One-on-One Best Practices

Burning Wheel sees a reasonable amount of one-on-one play, made obvious by the numerous (and awesome) actual play reports here. As I prepare to start one myself I thought it would be of benefit to see, in one place, all the great advice and experience the community has collected over the years in regards to this style of play. So here’s an open call to anyone who has the experience and would like to discuss general tips, potential snags, and how to address them. If we could, I’d ask that we leave theoretical pondering at the door. Only tips and problems that are derived from actual play please.

To start, having no 1n1 experience, I don’t have much to add here. BUT! The Adventure Burner does have a brief section on this style of play. Unfortunately, what I mostly hear about the Adventure Burner these days is how hard it is to find. Be that as it may, I do have a copy and I’m going to include, verbatim, what it has to say on the topic for those less fortunate. Luke, if this is poor form and you hate me for it…by all means jerk it down. And if you do, I’ll go into my book and scratch out your personalization about me still being awesome and change it to “You are no longer awesome.” I’ll pay for shipping both ways and you can initial the change.

Adventure Burner
One-on-One Games pp. 181-182

Some of my favorite campaigns have been one-on-one: one player and myself as the GM. These games are intense. You have to be very focused. There’s no way to turn aside to another player and get a break while your brain chews on a thorny problem.

In my experience, this intensity makes the sessions shorter than they would be for a larger group. My one-player sessions lasted between two and three hours. Never longer. They’re exhausting since you can’t pass the spotlight and rest or reflect.

Mechanically, the game works fine in this mode except for three aspects: help, artha and trait votes. Help is a problem since there is only one player—and help is a vital aspect of the system that ties deeply to advancement and learning new skills. To remedy this, play strong NPCs and use them as surrogate PCs. Build close relationships. Let the NPCs help and be helped during play.

The artha awards for MVP, Workhorse and Embodiment are tricky. They are derived from a group vote. It’s too easy for the GM and player to lazily agree that all awards are deserved. Or too easy for the player to sit back and let the GM hand out the awards as he sees fit. Neither of these scenarios are acceptable. Both player and GM must be open, honest and critical of the session. They need to both look at the session with dispassion. Be harsh critics. Your play will benefit greatly from it.

Trait votes are difficult in a manner similar to group determined artha awards. It’s too easy to be lazy and just toss on benefits. The player and GM must be critical of the play and look at it with an open mind. Procedurally, the GM plays a dual role in the trait vote. He acts both as the group and the GM. It’s quite a bit of power. He judges the player’s performance and determines what trait is appropriate. He determines what traits are valid to be removed. It’s a bit stressful, but also very refreshing. It’s a tremendous venue for deeply changing a character. A one-on-one game will transform you and the way you play.

A group game is like a little party, but a one-on-one game is more like a date. The intimacy, for lack of a better word, can be intimidating. There’s nowhere to hide! Still, the experience is very rewarding. Try it out.

Back and Forth
In the games Storn and I played, we’d play a half dozen or more sessions with a character, come to a nice closing point for the chapter and then jump ahead a decade or more to a future point in history where the results of the previous chapter has a dramatic impact. We’d go back and forth, changing up who was the GM and who was the player for each chapter.

Ignorant PC
In a recent ongoing game with Alexander, he was playing an ignorant kid who was thrust into the middle of history because of a religious conflict that put wizards and sorcerers in danger of persecution. However, the kid didn’t anything about the world outside of the small castle-town where he grew up as a street rat with a penchant for starting magical fires. It was fun for me to make up the world around him and see him learn about it slowly as he traveled in it and became apprenticed to different master wizards.

Starting off as a 2 or 3 LP character is challenging, though and I’d recommend it for someone who has played a bit.

The pace of these games is amazing! Characters develop at a staggering rate. It feels like a fantasy novel even more than most games to me.

Don’t be afraid to stop mid-game and re-assess Beliefs.

I’m going to read over old threads and see what else occurs to me. Great thread idea!

I’ve been a player in about a dozen sessions (four-hour blocks, typically) of one-on-one play, and I’ve GM’d almost 20 one-on-one sessions before the game introduced a new player. Most of the latter were four- to seven-hour blocks. This might not seem like it matters, but it does contradict the apparent issue listed in a the AdBu re: reduced session lengths. We’ve taken a few breaks and been patient with making decisions re: where play needs to be pushed, but we’ve never felt the intensity to be draining. Obviously that’s purely anecdotal!

There are a few other above-quoted portions of the AdBu I’ve always disagreed with, frankly. For instance, it’s no more difficult to bounce Trait vote ideas back and forth in a one-on-one than it is at a table with more players. You might have fewer ideas for Traits (fewer nominations, that is) but the choosing of one isn’t any easier or harder. By that I mean, you still can’t “cheat” your way into a new Trait. It’s hard to be “lazy” when the rules are as straightforward as they are. It’s no more a problem than being lazy about determining Obstacles for tests, which is to say not a problem at all. Again, purely anecdotal.

Artha, however, can definitely be trickier. In my games, we typically looked at MVP or Workhorse, rarely both. That said, the session’s events and player’s drive has allowed for exceptions to that. Be honest and, as the GM, ask for rationale from the player before handing those out.

Deeds points can be a point of contention, also. In the same way that people might think Ob 1 tests are trivial and not roll-worthy, they might also deem one-person actions and effects to not be Deeds-worthy. It’s slightly a matter of scale, not degree. If you think about it that way, it should help when thinking about whether something is Deeds-worthy.

Help is obviously an issue, and can affect advancement. (I’ll admit, I haven’t seen that be a problem in actual play, but it’s definitely more than a theoretical issue!) Allow for the introduction of slightly more powerful NPCs that the PC will be rendering aid to, not vice-versa. You have to play that really carefully, though, as you don’t want the NPC to overshadow the PC. Having a patron or something similar can be a great stand-in for this kind of NPC – someone who’s around or can affect things, but isn’t going off with you to meddle with your affairs. Be very wary of simply slapping D&D-style henchmen into the game. It can mess up play. (Another option is to be a little more lenient re: use of FoRKs. Not a great option, as it opens the door for constantly pushing vaguely related things, but yeah . . . an option.)

On the tail of having NPCs around, the most powerful tools for a player in one-on-one games are Circles and wises. Find people, solicit support and expertise, et cetera. Introduce social situations. Open up the world. Circles really moves things forward and gives the GM a lot of leverage, both in success and failure. Wises are extremely powerful and necessary, but as per any BW game, watch out for abuse.

One of the most important things to have really locked down is Beliefs. The player has to be extremely proactive in one-on-one games, which means they have to want to play the game (obviously) but they have to create characters who want to push play, too. Tight Beliefs, a strong situation (immediate and long-term), and triggers and “bangs” for the GM to hit.

System expertise or mastery is also really important. One-on-one play shouldn’t be attempted with a new player or new GM. It’s too brutal and pressured of an introduction. The learning curve is steep and you’re forcing the person to climb it alone. It’s too on-the-spot.

Anyhoo. That’s all I can think of. Sorry if some of my advice was redundant or overly obvious but sometimes what seems obvious to one person is news to another.

Well to share my experience, I ran a one on one game with my wife once that still lingers in our memories as a game we need to revisit and finish off, and this was last played years ago. You can read about it here:

While system mastery makes any game go smoother, don’t worry about jumping into this with a new player. My wife had never played before and appreciated the chance to learn how the game worked without an audience.

I second all of the advice given so far. You need tight Beliefs that propel the character to action. The moment either the GM or the player runs out of enthusiasm then the game ends so make sure the story you are telling is the one you want to tell. Don’t be afraid to veer in other directions as your excitement does. Wises and Circles to broaden the game is so key.

My main piece of advice on one-on-one games is to take advantage of the format to dive into stories that don’t fit into group games very well. The core of my game was a bar wench trying to win back the love of a noble who was made to hate her by lying relatives. And that’s it. All of the elements of intrigue, noble politics and the like have come about because it serves that narrative. In a group game, this would likely be a side plot in the midst of grand goings on. One on one let’s you focus in.

The format also let’s you take things as far as that one player is willing to go. If you read our game, you will find that a recurring theme is Kenna trying to stay sexually pure for her future husband while being hounded by men because of her Buxom and Drop Dead Gorgeous traits. That is a direction I could go in because of the level of trust my wife and I have. Beyond sensitive subjects though, this is perfect for the game concept that the group is “meh” on but that excites one players.

help is obviously an issue, and can affect advancement. (I’ll admit, I haven’t seen that be a problem in actual play, but it’s definitely more than a theoretical issue!) Allow for the introduction of slightly more powerful NPCs that the PC will be rendering aid to, not vice-versa.

Speaking of helping. Having the player character be an apprentice to a wizard, a squire to a knight, a footpad to a master thief would go a long way in being able to use helping dice. Like Turjan of Mir assisting Pandelume or Tsain rescuing Turjan, or Gray Mouser running quests for Ningauble, having the player character be the henchman and not the other way round means it’s the player character sent out on missions alone and not always having the NPC accompanying them as the players helpmate and when the NPC is duking it out with a really big bad guy, the PC can help, which allows for the introduction of much more dangerous enemies than could normally occur when it’s a single player alone, while still being risky.

Or the other way around, run a band of 3 LP mercs, bandits, or pirates.

Not as good for the situational challenge, but does certainly add some helping dice into the mix.

Rather than have the one PC closely attached to one particular NPC, enmesh him or her in a friendly social environment. Friends, allies, co-conspirators, people who want the same thing, or who want different things that are similar enough for some cooperation. One against the world is one style of game, but you get some of the fun of a party if you have people you can work with around you. And these are people who can both provide helping dice and who you can gain tough tests by helping, but I think that’s not so necessary; a single PC is inundated with tests. What really helps is not feeling entirely alone in the world, especially a world that’s mechanically unfamiliar.

Actually having NPCs receive help on tests is advanced stuff, though, because it means the GM has to come up with failures that not only make sense for the NPC but also hurt the helping PC.