I’ve been ruminating recently on an issue I haven’t seen a lot of discussion about: How many players are too few or too many?
For most groups, this issue is more a matter of chance and social dynamics than it is about game play. Few of us would be willing to tell a friend who wants to join the fun that our game is full, and we’ve probably had a game or two never get off the ground because there weren’t enough players. I’ve encountered both sides of the problem in the two games in which I am currently involved. The one I play in may have too few players, while the that one I run sometimes has too many. There’s not a lot I can or am willing to do to change either of those situations, so both games are likely to continue on with a few attendant difficulties.
Still, I think it’s worth considering what the optimal number of players is and what might be done to alleviate situations that arise from having too few or too many at the table. Particularly compared to earlier editions, the 5th edition books have surprisingly little to say about party size and composition. About the only concrete note on party size appears in the section on encounter design in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. On page 83 there is the telling note that parties smaller than four and larger than five need to increase or decrease encounter multipliers for the number of monsters, but that’s about it.
It’s a useful note, but really avoids dealing with the fact that the whole game is going to be radically different if you have a party of three as opposed to a party of six.
I’ve concluded that the perfect party size is five PCs. It’s not just the math that makes this so; it’s the basic design of the class system that makes party size such a critical consideration.
The Class System is the Culprit
The core feature of D&D game design that most distinctly affects optimum party size is the classic four-role structure that has been a part of the game’s design since D&D’s earliest incarnations.
Often referred to as the four “tactical roles,” these archetypal character types are fundamental to the game’s design. To be completely accurate, the original Dungeons & Dragons boxed set (1974) only had three classes, the cleric, fighting man, and magic user. The first supplement, Greyhawk (1975), brought in the thief, completing the set. In so doing, whether by brilliant design or by fortuitous accident, D&D hit on four tactical roles that are so intuitive and basic they have almost become fundamental to game design across a broad range of genres and formats.
Whether you like the four archetypes or not, it is hard to construct an effective party without having at least one character dedicated to each of the main roles. To clarify this point, I’ll go through each of the original classes and give them a more universal designation. Without the fighter/tank, a party is hard pressed to control combat tactically, creating choke points or protecting more vulnerable party members. Without a dedicated cleric/healer, survivability drops radically, and the party will have to constantly rest and heal up. Those two roles are probably the most critical, but both the magic user/spellcaster and the thief/rogue are vital as well. Without a dedicated spellcaster, a party lacks powerful area effects and also will not have access to the huge variety of utility spells that are often either required or nearly tactically essential, especially at higher levels. The rogue is a bit different from the other three main roles in that it is more situational. You don’t always need the rogue’s abilities of stealth and skill, but without them a whole host of tactical options are essentially off the table. The party’s ability to deal with traps, to perform reconnaissance, and a host of other social and political options all become severely limited.
While hybrid and multiclass characters make it possible to fill all the main roles without having a dedicated tank, healer, spellcaster, or rogue, the game is designed in such a way that there is a significant “efficiency tax” for parties that don’t have at least one dedicated character for each of the main roles, particularly the tank and healer.
The most telling example I can think of to illustrate this point is the Life Cleric. Anyone who has played in a party containing a cleric with the Life domain knows the awesome healing power that particular specialization can bring to the table. They simply outshine every other possible class or specialization when it comes to healing, and to such a degree that, once witnessed, it’s hard to imagine a party without one. Similarly, if you’ve seen a dedicated fighter with the parry maneuver and the heavy armor proficiency simply scoff at a whole flurry of attacks while holding a choke point, you know the value of specialization in this game.
While less of a factor for spellcasters and roguish classes, specialization is still a significant advantage, and the core classes that represent them in their purest form, wizard and rogue respectively, pay the lowest efficiency tax. While a number of other spellcasting classes exist in the 5th edition, none of them have anything like the versatility that a dedicated wizard has. Warlocks and sorcerers pack a lot of power, but they lack access to the wide variety of tactical, information gathering, and situational spells that make a wizard not only a power on the battlefield but a true asset for out-of-combat action. Likewise, the rogue’s skill bonuses mean that no other class (with the possible exception of the bard, more on that later) has the ability to sneak, disarm traps, pick locks, or interact with NPCs to a comparable degree.
You don’t have to have these fundamental classes, but your party will pay an efficiency tax if you don’t.
So if the game is built around four archetypes, why advocate a party of five? Because doing so gives you a spare–an extra PC in case someone doesn’t show up or a PC falls. More than five party members creates other problems, but five gives you the potential benefit of all four roles and a spare.
The Role of the Hybrids
On that note, let’s take a look now at the first “subclass,” the paladin (itself introduced in the same supplement that introduced the thief). It’s hard to overemphasize how critical that addition was to the structure of D&D. The paladin was the first true hybrid class, combining the two most essential archetypal roles, tank and healing.
Most other hybrid classes follow a similar fusion pattern. The ranger combines fighter and cleric (both in specialized forms) and, at least since second edition, the bard has combined wizard and rogue, though it has the additional benefit of being able to heal as well. The monk borrows conceptually from fighter and rogue. (Granted, a few subclasses fall outside of this hybrid pattern. The warlock and sorcerer, for instance, are really just focused and even more specialized versions of the wizard.)
Hybrid classes made the game more interesting and more flexible, though usually with an efficiency-tax trade-off.
These hybrid classes also dramatically affected party composition and size. Although the paladin made it possible to get by with three characters and still cover (though not quite as effectively) all the main roles, that wasn’t its most important effect. Rather, the paladin made it even more beneficial to have an additional party member. Having a paladin around meant that both your tank and your healer had a backup. If one of those critical characters got knocked out, you were far less likely to be staring down the barrel of a TPK. Having that backup also drastically improved the tactical options and made it possible for the fighter and cleric to occasionally switch it up and focus on doing damage instead of mitigating or healing it.
And that takes me back to the perfect party size. Having five characters allows your players to fulfill the basic roles needed to make an effective party while also allowing enough flexibility so that everyone doesn’t feel like they have to fit in to the straitjacket of the founding four classes. If you only have four players, you are really going to need those four core rolls filled, and filled at least predominantly by the four core classes, or you are going to experience problems.
Too Few Players
I’ve seen how the need to fill those roles is absolutely vital since my small party lost our wizard. The story of our party wizard’s demise is sad and tragic, but not really relevant here.
What is significant is that the player who was running our wizard decided to play a paladin for his replacement character. That’s been tough on our party. We’ve really begun to realize how brutal fights can be without good area-effect and lock-down zone control spells. This is likely exacerbated by the fact that our party fighter has really evolved to play more like a barbarian than like the tank we desperately need. That harm may be mitigated a little by the fact that my life cleric makes a pretty decent tank himself, having recently (at 8th level) finally got a magic weapon that was better than the +1 light hammer he was using–and he now has a suit of (nonmagical) plate mail. He doesn’t do much damage, but he can make a decent choke point and with the advent of the Blessed Healer ability no longer has to choose between keeping our all offense up or keeping himself alive. When all of our party is present, having the paladin around to backup heal has also made it possible for my cleric to throw out the occasional spirit guardians or other mass damage spell to make up for the loss of the wizard.
However, although I love being able to be a bit more versatile and earning the MVC (most valuable character) award pretty much every session, I really, really miss that wizard. On the rare occasions that we’ve been down a player, I’ve noticed that I really have to focus on healing, even to the exclusion of trying to do any extra damage or placing myself in harm’s way to help out with tanking. I just can’t spare the resources, even with a DM who has taken the reduced party size in to account for encounter building.
The smaller the party, the more everyone becomes locked into the primary character role he or she is playing.
The smaller the party, the more everyone becomes locked into the primary character role he or she is playing. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that there is less room for improvisation and exploring some of the versatility of the character design system.
In short, having four or fewer players is a potential problem because you are unlikely to have all the core roles filled. Few groups mandate that each person play a specific class, and that’s a good thing; such a mandate goes against the grain of player freedom. But this does mean that, simply by random chance, you are likely to end up with at least one duplicated role in a party of four–and one missing role.
And that’s one reason a party of five seems to work so well, in my experience. You are much likelier to fill all the basic roles or to at least have a hybrid or two who can do the job in a pinch. Even if the party is missing a role, having the extra backup likely means that the party has a corresponding strength that may more than make up for the weakness. Say the party has both a fighter and a paladin, but no spellcaster, as in the example above. If they have five players, they are also then going to have either two healers or two rogues, or possibly a third fighter. That’ll enable them to either take or dish out enough extra damage to mitigate the lost area-effect spells. They might still miss the wizard’s buffs and information gathering, but a solid cleric and some hybrid classes can take care of most of those needs.
One big caveat, though: If the party is utterly lacking a healer, they are still going to be in a lot of trouble. They don’t need a dedicated healer, necessarily, but without a paladin, ranger, or bard in the mix, they face a much stronger chance for character deaths and TPKs, and the game will become a relentless slog of short and long rest fests after every encounter. They are also going to have to break the bank buying healing potions and will be crippled by effects that could be countered by the restoration series of spells.
The main takeaway from all this is that the fewer players there are in a game, the more restricted they will be in the roles they really have to play to form a functional party. With only four players, they each almost have to take on one of the designated four “tactical roles.” Without that critical fifth player, there is little opportunity to explore the rich possibilities of the expanded class system. With three players it’s even more restrictive. Someone will have to take on a hybrid role that bridges the gap that would otherwise be present.
Too Many Players
Conversely, in my own game – which originally had seven regular players – there was quite a lot of role shifting. We only had one pure original recipe fighter and one life cleric. Everyone else was some sort of hybrid class or specialist class, or even multiclass. It was great, and I think the party was serendipitously lucky to have a really solid tank and cleric so they had even greater flexibility in the party composition and direction of the classes they chose. Though they might not have had a dedicated wizard, they could compensate with other special abilities, like a ranger’s volley or the bard’s (who later multiclassed into wizard) buffing and information gathering spells and abilities. They had so much healing from hybrid classes that, when the cleric player got bogged down by real life responsibilities, it wasn’t hard to compensate. When the player who ran the monk moved out of state, he was missed more for his personality and tactical acumen than for the loss of the damage he inflicted on the monsters.
However, losing those two players, as painful as it was to see friends unable to return to the table regularly, actually did speed up the play quite nicely and allow me, as the DM, to really concentrate on developing individual plotlines and motivations for each of the characters. Let me note that, with more players in the mix, it isn’t really the mechanics of the game or its design that cause problems. It’s incredibly easy to pack a few more minions into an encounter, or to buff up the big bad monster a bit so that everything scales. The game is very forgiving, mechanically, of additional characters.
The problem is simply time and social dynamics. D&D benefits from one of the most streamlined and simple combat systems in any RPG, but even so it can bog down when you have six or more players at the table. This is a bit exacerbated at higher levels, and also by other factors, such as having new players in the mix who are still learning the rules. Probably the single biggest determining factor of whether a gaming group can suffer a large number of players is the experience level of the DM. I, personally, feel I can handle six players, but I notice that I really start to dramatically lose focus after that point. However, I’ve seen more experienced DMs handle even more players with relative ease. Having experienced and helpful players who keep track of initiative or facilitate combat can really help as well.
Still, every time I’ve run or played in a game that had more than six players, I’ve witnessed that the number of out of game distractions dramatically increase, possibly exponentially. If combat rounds take too long, payers lose the immersion and start to have side conversations. When the party splits up, it’s increasingly likely that a few players may be left out of the game for an extended period of time. If that happens often enough players can really start to lose focus and interest in the game. Even worse, with more players you also increase the chances that there will be mismatched goals and agendas and increase the potential for unproductive inner party conflict. This can be dramatically exacerbated if some characters seem to get more attention than others.
So, considering the class and role restrictions that occur when you have too few players and the loss of focus, both on the part of the players and the DM, when you have too many, I really do feel that the perfect number of players for a D&D game is five. That’s likely true for most editions of the game (4th edition is a possible exception, which may be one quirk in favor of the much maligned system), but it is certainly the case for 5th edition.
Having five players permits you to cover all the tactical roles without everyone being locked in to the four basic classes. That flexibility translates into more robust class and character choices as well as allowing for options like multiclassing without seriously harming the party’s chances for survival. It also makes the party much more likely to survive when things go wrong and a TPK threatens as they are likely to have backup for some of the critical roles and a better chance of having at least someone left standing at the end of the fight. 5th edition isn’t exactly a killer system, but the closest shaves I’ve experienced were with small parties of four or fewer PCs.
Bounded Accuracy and other improvements mean that the game plays well over a longer span of character levels, and may even be a bit less susceptible to the dangers of running combat with too many players, but that doesn’t really address the more basic and universal concerns about being able to focus on each character for a significant amount of time and keeping the narrative flow on track for a large group with varied motivations. A group of five players is dynamic enough to have multiple perspectives and agendas without being overwhelmingly complex or prone to conflict. Moreover, the fact that five is an odd number is useful in itself as it meals the party is less likely to get bogged down in a stalemate of indecision. There is always going to be a tie breaking vote.
Losing a player in a four-player group can be catastrophic, but losing one in a five-player group is just an inconvenience.
Finally, the realities of life and scheduling also suggest that having at least five players can help keep a game from falling prey to the vagaries of gamer attrition. Losing a player in a four-player group can be catastrophic, but losing one in a five-player group is just an inconvenience. Additionally, I think it also likely that players will be less inclined to leave or de-prioritize the game if they have the opportunity to play the role they want and thus enjoy the game in the way that best suits them. I’ve seen players “forced” to play the party cleric suffer accelerated burnout on several occasions.
Does the game fail completely if you have fewer players or more of them? Of course not. But it might help to think about ways to deal with the sorts of problems that arise when you have non optimal numbers of players. The truth is, as noted in the beginning, we are rarely able or willing to limit or expand our group of players merely to achieve the perfect party size. So instead, it might help to focus on some simple ways to deal with the issues outlined in the arguments above.
What to Do if You Have More or Less
Of course there are innumerable ways to compensate for having too few or too many players, but none of the obvious options are really all that appealing. It’s probably harder to adjust for a smaller group than for a larger one, especially since you always have the option of breaking out into two different games if you have enough players. That can even be a real blessing as it might allow some folks to share in the DMing role while still being able to play.
While it’s tempting to just say that, for smaller groups, someone can play two characters, that rarely works as well in practice as it might at first seem to. Players with multiple characters almost never develop the deep attachment with a character that is one of the truly profound experiences of deep role-playing.
That said, one option that I’ve seen implemented rather well is to have dedicated henchmen take on the roles not filled by the player’s own characters. This tends to work better with support roles, particularly clerics, but could be used in a pinch for almost any class. The best practice I’ve seen for the implementation of henchmen had a few defining characteristics. First off, the henchmen were always just a bit lower level than the PCs. This tended to decrease the danger of a player over-identifying with a henchman at the cost of being involved with his or her own character. It also helped if the henchmen were generally run by the DM, except during combat. Truthfully, combat usually isn’t the time where deep character development takes place, and it’s rarely a problem to let the PCs run the henchmen, with the caveat that the DM gets to override any suicidal or truly out-of-character decisions. In this way, henchmen become a useful role-playing tool, able to develop relationships with the player characters that can be illuminating and sometimes powerfully reflective of wider campaign themes without contributing to the number of things the DM has to actively keep track of during combat.
Large groups don’t have as simple a solution, but perhaps the most important thing to remember is that the game is a collaborative experience. Players can help out by keeping track of some of the basic but attention-consuming mechanics of the game. For instance, there is no real reason that the DM has to keep track of the initiative, but I’ve rarely seen a game where that job doesn’t devolve to the DM (and thank you, Brian, for taking on that responsibility when you can game with us). Players can be tasked to keep track of NPCs (particularly useful if your players keep going off script and looking to talk to minor characters). One great trick I only recently discovered is that if you ask them to take notes and tell you what they remember about an NPC, then you never have to remember extraneous details that they don’t actually care about.
At the extreme end, if you have a player with DMing experience and whom you trust, you can delegate time consuming and focus splitting tasks like shopping expeditions to a co-DM who steps in for such encounters (a thank you here to Graham for doing that with true skill and panache). I’ve had great success on both sides of the co-DMing experience, and as long as there is mutual trust and there are a few clear guidelines, it can prove surprisingly effective.
These little tips just begin to scratch the surface of the many ways one can handle the issues that often arise around small or large parties. I’d love to hear how some of you, dear readers, have dealt with these issues if you’ve experienced them in your own games. I’m sure you have your own tricks and tips you’ve developed over your DMing and gaming careers. †