Alternatives to the Heroic PC Approach in One-on-One D&D
Over and over again in advice for setting up a duet game, I see the same thing: make sure the player feels like the hero. Make sure the PC [player’s character] feels like the hero.
I want to push back on this. Not a lot, necessarily, but some.
Because any one-size-fits-all approach is going to leave people out but, even more than that, I worry that the pressure to “feel like the hero” may limit the character choices players make.
There’s nothing wrong with this advice per se, but let’s be sure we’re getting the full picture. To do that, we also need to keep in mind that “being the hero” may mean something very different to one person than it does to another.
The Hero’s Journey
If you don’t know already, Jonathan and I are both English teachers. He teaches high school seniors and I teach at a university. I’m also a novelist.
When we look at why we read, what grips us about a story, it’s so often about the internal struggle a character’s going through rather than the external. Our brains use stories as a means of survival. “If I’m ever in x-situation, I need to know what to do, so I can learn from this story.”
This is especially true of our heroes. At the beginning of the story, the hero is not in an internal position to be the hero the world needs them to be. They have to change.
And it’s the shift in their character, the transformation from who they were to who they could be, that grips us. We may not be able to relate to the external forces they’re facing, but we know what it means to grow in who you are to transcend your circumstances.
That’s why we love heroes.
So why not be the hero?
Having said all of this, why push back against making sure the player feels like the hero?
This is where the biggest caveat comes in, a differentiation between the player feeling like the hero and the character feeling like the hero.
I am all for the people at the table feeling like they’ve transcended themselves and/or their reality to have an unprecedented amount of agency to affect the world around them for the better. That’s beautiful, and that’s why I love RPGs. One of many reasons, at least.
But our lens for doing this is our characters. And characters don’t always feel like the heroes they are. Nor should they have to.
If we look at Lord of the Rings for instance, it’s easy for us to read Frodo as the hero. However, I don’t know that Frodo would cast himself in this light. He has some really promising other options, like Gandalf and Aragorn.
That scene at the end of Return of the King when Aragorn and the people of Gondor have the chance to demonstrate this belief in their heroism to the four hobbits always makes me cry. And part of that is the beauty of the difference between how we see them and how they see themselves.
When we say “be the hero” and we want to ensure that a sidekick, DMPC, or other NPC doesn’t overshadow the PC, let’s also be certain that we’re not shoving them into a box to be a particular type of hero, more of a Captain America than a Frodo.
Maybe the player in question likes to take more of a sidelines approach instead of being in the spotlight. Playing in a duet is a great option for introverts, but they shouldn’t be boxed into playing a character who desires to be the center of attention unless they want to be.
Perhaps playing the most powerful person in a traveling group makes them uncomfortable, or they want to work through their own type of heroism that’s more behind the scenes.
So I’m going to propose an alternative.
Put the emphasis on the player having the agency of choice in the game. They call the shots and determine the narrative’s direction.
This gives them a lot more flexibility in terms of the type of character they’re playing.
Below, I’m going to walk through a couple of examples from our own game to show what this could look like in practice.
The Small Sun
One of the most emotionally moving parts of any hero’s journey is the moment they decide to take action and be the hero. There’s a choice, an acceptance. But that doesn’t mean they feel that they’re acting alone.
My character, Iellieth, is the main character and protagonist of our campaign. The narrative trajectory revolves around her. She’s the one in the position to ultimately save the world.
But only now, more than a year and a half into our game, is she even beginning to see herself that way.
She has powerful companions who come from a heroic past. They don’t ask the same questions she does when they face dangerous situations. They seem immune to hesitation and put “the cause” first. She puts the people she cares about first, and that remains in tension with the larger stakes of the world.
These sorts of internal conflicts between the characters and the world around them are story gold. The internal pressure it puts on decisions makes for interesting and difficult choices and challenging role play.
To her companions, Iellieth is the hero. To our BBEG, Iellieth is the primary enemy (making her the hero). But part of her charm, part of what allows her to be an incredible primary character for our campaign, is her resistance to this self-conception.
So she’s like a small sun, lighting up the space she immediately touches. She’s the heart of her adventuring group, but she couldn’t have gotten as far as she has without them, her heroes. That doesn’t mean she’s overshadowed. She just sees her light differently.
Briseras doesn’t see herself as doing good or righteous work. She’s doing necessary work, and she’s doing it in a way that she knows will allow her to survive.
Part of Briseras’s backstory is witnessing the horrors of demonic invasions and hordes of undead, which makes amazing fodder for a game set in Barovia/Ravenloft. These past experiences have shaped her decision radar. She knows what disaster looks like, and that’s her gauge when deciding on costs and collateral damage.
She doesn’t ask what the right or best decision is, or what she should do. Instead, she wants to know what’s necessary for her to do.
To Briseras, her two companions are good. They look to her as the leader, and she’s determined to help them survive and to kill the vampire they came there to hunt.
She also knows that disaster follows her and that people around her tend to get hurt. She’s accepted this as part of who she is, but it’s not an acceptable fate for her two companions who trust and rely on her.
Antiheroes tend to have a flat arc when it comes to internal change. They don’t experience the same types of character growth as heroes do, but they make things work anyway.
Briseras is really fun to RP, even though things happen in our Curse of Strahd game that she accepts that would horrify Iellieth or Persephonie, my PC for Waterdeep. It’s like stepping out of Middle Earth and into a zombie apocalypse survival situation, or the world of Diablo. Even though we’re still in the same genre, that shift in character creates an entirely different playing experience.
Briseras understands that she’s the group leader in terms that Iellieth would never take on herself. But she, also, wouldn’t say that she’s the hero. She doesn’t see herself as taking center stage in the narrative, as being the main character. That doesn’t mean she’s right, but again, tension between what you know as the player and DM and how your PC sees themselves is fun and intriguing.
I know many people like to use one-on-one games for evil campaigns so you don’t have to manage as much back-stabbing among a multiplicity of evil characters. That’s not something we’ve tried, but I think that provides an interesting counterpoint here as well. Something we always want to keep in mind for vibrant villains is that everyone sees themselves as the hero in terms of justifying their actions and making sense of the world around them.
The new season of Critical Role does a great job with this too. We’re following much more morally ambiguous characters as they make decisions, several of which are less than heroic.
What about you?
I would love to hear from you about how this works in your own game. Does your PC feel like the hero?
How else can we complicate the question of casting the PC as the main character without them necessarily being the “hero”?
However heroic (or not) your character is feeling, we want the player to feel empowered to take as much charge as they would like in the world, and we have some ideas to help them do just that.
- Try adapting some magical items specifically for the character and their class.
- Play around with subclasses and multi-classing options to make them a smidge more powerful than might be standard in a group game.
- Adapt their background and backstory to the world and vice-versa. (Read this post for a Curse of Strahd-specific take.)
- Talk about the differences in your play-styles and preferences.
- Form the central party’s classes and personalities around the PC’s.
If you like what you’re reading, please consider supporting the blog by purchasing our adventures and supplements in our shop or on DMsGuild or sponsoring us on Patreon. We’d also love for you to follow us on Twitter and Instagram. We appreciate you so much! Thank you for reading. – Beth and Jonathan