Playing RPGs meant for 3+ people as a twosie

Recently I’ve been enthralled by 2-player RPGs such as S/Lay W/Me, Cold Soldier, and Mars Colony. I mean to write a post in Actual Play regarding my experiences there, but I also wanted to do a lighter thread to ask you for your experiences on something.

This can also serve as an example of the typical advice threads we have on La Locanda in our equivalent of Just Chat, for those who were wondering about some of the intended usages of the categories.

So, I’ve realized that until recently I’ve assumed roleplaying games are to be played in a medium-sized group of at least three people. But in lots of them, there’s nothing in the rules that really requires this! Have you any experience with turning games intended for 3+ people and playing them with just two people? It can be as a GM and a non-GM player, or any distribution of roles you like. How did that affect your experience?

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For the last few years I’ve been running a series of games set in Gotham City using the Fate Accelerated system. Each of these was 5-8 sessions, and chronicled a singular struggle of one character as they navigated some “dark comic book” stuff.

What I found was that Fate worked MUCH better with one person than it did with five. The number of Aspects that could be meaningfully spotlighted increased; minor milestones took on the weight that they needed to, and big decisions could be made on a big stage with full spotlight alotted to whatever the player wanted for as long as they wanted. Even polite players don’t necessarily want to be fully immersed in the details of other players’ character’s lives, but with only one player we could do stuff like play out roommate drama, phone calls to sweethearts, and so on, instead of summarizing them or feeling as if we must push through them.

At the conclusion of one - the story of a former supervillain lair designer trying to make it as an indie film director - the player said “I don’t think I could ever have experienced something so directly addressing my very specific interests in a larger game.”

Here’s a link to some pages about the games (in the context of the larger anthology of games, some of which are more traditionally organized): Gotham City Duets

I think there are other systems that jump out at me as possibly being exciting. The World of Darkness systems are more than overpowered for a group of PCs who even somewhat work together - but a single PC, even a quite powerful one, might really have some struggles ahead, for example. Any system where teamwork makes things feel too smooth would fall into that category.

And being a RPG guy who was disappointed in Picard and S1-2 of Discovery means that, of course, I want to try my own hand at a single-character-focused extended Star Trek adventure. “Surely I can do better than Paramount/CBS!”

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I heard @danieledirubbo was planning to run a Vampire 5 two-player series, so maybe he can contribute something related to this.

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What can I say? I started playing Don’t Rest Your Head with just two players back in “far” 2009 or 2010 (I don’t remember exactly, but I might look into it) with my then-girlfriend and have found them very interesting ever since.

Another important experience for me was playing a game of Mars Colony in 2011 with my friend Francesco. That was a game specifically designed for two (and it showed) and, since then, I have loved them, played several and even written some. They are probably my favourite gaming space ever.

Recently, I’ve also been considering playing Vampire: The Masquerade, 5th edition with just two players (one playing the narrator and the other playing the protagonist). I had also thought of bringing such a scenario to GnoccoCON 2023 next weekend, but I couldn’t find the time to write a scenario that would only give initial hints and leave the players full agency, so I decided not to bring it.

But why do I prefer these experiences for two? I think it is for a mixture of these three reasons:

  • They are simpler gaming and design experiences. I mistakenly believed that this meant a simplification of the content as well, but I have seen there is a lot of depth gained: the session acquires a more intimate dimension between players.

  • Exactly, the session acquires a more intimate dimension between the players. We make statements we wouldn’t have made in a group, we make ourselves more vulnerable, we are willing to explore more sensitive topics, and we rely on the game experience more sincerely.

  • It is not necessary to practise a whole series of skills that I find burdensome to manage in a group. For example, organising meetings between several people or worrying about how to share the spotlight with others. In every scene, there is always only one main character.

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This is an excellent and interesting topic.

I’ve done fairly little (but some) 2-player games (GM+1), and they’ve gone well. While it’s true that it could feel “lonely”, there is a nice intimacy there. I haven’t tried the three games listed here, but very much would like to sometime.

Murderous Ghosts works very well with two, of course (and is designed for it).

In general, I think people tend to overestimate the need for large groups of people to play games. Many of my favourite gaming experiences were very small (and those games suffered as we added more people). Three players (GM+2) at the table have produced some of my all-time favourite games, especially if it’s in a context where the game requires or benefits from a lot of singular attention on a particular player (due to content, themes, or mechanics - as JD describes above).

I’d love to see more games which have the two players switching GMing duties (like s/lay w/me); I think it’s a really promising and fruitful area for design.

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Last week I ran a dungeoncrawl for a single player. D&D is of course balanced around full groups of specialized player characters, so it was a bit tricky to run for one person without modifying my prep at all.

To mitigate the player’s lack of resources, I suggested that he start with a few combat-ready hirelings and a torchbearer. All fighters (his choice, though I didn’t explicitly offer alternatives).

The first delve was not a great success on his part. He descended into Borshak’s lair, met a non-combat-ready hobgoblin guard, whom he surprised and massacred, and then entered a room with heavy red velvet wall hangings. He surmised that there must be something behind the hangings and pushed past them, revealing another 5 feet of room on every side. In the corner of the hidden perimeter was a pile of cloth and trash. I rolled a giant tick for a random encounter. He moved forward to the pile. When he was about 10 feet away, I described how the pile shifted, and he could see some hard grey chitinous shape crawling within it. He advanced further, and the tick burst out, winning initiative and biting him on the thigh. He ran out of the velvet-lined perimeter into the center of the room, where his retainers could help him whale on the tick.

Unfortunately for him, giant ticks have an AC of 2, meaning he had a base 15% chance of hitting with each of his retainers. I ruled that, if he stood still, he could get a +2 to hit, since the tick was affixed to his thigh and couldn’t jump around. After a few rounds of missing (and blessedly low damage rolls by the tick) I suggested “Anything that would work on a normal tick would probably work on this thing too” and he had his torchbearer burn the tick out of his thigh.

The tick was still alive after this, and he chose to stand and fight rather than flee (either back upstairs or further down into the dungeon) so I randomly chose a target for it (ticks are blind, so it wouldn’t attack intelligently) and it took out one of his retainers in a single blow. Then he fled.

We talked a bit about how the session was going, and I gave him some more advice: that he shouldn’t stand and fight unless he had something to gain from it. He hired a new retainer (this one with a bow) and descended again.

Now I’ve written a decent amount and I should probably just post a full session report, huh?

Two-player gaming had a special difficulty because he was so weak. He had to run from pretty much every fight. But he was still able to pick up treasure along the way, and he got out of the next delve unscathed, with enough XP to level up!

I really enjoyed the immediate back-and-forth that comes from playing with a single person. There was no downtime at all. No pauses for deliberation. I would play more games like this (and, based on the RSVP count to my next Borshak’s Lair session, I am going to!).

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Hi Daniele, would you like to make an actual play of this? I’d be really curious since the personal horror of Vampire the Masquarede fits well a a one-one-one session or chronicle.

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Certainly it would be a challenging actual play, and perhaps I would even write it, but the point is that I can’t: in the end, at GnoccoCON 2023, I brought not Vampire: The Masquerade, 5th edition, but Urban Shadows, 1st edition, and there were three player characters.

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