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Running for Less Than Four Players

Kid Socrates

First Post
My standard gaming group is myself and two players, and I'm quite used to it, but with the GM duties not always resting on my shoulders, one of my players is having a little trouble figuring out the best way to run for just two people. My suggestions aren't always working for him, and I'm not the best at verbalizing what works for me, so I'm turning to folks here (and also getting more suggestions as I know there's always something I can do to improve my game). I actually run two different two-person games in the same world at the same time -- logistics are weird.

Those of you that have run D&D or something like it for less than four people, how do you do it? Especially for things like healing or arcane spellpower or up-close fighting or thievery -- all those things that challenge a well-rounded group can be crippling to a two-person party. It doesn't help that neither of us players want to feel like we have to play a certain class to make the game work, like him as a cleric and me as a fighter, or something like that. Also, for plots, do you do more character-based plots, or plot-based, or setting-based?

Thanks in advance for the help -- I'm pretty anxious to get to playing again instead all my gaming being running two games a week, but after a few false starts in campaigns and some frustration, I'm trying to help out.


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First Post
Making ends meet

I run games for my fiance and another player.
To get around the issue of not having a well rounded party they have their own main PC and then there is a selection of NPC's which have helped them out in past adventures etc who they call upon and use as secondary characters to help them through areas they are not eqipped for.

This works well with my players and when something is known to be brewing an adventure can be started by itself searching for the NPC they want to join up with.

Of course you could just get adventures geared towards the PCs in the party and adjust the Challenges to better fit fewer players.



It might not be best way of doing it, but if I'm playing a commercial adventure built for 4 players of xx level, I allow the players to have henchman (or NPCs) to fill in the power gap. This way, I don't have to do a lot of grunt work to balance the adventure. My players seem to like this approach.

I've also tried allowing the players to run more than one character in game. However, this didn't work out well...the players really want to focus on one character. So I ended up 'running' these extras as NPC henchman with interesting personalities.

I've always wondered if there is better way. Perhaps I can pick up some tips from others that reply.


First Post
I ran two people for two different campaigns (or 1 and a half).
I fought it and fought it but they need more power, just giving them another level just makes things more lopsided (i.e. the areas that they want to be good at they aren't challenged in because they are more powerful, and thus it isn't fun but the stuff they don't like continues to be a barrier).

So give them henchmen or contacts they can go to or bring with them to accomplish the goals required.


First Post
I don't really know if any of this helps you but here are some thoughts of mine.

I´we found during my last 15+ years as a DM with various gaming groups of 2 or more players is to relax and not try to force the thing. If you only have two players which both want to play a mage, let them, it's their choise. Just try to adapt the setting to it, after all some heroes work alone or with a trusted companion, "me-against-the-world" kind of thing.

Fleshing out the campaign with NPCs or henchmen/hirelings is a good way to size up the party although it sometimes puts a lot on the DMs shoulders. I'we also found that running adventures or campaigns that you yourself design specifically for a two player group is quite a lot easier than always having to tweak premade adventures (which are rarely designed for two players anyway).



First Post
Although it seems like the best solution, my players hate NPCs and henchmen. If I try to give them some help that I think they will need, they avoid it at all costs. If I force an NPC on them, they ditch him as soon as possible.

I DM for an average group of 3 players. We have a couple of players who rarely are involved, so it almost never gets up to 4 players. In fact, we were beginning to miss too many games because of schedule conflicts, so I offered to try to make it work when only 2 players are available.

Like Grealis, I decided not to force things. It is the job of the players, and the PCs, to be aware of their shortcomings and lack of overwhelming numbers and to plan accordingly. That said, in any module you run there will be certain encounters that are required to accomplish the goal. I try to modify these down to the point where they are reasonable for 2-3 PCs.

Some people like the gestalt rules (I think from Unearthed Arcana) which let each PC advance in 2 classes at a time. My players would call this munchkin and refuse it. For my current campaign (World's Largest Dungeon), I set up character creation to make them above average, such as using 32-point buy.

Of course, not all my efforts to help the PCs were accepted. I went with high standard HP per level, not thinking they would like the idea of just using max HP. For instance, a d12 hit die gives you 10 hit points, a d10 = 8 HP, etc. The cleric and the barbarian PCs actually choose to roll instead of taking the standard. They lucked out this time, but the law of averages is bound to catch up to them.

DMing for only 2-3 players can be very fun too. It is easy to let everyone have their time in the sun, and not worry that someone is getting left out. I also play in diaglo's OD&D game, which often has 8 or more players present, and I don't see how he does it. But he does a great job, and actually seems to like having more players.


First Post
Several options...

- Gestalt PCs for more breadth
- NPCs filling the gaps
- tailored encounters to suit the PCs abilities
- allow problems for non-present classes to be solved creatively



First Post
My group has 3 players. I have little time to write my own adventures, so most of the time I use ones from Dungeon magazine. Many times, the group feels the lack of a cleric or rogue (they are a ranger-13, a sorcerer-10/dragon disciple-2/lich template-2, and a druid-10/warshaper-2/master of many forms-1) so sometimes I'll throw in an NPC for one adventure to help them out. At these levels though, no one wants to play two PCs and I don't want to have to worry about another NPC.

So if things are going rough for the players, I'll scale it back a bit. But I don't usually have to. I make purchased magic items much more available than many DMs. And my players are pretty good at tactics and turning the tables in their favor.

I think it's cool having fewer players. You can focus much more on individuals this way.


First Post
Our gaming group has consisted of the DM and three players for almost 20 years, with the occasional add on person for a year or less generally. We have always played two characters each. This has allowed us to play differing characters and fill the group needs of having tanks, cleric, magic, etc. It is not difficult as long as you are careful to design very different personalities.

For example, my current characters include Valentine, a somewhat mercenary fighter from a disreputable city. He is willing to fight the good fight...as long as there appears to be potential for profit there. :)

The other character is a 7 foot 2 inch elf sorc named Amaras. This oddity came about due to a glitch in our homebrew character generator program. Instead of throwing the character out, I used it to formulate the basis of the character. A careful, thoughtful giant of an elf, outcast among his people.

If your players are capable of playing two toons at once, this is an alternative to using henchmen that are just another thing for the DM to have to run.

Gaming since 1978


First Post
I'm a big fan of more story-centric games for fewer players (rather than combat-focused). It really tends to create a more successful game, and you have more time to deal with the decisions they make, as you only have 2 players to keep track of.

Kid Socrates

First Post
S'mon said:
Focus on the roleplay & combat ELs should average 2-3 under party level.

That's been one of the things -- I love the roleplay aspect of smaller groups, and run towards that. The other GM is a combat fan, and runs really good combats, but they can overwhelm a smaller group and introducing NPCs or a power group to help make us feel like we're not really needed or useful. It doesn't help that we're hardly optimizing our characters for combat, though we've been trying to lately. He picked up Iron Heroes, if I'm thinking of the right game -- low- to no-magic, much more detailed combat stuff, simpler AoO rules, feats scaling up in level, that book. He thinks it'll really help him run for two people instead of four to six. He's making a homebrew, last I checked.

So when you do run combats for just two or three people, have you found anything that works beyond just reducing the amount of enemies? We're definitely in for combat, so I want to suggest an idea or two to him if I can come up with some.

More questions as I think of them -- I wholeheartedly agree with the storycentric approach to a game, as I've found those to be incredibly rewarding.


Kid Socrates said:
So when you do run combats for just two or three people, have you found anything that works beyond just reducing the amount of enemies? .

The balance changes - enemy save or die/incapacitate spells become relatively more powerful, enemy area-effect spells become relatively less powerful. Spells like Hold Person are particularly deadly. Some Monster Manual CRs won't work for a smaller group, eg "melee brute" monsters that can quickly kill a PC are much deadlier than their CR would indicate. My experience is that the best thing is to run scenarios intended for standard groups at least 2-3 levels lower than your group, maybe 4+ levels at higher level. Try to avoid foes that can kill a PC in one round, so don't use many save-or-die spells or melee brutes (unless their CR is well under party level - trolls & ettins are suitable for 9th-10th level PCs in a 2-PC group). OTOH flexible foes with lots of powers work very well, like demons. In a regular game these often die too fast to use their abilities, a smaller party can allow for more interesting development. In a small group battles go faster, so you can use more random encounters and incidental combats without bogging the game down - again, these should usually be well under party EL, and watch out for anything that can dish out unusually large amounts of damage - a longsword armed hobgoblin is preferable to a greataxe armed orc vs low level PCs.


First Post
I ran a very short-term campaign for 2 players. I let them each have two PCs. This only works for experienced players, in my opinion. New players have enough trouble juggling one character's abilities and attacks, unless they're very quick on the uptake.

I know of two other people in my group who are involved in campaigns with only 2 or 3 players. In one there is a regular NPC who helps out the player-characters, and the GM is planning to let the players run two characters each so she can take a break from running the NPC. In the other game, which has 3 players, the characters have several NPC droids giving them a hand (it's a Star Wars campaign).


In general I would tend to advocate reducing the strength of opponents, not their numbers - eg, say you have 2 3rd level PCs and are using a scenario aimed at a full-size 3rd level party, if the scenario says 2 CR 3 ogres, make it 2 CR 2 bugbears or 2 CR 1 gnolls rather than 1 CR 3 ogre. 1 ogre can easily get lucky on init & to-hit and down a PC, making a TPK suddenly likely. It's less likely with a larger number of weaker foes since there are more die rolls required.

the Jester

I usually run a pretty status quo style game, but then I have that luxury as I have a group of around eight to ten players.

With a group smaller than four, I think you almost have to tailor it to them- you really have to be careful to avoid a tpk every session. So my advice would be to turn the challenges down so that the typical EL of a challenge is about (average party level) -2. Whether this is 3rd-level pcs fighting a CR 1 monster or four CR 1/4 creatures, I really think this will help.

Of course, if it was my game, as I'm a very ruthless evil lethal dm, I don't know how much of my own advice I'd follow. :)


First Post
I am running a summer campaign with only 2 players atm. I gave them an army of 30 NPC's, but rather than risk their lower level comrades they ended up taking 1 henchman each. None of the characters they brought along on their daily adventures were healers but they made due with cure light wands and UMD.

I try to choose enemies that are 1 to 2 CR's lower than recommended and as long as the situation is in their favor they have no problem. Things can quickly get dicey though. For example, level 7 warlock wanders off on his own and encounters a Choker (MM1) and nearly died. Level 7 Sorcerer nearly died from 2 attacks by a CR5(Same deal against a CR4 now that I think of it). I found that lots of lower CR creatures make for a more controllable environment than a higher CR that could 1 round any of the players. If you want to use higher CR, change the situation. Maybe the monster had been recently wounded from another fight and hadn't healed up a bit. Knock off 10 hps and the PC's have a chance of downing it before it gets one of them.

This can make for a short fight, sometimes 1 to 2 rounds and it can be over. Try also using creatures that are weaker, but can use hit and run tactics. Meenlocks from MM3 can zap PC's from a distance using Rend Mind to drain wisdom. Phase spiders who take a single attack then shift back to the ethereal plane.
Very rarely do I use a combat brute because of the fragiliness of my PC's. Ability damage is fun through. My PC's are currently exploring some caves with Meenlocks and Mindshredders. On average they -5 points to their wisdom after clearing a cave :]