Dungeons & Dragons parties come in all sizes, because it all depends on how many friends you can get around a table. Traditionally, you want four Player Characters (PCs), one Strength Fighter, on Dexterity Fighter, on Arcane Caster, one Divine Caster. This gives you a good balance in fighting ability, as well as non-combat usefulness.
Sometimes, if you are lucky to have a lot of like-minded friends, you might have more players, a big party. You might get a couple specialists, like a Divination Wizard that can trust the rest of the party will defend them, or a Glamour Bard, that is going to get you through social encounters with flying, glittery, colors.
However, sometimes Session 0 is coming up, and you realize you only have two players in your group. This is still going to be a lot of fun, because you have new and unique challenges to face, but it’s also going to be a little stressful, as you don’t have a lot of backup when push comes to shove.
To be clear, when I say two players, I’m not including the DM. If you only have one player, one DM, that is called a Duet, which is different from what we’ll be looking at today. Today, we are talking about three people at the table, one of which is your DM.
Now, I should mention that there are a lot of options on how you can handle this exciting challenge, but there are three main ways I would suggest tackling it.
You might have heard of this before, but if you want your character to be even more superhero than they already are, you can multiclass them, and combine the two classes. With Gestalt characters, you choose two different classes that you want your character to combine, and with each level, starting at Level 1, you choose the best aspects of those classes. You choose the higher hit die, the most amount of skills, from both skill proficiency lists, both tool/weapon/armor proficiencies, both class features, and more. This is great if you want to make your two-player party be able to have the same adventures as a four-player party. Not the most fun (in my opinion) way to handle this, but the easiest for running the game.
As I mentioned above, there are four main types of characters that you can play in D&D. Or, even if you are in a three person team, you can get away with a Tank, a Healer, and a Damage Dealer. However, if you are sitting at a table with only two players, you now need to be very careful about your team builds. This requires communication and buy-in from both players, as well as the DM, because however you choose to build your team, will change the dynamic of the game.
I will say, as always, there is no right or wrong way to play, and any challenge can be overcome, this is just a cleaner, more cohesive way to do it, as nothing more than a suggestion to consider.
Ranger / Bard
This might feel familiar, because this is essentially the combination in The Witcher, were the two primary adventurers were a Ranger monster hunter, and the bardiest Bard to ever Bard. This combination works because both Ranger and Bard are fairly versatile, and Bards even have the feature “Jack of All Trades.” Whether this party is in the town or the wilderness, fighting or talking, there is someone who can take care of the situation. You probably want to stick to the types of adventures that the Ranger is proficient in (Favored Enemies and Natural Explorer), and make sure to spend some time in town in between hunts for the bard, but then you’ll have a happy group.
Paladin / Cleric
This sounds like a ton of fun for me, because if the Paladin and Cleric both worship the same deity, then you can have a very focused adventure. These two are both dedicated to the same belief system, and their abilities are very collaborative. With a synergy displayed in these classes, you can focus on the god they worship, their followers, and their enemies. Demons and devils have a very clear hierarchy that scales with the party, as well as very clear problems that they can face.
Wizard / Barbarian
I like this idea as well, but where the first two groups the combatant makes the decisions, in this party it’s the wizard that would make the decisions, with his bodyguard there for the job. The wizard is interested in exploring the secrets of the universe, and the magic that courses within it and their ability to manipulate the fabric of reality. They just want to make sure they don’t get killed in the process, and so the Barbarian is just a meat-shield that protects them on this journey. The Barbarian gets to fight some of the coolest monsters as a result, and the natural comedic moments that will come from the “Smart-guy Dumb-guy” dynamic is seen in so many comedies, that it’s easy to make social blunders, accidentally break mystical artifacts, and oversimplify very complex ideas.
Now, the other main way to handle the small party problem, is to have other, NPC followers in the team. The biggest thing you want to be careful of here, is the infamous Dungeon Master’s Player Character (DMPC). This is a dangerous road to go down because one of the jobs of the Dungeon Master is to create a problem, for the players to solve. Now, if the DM has their own DMPC, that character knows EXACTLY how to solve the problem, because they share a brain with the god themselves. Also, a lesser DM might be tempted to create a problem that they know ONLY their DMPC can solve, and solve it in a really cool way, getting all the glory. So instead, there are two good ways to implement followers instead.
Hirelings are core to the origins of our hobby. When Gary Gygax created the game bac in the ’70s, there was an aspect of it that he enjoyed just as much as fighting monsters and getting their treasure. He loved the idea of getting that treasure back to civilization where it would be USEFUL. In original D&D and AD&D (or D&D 2e), when you find the treasure at the bottom of the dungeon, it would all be in copper pieces, and therefore be too heavy to take back in one trip. He might also specify that the treasure is in precious gems or art pieces, and the challenge of finding someone who can afford to purchased these extremely costly pieces of treasure from you can become a problem as well. Back to the former though, you could hire hirelings, who’s jobs it was to carry your loot, hold the torch so you can see, and other very basic tasks.
There are skilled hirelings that you can afford in the game, that include abilities such as being a mercenary for you. These characters won’t be overly interesting, but they can help relieve some of the burden that your party might be facing.
This is, in my opinion, one of the coolest 3rd party solutions to this problem I’ve seen. Matt Colville created a rulebook called Strongholds and Followers. In this book, he goes into detail about if your characters want to create a stronghold, and if you character gets followers (surprising, I know). He calls followers “Retainers,” and these retainers have their own rules to make them simple, yet helpful.
In these rules, if your character has done something heroic, they might inspire other, would-be adventurers, to join them. They are always lower level, then never have full class abilities, and they don’t make big decisions. These characters are there to assist your character, and make you feel cooler in the process.
There are a lot of ways you can handle having only two players at the table, and again, none of them are wrong. These are just some ideas that might make it playing smoother, and potentially less frustrating.