DM Advice: 3 tips for running a DnD game with a small party

Balancing D&D combat can be a pain. Players will feel unsatisfied if combat is too easy or too hard, so balancing the game is key to a fun session. It becomes even trickier when you have a party of fewer than four characters. Suddenly, the CR number next to a monster’s stat block is no longer helpful. How do you make combat enjoyable when the number of players you have is three or less? Before Wizards of the Coast launches the Essentials Kit on June 24, let me share three things I do when running a game for a small party.

1. Take the focus off of combat.

It sounds like the most obvious course of action, and it is. Even though combat is a big part of a D&D game, the 5th edition emphasizes storytelling over hack-and-slash adventuring. However, it’s important to talk with your players about this before the game so they know what you’re expecting of them. This change should encourage them to find non-violent solutions to problems, but it requires the DM to be more flexible with encounters. Maybe seducing the dragon becomes less of a party joke and more of a viable option. I mean, sorcerers are made somehow.

2. Gestalt Characters

Another option can be to make your characters more powerful, and for that I recommend making gestalt characters. The rules for gestalt characters need to be updated to the current edition, but the concept takes two classes and mashes them together, and you take the better hit points and skills of the two. In my home game, we follow these rules with one exception; characters take the saving throw proficiencies of both classes. Change the rules as you see fit, and let your imagination (and the multi-classing rules in Chapter 6 of the 5e Player’s Handbook) be your guide.

3. Hire NPC adventurers

This is the newest rule I’ve started implementing in my home game and it may be my favorite; the ability for a character to hire their own NPC adventurers. This is a great rule if you need to beef up your party’s ranks and give yourself, or your players, the opportunity to play different classes. Now, these adventurers are more than your average NPC, they come with their own backstory, plot hooks, ambitions and goals. They don’t just bow to your party’s whim; as the DM you get to say how they act. Some NPC adventurers may be shady or downright evil, and some may be involved in conflicts that get your players wrapped up in another adventure. The DM can make the characters, or players can make their own. You choose if the players get to roll or the DM does. Players can even decide to start their own adventuring guild! The possibilities are absolutely endless, but you may end up having way more character sheets than you expected.

In the end, this is your game and you get to decide how it operates with a smaller group. Will you beef up your players, or bring combat down to their level? Or, will you give your players a diplomatic option? If you’re looking for more ideas, check out Geek & Sundry’s article on the topic. I drew a lot of inspiration from their ideas for my home game. Now it’s your turn. What’s your solution to having a small party? What creative things has your party done to get out of combat? Let me know in the comments below. Cheers!

Header Photo by James Pond on Unsplash



Rayce is a freelance RPG writer and editor from Indianapolis, Indiana. He writes about fun tabletop gaming topics, from board games to RPGs and more.

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Rayce Patterson

Rayce is a freelance RPG writer and editor from Indianapolis, Indiana. He writes about fun tabletop gaming topics, from board games to RPGs and more.