Have you tried other group sizes on for size? The results might just surprise you…

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I can think of at least 2 of these people who I wouldn't mind booting out of the group.
I can think of at least 2 of these people who I wouldn’t mind booting out of the group.

For DMs getting the right sized group size can be a real headache. This is especially true when preparing for a new campaign where your options are often limited by the availability of players.  Or the opposite direction where not wishing to hurt anyone’s feelings by excluding them ultimately leads to party’s that are too large for the content you want to run.

Living in the United Kingdom, where roleplaying games have never enjoyed quite the same traction as they do across the pond, this is a problem that I’m intimately familiar with. From groups so undersized that they elicit a snigger of derision from minor villains, to having players crammed in so tight around a table that it’s difficult to breathe, getting the numbers right can feel like something of a lottery. A lottery where poor luck can cause more havoc than a dwarven birthday in a brewery.

Or so I used to think.

See, once upon a time I was one of those DMs who would flip to the first page of an adventure with the disclaimer that warned: ‘…for a party of x-y players…’ and feel my heart sink because I’d already be over or under-subscribed. Having to spend game time so I can properly adjust everything or asking people to sit out from the campaign are both not great options. As a DM I’m supposed to roleplay the bad guys, not actually be one!

Eventually I bit the bullet and, fighting reservations, began running a Reign of Winter campaign for Pathfinder with only two players. Initially I was nervous about them getting obliterated by something nasty early on so I improvised a couple of house rules to help: max hit points at level-ups and a bonus feat at 1st-level. Then once they got into the actual adventure I let them recruit some NPCs to join their quest which shored up their numbers.  The players ran these recruits in combat but I role played their interactions with the PCs.

A few sessions into the game something unexpected happened– it turned into the best campaign any of us had ever touched. RoW is already one of the finest Adventure Path’s Paizo has ever put out, but more than that, we found that with only two players to focus on we had more time for roleplay and character development than we’d ever dreamed. The players were stoked to have companions that grew and evolved alongside them.  Meanwhile I, as DM, got to be something of a pseudo-player, having characters to run that had the same stake in the unfolding adventure as the PCs.

The only real challenge was making sure that my NPCs took a backseat to the PCs most of the time to ensure that the actual heroes were, well, the heroes but even with that firmly in mind, there were still plenty of opportunities to make these usually inconsequential background characters shine.

Since then I’ve run several more campaigns with undersized groups and every time it has been an absolute blast for everyone. In fact both the campaigns that I’m currently running have just a pair of players each.

So take it from a DM who used to be averse to uncommon group sizes: experimentation, variety, and a willingness to step out of your comfort zone are never bad things, especially when it comes to roleplaying. If you haven’t tried a smaller, more personal adventure before, it might just be the best thing you’ve never tried!

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5 thoughts on “Have you tried other group sizes on for size? The results might just surprise you…”

  1. Avatar

    So a great formula for a 2-person party is a Wizard/Rogue & a Fighter/Cleric. Or some combination of these. Consider fictional duos such as Greyhawk’s Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser or Warhammer’s Gotrek Gurnisson & Felix Jaeger. Heck, even Batman & Robin.

    Unearthed Arcana has rules for such Gestalt characters:

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    Also, if you’re going to have small groups, Hero Points would seem to be key both to help with character survivability as well as in-game mechanic for giving player clues.
    I.e. Inspiration: “If you feel stuck at one point in the adventure, you can spend a hero point and petition the GM for a hint about what to do next. If the GM feels that there is no information to be gained, the hero point is not spent.”

    I’d also suggest more generous ability score determination such as the heroic or other helpful array:

    Finally, rather than a few other NPCs that have to join the party & occupy the DMs time, running a player’s cohort, animal companion, familiar or even intelligent magic item would seem to solve 2 problems at once.

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    So I have DM’d “groups” ranging from me and 1 player to me a second DM and 18 players. The last one was a nightmare. To begin with I must say that it can be hard to determine what is actually difficult for your players to face and what is too easy even for a group of 4 players with basic classes. It really can depend on the play style of the group. When I was starting to run games, I would send things against my players that were obviously meant to make the players flee, instead they stood their ground used everything at their disposal and defeated their foes. While running games for 1 person can be intimate and get to play a character more in depth and pay more attention to one player you kind of want to skew all the lines. When it comes to larger groups it can be harder to contain a group. With the 18 player 2 DM session it was horrible… The concept was fantastic send 2 groups in to handle a situation in a town ( zombie/ undead incursion). The problem lied in 2 things. First people that I knew were coming invited more people to come and that was unexpected…. and second execution of the incursion. the groups were originally supposed to be 6 players and 1 DM each. They were supposed to fight undead from outside opposite sides of the town to the center to help people trapped in buildings. Things happened and it became 1 endless combat and was horribly executed.

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    I played a 3-PC game a while ago, and those players reflect on that game a lot. I think a great deal of upper-end party size also depends on the DM. I imagine there are skilled DM’s who could handle huge party sizes. Personally, my skill set limits my party size to 4 at best.

    Thanks Dungeon Mastering!

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    @MythicParty – Thanks for your input, some really great advice there. I’d also suggest that generally players in smaller games should try to consult with their DM (or vice versa) ahead of time to see what type of campaign it’s going to be – some class combinations will lend themselves better to a campaign that focuses on skill checks or social interactions versus combat for example.

    @Kaine – Thanks for sharing your experience. I can’t say I’ve ever gone as large as 18 players, even with two DMs, sounds hectic but like it could also be a lot of fun. Even though certain aspects of the day got a bit away from you (mostly the guest list), I guess at least you now know things you’d do differently next time. I’ve always been intrigued to run Vault of the Dracolich from the D&D next (5e) playtest era. If you haven’t seen it, it has a similar set up with four teams attempting to run the same dungeon at once, potentially crossing paths and interacting at times.

    @ Joesph – Yeah, I like to have 4 players a lot too, plenty of options for the party as a whole, but small enough that every player gets to make a significant individual contribution to proceedings. Thanks for your comment.

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