I love it when problems lead to new insights. Recently, I've had problems with numbers in the home campaign. Seems due to circumstances it has been two PCs for a little while now. This has proved challenging in some ways, but has also provided me with some insights as well. The upside has been that two PCs is a fair amount easier to manage than five, and this means combat has been way easier. Unfortunately, the loss is the interaction that occurs between multiple PCs in a campaign. This is not the end of the world, it almost gives me insight into the transition from the early game into the current incarnation. Let me explain.
With less role-playing and character interaction at the table, I have been able to focus heavily on the combat mechanics of the game. It's almost as if I have been given an intensive 4e combat experience! Well, in fact it isn't almost as if, it is...
Something I discovered first was that the party needed another PC, so we added a henchman. Henchmen were something that were played as NPCs back in the day, full fledged characters that had similar if not equal powers as the party but were controlled by the DM. This is something that I started doing in my current 4e campaign due to poor turnout over the summer.
It has provided me with all sorts of interesting perspectives. First, let me get to the goodies. I have an example of how the core mechanics of the game can be adjusted with the addition of DM controlled henchmen.
The party is currently 14th level and has started battling some pretty cool monsters recently. The neat thing is that 19th level / 20th level elites are now within the party's reach (with the addition of the 3rd character, of course). This means that the encounter levels are about 16-17th level for a three character party battling 19-20th level elites. Goristro's are pretty cool for a party to face. But I digress.
The party recently has been taking down monsters 6 levels above them. This is about the limit that it suggests in the DMG. Okay, so no changes to the core mechanics there. But last night, the party fought a Hezrou. They had a harder time with the Goristro than with the Hezrou, and the Hezrou is a full eight levels above the party in level. This was due to the fact that the encounter level for the Hezrou was roughly 17th level, while the Goristro was an 17-18th level encounter.
I haven't changed the maxes for encounter levels. I tried that already and the DMG is pretty accurate on those, and also threat levels (for the most part). Now, obviously there are factors to consider but the Hezrou is a Brute. Brutes generally (and Soldiers) are the more dangerous monster role types to start messing around with regarding threat levels. For the most part, when I put the party up against a controller, skirmisher, or even especially, artillery as an elite threat that is 6-7 levels above the party they slaughter it pretty quickly, and that is that.
The method for calculating encounter levels is explained thoroughly in the DMG, so I won't go into too great of depth here. I will say that to add an extra PC to calculate the encounter level, divide the monsters group XP by the number of players, that single number is equal to the XP for a single monster of the encounters level.
So why was the party able to kick down a threat 8 levels higher than the party? Was it because I was NPCing a character? NO. I can assure you I was impartial, I have no qualms with a TPK even with one NPC under my control.
This is somewhat of a mystery to me, I'll have to admit. I have been gradually stretching the threat levels higher and higher against the party, as with 2 (3) PCs things can get pretty boring behind the screen. The higher level monsters give me more to do as a DM, where I can't necessarily play solos. But that brings me to my next point.
I have a purple dragon, which is a level 13 solo. With 3 PCs the encounter level is roughly the same as the party, and the threat is still there. So even with less than 5 players at the table it still is possible to use solos. You need to calculate the encounter level carefully though or you will have a TPK on your hands. I also don't recommend doing it more than a level or two below the party, as the solo will have a hard time hitting and doing damage on some of its attacks. But, it is possible to have a pretty exciting encounter with a solo and three PCs.
Back to the Hezrou. I have a War-Devil that I am going to break out at the next session. I looked at the AC and it is still within range for my PCs to hit, this also could be the reason that the party was able to kill the Hezrou. It's AC isn't really that high, and that is the mechanic that most of the party is interacting with.
I'm pretty sure, that with the threat level, you don't want to go any higher than 8 levels above the party. Pretty darn sure of that, in fact. But now I have to figure out if this Hezrou incident was simply a "fluke" of the party or whether the threat level for soldiers and brutes can reach to and include 8 levels above the party, if the encounter level doesn't exceed 3-4 levels above the party.
One could also add, that in the Epic Tier, the addition of a henchman could make certain monsters that were once considered "untouchable" to be within the grasp of the party. I refer, of course, to monsters around the 35th level. (I'm looking at you LOLTH!).
I jest. But seriously, with multiple NPCs drastically altering the game the way they do, I HIGHLY recommend playing henchmen the way we did back in the AD&D days. Which is a full NPC controlled by the DM (If you didn't already catch that.).