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I am preparing to run a single person campaign for a friend and I'm not quite sure how to provide them enough roleplaying opportunities, especially since a big part of the campaign will involve travelling in the wilderness by themselves with relatively few opportunities to meet NPCs and they're very excited about the character and showing off their personality.

We have already excluded the idea of me playing a permanent companion in the form of a side-kick or DMPC - for multiple reasons but the most important one is that it's not the experience they want, they are specifically after the "travelling wilderness by themselves" feeling and besides, I'm not too keen on playing a whole character in addition to DMing either.

So far I am considering giving them some sort of sentient item that they could talk to at times but that "wakes up" and responds on its own terms so it's not just a constant chatterbox that I have to devote energy to keep playing.

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    \$\begingroup\$ By "roleplaying" do you mean "interacting with other characters"? Because I don't think the latter is a requirement for the former. \$\endgroup\$
    – VLAZ
    May 14 at 10:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @VLAZ not necessarily, I mean "any ways for them to express the personality of their character", without being able to bounce off other party members \$\endgroup\$
    – AnnaAG
    May 14 at 11:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AnnaAG As VLAZ alludes, the word "roleplaying" has suffered from semantic broadening, such that some people use it to mean "thinking and making decisions from the point of view of someone other than yourself," and others use it as shorthand for "talking in-character" or "improvisational acting." Your question would be improved by clarifying what definition of "roleplaying" you are using; at present, an answerer or answer-upvoter has to guess - and while they might get it right, they also might miss the mark entirely. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    May 14 at 22:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ There is nonverbal roleplay. You should think about something where "the woods" is a character with her own opinions and ways of expressing herself. \$\endgroup\$
    – order
    May 17 at 4:30

6 Answers 6

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I would suggest that you don't need to do anything in particular, at least at first. Consider:

  • Your player is specifically interested in the "'travelling wilderness by themselves' feeling" - why not simply take this at face value?
  • You can always add some sort of companion, especially one like a talking sword. It's a lot harder, in an RPG, to take one away in a fun, natural manner.
  • If, after playing for a while, the player agrees with you, they can seek out companionship in character. The lonely ranger adopts a wolf cub, that sort of thing. Does it matter if it can't talk back? You can always say something like 'Rex whimpers softly, as if sympathising with you' as an answer. I feel like this would capture the spirit of the 'alone in the wilderness' genre quite nicely.
  • There certainly is literature where the protagonist is alone for a significant portion of the story; you could look to that for inspiration. Generally, I think that if the protagonist is given character development it is after a few chapters of being a somewhat mysterious figure, to set the tone properly.
  • You can get a similar result to in-character conversations with what in other media would be narration. Why not ask your player what the character is thinking and feeling? Ask the player to have their player summarise an encounter after playing through it, e.g. "It was tough, and I'm battered and bruised. But I proved once again that I am the apex predator here."
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    \$\begingroup\$ The Martian is the modern classic example of this, both the book and the movie. In both, Mark Watney is recording his thoughts into an audio or video log, but in the case of a TTRPG the player can either be keeping a diary or simply telling the GM their thoughts, which can be either profound or (as with Watney) more of a smart mouth. \$\endgroup\$ May 15 at 22:54
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Some encounters can be talking encounters

Unless your wilderness is completely uninhabited and trackless, there are opportunities to meet others. Examples:

  • Another traveler in the wilderness
  • A trade caravan
  • A captive of some monster
  • An inn at a lonely crossroads
  • A shepherd or a farmstead
  • A talking monster (a sphinx or similar)
  • An isolated village

These are all opportunities for your adventurer to meet someone and role-play.

Of course, these encounters can be fairly brief, or longer. For instance, your player's PC and a fellow traveler NPC can choose to share a brief break, a campfire, or a thousand-mile journey. Or perhaps someone the PC meets is someone they return to in the future. Maybe the PC spends a week helping a village to defeat attacking gnolls. The possibilities are really endless.

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I might suggest making portions of the campaign about the journey. What I mean is, thinking about what actually happens in terms of encounters and situations on that journey.

For example, I ran a campaign once that required the players to travel an extensive distance by ship. I was trying to come up with enough encounters on the ship to even fill a single session. I decided instead to have the ship be it's own story. They talked with the crew, learned some backstories, made some friends (some of whom they even used as contacts later in the campaign).

During the journey they encountered things like pirate raids, with grappling hooks and fighting on the deck. As this was happening, a storm blew in, and everyone had to make dexterity saves every few turns as waves hit the ship. They had to try to cut (or burn) the ropes that had been fired into their ship by ballistae while fighting.

In the wilderness, have them come across towns and cities, maybe a hidden village in the forest (which they could conveniently find by "failing" a tracking/survival skill check).

Merchants on the roads, pilgrims on a spiritual journey, strange talking creatures in the forests, unique plants and geology. A vista few people have ever seen, with some kind of enchantment on the area placed there by a local "witch".

Many of these places could harbor unique NPCs and chances for conversation and discovery.

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Throw in some "Lone Hero Against Nature" encounters.

Read some Jack London or Robinson Crusoe, then have the hero deal with storms, losing their way in the fog, and being attacked by cougars. Make him hunt for food. Let him discover that the bridge across the chasm has fallen to disrepair, and he can either search for a better route, repair the bridge, or try to cross without falling.

Most of these involve skill checks; let him roleplay for bonuses, such as searching for the best building materials, or coming up with ways to not get lost.

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Focusing in on a couple pieces of your question and comments:

… a big part of the campaign will involve travelling in the wilderness by themselves … and they're very excited about the character and showing off their personality.

We have already excluded the idea of me playing a permanent companion in the form of a side-kick or DMPC - for multiple reasons but the most important one is that it's not the experience they want, they are specifically after the "travelling wilderness by themselves" feeling

… I mean "any ways for them to express the personality of their character", without being able to bounce off other party members

It kind of sounds to me like your friend already has a companion in mind…

Nature

It sounds to me like your friend might be interested in exploring their character's relationship with nature. The dusty trail. The open road. Spacious skies. Amber waves of grain. Purple mountain majesties!

There's a lot you can learn about a character by just letting them exist in the world on their own—man against nature is one of the classic narrative conflicts. How do they feed themselves? How do they pass time? How do they react to danger? How do they overcome obstacles? Do they take the direct route, or the scenic route? How do they even know where they're going, and what do they do if they get lost?

Beyond the large questions, there are the small ones too. They come to a river crossing that looks too deep to wade—how do they get across? They happen upon an injured animal—what do they do? They're stuck out in the open and see a storm rolling in—what now? They pass by an old homestead that looks abandoned—do they explore? Let them play in this role of lone traveler, and let them explore their character with you. As one of the great loners of literature once said, “It's not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.

And nature doesn't have to just be a backdrop. T.A. Barron writes,

Nature plays a crucial role in all my books. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I treat the natural world not merely as a setting, a backdrop for my stories — but as a full-blown character. Places are alive, just like you or me! They have moods, histories, and qualities that can be bizarre, humorous, tragic, mysterious, or inspiring. Part of my job as a writer is to make those places so real, so sensuous, so fully alive, that readers want to voyage there again and again.

Nature as a Character

In D&D, the players get to control their characters, and you the dungeon master get to control everything else. You don't need anything as mundane as an NPC to interact with your player—the world is your NPC!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Did you write your answer the same time as me? You parallel what I was saying! \$\endgroup\$ May 17 at 3:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ @ShawnV.Wilson I must have! :D I like your book recommendation. \$\endgroup\$ May 17 at 4:36
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5e D&D has some personality characteristic mechanics in it. They basically boil down to "gain inspiration".

Double down on it.

I'd also recommend using "gritty rests"; short rests are overnight in a secure place, and long rests take a week in a secure place. Sleep is still required.

To be generous, allow expending hit dice to regain a level of exhaustion (roll a 5+, including constitution modifier) during a short rest. You could also allow them to roll all of their expended HD from before the rest and recover everything that lands on a 6+ if the rest is particularly good.

Then wilderness challenge is going to be a game of attrition and attempts to secure rests. Inspiration - the ability to get rerolls - should be key.

Have some checks, where failure has consequences. Allow rerolls by either inspiration (where the reroll is with advantage) or by taking a level of exhaustion.

Use the D&DOne exhaustion - each level of exhaustion causes a -1 penalty on all d20 tests. Add in throw in -10% max HP per level and -10% speed for more fun. Death occurs at level 11.

Gage each overnight rest:

  • No rest: you suffer 1d4 levels of exhaustion
  • Poor rest: you suffer a level of exhaustion
  • Minimal rest: you don't get a level of exhaustion
  • Good rest: You gain the benefits of a short rest
  • Excellent rest: You can expend a HD to regain a level of exhaustion on a 5+ (including con bonus), or expend a HD to regain that much ability damage.
  • Amazing rest: Roll all expended HD from before the rest. Any even rolls 4 or higher are regained.

Keep track of supplies. Each day you ideally require 5 pounds of food and 5 pounds of water (I picked 5 as it is a round number and close enough) when reasonably active, moreso if you are more active. Hunted animals can be turned into food at a rate determined by a survival check.

Your ability to store food and water will be limited; so you'll constantly be trying to find food and water. When you are short, you'll be making constitution checks to avoid exhaustion.

All of this is providing the mechanical framework. The goal is to make the player really really want those rerolls that inspiration gives.

By making inspiration a reroll with advantage, and making the rolls be relatively rare but high-stakes, it means that the player roleplaying their character between rolls becomes important.

I'd allow the player to keep more than 1 inspiration, to avoid "why would I roleplay when I already have one", but if you already have inspiration you have to pass a check to get more; say, a flat d20 roll against (10+number of inspiration you have).

That will prevent building up an infinite stockpile, while also rewarding continued "self roleplay".

Instead of calling for a check on every action, just keep track of if the character is trained and if the player's plan is solid. Narrate successes. (ask for rolls more often on untrained stuff).

Only once in a while require a check after a complication happens. The goal is that any check you make has a significant failure consequence. Your goal is to tell a story, not roll d20s.

"You travel for 3 days and make it to the other side of the grasslands. Finding small game has been easy, but there hasn't been much water; your water skin is almost empty" for example. No check really needs to be made, except now the player needs to find water. The stakes are higher than a daily "did you find food" check.

Have enough rolls that the player doesn't get to keep an insane bank of inspiration. You can actually keep track of how high the player has stacked their inspiration and respond with a more complex problem to be dynamically evil.

I'd attempt to time box the travel time in real-world pacing. Decide up front how many sessions it will involve. Change your mind based on how fun it is working out. Have a combat encounter in your back pocket to "spring" on the character to eat up time if your "travel" mechanics aren't turning out to be fun, and revise next session.

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