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I've played D&D several times before (3.5e), and I'm really loving how 5e sounds. My wife (who hasn't played at all before) is also very interested in D&D, to the point where we now have the D&D 5e starter set (incl. Lost Mines of Phandelver campaign), and we'll probably start playing within a couple weeks, probably a month max.

Though, it will just be the two of us. So, I'll be GM'ing, she'll have her own character, and from whatever she creates for herself, I'll be making a GMPC to compliment her own character (plus some backstory or character stuff for why her character will often take the lead instead of my own).

I've seen many guides on how to handle this very small party situation, e.g.

  • Lower the number of monsters in the encounters,

  • Single heavy targets, e.g. bosses, should have their total HP dropped,

  • Future campaigns should generally be suited to what classes we end up with, rather than being the common any-old-situation-which-a-full-and-rounded-party-can-always-handle,

etc.

There are other suggestions around, such as having Gestalt PCs, i.e. PCs who level equally in two classes, not just one. But as my wife hasn't played D&D before, I think that will be too much, too soon.

Something else I was thinking of was this:

Running us through an introductory campaign first. Something small and generic, probably involving a shared home-village being attacked, leading into a larger thing to do with bandits in the area getting out of control (attacking other villages too, etc.) and needing to be dealt with by the villages (and, prominently of course, us). In the end, this would get us both up to level 2, and maybe even a bit of neat-o equipment, e.g. each of us getting one of: +1 weapon, +1 armor, or other "slightly cool" equipment fit for low-level PCs.

The idea of this is that this can lead into us getting our two-man party together and transitioning into the Phandelver quest. More importantly though, while I'll still be doing things like making encounters have fewer enemies and reducing the HP of bosses, I'm hoping I can do that less, since we'll be a level higher than the campaign is intending for us to be at each point? And if I can do this less, then the campaign hopefully won't feel as "watered down" as I fear it might if I'm having to lower the difficulty so much due to us being the right level, but too few in number.

Basically, my question is this: Is this a good idea?

If so, is there anything specific I should watch out for when doing this?

If the idea of ending up with some cool bit of equipment is good, then is just a bit of +1 equipment a good idea? Or instead of just some +1 equipment, is there possibly some other low-level equipment that would be great for a small party to have (to help sidestep the bane of very small parties: just a couple bad rolls in combat leading to an accidental TPK), but simultaneously isn't overpowered? Or maybe being a higher level will already be a massively-bigger boost than I realise, and the extra equipment isn't necessary?

Or, a different twist, would the good equipment be a good idea, but without the pre-campaign? Put another way, would it be better for us each to start with some item of +1 (or other, mildly magical) equipment, but otherwise not bothering with the pre-campaign and us just starting at level 1 on the Phandelver campaign like everyone else?

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I don't think this is a good idea. D&D can scale down to one or one and half players (a "GMPC"), but the official pre-written adventures aren't meant for it. You'll spend more time mucking with the balance than is really worth it. And, I think there are plenty of reasons a GMPC is never a good idea — but even if you disagree on that, I think with only the two of you, the point stands.

I suggest either:

  1. Skip Lost Mine of Phandelver. Look on DM's Guild or another similar site for adventures intentionally written for one player. Citation: I tried to run this adventure with two players, and it didn't go well. But, there are good pre-written options out there — just not official ones from WotC.
  2. Find a few more people to invite to the game. D&D really works best with a party. I realize this gets heavily into personal advice, and there may be plenty of reasons this doesn't work for you — so, in that case back to option one.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for your answer. :) Dealing with 2 first, yeah, without going into specifics, it's unfortunately not really an option for us to find other people to play with us. At least, maybe in a couple years or more, but not at the moment or for the near future. Suffice to say, us running a campaign for just the two of us, one way or another, is currently the only way for us to play. \$\endgroup\$ – RPBCL Sep 18 '17 at 22:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ As for the rest, well... I actually completely understand the dangers and risks of having a GMPC in the game. Frankly, under any other circumstances, my default position is also that a GMPC is simply a bad, bad idea. But I know that a lot of the fun for my wife will be collaborating within a party (even just a party with only two people). Plus, I'm actually really good at thinking "what does my character actually know" so that I won't be giving anything away or metagaming. I'm dead set on collaborating with my wife's character, but still making sure the focus is on her. (continued...) \$\endgroup\$ – RPBCL Sep 18 '17 at 23:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ (... continued) I'll never fudge a dice roll for my GMPC's sake. With all the preceding points, really, my GMPC will more just be a character-leveled NPC, really... And with all the preceding points, my main focus is just to have fun with my wife - that also means that if it seems like the GMPC idea is doing anything to get in the way of our fun, then I'm also not above changing it heavily, or getting rid of him altogether... \$\endgroup\$ – RPBCL Sep 18 '17 at 23:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ Forgive the big comments :) I guess the reason for saying all that though, is to ask, for our particular circumstance, if it's done well then allowing us to have more fun in the campaign, and knowing that we're not above getting rid of the GMPC if it's not fun or otherwise not actually working out, do you still think the GMPC idea simply can't work? \$\endgroup\$ – RPBCL Sep 18 '17 at 23:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ Well, I do think GMPC is a bad idea, but that's not my main point. My main point is that Lost Mine of Phandelver — and really, all official modules, but that one in particular based on my experience — is not a great one-or-two-player adventure. Rather than trying to adapt it, you're better off looking for content written for that. \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Sep 19 '17 at 0:08
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Although this is an older question now, I have some experience with almost this exact scenario, and thought I'd share it.

My Solution and Problems with it

I often play D&D with my partner only, where she is the player and I am the DM, or vice versa. Although I am (now, not when we first started) also involved in other D&D groups, she is not able to be, so we can only really ever play it together as a two player game.

We do almost the same thing that you propose, where she plays a PC and I play a PC, except that to address the balance issues (D&D assumes a party of 4 by default), we both play 2 PCs each. Obviously which ever one of us is DMing has their PCs take a back seat regarding decision making (effectively becoming GMPCs for that game) and the other has their characters drive the story more (including suggesting actions to the other party members*).

There were problems with this at first; namely that for a new player (and new DM, for that matter), learning how two characters worked is more difficult that learning how one character works. This problem can be lessened by playing similar classes, but it's still never going to be as simple as a single character.

The twin of that problem is that it's difficult to roleplay two characters at once; again, to mitigate that, having two wildly different personalities helps, but there's still the temptation to let one fall to the side whilst the other becomes the "main" character.

Learning how you use your character

Having a intro session as you suggest (attack on home town, etc) might help get a new player used to the mechanics (maybe ignore XP, and even death, i.e. all enemies were using non-lethal damage that day) and treat it as a practice run; then start Lost Mines of Phandelver fresh at level 1 with this character (plus another one).

This intro session will get her used to things like how initiative works, how attack rolls and damage rolls work, what AC is, etc. This way, when playing two characters when you first start the real adventure, it might not be so overwhelming because she was able to learn the basics whilst only controlling one character.

Another alternative (if the classes differ a lot, such as a fighter and a mage) is to literally have two mini intro sessions, one per PC, where each PC's home is attacked or whatever, just to contrast the two classes and how they work. Then when she plays both at once for the real adventure, she's had a chance to get used to them both individually.

In our case, for our first game, one of her characters was KO'd (down to 0HP but then stabilised) in the very first fight (which took place at the inn we were staying at) so that character slept it off whilst the rest of us went and did something; this effectively allowed her to learn how one character worked whilst the other one was absent, essentially the same as if we had played an intro session as I've described above.

Learning how to play your character

Regarding roleplay, since it's difficult to get into the minds of two characters at the same time (it's possible with practice, but at first...), it might be worth picking one of your PCs at the beginning of a roleplay scene (the one that fits the scene best) and focusing on that one character, allowing the other to fall to one side. This helps you get into the head of one character. So long as they both get their share of the spotlight, this helps to mitigate the problem of juggling roleplaying two character at once.

Usually, our party has a "leader", which isn't a fixed member but rather whoever makes sense at the time, given the adventure (we still do this even now, a year later). Obviously the DM's PCs will not be the leader, so it will be one of the player's PCs, whichever makes sense.

For example, my partner has a ranger and a wizard. In a recent adventure, we've have more roleplay heavy sessions in cities and more exploration/combat focused sessions in a swamp or other such places; in the cities, the wizard was the "leader", making the party decisions and doing most of the talking with NPCs, but during the more "outdoory" scenes, her ranger became the "leader" and decided which way to go through the swamp or wherever.

Conclusion

So if the idea of playing two PCs at once isn't too overwhelming, it is an option to playing published adventures with the recommended party of 4 PCs when there's only 2 players (DM included). Having the PCs "take turns" during roleplay moments helps to get into their heads without neglecting both PCs, and having a one or two intro sessions to learn each character separately before using both at once helps to gets some of the rules down and learn the differences between how certain classes work.


*For example, if I am the DM that day and I have a rogue PC, she may ask my rogue PC to check for traps, even though I as the DM know whether there are traps or not, but my rogue PC doesn't, so he checks, although it wouldn't occur to him to do so unless one of her characters suggests it; that way, my character's knowledge and my DM knowledge do not cross-contaminate. When she is DM, it now will occur to my rogue PC to check for traps without being ordered to by her characters this time, because I'm in control of him and have no DM knowledge this time, so there's still no cross-contamination; also her character will not order my characters around anymore, but rather I will make suggestions to her characters, etc.

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I am currently running a game with 3 experienced players instead of the expected 4.

They are 1 level higher than stated in the module to account for this, and I don't need to adjust the combat. So yes I think it is a good idea, but not sure just 1 level will do it.

I would also seriously recommend milestone xp/leveling for a party this small, and thre will be an awful lot of sneaking involved. Here is a link in case you don't know what i am talking about: http://theworstdm.com/3-reasons-use-milestone-leveling/ The DM modules tell you the milestone points.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for your answer. This is similar to what I was thinking, really. Just FYI: Unfortunately, we still haven't had the chance to play after all, so I'm waiting until we play to see what worked for us, and what didn't, before accepting an answer. \$\endgroup\$ – RPBCL Jan 23 '18 at 22:08
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First off, I am not very experienced with the Lost Mines of PhanDelver so please take what I say with a grain of salt.

In terms of balancing, it is my experience that, in combat, the side with more members generally has an advantage over the side with better equipment. So I wouldn't worry about giving your characters good gear/levels early on. This will also balance out as the enemies get better gear, and you will naturally fall into the right level as lower level enemies yield less XP (if you use the XP system).

If you are really worried about overpowering the characters, you can introduce the idea of special items which have durability. This will give your characters extremely powerful gear for long as you need to gauge what the best way to balance is, then takes off the training wheels when the durability runs out.

As for whether or not to do an introductory campaign, I think this is fine so long as it is kept to a one-shot. The beauty of a pre-built campaign is that it feels like the GM is discovering the world at the same time as the players, so I would be eager to start the main course.

I agree that lowering the HP and quantity of enemies could feel watered down. I would experiment with combining several lower level enemies into one mini-boss enemy. If the original script calls for 5 Minion characters, perhaps try 1 Minion character and 1 Mega-Minion character. This increases both the tension and (in my opinion) makes combat easier. If the party can figure out a way to distract or immobilize that one character, the whole combat scenario is basically won. This also increases the feasibility of alternative tactics such as stealth. Speaking of which, if you want to and can create more opportunities for non-combat solutions, maybe the small party can become an advantage rather than a disadvantage.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for your answer :) yeah no matter what, the pre-campaign would hopefully just be one night to get my wife into the mechanics of D&D, get us to level 2, and then the next session onwards would be following the much longer LMoP campaign. Power-items with Durability sounds interesting, I definitely hadn't thought of that... \$\endgroup\$ – RPBCL Sep 18 '17 at 6:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ Other parts of your answer, I was going to do, pretty much :) E.g. one of the first "bosses", a Bugbear, I was hoping to leave him pretty much alone in terms of stats, but possibly make him only have 1 or 2 non-watered-down sidekicks (depending on how we travel up to that point), so that defeating him still feels like we're really accomplishing something there. \$\endgroup\$ – RPBCL Sep 18 '17 at 6:06
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Why not just starting from level 2?

I'm not a really experienced player, but I'm really loving how my master is handling our current Pathfinder campaign.

He basically removed all grinding and makes us level up in a static way throughout the campaign. This way we are always spot on for the challenges we have to face without the need for pointless encounters in case we're too far off.

That said, this is not exactly what you want to do, but I'm saying there's nothing inherently wrong or hard about simply starting from a level that's not 1.

Another master I know always starts his campaigns with new characters from level 3, as he thinks early levels demotivate his players (low hit rates, few abilities...).

I guess, rather than playing another small campaign and hoping that it brings you exactly to level 2, simply starting from 2 would be better.

The same goes for the equipment

Remember that rules should help you have some fun, not limit you.

If you think "cheating" and starting with a better sword you couldn't normally afford is gonna make it more balanced since you're just two players and not four, just do it, you don't need a pre-campaign to justify it.

Would it be too easy?

Again, I'm not an expert, but I always thought that the side with more members was advantaged in combat, as they had more "actions" per round (e.g. I'm playing a Cleric in my current campaign, my paladins can rush a lot when there's few enemies cause they know I'm gonna patch them up and the Wizard is also going to give them magical armor. Also, if, like, there's some enemies on a side, and they get reinforcements on the other, having a big party makes it easier to handle it where a small party could easily be overwhelmed, unless it's very OP. So trust me, being fewer in number is already a bug enough disadvantage).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for your answer :) I definitely wasn't going to track XP in the pre-campaign, rather, at the end of it I was just going to bump us to level 2. I guess the other reason for the pre-campaign is to introduce my wife to the mechanics of D&D since she hasn't played before... but I guess just playing the actual campaign has the exact same effect really, just a little more "thrown in the deep end"? \$\endgroup\$ – RPBCL Sep 18 '17 at 6:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RPBCL Well, it depends on the campaign. If the advantage you give to the players is enough to compensate that you're 2 characters (instead of, I suppose, 4?), most pre-made campaigns have the right level to make the players comfortable in their first steps. In the end, just see what you think would make things comfortable for you and your wife, don't let the rules restrain you too much, they're just a starting point. \$\endgroup\$ – Eärendil Baggins Sep 19 '17 at 12:36

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