We need more 1-on-1/small group systems
Image from the Pathfinder Core Rulebook
For the past 4 weeks I've been the Dungeon Master of a Labyrinth Lord utilizing the Solo Heroes rules made by Sine Nomine Publishing. Aside from the golden times of Sunday, forming a full table for a second (semi)weekly game is very hard to do. Due to various complications and schedule conflicts, I suggested as an alternative an " Old-School Solo Heroes Delve" when only a single player showed up for our Deadlands game. After finishing up some character creation for this, I asked her if she was in the mood for a fantasy adventure where they were a one-woman adventuring team standing against a veritable slew of monsters and miscreants. We decided to go with that option, deciding to seize on the opportunity to get some gaming in at all.
We didn't know if it would be long-term, so I planned out a short "investigate a series of goblin attacks in the nearby mountains" adventure. I reused some material from an old play-by-post campaign back on Min-Max Boards to give an overall sense of the setting, copied down the relevant tables and monster stat blocks, and voila! One adventure ready to go!
Black Streams Solo Heroes is ingenious because its proposed solutions are specifically made to answer the problems which will arise from a solo player: fighting multiple opponents is tough, so the introduction of the Fray Die allows for automatic damage in addition to normal attacks, and overkill damage dealt to an enemy spills over to the next one within range. This takes the form of many quick sweeps, cuts, jabs, thrown and shot weapons, and minor strikes in the fray of combat.
The damage system is redone so that attacks overall deal less damage, but enemies and NPCs have less effective hit points, so the hero of the story is simultaneously able to fell enemies quicker while having more staying power. Dodging Doom allows the PC to risk potential hit point damage in exchange for negating a life-threatening attack (like an assassin's killing blow or drowning in quicksand) which makes in the context of the story.
It proved to be incredibly fun for my friend and I, and the best part of all is that these rules mechanically reinforce the ideal of a skilled adventuring hero able to handle things on their own. The fact that it manages to do this in a system where lonesome low-level PCs would be mincemeat is all the more impressive.
It's gotten me thinking this month, of the most popular table-top RPGs on the market and whether or not they can do this adequately. The truth is a lot of them can't.
The official Editions of Dungeons & Dragons are very team-focused affairs, and aside from some obscure builds at certain levels in certain Editions most adventures assume a party of 3-6 people. Likewise for Pathfinder, the spiritual successor to 3rd Edition.
Shadowrun is likewise similar in its focus on group-focused teamwork. Knowing how to hack is essential; so is spellcasting and seeing the astral wards in a corp enclave; and the social skills of a Face help get you out of sticky situations.
The New World of Darkness games are built such that most starting characters are fledgling apprentices in their desired skill aptitudes, and being a jack-of-all-trades is a resource-intensive option. Likewise the combat system is absolutely brutal to outnumbered characters, even if it's a quick-fingered Mekhet with an automatic weapon staring down four cops. Chances are the cops' focused fire will seriously injure or even knock out said Mekhet.
I cannot speak to the rules systems of other popular RPGs such as FATE or GURPS, but the majority of games are understandably group-centric. The fun and joy that comes from table-top is the camaraderie which naturally results from friends regularly getting together and having fun. But there are times when you might have a child or significant other who wants to play and you don't have a group to get together (and running several characters at once is too cumbersome). Or there might come times when half the group does not make it, but you still want to play a table-top game in lieu of signing onto Steam or an online video game server.
I think as time goes on, especially for the AAA games, rules for small group and 1 on 1 games will stay in demand if not increase. A lot of proposed solutions simply opt to make the PC more powerful, but a static increase in numbers doesn't solve everything. Like what Black Streams did, we should study individual systems on a case-by-case basis, finding the weaknesses wrought by a Solo PC, and designing new rules to fix them and make it fun.
For Pathfinder I can think of a few: action economy, the lack of versatility in certain classes, a redesigning of the wealth-by-level system, the damage and save-or-die problems, and 'minion creation' features such as summoning (and how they can help solo PCs).
Perhaps with more practice I'll find out a way to design good solo hero rules for Pathfinder, and possibly other RPGs. If you have any mechanics or ideas of your own, I'll be happy to hear them in the comments section below!