Last weekend, I completed a solo Dungeons & Dragons level 1-20 campaign that I played over the last eight weeks or so — averaging about an hour a day — on my laptop, tablet and/or phone. A lot of play time happened nights and weekend during the shelter-in-place in March & April of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
I had so much fun playing D&D solo that I thought I’d share how I approached it, and what worked well for me.
A couple of disclaimers before I start. I’m not going to get into why you might want to play D&D solo — maybe we can get into that in a future post. We’ll just assume you’ve decided to give it a shot. Also, this isn’t a definitive guide, just what worked for me. There are a lot of other great guides for playing solo, and I borrowed a lot from other folks (I especially found the one-on-one guide from DnD Duet invaluable). I’m sure there are plenty of resources I’ve overlooked; if you know any others that aren’t represented, please let me know and I’ll try and add them to the resources section at the end.
In this guide we’ll first talk about adventure and character creation for solo play. We then divee into each of the three pillars of Dungeons & Dragons: exploration, combat, and social interaction, with a special emphasis on tools to make solo play more fun & efficient.
I first tried playing solo about a year ago — using the DMG random campaign tables and MUNE — and, while it was interesting, it didn’t stick past the first world-building session. Maybe it was because I’m not that great at world building, but it felt more like being a DM and less like being a player than I was looking for, so I didn’t stick with it.
This time around I tried using published adventures, and it made a big difference, especially starting with an adventure that was designed from the ground up for solo play (either with a DM or self-DM): the excellent To Hell and Back Again by Kienna Shaw and Donathin Frye. It has just the right amount of choose-your-own-adventure elements without becoming mechanical. It also ties well into the Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus adventure, which I had read through earlier as a kind of “lonely fun.”
To Hell and Back Again takes a single character from level 1 through 3 which (after levelling to 4th at the end) makes the solo PC roughly the equivalent of a 1st-level party and ready to take on the first chapter of Descent Into Avernus.
I think reading through an adventure completely before playing it solo is preferable to “discovering” the story as you play. I approached solo play like being half-DM and half-player, so knowing where the story wanted to go was worth the tradeoff of surprise to me.
While I own a few hardcovers, I highly recommend using D&D Beyond for solo play. Having all of the resources available on all my devices, and having everything linked together, meant that I could play for as little as 15 minutes and squeeze in a little D&D. So, I had one tab open with the adventure itself.
Another place D&D Beyond helps a ton is character management. I built out a Half-Elf Hexblade (Pact of the Blade) Warlock with the Character Builder, and that was another open tab. You can find recommendations for solo PC builds online and I went with a Warlock since I thought it would be a fun match with the adventure’s theme. I did min-max a bit so it wasn’t too underpowered (and who’s really going to complain).
One advantage of Warlocks is that their spell slots recharge on a short rest, which I had to do every 3 encounters or so, and made more sense story-wise than finding the rare opportunity for long rests in Descent Into Avernus.
My next solo adventure is with a Paladin, which I’ve read works well. I also imagine Monks, Fighters, Rogues, and Bards could be great. Really any class should work, you might just need to pick up a sidekick or NPC. More on that in a minute.
In my playthrough of Descent Into Avernus, I picked up various NPCs, each lasting a few levels before they faded out of the story. I thought this worked well and was really fun trying to figure out who might make a good buddy and what their motivation was. I mainly just used the stat blocks, but I did try building one of them as a full PC with the Character Builder but found that a stat block felt more appropriate.
And my next playthrough I think I’ll use one of the Sidekicks from the Essentials Kit. Their 1–10 stat blocks are in D&D Beyond under their archetypes: Warrior, Expert, and Spellcaster, so they should show up in the Encounter Builder, which we’ll dive into more when we talk about running Combat solo.
As I mentioned, I had read through the adventures before playing them, which I think works great. Where it falls down a bit is with player knowledge, and things like secret doors and other exploration components get a bit tricker.
My Warlock had proficiency with Thieves Tools from their background. That, along with a decent passive perception score, allowed me to feel like it was fine to treat secret doors as generally always discovered. I also generally just followed the “right hand rule” when exploring dungeons, or just followed the encounter order in the book. While I always had the current map open in a browser tab, they were mostly for flavor.
In To Hell and Back Again, the choose your own adventure style was a big improvement over the more typical presentation in Descent Into Avernus, but overall the Exploration and Social Interaction pillars do suffer a bit more than Combat in solo play.
For me, Combat was super fun solo, with every turn having lots of decisions for both the PC and the monsters. The three big things that made it great were using theater of the mind, figuring out how to run the monsters with my DM-hat, and discovering some tooling that helped run the encounters themselves.
When I play or DM with a group, I like a mix of Theater of the Mind and mini-based tactical combat. For whatever reason, I wasn’t really interested in the tactical side of play for my solo sessions. I’m sure there are lots of folks enjoying solo D&D with VTTs like Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds, but I found pure Theater of the Mind combat to feel really light, fast, and efficient.
Mike Shea (AKA Sly Flourish) has an excellent Guide to Narrative Combat on his blog that is a great resource. I especially relied on the Areas of Effect guidelines when dealing with multiple enemies.
For monster tactics, I can’t recommend enough Keith Ammann’s blog and book The Monsters Know What They’re Doing. These write ups give you basically an AI for the monsters, which when paired with whatever environments and strategies are presented in the adventure, make for really rich solo play. It especially helps figure out who the monster is going to attack and how, and how they would behave when they were losing a battle.
There’s also a great episode of DM’s Deep Dive (again from Mike Shea) where Keith breaks down his thought process so you can apply the techniques yourself to monsters that might not be in the guide.
When I started out, I used a separate notes app to track initiative along with enemy Armor Class and Hit Points. I also had a tab open for each monster in the encounter. That actually worked fine and it wasn’t until my character was 17th level that I discovered a way better set of tools.
I highly recommend using the Encounter Builder and stumbled on the Combat Tracker (you’ll need the $6/month Master Tier subscription to try the alpha). These two tools were a total gamechanger.
Assuming you have a license to the sourcebooks and you’ve set up a Campaign with your solo character in it, the Encounter Builder lets you recreate the encounters from the adventure and then hit “Run Encounter.” The Combat Tracker can auto-roll non-PC initiative and track enemy Hit Points. You even have access to the stat block and descriptions adjacent to the initiative tracker. So many open tabs nixed.
The Encounter Builder and Combat Tracker combat doesn’t do everything, though. I still used the Character Builder sheet to track my PCs Hit Points and the like, and your sidekicks need to get in there either as full character sheets or stat blocks (the approach I recommend). One downside of having them as stat blocks instead of characters, though, is that they will show up as enemies in the encounter’s DC. It’s a bit of a bummer to not know how balanced you’ve made an encounter when sidekicks are involved, but it didn’t become a major problem. Maybe the Encounter Builder will support adding monsters/sidekicks to the party's team when calculating DCs down the road.
I tried a few different options for rolling dice, including physical dice. I think we’ll see a nicer official dice roller from Wizards at some point, but for now the best option I found was an iPhone app called Dungeon Dice. It’s elegant and simple, and when I was playing with my laptop, having my phone as the dice ‘tray’ was a good setup. I didn’t find anything quite as nice for desktop or Android, but there are plenty of other dice rollers out there.
Like Exploration, the Social Interaction pillar suffers a bit in solo play. I found a couple of things that made it more interesting.
First, if there was any meaty social interaction that eventually boiled down to 1 or 2 Skill Checks, I would spend just a few minutes thinking about the interaction, roll the dice, and then sleep on it. I didn’t find it easy to play out conversations in my head in real time, but giving myself an hour or two (or overnight) to think about how situations might have played out, worked well for me.
The other slack I cut myself was to allow liberal retconning of any social interactions. This was actually pretty enriching since I was able to backfill in parts of the story where things might not have made a ton of sense at the time.
Thinking of these moments as collaborative storytelling really made them more interesting, and giving them more time to breathe helped me a lot.
After giving myself a week off to decompress from the To Hell and Back Again/Descent Into Avernus campaign, I will definitely be playing another solo adventure soon (probably Curse of Strahd with a Paladin).
Aside from trying out Sidekicks, there’s at least one other thing I’d like to try out: keeping a campaign log. Without a group to talk to during and between sessions, and not wanting to annoy my family, a session journal would have been a good idea.
Even just a few private notes here and there would have been a nice memento, and I think journaling about sessions might improve the Social Interaction pillar a bit as well.