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.
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
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?