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I DM'ed for my buddies this semester and it was really fun. I got my roommate hooked and now he's asking for me to make another campaign (I've got a great idea). The problem lies in the fact that I'll only be able to play with 2 people this summer.

Should I even attempt this? Should I make my own character and act as an NPC that follows and helps them fight? Should I make them hire mercenaries instead? Should I let them roll extra characters? Should I roll characters and let them play them?

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I've got all the books for 3.5, but I play with ALOT of house rules. Apart from the character sheets and some skills/feats I use mostly house rules modified from the 3.5 set. –  maxmackie Apr 19 '11 at 17:22

8 Answers 8

up vote 27 down vote accepted

With only two characters, you can tailor your game to their roles. I've always enjoyed the opportunity to do this with one- and two-player campaigns.

Consider a class like the druid. In a group with a wizard, thief, undead-smiting cleric, and a paladin, just how much time is that druid going to be spending in the forest doing druid-y forest-protect-y things? Perhaps some, but most is going to be spent underground, fighting undead and such. How great would it be to have the chance to actually make the game entirely focus on the things that are relevant to a character's class?

With a two-player party, you can take the average of their characters' themes and make a campaign that focuses on that:

  • Have a thief and a bard? Great, play a city game where sneaking, fast-talking, and investigating are the order of the day. You don't have to worry about them being weak in a fight—make the fights few and weak! After all, when all you have is a thief and a bard, two heavily-armed soldiers are scary—you don't have to make the encounters the same as if there were a full role-set in the party.

  • Have a ranger and a druid? No need for a thief to disarm traps, because really, how many traps are they going to find in the forest? Deadfalls or tiger-pit traps on rare occasions perhaps, but those need to be spotted and avoided, not disarmed. Do they run into a bit of arcane magic that would be trivial to understand/bypass with a wizard in tow? Great! Now it's a significant, mysterious, frightening bit of unearthly enchantment that can be a bigger deal to the story!

  • Two clerics? Have fun stomping undead, dealing with opposed evil cults, and other religion-y themes!

  • A wizard plus any-other-class? Excellent, you've got a magical adventure in the future. Wizards are way more interesting when they're not just moving artillery platforms. Throw in enchantments, ancient runes, mysterious libraries, and the machinations of rival wizards!

Tailoring a campaign to a small party is a refreshing, pleasant experience. Make the most of it by really digging into the themes that make the players' characters interesting to them, and you'll have a memorable game without worrying about "balancing" out the encounters to a non-existent "normal" party. This is often quite difficult when running prepared adventures, but when you're homebrewing a campaign as you are, it's easy and a treat to GM.

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Great answer, thanks mate. –  maxmackie Apr 19 '11 at 21:35
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One of my online games is based on 2 PCs still finishing school in the 'Collegium Arcana', and though it has been very non-trad (with some late papers and detention), it has been a lot of fun. –  LordVreeg Apr 20 '11 at 14:14

Yes, you should attempt this imo, as it is definitely possible.

I myself have been running a successful single(!) player campaign for almost six years. True, it's not D&D, but I think with thorough consideration of the challenges and tailoring the adventures to your two players you'll have great sessions... but of course you could say that that's a kinda prerequisite for games with any number of players. :)

As for specifics: I wouldn't burden my player(s) either with additional PCs to play or with a permanent DM-controlled companion. Let them--and you--get a feel of the minimal set up, play a few intro adventures and then, having weighed its merits and flaws go on customizing and balancing your game.

(...and, for inspiration, read some stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser--one of the most famous "two man parties" in fantasy literature--by Fritz Leiber. ;))

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Thanks for letting me know about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser! –  maxmackie Apr 19 '11 at 21:35
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+1 for Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser; that would be a blast playing in that type of game with just two players. I think Leiber got the NPC patrons just right, mysterious and off stage 98% of the time! –  Galieo Apr 22 '11 at 21:13

It's been awhile since we've been active, but our chat-based game has been running with 2 players for most of its lifetime. I've also been in a few games where there's been a shortage of one or two players. Here's some ways I've seen it dealt with.

  • Flesh out the group with additional characters.
    • More than 1 PC per Player.
    • DM controls one or more PCs, or allied NPCs.
    • Players cooperatively control one or more allied NPCs.
  • DM adjusts encounter difficulty to compensate for missing players.
    • Reduce number of monsters.
    • Reduce strength of monsters.
    • Adjust monster types/roles.
    • Increase asssets available to the party. / Decrease assets available to monsters.
    • Decrease liabilities affecting the party. / Increase liabilities affecting the monsters.

It may be noteworthy that all my experience thus far has been in D&D 4e. However, I believe the methods above are adaptable to any system by one means or another.

Also, some related (if not duplicate) threads:

How do you deal with missing players?

Dealing with a changing set of players in a continuous campaign.

In the end, remember that you are the DM - the Dungeon Master. Any rules or adventure books you may be using are really just guidelines to you. You can adjust any feature or outcome to the benefit or detriment of the players as you see fit. Just remember to keep it fun.

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I know I'm a bit late to the party here (pun intended), but the Gestalt characters from Unearthed Arcana was pretty much designed for this situation: Essentially you build your character with 2 classes. At each level, you gain the benefits of both classes. You get all the special abilities of each class, the better Fort save, the better Will save, the better Reflex save, the better HD & skill points, and the better BAB.

Thus, a Fighter/Monk Gestalt would have a fighter bonus feat, a +1 BAB, all fighter and monk skills as class skills, monk skill points, monk special abilities, monk weapon proficiencies, simple & martial proficiencies, light, medium, and heavy armor proficiency, shield proficiency, and monk save bonuses at level one.

You still have to keep in mind the limitations of the classes, though - the above fighter/monk would lose their wisdom bonus to AC when wearing armor, and still couldn't flurry of blows with a greatsword.

This tends to create characters which are more survivable in 'stock' D&D situations, and allows parties with smaller numbers to approach the same skillsets as 'classic' parties.

Your group is still limited by the number of actions they can take per round (your fighter/cleric can attack OR heal, not both, and the Ranger/wizard can shoot an arrow OR fire off a magic missle, not both) but you can cover all the 'essential' skills this way.

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Very cool, thanks for the link mate –  maxmackie Apr 22 '11 at 15:36

I prefer smaller groups, myself. They provide greater opportunity for character development, interaction, and roleplay with more spotlight time per person and a lot less waiting around for your turn in combat.

It is reasonably easy to compensate for fewer party members by a) running stuff intended for lower levels and b) tailoring to your party's skill set. And let them solicit NPC help themselves if they need it - I don't like the turn of phrase that "the GM will provide an NPC;" if they don't have a cleric and need one, then in game they get to try to get someone of a clerical bent to help them. That provides additional adventure hooks in and of itself.

Having players run multiple characters is a one way ticket to lower character investment and I would never do that, but then again I strongly value character immersion.

In D&D 2e I ran a group that split for a long period of time, and I ran mini-campaigns for one or two players. With the solo players I had to be more careful, but with the groups of two (one: bard and archer, two: fighter and wizard) it really wasn't too hard - they had to run away and be more clever than a full group which usually decides anything can be met with "hey diddle diddle right up the middle" tactics, but we found that to be more realistic and fun anyway.

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I haven't played (let alone GM'ed) D&D for decades. But I've run a lot of RPGs for 2 players, and my experiences have been good.

I know that D&D is a) more combat oriented and b) more rigidly role-defining than the games I typically run. So I would suggest that you simply compensate for missing roles. Some specifics:

  • You're missing a cleric? Make healing potions / staves / etc., cheaper and more plentiful. "Try new Cleric in a bottle! Only 3 gp!"
  • You're missing a thief? Either forget the traps, lower the challenges to disarm, nerf their damage, or provide other ways around them.

Any missing role can be compensated for with a hireling or NPC companion. Just don't hog the spotlight. The NPCs shouldn't win fights or do anything cool that takes attention from the PCs. They can have personalities and be fun for you to play, they just can't be the stars.

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Why not have each player run 2 PCs. You can cover all of the major roles and you won't have to work too hard to scale encounters down for a small group. Its a bit more work on the players' part, and it can complicate non-combat situations, but if they players are playing PCs that work well together it can allow for a nice synergy between the PCs (you might need to come up with an in game explanation, but that wouldn't be too hard).

Our 4e group was short a healer so I am currently playing a warlord and a fighter and the synergy between those two classes is beautiful (fighter loves to have free action attacks and giant buffs).

Point being if the problem is number of PCs then just have your players play a couple of PCs. Its especially fun if the PCs have different distinguishable personalities, this can make non-combat situations very interesting.

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Q1: Should I even attempt this?

Sure. D&D works fine with even a single player... provided that you don't need more players to draw YOUR inspirations from.

Q2: Should I make my own character and act as an NPC that follows and helps them fight?

Generally, no. The tendency to turn into a full blown PC is all too real in most people, and it's not fair to the others. It's both more work for you and not as fun for them.

Q3: Should I make them hire mercenaries instead?

No. Same issue as Q2. The NPC's again are likely to become the dominant power in the party... less so than the GMPC issue.

Q4: Should I let them roll extra characters?

Perhaps. If they're comfortable with it, it's not a bad way to go. But in 3E that can be a lot of work.

Q5: Should I roll characters and let them play them?

No. Let them roll the extra characters if THEY feel they're needed.

Unspoken Questions answered

The Classic "D&D Party" is one each:

  • Lethal Guy (Fighter, Barbarian, Paladin, Ranger, Monk)
  • Trap Guy (Thief, Bard², Assassin¹, Tinker¹)
  • Wizardly Guy (Magic User, Bard²)
  • Healer Guy (Cleric, Druid, Ranger³, Paladin³)

With multi-classes, one can cover two or more bases easily enough.

So long as players are careful, and the GM isn't mean, any two can get by. If they're 2 levels above the upper end of the module, they shouldn't need much help, even.

A lot depends upon the nature of the game, tho'. It's perfectly viable to run a single class game and have a great time. And it's also possible to have a "classic party" and have the game flop...

Notes:
¹ Not in 3E, but this list also works for AD&D.
² Suboptimal choice, but will work
³ But only at higher levels, like 10+

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