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!