Dungeon Master Tips for Single Player 5E D&D

Torth: Castle of Evil
Roleplaying Your Dump Stat in 5E D&D

There have been recent discussions on a few platforms about the trials and tribulations of running fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons for a single player or two. The concerns are always the same. “How do I set up encounters? How do I challenge them without killing the player characters?” And so on. Low population games tend to have the same solutions. It’s usually the same refrain — less combat and more exploration and social interaction. To be fair this is a viable option but it is by no means the only one. Furthermore it is not necessary to add the dreaded Dungeon Master Player Character. Adding NPCs to the mix is a plan but it risks stealing the spotlight from the players and their characters. What follows are a few suggestions for 5E D&D to add party depth without losing focus on player fun. These options are all potentially NPCs the DM sort of runs but all have player character involvement.

Single player 5E D&D DM tips

Character involvement occurs through the use of 5E D&D’s action economy, flawed or imperfect NPCs and the necessary input of the PC to hold the group together. This keeps PCs quite busy, thereby increasing engagement and stimulation. There will be NPC roleplaying of course but it won’t steer the action. left to their own devices flawed NPC options almost always steer PCs off course in a very obvious way. The intent is adding options for story hooks and drama while adding some utility. There’s safety in numbers but it’s no guarantee.

The DM should feel free to give any such NPC the option of leaving the party if the PC abuses their presence or uses them as the solution to every problem. They are not intended to be a Swiss army knife. Nor are they an endless stream of lemmings to throw at a problem. Given the following suggestions for imperfect NPCs, such over use would likely lead to trouble anyway.

Speaking of which, too little use of the imperfect NPCs leads to trouble too. Some peril is fun. Too much may frustrate the PC so be wary when it comes to where to push the scale on self imposed peril. PCs should feel confident giving NPCs freedom to act sometimes but this freedom should be limited in some way. Given the suggestions below the DM and player should be able to figure out how much rope an imperfect NPC should get to act.

Mechanically, each imperfect NPC shares some qualities. In combat each one requires a PC’s bonus action to be commanded. Imperfect NPCs also get reactions just like any other creature. Some follow their own motivations whereas others remain essentially mindless automatons. Clever players make the most of these imperfects. Players and DMs can both enjoy the results when they do as the rewards of both their efforts and removes the potential fear of an undersized party. Some of these suggestions have entries in various tomes whereas some should have simplified stat blocks where necessary.

As a PC progress feel free to have these imperfects progress as well but never greater than the PC. They could potentially use magic items at the DM’s discretion but tread carefully here. Because they are imperfects they might well also become targets or other greedy villains who covet these items.

When designing imperfects remember to keep their flaws more numerous than their benefits. Their point is to help, not to shine.

Combat Minion

Combat Minions work best as simple machines of war. They might be a skeleton or zombie, a minor construct or other essentially mindless creature to perform simple tasks. In some cases a beast of some sort might do, which may create it’s own drama with a potential for chaos (as any pet owner can attest). Their purpose is to absorb a possible attack and provide minor help in combat. They require a PC’s bonus action to command and do nothing without being asked. If they are not commanded they simply stand there silent and motionless. They deal no more damage than a PC potentially can and they don’t shine in any situation. They’re a goon. Nothing more.

Flaw. They are incapable of decision making and require constant attention to motivate them in combat. In some cases their appearance may be off putting in social situations. This creates roleplaying situations and drama. Having to disguise your skeleton in a poor fitting suit of armor always falling off or sneaking your lazy wolf into a tavern creates all sorts of fun situations. Ham it up.

Example. In the campaign I am currently running the party of two have a skeleton they use to shore up their front line. They have it on lend from a yuan-ti witch who expects it to be replaced if lost. To give the PCs at least a couple of chances to replace it they’ve also been given a small pouch with four finger bones. If the skeleton falls in combat they can use a bonus action to break a finger bone. When they do the skeleton reassembles. This gives the PCs some room for critical hits and such. If they lose it four times they had better provide a body to replace it…

The Flawed Professional

A flawed pro is essentially an NPC skewed to the max. They might be a brilliant scholar possibly with minor magic but are clumsy, socially awkward and brittle. They could be a washed up minstrel who was once quite a charmer but some event in the past snuffed their fire and they need constant encouragement to step up. They might even hold some sort of social status granting the PC access to otherwise restricted people and places but it takes a lot of work to keep this bard off the bottle. Perhaps they’re somewhat like a Combat Minion, strong like a ox and capable of opening any door or carrying off a live donkey but intellectually stunted and they would rather eat everything the PC carries and play with a stick they think is magic. Perhaps they are a once great knight, fearless and boastful but well past their prime. Their desire to win back ancient glory borders on a death wish but their tactical knowledge or political savvy might be quite valuable in the right circumstance.

Flaw. Whereas this NPC will have perhaps one or two great ability scores, they should have two or more average or worse scores. They really ought to have at least two poor ability scores in the 6-8 range. They should have one, or better yet two, behaviorial flaws. Their purpose is to provide occasional expertise in a needed area, possible story hooks and interaction when the PC so desires. Their ideas are heavily skewed because of their flaws but there are moments of brilliance. They are a sounding board for the PC sometimes, and will always be their friend whether the PC wants it or not.

Example. Plathinea the Blasé has lost his mojo. Perhaps it was a lost love, a squandered fortune or some other tragedy. They’re the Eeyore of the group. They’ve seen it all and feel no excitement. Sarcasm is a language and wine is the cure. When asked for inspiration they might throw a handful of glitter at the target and declare, “Boom. Inspired.” Plathinea is very politically savvy and a has a keen insight into behavior. Whereas others might fall for Deception Plathinea rarely does and knows who owes who a favor — you just have to keep them sober to find out. It may save your life. And yes, Plathinea can sing but they’re usually drunk and it’s often profane.

The Quirky Item

A Quirky Item is a magic item that may not work as expected. It might be sentient or have abilities the PC remains unaware of. It’s a wild card and a McGuffin. I consider sentient magic items wonky in some way as a great source of story hooks and roleplaying opportunities. They may have information to add, even by mistake, to a given problem. They may be weapons if the DM feels a magical weapon is needed but could be haunted armor, talking wands or animated cloaks. They provide some useful ability but persist as a constant source of problems when delicate situations arise. Perhaps they’re a sword that sings really loud in stealthy situations or a cloak allow the PC to climb walls like an animated octopus but it’s obsessed with kittens and drags the wearer closer to them to pet them whenever the situation arises. Maybe it’s a dagger that can act like a universal key but needs to be convinced the entire act is totally legal or it starts calling for guards. Maybe it’s a suit of armor with the trapped soul of it’s former owner within and when the PC isn’t wearing it the armor gets up to all sorts of shenanigans as it tries to eat, drink or carouse.

Flaws. Quirky Items are unreliable. But this does not render them useless. A sword is still a sword and armor is still armor. A wand or staff might have a spell locked within. These items have built in behaviors and flaws to inspire trouble, humor, plot hooks and drama. They might be the lynch pin to solving a problem but they may have caused the problem in the first place. They also present a further problem — another NPC or villain covets them or they may actually belong to someone else. There could be a bounty on their return or perhaps a sentient item wants to get back to a particular person or location and may sabotage or entice plans that further this goal. The options are truly endless.

Example. One great example I have already used at our table was Chatterbonk the mace. Fashioned from a human skull affixed to a shaft it would endlessly talk about anything and everything. Think Leo Getts from Lethal Weapon or Luis from Ant-Man. Chatterbonk rambles on about everything and anything, endlessly segueing from one tale to another. This weapon causes disadvantage on Stealth checks but may actually spit out useful lore or secrets on occasion.

dm tips npcs nord games skulduggery
Check out some of the awesome NPC resources from our friends at Nord Games in the Ultimate NPCs line including Skulduggery and Warfare. Click the image to explore the options.

These are but a few examples of Imperfects. What may create extra drama is to have Imperfects at odds with each other in some way and I encourage DMs to do so. This provides further in party tension without infighting and creates a need for PCs to interact with their party of broken toys. Perhaps the Combat Minion construct inexplicably buries the Quirky Item dagger every night without warning and the PC needs help from the drunken Flawed Professional to find it. Maybe the Quirky Item haunted armor suits up the elderly Flawed Professional knight in his sleep and the PC needs the help of the Combat Minion to track down where they are.

A party of Imperfects can potentially have all the interparty drama of a traditional four player party but the DM can generate these moments when things are slow or to spark action. Eventually the PC may start offering problems they might need to solve, generating a shared plot line for both the PC and DM to carry onto epic proportions.

The goal always remains the same. Create a world the player remembers and allow them to be the star of the show with the Imperfects as the supporting cast. These Imperfects may steal the occasional moment with hilarious results but should never be the focus of the action. Maybe, just maybe, these Imperfects will inspire a player to one day become a DM themselves. Just because a group of heroes are flawed and quirky doesn’t mean they’re still not heroes after all. Just like the rest of us.

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Follow Mike Gould:
I fell into gaming in the oddest of ways. Coming out of a bad divorce, my mom tried a lot of different things to keep my brother and I busy and out of trouble. It didn't always work. One thing that I didn't really want to do, but did because my mom asked, was enroll in Venturers. As an older Scout-type movement, I wasn't really really for the whole camping-out thing. Canoe trips and clean language were not my forte. Drag racing, BMX and foul language were. What surprised me though was one change of pace our Scout leader tried. He DMed a game of the original D&D that came out after Chainmail (and even preceedd the Red Box). All the weapons just did 1d6 damage, and the three main demi-humans (Elf, Dwarf and Halfling) were not only races, but classes. There were three alignments (Lawful, Neutral and Chaotic). It was very basic. I played all the way through high school and met a lot of new people through gaming. My expected awkwardness around the opposite sex disappeared when I had one game that was seven girls playing. They, too, never thought that they would do this, and it was a great experiement. But it got me hooked. I loved gaming, and my passion for it became infectious. Despite hanging with a very rough crowd who typically spent Fridays scoring drugs, getting into fights, and whatnot, I got them all equally hooked on my polyhedral addiction. I DMed guys around my table that had been involved in the fast-living/die young street culture of the 80s, yet they took to D&D like it was second nature. They still talk to me about those days, even when one wore a rival patch on his back to the one I was wearing. We just talked D&D. It was our language. Dungeons and Dragons opened up a whole new world too. I met lots off oddballs along with some great people. I played games like Star Frontiers, Gamma World, Car Wars, Battletech, lots of GURPS products, Cyberpunk, Shadowrun, Twilight 2000, Rolemaster, Champions, Marvel Superheroes, Earth Dawn...the list goes on. There was even a time while I was risiding with a patch on my back and I would show up for Mechwarrior (the clix kind) tournaments. I was the odd man out there. Gaming lead to me attending a D&D tournament at a local convention, which lead to being introduced to my paintball team, called Black Company (named after the book), which lead to meeting my wife. She was the sister of my 2iC (Second in Command), and I fell in love at first sight. Gaming lead to me meeting my best friend, who was my best man at my wedding and is the godfather of my youngest daughter. Life being what it is, there was some drama with my paintball team/D&D group, and we parted ways for a number of years. In that time I tried out two LARP systems, which taught me a lot about public speaking, improvisation, and confidence. There was a silver lining. I didn't play D&D again for a very long time, though. Then 5E came out. I discovered the Adventurer's League, and made a whole new group of friends. I discovered Acquisitions Incorporated, Dwarven Tavern, and Nerdarchy. I was hooked again. And now my daughter is playing. I introduced her to 5E and my style of DMing, and we talk in "gamer speak" a lot to each other (much to the shagrin of my wife/her mother...who still doesn't "get it"). It's my hope that one day she'll be behind the screen DMing her kids through an amazing adventure. Time will tell.

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