The One-Player Problem in TTRPGs
Updated: Jul 26
Breaking down one of the worst trends to ttrpg design philosophy
There is a problem with individualist philosophy in ttrpg design and play practice. I'm not talking about solo games, or games that are meant to be played with a single player and a GM. I'm talking about how there's supposed to be a whole team of PCs working together towards a common goal, but when you get to one player's turn they act like an island unto themselves, doing what they would do if they were completely alone.
The Landscape of Teamwork Mechanics
Some ttrpgs have mechanics to facilitate teamwork, and on the whole they fail. I'm sorry I can't put it a nicer way, but they—in almost every example I can cite—have to fail in order of the wheels not to fall off the cart for the rest of the game's underlining mechanical assumptions.
Occasionally there are abilities / feats / PC-features-what-have-you that expressly call out a teamwork structure. Pathfinder has a few, my own Children of Eriu has many, but base mechanics typically prohibit such behaviour or any more meaningful mechanical interaction between PCs.
Most ttrpgs are conceptualised according to the number probabilities of a single PC performing whatever number of tasks within a single round to determine the numerical difficulty curve. That breaks pretty quickly when PCs help each other. This is most obvious in Dungeons & Dragons and all games that adopt a similar mindset for their play loops, which...realistically, is much of the hobby.
And before anybody comes to the defense of the cool stuff they've done in D&D, I'll point out that whatever complimentary PC-action structures there are in D&D-like games are outside the purview of specified rules and are taking advantage of rules generalities or manipulating broad narrative permissions. This was always the case, even going back to the B/X and BECMI convention of "Halflings on front row, archers shooting over their heads." That's not mechanically acknowledged within the rules structure. That's you having a fun GM, that's not D&D having a ruleset conducive to PCs working together to accomplish something.
Most ttrpgs have rules that adding a helper to a PC's action means just getting a paltry bump to the primary task, or doubling the effect, or generally fiddling around with the numbers in the way that does not offer a serious difference in effect from PCs undertaking the task separately by pure coincidence, and as it just so happens on the same turn. This is not particularly satisfying.
I'd call out Modiphius' 2d20 system, in which I've John Carter of Mars, and Fallout, as one of the better examples of teamwork structures within a ttrpg play loop, but even it has an emulation-obfuscating rule that only one person can help another perform a task. Again, the difficulty ladder would break with too much weight.
Well, what if we want to build a house? You'd think an imaginative hyper-real structure given in ttrpgs, that assumes a fair gaggle of players, would be wise to simultaneous complimentary actions that contribute to a whole in a way that would not be possible or practical in one-person-is-an-island turn structures.
Yet, under the prevailing design philosophy, if characters are given substantial enough mechanical incentive to coordinate, then it breaks the number expectations, or becomes too difficult for a GM to adjudicate, or the PCs become too dangerous to NPC adversaries to the point where it disrupts the play loop, or it introduces a steep skill ladder as a player have to learn (not the character, but the player—generally skirmish tactics the way most ttrpgs are designed) and the rest of the game, generally speaking, crumbles.
Cooperation and teamwork mechanics may be common in ttrpgs working along the skirmish-wargame lineage like Dungeons & Dragons and systems derived from it, but they're kept unappealing enough that really, as the spotlight shifts from PC to PC, they may as well be playing different games, mechanically speaking.
Where's My Chrono Trigger?
On the box art for the Super Nintendo game Chrono Trigger, the magic-user character is casting a flame spell on the sword of the swordsman, who is leaping through the air to slash the foreground monster with a now-flaming sword. Amazing. More surprising, the game actually lives up to this. It is more fun to do combined attacks (and presumably more effective? I can't tell, it's always just been more fun) with multiple characters than it is to do your own thing.
In an industry like ttrpgs, constantly criticised for slipping into video game thinking, how is it that a 30 year old video game thinks more dynamically about teamwork structures, even if just confined to the limited scope of a combat encounter?
Blades of Teamwork
Most of my PbtA exposure has been Blades in the Dark and Root, but I've dabbled in a few others, and I'm always slightly at odds with the teamwork mechanic shared between them. Some people love it and would consider it the answer to all of the above. I'm coming around to it lately but I'm still mostly ho-hum on it.
For the unfamiliar, when accomplishing a task as a group of some or all the party, a "leader" is chosen. Everyone else does who is contributing. If the contributors pass their dice rolls, they contribute mechanically to the difficulty of the task. If they fail their rolls they add Stress to the leader. Stress is kind of like a measure of damage, but more interesting in its treatment.
It's a super neat structure, mechanically, but sometimes its difficult to associate your character's in-game behaviour with the roll that you just made. It's heavily abstracted enough that it gets points for thinking about game interaction as a group (and not just solo behaviour) but it can struggle to maintain personal stakes. At least for me it does—good, not great. Individual results may vary.
At the end of the day Blades in the Dark might offer the very best teamwork mechanics in ttrpgs, but as far as I'm concerned that illustrates a low standard for teamwork and cooperative behaviour mechanics, when this seems like just a such a step up.
The Shared Mechanical Creative Load
In ttrpg design, off-loading big chunks of the game's mechanics onto the players to distribute the "weight" of the system around the table sounds like a great idea. The GM does not have to know all the little details of every ability, spell, or otherwise exception to the rules if they're squarely in the wheelhouse of that particular PC. So long as the player who has it for their character can cite the rules, everyone can share a bit of the work. Theoretically, that means the game should run faster, cleaner, (stronger!) with everyone around the table adding a piece of the puzzle and making up the whole game.
Unfortunately, there are two things that go along with this that make it not so great. This design philosophy is often applied in games where the GM is expected to have parallel mechanics between PCs and NPCs, so running characters for a GM is often the same amount of work as running one PC, just...multiplied by that many NPCs. That quickly becomes cumbersome.
Secondly, it's considered a virtue in design going way-way back in ttrpgs—and a false virtue, in my opinion—that unique character traits for PCs are defined by their ability to do things that no other PC can do, and thereby occupy a distinct niche within the play dynamic, and presumably from that their player should feel special and interesting. The problem is, hand-in-hand with that approach, is designing unique aspects that only work in the context of the single PC. The "fire" spell casts a bolt at an enemy, it does not empower an ally's sword. Gosh, but you can hardly blame the design approach, it's not like they can depend on their being something other than fire-casting-folks in the party to...wait...by its other design tenants, PCs are necessarily different from one another. Then why doesn't the segregated mechanical weight placed on an individual PC lean into that? It seem so obvious on one hand, and yet...I have a theory.
The obvious thing to blame are the design roots. D&D is a small skirmish wargame, and no matter how many slap-on side systems you expand it with, that's its core attitude. Everything is a nail when you're a hammer, even if successive editions have put a crude screwdriver on the handle that's inexplicably, exclusively just a Frearson head.
But I think we can go a step beyond that. Ttrpgs have been, almost exclusively, a social activity born out of an individualist philosophy, or at least that have been given an individualist approach. This is part of its strength when it comes to tournament structures, pick-up games, and convention games with strangers. You don't have to know the people around you and you don't really have to work with them, you just have to play your character as you would at any other table. Personally, I think that's lousy and I'd love to get away from that in design.
The only ttrpgs that I can think of that actively rally against the exclusory approach are storygames, and that has its own set of complications. The lens of abstraction in most story games is so far removed from the personal stakes of embodying a specific character, as you take on narrative onus, that I, at least, find it hard to care in the same way. I want to play an individual who works as a team.
How do you design a game where you feel like an individual, work together, and compliment each other to accomplish your goals? How do we emulate a single being who works with their community? How can we capture the wonder of Chrono leaping forward with the flaming sword fuelled magically by another?
Now there's a design challenge.
Radio James Games
Update: Originally I got a Blades in the Dark rule wrong, and a reader kindly pointed out my mistake. I've adjusted the text to reflect my now better understanding of Blades in the Dark's teamwork rules.