In this introductory post for our new series (and hopefully new game shared online with you!), I’m going to cover some initial thoughts on character creation and session zero ideas. Early on in planning a campaign, there will be several things still up in the air, but starting with character is key to building a strong narrative foundation.
While this is an important aspect to any D&D game, character creation is especially important in one-on-one D&D because the story revolves around the PC!
We suggest spending extra time on this when adapting published campaigns in particular because the narrative has already been outlined for you. It’ll be a lot easier for the character to remain invested in the campaign’s arc if they’ve been created, on the front end, for this particular campaign, which will help you as the DM tailor the campaign to them.
PC and DMPC
We suggest using a DMPC in your one-on-one game. This DMPC may mechanically function as a sidekick or they might have a full character sheet, but either way, you need someone in the world of the game for your character to talk to, walk around with, and bounce ideas off of.
When we were first talking about running Descent, we had considered it following our Waterdeep: Dragon Heist group game, but it’s a comparatively darker campaign and didn’t feel quite right for our group’s characters. And now that Jonathan and I are working remotely, we thought it might be fun to add a bit more D&D into our lives!
In this earlier scenario of playing through Descent, Jonathan would have been the DM but, instead, I’ll be DMing, and he’ll play. Hooray for switching roles!
Since I’d been going into the campaign thinking I would be the player, I’ve been thinking about a character for Avernus for a few months now. This is not the usual order that we suggest—ideally, your DMPC choice will correspond with your player’s choice of PC, but really, so long as you both have fleshed-out characters and your DMPC is willing to help the PC on their internal and external quests, you should be fine!
Jonathan’s been thinking about a Forge Domain cleric for some time now, so it’s looking like that who he’ll be playing in our campaign.
Descent into Avernus has a really cool section for both players and DMs with the history of Baldur’s Gate as well as city-specific character backgrounds. I love this so much because it gives your player easy access to what their character would know having lived in the city.
That gap in knowledge between player and PC can be a really frustrating part of playing in a setting you haven’t co-invented with your duet partner, but the Baldur’s Gate Gazetteer section really takes care of that for you as a DM and for your player!
Player Assignment #1: Ask your player to read through the Baldur’s Gate Gazetteer and to consider the Baldur’s Gate Character Backgrounds and Dark Secrets as they consider who they want to play in-game. (We’ll come back to the dark secrets section.)
It’s possible this will change as we get further along in the planning, especially for the earlier levels of the game, but I think we may use Lulu as our sidekick character for Descent. Lulu is a really cute hollyphant (miniature flying elephant!) who helps the party through some of their adventures on Avernus (the first layer of the Nine Hells).
Lulu’s memories are fragmented, but the longer the party spends on Avernus, the more her memories come back, which makes her a perfect narrative device for giving the party key information when needed.
The biggest problem I see with using Lulu as a sidekick is that she’s too powerful for some of the game’s earlier levels, and if Jonathan is already playing a caster, it may be too much to try to manage a second caster-y character.
We can always tweak the stat block, so that wouldn’t need to remain a problem, though of course Lulu’s Trumpet of Sparkles would need to stay all the time. You can read more sidekick mechanics and suggestions here!
In the Heart of the Forest* includes a Circle of the Phoenix sidekick and leveling table, and I thought about going that direction for Evelyne, but I really like the wildfire spirit mechanic—her spirit might just happen to be a phoenix! And I think the damage/healing balance of the Circle of Wildfire will work well for a DMPC in a one-on-one campaign.
I’ll cover how I’m planning on connecting her to the PC in a bit more detail in the next section, but I’m trying to hold off as much as I can on character development until I have a better idea of Jonathan’s character. I know she’s fiery, doesn’t originate from Baldur’s Gate, and is willing to go to extreme measures and face incredible dangers—characters in this campaign are quite literally going to hell, after all, so they need to be relatively extreme, but I do want to balance out Jonathan’s character and allow him as much spotlight as he would like.
I’m really excited about this one!
So, being a one-on-one campaign, you’re really just trying to please one person, which gives you so much flexibility as the DM. In the mechanics for Avernus, they suggest having the players choose a dark secret that will help with them all being compromised on their trip through the first layer of hell. The dark secret options are conspiracy, murder, theft, and a failed coup.
There are randomizing tables that the player can use for inspiration or to determine the circumstances of this stain on their past, and each one contains details of the event, the character’s role, and the consequences.
But as there’s just two of you, why not start the campaign with the dark secret and go from there?
Dark Secret session zero
Conspiracy and murder were the two most intriguing of the dark secrets to me, and I don’t see why you couldn’t mix and match the two.
I asked Jonathan to be working on why an organization outside of the Watch and the Flaming Fist (the two “law-keeping” organizations in Baldur’s Gate) might be interested in his character or his services. Being a forge domain cleric, he thinks they might have commissioned weapons from him or something along those lines.
Player Assignment #2: Ask the player how their character might be connected to your setup for the session zero event without giving any unnecessary details away. They would need to know, for instance, how their character is connected to the Flaming Fist, or what might have happened in their family that they would hold a grudge over, depending on your session zero scenario. If they’re not from Baldur’s Gate, how did they arrive in the city, and why are they still there?
So, for our session zero, the PC will meet with Rolland (haven’t finalized the name yet), the head of an extrajudicial organization that has recently been taking on more dangerous and daring activities. They want the PC to take part in a new mission, but first, he’ll need to stop by for a briefing.
Meet the DMPC
On his way in to meet Rolland, the PC will first need to convince Rolland’s partner, Evelyne, that he means well and will be a valuable asset to their cause. She’ll then introduce him to Rolland and return to her own tasks.
The PC won’t see the DMPC again until after the organization’s newest scheme attempt. I’m planning on making a challenging encounter that will make survival for everyone involved difficult, but as a DM, especially with just one PC, you need to be extra careful of keeping level one characters alive.
To me, the purpose of a session zero is to give the player a chance to try out their character and to give you the chance to get to know them in-character, not so much to see if they survive the challenges you’re putting in front of them.
I think it will be more fun to not determine in advance whether or not the PC will be the only survivor. This will give him a chance to test his own morality and resolve: will he leave others to their fate or try to save them? After the murder/heist/takeover/power-grab, the PC has some difficult emotions to work through as the consequences start rolling out from what he’s done, and he has either a bond or a brewing conflict with his new DMPC acquaintance.
Evelyne will have lost close friends and allies in the catalyst event, and she may lose her partner as well, so we’re immediately starting with conflict (which is where all stories begin, with change) and a necessary bond with the PC. Beyond that, adventure awaits!
I’ll add more concrete details to this event as our campaign planning develops, but I hope this has given you some ideas to consider for your own session zero. We’ve been talking about recording or streaming this campaign since we’re both working from home, so that might set up more of a campaign diary of sorts after the fact.
We’d love to hear your thoughts and questions in the comments below! Have you run Descent into Avernus?* What else would you like to know to adapt the campaign to a one-on-one format?
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