How to Play Through A Published Adventure On Your Own Without a Dungeon Master

as Artwork by stefan meisl

Just think how easy this will be without a dungeon master.
Artwork © by stefan meisl

One fundamental problem when it comes to playing Dungeons & Dragons solo is that Dungeons & Dragons is a social game.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that the overwhelming majority of published content is designed for group play.

In addition, published adventures are written for the dungeon master and not the players, making it difficult for the solo player to play the adventure on his/her own without spoiling the challenge.

As well as giving suggestions on how game should be run, the content in the adventure shows the dungeon master where everything is, including where the traps are located, secret doors, answers to puzzles, game statistics for the NPCs/monsters, and so on.

These things are kept secret from the players so that they don’t know what to expect.

If you take that away, where is the challenge?

Knowing where everything is beforehand means you could plan how you will tackle the adventure and increase your likelihood of completing it significantly.

Yes, you still need to make that Wisdom (Perception) check to notice secret doors, traps and hidden creatures, but going in with an expectation of encountering these challenges means you are better prepared for them.

This means a solo player would either have to find a dungeon master willing to referee the game just for him, or play the adventure on his own.

If you are attempting to do the latter, how should you approach it?

In this article, I am going to give you a few suggestions on how you should approach a typical published adventure as a solo player.

You won’t be able to avoid everything, but this guide should be a good starting point, particularly if you are new to solo D&D.

Hopefully, as you play more, you will know what to avoid, and have your own way of dealing with the spoilers.

Hide Spoilers For As Long As Possible

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I’ll pretend I didn’t see it…
Artwork © by Lindsay Archer

First of all, you will need to read the introduction, adventure background and any other information that is needed to run the game.

There may also be a paragraph or two containing adventure hooks, rumours, or other information that can be learned with the relevant ability checks. If so, make your checks and make note of whatever information your character is able to learn.

Once you’ve read the introduction, it’s time to get into the adventure.

Typically (though not always), an adventure is divided into many numbered sections, each of them relating to a different area or room in the adventure.

Under each section just below the heading, there is usually a short paragraph – otherwise known as an ‘area description’ – that describes what the player characters see when they enter a room or area.

In a typical game, the dungeon master reads this information out loud to the players, so they can decide among themselves what they will do next and what they think is possible based on what their characters see.

The rest of the information under the section is usually kept secret from the players, revealed only when a player declares a course of action, after a certain amount of time has passed, makes an ability check and so on.

These area descriptions may be written in a shaded box, in italics, in bold or a combination of all these things.

Here is a sample area description taken from page 47 of the free high-level D&D 3.5 adventure, The Thunder Below, by Wizards of the Coast:

____________________________________________________

37. Trophy Hall

This 20-foot-wide hallway is lined along the north and south walls with trophies of all sorts: suits of armor, weapons, banners, and the mounted heads of various dangerous animals and magical beasts hang on display.

____________________________________________________

This is the only thing you need to worry about for now as a solo player. Read it and then consider all of the possibilities in the scene. Take as much time as you want.

  1. The weapons – are they enchanted?  A detect magic spell should reveal the answer in short order.
  2. Perhaps your first thought is just to cram everything into a bag of holding, so you can cast identify on them all later? Perhaps you’ll leave them where they are, because you’re the honourable sort?
  3. Maybe fiddling around with one of the trophies or mounted heads will open a secret door? Perhaps even a portal to another world (you never know until you try – it’s a high level adventure, after all 😛 ).
  4. Perhaps the corridor is trapped? Will the mounted heads shoot lightning if I step on a pressure plate?

I’m sure you will be able to think of many more, but this will do for now.

Once you have considered all the possibilities and decided on a course of action, it’s time to read the rest of the section:

____________________________________________________

37. Trophy Hall

This 20-foot-wide hallway is lined along the north and south walls with trophies of all sorts: suits of armor, weapons, banners, and the mounted heads of various dangerous animals and magical beasts hang on display.

The trophies mounted here may look impressive, but they are ultimately more sentimental in value than anything else. Among the mounted heads are a dire bear, a dire tiger, a blue dragon, a green dragon, a purple worm, a tyrannosaurus, and a yrthak.

Treasure: None of the suits of armor or mounted weapons are magical, but they are all masterwork quality. Two greatswords, one halberd, one orc double axe (both ends masterwork), a dire flail, a breastplate, a tower shield, two suits of half plate, and a suit of full plate can be found here. These are not the original items won in combat by various Sarwins, but masterwork duplicates; the originals have all long since been donated to museums.

____________________________________________________

As you can see, the area description is written in bold and italics (though in the actual PDF, it is written in a shaded box).

The text underneath the area description reveals all the information regarding this area, so now I have all the answers to my questions.

  1. Weapons are not enchanted. Detect magic will reveal no magic auras on the equipment.
  2. I could take everything if I wanted to.
  3. There is no secret door (or portal to another world), so fiddling with the mounted heads won’t amount to anything.
  4. The corridor is not trapped. If it was, I would be entitled to a Wisdom (Perception) check (or Search check for Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 players), since I had the presence of mind to consider the possibility in the first place.

If you want to be pedantic, you could decide that this is the order in which you perform your actions.

This can be significant if the weapons were trapped, for example.

If you tried to take the weapons (number 2) before you searched for traps (number 4), you would set off the trap (unless you are saved by your passive (Perception) score if you play using 5e).

If you swap number 2 and 4 around, you may be able to detect the traps – provided you succeed on the relevant check first.

In hindsight, there are other questions that I could have asked, such as what kind of creatures the mounted heads are and the history of the weapons and armour.

  1. For the mounted heads, it’s simply a case of examining them, though an Intelligence (Nature) check (or Knowledge (Nature) check for D&D 3.5) may be needed to identify some of the more ‘exotic’ creatures or creatures that your character(s) have not yet encountered.
  2. An Intelligence (History) check (or Knowledge (History) check for D&D 3.5) may reveal that the weapons are replicas of the original weapons used by the Sarwin family.

It’s up to you what ability or skill checks should be made to learn this information, as well as the difficulty class for each check.

You are effectively wearing the hat of the dungeon master when you play solo, but don’t overthink it – just go with whatever makes sense to you.

As suggested above, an Intelligence (Nature) check will probably be used to identify the mounted heads and Intelligence (History) may be required for the weapons.

The Difficulty Class for both might be set at 15-20, depending on how rare you think the information is.

Isolate the Area Description

This guide assumes that you have some way of covering up content other than the parts you are reading.

How do you do this?

Assuming you are reading the adventure in PDF form, the simplest way is to shrink your PDF reader so that it covers only a quarter of the screen, then zoom in 150%.

Here is an example of what I mean:

ReadThruAdventure

As you can see, I probably need to shrink the window vertically a bit more to cover the spoilers under the area description for the ‘Trophy Hall’.

If you are reading from a physical book, try not to let your eyes wander around too much and ‘laser focus’ on only the bits you should read.

If you need to, cut out a square hole on a piece of A4 that is big enough to show a paragraph or two of text – or just a couple of sentences.

It’s also worth noting that, if a map is included, you may need to refer to it in order to know where you are going.

Again, the same principle applies, try to avoid looking at the parts of the map that you have not yet explored and focus on the bits you are currently exploring. Do this by shrinking your PDF window (or using an A4 sheet with a hole cut out when reading a book) to isolate the area you are currently exploring.

It may also be worth drawing out a crude map as you go along.

Default Behaviours

In the example ’37. Trophy Hall’ above, you can see that there isn’t really anything that you couldn’t work out for yourself.

The problem is when you come across something like this (page 61 of The Thunder Below):

____________________________________________________

66. Burial Preparation

This room contains three stone biers and three matching cabinets, and all of them are closed.

This room was used to prepare the dead for burial. Sarwin tradition required all the family’s dead to be wrapped in shrouds of disintegration, and then the shroud itself placed in a cherrywood coffer and placed in the appropriate niche in the family crypt.

Treasure: The cabinets are all locked (Open Lock DC 30) and contain two shrouds of disintegration each.

____________________________________________________

As you see, there are two magic items in this room, but there is no mention of these items in the area description.

Therefore, the only way to know the items are there is to read the rest of the section, which means spoiling the surprise.

Now ask yourself honestly – if I copied the area description only and left out the rest, would you have guessed that the burial shrouds inside would actually be magic items – if you even knew of their existence at all?

This is going back to the days of D&D 3.5, but the only way to know if an item is magical is to cast detect magic and/or identify, unless you were using a variant rule that allowed you to sense an item as being magical without using magic.

D&D 5e is a little more lenient in that it only takes a touch to recognise that an item is special, though the abilities of an item are hidden from you until you cast the appropriate spells.

Even so, the information is right there in front of you and this is information that is normally kept secret.

So how do you deal with this?

Aim to be one step ahead whenever possible.

And preferably before you even start playing.

What do I mean by this?

Before you begin an adventure, it would be a good idea to consider first how your character will generally act in any situation.

For example:

  1. Is he likely to look around for secret doors if he is inside a dungeon?
  2. Is he inquisitive? Does he ask questions that most other characters would not think to ask?
  3. Is he a pack rat? Does he take everything under the sun and stuff it all into his bag of holding?

If number 3 is true, and you were exploring the ‘Burial Preparation’ chamber in the above example, your character will probably take the shrouds of disintegration and eventually discover that they are magical.

If you are lawfully-aligned, then perhaps your character feels uncomfortable with looting somebody else’s property.

In this case, the character would likely not open the cabinet, much less take the shrouds of disintegration out of it.

What about the lock? Is your character likely to attempt to open the lock, no matter how long it takes?

Or does he assume that if he can’t open it first time round, then it’s beyond him?

Regardless of the tendencies of your character, write them down as a list before you begin an adventure.

These are what I call “Default Behaviours”

I’ll use my character, Anders Brightwood, as an example (you can access his character sheet by clicking on the link).

In a nutshell, Anders is basically one of those squeaky clean, lawful good, goody two shoes types. He is also a cleric with the Life Domain.

General Default Behaviours

For Anders, his list of General Default Behaviours might look something like this:

  1. Will not look for traps (Anders is not a rogue, so doing this is not instinctive for him…).
  2. Will not actively search for secret doors.
  3. Will only explore as much of a dungeon as necessary to complete his main goal or quest.
  4. Will use melee weapons rather than ranged weapons in combat whenever possible.
  5. Will conserve spells and expendable resources unless he has no other option.
  6. Will only acquire and search for treasure or items that are vital to the plot of an adventure.

This short list covers some of the more common scenarios that you may find in a typical dungeon crawl adventure.

The last thing you want to do is spend too long thinking up this list, so a list like this should be enough to get you started.

However, if you don’t mind a little more planning, you can further improve on this list by adding behaviours based on your character’s alignment:

Alignment-based Behaviours

  1. Lawful – will not take any treasure unless he is absolutely and totally positive that it doesn’t already belong to someone else – or if it is given to him as a reward.
  2. Lawful – will not loot bodies.
  3. Lawful – will not sneak around or actively try to take enemies by surprise.
  4. Lawful & Good – will accept payment and rewards from those he helps, but only if it looks like they can truly afford it. Will not take items that have special significance to the person giving the reward.
  5. Good – the goal of any quest taken must further the cause of good, otherwise it is refused. Anders will avoid adventuring for the sake of adventuring or gathering treasure.
  6. Good – will always help others without expecting or requesting payment, though may accept rewards if offered (see number 4 above).

Personality-based Behaviours

Let’s take it one step further. Now we’re going to add some more behaviours derived from Anders’ background information (personality traits, bonds, ideals and flaws).

I’ve also added one or two that are derived from his class and his natural talents, as well as other personality traits I made up that are not mentioned in the character sheet.

  1. Anders will generally hold back from attacking whenever he encounters another creature. If the creature attacks, he’ll retaliate (with a view to knocking it unconscious if it is not certain the creature is evil). If the creature is willing to talk, he’ll parley.
  2. Due to not having much experience with the world beyond the walls of his temple, Anders will not be skeptical of what other people say (will not use Wisdom (Insight) checks in any conversation).
  3. If an NPC professes to be a worshipper of his faith (or claims they are working towards being on good terms with his god), Anders will trust them blindly. The exceptions are if the NPC is known to be irredeemably evil.
  4. Hates undead: destroys them on sight unless conditions are unfavourable or the undead creature attempts to parley. In the latter case, he will not completely trust them (uses Wisdom (Insight) checks all the time during conversations with undead). The exception to this are ghosts, unless they are hostile.
  5. Cautious – will use the dodge action in the first round of combat to gauge the strength of creatures he has never seen before. The exceptions are creatures that appear overwhelmingly powerful to him, in which case, he’ll look to avoid combat altogether until he has more information on the creature.
  6. Alert – will always use Wisdom (Perception) checks instead of his passive Perception score.

Changing and Adding Default Behaviours

Feels like you're building one of these, doesn't it? Artwork by Daniel Warren

Feels like you’re programming one of these, doesn’t it?
Artwork © by Daniel Warren

As you can see, I’ve made quite a list here.

Remember, though, that your character is not a construct (unless you actually happen to be playing one), so his Default Behaviours ought to change in response to things that happen during the adventure.

For example, one of Anders’ Default Behaviours is to not look for traps at all, the reason being is that he is not a rogue, but if he finds himself regularly falling victim to traps, he will probably be more cautious in future.

In this case, this Default Behaviour would be changed from ‘will not look for traps’ to ‘will look for traps’.

The only behaviours that should not be changed are the ones based on alignment and the personality traits, unless your character has a significant experience that has a permanent impact on his outlook on life, if he is somehow controlled by someone else, or something traumatic has happened to make him act out of character temporarily.

When changing or adding new Default Behaviours to the list, it may also be a good idea to consider whether the new behaviour is compatible with the character’s core beliefs and alignment.

In Anders’ case, he should never stoop to sneaking up on his opponents, due to his lawful alignment.

Similarly, he should not begin to prioritise treasure hunting endeavours over doing good – unless there is a dire need for the former, or if his alignment becomes non-good.

Finally, don’t be afraid to override the Default Behaviours if it is called for.

You are ultimately roleplaying a character, not programming a golem.

The last thing you want to do is to be bound by too many rules.

The main point of establishing Default Behaviours is to have a few decisions made in advance to keep you honest whenever you read too far ahead and see all the information regarding an area you are exploring – and hopefully avoid the temptation to take the easier or more favourable paths.

Most of all, it is about roleplaying. When you establish your character’s Default Behaviours, you are effectively roleplaying in advance.

Wrapping Up

This guide isn’t perfect and it won’t be suitable for every published adventure out there, particularly with some of the newer content that is being released by Wizards of the Coast.

It probably won’t be suitable for players who feel strongly about spoilers.

Even so, these tips will hopefully help you address some of the problems you may encounter when using published adventures as a solo player and it is a good system to use if you simply want to sit down for a quick one-hour adventure.

If you want to see an example of all this in practice, click here to read a journal of a solo D&D session demonstrating how I’ve applied some of the guidelines above.

Just be aware that it is very long 🙂 .

You can also use the article as a walkthrough and play through the adventure yourself, if you like to try and familiarise yourself with some of the methods above.

In my next article, I will show you how you can read a whole adventure and completely spoil the adventure, yet keep it fresh and unpredictable.

Your Turn

Have a little go at playing a published adventure using the suggestions in this article and see what you think.

If you don’t have an adventure, you can download one from this page, though it’s worth noting that the Enworld adventures use the D&D Next Playtest rules rather than the 5e rules.

That said, it shouldn’t be too difficult to adapt them and make them compatible with 5e.

If you already play D&D solo regularly, how do you handle most published adventures in your attempts to turn it into a decent roleplaying experience?

Perhaps you are already using one of the approaches mentioned in this article? If so, how well does it work for you?

Do you feel that spoiling any part of an adventure diminishes the experience?

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. You’ll help me and your fellow solo D&D players out.

 

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9 comments

  • Mark

    I don’t use a published module. I’m creating the world as I go. I use Mythic for more of the roleplaying mechanics, and the DMG for random dungeon generation– rooms, contents, etc. I’m loving it.

  • Mark

    I forgot to add, since the topic is re: published modules…
    When I’ve played this, I’ve still used Mythic, but ask if what I see in the room is true. If not, I randomly generate events.

    • Ken Wai Lau

      I’m going to write more on using Mythic alongside published adventures in the future.

      This article is more for those who want to play an adventure without having to invest in other tools or learning a new system.

      • Daniel

        I’ve actually had some experiencing, in a way, doing all three methods. No Mythic, Just Mythic, and both.

        In a way I always found that when I read an adventure just for fun, as a story more then something I planned to run (or play), I followed a lose form of the rules you’ve set down above. Especially back when Dungeon was released or I had a subscription to original pathfinder. This worked well enough, I think your above method is one good method for how to do that properly (and not just while reading along).

        Mythic-only is a totally different thing. It helps to be a writer (at heart at least) in that I’ve found the system throws me for all kinds of loops I didn’t expect (with generous help from random generators online for names/places/npcs/maps and etc. That’s it’s on thing and touched on by you elsewhere, a lot more free-form in my experience then this.

        And then there is mixing the two which is..troublesome. Playing a published adventure solo requires a lot of control, a lot of setup and rigid thinking (Decide on default actions, follow rules like the ones you’ve set) Mythic is the exact opposite, inviting chaos, randomness and free-form imagination.

        Using Mythic inside a scripted encounter series, i.e. a dungeon, is next to impossible. The chaos of Mythic just interrupts the script too much. You could do it as a DM for other players, but if you want the “I don’t want to know what happens until it does’ Mythic holds the problem of “well you have to go look up who else is in this dungeon, so you can account for what the mythic system just made happen made everyone else do.”

        My method for solving this is. Mythic-The stuff between dungeons. In dungeons-go by the book.

        Say your trying to run the Emerald Spire for a party solo (like me!). You don’t want the Mythic system insisting that, in fact, the Spire collapses in on itself 2 chapters in (like me..). What it can do however is add very much needed flavor and events outside of the major scripted encounters. It works marvelously when a game gives you some npcs, their basic motivations, and leaves it at that. Mythic is great for seeing what happens when your Paladin-lead party walks into a city of slavers. Not so much when the rogue wants to sneak up on goblins planted in room 1-1 by the module.

        • Ken Wai Lau

          Thanks for sharing, Daniel! Some interesting food for thought here.

          I do think Mythic is great as a writing tool and I think it is even mentioned explicitly somewhere else (perhaps in the book itself) that it is quite suitable for would-be writers and novelists.

          As for combining Mythic with adventures, I think it all depends on the direction you want to take the adventure. If you want to play it by the book, then Mythic might not be suitable for it.

          On the other hand, many dungeon masters don’t play the adventure as written as they feel it’s too railroady. For the solo player, Mythic can help in your attempts to rewrite the adventure and make it less railroady. I think I wrote an example of how this can be done, but I plan to explore this a bit more in depth in a future article.

          I do wonder if Mythic would be ideal for some of the more recent content being pushed out by 5e though, given that the adventures are apparently sandbox-y. In my own experience, Mythic was great for fleshing out some of the encounters, locations and quests in the Hoard of the Dragon Queen (at least the first few chapters, anyway – I didn’t get any further than that).

          But your suggestion of using Mythic for the parts outside an adventure is a good one, and it certainly would be a great way to link two separate adventures together.

  • Marcel

    Hi Ken!

    Just curious, when you are actually playing an adventure are you just keeping the dialog and narrative in your head or are you in the process of writing it down like a story?

    • Ken Wai Lau

      I keep a journal of what happened in the adventure – just a summary for each scene – so that I have something to refer to if I pause my campaign for a while.

      I didn’t use to, though.

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