Great Snakes! What To Do When You’re GMing a Single Player or Small Group

RPT GM Kevin asks:

I finally have a group to start DMing for. It’s a group of 1, well 2, including me. He’s a newer player, so I’m thinking buffing the party out with some NPCs once the challenges get tougher.

Any advice?

Hey Kevin! Thanks for the question. Here are a few thoughts.

Add NPCs

Adding NPCs to the party is a great idea. As GM, I would not try to control more than one or two though, you’ve got enough going on.

First, consider adding a smart pet, sentient magic item, or AI. You want a persistent NPC, but one that doesn’t cost you a lot of cognitive load.

A smart pet can help in several ways:

  • Act as a defender to improve the PC’s survival chances.
  • Act as an alarm so the character can get some rest.
  • Be a second set of senses so clues don’t always go unnoticed.
  • Offer skills so the PC doesn’t have to be a Mary Sue.
  • Serve as an active GM agent so you can influence gameplay without having to break character.

For example, Tintin had Snowy, a smart pup who not only got into trouble, but got Tintin out of many a jam.

I would also aim to have a rotating cast of NPCs. This lets you swap in an NPC who fits well to upcoming challenges, serves your current storyline, and offers a variety of roleplay for the player.

For example, at various times Tintin had as companions:

  • A grumpy ship captain
  • Incompetent police twins
  • A crazy professor

Plus, he had a myriad of temporary “party members” based on his current investigation.

A rotating cast of NPCs offers the same benefits as a sentient companion. In addition, they offer enhanced capabilities but only for a short time to help vary gameplay while maintaining game balance.

For example, the player character must sneak into the thieves’ guild to steal something back. The patron hiring the PC offers a rogue guide who knows the layout and can knock heads together if the pair gets into trouble.

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Prepare Lots of Adventure

In single player or small group games, the story moves along faster than you expect. At the least, party debates are less common, lol. So you’ll often need to work harder to stay ahead.

In addition, the player character is more susceptible to defeat, also making you have to tweak things more often.

A couple of mitigations for this:

Keep Your Player Busy

If it’s just you and your friend, well, you’re the only person they can talk with, and it’ll be hard to carve out breather moments to regroup and think up what’s next.

So, toss in puzzles, give them maps to plan with, and hand out detailed props like entire letters. You can also have them play multi-card Bingo by way of handling all NPC stats, wounds, ammo, rolls, and so on.

Ready Pre-Made Encounters

Craft at least three Back Pocket Encounters ready to drop into play if you get in a jam. Make one a puzzle or skill challenge, another a social conflict or roleplay, and a third an easy combat. Then you’ve got variety.

(Side note: A friend and former player, DaveS, was the first person to introduce me to the name and concept of Back Pocket Encounters. I don’t think I’ve acknowledged that in the newsletter before. Thanks Dave! You’ve given me and GMs worldwide a wonderful and everlasting tool in our GM Toolbox.)

You Do the What, They Do the How

Present situations that have a few things going on at once. Then let your small group decide how to achieve their desired outcomes. This lets you serve up encounters faster and easier, while giving your player(s) the majority of the load.

Prepare to Improvise

Make tables to help out for things you find tough to create on-the-fly.

For example:

  • Names
  • Minor treasures, pocket contents, room details
  • 3-Line NPCs with motives
  • Random monsters with page numbers or links
  • Clues and hooks
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Track Details & Stay Organized

Also, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the perfect tool for single-player and small group GMing is my GM web app, Campaign Logger.

  • You’ll be taking more notes than usual due to getting more encounters and story played each session from having a smaller group, and CL makes session logging fast and accurate.
  • You’ll have less time to flip through notes, ideas, plans, and prep materials, and CL becomes your single Source of Truth that keeps all your details just a few keystrokes away.
  • You’ll need to improvise more as gameplay accelerates from having fewer players, so CL’s built-in and customizable generators help you improvise like a master storyteller.

For these reasons and more, I highly recommend GMs trying Campaign Logger (at no charge).

You can now also get two months free and a bunch of great loot with an annual plan.

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I hope these tips help, Kevin.

Now, I hear there’s a famous gem that’s been stolen and possibly taken to a moon base where Aztecs have laid a curse in a hidden Pharaoh’s tomb. You and your friend had best investigate!

Have more fun at every game!

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