We’ve gotten a few questions about how to adjust the PC’s stats and abilities for fun and balance in a duet, and this post aims to answer them. I add in a few adjustments and strategies for players who are new to the game, but this should be helpful for duets of all experience levels.
We’re also in the process of writing a companion piece for this and the In-Game Mechanics: Role-Playing post about managing multiple characters in combat in addition to discussing ways to collaboratively worldbuild during your duet.
If you’re not already familiar with our suggestions for duets in terms of centering them around a Primary Character (the player’s character/PC) and building, over time, a Central Party (played by the DM and classed around the PC’s needs) for that character, please take a few moments to check those posts out as well. You can also read more about using sidekicks in D&D.
I also reference First Blush, our adventure created to help you start your own one-on-one game,* a few times. It’s not necessary for you to have read or played it to understand what follows, but we’d love for you to check it out!
There are a few already-existing strategies for one-on-one D&D games, such as having the player character [PC] play two characters at once or being in multiple classes at once. If these strategies are working for you, then great! Our approach is a bit less intense, and I would certainly caution against asking someone brand new to the game to play two characters at once.
There are two essential shifts to make in order to adjust D&D for duets: scaling combat and empowering the party.
The Challenge Rating [CR] for monsters in D&D is built around parties of four players. So, a monster with a CR 4 should be a medium challenge for four level-four characters—not a walk in the park, not a total party kill.
If you’re familiar with The Monsters Know (an incredible resource if you haven’t checked it out yet) or another source of combat tactics for monsters and enemies, then you understand that a creature’s CR is heavily influenced by its access to allies in addition to itself.
If we have two monsters with equal stats, for example, and one can summon demons and the other can’t, the one with summoning powers is going to be much harder to defeat, and so a higher CR, than one that can’t call upon the Abyss to lend it aid.
The suggestions I’m going to make in the next section will help balance out the CR situation, so we’ll table that for now. What makes combats difficult to run, in many campaigns, duets or not, is that they can slow down momentum. Duets are going to necessarily be more RP-driven than the average multi-player game, which can make combat feel even slower than it was probably already going to.
The other problem here, if you’re trying to introduce someone to the game, is that combat can also be one of the places where they’re making more decisions in a shorter period of time and dealing with more dice, so it’s really easy to get discouraged or frustrated. They may very quickly start to feel like they’re slowing things down or doing something wrong.
My primary advice for adjusting combats for duets is to not have too many opponents. This is especially the case when you’re first getting your duet started and double-especially goes for new players.
We have a favorite example from learning this the hard way.
It was the day I almost stopped playing.
My character and our first central party character (who Garren, in our adventure, is based on) were sent to a wizard’s tower on an important, though brief quest. Things had been going fine, both for them and for us in combats, until they came across eight giant rats in the first level of the tower.
Even if our two characters had hit one of the rats on each of their turns (which they super didn’t), they were still going to be attacked each round by around four things each. And that was nine turns of rolling for Jonathan, between the rats and the central party character, and one turn of rolling per round for me. It took forever. And I was mostly docking HP and waiting to miss stabbing a rat on my turn.
To be fair, Jonathan was still learning to DM at this point, but we’d rather you learn from what we didn’t know in the beginning.
If we had instead faced something bigger, or even two to four bigger things, any of which could do more damage, our characters would have had an easier time. With so many enemies, they could only, at best, have knocked out two rats per initiative round, and that’s assuming they both hit and killed one each time. So a minimum of four rounds for a low CR collection of enemies, but the party damage to opposition damage disbursement was the problem.
Don’t be afraid to put difficult monsters and enemies in front of your characters! Try to be mindful of the number and how initiative will work in combat more than the CR. If you need to dock some HP from whatever they’re facing, do that, but don’t be afraid to challenge them just because they have smaller numbers than most parties.
We’ll talk more about this in a later post, but duets uniquely enable you to create long-term villains. As the DM, you have so much control over what’s going on around the other party members in addition to the forces they’re facing that you have some options that might not work at a table with more players.
For instance, we faced a vampire as level three or level four characters. We were not, and still are not at level 7, ready to take on that vampire, but Jonathan knew that he would have other people running in to help our party, so we still got to face a really intense enemy and rescue my character’s best friend (our game’s Remmy). The other result was that our characters now have a long-standing enmity with a force that they’re having to find indirect means of combating until they’re more powerful, and that’s a unique and interesting problem to try to solve.
Allies versus central party members
Very briefly, I would encourage you to have additional allies for the party on top of the central party members. Just like in Diablo, how different characters help in various phases depending on what exactly you need for that part of the game, your cities and adventuring areas should have an important ally whose skills and class can help the party with the more specific demands of that location.
When traveling through a heavily forested area for a few weeks, our party encountered a ranger who went with them and was able to supplement a lot of the abilities we might have been light on otherwise. As another example, their greatest ally in their home urban area is a wizard, and he’s been able to help them both there and in the game more widely with magical items, advice, and research.
Empowering the Party
If you haven’t already, you will likely come across a discussion somewhere of a certain ability or spell being over-powered [OP] or out of balance with other spells, items, or abilities of that level.
In a duet, you don’t have to worry about this quite as much, because you are compensating for not having as many people as the game is technically designed for, but you don’t have to go overboard and can challenge the player to strategize in other ways. There’s nothing saying that their world doesn’t have other bands of adventurers too, so what makes this group of two, three, or four so special?
You can empower the party by adding on some cool, personalized magical items and by playing with their class a bit.
To take Garren from our adventure as an example, his flametongue longsword does an extra 2d6 damage each time he makes a hit. That’s so much for a level one character and would be really imbalanced in a multi-player party. But in a duet, it works out, because he’s basically doing the amount of damage that a third character would be doing without the DM having to play another NPC.
If you’re following the suggestions for wealth and magical item rewards in the DMs Guide,* your players will probably receive a large number of magical items. These can really help your party, but you can keep a tighter hand on giving magical items as rewards and offer more help at the same time by crafting magical items specifically for them or upgrading their current items slowly as they go (adding a +1 or a cantrip to a weapon, for example).
For the longest time, my character was the only one of our main set who could do much damage at range. To help, Jonathan designed a longbow specifically for her and gave it to her as a reward for passing a big milestone in our game. In addition to it being a +1 longbow, he added the ability to cast Hunter’s Mark when it strikes an enemy, giving her extra damage to that target each time in addition to being able to track them. She still has to use a bonus action to move the mark to someone else, but this really helped balance out our ability to fight at range and has let her do some really cool things that only she could have done—those are the moments your character and player will both remember for a long time.
Rewarding the party or a party member with a +1 to an ability score or a new proficiency in something they’ve been working on is another great way to help them out without overloading your game with magical items or underwhelming monstrosities.
I saw a really thoughtful concern on Reddit from someone considering playing a duet, worried that their partner would be discouraged when other characters in the central party were able to do a lot more damage than they were.
I think that’s a great thing to be thinking of, and it was something that I have been bummed about as a player from time to time, especially when my character is rolling poorly and her companions are doing great. But this is one of the things that’s cool about D&D, too, that I think would be a mistake to diminish in duets—all different character types have something to bring to the table.
Sure, the paladin and the rogue, especially together, do a considerable amount of damage each turn. However, they need to be in melee to be doing that really significant damage.
If we compare that with a druid casting moonbeam, that spell has a 120 foot casting range and does 2d10 radiant damage each round. In the time that it would take the other two characters to have double-dashed to reach the target or be in javelin or dagger range, the druid has already done between 2d10 and 4d10 damage, depending on if the creature made their save, and has been able to chase the target(s) since the caster can move the beam 60 feet in any direction as an action on their turn. So they may not be able to slice something utterly in half like a strong melee character can, but they can control the battlefield in ways that will almost never be possible for the melee combatants.
And that’s only taking the combat skills into account. The party will be running into social conflicts and situations too. If the player or PC are feeling discouraged about their combat performance, maybe one of the other party members could remind them of what makes them so uniquely essential?
Adjustments to Player Power
Multiclassing and Spellcasting
Multiclassing in any type of D&D game can make a character really versatile which, as someone who multi-classes, is really fun, and I love what it brings to the table.
In a duet, if one of the members of your party, the primary character or other central party members, is multiclassing, consider letting them stay on the full caster table if one of the classes should divide their class level by two (e.g. paladins or rangers). This lets the player have access to new things at each level and changes the number of spells they can cast, so they’ll have to adapt their strategies accordingly. Multiclassing in this way can also increase their effectiveness in melee.
This adjustment still forces them to continue making decisions that maintain stakes within the game. Do they want Extra Attack or do they want to be able to shape-change into creatures with a higher CR and a flying speed in Wild Shape?
The versatility of multiclassing can enter your game more straightforwardly by allowing a character in your party to access multiple subclasses of the same overarching class at once.
Our bard, for example, follows the College of Lore subclass, which has allowed him to save our entire party on multiple occasions. However, we’ve also given him some of the feats from the College of Swords, so he has a few more options in combat and stays really versatile regardless of the situation. His backstory also explains why he has access to both of these subclasses. (General rule: keep everything grounded in narrative whenever possible. This will add so much vibrancy and detail to your story world and campaign.)
Slight Adjustments to Subclasses
We love having the official sourcebooks and being able to access all of the options to see how they work and why. If you’re looking for something to add to and compliment The Player’s Handbook,* please let me recommend Xanathar’s Guide to Everything.* The subclasses in that text are interesting and really round out the possibilities for each of the classes, adding a lot more nuance.
Xanathar’s, for example, has three new subclasses for rangers to build on the two options in the PHB. At third level, each ranger subclass gets something that would increase their damage on a hit, but the conditions for dealing that extra damage change in each subclass to balance out with the other boons and abilities.
For my character, we switched out what she would have gotten at third level, doing extra damage on a first hit, but only a first hit, to doing extra damage to any creature below its max HP, an option in a couple of the other subclasses.
Look at the patterns for your character’s class and, if needed, make small adjustments that will help your duet’s party without making combat too easy for them.
As a DM, you generally don’t want player-character death. In a duet, you really don’t want to kill your partner’s PC, and if you do, you’ll need some sort of a plan for bringing them back.
You can avoid that awkward interpersonal situation between yourself and your real-life-person partner in how you play the central party NPCs.
1. One of the central party members should protect the PC’s life over their own at any cost
This should develop as naturally as possible in RP, and it is going to depend a bit on your primary character’s class and personality. A half-orc barbarian is probably not going to be “protected at all costs” by their bard bff, but that bard might go into every combat planning to get their friend out of fatal danger no matter what, and the DM can strategize accordingly.
2. It helps if, at least for a while, that NPC can’t die
As you’ll notice in our adventure, “First Blush,” Garren, the crystalline paladin, doesn’t die or start making death saving throws when he hits 0 hp. He goes into the amulet.
This was a really helpful way to have training wheels of sorts during combat as a new player. Our game’s first central party NPC still would do anything to protect my character, and that’s remained a fundamental, complex, and beautiful part of their relationship.
Our Garren character didn’t hit 0hp very often, but especially as I started learning to play both of them in combat, it was a) helpful to have a really straightforward fighting strategy for him and b) nice to have slightly lower stakes so if I messed up, I wasn’t killing off a beloved character.
Returning to fun and balance, your player and their character will come up with things they want to work on along the way, and you can tailor their and their party’s optimization depending on what they become curious about or want to see happen in the game. Please continue chatting with us about the issues (and good things!) you’re running into in your campaigns. We would love to address more of your questions and concerns! Happy duet-ing!
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