Newbie DM needs help tailoring encounters for groups of less than 5 players

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Hi everyone!

As you can see this is my first post so please be patient with me lol!

I'm very new to Dungeon Mastering and have recently compleated the campaign that comes with the red D&D essentials starter game and started Reavers of Harkenwold that comes with the Dungeon Masters set.

The issue I am having is that my group is very small, literaly just my wife who plays a wizard and my brother in law who plays a Dwarf fighter. Because of this I created a cleric NPC to assist them on there adventures however some of the encounters have still been a little tough at times even at level 2. As i have been reading through the Dungeon Masters book i came upon a section that explained that published adventures have encounters assuming a group of five players...suddenly the light bulb comes on as to why some of the encounters have been a little difficult.

Do any of you experienced DM's have any recomendations (other than finding another 2 players) of how i can adapt the encounters to compensate for the fact there are essentialy only 3 players? (including the NPC Cleric)

I dont really want to creat another NPC for the party...the only thoughts i have had is maybe reducing the number of enemy minions or reducing the HP of the stronger adversaries in the encounters.

Any advice you can give is greatly appreciated
Do any of you experienced DM's have any recomendations (other than finding another 2 players) of how i can adapt the encounters to compensate for the fact there are essentialy only 3 players? (including the NPC Cleric)

I dont really want to creat another NPC for the party...the only thoughts i have had is maybe reducing the number of enemy minions or reducing the HP of the stronger adversaries in the encounters.

Any advice you can give is greatly appreciated

Don't create another NPC, and ditch the one you've already made.

The simplest thing to do is just pull out monsters. The equivalent of one standard monster per character is very roughly what they should be able to handle, but there's no science to it. You just have to try things until you find what works.

Something else I highly recommend, is to design encounters in which the monsters can win without killing, capturing, or driving off the characters. If you have an alternate goal for the monsters, then even if you accidentally overpower the PCs, you are not going to kill them, because if a character drop unconscious or takes even takes a second wind, the monsters will simply accomplish their goal, leaving the PCs with further adventures dealing with the fact that the monsters accomplished their goal.

You can also give the PCs alternate goals, besides killing the monsters, but you need to get the players' buy-in with this idea otherwise they'll focus on killing the monsters.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

"One standard monster of the same level as the party per character" is a good rule of thumb. A minion is worth about a forth of a standard and an elite is worth about two standards. I use this guideline when DMing for 2 relatively inexperienced players and it has worked very well.

If you want varying levels on monsters, just make sure that the XP total adds up roughly to the "one standard per character" XP total.

You might also want to be careful with the hard control - things like Stun and Dominate.
Just to elaborate on what others have said, in one of the books there is an "XP chart" - it has the basic EXP of each level of monster (100 xp at level 1, 125 xp at level 2, etc) and then gives these rules:

If you want an normal battle: Do number of players X the monster exp of their level (so 2 players at level 1 have 2 X 100EXP = 200EXP)

If you want a hard battle: do number of player X the monster exp of their level +4 (so 2 players at level 1 have 2 X 200 (level 5 monster) = 400EXP)

You then choose as many monsters as you need to get to that EXP.

However, if it is just the 2 players, then altering your campaign might help make the games better. The 3 of you could pool your thoughts together and maybe go for something you all enjoy like a sneaky game (less waves of monsters), a "superhero" type (fighting bosses/elites mostly, rather than groups of monsters), or one where skills are more used than combat. That said, if they enjoy the combat-heavy, odds-are-against-us then great!
Once you're down to 2 or 3 characters, the action economy shifts enough that you need to scale back further than the chart would indicate.

Generally, I'd suggest counting three PCs as 2.5 characters for the purpose of that table (so 250XP is a standard encounter, not 300XP), and two PCs are 1.5 characters for that purpose. You should also avoid elites and solos - a standard creature ends up serving the role normally held by those, while minions become the new standard monster, so an encounter is apt to be something like "1 standard + 3 minions of one type + 3 minions of another type" for a 250XP budget.

You also want to stay away from creatures with significant action denial (daze/stun/dominate) since those have a disproportionate effect on a small group.
I ran a weekly 4e game for 2 players (Fighter and Rogue) for a while.  They were nowhere near optimized, and I ended up houseruling that Second Wind was a minor action (as it is for Dwarves).  Since you already have a Dwarf, you might want to give that character some other perk as well, so that player doesn't feel shortchanged.

Also, make sure that the PCs have potions on hand.  As others have mentioned, action economy is especially important; without a leader, the PCs are going to need ways to use their surges, and they won't really have the time to spend standard actions on healing themselves.  I am not an optimization expert, but in my experience, the Quick Draw feat is very useful with potions, especially if that character isn't boosting her/his initiative some other way.

Neutronium_Dragon's suggestion of "1 standard + 6 minions" is great!  I wish someone had told me exactly that when I started my 2p game.  If your Wizard is AoE-heavy and has good accuracy, then you might be able to pile on even more minions, as many of them won't get to make even a single attack.
It's quite possible to play with certain roles missing, as long as the players don't play the same way they would if those roles were present.

If I have to ask the GM for it, then I don't want it.

I'm jumping on the "action economy is crucial" wagon.


If you're not sure what that means (you mentioned being very new to the game), it can be construed as this :  the amount of actions your characters get and the amount of actions the ennemies get. When you have a 5 PC, 5 monster setup. An attack that stuns 1 PC, has removed 20% of the PCs' actions. If you have 2 PCs, that's now 50%... In addition, when you have 5 PCs, it is much harder for a greater percentage of the ennemies to be actively targeting the same PC - not so when you have fewer PCs.


Make a conscious effort to provide non "kill everything" encounters as much as possible - this is important.


Make use of "2-hit" minions (there are many variants of this on the forums) - ennemy hp have been factored to account for many players (if you played any BG or PvP in an MMO, you know that 2v2 IS NOT the same as 5v5)


Resist or remove all action denial - dazed, stun, immobilized, dominate, even slow. Only use them when you feel they are an intergral part of the story or with pre-planed "outs for the PCs" or special considerations for the ennemies...


Also keep an eye towards tailoring the encounters to the PCs - since they may not have very divers strategy options. This is especially important if you have a controller or a defender : taking one enemy out of the fight when there are only 2 of them is a massive effect, and it is fairly simple to completely lock-down 2 enemies for a defender - leaving the other character completely untouched while the defender takes all the hits (which is not as beneficial as one could first think.)

Thanks for pointing out how devastating even "light control" conditions like Slowed can be, Movanic.  In a 2p game, anything that keeps you from attacking EVERY SINGLE ROUND is a huge detriment.

Also, ditto "2-hit minions," especially ones that have to be hit consecutively (i.e. twice before their next turn).  If the players know that they have to work together extra efficiently to kill a mob, it can lead to some cool cinematic scenes.  Think about combat scenes in action movies where two protagonists are fighting together; often, one protag will injure a foe, and the other will deal the killing blow, etc.  Or one will distract an enemy while the other moves in to flank and backstab.

Regular minions are also great for "run and gun," "gotta keep moving" scenes, which seem to come up a lot in 2p games.  A 5-person party might storm the front gates, but a 2p team is often more likely to consider alternate strategies such as infiltration, precision strikes, or light skirmishes -- situations where taking out an enemy and immediately moving on is crucial.  Therefore, minions!

In these situations, the cleric is going to be thematic dead weight, I think.  I ditto Centauri -- lose the NPC; encourage your players to own the fact that they are not a standard adventuring party.  Give them chances to use their short roster to their advantage.

Once my players realized that they weren't going to be able to take on the BBEG's entire army head-on, they did one smart thing: the fighter rebuilt to have a higher DEX (he was previously STR/CON) and took Stealth training so that he could keep up with the rogue without giving away their location.  This meant that he didn't have to waste precious combat rounds catching up with the rogue and joining the fray -- again, attacking every single round is crucial!

I don't imagine your wizard ever helps the fighter flank, so other sources of combat advantage will be helpful (especially if you use lots of minions).  Against nonminions, a Fighter at-will power that knocks prone might be good in conjunction with the Grounding Shot feat for the wizard if (s)he predominantly uses Ranged attacks.  CharOps will have better advice than me, though.
 
If things are still too tough, consider giving out action points after short rests.
Most of the games I run have only me and maybe one or two other players. I tend to solve this by giving them more than one PC to use. Try giving the players more characters to play. If they're willing, then it greatly improves tactics and role playing.
My best games of the past 30 years have always been with two players each playing two characters.

Why not simply give them another PC each?

The problem with two PCs as many have mentioned is the action economy.

Anyway, if you are going to continue with two PCs I would make use of more minions within your XP budget.
Cheers Imruphel aka Scrivener of Doom
Believe it or not, I enjoy playing as player with one other. Tough? Yeah so? Lethal? Perhaps, and?
I just ask dm to be liberal with magic items. Let me gear up more then usual and I am a happy camper.
Guess what im saying is one of ways you can help them is... gear them up super. If they are 2nd lvl..give em +3 weapons, armor with survival qualities..etc.
My best games of the past 30 years have always been with two players each playing two characters.

Why not simply give them another PC each?

The problem with two PCs as many have mentioned is the action economy.

Anyway, if you are going to continue with two PCs I would make use of more minions within your XP budget.

You know this idea never occurred to me.  Pc with sidekick pc.  Our group is only 3 so stopped playing.  I think we'll start it upwith 2 pc each.

The mathematically inclined may be interested in Lanchester's Square Law of combat, which (given a particular set of simplifying assumptions) demonstrates that you would expect the ratio of casualties on each side to be roughly proportional to the ratio between the squares of the starting numbers on each side.
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