Lots of role-playing games with a traditional GM role can be scaled down to a GM and just one player. In most cases, these maintain the asymmetry of a solo player character in a world conducted by the GM. But a handful are outright designed for just two people, and most of these games make each participant both soloist and conductor, each accompanying and directing the other.
“Duet” RPGs are creative, frequently collaborative affairs that thrive in the emotionally crowded spaces of worry, regret, love, and understanding—and sometimes even aggression and violence. To support the players taking on these creative and emotional challenges, duet games will often take a very structured approach, the rules themselves almost functioning as a GM. But within this structure is a surprising amount of freedom. Many duet games provide scene prompts—ranging from abstract and suggestive to highly prescriptive—and then pretty much step back until an end timer or narrative trigger kicks in. Lucian Kahn’s Dead Friend: A Game of Necromancy uses tarot card–connected prompts to direct the narrative. The setting of your game can be anywhere and the variety and intentional open-endedness of the prompts mean you’ll end up telling a wildly different story each time.
Even when the game takes on a GM-like role, however, you’re still “on” all the time. You don’t have the kind of breathing room you would in 3+ player games. If you aren't actively participating, then you're participating reactively: listening, making suggestions, and asking questions. All this means you're more invested, you care more, and you feel it more, too. That can get rough, emotionally, and rather bleedy. A specific game that comes to mind is Caroline Hobbs’s One Missed Call, a game about a long-distance relationship played out over a series of phone calls between the two characters. Players secretly decide whether they hope for the characters to come together or to drift apart, but don’t reveal their choice until after the game has ended, leaving one player to guess why their partner has stopped taking their calls. Pre-game conversations about tone and subject matter can help get you on the same page, but it’s also important to use your chosen safety tools to bend, break, or throw out some of the rules, or shift the narrative away from something you don't like. It often feels easier to speak up, too, when your opinion is half the table’s opinion.
Because a duet really is just you and one other person for a couple (or six) hours, they’re more intimate than standard RPGs. Although playing a duet doesn’t require you know your playing partner well, it means by the end of the game, you’re probably going to. In most duets getting to know the other player is a fairly organic process, and happens pretty much the way it does in any other game. But some explore this more intentionally. The character creation process of Emily Care Boss’s Breaking the Ice (part of The Romance Trilogy), for example, includes a “getting to know you” discussion, where you discover a way in which you and the other player differ, and then swap it for your characters. Since the game explicitly asks this of you, it requires some vulnerability, but in return lets you play a character different from yourself while also providing an accountability buddy for that role.
Even with a trusted partner, however, duets are intense, intimate, high-creativity games by design. It’s important to build in breaks, check in with one another and yourself, and take the time to de-role and debrief afterward—because the people playing are more important than the game, the story, or the characters. Duets may require more intentionality than 3+ player RPGs, but you’ll pick up some valuable skills along the way—creating side characters, connecting action to theme, and asking sharp, interesting questions. And you’ll grow as a player, too.
Now go get a partner, find a game that works for you, and duet!