In part of a campaign I'm creating, I'm considering creating a challenge that only involves one party member at a time. I have in mind a colosseum-esque challenge in which party members have the option to fight against various monsters alone in order to win an exotic mount or magic item. As the party members advance through each increasingly difficult stage of the challenge, the value of the prize likewise increases. I want the challenge to only involve one party member at a time, as I believe that fighting alone may require very different thinking than does fighting alongside other party members.

I personally think this is a pretty cool idea, but I'm concerned that other players who are not immediately involved in the challenge will be bored. How can I avoid this?

I can provide more details regarding the challenge if necessary.

up vote 46 down vote accepted

The way I’ve always handled extended one-on-one play scenarios is to actually have them as separate one-on-one sessions between the regular sessions.

When I can do it in person that is ideal, but in practice I end up doing it by voice more often than in person, since that’s more flexible.

Using separate sessions of play with just the lone player lets you start and complete the side events without boring other players. For a scenario like yours, where events are “on demand”, I find it works very well for everyone involved. Then too your players all have stories to share when they and their characters meet again during your regular session.

  • I'm not sure this actually answers the question explicitly; because it suggests an alternative without saying "By the way, don't do this." I think being clear about how this answers the question would be good. – blurry Aug 20 at 18:13
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    I don’t know: is it necessary to say “don’t do X, do Y instead” when I’m already saying “the thing that works best is do Y”? We do put a premium on “I have done Y and it works out like Z” rather than on other forms of advice. – SevenSidedDie Aug 20 at 19:32

Frame challege: Don't, this is not a good idea

First to answer your question, to keep players from getting bored, simply don't bring them along. Have your sessions one-on-one with the players involved so nobody has to sit there, twiddling their thumbs.

However, you're overlooking a far bigger problem.

How exactly do you plan to accomodate players who chose to be the party face or support character? They're going to feel extremely underappreciated having to fight things one-one-one to get stuff when they aren't geared towards that.

Imagine how a similar scenario where every player has to do some research and then convince the king by themselves is going to feel for your barbarian who dump-statted int and charisma and just wants to hit some stuff.

Beware frustrated PCs, even if they don't get bored.

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    That is a good point about non fighting chars, instead of being all combat could it be diff challenges for each player, so a bard has to entertain a horde of goblins or face being ripped to shreds, if anyone is a dedicated to healing, they have to triage behind the scenes at the arena for the other contestants etc. – WendyG Aug 20 at 9:07
  • Another idea (that I haven't actually tested) might be. To make the arena 2-player affairs. That way, depending on the party composition, You could have fighting/support duos. But diversifying the challenges is a must – 3C273 Aug 20 at 12:08
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    @Theik, I had considered that as well, so I was planning on personalizing each challenge, taking each PC’s strengths and weaknesses into consideration. – KSchank Aug 20 at 16:03

Isolate the characters into separate arenas, but have them all going at the same time.

For example, say you have a rogue, a fighter and a mage. Have the fighter attack their goblin, then the rogue attack their stirge, then the mage attack their imp. Then have the goblin, the stirge and the imp go. Then repeat.

Sort of like a music festival with more than one stage going on at the same time.

This way, the game has the normal flow but each character is in their own privately tailored challenge.

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    Have you run/played something like this in your own games? How has it worked out in your experience? – V2Blast Aug 19 at 21:31
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    I did this in a one-shot I ran recently. The feedback I got from the players was that in contrast to the structure @GMNoob suggested, they would prefer to have both their turn and the enemy's turn before moving on to the next player, but this method kept the combat fast-paced and allowed everyone to participate without a heavy burden on the GM. – Aliden Aug 20 at 12:47
  • I think this method also leaves time to the players who aren't very used to playing solo to think of their next move between turns. – Louis Aug 20 at 13:27
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    I have run at least two encounters where a single party member had split from the group and had a separate fight. Both times I just fit everyone into the normal initiative order and jumped back and forth as their turns came up. Both times it worked very well. – aherocalledFrog Aug 20 at 13:44
  • I've done this as well - running separate encounters simultaneously in the same initiative order. It worked fairly well, but wasn't as fun as a normal encounter where the characters can actually interact with each other. – starchild Aug 20 at 18:25

In one of the campaigns where I've been a PC, one of the other PCs had to go for a reconnaisance mission while the other PCs had nothing to do.

To solve the problem of the other players just sitting around, the DM had the rest of us play some of the NPCs. Not only did it solve the problem of us having nothing to do, but to me it was also one of the best parts of that campaign, as it shook things up a bit and allowed us to briefly slip into other characters.

So my suggestion would be to let the other players take over as the monsters.

Let the other characters "fight in spirit."

Occasionally scenes come up in my campaigns, usually not by design, where one player character is faced with a challenge while the others are absent and unable to contribute directly.

For situations such as these, I've had great success adapting the Fighting in Spirit rule from 13th Age. Below is the text of the rule, with 13th Age-specific stuff rephrased into Dungeons & Dragons terminology. (The original is available in the the 13th Age SRD):

Fighting in Spirit

This is a special combat action that you can take when you are out of the fight altogether. [On your turn] you can specify how your character is still there ‘fighting in spirit’ alongside the other party members. Come up with some story about what your character has done that could boost party morale. The GM may grant any ally [advantage on an attack roll, ability check, or saving throw or impose disadvantage on an enemy's attack roll, ability check, or saving throw]....

The [benefit] lasts one to two rounds. If the fight is still on and you have something else to add to the story, sell it to the GM.

If you’re still (even partly) in the fight, then you can’t fight in spirit.

This technique serves several purposes that make it very effective for combat encounters with a single player character combatant:

  1. It includes the other players even though their characters are not present.

  2. It encourages roleplaying on the part of the absent characters' players but also allows for less roleplay-inclined players to fall back on their characters' game features. Both narrative and mechanics can be used to justify how a player's character contributed in spirit.

  3. It builds rapport among the players and their characters by framing cooperation in terms of spirited support rather than everybody standing in a circle and wailing on an enemy.

  4. It smooths out the inherent challenge imbalance of combat involving one player character, since D&D is not designed for combats with a party of size 1. The solo character has a fighting chance in a reasonably designed combat challenge, even against a solo boss monster.

In general, only 1 or 2 players per round will desire to contribute by "fighting in spirit," but those who do not contribute are usually just as engaged, since the entire absent party will be discussing how best to help their friend in the solo challenge they face.

This technique can also be used outside of combat. Whether in combat or out of combat, you may also consider allowing the solo character to benefit from their absent companions' actual features, such as by allowing them to remotely receive Bardic Inspiration or to benefit from a Paladin's aura remotely due to favor from the gods.

If you use this technique, I recommend handling one player's solo challenge all the way through before switching to another player's solo challenge. Otherwise, without this technique, I usually interleave the different players' scenes as mentioned in GMNoob's answer, but that technique might be confusing combined with this technique.

Don't.

Not as you quoted it.

Contrary to what I just said, I've done this successfully with one character here and there and actually in my last two consecutive sessions.

In one, a lone member could appropriately disguise, and successfully went through a long complex, convinced people he was there to see the leader, stealthily unlocked the door and snuck around the leader's room; disguised himself as such (Risky!) and came out the other side (An aside: I also had those players help drawing the map as he went through, which may have helped in the elaborate dungeon)

Why did people care about this? Why was it fine for only one person? They were invested in the result and it was very risky. Cheers around the table on high rolls and concern as he went through each corridor. They were invested because they considered many ideas over that session and felt hopeless at any other approach. This felt like their last chance, so they got him to go through and each roll was a big deal as it could result in the death or capture of their party member.

In a second one, someone they thought they were cooperating with started sprinting off with their evidence and they gave chase. Quickly, three of them were lagged behind severely and the last was jumping creeks, climbing cliffs, and skirting a waterfall as he gave chase; capturing the escapee. (In this case, the other players got to do stuff until they had failed "too badly"; which left a single player performing the chase.)

Again, the players were invested in the actions of the single person being successful. They needed the success and knew it could result in Bad Things happening if they didn't get it. He succeeded and as such saved the party from a harder campaign down the road.

Why were they invested

Because there was a real chance of failure. Why do you watch a show even if you know the outcome? Because you literally don't know how they'll escape; and the ante is upped if you know Death is a real possibility.

So why am I saying no?

Because you aren't saying you want to do it once; you want to do it four times in one session. You will have some very bored players because you cannot keep investment on each one.

One last example where I did as GMNoob suggested:

The PCs could participate in a demi-god's challenge to earn her favor; but had to be worthy combatants. As they entered a portal they were each transported to different arenas where they fought a single opponent in an interesting area.

Side note on the above; which was very risky on my part: If one successfully completes the challenge long before the others would; they will get bored. The Angry GM says that basically any combat where a player isn't making actual decisions for 3 turns should end. So if the only option you have is casting Magic Missile for the 4th time and standing there; the GM dun goofed and should've provided a more interesting scene.

The same goes for the above and why i'm a hard "No." You're looking at having 3 players, for many more than 3 rounds, do nothing at all; and then do that 3 more times.

Fine, how do I fix it?

Have them select a single player to run the gauntlet. All are relying on his success or failure. Maybe let them buff him and whatnot before hand; share gear to give him the best chance; and you as the GM better be well prepared for if he fails. If that means he dies and the campaign goes in a different direction; that's what happens. Why? because you need investment.

Finally, ONLY do the above if its the player's choice. My players chose to do the chase, chose to infiltrate the tunnel system, chose to enter the portal. The campaign did not hinge on them doing it; and they could walk away (with some consequence.)

This is what makes them potentially dying OK: They chose an action and knew it was very dangerous. If they die then it will feel just even though it would be depressing. Player deaths suck a lot more when it feels like the GM pushed them into a situation and they couldn't do anything about it.

EDIT:

Another idea

You could also have a guantlet where other players can pull levers to affect it; making it more or less challenging depending when they pull various levers. This may have them running around testing them before the first PC gets there, remembering and coordinating the use of levers as the main PC moves through. I think i'll have to loot this idea.

I believe a scene like this exists in the various Saw films.

Keep the single-player sessions brief.

My DM ran an session where we took turns fighting NPCs one-on-one in an arena. He ran it while we were all in person during a regular session, and when it wasn't our turn, we just sat and watched, taking in the shenanigans happening to our friends. Contrary to the advice everyone is giving here, it was a ton of fun, and everyone was engaged throughout the whole session even when it wasn't their turn! It can absolutely work.

Our DM did a few things that I think made this a lot more successful:

  • He kept each individual fight brief. It took each of us 10-20 minutes to complete our fights, including roleplaying before and afterwards. We were able to get through all of the battles in about two hours and continue with the rest of the session in a single night.
  • He let us know he wanted to run an arena fighting session the session beforehand and asked us if we were on board. This way, we knew what to expect, and he knew that we were all excited about it.
  • He let other players play the NPCs we fought. As a result, everyone participated in two fights, not just one, which decreased the amount of time we were waiting.
  • The arena fights went on a little longer than he was expecting. He was hoping to let us each have two fights, but after two hours, all of us, including him, wanted to move on. So he came up with a good excuse to end the fights and moved on to the next thing before the session lost its fun.

One-on-one fights during a session with everyone at the table can work! We all enjoyed ourselves when we tried it. Make sure to keep the one-on-one fights brief, get your players' buy-in, and be willing to move on if the fights seem to be overstaying their welcome, and you can make your session work as well.

Beside the other great answers I have another approach to offer:

In a session I had with some friends there was a similar situation were one of the characters competed in an arena whilst the others were doing something else.

I would stretch it out. Maybe it's something like the 'Olympics of hitting goblins'. So that the event is not on one day but stretched into one week or month. So each session there would be one fight whilst the others could go shopping or make a minor quest. This way you can even make things more exiting. Imagine it like this:

The ogre was able to hit you prone. You lie on the ground whilst he prepares his next attack

Okay Cornelius back to you. You want to negotiate a better price for this staff +2

  • OK, why is this a good idea? – Cubic Aug 20 at 10:36
  • [The ogre was able to hit you prone. You lie on the ground whilst he prepares his next attack Okay Cornelius back to you. You want to negotiate a better price for this staff +2] Um... How exactly is this more exciting? – Deo Aug 20 at 11:18
  • It creates suspension. And you split the attention instead of just focusing on one character for a long time – CKA Aug 20 at 12:17

One option is to simply have the other characters cheering on. Of course depends on your players but an example of what I'm talking about are the Critical Role episodes

http://criticalrole.wikia.com/wiki/Hubris

and

http://criticalrole.wikia.com/wiki/The_Rematch

Both are really heavy centered around one of the characters having a fight while all the other characters are just hanging around, betting on the outcome, trying to help but getting stopped by NPC judges etc. Let the other players have a RP session while one is fighting.

  • Have you tried this at an actual session of your own and experienced success with it? What works in a campaign filmed with actors for a web series will not necessarily work in a home game. – Bloodcinder Aug 20 at 14:18
  • It’s worth noting that the “players” of Critical Role are professionals doing an improv performance for an audience of viewers and listeners, so the realities of spotlight management a vastly different due to individuals having professional motivation and training to gracefully take a back seat or even miss out on “getting to play” whenever necessary. – SevenSidedDie Aug 20 at 17:52
  • I have with success similar to Spades answer here. Key is on the DMs shoulders to balance combat with RP. I had EVERYONE role initiative and still let them each do their turn whether or not involved in the combat scene. 1 player went to the other part of town and robbed a store using the fight scene as a distraction. I had to think quickly on that cause I was not expecting it at all but ran with it. Made it very fun and interesting. I highly recommend both of those episodes mentioned here as I used those fights heavily for my preparations. – Software_Programineer Aug 20 at 21:21

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