How often have you been in a situation where you desperately want to play a game, but part or most of your normal crew either can’t make it or isn’t interested? You look longingly at the pretty, pretty books or PDFs, much like a hungry dog looks at a butcher’s window, pausing occasionally to wipe the dribble from your chin and indulge in another futile attempt to juggle schedules and interest levels.
*Cue Darth Sidious voice* There is...another way…
I’m going to say right now, it’s not for everyone. It’s tough, tougher than you would expect, and it can be a LOT of work for limited return on investment.
It can also be a hell of a lot of fun for a change of pace.
You, yes you, person or other sentient life form (hello, octopuses, this is the Internet, you were probably better off staying in the ocean), can indeed run a complex and intense game for as few as two people other than yourself.
Unlike Darth Sidious, however, I’ll give you some pitfalls up front, rather than self-indulgent cryptomysticism accompanied by Mon Calamari ballet.
1) You’re going to spend A LOT of time talking to yourself.
If you aren’t familiar with running a full cast of NPCs in your head, you’re going to need quite a bit of practice. I attempt to keep my NPCs separate by means of distinct accents and personalities, as well as trying to avoid names that sound too similar or that could be easily confused.
2) Many NPCs! Handle it!
You have two players that want to play Zenith and Night caste. That’s great, but can leave them a little...underpowered...in the combat area. You might want a Dawn to tank and a Twilight to build cool stuff. You might have a pair of rogues who can’t be allowed out unsupervised. There may even be a pair of wandering mendicants who are so holy (and so naive) that they think that those nice people who offered to show them a short cut may actually be showing them a quicker path to the abbey, rather than a short cut across the carotid and jugular.
Bar none, the best piece of advice I can offer you is take copious notes, even if you aren’t planning to fully-sheet your NPCs. I keep a pack of notecards in a plastic bag in my purse with a pen I don’t care if I lose, and I’ve gotten NPC and plot ideas at the damnedest places and times.
3) Plot? What plot? Oh look, bunny!
Don’t get me wrong, this is a quagmire in any game, and we’ve all heard stories of DMs who sulk when their beautifully sculpted and scripted plot goes up in smoke ten minutes into an encounter because of lucky rolls or lack of player interest. I may or may not be guilty of this sin myself.
It gets a little harder and a lot more personal when you can’t even get two lousy PCs on the right trail. *insert grumbling about cool dungeoneering plot in a dragon’s tomb getting derailed by another NPC* Ahem. As I was saying…It’s a lot more personal when two people ignore you, as opposed to an entire group ignoring you. Sheep mentality and all. It’s part of the suck of running for two or three people. Especially if the players outvote the NPCs and by extension, the DM.
4) When you run out of material, it shows.
You don’t have the bigger intraparty dynamics to fall back on, and there’s not likely to be a huge schism within the party that you can lob grenades into when you run out of ideas in the tail end of a long session. It does require a bit more preparation and a greater need to be able to think on your feet.
Lest you think it is nothing but heartache and misery, a vale of tears populated by crumpled sheets, critical fumbles, and Cheez-It crumbs (sorry, that’s my side table, carry on), there are some definite upsides to running for a small group as well.
1) Impromptu role play can happen literally anywhere, any time.
My group has busted out into furious in-character arguments, inside jokes, and general shenanigans everywhere from our local coffee hangout, who have blessedly become immune to our shared idiocy..er..idiosyncrasy, to restaurants, to walking through local parks and large community events. All it takes is a DM and players who have a decent grasp of their characters’ voices, personalities, and capabilities. You can settle quick rolls with rock-paper-scissors, or just bid ability pools, a la old school Vampire: the Masquerade LARPs.
We have also broken out in near-hysterical laughter at the sight of cabbages. Such are the things of which memories are made.
2) Unparalleled character development opportunities abound.
When you don’t have to balance a grumpy barbarian, a neurotic rogue, and a monk trying to get a warlock interested in chakra rebalancing, you can actually listen to the characters, instead of just the numbers. Long time readers of this space may realize there’s a little bit of a theme developing here.
When you can literally have two PCs spend half an hour brainstorming how to break into a safe room, or have real political discussions a la Game of Thrones, it’s a beautiful thing to behold. You set them up and they knock it out of the park, and all you have to do is sit back and watch the fireworks. I intentionally plan for some down time in each session, just to allow for in-character conversation. It’s amazing the things my players have given me to work with.
3) Games this small are almost infinitely customizable.
Don’t like a particular rule book? Don’t use it. Want to add arbitrary rules or things that you have only heard about? Go for it! In a game this intimate, there’s simply no place for the power struggle of rules lawyer versus DM. On the same hand, if you try something and it doesn’t work, you simply stop game, have a brief discussion, adjust your course, and move ever onwards. You might discover something really awesome. It can also be a great place to test homebrew mechanics before scaling them up to a larger party.
With apologies to certain scriptures, wherever two or three are gathered in the name of gaming and a good time, there will good times be. Like any kind of group relationship, communication is key. Have reasonable expectations, and you may just be happily surprised.
I will end this missive, as I so often do, with the words of the late and much-lamented Terry Pratchett: Stories are not, on the whole, interested in swineherds who remain swineherds and poor and humble shoemakers whose destiny is to die slightly poorer and much humbler.
Go make something, and make it unforgettable - even if it is only unforgettable by those lucky few who were there.
Georgia is a writer, editor, gamer, and mad culinary priestess who masquerades as an ordinary office employee who holds vehement opinions about Oxford commas and extraneous hyphens. She lives in Tacoma, Washington, with her husband and Feline Overlords. She can be reached through Facebook at In Exquisite Detail or on Twitter at @feraldruidftw.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.