone wolf PC. Scarlet Heroes leans this way, but I'd want to rip out the mechanical base that once assumed a party of players.

    A lone hero in D&D is dead the minute he faces a bunch of humanoids who can wrestle him, so I'd ditch the simulation oriented mechanics, boost the PC's survivability significantly and shift the stakes of the challenge from character death to events that endanger the world, similar to DW's fronts.

    Add to this the flip/flop of GM positions, a hex map, a bunch of fronts and two lone heroes tackling different threats at the same time and we should end up with a socially smooth "play to find out what happens to this part of the world" game where the basic gameplay feels similar to OSR D&D. If one-on-one D&D worked in the early 70s it should work even better today with an improved system.
  • Glowie:
    That's pretty close to what my first thoughts were also.

    As a side note, I realized (after you said that) that I actually do own some things like that, but I hadn't thought of them because they're miniatures games.

    Two Hour Wargames produced a couple of demi-rpg minis games, where essentially a player controls 1 hero and maybe a companion or two.

    Most of the system is mechanized, so where our hero goes next and what they face is largely the result of random rolls, then interpreted to smooth out the fiction and make sense of it. There's a player playing the opposition, as kind of a ref/GM, but even most of the reactions/tactics of the opposition ( as well as types and numbers) in any given "scene" is controlled by interconnected chart rolls.

    In any case, there's lots of GM flip/flopping and PCs don't generally die-die. They have mysterious reappearances after their companions witness their certain death ( with a downgrade, a bit like losing levels to undead draining).
  • I GMed a 1-1 campaign for a co-worker. We used to do the night-shift so as long as we were on our posts we could talk freely. Mechanic was as simple as rolling the dice when called, and bonuses were introduced only when his character developed specific skills, later in the game.

    Also, it was a sort of Harry Potter setting (well, more like The Books of Magic to be honest), where his character was himself, age 15 but had an innate ability to cast elemental magic. His world is familiar, but when he learns about these powers a secret world is revealed to him and most of the game from there is about exploration of both the phisical space, the new rules and challenges that it presents and the characters and fronts present as well. Lots of fun but yes, somewhat complicated to write.

    My advice on both players GMing the other into different stories: play one chapter at a time, otherwise is way too easy to lost track of each other's story.
  • Scarlet Heroes / Godbound by Kevin Crawford fit all your criteria. The former is designed for 1-on-1, the latter works with a party, but since it uses the same base ideas it would work really well.

  • edited July 2016
    I play that setting quite often.

    I like ERA Epic Storytelling which has a nice mechanic involving the player in shaping the scenes.

    Else, I basically ask the player what he wants to play then either choose something generic as FU or vaguely use a character sheet from a setting the player likes without applying the mechanics much. I do simple 1d6 or 1d10 rolls to decide outcome or use specific, special mechanics (i.e. for magic).
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