I’m playing with a smaller group with 3 characters right now. Despite the ‘ideal’ D&D party being 5 players. I suspect having a group that big really leads to the encounter grind. This seems to creep up in the game where a combat stops being an exciting tactical challenge and slowly grinds to a halt over long, arduous combats. I’ve seen a lot of people blog or post about solutions to the grind. But overall I think a big problem is that speedy, efficient combat flies in the face of larger parties.
4ED combat really has a lot going on. All monsters have special abilities and attacks. WOTC seems to implore DMs start throwing in neat environments and hazards to spice up combat encounters. More importantly, players now have a ton of tactical options at their fingertips. They really have to spend a little more time planning out their actions for a turn. Because there are so many decisions and so much going on, I really think smaller parties have a better time at it.
3 people is doable, but I feel the true ‘ideal’ party is 4 players. Have each one take a different role and you have a solid combat unit. The 3-4 character party allows for just enough XP to budget an encounter with interesting monsters, while keeping things small enough to get combats over in a reasonable time. Adding more folks sounds great, but in reality I think it just help make fights drag to a crawl. And keeping everyone engaged with what is happening becomes a challenge.
There are a few things I’ve been tweaking with though. I’ve been tinkering with removing 25% of the HP off of the monster totals, especially with brutes and solos. For non-elite/non-brute types, I’ll typically make sure bonus damage for their standard attacks is at least 1/2 their level. This means fights end a bit faster, while keeping the teeth in a monster’s attack.
Another key point is designing encounters with a mix of roles and trying to incorporate minions when I can. I try to avoid a lot of fights with solo monsters. And if running with a brute, I’ll try to throw in artillery types rather than melee skirmishers or soldiers (although a few lurkers with a brute can work well if you want a meaty melee fight). I tend to mix in more artillery types than controllers, as I think controllers usually drag the fights out a little. Yet, I think controllers work wonders with lowly minions and can make for an interesting combat, while doing the same controller combo with soldiers or skirmishers can make things a tad bit of a grind.
One last thing I do when making encounters is using creatures that are as close to the level as the PCs as much as possible. When you throw that +7 lvl monster out as a solo encounter expect a long, drag out fight, even if the exp budget works out. Keeping the monsters closer to the group’s level means the abilities and defenses scale up a little better. If players face a chunk of HP and a high AC to boot, you are going not get an exciting battle, but a multiple-round dicefest of ‘miss, miss, hit, miss’ that will slow the action to a crawl.
A way to get around that is just mix it up and throw a few other creatures into the encounter. Don’t be tempted to just plop down a single monster and call the encounter a solo fight. Get something a little closer to the party level and throw in some lowbie creatures to fill out the budget. Then you have your big baddie, plus a few smaller minion-types fluttering around in the background to harass the players. It’ll make things more engaging and avoid the slugfest of the entire party just repeatedly hacking away at the lone monster in the middle of the room.