Thursday, January 12, 2012

Small Gaming Groups: Weal and Woe

I really love my gaming group!  It's just three of us.  Me, Jim and Adam.  We've been playing early edition D&D games for the past two years and having a great time of it.  We all have different personalities and mindsets, but overall we are very compatible.  I consider them both friends.  "Dustups" are far and few between.  We play at Ad's place, and he has a big, comfortable dining room table and a $600 professional-grade gourmet expresso maker with which to dispense cappuccinos.  Best yet, me and Jim rotate DM'ing duties so we both get to be players 50% of the time.

Despite the fun that we have, being part of a small group has its challenges.  D&D, for better or worse, has been designed around relatively large parties of adventurers.  Most old-school adventure modules were constructed for a party of 6-8 characters.  Most random encounter charts were designed for a similarly sized party.  Gygax refers to running games for even larger groups of players!  In fact, it's implied in D&D that a party should have a good mix of characters to ensure survival and prosperity.  At a minimum, this would be a 1-2 fighters, a cleric, a magic user, and a thief.

One thing that we've long grappled with is how many PCs each player wants to play.  In my particular group, the guys want to play one PC each most of the time.  It makes them feel more connected to that PC, more knowledgeable of the PC's abilities, and gives them a more immersive feel.  And you know what?  I totally get that!  Who am I to tell them: "Hey guys, for my DM'ing convenience would you please play 3 PC's each."  I wouldn't force someone to play multiple characters against their better wishes just to increase party size.  So as a DM, I accomodate the smaller party.

With that being said, I have found that I DM quite a bit differently for a small group than I would for a larger party.  For one thing, I am much more generous with rewarding the PCs with cash and magic items.  With only two adventurers, every encounter can be harrowing.  It only takes one lucky blow from an Orc and half your party is gone.  And things can snowball from there.  (Granted, I have good, cautious players).  So I've been more giving with magic items that I ever have before.  I'll give them things like a Magic Belt that reduces damage by 1hp per die of damage.  So when that Orc whacks you for 5 points of damage, it's only 4 points.  That could save a PC's life at low level.  I placed a magic item called Idol of the Ape, which increases its wearer's DEX and STR by 1 point.  This was enough to reduce his AC by 1 point.  So I'm not giving out world-beating magic, but I'm giving them a fair number of items that go towards making them more survivable.  And guess what?  It was also an experiment on my part to see if it would be fun.  And you know what?  We're all having a blast!  And isn't that the point?

I've also found that by helping the duo become more powerful and capable, I can have more fun as the DM.  With only two low-level PC's, I wasn't looking forward to room after room of "one fire beetle" or "three kobolds" or "one gnoll."  (Granted, I don't use many monsters from the MM - but I'm just trying to make a point).  So it's becoming a win-win.  The players have fun by finding cool, yet moderate, magic.  I have fun by being able to place more sinister and powerful monsters and traps to confront them.  And we've all been enjoying the experience.

I think the real test will come when one of the duo dies, as is bound to happen.  At that point, we may have a 5th level PC adventuring with a 1st level PC.  That could get very hairy.  In larger parties, the single 1st level PC can be sheltered.  In a duo, EVERYONE has to pitch in and fight.

The guys have done a phenomenal job playing their PCs to their best advantage.  They are both elves and they both wear leather armor.  That affords them lots of opportunities to sneak around, steal things, surprise monsters, and avoid combat.  And I let them do individual initiative rolls with their DEX modifier, so they usually win initiative and are rarerly surprised.  One is a Fighter/Thief.  The other is a MU/Thief.  These guys really play the PCs to the best of their potential.

The drawback to the small party is that I would love to be able to run some of the old TSR modules.  But the only way to do that is to modify them to a huge extent and really power them down to accomodate a smaller party.  For example, I'm working on modifying the G1-G3 series (the Giant trilogy).  But instead of Hill Giants, Frost Giants, and then Fire Giants, it will be:
  • Steading of the Bugbear Chief
  • Glacial Rift of the Ogre Jarl
  • Hall of the Cobalt Ogre King
Not quite the same ring, eh?  :)

For those of you that have small gaming groups, how do you handle it?  Does everyone play one PC or multiple PCs?  Do you still run published modules?


  1. We tend to 1 main PC and then 1 back-up PC. That is, I currently play a 6th-level LE cavalier. At the same time, I also run a 5th-level Neutral Magic-User. The Cavalier does most of the talking, but I control the actions of both. If we have to split the party, I try to have them in separate groups, that way I can play the whole time we're split and not get bored.

    We also take a page from 4E Hackmaster and have "proteges" in the wings waiting to take over. The rules for proteges are that you can funnel them xp from yours. If you have to write to them, they only get half of what you funnel. If they're present, they can get 75%.

    For instance, my Cavalier's protege is his younger brother. He's rolled up as a regular fighter and is currently 2nd level. If Kjeran bites it, he gets activated. He's listed in my will as my heir and will get my possessions, if recoverable. Also, he won't be 1st level, which is a plus.

    Tamrin (the m-u) took one of our hirelings as a protege. He was the group's torchbearer and "scroll caddy" for the mage. He's been rolled up as a o-lvl apprentice and is learning cantrips. Not quite up to speed yet.

    Note that the proteges don't have to be in the same class category. Kjeran's brother could have been a cleric or Tamarin could have grabbed one of the men-at-arms as a dedicated "meat-shield" and to become a protege.

  2. Anthony - that sounds like a really good way to do things. I think I prefer that to running 1 PC each, especially when there are only a couple players available to play.

    Just curious. How many players do you have in your games?

    And which edition do you play?