20 March 2018

Duo Play (RPG With Your Bestie) Part 4 - Recommendations

If you don't want to read the rest of my duo play posts and just want a simple list of things to use, this is a summary.


Play with someone you already spend a lot of time talking to, online or in-person or both. I especially recommend duo play for couples - if your significant other actually enjoys doing this sort of thing. We always have a positive conversation ready for us to continue whenever we have a moment.

What adventure?

If you or your player is new to oldschool roleplaying, start with Tomb of the Serpent Kings.Tower of the Stargazer (particularly with my easy-reference key) is also good for beginning referees and players.

What Rules System for new GMs?

If you're new to refereeing I'm not sure what to recommend. I'd consider using a version of Dungeons and Dragons Basic Advanced (B/X) because it's somewhat procedural which might help to guide your decisions.
B/X Essentials is the clearest version of B/X and the easiest to reference version of B/X that I've seen. If I was new to this, I might recommend it to myself.
Maze Rats doesn't make procedures as obvious, but it simplifies the rules in a very elegant, understandable way. You can reference every rule on one page with my reference sheet, but you need to read the original first to understand how to apply the rules.
However, if you like what you read below about other systems though, start with one of them. Starting with what you like is a great idea.

What Rules System for New Players?

If your player is new to roleplaying games, I'd recommend using The GLOG if you want to match the complexity of B/X and want great options for using/creating character classes easily. The GLOG is a pain though, because you're going to have to house rule a lot of things, which I happen to love doing. Every version of The GLOG I've found on internet is incomplete.
If you don't mind a small amount of mechanical simplification in exchange for speedier play, removal of all dice except a few d6, and rules your players will understand almost immediately, Maze Rats (see above) is clearly the best option if you want a traditional fantasy game. If you want all of that but want something weird and unique, Into the Odd is probably the best choice. There are some other games which are somewhat similarly barebones though - others might be a better fit for you. I haven't read Troika yet, for example, but it looks awesome and very weird.

What Rules Changes for Duo Play?

Automatically awarding initiative to your player (except when they're ambushed) is a great way to prevent the upsetting randomness of losing a player to the first round of a battle the player didn't intend to engage in. You can take this idea a step further by allowing your player to roll under wisdom (or under a "save" target number) to avoid being surprised.
I'm undecided about mixing Black Streams into rules systems. (Black Steams is a short document that describes the duo rules from Scarlet Heroes.) I incorporate certain bits of it with some of my duo players, but my wife and I don't need to use it. The fray die is a great mechanic for solo play if you want to be able to encourage your player to take as many risks as they might in a game with four players.

18 March 2018

Duo Play (RPG With Your Bestie) Part 1 - Benefits and Drawbacks

This is part 1 in a series on "duo play."
I mostly play one-on-one. Some call this a "duo" game and some call it a"solo" game. The GM/DM/Referee is a person who is playing the game, even though they're not called a "player," so I do not consider an RPG that has two participants to be a solo game.

One-on-one Benefits

  1. Convenience.
    I can play with any of my players at any time. If we're in the same room, we can play normally. If we're not (like when someone is at work but has a moment), we just type our latest response on Discord, Slack, or Google Hangouts. I regularly play with my wife during walks, chores, meals, waiting in line, sitting at the airport, etc. This is easy because I use a simple ruleset (similar to the GLOG, B/X, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and other OSR systems.) The whole thing fits on a tiny printout I keep folded in my pocket alongside some miniature dice. I'll share it at some point.
  2. Extra room for detail and character exploration without a "spotlight" or any need to spend time focused on forcing character development.
    It will naturally happen through decisions, as in any good OSR game, but decisions are completely owned by the player character because there's no peer pressure or group thinking of any kind.
  3. You're likely to have a lot of conversation and "intimacy" with one person. Do this with your bestie.
  4. Your player will develop a unique playstyle without others influencing it. This tends to result in some particularly creative play. All of my players have been notably more cautious as newbie duo players than as newbie group players. This is wonderful if you like game tension, resource management, etc. I'm particularly excited to try running the Veins of the Earth as a duo game.

One-on-one Drawbacks

  1. You're stuck with this person now.
  2. If you lose one player, the whole campaign is gone. (A campaign and a setting are not the same thing.) I sometimes lose my wife as a player for a week or two at a time, which is a letdown when you get used to expecting a few turns a day. (This can be resolved by either not caring or by running multiple campaigns online with other people.)
  3. You're likely to have a lot of conversation and "intimacy" with one person. Don't do this with randos.
  4. Your player might be so cautious that they develop analysis paralysis. A single combat turn or a visit to the market can take forever without the live pressure of socializing with a group of people. My wife procrastinates when a decision is hard.

Comparison to Group Play

I'm playing other games with other people, mostly one-on-one. I'm also running a group, in-person game of Hot Springs Island and have run Lady Blackbird with a group as well. Those games are fun, exciting, and often humorous, but they have less tension, excitement, cleverness, and character development than the one-on-one game I play with my wife, even though she's played in every group game I've run.

15 March 2018

Duo Play (RPG With Your Bestie) Part 3 - Changes for Duo Play

Solo Rules

At first, I used a version of Scarlet Heroes/Black Streams solo rules to make the world more survivable. I did not change the number of combatants in a fight, the severity of traps, the stats of enemies, or anything else to suit a single player character. Emily had no allies or hirelings.
The changes from standard OSR games in these rules are entirely about combat, but she didn't engage in combat often. When she did, she engaged unconventionally, doing things far removed from the default of just moving and attacking. She used dungeon traps against enemies. She used diplomacy.
Before long, I'd forgotten to use Kevin Crawford's rules because extreme caution was keeping her survival chances high. This might sound slow and plodding, but her rhythm was somewhat explosive. She was gradually preparing, planning, and observing until she put everything into action, generating a lot of excitement and often some false confidence that inspired more chaotic play for a while afterward.
Special rules became unnecessary. Beyond that, the excellent Black Streams/Scarlet Heroes rules don't fit our game for two reasons:
  1. They make a player character heroic and naturally powerful in a way that does not even add tactical choices.
  2. They are a bit cumbersome (though only a bit.) They're good rules, but not for us.
The one solo rule that I still use: I award her automatic initiative in combat, so long as she is not surprised. This is important, since I want to provide her the chance to flee combat or make clever defensive choices without being killed before receiving the opportunity to do so. Chaos can be hugely fun, but I want her to have enough agency to retain a sense of fairness and risk/reward.
The world is deadly, but she's usually too clever and careful to let it get the best of her. Her character survived a couple of save-or-die rolls by chance, but she has mainly survived by careful play.

Other Adjustments

I used adventures/dungeons/cities written by authors who intended them to be encountered by groups of players, not by a single vagrant. This means that some traps don't go off, some spells have no effect, some enemies use less effective strategies, and some encounters don't even occur. That's fine.
The world is very dangerous, so I don't want to make it even worse without a reason. There's usually no need to replace a spell that causes party members to attack each other with one that causes the only party member to attack herself. That's overkill and that's not fun. If I was using the Scarlet Heroes/Black Streams rules, I might consider that sort of change, but that's only because those rules make a more heroic, powerful character who can generally handle everything a party of four can.
Some game effects create benefits that only apply to a party. I'm more likely to replace those with benefits that work for a single party member, because they're often interesting, fun things that my player is missing out on. However, I usually just leave things as they are. This means the benefit is not gained and Emily hasn't noticed anything is missing.

Summary and other options

I change as little as possible. This changes the playstyle my player uses from what the average murderhobo might employ, but this simply creates a unique sort of game. Since I now referee games with a group of three in addition to my various duo games, I've increased the variety of playstyles I see. The same is true for my wife, since she is one of the three in my group game.

Changing the content

Some duo referees reduce encounter sizes, reduce enemy damage, increase play AC, and so on, on the fly or by way of endless notes. That should work. If the referee is inexperienced, this may result in constantly shifting balance in which the player character cannot discern why the game becomes so much easier at one moment and so much harder at the next. I only recommend this if you have a strong sense of the game mechanics you're working with.

Games designed for two

Many RPGs are designed strictly for two. They can't be played with more than two. I haven't played any of them yet, but I can't help but think they're a great idea for duo play. Most of them are storygames. Mars Colony and Murderous Ghosts seem particularly interesting.

14 March 2018

Duo Play (RPG With Your Bestie) Part 2 - Format, Method and Results

I discovered our particular format of play by way of the pressures of convenience. I was really interested in learning to play an RPG and realized I would never do it unless
  1. I was the referee and
  2. My wife was the only player.

World of Dungeons - Portable Play

At first, we played World of Dungeons because the rules were very easy to understand and because it was easy to carry around in my pocket. We just needed two sheets of paper (the rules) a small character sheet, and 3 d6.
We played when we went on a walk, when she was nursing the baby, when we were waiting in line, and while we were doing house chores.
She thought I ran things wonderfully, but I didn't. I was making up a dungeon for her to escape from (she started in a jail cell), and I used Maze Rats tables to generate a lot of what she encountered. It was fun, but the challenge often wasn't meaningful, the pacing was poor, and I created a lot inconsistencies. Despite all of that, she really did have a blast.
The problems were the results of my inexperience. World of Dungeons expects the referee to have a plan. It doesn't include any tools for worldbuilding, adventure/dungeon/sandbox creation, or any other content. It's just a framework to make play very straightforward and easy. I may well use it for my daughter when she's old enough to play, and I might use it for newbies of the sort I prefer to not present rules to. If I ever played with my parents, I would use it.
After we had done this for about a month, she finished the dungeon scenario we had set up, and I wanted to move on to Lamentations of the Flame Princess rules, so we started again with those rules.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess - Slack and Portable

I realized it would be very easy to prep for an online game since I would have time to prepare between every turn, so we switched to playing exclusively on Slack. She mostly took her turns when she was at work, but sometimes took them at home.
To make it easier for her to learn, play, and respond quickly without more overhead than necessary, I did almost all of the rolling and didn't explain rules to her except when necessary. Over the weeks, I gradually introduced rules to her and asked her opinion about various house rules I wanted to implement to improve our game, mostly with an interest in removing extra things that were bogging our game down.
Eventually, her desire to play in person and my desire to play at all times nudged us into playing aloud, whenever we were in the same space and having a conversation. This meant we played on Slack when she was at work and that we played in the same here-and-there manner we had used for World of Dungeons when we were physically together.
We started our game (using Lamentations of the Flame Princess) at the entrance to the Tomb of the Serpent Kings and she very soon encountered her for first save-or-die moment when she didn't understand that my description of a trapped door was meant to suggest deadliness. She didn't examine the mechanism well enough to see what would happen, and I didn't describe it well enough for her to understand even what she had seen. We were brand new to this. She was frustrated and disappointed. We just pretended it didn't happen and rewound time to let her try again. After that, she was much more careful.
Despite our various failures, Tomb of the Serpent Kings was successful. The dungeon did an excellent job of teaching me to referee and teaching her how to think through dungeon exploration, puzzles, combat, traps, and other typical things. It's designed with that as its goal. It was fun. We both learned a lot, very quickly. I highly recommend it.
If your players do well, it has an entrance ready for you to connect to the Veins of the Earth/Underdark/whatever megadungeon you want.
Playing solo encouraged her to be very cautious and observant. She soon became very wary of doors, floors, and creatures. She became focused on the use of her 10' pole, on making allies, and manipulating enemies and neutral creatures. She only engaged in combat when surprised (often running away and finding ways to trap or steal from enemies) or when she felt combat to be worthwhile. Even then, she only engaged after carefully planning a way to ensure success.
I made some mistakes and handed out too many cheap/free magic items, which made the world notably less deadly. I also priced items in shops too low and wrecked the currency system. This caused frustration for both of us when I increased prices later.
We played through Tower of the Stargazer, and made Fever-Dreaming Marlinko her base of operations. I made up some encounters and locations to suit her character's story (which was mostly generated by random events in Marlinko, a FANTASTIC social city machine with two good mini-dungeons as a bonus).

The Present

We've been playing a little bit, here and there, every day ever since we started. That was long enough for her to finish (almost by accident) a character arc that made her feel good about retiring her first character, Phely. Phely somehow didn't die across all that time.
We are now exploring the Maze of the Blue Medusa with a new character using my own rules heavily inspired by many other rulebooks (particularly B/X Essentials and The GLOG.

Notes about Online Duo Play

We prefer a chat interface. Forums are slow and require logging in with a browser. Chat allows us to get notifications on our phones and continue play instantly, often playing several turns at once.
Slack is fully-featured for playing an RPG and is straightforward. Multiple channels = a great way to organize resources. It also allows replying to a thread, so you can organize your gameplay channel into scenes or locations. It eventually deletes its log of your game though. Signing in to slack on a computer can be a pain if you don't use the same computer every day.
Discord is similar to Slack but does not delete your log.
Hangouts is incredibly straightforward and lacks every useful feature I can think of except dice-rolling (which only works from a computer, not from a phone.)

06 March 2018

Tower of the Stargazer Key

I made a key for Tower of the Stargazer. You can get it here..
Tower of the Stargazer is an excellent, deadly adventure (designed to be great for beginning players and beginning referees) suitable for OSR rulesets, or B/X, AD&D, D&D 5e, Dungeon World, etc.
When I read it, I found some of the long paragraphs helpful. I was fairly new referee at the time. The book is written in a good format, though it is sometimes needlessly verbose and some sentences and paragraphs are redundant. It's the kind of book you need to highlight before you actually use it.
With this in mind, I summarized the locations in the adventure in a format much like what Jacob Hurst used for the dungeons in his wonderful Dark of Hot Springs Island. I'm actually imitating Courtney Campbell's format, which is similar but less well-known. It's essentially a one-page dungeon format, but it doesn't all fit on one page. I'm calling this document a key.
This key was incredibly useful to me both times I ran the adventure.
The key does not work without the Tower of the Stargazer book. Follow these steps:
  1. Print the map to use alongside the key.
  2. Read the whole adventure before using the key.
  3. Keep the adventure handy during play so you can reference it for the more complicated bits that I left out of the key (I reference the page numbers wherever this happens.)
    Please feel free to suggest improvements. It's not as polished as I'd like it be, despite some very helpful edits by Duneaught. I found it very useful and wanted to share it.