We’ve mentioned collaborative worldbuilding in a few of our posts, this thing that, we think, duets uniquely enable players and DMs to do together. But what does that actually look like in a campaign?
Adjusting Player-v-DM Mindset
In a duet, because the number of people at the table is so small, the DM and player can approach their storyworld as one they’re both responsible for making together. Yes, the DM has created a setting with problems for the player to interact with and solve, but for this world to be vibrant and organic, you’ll need to be working together to create it.
This shift will depend somewhat on your RPG experience and the particular DM or DMs you’ve played with and/or your own DMing style. For example, Critical Role’s Matt Mercer explains his role as the DM to be guiding the narrative, so it’s not characters vs. DM; it’s characters vs. world, and it’s his job to tell that story and help it unfold.
I hope that presenting duets as collaborative storytelling is a relief, at least to the DMs. You’re not solely responsible for the other person’s activity and enjoyment! Players, you also need to let the DMs know what you would like to see or do, or what you think sounds fun and be sure to communicate what your character wants or needs. We talk about that a bit more in our post on in-game role-playing.
The mental transition from having a party of adventurers to a duet with a primary character is an important for both the player and the DM to make. You don’t have to balance between the desires of a bunch of different characters and people; you get to focus on what sounds interesting to the two of you, which is great! But some of that, at least, takes place off the table.
Who Lives? Who Dies?
This follows pretty closely on the heels of collaborative storytelling. If we gesture very broadly and break fantasy down into two categories—main character-driven and adventuring party—a lot of the time, though of course not always, the main character makes it through to the end, often despite all odds to the contrary.
Step two for collaborative storytelling is that the primary character really needs to survive. They’re the one the entire plot revolves around, not to mention the emotional attachment the player, and likely the DM as well, feel for this character.
I’m not saying that the combats should be easy or that the world shouldn’t be trying to kill them. The player should be scared that the primary character isn’t going to survive because the character is experiencing that emotion when they face large obstacles and enemies.
However, the player really needs to know that the DM is on their side. They need to know that the DM is rooting for them, individually as a person, and for their character, in order, as a player, to throw themselves into storytelling, RP, combat, and their character.
Players, when you’re in a seemingly impossible situation, trust the DM. The two of you are building this world together. That doesn’t mean you get to do something stupid, like take on a pit fiend as a seventh-level character with the two other members of your central party. But it does mean that your partner who is setting up this world for you to cavort around in probably isn’t trying to kill off your character but is, instead perhaps, presenting you with a challenging situation that’s meant to build to something that you and your character can’t see yet.
To explain this further, and more practically, let’s look at some of the things that don’t change between a party-driven game and a duet.
Paying Attention to DM Cues
When you’re just starting out especially, there are plenty of things about the fantasy world that your character, no matter how sheltered, will know that you don’t, so it’s often up to the DM to get you up to speed.
In theater of the mind, or even with minis on a battlemap, you and your character may not know how scary a particular situation is without your DM telling you through subtle, scary hints and clues. This could be as simple as a change in their voice or tone.
“You look at the psychic storm blowing across the Astral Sea and see an adult red dragon.”
Me, when this happened in our game, not in my character voice but as Beth: “Are you serious?”
“An adult one.”
“Ok.” And then we worked on escaping, despite rolling my character’s first death saving throw.
The DM-hinting aspect of the game will remain and may even take on a larger role in a duet. If the primary character and their accompanying central party can’t face something, the DM will let them know, especially as they are also in charge of the central party.
DMing can be really exhausting. It’s a lot of responsibility and involves people and an activity that are important to you.
In a duet, I think it’s possible that this pressure increases as you and your partner have the opportunity to discuss the storyworld outside of the game, and playing will, ideally, become a treasured activity for the two of you to share. The characters in the party will grow in importance to you as well.
Inviting the player to help, during sessions and, maybe eventually, to run entire sessions themselves, can help carve out the breaks you need to work on larger plotlines or locations in your game’s overarching storyline.
Developing the Central Party
We first discovered how far we could push collaborative worldbuilding in our duet when I wrote a session for us that would allow Jonathan to get to know one of our new central NPCs better. We’d had a bit of trouble introducing him to the game but still had high hopes for what adding him to the party might do.
So I DMed my first session. We made it a dream state so that if it went disastrously, we could just un-do it, and Jonathan helped me figure out an end-point so we could transition easily back into the regular storyline.
Jonathan’s note: Some of the most critical conceits of our duet were given flesh in this dreamy one off. Our characters (alongside Beth and me) dealt with the fallout of some of these events for weeks after.
That session, and subsequent subplots that I wrote, some spanning multiple weeks, allowed Jonathan to interact with the NPCs of the central party as his own player characters. Getting to know those two central party characters better by switching the player-DM roles has added so much depth to our game in the long-term because it’s increased the level of complexity and characterization across our central party.
It took several sessions of me DMing before I felt comfortable enough to run a combat, and the storylines I write still remain much lower-stakes than the ones Jonathan crafts for us. If you’re pretty new to D&D or have never thought of yourself as a DM, don’t stress about it now. At some point down the line, if it fits into your duet’s style, a small storyline will come to you. You can write that up and run it for your partner, and who knows where it could go from there!
Jonathan: It has been really fun, as Beth has gotten more and more experienced DMing, seeing how our styles of running the game differ. It adds yet another level of variety and interest to our duets.
It’s one thing to say that a duet should be collaborative, but how does that actually work? When should it happen?
For us, it’s worked best to share responsibility for the smaller things and let Jonathan (as the DM) take care of the larger things. With a few exceptions, I don’t know what’s in store in terms of our game’s overarching narrative, big plot points, boss fights, etc.
However, when it comes to some of the smaller things, like political factions within a city, side-quests, and backstories and histories, we discuss those things together, out-of-game. Sometimes Jonathan will ask me to work on something for a particular place we’re heading, such as putting together a list of names and a city map, so he can work on more of the story details.
Working together in this way spreads out some of the labor of game-making and lets us both be creative and add to our game’s world. The places and stories can be more intricate because one idea sparks another, and we come up with things we never would have on our own.
How do you collaborate in your duet games? What do you like to bring to worldbuilding, on and off the table? We’d love to hear about your experiences or to answer any questions you might have. Feel free to send us an email or drop a comment in the box below!
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