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I am a DM with general experience, I am not a beginner, and I am certainly not an expert. My DnD group initially started as your typical four people, all casual friends, then one of the members had to move away, and another person we had to remove from our group for outside reasons. The problem is that I had started the Curse of Strahd with four members, and now there are two in the party.

I had asked them if they wanted to continue Strahd, and they did. Still, I feel as though I am left with two options,

  1. completely re-vamp Strahd so that the monsters are more manageable for two magic users (a Druid and a Wizard, both level 4 currently), or

  2. add a DMPC, which I haven't heard the best things about doing.

If there are any suggestions on how to handle this situation or adequately use a DMPC so that I am not overpowering my players but am not giving them an impossible shot at the campaign, please let me know.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Re-vamping Strahd, very funny. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 5, 2022 at 9:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ At face value that sucks but why not take it as a real catastrophe, ending this adventure however badly? How are the events you describe less important than anything that might have happened in the game? \$\endgroup\$ Jun 5, 2022 at 23:06

5 Answers 5

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As an extension to ruffdove's answer, I've found it easiest to create (or use your existing) characters as DMPCs, but do not run them in combat. So for role playing purposes you'll control the DMPCs, but once combat starts hand the character sheets over to the actual players.

This gives the players the combat support they need and allows them to be the ones making all combat decisions (nothing's more boring than watching a DM roll for both a player and a monster and essentially play the game all by themselves) without them needing to constantly RP or otherwise own two characters themselves.

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There are a few of solutions you could try...

First, you might consider letting your remaining two players each pick up and run one of the characters of the departed players.

This is simplest, although it will require a little more work and involvement on the part of the other players. The most difficult thing will be roleplaying these characters, though they can focus their roleplaying on their own characters if they wish. As a secondary option, if the players prefer, you could allow them to roll up a couple of new characters of appropriate level and each run two PCs that way.

Alternatively, you, as DM could run the abandoned PCs as NPCs.

This is less desireable bacause it is more work on you the DM, and you already have a lot of work on your hands, but it's doable. Let the players suggest moves in combat, but if you are running the characters as NPCs, you have final say. Again, you could introduce new characters in lieu of the departed players' characters.

Another option is to modify the challenges so that two PCs can handle them.

This is some work, but since you are not inexperienced, you should have some idea how to do this. Often it will be a matter of cutting the number of monsters in half, but some bigger monsters will need to be nerfed a little bit. A lot will depend on the classes you have left--is the party now without a fighter? Did they lose a wizard with area of effect spells? Also, don't forget to make the non-combat challenges doable for the remaining characters. If one of the departing players was running a rogue, you might need to dumb down the traps a little, or eliminate them altogether. Challenges where a cleric is kind of necessary should also be altered if the party is now without a cleric, etc.

Or you could give the remaining two characters a level boost.

Consider boosting your remaining PCs a level or two, which may allow them to meet the challenges with just two. Suggest they take a level in one of the classes the party has lost to get some of those skills and abilities back. This can be tricky, and you shouldn't jump them up too high. A lot will depend on their classes and their skill as players.

A variation on this theme would be to toss the PCs more, and somewhat more powerful magic items than maybe you normally would. The best method for doing this would be to give them single-use items tailored to specific encounters (e.g., potions of resist cold and a scroll of fireball or flame strike when you know they'll have to face a white dragon). A bit better weapon or weapons with damage bonuses (like flame tongue) also will help the party in combat.

And of course there are always more players in the sea...

This might be a great opportunity to find new players in your area, if you're up to doing so. Maybe you (or one of your players) have some friends who don't play, but maybe would like to give it a try. Maybe there are some players nearby who want to find a game, but have had trouble. Ask around at the local game shop if there is one. It's not always easy to jump into a game mid-campaign, but new players especially might just be happy to give it a try.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Perhaps the sidekicks mechanic from Tasha's deserves a mention too. \$\endgroup\$
    – anon
    Jun 4, 2022 at 22:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Have any of these worked for you? \$\endgroup\$
    – Jason_c_o
    Jun 5, 2022 at 1:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd add to the list: let them find some high level items. The advantage with that, is if you find some new player down the line, you can easily have them "lose" (stolen, confiscated by guards, sundered...) these items to rebalance the game. \$\endgroup\$
    – P. O.
    Jun 5, 2022 at 1:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @P.O. While a valid solution, giving items to the party with the intent of taking them away has never* gone over well for my group. * The only exception is plot devices that the party knows they have to use/give up to further the plot and even then I've had groups complain that "It sure would be nice to have macguffin ability still..." \$\endgroup\$
    – Ifusaso
    Jun 5, 2022 at 11:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Jason_c_o: For a while, I only had one person to play D&D with and we both enjoyed published mods designed for much larger groups. I had to use all of these solutions and they all worked great. The player would normally run two PCs. I would significantly alter the mods to make them less tough, run the PCs through at higher levels than the mod called for, and add NPCs in to help with certain very tough encounters. In your situation, you may only need one of these tactics. I listed them in the order with the most effective at the top. The new players idea at the end was an afterthought. \$\endgroup\$
    – ruffdove
    Jun 5, 2022 at 22:29
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Consider using the sidekick mechanic from Tasha's Cauldron of Everything instead of DM NPCs

Sidekicks are a mechanic introduced in Tasha's to provide parties with simple but effective allies, without the risk of them 'stealing the show' like DM NPCs can do.

Compared to full on player characters, sidekicks are also easier to setup and control (either by the DM or by the players).

If adding more players isn't feasible, sidekicks can be fun to try out.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I think you mean DMPCs, not DM NPCs. By definition all NPCs are DM controlled but are not usually full PC type characters who act as a party member like a DMPC. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 6, 2022 at 11:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ Great suggestion. \$\endgroup\$
    – ruffdove
    Jun 6, 2022 at 23:15
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Henchmen, Hirelings and beasts

I am running a campaign with just two players, using modules that were designed for full parties, unaltered. They are currently level three. This can work, and also can be fun, as each player really gets a lot of screen time (my players like it better than the main campaign we are all playing together currently). There are several things that make this work:

  • Beasts. To help the action economy, they got a Mastiff, which is helping them keeping watch with scent, and also contributes to combat. This helps most in the very early levels. By level four where you are, you can expect it to go down with one hit pretty often, but if you give them death saves, this is one less hit that is hitting a player in combat, and can be recovered from. The mastiff also has a pretty good carrying capacity. Other companions, as Pepijn suggests in his answer, could also work. In your case, a druid with speak with animals might make some more friends (although not sure about that in Raveloft ... they all may be beholden to Strahd's will).

  • Henchmen. The players also hired an NPC fighter to help them. I find that if you always keep in mind the PCs are the stars of the show, and the NPC is just a support to let them shine, you can avoid many of the DMPC issues. Keep the NPC a clearly lower level than the PCs. Making them simple fighter types makes it easier logisitically, as you do not have to worry about tracking spell selection and use, and is a good complement to your PC casters. The DMG has a whole section on running NPCs. The NPC gets its share of XP, as a party member would, and gets a share of the treasure too. (Henchman is not a formal thing any more in 5e, I use it here to differentiate that from the next entry).

  • Hirelings. You can also have them hire (for example, use the typical cost in the PHB of maybe 2 gp / day) some Guards, Bandits, militia, or similar. Our group did so on various occasions for especially hard fights. The details of the contract and payment negotiation can be a roleplaying opportunity. These retainers tend to be a lot less loyal than an ongoing companion, may run from danger, and may not be willing to stay on for more than a specific agreed-upon venture.

  • Experienced players. Mine are very good, and between a wizard (like you have) with familiar, careful adventuring, and a willingness to withdraw if facing overwhelming odds, they are able to avoid otherwise deadly encounters.

  • Playing dumb monsters dumb. Having the odds numerically stacked against the players makes it easier for you to play up monsters making mistakes, quarrelling amongst each other etc., which players love, without the encounters becoming meaninglessly easy.

  • Finding allies. There may be orignizations and factions in the adventure that also oppose the enemies of the players. Let them give the players a bit more active support than you normally would. For example, in my campaign the players befriended some myconiods, who gave spore servants to the players.

  • Magic items. When there are fewer players, each gets to use more of the magic items you find. Eventually that runs into attunement limits, but on level four you should not normally have reached that threshold yet.

All of these together can help you offset a lot of the load, at least in my experience. It still is a lot more deadly than it would be for a full team, so most important will be that the players are aware of and OK with this different level of challenge.

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You should generally be rebalancing encounters anyway

While printed encounters are often fine, sometimes they are.. less fine. And depending on your party and their level of optimization, an encounter that is fine for other groups may instakill your group. 'Encounter calculators' or the like don't necessarily help this. The most surefire way to balance encounters is by hand - by looking at the enemies, and their abilities, and comparing their numbers (damage, attack bonus, AC) to your party, or even running a mock combat (in your head or on paper) to see what kind of outcome seems most likely. You can't model everything perfectly (nor should you) but you can at least notice that 'hey, this guy has a DC 16 save or lose ability and my party have terrible saves in that area, that seems a little dangerous, maybe I should reduce the DC or make it from 30 foot aoe to a single target or something', which is helpful to avoid losing characters to badly designed encounters or mechanics.

Given that, rebalancing encounters for the party you have or its size should be something you should be able to do. It is fairly easy, and redesigning encounters to better fit your party (or simply be more interesting) will spice up games and make them more interesting both for the players and for you.

Two players is a fairly small amount

That reduces the roleplaying potential from 'troupe' to 'buddy comedy'. Can still work, especially if they're traveling with npcs that you are roleplaying successfully. But 3 or more is better. Get some other friends in.

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