Balancing an Adventure For a Single Character (Plus An Announcement)

one man army

This ought to be quite one-sided….
Artwork © By Kendrick See

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…

Just use your anger and you'll be fine... Artwork by James Jia Xu

Just use your anger and you’ll be fine…
Artwork © by James Jia Xu

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…

  1. Some character concepts make more sense than others if you play with just one character (like a lone wolf, for example).
  2. Less paperwork and bookkeeping means you spend more time adventuring.
  3. It’s far easier to be immersed in/attached to one single character than several at the same time.
  4. The loot belongs to you and you alone (including the stuff you can’t use :p ).
  5. 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.

Outnumbered

one man army 2

Your Min-Maxing skills won’t save you now…
Artwork © By Thibault Girard

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

DonJon

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.

  1. Firstly, note that a goblin is a creature with a Challenge Rating of 1/4.
  2. Go to the Encounter Size Calculator and change the character level to 1st level, using the drop down menu labelled ‘any level’.
  3. The number(s) under the various monster CRs represents the number of creatures for a given CR.
  4. The ‘1/4’ column indicates that you would face around 2-4 CR 1/4 creatures (or goblins) at 1st level.
  5. 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.
  6. Eventually, you will see that four CR 1/4 creatures (goblins) make up a ‘deadly’ encounter.
  7. 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.

Solo Heroes

Black Streams Solo HeroesHere’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.

Your Turn

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.

 

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26 comments

  • Brandon

    Wow! You’ve struck a strong chord with me. This sounds very interesting. I am signed up to your e-mail group to recieve the 5e conversion! I’d love to playtest it for you.

    I, too, prefer to play D&D solo, but it’s always hard managing so many characters. This sounds like the holy grail to me.

  • CJ

    This sounds awesome Ken! Really looking forward to seeing what you are developing. I’m glad my recommendation proved useful.

  • Brad Moore

    Wow, I think this work is amazing. I have been unable to game for years because I just can’t seem to get a group together and both sides of the coin appeal to me, a single player party and a single character party. Thank you for all your work.

    • Ken Wai Lau

      Not a problem, Brad.

      Hopefully now, you can make up for lost time and continue to enjoy D&D for years to come 🙂 .

  • Serrrg

    Great article, thank you!
    I was looking for some inspiration for one on one adventures with my girlfriend, so I can introduce her to D&D, and now I have found it! Do you have any ETA for your draft of the rules? 😉 Can´t wait to read it! Will be glad to provide you my feedback!

    • Ken Wai Lau

      You’re welcome.

      The playtest will be released sometime in the near future, probably around April or May.

  • Arjen Rode

    I agree with the above; this looks very promising Ken. I mentioned already in another post that anyone reading this blog may be interest in the conjecturegames.com website and a GM emulator that they have released.

    I’m about ready to start my own play through of the new scenario, Princes of the Apocalypse, early next week.

    How far do read ahead in the chapters of Hoard of the Dragon Queen? Do you look at the major plot points ahead of time and then set them up as “dominoes” to fall during the questions you ask Mythic?

    -Arjen

    • Ken Wai Lau

      Well, I tend to read each chapter bit by bit and make my rolls based on what I’ve read.

      Some reading ahead is unavoidable. For instance, I might forge ahead in order to see if I can reconcile my current path with the main storyline if I find myself wandering a little too much, though Mythic can be used to rewrite things completely and that’s okay in my book.

  • Mark

    Hi,
    I’ve myself have been thinking about how to use Solo Heroes with D&D 5E. It seems that the monsters strength bonus on damage can still do some serious damage, i.e orcs.

    I’m interested in your ruleset for this. thanks!
    MS

    • Ken Wai Lau

      To be fair, Solo Heroes is designed for another system, but some of the optional rules can certainly still be used with 5e or any other RPG system.

  • Aleksandar

    First, I would like to state that Donjon calculator is wrong – it does not take into consideration paragraph called Party Size in DM guide book, page 83.
    The table on page 82 can only be used for a party consisting of 3 to 6 PCs.
    If you use less, you have to downsize it the using encounter multipliers, just opposite to what you do when you encounter several monsters at once.
    Basically, if you run adventure for a single hero (be it solo or one player and GM), your encounter cap needs to be divided by 2 (and if you run 2 PCs then by 1.5).
    This way, easy encounter for single first level hero is up to 13 XP (this is basically 10), medium 25 XP, Hard 38 and deadly 50 XP. For second level solo hero easy is 25, medium 50, hard 75 and deadly 100, etc.
    Single level 20 hero can hope to survive a battle against single level 10 monster, no more. So young dragon is the top level single human can kill.
    If you use this, there is no need for Fray Die, Defy Death and other mechanics from Solo Heroes. You can play 5th edition straight out of the book – and you can be sure that your hero will not be killed by first monster encountered.
    I play a solo campaign like this and it works fine. After 3 sessions, my hero just survived to reach level 2.
    Aleksandar

    • Ken Wai Lau

      Your approach is a valid one and it’s certainly true that you could do away with Solo Heroes and similar supplements by manually scaling down the encounters and capping the challenge rating of the monsters at level 10 for your level 20 solo character.

      That is why I suggested Donjon as a quick and convenient way to do this, even if it’s not accurate.

      On the other hand, as I mentioned briefly in the article, it can feel like the solo player has to settle for the young dragon as the BBEG at level 20, while everyone else is taking on vampires, adult dragons, balors, pit fiends and so on.

      Personally, if I’m going to buy the monster manual, I’d like to have the option of being able to use any of the monsters as a solo player.

      And then there are the published adventures that are coming out from Wizards of the Coast, where everything is balanced for four players.

      The good thing about using a supplement like Solo Heroes in this instance is that you don’t have to change anything in the adventure – just how your character takes damage, how he dishes it out and adding other safeguards that help level the playing field a little for the solo player who wants to play those adventures.

  • Nathanael

    Is it still possible to get this document? I own Solo Heroes, and just recently bought the 5e core books, and I’d love to see your thoughts on using the two together.

  • Ramona E

    I just found your post specifically when I was searching for information on whether Black Streams: Solo Heroes would work with D&D 5th edition. I’m very interested in seeing how this would work as I would love to run the currently available 5th edition adventures with just my fiance and I. Is it still possible to get your e-book so we can playtest your rules? I have already subscribed to your site.

  • Nikolai

    Thanks, Ken, this is very useful! To make my games (I play Pathfinder usually) easier for a lone hero, I modify existing rules on multiclassing (basically, I use one total level progression for a base class (like rogue) and allow taking several additional classes for an EXP cost. E.g. I have rogue 4/mage 2/fighter 3 character which still counts a level 4 char, with hit dice, attack bonus and saving throws taken from whichever of his classes better in that department). I also use hirelings.

    Though I must say your method is certainly simpler!

    • Ken Wai Lau

      That sounds like a good solution. In fact, I’ve been working on a couple of additional rules for the book and one of them is similar to what you’ve been using.

  • Aaron

    Great blog and this post in particular… I’ve been playing tabletop RPGs since the 1980s (1981 Basic D&D), and now as a father I’d like to run my kids through some adventures so 1-2 player adaptation of 5e would be great.

    I tried signing up to the newsletter but the button seemed disabled.

    Thanks for all your interesting posts and I look forward to hearing more about your solo heroes/5e adaptation.

    Cheers!

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