When Half the Party Shows Up

We created a rule of playing with a minimum of six players. But the folks who showed really wanted to play, so we broke our own rule ... and nearly broke the party with it.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

To Play or Not to Play?​

It happens. Everyone's busy, and only certain players show up. I worked hard to encourage a mix of support casters and combat character types, six characters in total. We play once a week over Roll20. The rule we came up with is that we would play with a minimum of four players. If we had all six, great, I would adjust the game's difficulty on the fly.

But this last encounter involved ranged combat using cover in a sniping battle. Our remaining party members were an elven druid, a tiefling sorceress, and a gnome artificer. With the exception of the elven ranger, the ranged attackers were all present. I asked the players if they wanted to proceed. The three who showed up were really looking forward to the game, so I made a calculated decision and decided to go ahead.

Maybe We Shouldn't Have Played...​

The battle involved hordes of enemies arriving from above, with a horizontal (instead of an overhead view) map, Space Invaders style. There were giant mushrooms to hide behind and lots of flying clockwork monsters shooting radiant rays. The sorceress unleashed fireballs and a storm sphere, while the druid used her moonbeam spell in a 40-foot long column (very different from the 10-foot side circle when fighting from a top-down perspective!). The artificer ran around healing and providing support. For the first couple of rounds, things were going in the party's favor.

But there were too many monsters, which meant that critical hits were much more likely. Even though the monsters had low Armor Class and low Hit Points, there were a lot of them, and the critical hits started to add up, particularly on the druid. There wasn't a lot of room to stop and heal, as every party member was maximizing their action economy as the enemy relentlessly came closer and closer to them at the bottom of the map.

Then the monsters closed to melee.

When it was a sniping battle, things were fairly even. Although the monsters were being decimated they still were scoring hits, but the squishier casters couldn't withstand much melee for long. This is where they missed their tanks most. The sorceress summoned a Hound of Ill Omen and the artificer summoned his eldritch cannon. These soaked up some hits, but not enough.

At this point things were getting desperate. The sorceress went down, as did the Hound and cannon, but that was enough for the druid to use her moonbeam to clean up the rest of the attackers and then revive the sorceress. It was a close match and the players were sweating.

What I Did Behind the Scenes​

I originally had two attacks for every monster, so I cut that in half. It also just made combat move faster, as there were a lot of attackers (15 per wave). I also rounded up damage when the monsters were close to 0 hit points, so if they were within 2 or 3, I just blew them up. The combat was meant to make the PCs feel powerful, and they definitely enjoyed wiping opponents off the battlefield.

The monsters also came in waves, which meant that while our heroes started out strong, it eventually wore them down. The monsters weren't particularly smart and had no leader, so they reacted to combat conditions only after they experienced them (e.g., they didn't avoid the storm sphere at first until a few got caught in it).

And despite all that, it was still very much a swingy battle that could have resulted in a total party kill.

Was It Worth It?​

The players talked about this game in breathless terms, thrilled that they survived. I was too, because I really didn't want to wipe out the party because we chose to play without the rest of the group. And yet capturing that lightning in a bottle, where the win is hard earned, is part of what makes the game so much fun. There are certainly things I would have done differently, but with so many variables it can sometimes be hard to gauge it just right. It was close a match, but I think it was worth the risk.

Your Turn: How do you handle games when half or more of the party is missing?

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Personally, I don't think it matters. If 1 shows up, there is always a solo piece we can run. If you are creative enough, it can always fit with the story. For example, I had a group of six players, but it was the holiday, so everyone had plans. Then one player was like, I wish we were playing. That's an opportunity. They were in a dungeon, but I had him find a secret passageway, that led to a fall, that led to him getting back up to the group. It was fun. One on one has some pretty good advantages. It's easier to set a mood. Combat is fast. And the threat to the character is much more substantial, so, at least in my experience, there are fewer Leroy Jenkins.

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Victoria Rules
DM NPCs have been problems in the game’s past, and those who have had bad experience with DM NPCs are the ones most likely to be critical of doing so. I know a DM or two I absolutely loathe for bringing in NPC “help” that regulates the players to sidekicks.
An adventuring NPC who is of about the same level and ability as a typical PC in the party shouldn't be able to punt anybody to "sidekick" status.

We use adventuring NPCs all the time, be they recruits to fill gaps in the lineup, plot devices, rescuees who have some adventuring skills, promoted henches, or whatever. It's extremely rare IME that a party doesn't have at least one NPC in it.


Victoria Rules
I just plain loathe bringing NPCs into the party. There's enough on my plate to track and deal with to want another distraction. The players have to push in game to get an NPC to join them, and even then it's only for a limited time period.
Thing is, as DM you don't have to do much work in order to run the NPC. Let the players roll its dice and (with you having veto) decide what it does. All you need to do is roll it up in the first place and then give it a bare-bones personality.


Morkus from Orkus
Thing is, as DM you don't have to do much work in order to run the NPC. Let the players roll its dice and (with you having veto) decide what it does. All you need to do is roll it up in the first place and then give it a bare-bones personality.
If I'm going to do that, then I'd just let them have two PCs, which I don't like to do. It's hard to immerse yourself in the game if you have to go back and forth between two characters.


A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
If only one player shows up, I run the game. But my campaign is a sandbox. When we are down a number of players, it can be a side session from the party's main objectives.

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