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I recently started DMing the Lost Mine of Phandelver Starter Set adventure for a party of friends, and I'm planning to start running it for a party which will be my three sisters.

We started creating character sheets, and I wonder if they can play the basic adventure without me needing to lower the difficulty.

Their party would be:

  • Barbarian goliath
  • Ranger tiefling
  • Sorcerer elf

The barbarian is going full about doing lots of damage, more likely to go for berserker. The ranger isn't for now sure if she wants to focus on ranged, melee or both. And finally, the sorcerer chose draconic bloodline and is more likely to also go for a full damage character with few self-protection spells.

What worries me is that they don't have a very strong front line - basically only the barbarian, and if the ranger goes melee, it's going to be more sneaky, and they don't have any source of healing for now.


The group of friends I DM for being my only experience in D&D, I use it as a reference. This group is a party of 5 constituted of:

  • Rogue gnome
  • Paladin human
  • Wizard elf
  • Warlock halfling
  • Monk human

Even for the first encounter, the rogue and the warlock fell unconscious multiple times, so the paladin basically was just running to heal them using Lay on Hands. This time, I rolled several times max damage and the wizard wasn't here at that moment, but they had a hard time facing these enemies.


To add to these descriptions, my friends already played some other RPG systems, but my sisters will be very new RPG players. As per my nearly non-existent experience in D&D, I can't precisely tell if I have to balance the basic scenario to let my sisters enjoy the universe and have fun as much as I would like.

Do I have to adjudicate the basic scenario to lower the difficulty to a "normal" one?

By normal difficulty, I mean that one or two characters may fall unconscious during planned encounters and one or two may even die against a boss if players roll badly, if the boss rolls great or if they just go straight and don't try to use their character's potential.

Answers have to be backed up by experience as a player or DM for playing/running pre-published adventures for few players or "unbalanced" parties, bonus point to answers addressing particularly LMOP.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Possible duplicate of Is it possible to play the D&D Starter Set with fewer than recommended players? \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jul 30 at 9:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor Actually I'm more concerned about the fact they don't have any king of support or healing source than having fewer members than what is recommended, even if this might weight in answers. I precised it in line beginning with "What worries me...". \$\endgroup\$ – Zoma Jul 30 at 9:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PJRZ That's is something I actually though about, or maybe a paladin to help the barbarian on front line. But if the problem can be solved by minor balancing I'd prefer to let these new players play by themselves as I'm not very comfortable with the fact to play a character as the DM for some reasons. \$\endgroup\$ – Zoma Jul 30 at 10:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast: I don't have that particular adventure so it didn't feel appropriate to answer. But the question on whether the OP would consider a DM-controlled character in the party was valid and could change any potential answer. \$\endgroup\$ – PJRZ Jul 30 at 11:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Zoma see also rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/46976 and rpg.stackexchange.com/a/115374/27377 \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jul 30 at 13:42
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Maybe, maybe not

This party make up is far from ideal, but it might be doable.

How doable will depend on how much guidance they accept from you, as the DM.

The main problems

Healing

You know this already, there is very little healing in the party, and none at level 1.

There are a couple ways to mitigate this, however.

Give them healing potions.

Have the Ranger pick up Goodberry as a spell at 2nd level, and probably cure wounds. Make sure they cast Goodberry and share the berries with everyone, and make sure they understand that, most of the time, they will want to use those just on unconscious party members. Otherwise, there's going to be a lot of waiting 1d4 hours for someone to wake up after being stabilized.

Make sure the Goliath understands and uses their Stone's Endurance ability. It basically acts like healing, as they can use their reaction to reduce the incoming damage. This kinda acts like a once per rest self only Healing Word. Not great, but better than nothing.

Armor Class

While the lack of healing is bad, the potential lack of armor is worse. I DM'd this campaign for 2 characters: Dwarf Cleric (18 AC) and Halfling Rogue (14 AC).

That 4 difference is AC was huge, and the Rogue went down repeatedly. The cleric was able to cast Healing Word constantly to bring her back up, but that won't be an option for your party.

On the plus side, it is possible for each of your players to get their character's AC to 16, even at 1st level. This again requires that they be willing to follow your guidance.

Barbarian Goliath

Unarmored defense will provide 16 AC if there is at least 16 DEX and 16 CON for this character -- both easy to get with a Goliath.

Tiefling Ranger

Scale mail with 14 DEX will provide 16 AC. However, they will have disadvantage on stealth. The alternative (using the class's starting equipment) is leather armor, which with 14 DEX is only going to provide 13 AC. The Tiefling can't do any better than +2 AC from DEX unless you are rolling stats and they get lucky.

Elf Sorcerer

Draconic bloodline with 16 DEX provides 16 AC as well. As an elf, this is pretty easy to achieve.

New players

Your players are new, which further increases the difficulty. When I ran this campaign, both my characters were new to D&D (as was I), but myself and one of the players had at least seen it played before, while the second player had no clue what to do.

Your players won't really understand their options, or what is effective, or what to look out for unless they receive a lot of guidance early on.

However, my players were also very careful (in general), so if your players want to play more reckless characters, they won't survive with the current party make up.

The first encounter

While preparing for my own running of this campaign (which we just wrapped up) I learned that the first encounter is notorious for TPKs, or at the very least some characters outright dying and their brother with identical stats and just a different name joining the party to replace them soon after.

Things are going to be even worse for your party, for all the reasons I outlined above. I watched a video of several experienced players (and an experienced DM) and one newbie. During the first encounter, the newbie wasn't even sure what she could do, and ended her first turn in the middle of the road with her action unused. In a group of 5 they were able to cover for her basically doing nothing in the battle, but in a group of 3 that is going to get you slaughtered.

Fortunately, there is a way to survive it and help the player's get used to the game, without being TPK'd on their first fight.

Make the first encounter a handholding tutorial

As my Rogue's player was brand new, I literally walked her through what to do during the first encounter. I taught her about stealth, having advantage when being unseen, sneak attack damage, and more.

I also had one of the melee goblins asleep, and so didn't participate in the battle.

By treating the first encounter as a tutorial, the players were able to both learn how to play and were able to easily handle the goblin ambush.

The players got to learn about traps from that first path they used to find the cave, and then I let them use what they learned in the first encounter on the 2 goblins outside the cave. The Rogue dropped unconscious twice during that fight, but they prevailed.

They then took a long rest and leveled up to level 2 before entering the cave.

I strongly recommend you get them up to level 2 at this point, as well, if you don't make any other adjustments.

From this point, if they play smartly and cautiously, I think they will be okay. You may have to accelerate their levels slightly. I eventually settled on basically doubling my players' characters' levels, as well as maxing out their HP (and the HP of all enemies) to smooth out the combat, but I don't think you will need that much with 3 players.

What if any of the above doesn't apply

However, if the players want to be reckless (and if they have the most fun that way, you should let them be reckless), or don't want to follow your guidance on building their characters (they are their characters, after all), or bristle at the idea of a tutorial to start with, then you'll need to help them in other ways.

Life Domain Cleric

One of the best ways is to just have an NPC Life Domain Cleric along for the ride. High AC, great healing, powerful undead control. All things you'll need and that will make things go a LOT smoother.

Boost their levels a lot

Alternatively, you can do as I mentioned above and boost the characters to essentially twice their normal level. Having just completed the campaign, with the final fights happening at levels 8 and 9, it felt like it worked pretty well. (That wasn't an arbitrary doubling, I actually computed the expected XP difficulty of encounters for a party of 4 at the adventure's intended levels, compared them to a party of 2, and it roughly worked out to doubling the party of 2's levels to make them line up nicely.)

The extra levels will offset their deficits, and help cover for the aggressive play style that they seem to be going for. They may be overpowered, but it is a lot easier to up the difficulty of an encounter than to reduce it. Also, if they enjoy power fantasies (my players did) then they won't complain.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Really complete answer, thank you a lot. I really like the idea of making the first encounter a tutorial, and I guess I'm going to do it. With my friends group, I don't give exp but use a milestone system. Basically when the scenario say "The characters should be at lv.X here" I make them level up (lv.2 when come back to Phandalin after cleaning the Goblin hideout). I'll ask my sisters which exp system they do prefer, and if they don't go for milestone, I'll use your tip about increasing experience points. Thank you again for this great answer, was really good to read. \$\endgroup\$ – Zoma Jul 30 at 13:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Zoma I actually just doubled the milestone levels, not the experience awarded. For a while, I gave them 10X experience to make them level at a rate that would get them to twice their expected level, but then dropped that and just used milestones, but with higher level targets. \$\endgroup\$ – Willem Renzema Jul 30 at 14:04
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You will probably struggle with the adventure as written, because of the newness of the players as much as the composition of the party.

I ran Lost Mine of Phandelver for a brand new player, as her first experience with D&D -- or indeed with any roleplaying game. She wanted to play a genasi wizard. This was a duet experience (i.e., a DM and one player), so I created two "DM PCs" to accompany her, specifically built to shore up her wizard's weaknesses: a half-orc paladin (AC, strength, and healing) and an elven rogue (stealth, detection, and melee damage). To be clear, the player's PC was totally the star of the show; these two other PCs were just there to keep her alive and, where she wished, to give her roleplaying opportunities. They recognized her as "the smart one" in the party and its de facto leader, and so followed her commands, which I executed.

As it happened, we had a great time -- but only because I made significant on-the-fly adjustments to the adventure.

LMoP is a good introduction to D&D, but not necessarily the best tool for teaching players who are entirely new to roleplaying games.

Even with two-thirds of the party having been purpose-built for the adventure by the DM who knew what was coming, and even with two of the PCs being controlled by the DM in combat, the party struggled. The first encounter, involving

an ambush by goblins hiding alongside the road

was very tough and discouraging. It wasn't just the composition of the party or the tactical setup of the encounter that posed challenges -- though they certainly contributed. It was also the fact that the player, being new, didn't even understand what sort of agency is possible in a game like D&D. In that first encounter,

the goblins' near-constant use of the thick bushes as cover made it difficult for the PCs to hit them. The player was stumped. She didn't know she could, e.g., order a retreat, try to go wide around the goblins, rush the bushes, etc. She saw goblins shooting from the bushes and simply concluded that that was how the encounter was supposed to go.

To help her understand the breadth of her options and thereby relieve her frustration, I used the two DM PCs to model some creative tactics:

I had the paladin crash through the bushes, causing the goblins to panic, while the rogue circled around behind them and picked them off.

As the adventure went on, I had to use this tool several times, until the player began to understand the rules and build her confidence.1 Eventually she became quite comfortable and facile, and really took charge. But I still had to make adjustments. Several times, PCs were dropped to 0 HP and were close to dying.2 I found myself reducing the numbers of monsters, pulling punches, playing up the monsters' stupidity and cowardice in order to have them make tactical mistakes or run away, etc.

Party size is definitely a factor in LMoP (and D&D generally), but party composition probably matters as well.

I firmly believe that with a party of five PCs, I would've needed to make few or no adjustments in my run of LMoP. The combat mechanics of D&D 5e are carefully calibrated to create what is often called "action economy" -- and as a result, whichever side gets to act more often typically has the upper hand. Many of the encounters in LMoP present more than three monsters, in which a three-member party can be hard-pressed, especially before 5th level when martial classes get Extra Attack. But with five, the odds would be much better.

In the case of your party, the classes of the PCs could also be a concern. The PCs in my LMoP experience were built to make sure critical balance needs were covered. As you state, your party will lack for high AC and healing. Just as important, however, it will lack any significant source of support-type spells like bless, protection from evil and good, faerie fire, etc. Support options can help even the odds when a party would otherwise be outnumbered or outgunned.

In my party, the wizard had some capacity for support spells, and the paladin eventually did as well. Even then, when the party reached

Thundertree, where the green dragon Venomfang was likely to prove a very deadly threat,

I chose to provide them additional help by

having the druid there, Reidoth (whom I built out as another DM PC), offer to join them,

thus providing further support and healing. At that point, my need to make on-the-fly adjustments decreased. We mostly ran the rest of the adventure as written.

In your party, your only casters are a ranger and a sorceror -- and both have serious limitations. The ranger gets few spells to choose from, few spells known at any given time, and few slots to cast them. The sorceror gets a full caster's complement of slots and a respectable list of choices, but is still limited in spells known. If the sorceror is mostly interested in blowing things up, it's doubtful she will be taking many support-focused options.


1 LMoP is structured to introduce mechanics to players gradually. On the whole this is a good thing for an introductory module. However, in my case, where my player was so new that the very concept of narrative agency was unfamiliar, it meant that each time a new mechanic was introduced, I had to think about how to show the player what it meant and how to use it.

2 Note that whenever the main PC went down, I shifted out of normal play. Forcing a new, solo player to sit through the rest of the encounter being played out by DM PCs wouldn't have done any good. It would've taken away her agency. Instead, in those moments I moved into a cinematic mode, briefly describing the hazy sounds of battle drifting through the mostly-unconscious main PC's mind, then fast-forwarding to the point where she awakened to find that her companions had fought back the monsters enough to drag her to safety and heal her.

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Most likely not

In fact, I can say with reasonable certainty that they won't even really survive the very first encounter "without too much trouble". First level characters are notoriously squishy and being outnumbered at level 1 is a very good way to get dead.

The very first encounter involves 4 hidden goblins who will very likely surprise at least 2 of your players; which is too much for a party of only three first-level characters to realistically overcome unless you tweak it by playing the goblins as idiots who rush into melee, ruining their surprise.

From personal experience, our party was:

  1. A fighter
  2. A cleric
  3. A druid
  4. A rogue

We nearly died in the first encounter, because the goblins got the surprise and managed to score a single crit on the surprised fighter, which was enough to down him, and scored 2 hits on the rogue which downed her. The only one who wasn't surprised was the cleric, but he rolled poorly on his initiative. Within one round, we had half the party down and we were lucky to have healers.

Your party has no reliable healers. The moment one of them goes down, they're outnumbered even worse, and it'll spiral out of control. They'll gain levels quicker with a small party which might help mitigate the problem a bit, but expect them to have a very, very hard time until they have some decent HP, and even then they very well continue to struggle against some of the later encounters that involve enough monsters to form a deadly encounter for 5 level appropriate characters.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ You are talking about them gaining exp faster, does make them start at level 2 may balance this or may it still be too difficult? \$\endgroup\$ – Zoma Jul 30 at 11:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Making them start as level 2 may negate some of the problems with the oneshot aspect, but the lack of reliable healing and the lack of a dedicated tank (that frenzied berserker will have a decent chunk of HP, but will likely not be as tanky as our fighter was), they'll continue to struggle throughout the campaign. Experienced players might be able to make that work by playing smarter instead of harder, but considering you describe them as being relatively new to D&D, that might be unlikely. \$\endgroup\$ – Theik Jul 30 at 11:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for your point of view. As a last question, if I had to play an NPC to support them, would it be betteer to create a Cleric or a Paladin ? Which one would best fit the party needs ? \$\endgroup\$ – Zoma Jul 30 at 11:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ In the past I've offset a lack of healing by simply providing a lot of healing potions, but that won't really help in the case where they're also outnumbered. I don't think it really matters if it's a paladin or a cleric, what you should watch out for is that you don't cause a lot of extra work for yourself to DM a NPC as well. It might be easier to simply tweak the monster numbers down a bit, and then if it turns out that the smaller monster groups are too easy, slowly start adding more. \$\endgroup\$ – Theik Jul 30 at 12:22
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Challenging experience that will need slight changes

I am currently in the middle of playing LMoP as a first time DM for first time players with main party of:

  • Gnome Wizard
  • Tiefling Rogue
  • Halfling Fighter

My overall experience has been that with some changes to enemy behaviour it is quite fun for those who seek more challenging type of play.

As you can see the party compositions is quite similar except for the fact that it might be more resilient due to higher AC for fighter and high constitution score for the wizard. For couple of sessions we tried out additional players but they didn't have much impact.

Thus far the only changes I have made from source material was behavior of the enemies, keeping enemy count and XP/item gain the same. I did fudge some of the dice in first session, but figured out how to avoid it quite fast.

Goblin Arrows will be deadly

Level 1 characters are squishy and goblins can do a surprising amount of damage. Compounded with the fact that players are new and don't know all the tactical options couple of unlucky rolls might be a team-kill.

One saving grace is that the dungeon is quite segmented and as written in most cases enemies don't alert those in nearby rooms(with exception of boss, who retreats for ambush), thus giving the opportunity for players to retreat when low on resources.

In my case at the end of the first session 2/3 of PC's were KO'd at cave enterance wolf encounter when I allowed them to retreat and try to rest nearby.

What I had planned for second session was essentially a cutscene where boss leads troops outside and splits them up to search for intruders so as to lower difficulty by splitting enemies into smaller groups. As it turns out cutscenes in RPG's don't work and it turned into chase scene followed by fight with part of the goblins and boss's pet(which was great for RP later) that achieved the same result.

I have serious doubts that my party at that point could have survived the room with 6 goblins without weakening them first.

Redbrand Hideout will be challenging but doable

By this point party will be level 2 and have more options and firmer grasp on how things work. If they are careful they should be able to clear the dungeon but it will in no way be a breeze.

In my case the party made several blunders - they split up, which lead to the first party member being captured and later coming to his rescue others ignored signs of trap. That led them to be surrounded by skeletons and guards leading to their capture.

Diplomatic options is a great way to lower difficulty

For goblins LMoP p10:

Yeemik wants to oust Klarg and become the new boss. If the adventurers agree to parley, Yeemik tries to convince them to kill Klarg in area 8, promising to release Sildar when they bring back the bugbear's head.

In this case due to high rolls I let them convince Yeemik to send one goblin to help party as distraction it helped but was not critical.

For Redbrands LMoP p23:

The nothic communicates using telepathy. If detected it prefers to negotiate and isn't above betraying the Redbrands for the right incentive, such as promise of food.

I my case the price was steep - a couple of wizard familiars, but the result was impressive the nothic single-handedly killed several enemies and was crucial to party's survival. The fact that the wizard later broke the word and left an angry, hungry and in their eyes extremely powerful monster in a cave near the village was just an icing on the cake for me as a DM.

After level 3 it should get easier

Either right after Redbrand Hideout or after completing some additional sidequests party should reach level 3 which means another significant power boost, while the campaign difficulty stays more or less the same.

At this point my party traveled around solving side-quests non-violently, and random encounters that they stumbled upon were dispatched easily. The orcs and ogre that I thought would be deadly if engaged directly were defeated in open battle without anyone coming close to 0HP (although they had to use up their resources).

In the Ruins of Thundertree I had to skip combat with blights and zombies because it was too one-sided and boring. Although after their first taste of this campaign they noped out as soon as they heard about the dragon.

Currently they are standing in front of back entrance to Cragmaw Castle which I expect will be a quick but not easy raid due to map layout and after that I don't see a lot of difficulty spikes in the campaign with possible exception of flameskull.

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