Dungeons and Dragons is not a popular game in my area. I should clarify that statement. Dungeons and Dragons 4e is not popular in Leavenworth or Lansing, Kansas. The two batches of students that I’ve had who played DnD were 3.5 fanboys who went into nerd rage when I mentioned 4e. I did have two 3.5 players come into my college group’s 4e game, but after a few sessions they dropped out (a mixture of scheduling conflict and edition frustration). My point for bringing this up? I’ve always had to run games with 3 or 4 PCs. In the beginning of our game it was 2 PCs and 1 DM controlled NPC. My group has been holding steady for the last 4 or 5 months with 3 PCs. This has posed some problems for me as a DM, because my XP budget is pretty low for encounter building. I have come up with some ways to deal with my small party dynamic, and I hope that these things could both benefit games that have an adequate number of players, and encourage people who have small player-bases to still get a game going.
1. Understand your enemy (the PCs)
This is a general tip for any DM, but especially for a small party, knowing who your PCs are and what they can do tactically. A three-player party (3PP hereafter) is going to be missing at least one role (my home game is missing two). This means that to make the game enjoyable for the players you as a DM have to look at what you can throw at them without demolishing them. My home game doesn’t have a defender, but it has two leaders. I rarely pit them against Soldiers because the high HP value and damage output can drop one or two PCs in the first couple of rounds without someone to soak up damage. With two leaders, though, I can pit them against an elite with a couple of soldiers right before an extended rest because they have the opportunity to use their healing powers and recharge before the next day’s difficulties. This could be a “Sissy DM” way of looking at encounter building, but one character dropped in a 3PP suddenly sinks player actions by 33%, creating an un-fun encounter quickly.
Understanding your PCs goes beyond combat. With fewer characters, there is more pressure on each PC to interact in a roleplaying situation. A smaller group means that the group has to be tighter-knit, and they have to work together for common safety; failure to do so ends tragically much quicker than in a larger party.
A short example: Manneo, the Barbarian, demands healing from the party Cleric. The Cleric states that she only heals when he is at least at his bloodied value, as per the party agreement, but Manneo demands healing. When the spider swarm flanks Manneo, he quickly drops to below his healing surge value. Manneo’s player begins to act aggressively towards the Cleric’s player in the real world, prompting the Cleric to not heal him at all. Tired of their bickering, the Druid drops a burst attack killing both the swarms and Manneo, ending the argument.
This situation is not exclusive to just a 3PP, but a larger party would still be able to function during a two-character breakdown; a 3PP falls apart completely, creating real world friction and a stall in playtime (funtime). A preventative measure for this situation for the DM is explained well in the next tip.
2. Gift the Masses
Treasure is an important part of any PCs life. The DMG explains that for 3 PCs they lose one magic item and some gold. That really doesn’t change the loot dynamic that much, but I find many of my parcels changed more by the nature of my treasures and the number of healing potions I give to players. Almost all of my characters have some form of the Onyx Dog (AV) that they can control with minor actions. I take advantage of the extra damage output to increase the difficulty of the encounters (see section 3).To survive the encounters that I set up for the party I also give my PCs 4-5 Healing Potions per level. This allows them to use their healing surges in combat and takes some of the friction off of the Cleric (as above). Another thing that I allow for my players are more frequent short rests. I gauge how many encounters they’ll have through a day depending on remaining party healing surges. Although healing surges run out pretty quickly around my group, as is evidenced from my final tip.
3. Lay on the Hurt, but Spread the Love
With an XP budget significantly lower than a 5 player party, the 3PP can survive surprisingly difficult encounters. Many of the encounters I’ve run have been on-par for 5 PCs and the 3PP can still thrive. There are a couple of things I do here that allow for that. As stated above, the PCs have Onyx Dogs that basically add up to another whole PC in the party, and with their extra healing potions, it allows me to up the XP budget to 4 PCs. Most of my encounters fall into the “hard” category (level +2 or above). How do I do this without TPK everyday? I put in a lot of minions. A low XP budget means few monsters, and few monsters make stale encounters. Waves of minions don’t let the PCs think they’re in a smaller encounter, and lets them get that mighty feeling of threshing through enemies. The other key thing I do combat-wise to help the PCs is I rarely focus fire. Although it is the intelligent thing to wail on one PC until they fall, it makes that PC feel bullied and hurt (that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen: if the barbarian rushes into the fray before the artillery have time to set up, he’s going through the meat grinder). I try to make sure the monsters I pit the PCs against have the opportunity to battle everyone. With one melee and two ranged, all of the creatures have ranged attacks to keep the artillery from feeling safe. I usually use the buddy system for PC attack. One or two monsters will pick a PC and attack them until goaded into attacking a different PC. This sets up grudge matches and gets the PCs invested in the combat.
These are a few of the things that I use to keep my 3PP happy. My players have never complained that they wished that they had another player to make the game more fun, and the only time I’ve seen them yawn in a game is during Finals week. Have any of you readers encountered a small party situation? How have you handled the lack of personnel in the game? Let me know in the comments!