GSBards Looking at the current player mix in 2 games that I’m running right now, I’ve realized that I’m running for what I consider to be the perfect party composition – 3 Slightly Overpowered/Dual Role Characters . Why is this the perfect sized party for me to run for?

3 Players

  • Having only 3 players lets them share the spotlight much more.
  • 3 Players tend to work together more easily. If 2 players are in agreement, the 3rd usually goes along with the idea. Conversely, if one player has an idea or disagreement, it is easier to be heard and understood by 2 people with differing opinions rather than 4 people with differing opinions.
  • This means there is less planning paralysis. If something is under major contention, they are able to take votes without getting tied.
  • There are more chances for each character to be useful since there are less people to perform tasks. This makes the players feel more necessary to the group.
  • If anyone plays a zookeeper character, it doesn’t feel like the PCs control an army – more like they have a regular sized group.
  • Party roles are more easily defined. There is less room for 2 really talky type characters or 2 big tanks. If there is duplication of party roles (more on this later), then there is better definition of the roles.
  • 3 players makes it easier to run systems where you have to do more individualized calculations for experience, loot, or party participation.

Overpowered/Dual-Role Characters

  • Characters that are Gestalt, have extra build points, or extra free special powers give many more options to the characters.
  • Characters in games that are class based or have very specific roles don’t feel as one-dimensional.
  • If characters share common game-necessary roles (healer, tank, negotiator, hacker, etc.) and have extra powers or roles in the game, then there is something for them to do if another player is already filling that role in this situation or their “turn” is over.
  • If roles overlap, the opportunities to assist make more sense. (Why would the soldier with no major hacking skills help the hacker and how would he be of use?)
  • I can throw fewer enemies at the characters (because there are fewer of them) and have faster combats.
  • I can throw bigger/tougher enemies at the characters and have faster combats that mean more.
  • There is more reason to believe that the characters are actually big-shots in the world, since they are overpowered or multi-classed.
  • You can create themed games without taking away character options. “I want to run an all thieves-guild game. You are all thieves alongside whatever else you do.”
  • Wimpier, or generalized or utilitarian classes, like the stereotypical D&D bard can become very useful if they have other combat options to back up their utilitarian classes.


This works really well for the games I run and enables me to do much more with my players. I’m not saying I will cap all my games at 3 people, but if I’m looking at a group of 5 or 6 people for a game, I think I’d rather split it into 2 different groups and run two different games.

I realize that this fits my play style and I also understand that my style isn’t for everyone. So I’d love to hear what you consider the perfect party composition to run for? How many players are too many or too few?  What games do you run and how do the power levels play out in the game: overpowered, underpowered, or just right?

21 replies
  1. Dhomal
    Dhomal says:

    I really like all of your points.

    However, for a Vast number of people, I think you missed the Biggest plus….

    Not having to find X more players to actually HAVE a game!

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      Lol. Yeah, I did kind of miss that one and it is a big one. Sometimes the player base in your area is big enough that you are trying not to have 7 player games because you don’t want to exclude anyone, and sometimes you are trying to find those few more players to make it work.

      • Dhomal
        Dhomal says:

        Definitely in the latter stage just now. Moved like 18 months ago, and haven’t gamed since then, and have not been able to find any players/groups nearby.

  2. Nojo
    Nojo says:

    Love this.

    The only downside is what if one or two players can’t make it to a session?

    If you have 5 players, no problem.

    I find as an adult with adult players, RL intrudes much more than in the dimly remembered past. Spouses or children get sick, bosses demand long hours, and so on.

    However, if you have three players that almost never have to skip a session, or the players are so powerful that two or even one can forge onward, then cool!

  3. Razjah
    Razjah says:

    I am currently in a group with 6 players and a GM. While I really like the game and the group, I enjoy the days that we have 4 players much more than 6. Everything moves better.

    My best game as a GM involved only 3 players. I completely understand wanting smaller groups.

  4. randite
    randite says:

    I consider 3 players 1 DM/GM/ST/LN/Etc. to be the ideal. Three people gives a broad range of ideas and potential creativity while still being able come to agreements with relative ease. Then there’s the added bonus of still being able to blow through combat at a brisk pace, almost regardless of system. To paraphrase Heinlein (who was paraphrasing somebody else IIRC) more than three people can’t decide on where to go for dinner, much less anything else. 2 or 4 players almost hits the same stride, but I find I typically prefer to err on the side of less is more. (Theoretically 1 on 1 RPing could be a very intimate, worthwhile experience. I really ought to give it a shot sometime, but somehow the implied intimacy makes it a bit of a daunting prospect from either side of the screen. 5+ simply grows exponentially more difficult to handle, in my experience you lose a great deal of depth in larger groups).

    I think all your points are quite valid, sir.

    However, I don’t find that having overpowered PCs to be necessary. I prefer the idea of adventurers/heros/PCs being ordinary people stepping up to do extraordinary things. The PCs are great because of their willingness to accept risk rather than being super badass.

    Also, I’ve never kenned to the idea of a “balanced party”. If all your players roll up bards, thieves, and illusionists don’t throw shit-tons of battle at them. Clearly they were looking for a different type of game. In the case of a fight, be prepared to adjudicate how they cleverly avoid the confrontation or subtly turn the enemies strength’s against them. The game’ll probably be a lot more fun than the average slug-fest anyway. I guess the crux of what I’m getting at here is thus: a good game requires that both the players and the GM push off of each-other’s agency for the enjoyment of all involved. Players push this way; GM push that way; meet in the middle and have a hell of time.

    In short, I like small 2-3 player games with a whole fuckload of creativity being presented and challenged in all directions. If that makes any sense. There may be a better way to express the concept. I’ll have to give it some thought.

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      I don’t really worry about “balanced” parties either. I’d much rather adjust my game/enemies/combats to give a fun game, rather than a technically accurate to the rules one.

      For me, the overpowered part comes in with the players having a whole lot of tools at their fingertips. I like seeing very broadly usable characters. 2 class combinations tend to give that. If the game doesn’t support classes, I usually tell them to add in a bunch of extra low-level skills with caveats to what they can take.

      • randite
        randite says:

        Gotcha. You know, I’ve been running classless systems with the same-ish group for so long, I’ve actually taken for granted the fact that my players usually roll-up/build well-rounded, and broadly useful characters.

        Thanks for the perspective, sir.

        By the way, your games sound like a ton of fun!

        • John Arcadian
          John Arcadian says:

          Heh. I know what you mean. I’ve jumped into a pretty standard pathfinder game a buddy is running. It’s very fun, but I got a bit of culture shock when making my character. The options weren’t there and it just felt different. The GM ran it very broad and open, but I’ve been away from a class-based system for so long.

          Thanks! That’s a huge compliment. I always try to err on the side of making them fun for players. I’ll be at Gencon this year but I’m not running any official games there. I’ll be at Con On The Cob running some games, so if you make it out to that convention, you’d always be welcome at my table.

  5. Piikki
    Piikki says:

    Perfect timing with this. I have been milling this kind of toughts in my head for some time now. This helped me a lot to round it up and I think now how to continue. Thanks 🙂

  6. Orikes
    Orikes says:

    Definitely all valid points and it’s important to find what fits with your style.

    I think for me, I prefer four or five players. I think I feel less put on the spot as a GM since I can let the interaction between the players guide things a bit more. Three is definitely the bare minimum for me. I’ve run for two players, but it felt like much more work.

  7. Bolongo3
    Bolongo3 says:

    Yeah, one of the games I’m running right now only has 3 players and it’s kind of relaxing.

    I haven’t had to make them insanely overpowered, either. I just give them the maximum possible hit points (it’s D&D Next).

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      I decided not to get into the D&D next playtest, just because D&D isn’t really my game and I’ve had too many other projects going on to really check it out. I’m glad to hear that it can handle a smaller group without too many balance issues though.

  8. SeeleyOne
    SeeleyOne says:

    I have never played this Gestalt method. This is (I think) the first that I have heard of it. Would it not be easier to just let people level up more quickly and spread it between two classes? It seems to me that picking two classes, taking all of the abilities, and their best other points is actually harder to implement (especially with Hero Lab). Sure, you can make one class an Archetype of another, but that prevents you from having an Archetype for each class. Additionally, having total level grow still helps to get an idea as to how powerful the party is. The Gestalt method is very subjective, and a Wizard/Cleric is far more powerful than other classes (as spellcasting classes tend to outshine other classes).

    Still, it is a good idea to consider. But I think that just leveling up faster or two classes is probably a better solution (given that I have no experience with Gestalt). People with actual experience would know better.

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      Gestalt was something I was introduced to when I joined a new group 6 or 7 years back. We played a game with those options and we were all VERY overpowered. Plus, there were 4 of us, but the DM threw big monsters at us early and it was great! Plus, character options let us play fun things without having to make choice between one set of skills or the other. My favorite, uber overpowered, was a Factotum/Warblade Changeling. He was the James Bond of our particular Eberron world.

      I’d recommend trying it for a game. It’s not too hard to figure out, but it only fits a particular play style. If you’re looking for gritty, gestalt is not for you unless the players can be very self regulating or your limit class choices.

  9. Blackjack
    Blackjack says:

    How many players you can handle depends on their style.

    I realized years ago that as a GM I only have bandwidth for about 3 active players in my game. By “active” I mean players who are deeply engaging in roleplaying, asking questions about the scenario, and trying to drive the plot.

    The thing is, not all players are active like that. Many are passive. They speak much less often, learn about the scenario primarily by listening to what other people are saying, are happy to wait their turn to act, and don’t try to drive the story. They get less spotlight time than the active players and they don’t mind.

    To me, a good group is 3 active players if they work together and their characters have the important skill sets covered. But a good group is also 2-3 active players and 2-3 passives who get along together.

  10. Lee Hanna
    Lee Hanna says:

    This clarified the thoughts that have been rattling around in my brain for a while. In the past, I’ve run at least two Traveller and Serenity games, wherein a 5- or 6-player group meant 2-3 PCs built for combat, and 2-3 who were not, but had other roles (pilot, captain, doctor, face, etc.), and I remember wishing that I could split the party into two games.

    This weekend, I accepted the GM baton for one group of 6 players for a new Serenity game, and I can already see the same dynamic as above. Half of the group are 11-15 year old boys, and I suspect they will want to build combat-wombats, ready to pick up assault rifles and brass knuckles, and the other players will want to fly the ship, fix the ship, find cargoes and talk to NPCs.

    My other weekend game is also 6 players, all adults, for Pathfinder. Two paid more attention to their ipad/phone, one was lost in the complexities of his character, three were paying attention and thinking beyond, “I roll to hit.” One of those players and I had a big argument over the implementation of a magic effect, too, and I really dreamed of booting him.

    So, I’m coming around to the idea of recruiting for a smaller group, but I doubt I will be able to do it anytime soon.

  11. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    I understand your woes. I often find myself planning a small game, then talking to the 2 or 3 players who I think will really enjoy the dynamic I’m going for. But then… someone else hears about it and gets real excited, and since they are a friend I don’t want to leave them out. Then I decide I might as well include X because Y is already joining, and then bang, 6 player party.

    My current solution to this is to run 2 games at the same time. That results in neither game getting as much attention, though. Not sure there is a perfect solution to party size, but I keep looking.

    • BishopOfBattle
      BishopOfBattle says:

      When I started GMing my first ever campaign of Shadowrun, I initially planned on a group of 4 players, a size I thought would be easily managable for my fledgling GM skills and over all be a good gaming group size (there has to be a reason most co-op video games are 4 player, right?). It took all of about three weeks (before the campaign even started!) for that to spiral out into 6 players and I finally had to start shutting people down as my players tried to bring in more friends and family to play. I guess they were excited?

      Since then I’ve run games with as many as eight players (never again!), but I’ve occasionally been able to run games for smaller groups when some of our regular players haven’t been able to join. Almost universally, I’ve really enjoyed the 3-4 player group games and felt like they’ve been successful more often than my larger games (which are still enjoyable and generally successful).

Comments are closed.