The general belief among Dungeons & Dragons players is that an ideal group size is four to six players. However, with adult life being what it is, getting a 5-player group together on a regular basis doesn’t always go so ideally. But that doesn’t mean you should totally abandon your campaign.
I once ran a full 4th edition campaign with only two players and got rather creative with ways beyond the usual methods to help my players along. Following are five of my best tips for playing D&D with a small number of players.
Professions translate to skills PCs have developed outside of their adventuring careers. Professions can be tied to PCs backgrounds to signify what they did before becoming adventurers. Profession skills are also generally roleplayed, and not always bound to a die roll or specific proficiency.
For example, take the Soldier background (PHB pg 140). It lists Athletics and Intimidation as skill proficiencies. But being a soldier is so much more than being athletic and intimidating. Soldiers have their own language, an above-average knowledge of battle tactics, and can function expertly for a couple of days on very little sleep. These are all elements of the profession I would allow a PC to bring into play under the right circumstances, with or without a die roll.
Allowing a broader range of interpreting their skills will give each PC in your small group a wider variety of options to choose from during encounters. The more options you give players, the better they can fill in the gaps of not having more character classes in the group.
The Working Together section of the PHB (pg 175) describes how PCs may use their skills to assist another PC in a skill check, and how skill checks may be made as a group. Combining skills applies to a single PC, by using two or more of their own skills during a skill check.
Let’s say your small group comes upon a dead creature during an adventure. Your PCs want to know how it died, if it was killed by another creature, or died some other way. The most logical skill to use here is Medicine, but none of the PCs are proficient in it. However, one PC is proficient in Animal Handling and Survival, or Investigation and Perception, or Survival and Nature. You could allow the PC to add the skill modifiers from their two proficient skills together, and add that total as a bonus to their skill check. Or you can simply give them advantage on their die roll. As with professions, this method extends the reach of their skill sets to help make up for vacant class skills.
Magic items can be great group equalizers. However, handing out too many magic items can severely disrupt an encounter. Magic items that have a set limited number of uses (Charges, DMG pg 141) can give PCs the help they need without making them overpowered, or allowing them to be slightly overpowered, but for only a short time.
Scrolls and potions are also good for giving temporary benefits, but with small groups, they are probably in limited supply. Again, use professions, or combining skills. For example, a PC has the Guild Artisan background, and was employed in a guild as a cook or baker. That PC is also proficient in Medicine, Nature, and/or Survival. I would allow the PC to combine their cooking profession with their proficient skills to cook something that could heal a few hit points, lessen the severity of a disease, or grant a bonus or advantage to skill checks, but only for a limited time.
It’s usual for a player to go through a campaign with a single character. But it could take a long time for players to feel their PCs are as skilled as they want or need them to be in a small group.
Here’s one way to potentially fix that. DMs and players work together to create a bank of fully loaded characters, maybe ten to start with. Now the DM (in character) approaches the players with a task, and the players choose characters they think are best suited for the task. If and when that task is done, the players return those characters, and choose new ones for the next task.
Think of the character bank as a mercenary house, where players have a selection of races and classes to choose from for each encounter. This way will help players feel as if they have a larger group, and give them experience with multiple classes and skills.
You probably know about Multiclassing (PHB pg 163) characters already, and how it can be a solution for small player groups. However, multiclassing only allows a PC to level up in one class at a time. That’s okay in full-sized groups, but may be too slow for long-term small groups.
Gestalt characters is an answer to that. A gestalt character is a PC who chooses two classes to play at character creation, can use almost all the skills available from both classes, and levels up both classes at the same time based on a single XP progression scale. Gestalt characters are more powerful than standard characters, but that power balance is kept in check when in small player groups. You can read more about gestalt characters for 5th edition on its D&D Wiki page.
DMs, I hope these tips help you get your D&D game on even if you don’t have a “full group” of players. I also hope it shows that, with imagination and common sense, you can modify any campaign to give your players what they want, and what they need.
How do you handle DMing or playing with a small group of players? Tell us in the comments!
Images credits: Wizards of the Coast