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I'm running a game of D&D 5e for a few friends, and due to college starting and people needing to get in a routine, we'll only be able to have around 3 to 2 players a session for a couple months.

We're starting off with White Plume Mountain. How do I make sure that I don't TPK?

Mainly what I'm concerned with is making sure I don't put the players into a fight they can't win or that can go south faster than it it would with 4 players.

I've read the Player’s Handbook and the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think we can clean this up to just ask if there are any concerns running that module with only 2-3 players. We've definitely had questions liked that asked answered (with experience) before. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Aug 27 '19 at 1:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ There seems to be another complication here: PC-s might change from session to session. OP: is this the case? \$\endgroup\$ – Szega Aug 27 '19 at 8:53
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Ideas to not massacre a small party.

Without knowing the full details (such as if the players will change between sessions) there are a few options:

  • As the DM you can give opponents a "handicap" for their attack and damages, or scale the numbers of opponents, to make things a bit easier until the characters are a bit more skilled or others join the party. (This is essentially a variant/mix of Ignoring the Dice (DMG p236) and the DM determining the consequences (Resolution and Consequences, DMG p242).)

  • You could send an NPC (or a couple) along with the group to assist, but remember not to "take over" the play. NPCs can be good "supporting actors" tagging along or departing as required. You can keep the NPCs' levels "balanced" to the characters as necessary; if they weren't part of the last adventure they were just off gaining experience somewhere else. I have used this technique with myself, as DM, controlling the NPC with some new players to good effect, and you can keep things moving along if the group gets stalled. There is information on options to do this under NPC Party Members (DMG p92).

  • Depending on the experience of the players, you could could let them control more than one character. This can be tricky, particularly with newer players, and pairs of characters (of the same player) can sometimes get along together "to well". We used this technique a lot playing with small groups and it is good as long as the players treat the characters as separate entities, not a single entity with "two bodies". There is some advice on this under Small Groups in the DMG p236.

As other players come into the game they can create characters of about the same level as those already playing, or you could let them take over a long-term NPC. The first option probably being better as then they have better ownership of the character, and you can keep the NPC for later use as required. There is advice on new players joining the team in the DMG p236.

Hope that's some help

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Excellent post. Multiple characters seems to have fallen out of favor in gaming in recent years, but was very common back 'in the day'. For most of the D&D campaigns I've been in, having 2 characters at start was the norm. Then one character 'retires' if more people join in and the group gets too big. From a role-playing perspective it can actually be very good, because if you play two PCs with very different personalities, you can focus to one or the other PC to fit your current mindset. Serious characters stay serious, goofy ones stay goofy. \$\endgroup\$ – GrandmasterB Aug 27 '19 at 17:39
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Playtest your players' party in the encounters you plan, develop variants on enemy stats and tactics, and give your players access to appropriate consumables.

There is no perfect way to design balanced encounters (at least, not that I've encountered)-- things like calculating CR are imprecise at best, and rely on many assumptions which you may not be aware of.

What I do is typically a multi-step process:

  1. Come up with something thematically appropriate for the encounter

    This can largely be handwaved away since you're running a module (and would presumably be doing this anyways), but I've found it helpful to remember that encounters serve the story first. That mindset did a lot to help me adjust monster stats and other encounter details beyond what the books suggest.

  2. Create an initial group of enemies that "seems right"

    That's obviously a loose standard, but I usually look for soft counters against my PCs' strengths. If they have a high-damage-dealing Fighter or Warlock I might look for a creature or two with a lot of hit points so that the enemies aren't just blown away. I also look at the action economy between the player group and the enemy group.

  3. Playtest the encounter

    Using your PCs' character sheets, sketch out a battle map and try the encounter yourself. Several times. This is a great way to keep the options of both the monsters and the PCs fresh in your mind and expose hidden strategies or properties of your encounter that you didn't think of earlier. It also gives you a feel for how the dice can shake out in the encounter-- average damage may be a good guide, but it doesn't help you consider a fight with especially fair or poor luck.

    This gets easier after a couple of sessions because you'll have a feel for how your players approach combat situations and can better imagine what they might do.

  4. Develop different levels of tactics for the enemies

    It's easy to see when enemies suddenly change their behavior to suboptimal choices if they've been behaving differently beforehand. That can make players feel like you're putting your thumb on the scales for them and isn't very satisfying. I like to develop different sets of tactical priorities for enemy groups so that I can adjust difficulty while still maintaining plausible tactics for them.

    If my PCs have more resources than I expected (maybe they avoided a combat encounter and so have more spell slots and consumables, for example), I can give them a more cutthroat, optimized encounter with deadly tactics. If an encounter is going too badly for the PCs I can switch the enemies over to a less-optimized set of behaviors. I find the flavor text in the Monster Manual very helpful for this.

  5. Keep "random" battlefield effects in your pocket

    I generally keep a legitimate table of random effects for battle zones, and roll or adjudicate player actions (as appropriate) for triggering them. If you feel the encounter allows it, you can also have some "special" effects which occur in ways that damage or kill enemies, break up the battlefield, or reveal new options. As an example, a rockslide can eliminate enemies, or physically separate enemies from PCs. As long as you at least sometimes roll for random effects, you rolling a meaningless die can make these events very plausible even when you're explicitly pulling your PCs out of the fire.

    I'm always concerned that this feels cheap and Deus ex Machina, so I try not to use it unless I really feel I have to, but I like having the option for emergencies.

  6. Give your players consumables to help them survive in a pinch

    A healing potion is easy to use at need and really enhances survivability. I like them better than magic items for this purpose because there are no ongoing balance issues-- if they use a potion, it's gone and won't help in any future encounters, and if they don't use it it has no effect on the fight. You can make these as available or rare as you feel you need (I've played games where NPCs offered us potions to help out because "they" were concerned about what we were up against).


Miscellaneous

These tips aren't part of my usual combat encounter preparations, but they can be helpful in encounter design to get the difficulty you want on the fly:

  • Consider having waves of enemies

    If you plan an encounter to involve three different groups of enemies that come in waves, but your party is in rough shape after the second, you always have the option of simply not sending in the third. As far as your players know, they completed your planned encounter!

  • Consider having enemies with motivations other than killing PCs

    This won't work very well for a pack of Phase Spiders, but can work just fine with a group of bandits. They may want to interrogate PCs, torture them, or any number of other things. And while they'll work hard in combat to win, for them winning means incapacitating heroes, not killing them.

  • Fudge unlikely rolls not in your players' favor at key points

    I don't like fudging dice, but if an enemy's opening attack happens to be a crit that would be enough to outright kill its first target I might downgrade it to a regular hit. The game is for the players, not the monsters, and so if death is a serious obstacle (as is the case with low-level characters) I'll leave extremely lucky rolls for the players.

  • Be strategic with advantage and disadvantage

    There are lots of circumstances which might grant advantage to PCs and disadvantage to enemies. Either one really alters the outcomes of rolls and are expected to be the DM's remit, so you can improve a PC's chances or hinder an enemy's by finding a way to apply them. As long as you're not predictable about using this to favor the party, it's a pretty invisible strategy.

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Warning to players - this answer is spoiler-y.

I just went through White Plume Mountain as a player. We had a party of four, and we nearly got TPKed several times.

Honestly, it's going to be difficult. You're going to want to be very clear when they are in a room where it is safe for them to have a short rest, because they're going to have to burn through those hit dice. I agree with the other reply that recommends having extra consumables around. Greater Healing Potions, Wands, scrolls. I'm assuming that your party members are capable of using the wands and scrolls - if not, you might want to give them some really nice magic items early on - but remember you're then stuck with those for your campaign unless you have a plan to get rid of them (maybe they're bound to the mountain, so once they leave the items vanish). I have been in campaigns where players were given strong items to get them through an overpowered set of encounters, only to have them wade through the next set. It can backfire.

There's a room with an apparent friend in the complex. Perhaps it is worth giving them a bookshelf that contains some strategic information on the dungeon, so that they can prepare. The BBEG might find that entertaining, so you should be able to justify it.

Remind your players that it's okay to run! We had a helm of teleportation, which of course didn't let us leave the Mountain, but did bounce us to the room mentioned above. We had two charmed, two with only a few hitpoints left at that point, so we ended up spending a while in that room until the charm wore off! (You may want to nerf Mr Charming - pretty sure you know who I'm talking about - it's a fun fight, but it's brutal)

Additional NPCs for players to run are also an option, with the caveats mentioned by @ant_aoe above. I recommend against running them yourself, as it will not be fun for the players if the DM has the majority of the action.

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