Balancing an Adventure For a Single Character (Plus An Announcement)
It’s likely you will stumble across a few problems when attempting to play a published D&D adventure module on your own.
I’m going to focus on just one of these in this blog article – and talk about a solution that I’ve been working on for D&D 5e.
Let’s save the last one until the end 😉 .
So what is this problem I’m talking about?
D&D is a game that requires teamwork, with each character in the party pooling their skills and resources together in order to overcome obstacles and combat encounters that they would be hard pressed to deal with on their own.
If you play D&D solo, that’s exactly what you don’t have – a team.
You can get around this problem by building your own party of characters, but if you are new to the hobby or if you prefer to keep things simple, it’s not the most ideal solution.
It’s best to stick to playing just one character, then, but how do you do that without having to roll up a new character after the first couple of encounters?
Sorry, But I Work Alone…
I’ve already discussed why it is a good idea to use several characters at once to solve this particular problem.
Now I am going to switch sides and fight the other corner…
- Some character concepts make more sense than others if you play with just one character (like a lone wolf, for example).
- Less paperwork and bookkeeping means you spend more time adventuring.
- It’s far easier to be immersed in/attached to one single character than several at the same time.
- The loot belongs to you and you alone (including the stuff you can’t use :p ).
- The idea of going it alone against impossible odds and living to tell the tale is… epic.
Playing with several characters at once is a good idea if you have a lot of character concepts floating around in your head, but in the end, you tend to only focus on the character development of one or two (at best three) characters.
I’ve been in situations where I spent a lot of time building and thinking about my D&D 5e fighter and, to a lesser extent, my cleric, because I had very solid concepts for them (I even had the art drawn up). By contrast, I skimmed over the wizard and the rogue, partly due to my lack of interest in these classes.
What happened was the fighter took centre stage with the rest seemingly tagging along and making sure that certain roles are filled. Any roleplaying I did was mostly between the fighter and the cleric.
In the end, I scrapped the team altogether and kept the fighter.
The bookkeeping can sometimes be a chore, especially at higher levels. It can also be easy to miss out very minor, but important details such as attack modifiers granted by spells.
You can even forget certain rules of the game when it becomes a matter of life and death, although D&D 5e appears to have done a great job of streamlining the rules.
Even so, the game will still run much quicker and more smoothly if you only have one character to worry about, leaving you free to immerse yourself completely in the role.
Some character concepts are easier to justify if you are playing a single character. It makes no sense for a lone wolf type to join a party, for instance.
Lastly, there’s just something awesome about the concept of a lone hero who saves the day against all odds.
I’ve discussed the ‘why’. Now let’s talk about the ‘how’.
The problem is if you attempt to play any D&D adventure as written with a single character, you may find it difficult to survive the first few encounters, much less the climactic ones.
Many adventures are and will continue to be balanced for a party of four, which makes it quite unplayable for a solo adventurer without a bit of extra work.
If you have a dedicated DM, that’s not a problem. There is a section in the Dungeon Master’s Basic Rules on how to balance a game for one or two players.
If you don’t have a DM (and I’m guessing at least some of you don’t), then it means you either have to change things on the fly or go through the whole module and re-balance it.
It’s not easy to do this manually on the fly, even when using the Building Combat Encounters section on page 56 of the DM’s Basic Rules, because of the maths involved.
But there is one way to do this relatively quickly on the fly…
Donjon is a website filled with apps and tools for pretty much every edition of D&D, including Pathfinder. But for the sake of this article, let’s just focus on Dungeons & Dragons 5e.
Donjon’s 5e Encounter Size Calculator makes it possible to quickly downsize an existing encounter in an adventure and convert the encounter into one that is balanced for a single PC.
Let’s say your level 1 character is currently being attacked by four goblins in an adventure balanced for a party of four and you want to change the encounter into something that your character can handle.
- Firstly, note that a goblin is a creature with a Challenge Rating of 1/4.
- Go to the Encounter Size Calculator and change the character level to 1st level, using the drop down menu labelled ‘any level’.
- The number(s) under the various monster CRs represents the number of creatures for a given CR.
- The ‘1/4’ column indicates that you would face around 2-4 CR 1/4 creatures (or goblins) at 1st level.
- Cycle through difficulty levels of the encounter using the drop down menu labelled ‘any difficulty’, until the number of CR 1/4 creatures is 4 or less/more.
- Eventually, you will see that four CR 1/4 creatures (goblins) make up a ‘deadly’ encounter.
- To find a similar encounter for a solo character, simply change the number of characters to 1 using the middle drop-down menu.
Immediately, you can see that a deadly encounter for a single level 1 character would be a pair of creatures with a challenge rating of 1/8 each. From the top of my head, you could use a pair of kobolds.
Another option would be to use four commoners (CR 0 creatures) instead and re-fluff them into goblins.
However, there are a few problems with this approach.
First of all, you may end up changing the whole theme of an encounter or even the adventure itself if you use a different type of creature, although you could re-fluff them as mentioned before.
It’s also not particularly satisfying and it makes the encounters far less exciting or interesting than if you kept the same encounters, almost like solo players have to settle for a watered down experience if they can not (or will not) be part of a roleplaying group.
I found it is not entirely accurate, either, nor is it useful if you end up facing different types of creatures in an encounter, which can happen pretty often.
But it’s not a bad solution to use on the fly compared to doing it all manually using the DM’s Basic Rules.
Here’s an even better solution, recommended to me by a reader of mine (thanks CJ!).
Meet Solo Heroes, an ebook that makes it possible for you to play a lone character in a published adventure without having to change anything.
It does this by significantly reducing the amount of damage an enemy can inflict upon you and effectively increases the amount of damage you do to your enemies.
Damage and healing is determined by rolling a damage or healing die as normal, but instead of taking the damage roll as it is, your roll will return a damage value dependent on how high your roll is.
For example, a damage roll of 2-5 will result in 1 point of damage.
For the player character, this damage is taken from his hit points as normal. For NPCs, it is deducted from their hit dice instead.
This allows your solo character to survive longer in an encounter that would normally kill him twenty times over and allows him to make short work of the weakest enemies.
You can also perform non-combat actions in combat and still do some damage to your enemies at the same time, thanks to something called the Fray Die. For example, you can drink a potion and do a certain amount of damage automatically. This is to compensate for the limited action economy that a single character would suffer from.
The size of the Fray Die depends on your character class, but it is usually higher for warriors and lower for everyone else.
Other optional mechanics and rules include things like Defy Death, Enduring Protagonist and Automatic Initiative.
There’s no doubt that Solo Heroes allows you to enjoy the same epic combat encounters that your average four man band is entitled to as a lone adventurer. The only problem is that your PC might end up being a little too awesome with these rules 🙂 .
As an added bonus, there is a short adventure attached which can be used to test the rules with.
Solo Heroes is completely free of charge and is mainly written for those who play Labyrinth Lords. With a bit of work it can easily be adapted for any OSR or classic D&D game.
If you are interested, simply click here to download it for free.
(Just so you know, the red link above is an affiliate link, but because this book is free, I will earn nothing from it unless you add a paid product to your basket as well and checkout. If you are not comfortable with this, click this non-affiliate link instead to download Solo Heroes).
Wait, What About Dungeons and Dragons 5e?
Okay, this is where I make my announcement.
I’ve been spending the last month playing around with Solo Heroes and getting it to work with D&D 5e, and I’ve ended up with something completely new.
Therefore, I’ve decided to publish these rules as an ebook which you can get here.
It’s still only the draft version of the book and there are still some balance issues that I intend to iron out in due course.
But for my part, the rules appear to be reasonably balanced as they are now.
Have you ever played a single PC in an adventure designed for four players, with or without a dungeon master?
If so, how did you adapt the adventure so that you didn’t end up dying quickly in the first few encounters?
Maybe you have a solution of your own to share with readers here?
Feel free to have your say in the comments box below.