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The Situation

I'm looking for a system that I would be able to GM and have my wife as my only player. I am experienced with RPGs; she is not. She joined a D&D 4e game with me and my friends once and ended up intimidated because we all knew the rules and system well and she did not. I tried to help, but she ended up not making decisions herself and letting me or the party tell her what her best option was (especially in combat, but also out of combat.) My goal is to play a one-on-one game with her to give her a good impression of what RPGs can be and give her the chance to learn how they're meant to be played without any veterans there to make her feel self conscious.

My Requirements

I want a system that's quick and easy to pick up; and also work well without her having to play multiple characters. More specifically:

  • Not crunchy. I want to maximize time getting her to role-play (and also roll-play) and minimize time looking up rules.

  • No grid. Again, I just want straight-forward and narrative, so she isn't stuck deciding on the best tactical move for too long.

  • Quick character creation. This is something she struggled with in 4e, as the powers look similar and feats can be hard to decide upon for a beginner.

  • Doesn't require a party of more than one. Playing multiple characters would make the experience more difficult to pick up and negate the point of this campaign.

  • Easy to GM on-the-fly. I want to be able to focus on getting her involved, and I'd like to create an open, sandbox environment with minimal prep.

I am totally open to any setting or dice system. Ease of learning and playing are more important.

What would you guys recommend? Has anyone else used a one-on-one game to introduce a new player to RPGs altogether? If so, what system did you use and how did it go?

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As this is a game-recommendation question, please adhere to the FAQ, the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and our rules for game recommendations. All responses must cite actual experience or reference others' experiences!

closed as too broad by mxyzplk Apr 12 at 16:07

There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format. Please add details to narrow the answer set or to isolate an issue that can be answered in a few paragraphs.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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While you're open to any setting, it'd be nice to know if you have any favorite genres or even TV shows/books, as there's a good chance there's an RPG based on or similar to them - and if you already know the setting, that's half the complexity of a new game already dealt with. I'd recommend Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space by Cubicle 7 as it's perfect for a single Time Lord in a TARDIS running around fixing everything that's wrong with the universe, and is very rules-light and story-orientated. If you don't like the show though, it's probably a no-go. –  Matt Thomason Mar 8 at 21:38
    
I'm going to close this for the moment. Unfortunately, this description still fits (at least arguably) 90% of RPGs, as can be seen by the spread of answers below. If you can get more specific, or more quantifiable about the existing requirements, it might help. –  mxyzplk Apr 12 at 16:08

8 Answers 8

New players generally come in two sorts: people already well versed in games like Magic and Risk, maybe Strategy Board games and Fantasy Video games. And people without any exposure, trying to get into it because their significant other is already gaming.

It's very easy to find a game for the first group because that's only explaining the rules. They already know the world and the physical rules of that world through movies and books and other games and you can explain the rules in analogies. "That's a fireball. Like that magic card Joe always plays, just with green flames instead".

However, people who never had contact with fantasy gaming in general have a hard time, because they don't have any known points where they could "dock" the new knowledge. Explaining rules or gaming is a real problem if the new player needs to learn roleplaying and fantasy or science fiction at the same time.

From personal experience I'd say that teaching roleplaying is a lot easier when the system is close to reality. For example creating a D&D character isn't hard. It's dead easy. If you know what dwarf and elves are. If you know the difference between a bow and a crossbow. If you know how magic works. If you know a bit about medieval societies. The rules are not the problem. The problem is that if you don't know all this, the rules don't make sense. If you don't know all this, it's just a bunch of made-up mumbo-jumbo. Just imagine someone was showing you a new game and you are supposed to decide if you want to be a huhcnic or a gnarllf. And if you want to be a gnarllf, do you want to have pstakos or hamshuks? Now, the problem is not to chose one or the other, the problem is you simply don't know the consequences. And that makes chosing one over the other pretty pointless and frustrating.

With a game that is set very close to reality, the character sheet makes sense. Want to drive a car? Get driving skill. Want to be a good runner? Get athletics skill. Want to be a hacker? Get computer skill. A character sheet set in todays world should be self-explanatory. And it should keep "strange" stuff that needs explaining like magic and super powers to a minimum.

My personal experience with having one-on-one sessions with new players is limited to Cyberpunk and (for people that like horror stories) Vampire, but any game that is set in todays world should be fine.

It's also pretty easy to GM games set in todays world, because you don't have to prepare a lot. The core adventure idea is normally enough, the rest can be made up on the fly. You already know how the real world works, no need to read books about it.

Both Cyberpunk and Vampire work well in one-on-one scenarios because they don't have a classical role setup that comes from the boardgame heritage. You can be a valid and well-rounded character all by your own. There are countless movies about lone Journalists or Cops (both "classes" in Cyberpunk) and Vampires aren't exactly known to be social to begin with. Due to the fact that Cyberpunk has no super-powers and therefore needs no super-weaknesses to balance this, your character can easily do almost all tasks by himself. Cyberpunk has a Matrix-like cyberware where you can plug-in chips to learn any skill on the fly. Need to fly a helicoper? No problem, buy a chip and be on your way. That's perfect for single character adventures. In addition, neither game has grid or board rules. Both are free-form, even for combat.

D&D for example can be confusing dice-wise, with Attack rolls, saving throws, skill checks and weapon damage all different. Both Vampire and Cyberpunk have a very consistent way to determine success: take the attribute, take the skill, roll dice. The higher, the better.There is only one mechanic. Cyberpunk is even simpler: Attribute + Skill + 1d10. That's it. No need to know more.

If I have to chose a system to show someone roleplaying, who knows nothing about fantasy gaming in general, I will pick Cyberpunk every time.

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Trollbabe

Trollbabe is a very simple system, based on scene-level resolution and distributed narration. It's a great way to hit the ground running with the creative side of roleplaying with a system that encourages big dramatic situations. The best way to understand what it's good for is to just go read some actual play — check out "Heart Ripper."

Trollbabe excellently meets your stated criteria:

  • Not crunchy: there's pretty much only one mechanic to learn, which is understanding what you have to risk to get rerolls.
  • No grid.
  • Quick character creation: pick three stats, all derived from a single number, and you're pretty much set (or, in the case of a non-fantasy setting, character creation is figuring out what to name the three stats and how they should work).
  • Doesn't require a party of more than one: I think it works most elegantly in one-on-one, to be honest.
  • Easy to GM on-the-fly: there's no game-mechanical prep required; the mechanics are focused around shared narration and "play to find out what happens."

It also plays pretty fast, and can be satisfying in small chunks. You can do a lot in a couple of fairly short sessions.

I will warn you, though: Trollbabe isn't built to be a scaled-down version of the D&D experience. It's its own thing, focused on playing a protagonist to the hilt rather than figuring out how to apply your skills to practical challenges. Still, I think that's one of the most important skills for getting the most out of any game, including D&D4.

The built-in setting has a vaguely Nordic theme with callbacks to 70s fantasy art (the hero is a "trollbabe," half human and half troll) but, as "Heart Ripper" demonstrates, it's easy to adapt to all kinds of situations. Really whatever setting you choose will mostly be created in play.

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Leverage

For this instance, I would recommend the Cortex-powered game Leverage, based on the TV show of the same name.

As another answer states, familiar settings are easier to understand the consequences of choices in. Since the game is set today, and stocked with characters familiar to anyone who's seen either the show or, say, Ocean's Eleven, it should work for anyone.

Furthermore, the system is designed to enable awesomeness, forgive mistakes, and be non-lethal. There is even an expansion book dedicated to one-on-one play.

For example, since it's based on the caper genre, when you're halfway into the adventure and your wife says, "D'oh! I should have put a bug in his office when I had the chance!" You can just do it in a flashback.

I will take the rest of your points in order:

  • Not crunchy. The game is very narrative - it leaves it up to the table to decide whether a given attribute applies in most cases rather than providing strict rules. If a distinction only works in certain circumstances, those will be spelled out in plain English.

  • No grid. This game has no grid. Combat, like everything else is taken care of theater-of-the-mind style. Players are free to assume reasonable objects exist in the setting and to utilize them to their advantage.

  • Quick character creation. Character creation is pretty simple, and can be made faster by creating sort of a character skeleton and allowing the selection of appropriate details in play. Don't know which talents to take? Leave it open and then pick one that would be useful when it comes up. This is great for taking the risk and stress out of character creation. This game doesn't run on optimization, either.

  • Doesn't require a party of more than one. Even without the One-on-One Leverage supplement, the game can be played by a single PC. With the supplement, several options for ongoing campaign types are offered.

  • Easy to GM on-the-fly. This game is best when prepped just a little - a victim, a bad guy, and some places to work in. It's not exactly a sandbox - but frankly, a sandbox might suck for your application. Usually, clear goals and means are better than infinite choice for people just getting started.

This game is a lot of fun to run, too, which is the only side of the table I've been on for it.

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Oooh, interesting suggestion. I wasn't aware of the one-on-one expansion. I've run games for two, and they were intense, in a good way. –  Alan De Smet Mar 9 at 0:06

I want to recommend a recently completed kickstarter, Scarlet Heroes.

The game is billed as "Old-school sword & sorcery heroics for a single player and GM".

What's my experience with it?

I've been working on the playtest, so as a long term campaign, I don't have the experience of how it will play out in that way. But for one-on-one one shots, I've done some playtesting, up to an including the release candidate version.

Why do I recommend it?

Not Crunchy

Though it closely resembles the standard D&D type system, there are only four main mechanics over 8 pages in the rulebook. Rolls are only called for if the DM calls for them as they would reasonably tax the hero- otherwise narrative takes the day. As the characters are supposed to be that hero, failure should be because of mischance at some great trouble rather than a lack of skill on their part. For me, the familiarity made it easy to run and explain without constant reference. My counterpart was also familiar, so it made it that much easier, but I don't think it's particularly hard to pick up.

No Grid

Though it does reference movement and such, we played it with only references to distance and such, and no use of a battlemap nor any similar crutch.

Quick character creation

Standard character creation isn't that involved- roll attributes, choose race and class, the choose a number of traits. Traits are a few words to describe something a character has been or is good at doing. In anything that crosses that particular trait, a character is considered skilled/proficient, and that drives the use of narrative rather than skill checks in those situations. For example, if someone has the trait "Wanted to follow his father as a fisherman", then you'd assume he knew how to sail if it came up, so there would be no skill checks unless there was an unusual storm or some threat was chasing him.

In addition to this, there are tables for quick character creation with example traits- roll a few dice, and you have your character.

Doesn't require a party of more than one

This game is made for one on one play. In fact, you have to adjust for the presence of more than one PC if you intend to tailor it for more than one. Why is that?

  • All damage dice are scaled down for heroes, and up for monsters. For heroes, each die that rolls 1 does no damage, 2-5 does 1 point, 6-9 does 2 points, and 10+ does 4 points. For NPCs, they can take as much damage as their hit dice.
  • The PC has a fray die, that represents incidental damage to lower level opponents Each round the hero is in combat with opponents that have the same or less HD than his level, the die can be rolled, and the damage applied to any opponent that qualifies.
  • In the case that the hero is left with a situation that their skills cannot handle, they can 'Defy Death' Personally, I think that the skill should be called Defy Danger as in Dungeon World, because it works similarly to that. It's a last ditch effort to overcome some situation that they are actually not fit to perform, whether it's get past a magical ward, break into a trapped chest, or resist some sort of unresistable damage.

There's also a whole area on converting things from other adventures for one on one play, and tips on changing GM mentality for solo play. In fact, the conversion was the reason for the way that damage was scaled rather than just changing to a different way of inflicting/taking it.

Easy to GM on-the-fly.

Scarlet Heroes was made to be a sandbox type of game, and to exploit the shift to solo play with more personal stories, rather than pre-planned arcs. There's a whole section on this shift in paradigm, and how to generate things on the fly to make the game tailored to the player's experience, rather than the GM's preconceived idea of a campaign. The GM basically sets up the situation, and allows the PC to experience it however he chooses. As GM, you can put as much or as little preparation as you desire into making a story arc, but are encouraged to not assume that the PC will even encounter that particular preparation.

The built in setting is a summary of the Red Tide campaign setting from a previous product. If you want to use the whole setting, that source is very much recommended, but by no means necessary. It's a really cool setting with more than a bit of a Chinese and Japanese flair (not combined, just adjacent)- very old school in its feel.

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You beat me to it... I saw the question and immediately thought "Scarlet Heroes!" –  Dave Sherohman Mar 9 at 10:43
    
-1 You make a good case for it mechanically, but Scarlet Heroes has some Orientalist elements that I think are gonna be hard to overlook. –  Alex P Apr 11 at 17:02
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@wraith808 All of my votes assume "the game shouldn't have uncomfortable baggage" is an implicit requirement. I think Scarlet Heroes fails that test for a couple of reasons, as detailed by people more knowledgeable and eloquent than myself here and here. My comment was an attempt to highlight that problem without being too push about it. I apologize if I didn't communicate that well. –  Alex P Apr 11 at 21:04
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While Scarlet Heroes does contain setting information, it's specifically designed to work with old (and OSR) D&D modules and their settings. Stripping out any Orientalist elements and putting it in a different setting would be trivial. –  Dave Sherohman Apr 12 at 9:24
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@AlexP Ouch. Ouch ouch. I was letting the publisher coast on their decent job on Spears of the Dawn and never looked close at Scarlet Heroes. What the hell went wrong there?! Offensive setting info doesn't ever need to hit the table, sure, but it can't be stripped out of the actual book you have to read and use... –  SevenSidedDie Apr 12 at 17:09

Dungeon World

  • Not crunchy. Everything a player needs fits one two sides of a character sheet and two sides of a reference sheet. Most of the time you're only using one side of the reference sheet, half of which is art. The core rules are simple: 2d6+a stat; 6=Bad things happen, 10+=Exactly as you wanted, 7-9=You get what you want at a cost.

  • No grid. Done. It does strongly encourage fictional positioning, which is arguably tactical, but I think you'll find it works well. It does also encourage drawing maps, but not from a tactical sense, more in a "getting a shared sense of world" sense.

  • Quick character creation. Everything you need is on the two sided character sheet. With experience, it's less than 10 minutes. Without, closer to 20, although you'll probably shave 5 minutes off since you'll be ignoring the "bonds" rules at first (they require other PCs).

  • Doesn't require a party of more than one. Balance is strongly in the GM's hands (make more soft moves than hard moves; that'll makes sense when you read it). I'm currently running a one-one-one game for a 7-year-old, and it's going great.

  • Easy to GM on-the-fly. Dungeon World tells you to "leave blanks" on your maps so you can space to improvise, to "ask questions, use the answers", which many (myself included) take to mean "ask the players about the world and incorporate it." After the first session you focus not on creating maps and stats, but on Fronts, rough outlines of bad stuff that will happen if the PCs don't get involved. A lot of effort in advance planning tends to encourage more linear advenures, Dungeon World calls upon the GM to "play to find out what happens."

Bonus stuff

  • D&D tropes. Dungeon World is built on the tropes of RPG fantasy games. It'll feel familiar to anyone who has played D&D. It will provide a good grounding to anyone who hasn't.

  • Speed. Dungeon World can move fast. Our group will often accomplish more in a session than we would in multiple sessions of D&D. And it does this without feeling like you're glossing over details.

Negatives

  • Size. It's easy for a player to get into, but a more for a GM. The print copy is about 400 pages. And as a GM, you really should read most of it. A lot of stuff about why Dungeon World works is throughout the book. The sections that would be GM advice in other games is essential to making it work. On the up side, once you understand the game it's easy to run without referencing the book.

  • Erroneous assumptions. Dungeon World looks like a D&D-style game, but D&D assumptions can bite you as a GM. Unfortunately the book isn't always great at helping you realign your expectations. On the up side, I found that the Dungeon World Guide helped me understand some unspoken assumptions in the game.

Everything you need to play is the rules: one copy, another copy, and the character sheet/reference sheet PDF. If you find you like it, I'm sure the authors would appreciate your buying a copy, but the free online stuff is there with their blessing.

Not negatives

The most obvious objection someone might make to this suggestion is that Dungeon World isn't suited to one-on-one play because of its strong niche protection. However, I'm actually doing it and it's working well. It's a robust game:

  • I've found that as long as I be a fan of the character and remember to make the give an opportunity that fits a class’ abilities GM move, it works out.

  • The occasional move ends up unused, as do bonds, but it hasn't really mattered.

  • Dungeon World already assumes that you will have an arbitrary mix of classes that won't necessarily cover every niche. Since it recommends 3–5 players, it's designed with the assumption that many classes will be absent anyway. I've found that with one-on-one play, more of them being absent isn't any different.

Two more points from okeefe:

  • With only one player, the GM can customize the situations toward one class (and occasionally not doing so fits with show a downside to their class).

  • Some classes have advancements that let you borrow moves from other classes, letting you expand the scope of the customised situations as the player desires.

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+1, mostly for how you addressed the negatives / things-that-look-like-negatives-at-first-glance. –  Alex P Apr 18 at 19:57
    
Downvote revoked, great edit! –  gomad Apr 20 at 7:46

Heroes Unlimited

Character creation is fast, it handles everything from ancient weapons to modern ones, though the skills are modern. The system is old and has some inconsistencies, but if you're looking for a campaign that will let you play hard and fast with the rules, its one of the best systems I've used if players just want to roleplay, and get combat over with fairly quickly.

Skill checks are simple: Player has 65% in stealth. They need to roll 65 or less on 2d10. The opposing player (NPC) who has a detect skill of 55% rolls.

If the player rolled 64, and the opponent rolled 56, she wasn't seen. This balances abilities quite nicely, and in most cases success/fail doesn't take much thought.

The system allows the GM to string game rules around at will. And no grids!!!

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I'm a fan of Mutants and Masterminds, a d20 Superhero game. For 3E/DC Adventures, they have a Quick Start Guide involving Batman versus Bane and one for Superboy versus Knockout. There was a 2E adventure called the Beginner's Guide that had a self-contained adventure in the form of a choose-your-own adventure style with rolls that they offered for free on the RPG sites, but it looks like they've purged most of the 2E materials from Green Ronin. Still one I highly recommend if you can get a copy.

Anyhow, Mutants and Masterminds is a very simple system at its core, using one die to do everything, but allows a lot of flexibility as you get further into it. And, as a super-hero setup, it's easy to have a single hero fighting against everything from multiple minions to a worthy foe to trying to navigate the latest deathtrap (anyone else wonder how Superheroes keep getting kidnapped to get dropped in these things?).

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Mage: Free-form gaming based around story-telling, not esoteric sets of rules. The character sheet is a single page, and after learning the basics of how the game works can be ignored in favor of interactive story-telling. The most difficult part of Mage is probably for the GM who will have to unlearn many of the habits that a standard dice-fest requires of them.

Mage is set in White Wolfs World of Darkness. They have numerous games based in that world all with similar methods of story-telling; Vampire, Werewolf, etc.. Mage is a thinkers game where story-telling and role-playing is of highest importance. With a competent GM at the helm it can be a great ride, but it can also be a great challenge. Try it out, I would be willing to bet your wife would enjoy it.

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Since this is a game-rec question, you need to share your experience actually running this in a one-on-one, and demonstrate how it meets the asker's criteria. It's clear you have experience with the Mage system based on your other answer, but in game recommendations, we get a lot of answers that amount to "sure, my system can probably do that." You need to demonstrate that it really can, based on experience. –  Jonathan Hobbs Mar 9 at 6:10
    
I can't even tell whether you're pitching Mage of freeform-with-the-Mage-setting. –  Alex P Mar 9 at 8:29
    
Hm, perhaps I should stop answering game-rec questions, hehe. I'll add bullet points to the above answer in a bit here so that the answer is more specifically targeted at answering the askers questions. Thanks again Jonathan, your direction is appreciated. –  HeavyAl Mar 9 at 8:36
    
@HeavyAl Game-rec questions are far apart from other questions because of the demands we place on answers. I don't answer game-rec questions myself, but perhaps choose which ones to answer carefully, and when it's something you've done. :) –  Jonathan Hobbs Mar 15 at 5:28
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@HeavyAl Just a ping to remind you to update this, if you have the time now. :) –  SevenSidedDie Apr 11 at 16:59

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