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by Mike on 17 April 2023
5e works with as few as one player and one DM up to maybe seven players and one DM on the high side. Larger groups aren't unheard of but I imagine they look quite a bit different than what we normally expect from D&D. The Dungeon Master's Guide and Player's Handbook don't offer guidance on an ideal number of players so I'll give it to you now:
Four players hits a near perfect balance of player and character synergy while still giving each character enough time in the spotlight. Most D&D published adventures work well with four players.
Four also ensures the characters aren't overpowered. With each character added to a group, the synergy of those characters increases non-linearly. A group's total power is greater than the sum of the number of characters. It becomes harder to challenge groups with more than four characters. Difficult battles can sometimes be complete cakewalks. And this gets worse the more characters you have.
Four characters often ensures every role is covered. You'll want to make sure the group has one character willing to stand toe-to-toe with monsters and another able to heal but beyond that, players can choose whatever classes they want.
Of course, there's another answer to the ideal number of players:
Whatever number you get to run your game.
What happens when this number is higher or lower than four?
It's possible, and even great fun, to run with fewer than four players. One-on-one games are not only possible, they're a unique style of wonderfully fun. The same is true with two or three players. You have to be careful with combat since the non-linear math for group power works in reverse — the fewer characters, the higher the risk — non-linearly. You can always off-set this increased risk by letting one or more of the players run sidekick characters, either from Tasha's Cauldron of Everything, the D&D Essentials Kit or a simplified player characters. We've talked before about balancing combat for one-on-one play.
Sometimes circumstances make it difficult to run with only four characters. Groups of friends don't fit perfectly into groups of four and there are always more people who want to play than GMs willing to run games. Five characters is close enough to four to be a fine way to play. Six can work too but, at least for me, it's right on the edge of chaos. Seven and above is, in my opinion, madness.
When selecting players for your group, having one or two players "on call" can ensure you have enough to play a game. That said, since playing with three is possible, a maximum of five players, including your on-call players, may work just fine.
If your roster of players is beginning to get to seven or more, consider splitting them into separate groups or running a West Marches style game.
While a perfect group of four players isn't always possible, keep the number in our mind as you build out a roster of players and shape your regular games. With the perfect set of of players at our table, there's no telling how awesome our shared stories will be.
Each week I record an episode of the Lazy RPG Talk Show (also available as a podcast) in which I talk about all things in tabletop RPGs. Here are last week's topics with timestamped links to the YouTube video:
In addition to the Talk Show, I posted a couple of YouTube videos on Preparing Scarlet Citadel Session 20 and The Most Important D&D Game.
Also on the Talk Show, I answer questions from Sly Flourish Patreons. Here are last week's questions and answers:
Each week I think about what I learned in my last RPG session and write them up as D&D tips. Here are this week's tips:
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