Last Updated on January 22, 2023
DnD can be played solo by playing both the DM (Dungeon Master) and Player roles. The simplest way to do this for a brand new player is by buying the DnD Starter Set and working through creating a Character.
Once that is complete, work through the module section by section, trying to keep your Character decisions based on what they would know, rather than what you know as the Game Master.
For a more thought-out take on other options to this, read on!
Whether gathered around a table for a marathon Sunday session or snatching a few hours first thing in the morning over Discord, it can be hard to imagine a game of Dungeons & Dragons as anything but a communal, group-focused activity.
D&D is a way to come together with friends, tell stories and jokes, explore strange new worlds, and collectively cheer when rolling some shiny math rocks causes a goblin’s head to explode.
But that doesn’t mean that you can’t venture forth into strange new lands, experience a compelling story of swords and sorcery, or detonate the odd goblin skull by yourself. Increasingly, D&D – not to mention the entire tabletop roleplaying game (ttrpg) hobby at large – is getting to grips with the strange world of solo roleplaying.
Whether players are looking to replicate the dungeon-delving exploration and combat-focused experiences, or take meditative introspective journeys through centuries, or raise a civilization from nothing, or just pretend to be a sword for a couple of hours, there are just about a million things you can do to have a rewarding ttrpg experience when the only person at the table is you.
Solo roleplaying has evolved so much – and in so many strange, unique directions – over the past few years that there are so many more reasons to give solo play of one kind or another a go than the traditional “no one showed up for his week’s session.”
Also, I could do a dozen different guides on indie solo roleplaying games and why they’re great, but to start things off I think it’s helpful to come at what may be a new facet of the hobby for you through the lens of something familiar. So, this is a guide that’s going to try to help you figure out…
Why should I play a solo ttrpg?
There are plenty of reasons to play a solo rpg beyond a cancelled game night. Let’s look at some of those reasons and some of the different types of solo games that can help accommodate them.
I know that I’m about to recommend a bunch of games that aren’t D&D, but everything I recommend should also be viewed as a way to either augment your D&D experiences, or as a source of inspiration for you when you sit down to play D&D by yourself. Bear with me.
Worldbuilding for a Campaign
Lots of solo RPGs tend to step away from the moment-to-moment crunchy combat and exploration experience of a game like D&D. That doesn’t mean you can’t have that kind of experience playing solo, but it’s going to take some extra work. We’ll get to that in a minute.
A lot of solo rpgs tend to take a broader view, pulling back the lens and blending the roles of player and DM into one, making you both participant and author of a story. Playing a game that uses journaling mechanics or open-ended experiences can be a great way of generating new material for your world if you’re stuck in a creative rut or otherwise just fancy a change.
Games like Alone Among the Stars put you in the place of a single explorer slowly moving from planet to planet in an uncharted galaxy. You use a deck of cards as an oracle, taking the prompts it delivers and using them to create a melancholy experience of exploring an unimaginably vast universe.
At the end of a game, however, you end up with a number of rich, fascinating prompts for worlds which, with a little extra development, can form the basis for your own homebrew campaign.
Want to give your vampiric villain (or with a little tweaking, a lich) some more depth and flavor? Try picking up Thousand Year Old Vampire, a gorgeous journaling game that creates the experience of an immortal being drifting through a mortal world.
You could play Avery Alder’s supremely good community-building game The Quiet Year (used to create the setting for the latest season of The Adventure Zone and a recent arc of Friends at the Table) to craft the location for your next adventure.
If you want to tell the story of a particular magic item of great power, try playing Artefact by Jack Harrison, a weirdly melancholic game that helps you tell the story of legendary macguffins, weapons, and instruments of legend.
All these games lean heavily on the mechanic of drawing cards or choosing prompts and then recording your responses. It’s a common design trope in solo games that uses dice, random tables, playing cards, even tarot to take on the role of the dungeon master in order to let you focus on telling a story or creating a world. If you’re looking for inspiration for all or part of your next D&D 5e campaign, these games can be a great place to start.
Testing Out Material
If you’re a DM who likes to homebrew a lot of their content, but doesn’t want to accidentally murder their players’ characters with a shiny new special ability, playing through an encounter you’ve written (or, in fact, a pre-written module that you want to get a feel for) ahead of time can be a great way to edit and adjust content before you put it in front of your players.
One of the scariest things about being a DM is that it can feel like being a writer who’s constantly putting your first draft in front of your players. Some people do their best work in their second or even third drafts.
If that sounds like you, then playing through a scenario ahead of time can be a great way to feel like you’ve got both feet on the ground when game night rolls around.
Likewise, if you’re a player who really enjoys testing, tweaking, and revising your character’s build (or just playing around with them to see what works), then a solo encounter or adventure can be a great way to not only get a feel for how your character plays but can also be a great way to organically build flesh out your backstory.
Solo Adventuring – the Single-Player Experience
It’s very rare that I’ll choose to pick up a multiplayer video game if there’s a single-player story available. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to go at your own pace, explore the things you want to explore, and put yourself at the center of the world.
Playing D&D is collaborative, meaning that you build the story together (whether you’re a player or the DM) and is one of the best games ever because of it. However, solo roleplaying can be a really great way to tell a more focused, controlled story.
One of the non-D&D games that does this the best is low-fantasy, viking-age rpg Ironsworn by Shawn Tomkin. While you can play this game like a traditional ttrpg, it’s also very much geared towards creating an exploration and conflict-focused experience for a solo player.
However, straddling more than one role can be challenging and, particularly if you’re trying to recreate the core loop of most D&D games of “get the quest”, “go to the dungeon”, “fight monsters”, “get treasure”, “level up”, repeat.
Solo Roleplaying Challenges and Playing D&D Alone
If you’re not playing a game/aiming for an experience specifically designed for solo play, like D&D 5e, there are going to be a number of challenges you need to overcome in order to ensure you have a rewarding experience if you want to make a game like D&D into a solo rpg.
The DM Problem
The biggest issue is that, when you play D&D with other people, at least one of you is going to be a player and one person is going to be the Dungeon Master. If it’s just you playing, you need to figure out what to do with that extra hat, so to speak.
The way I’d recommend doing this is to find ways to extricate yourself from the role of the DM while you play your solo game. This means you need to find ways to shift the burden of creating and running an adventure somewhere other than on your shoulders.
One way to do this is to borrow bits and pieces from the games I mentioned earlier. Use a deck of cards with predefined meanings to draw from that help you figure out what’s in the next room. If you know how to read tarot cards, you can give your character a reading and use that to figure out what happens to them next.
Grab random encounter tables, exploration charts, and setting materials. Setting neutral hex and point crawls from the OSR scene like Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City, or Fever Swamp are great for this. They give you a great big world without much-predetermined plot and are packed with random tables, charts, and maps that you can roll on to figure out what happens next.
Reddit user u/saturnine13 shared a great post about this, including the fact that they put all world and social-related decisions in the hands of a die roll.
“My basic oracle is the standard Yes/No/And/But table with a d6, using Advantage/Disadvantage to alter probabilities as needed. I use this to quickly answer basic questions about the world, events, decisions that NPCs make, and how difficult certain tasks should be.”
The advice comes from Ironsworn which I mentioned earlier and basically boils down to, “pick two interesting possibilities ahead of time and then roll to determine which one is fact.”
If you want to play something that was actually written for D&D, there’s nothing to stop you picking up an adventure book that you haven’t read before and starting at page one. Play through it and turn the page as and when your character gets there.
One especially good adventure for solo play (thematically as well as mechanically) is the horror module Curse of Strahd, which even has a baked-in tarot card analog to help you randomize different pieces of the adventure.
Obviously, this approach still requires you to still maintain a pretty strong mental barrier between what your character knows and what you know.
If you really can’t keep your DM and player hats separate, then you could always fire up the AI Dungeon, an artificially intelligent dungeon master with hundreds of adaptable, generated adventures.
The Format Problem
D&D is a game that assumes group interaction, planning, and social encounters will be a key part of the experience. Playing by yourself obviously makes this more difficult.
However, you can get around this issue by adjusting the angle from which you approach solo play. Think back to the ways in which the format of the game changes in titles like Artefact and Thousand Year Old Vampire.
These games are more meditative journaling experiences than hack and slash combat, but that can be ok.
If you want a fresh new format, try journaling each encounter in an adventure as though you are looking back on it from the end of the adventuring day. Reflect on the day’s events as your character, consider their emotions and thoughts – roll less dice.
Of course, if you want to preserve as much of the crunch of the group D&D experience as possible, then you can play out combat encounters more like a chess match against yourself. Of course, this brings us up against the third problem of solo D&D: balance.
The Balance Problem
So my short answer is, I feel I should tell you upfront, “don’t worry about it.” It’s also the advice I give to DMs running group D&D who worry about balance. Life isn’t balanced or very fair, so making a world in which every single fight your players walk into is designed so that they can win doesn’t feel like a very real place.
It’s the same in solo D&D. You’re probably going to find yourself coming up against too many enemies that are too dangerous for your character to defeat alone. There are three possible solutions to this problem:
- Suck it up. D&D is now a survival horror game about being sneaky, running away, and hopefully living long enough to fight another day.
- Hire some help. Give your character a cohort of NPCs and retainers to support them. I’d advise using the rules for Retainers developed by Matt Colville for his book Strongholds and Followers.
- Shift the balance. The easiest way to do this is to make your character more powerful. You can give yourself an extra action in combat (or even Legendary Reactions like a powerful monster), level up two at a time, or just flat out double your Hit Points. It’s quick, it’s dirty, it’s going to make you feel like the hero.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I play D&D Solo?
Yes. But whether you want to recreate the experience of playing with other people – in which case using a pre-written adventure, random tables, and playing cards as oracles to substitute for a DM is probably the way to go – test out a combat encounter for balance, or build out your world’s lore is going to have a significant effect on how you go about it.
How do I start a solo campaign?
Kind of like you’d start any other campaign as a player. Make a character and give them a backstory. Then, either pick an adventure to play through or choose a way to generate the world, and pick a way to use dice or cards to adjudicate what happens moment to moment. After that you should be good to go.
Can you play tabletop rpgs by yourself?
Yes, a thousand times yes! While it’s very much possible to convert a game like D&D into a solo experience, there are loads of roleplaying games on the market that are specifically designed for solo or GM-less play.
Want fantasy adventure and exploration? Try Ironsworn. Want communities and an encroaching apocalypse? Try the Quiet Year. Want to be an immortal, sentient hat? Try Artefact.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.