Playing with a less then optimal number of people

Posted on Jan 12, 2010

Tabletop role-playing games are a lot of fun. Sure not all people would agree with me, in fact if you are one of those people you should stop reading now. I am not going to try and convince you that you should play tabletop RPGs. What I would like to talk about is playing dungeons and dragons with a party of less than the four or five recommended players.

This has been a problem since I started playing D&D and has only gotten worse due to unforeseen instances of 13-year-old-girl-ness. When I started playing D&D it was with Matt, my brother -in-law, and my good friend Jon. We played one module bringing characters from level one to dead in the first three sessions. This was due, in large part to the DM (Dungeon Master) not taking into account that the module was built for 4+ adventurers and two just wouldn’t cut it. After that adventure we added another player and had three players and one DM. This made things a lot easier and while we barely won most fights we still won them.

After almost a year of playing I was ready to try my hand at DMing. I had come up with an idea to have a gladiatorial arena and the PCs were slaves required to fight in the arena. The style was going to be very combat heavy and I thought quite a bit of fun. I asked the players to create any character they wanted. And I mean any character. If they played a level adjusted race they had to take the lesser stats if they played non-level adjusted they got awesome stats, I figured that would level out the game a little. I asked them to create character sheets for levels 1-20 so that we could play it out in one huge gaming session.

Unfortunately we never got to play. Our normal D&D DM, Matt, decided that I was screwing up as a DM and he didn’t want to play, unfortunately he didn’t say it in this way. He chose instead to insult me personally and the 13-year-old-girl-ness happened. The aftermath was that Jon and I continue to play games and have had to figure out how to play a 4+ player game with only 1 player. I did a lot of research on the internet about solo campaigns and what you need to adjust etc. There isn’t a lot of information so I figured that I would share what we are currently doing and how it is working.

The Problem with solo campaigns is that all of the monsters are rated based on a party size of 4. This means that a kobold, which has an encounter level (EL) of ¼, should be easy for 4 level 1 characters. With a single level one character that one kobold suddenly has an EL of 1, a much more difficult fight for the character. As monsters go up in EL the distance between their skills and that of a single PC increase at an alarming pace, so what do you do?

You use level adjusted races without counting the level adjustment, roll super stats and use the Tome of Battle/Gestalt Classes. These three things allow your character to do insane things. It also creates a super heroic character that can go toe to toe with a dragon.

Using level adjusted races without counting it is a fantastic way to turn the tables on the monsters. A level one +1 level adjusted character is really a level two character. This makes that character more able to fight monsters at its class level. This is especially true if you choose a level adjusted level with monstrous humanoid levels. Depending on your campaign and how powerful you want the PCs to be I would limit it to +1 or +2 level adjusted races. Anything more might be world breaking.

Rolling super stats just sounds cool. And it is a lot of fun. It is talked about in the Dungeon Masters Guide, though I didn’t realize that until we had already started the adventure. Here is what normal rolling consists of: Roll 4d6 six times discard lowest die of each roll and that is your ability score. For our super stats we rolled 5d6 seven times, discarded the lowest two die from each roll and discarded the lowest of the seven. This gave us great scores, allowing us to maximize our characters for their class.

Speaking of classes we used the Tome of Battle: Book of Nine Swords. Partially because it is such an awesome book and partially because the one adventure we did in the past where Jon played a crusader from the book, his character was insanely powerful. These classes with their martial maneuvers are fantastic and probably a little broken. Of course that doesn’t matter since you are playing with very few characters and need to be able to kick as much ass by yourself as possible. Another option is to make up a few gestalt classes. Combine cleric with rogue or monk with wizard. You can pretty much do anything with the classes. Make sure you take the highest hit die of the two classes and bam you have a fantastic hero ready to kick a lot of ass and take names.

An example of this that I am currently playing is Karkillian, an Ibixian(goat person MM3) Crusader of Erythnul. He is now level six, his ability scores are insane, 24 STR, 15 DEX, 19 CON, 12 WIS, 11 INT, 16 CHA. Because of his monstrous humanoid levels his BAB is nuts as are his hit points, basically he makes other things hurt a lot. Using his Large +1 Great axe combined with devoted spirit and stone dragon maneuvers there is very few monsters of EL 5 or lower that stand a chance toe to toe with this monsters.

Jon has a similar character; we recently kicked off our adventure series with a dungeon clearing for both of us. We encountered up to an EL 6 demon with our two level 5 super solders and nothing lasted more than four rounds with us. We had done some experiments with two level 5 normal classes and found that anything higher than an EL 3 monster tore us up.

As far as running a solo campaign goes I would suggest alternating who DMs and who is the player. That way you can have two separate stories going on and develop each character individually. You can always start off with an adventure where you go out together. This will allow you both to see how each character plays as well as make adjustments to the characters to make them function at optimal levels so they can live longer.

Good Luck.