Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Running 4e with Smaller Parties

Just a short post today about the joys of small party play with 4th edition. When I run classic editions, I prefer a fairly sizable party. Running with 6 to 8 players is my sweet spot. Combat is easy to adjudicate, as I tend to use side-based initiative, with the party declaring actions prior to rolling initiative. This reduces a party's ability to react and adjust to every little thing that happens in combat. Classic editions are also more deadly, so larger parties help with inevitable attrition. With 4e, things are quite different. PCs are more resilient and combat is more complicated. 4e PCs also have a wide variety of handy-dandy skills that add to their resiliency and self-reliance. This all combines to allow for quality 4e games with as few as 3 players.

When I first started running 4e, I had a party of 5. A couple of players dropped out after the first few weeks and from there I ran a 3 player campaign for about a year. It was excellent. Combat was fast and I could really focus on stories specific to the PCs. 

In my estimation, the ideal three player party in 4e is a Leader, Striker, and "something else". The "something else" can be any role; in my game it was a Defender. The key is the first two classes. None are required by any stretch; you could run a three-Witch party and have great success. Still, I think ideally you have the Leader for healing, the Striker to give that extra oomph in combat, and one other role to compliment the two. 

There are other benefits from running with small parties in 4e, besides the obvious one (i.e. much quicker combat). A lot of people have a hard time putting a large group together. It is a lot easier to find 3 players than 5 or 6. 4e is very easy to balance around different numbers of players; you just adjust XP and there you go. Finally, it allows you to focus more on each individual PC's goals, personality, and backstory; you might find that this improves the roleplay at your table.

If I ran another 4e campaign, I would be looking at going with 3 players, 4 players max. The game doesn't suffer from fewer players, it actually improves.

Do you have any experience running 4e games with smaller parties?


  1. I agree completely with what you're saying. I currently run a campaign with only 2 PCs. There are several DM-run NPCs that come and go.

  2. I have to agree. I think a party of 3 or 4 is the sweet spot. The companion rules from DMG2 can fill out a group of 1 or 2 PC, however, with the way they intentionally low ball companions the party size works better in the 4 - 5 range in my experience.

    To this point, I have had for best experience with party of 1-3 with 2+ companions.

  3. For combat, perhaps. I find that 2-3 players usually hit a wall during play when no one can think of something to do. Regardless of edition -- regardless of system, in fact -- I find the best party size is almost always exactly five.

    Five players means a player can be sick or on vacation and the game can go on. Five players means one or two players can zone out if they've had a bad week, and things don't totally grind to a halt.

    As for party composition, you are exactly right. In fact, the leader is perhaps the most important member of the party no matter how large they are (once you hit 6 players, you need either 2 primary leaders, or 1 primary and 2 secondary) -- otherwise the group goes down as quickly as any other edition of D&D.


  4. I've run with as few as 2 and as many as 15 (never 15 in 4e thankfully!). I prefer 5-6 players regardless of the edition. Fewer than five and the roleplaying aspect of the game seems to suffer. More than six and things start to drag out and it can become difficult to keep everyone engaged.

    My experience with 4e combat duration wasn't really any worse than higher level 3.5 combat. While lower levels of 3.5 combat were quick, by level 10 or so I found the battles to be as slow and tedious as anything I encountered in 4e.

  5. I prefer 3-4 in any system. In the Star Wars: EotE campaign that I'm currently playing in we started with 4 players, and after adding a 5th about a month ago the amount of tangents and side conversations increased just enough to be more than I'd like in an RPG. We also tend to split the party a lot, and that's just potentially one more direction someone can go off in (yes, occasionally a PC will go off and do something solo, though more likely it's in pairs).

  6. I like a minimum 3 players (my online BX game is 3), 3 is a good number for 4e too, but I've regularly run 4e for up to 7, which can be slow. Currently I have 6 (16th level), but one will be leaving around the time we reach Epic Tier. I'd be ok running Epic Tier with 4 players, 3 would be doable but I think might feel a bit too few.

  7. Honestly, I prefer two players each running two PCs and I have preferred that since the early days of 3E.

    The simple fact is, getting people together becomes more difficult as you get older and with each additional player, you seemingly exponentially increase the chance that people are not available on the day you are scheduled to game.

    So 2 x 2 for me.