Tabletop for one: solo RPG play

Thanks to a misunderstanding of my friend and one-time grad assistant instructor, Jonathan Killstring’s, Blog of Doom, the notion of a single-player RPG burrowed its way into my imagination, so i put my reservations and hesitations aside and tried it out to see for myself…

game dice

Can a person play D&D by themselves?

Turns out, yes. The tipping point for me was considering the video game hobby. Like millions of people, i engage in video gaming and have done so for decades. Granted, a lot of my gaming time is spent playing MMOs, which by their nature involve other people to varying degrees. But the premise of a single player becoming embroiled in combat, exploration and socialization is a baseline for games of all stripes. The latter of those – socialization – might involve digital NPCs in large part, but still, there it remains.

So, while it could be considered sad, weird, awkward, unusual or just plain an abomination, i pulled out my polyhedral dice, pencil, D&D books and a blank character sheet and got started.

The overreaching goal or any RPG is to craft a story with a mostly unknown ending through gameplay that relies on the aforementioned pillars of combat, exploration and socialization, using dice rolls to determine the outcome of various actions while a character grows in power and stature in the game world.

Also, as the Blog of Doom pointed out, many heroic stories follow the journey of a single character. In this case, it would be my character, and i would also be acting as the DM for the adventure (this is where the misunderstanding occurred – Killstring meant a single player and another person as game master).

The heroic protagonist of the single player D&D experience

For my experiment, i needed a character, so i started at the beginning of the Player’s Handbook and went from there. Lately, i’ve been doing a lot of Adventurer’s League play, so using the standard array of ability scores was my first inclination. But the appeal of rolling scores hearkened back to my earliest days of gaming, so i went with that. Ability scores are important, of course, but i’ve never been one to place too much emphasis on them. Many people seem to overlook that a score of 10 is average, thinking they ought to have at least 13’s or 14’s in every ability.

Rolling 4d6 and dropping the lowest rolls for each of the six ability scores, i wound up with: 16, 12, 15, 10, 12, 10. Not too shabby! Purely crunchy, these are higher than the total standard array. If i’m honest, i would have liked to have one low score though. Sometimes the lowest score helps define a character as much or more as the highest one. But, i stayed true to the rolls and kept them. With her racial bonuses, she wound up with the following ability scores:

  • Strength: 18
  • Dexterity: 12
  • Constitution: 17
  • Intelligence: 10
  • Wisdom: 12
  • Charisma: 10

Since i’d be playing essentially a homebrew game, and without the possibility of feedback from min-maxers/optimizers/rules lawyers, i decided to go with a character idea that many a D&D player has discussed and built over the years and across different editions: the Captain America build. As you probably guess, this character build uses a shield for not only defense, but offense as well. From an min-max standpoint, it’s far from ideal. But, like any concept, it can be optimized.

In D&D 3.5 edition, this concept was achieved through a lot of splatbook feats, which D&D 5E doesn’t exactly have. There’s plenty of forum discussions on the RAW about using a shield as a weapon and interpreting things, but at the end of the day, one of the most important “rules” of D&D is that the rules are just a guide, and going outside of them for the sake of fun and storytelling is encouraged. As always, the DM is the final arbiter of the rules of their own game, and in this case, my DM was more than accommodating. My plan is to aim for the fighter’s battle master archetype, reasoning that the maneuvers and accompanying superiority dice damage would give the character some battlefield control.

And so the female shield dwarf fighter Jindra Gold came into being. At one time a soldier, an officer of the Shield Maidens, she made a terrible mistake in battle that cost many lives (an event she wishes to keep secret). Leaving the military life behind, she laid down her weapons and dedicated her life to protecting those who cannot protect themselves, relying only on her shield. She faces problems head-on, believing a simple, direct solution is the best path to success. Her experiences in the military led her to believe that ideals aren’t worth killing over or going to war for, so she left that life behind and instead looks for opportunities to prevent harm to others.

Although she is proficient with all simple and martial weapons, the RAW indicate a shield would be an improvised weapon, something relegated to the purview of the Tavern Brawler feat. Since Jindra essentially took a personal oath to forego using conventional weapons, i decided her time since leaving the military behind and using her shield in combat gave her proficiency in that style. For the damage, i stuck with that of improvised weapons: 1d4 bludgeoning damage.

Another nice difference from organized play is that i could roll for my starting money and buy my own gear instead of taking the default equipment. A few items that stood out as potentially useful for a solo hero wound up in her explorer’s pack: three bags of ball bearings, two sets of manacles and a potion of healing. Using a shield as a weapon as well saved me a bit of coin, and i naturally invested in the heaviest armor i could afford: chain mail.

Finally, her randomly rolled trinket is an ancient elven arrow. It would be interesting to discover how this trinket might play into the character’s narrative and the larger campaign story. The idea of trinkets in 5E is something i thought was really cool since first checking out the PHB. Every time i play D&D, i hope the DM weaves personal character things into the story like this, as well as gets to know how the players envision their characters and back stories and finds a place for them. Whenever i DM, this is a priority for me to help make the players’ experience richer. This experiment would be no exception.

The adventure begins

Starting off a new campaign and a new way of playing D&D, i settled on that Starter Set adventure, The Lost Mine of Phandelver. This is an adventure i’ve never played, so i was excited to try it out.


Before starting out, i laid out a few guidelines for myself.

  • Encounters would only involve half the amount of enemies described in the adventure text. Generally, adventures assume a party of four characters. So a single character would more than likely get slaughtered! (during actual play, i adjusted this guideline depending on specific situations.)
  • Because enemies would be lessened, the amount of treasure would be lessened by the same degree. For example, if an encounter involved four monsters, and i only used two, then their hoard of treasure was half the amount described in the adventure. Treasure is meant to be divided by a party, and i felt like it would be too much wealth to keep it the same.
  • No cheating on character rolls. So, if i try to be stealthy and fail, no fudging it to make a success. On the other hand, DMs often “adjust” their rolls for the purposes of drama, storytelling or flow of the game *wink* i mean, it’s not really “cheating” if the goal is to have fun, right? That being said, i’m not against the idea of character death – it happens. If it winds up being ignominious, i can live with that. Coming up with new characters is one of my favorite parts of RPG’ing.
  • All reasonable effort would be made to divorce my dual roles of player and DM. That is to say, allowing whatever i knew of the quest/map/decision trees, etc. i would have to consciously keep in mind not to let it influence what the character might do. This was surprisingly easy though. Since there were no other players, there was no one to become impatient if i took a long time to consider what i might do, what action to take, and so forth. In fact, deciding what to do, where to go and who to speak with was the most enjoyable part of the experience so far. Everything was up to me!
  • Use of miniatures and battle mats would not be used. This game would be all theatre of the mind. Maps, on the other hand…maybe. i’ve never been the player that gets excited to make the map, and as the DM i’d already have access to maps so it would feel pointless and needlessly time-consuming to try and map out what i think a map would look like based solely on…my own description of the map i already was aware of? Yeah, that sounded like a waste.

According to the adventure hooks, the character’s friend a patron – a fellow dwarf Gundren Rockseeker – hires me to escort a wagon of goods to Phandalin. Once delivered to the town’s provisioner, the payment for services is 10gp. Protecting a merchant trip is a classic D&D first adventure and right up the alley of the protection-focused dwarf.

rockseeker contract

The adventure suggests players come up with their own ideas how they know Gundren, so i decided Jindra, with her proficiency in smithing, was the daughter of a dwarven smith. Gundren, back in the day, would take her father’s goods to market and so he’s someone Jindra has known for a long time.

So it was that Jindra Gold found herself driving an ox cart laden with an assortment of mining supplies and food, traveling south down the High Road from Neverwinter towards the small town of Phandalin along the Sword Coast of the Forgotten Realms. She’d just veered east, taking the Triboar Trail towards the town, and had to pull the cart to a halt because the road ahead was blocked by two dead horses, their bodies peppered by black-feathered arrows…

To find out what happened next, come back soon for another installment of Tabletop for One. After just one session, i am hooked on this new style of playing D&D. It satisfying my love of gaming in general, D&D in specific and is a great way to not be staring at a screen to enjoy a hobby pasttime.

In the meantime, what sorts of out-of-the-ordinary RPG sessions have you had? Do you think the idea of a solo D&D adventure is outrageous? Cool? Any ideas or suggestions for making it more interesting?

Let me know in the comments!


    • As someone who takes a sometimes academic approach to tabletop RPGs, do you have any thoughts on different game systems that might lend themselves to solo play better or worse than others?

  1. Back before the internet and the PC, if you couldn’t get a group together to play or if you lived in an area where there weren’t many gamers, you had to play solo. Tunnels and Trolls had a great series of solo dungeons. I seem to remember a solo AD&D module… to keep the element of surprise, you had to use a special pen to reveal hidden text, based upon your choices. Hmmm… maybe I should start a Tunnels and Trolls campaign with friends…

    • A special pen to reveal hidden text? That sounds very cool. i’m going to look into that. Thank you for commenting, it means a lot! tbh the best part of my solo playing so far is getting to do some gaming that doesn’t involve staring at a screen. i’m having a blast

  2. The original AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide had rules for solo play in Appendix A, which is used to generate a random dungeon. I tried it out to see how it would work before running it with a group. Try it and have fun!

    • Thank you for mentioning that! i am learning that there is a lot of different options and support out there for solo play. After i finish this quest i’m considering playing a BECMI game. i appreciate your comment though, thanks for reading!

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