For a long time I've been interested in D&D and pen-and-paper style games. I'm trying to convince my... lets call them 'social contacts', for... years.

I have to add that I have a social competence disability, which makes it hard for me to establish a solid group of people around me that I can kind of call "friends". So my social habits are more like meeting new people and losing the contact after some time (unintentionally caused by myself). In fact, it is hard to find people that are at least open-minded to give a game like D&D a chance and try it. So getting a group of 5 people together is almost impossible for me.

To prepare a situation that may occur where someone would be willing to give it a try, we would be 2-3 people at most. I myself, who never DM-ed before, would be playing a starter adventure with 1-2 other players while the set is made for 5 people. It would already be tough to play it as no one has previous experience with it. Imagine that, in addition to that, I had to crunch the numbers to adjust the adventure without having any knowledge of the balancing behind it... It appears to me like my player(s) will have a session that won't be that enjoyable for them, and I guess that after that session, (s)he/they won't want to play it again as the result of the first impression.

To prevent this scenario (in the case where I'll finally be playing D&D), my question is:

Is there an enjoyable and easy way to adjust the difficulty of the beginner adventure, to be designed for a single PC? A general method for adjusting adventures in such a way will also be helpful. And would this still provide the same gaming impression?

Related: How to scale down Princes of the Apocalypse for a 3-adventurer party?


3 Answers 3


The Basic Rules are a place for you to start.

The Dungeon Master's D&D Basic Rules has a section on encounter building and modifying encounters (p.165-167) which will get you the same advice @Marius referenced in the DMG--at zero cost. Pay particular attention to "Party Size" on p. 166.

(The adventure contained in the Starter Set--The Lost Mine of Phandelver--does not contain notes on modifying it's encounters' levels.)

Note that the Basic Rules were revised in 2018. If you have the old Basic Rules, the referenced sections are on pages 56-58.

Next steps...

Take a look at Black Streams Solo Heroes, which has a lot of good advice for modifying adventures/campaigns/gm-style to suit the one-player experience.

Likewise, rpg.net has a good series of columns on Role-playing Duets that might give you some ideas.

But the best reference...

is to be up-front and honest with your players. Let them know you're not sure how things'll go and that you're very interested in their feedback. Some games are fun to play at the edge of survival, some players only want to play heroes who will embody the monomyth.

Most importantly:

All of the references above are distilled wisdom of other GMs over the years, wisdom borne of experience. It's all good, but none of it's going to be better than the experience you all get playing together and discussing what you like and what you hate. Use these as references for ideas, but use your players and yourself as your guide.


My Party of Three Saw Phandelver and Returned Victorious

I have nothing but respect for the other answers, but the specific question seems to be at least partly about the ease or necessity of adjusting not a basic adventure but the basic adventure from the starter set, namely the Lost Mine of Phandelver.

The particular advantage of this module is that it contains all creature and magic weapon stats in the back and generally does not expect one to own the core books. It also seems to go out of its way to cover the classic tropes of what new players tend to imagine the game is like (goblins, orcs, bandits, a dragon).

So, to address my experience with this adventure specifically:

Playing the Starter Set

My very first DM experience and D&D experience was for a group of three new players in this module. Although I adjusted it extensively, not much of that had anything to do with party make up, it was all to deal with the particular direction they took things and to change things that bothered me (a level three Necromancer can't animate those pet zombies he has, so to level 5 he goes!). In any case I spent very little effort on adjusting. Here is how I and we approached it:

My party recruited an NPC party member

Some people shy away from these because they can easily become a DM player character, and the near omniscient DM controlling a party member is potential trouble. However once the players got a sense for how he (a rogue) played I let them start making rolls for him and most of the combat decisions, and once the party got a good sense for his fairly simple personality they basically got to collectively control him so long as they did not abuse the privilege and kept him true to the character (which was never a problem with this group). Eventually we let him leave to his own devices when his arc came to a natural conclusion and the PCs were on the cusp of level 5 and no longer squishy.

My Party Often Avoided Combat

One nice thing about this module is that there are almost no encounters until the final dungeon where the party can not potentially get around a straight up fight through stealth, disguise, surprise, persuasion, magical shenanigans, or simply leaving an enemy on a side quest alone. Coming up with creative alternatives to combat is one of the joys of the game over a computer rpg. The module often seeds these, and I occasionally came up stuff on my own, but mostly the players just thought for themselves. Just make sure to give them roughly equivalent XP at least some of the time for dealing with enemies in alternative ways so that they don't fall behind on levels.

This is less effective with players of the murder hobo persuasion, but since they will get a lot of XP shared few ways they will be above intended level for many encounters, which compensates for lack of party members. Maybe just occasionally signal to them when a given foe is indisputably beyond them (which is rare in this module unless they get way out of order).

I adjusted monster stats on the fly, where it seemed logical or necessary.

I follow the basic principle that not every bandit or orc will be awake, sober, wearing their armor, and holding their sword at every moment of their lives, especially when they are in their hideouts. Just remember that a drunk enemy has disadvantage, a creature humanoid out of their armor has an AC of ten +their dex modifier, that some creatures might only have a dagger or whatever handy while off guard duty or whatever, and that you can let the party slit the occasional sleeping throat. This sort of thing makes for a flavorful if very inexact way to adjust difficulty, and when the enemy is in a room they haven't got to yet and the party hasn't done anything to alert them, do so on the fly.

Much easier, unlike in a movie most most realistic creatures, intelligent or otherwise, would rather run for it than die to "take all of you with them". Even a winning enemy force may have the odd member book it if they are looking rough, which may in turn distract their allies who have to stop them, etc. Bandits aren't paid enough to lay down their lives for the cause of crime.

Easier, in a situation where the party isn't doing so hot, maybe the enemies in one of the next encounters before they get rest simply aren't there. This is also the easiest time to throw in those unarmored, unarmed, etc. enemies I suggested above. When this is not appropriate you can just have the enemies use suboptimal tactics. Other than one very avoidable encounter with Hobgoblins they never run into anyone who is necessarily going to be a particularly skilled and sage tactician.

And finally, and easiest to always implement an easier battle on the fly, is to remember that the HP of all enemies is a die roll based range. They give you the average result in the stat block, but there is nothing unfair about just retroactively decreasing it to be at the low end of the range it could have been. In any case once they get a weak enemy to the single digits or a strong one into the teens, you can always just let that hit kill them. Not the most honest approach, but had you rolled out their HP and rolled low for them it would have been enough to kill them so it is clearly within the range of what was intended to be balanced for the encounter. This is very much an "if you feel comfortable with it" sort of thing, but in an emergency it can save you.

I Sometimes Came Up with Defeat Contingency Plans

One of the encounters, if not the encounter that the most groups die on is the very first encounter with four goblins. Whether this is inherent difficulty or just new players thinking they are in some sort of tutorial mode I can not say. It also may be that since the goblins are in good position to use tree cover and/or get a surprise round a strategically minded DM is not going to play them as stupid as the module intends. On the other end of the spectrum, they're goblins; if it starts looking deadly for them they should run away because they are a race of cowards.

In any case, this encounter is actually written with a specific recommendation for if the party goes down (goblins rob them and leave them for dead). Which leads me to the point of this anecdote, which is that sometimes even when the party fails because it is too difficult you can let them survive somehow. You might plan it ahead sometimes, but it is also a reasonable time to just say "I wasn't expecting this, let's take a break while I think through what happens next".

Of the four "dungeons" involved in this module three (goblin cave, goblin castle, bandit hideout). would be places where the enemies might imprison them for questioning or whatever when they wake up. The biggest potential fight is with a dragon while there is a friendly druid of undetermined power nearby, so guess who might just intervene. And failing that it is a green dragon, a type that would perhaps rather force the party to serve it than kill them.

On those occasions when you have do a contingency in mind you really don't need to worry much about the balance of the fight at all.

I Just Didn't Worry Too Much About It

From a balance perspective it is really hard to ever get things quite right, and there is never a perfect answer. Life is short, and this module provides few places where you don't have a way to make it easier on the fly or otherwise rescue a party, and few dangers where there isn't some way around conflict. Places where you get the feeling that players are likely to quit in frustration just aren't many. Phandelver lets the players do more or less all the level 1-4 things out of order, which means that it is impossible to balance the encounters for any party of any size with much certainty unless you are doing it to some degree on the fly. This is the nature of basically any non-railroading module.

So while you could spend hours upon hours stressing over CRs (and the CR system is not really that reliable anyway), it's really not worth it. My party was defeated twice, once in that first little encounter because they didn't really know the game, and once because of an elaborate series of player driven decisions and bad die rolls the module included no plans for. I had to come up with a reason for them to be kept alive in the later case. It was the worst thing that ever happened, and it actually ended up making things more fun in the end.

Of course this was all just my experience with the module; your mileage may vary.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Your "contingency plans" section is exactly how it played out when I ran this for my son and a friend: they basically just kept getting captured by bigger and bigger bosses as they went along =) \$\endgroup\$
    – nitsua60
    Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 18:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ Your contingency plan was exactly how I handled what would otherwise have been a TPK in goblin cave. I also love your "adjusted stats on the fly" section, I'll definitely be using this in the future for smaller parties. \$\endgroup\$
    – NathanS
    Commented Oct 21, 2019 at 8:44

The Dungeon Master Guide has a table to calculate the recommended difficulty level of a encounter based on the level and number of players. You could easily use this to adjust the difficulty of the scenario.

DMG contains a table that say how many XP of monster a player can usually handle before the encounters ends up being hard or deadly. Just be sure to pay attention to the multipliers for having more than one monster. A 200 xp monster is much easier to deal with than two 100 xp monsters.

In my mind there is another aspect of solo sessions that is much more difficult to deal with than the difficulty level. Getting the story to flow, and the dynamic between the DM and the player is much harder with only one player. I find that two to three players are the easiest group size to deal with in this regard.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I'm agreeing to the part about the difficulty on solo playng. Sadly an even bigger group is something I wont be able to initiate, since I haven't ever made it even with one person for more then a year trying to motivate other people to it until now. Also I'm limited to the content of the starter set, since I'm not willing to pay almost 200€ for hardcover rule/guide books of a game it isn't even sure I'll be ever playing. If this is anyway covered in the outcuts of the starter set and I'm just not understanding what you are refering to by refering to the table, an clarification would be great. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zaibis
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 13:06
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I do not have the DMG at the moment so the numbers are wrong, but the concept is about right The table looks like this lvl1 hard =50 deadly=100 lvl2 hard =75 deadly =150 So if the module expect you yo have 5 1st level and wanted to make a hard encounter they would add 5 times 50xp worth of monsters = 250p If you on the other hand decide to run the module with just one 2nd level character you could look at the table an see that a hard encounter would need 75xp, and just remove or add monsters to get to that amount of xp. 5e DMG is very good, even good for other games than dnd \$\endgroup\$
    – Marius
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 13:12

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .