DMs, I recognize that running multiple characters, or at least creatures, in combat may be old hat for you, but for those of us on the other side of the screen, it can be intimidating.
In this post, I offer a strategy for simplifying running multiple characters in combat: knowing their primary motivation. There are, I’m sure, lots of strategies for this, so please play around and figure out what works best for you.
However, what I want to emphasize here is the character part of combat. Rather than running the most class-optimum or strategic plan to utterly obliterate the opposition, how do we manage multiple party members and still let them be fully-realized as characters, with motivations, weaknesses, and tried-and-true favorite spells or moves?
Why to try it out
At some point during your one-on-one game, as your level and the difficulty of opponents increase, the DM will likely need to start managing more adversaries. High-level undead, for example, usually float around with an entourage of lower-level undead.
So, while they’re figuring out what this deathlock is telling their zombies to do, it would be nice if the player could organize their PC and the central party.
This is not about trust or surprising or tricking one another. At a base-line level, running multiple characters lets the player be more active in combat instead of waiting for their turn to come around as one of five or ten in combat.
Other resources on combat
In case you’re wanting to read more, we’ve written about how to keep combat interesting while also preventing it from creating stress or conflict out of game. We’ve also discussed how to empower your primary character and central party so that they’re able, in smaller numbers, to take on foes meant for parties of four to six.
When to try it out
I recognize that running multiple characters in combat can be overwhelming, and the right time to test it out is going to be different for each person.
If you’re already relatively comfortable playing D&D, then you’ll likely be ready to start running a second character in combat once you feel you have a handle on your PC. If you’re playing a class you’re already familiar with, then you could start playing the DMPC [DM’s player character] in combat scenarios as soon as your DM is ready for you to.
If, on the other hand, you’re new to D&D or don’t feel at ease in combat situations, you’ll probably want to wait till you and your DM both have a handle on your PC and the first central party member before you start running a second character.
Simplification Tip—Use a Stat Block
We use full character sheets for each of our party members and most of our major NPCs. However, we didn’t start that way.
When I was first running both my PC and her new companion, Jonathan gave me a very simplified stat block for him. I had an AC, hp, attack and damage modifiers for actions, a movement speed, and a reaction. If we needed a saving throw or something like that, Jonathan took care of it and let me know what happened.
Actually, at the very beginning, I think I just rolled for him and reported the number, and he let me know how it worked out.
We let the character get more complicated over time as I became more comfortable with combat in general and running my PC and someone else. We also tried this out in low-stakes combat situations so we could move slowly and not have to worry about me accidentally letting everyone be killed.
I’ll run the entire party including Jonathan’s DMPCs as a player, which is my primary role in our game. We also trade off on secondary PCs, but when I’m DMing, I still run my character. Again, a lot of this will depend on what works best for your one-on-one game.
Simplify with Character Motivation
The easiest way to narrow the options for what a character is going to do is to know, leading into a combat, what their primary motivation is.
For instance, and we’ve recommended this before, our game’s first central party member’s primary motivation is protecting my PC. Regardless of the potential harm to himself or anyone else, and even if it means walking away from a fight, he’s going to make sure that she’s ok.
Now, as they’ve fought together for a long time, the rest of our party members know that. During one rather impromptu fight, she was knocked unconscious, and so our rogue went to feed her a healing potion so his bff the paladin could take out the high-level caster.
Combat still plays out differently each time, and as we continue to improve and get more comfortable with the characters and their various abilities, we come up with more ways of expressing these internal motivations and instincts. But it’s helpful to know, when push comes to shove, what that character is going to do.
The Team Player
Speaking of rogues, sneak attack damage is quite nice, so his baseline plan is always going to be staying near a friendly melee combatant and joining that person.
This strategy pairs well with one of my PC’s favorite spells, conjure animals. It immediately provides him with a few more partners and makes it easier for everyone to use the alternate flanking rules.
He just recently received some interesting magical items, so I will likely need to reevaluate his plans before our next big combat.
Having a go-to or simplified plan can feel difficult to manage if a character has complex or divided emotional connections and/or combat options. But again, having a general idea in advance prevents paralysis mid-combat and keeps things moving.
Our bard, for example, is a really creative problem-solver, and he’s also really lucky, which creates really fascinating combat possibilities. If I’m in a situation where the other three characters I’m running are operating from relatively straightforward strategies, I have more flexibility in what he can do.
If that isn’t the case though, I still have a couple spells picked out for him to try from the get-go. He likes to use suggestion to encourage one of our enemies to attack a companion or leave, and he’s had great success with stinking cloud as well.
While the plan for him may not be entirely worked out in advance each time, I do know that he’s going to try to disrupt what’s going on and thwart or surprise opponents.
When you have all the other characters’ primary objectives and basic strategies worked out, it leaves you and your PC free to be as exciting and creative as you would like.
Playing a druid, I love that my character has different spell options depending on the situation, and she communicates with her party members about what she has prepared so they can all adapt together accordingly. She’s our best at-range person, especially with Seeker, her specialized longbow, so our other party members look to her to take out targets when they’re few in number and a ways away.
Areas to not trade off on
Though we do switch DMing and playing and who is running our party characters during combat, we don’t usually switch the RP that takes place during combat. So while I’m determining where the bard or paladin are going, Jonathan is still speaking for them.
We also leave it open for the other person to help with what the party is trying to do during combat. If I’m missing something, for example, or if Jonathan gets a really good idea for someone to try something, he’ll let me know.
Coming up soon
I’m planning a follow-up post to this one on how to set up your table and notes for optimum ease of use and time efficiency. But we’d love to know, in the comments below, what other questions you have about running combat in your two-person game or managing multiple characters at once.
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