Due to the inherent vagaries of life my gaming group can constrict or expand on a dime, forcing me to adapt the game around the changing cast of characters. This can be a bit of a drag sometimes, particularly if I have to drop an interesting story arc or thread, but what are going to do as gaming is defiantly better than not gaming. Another challenge that an ever changing player base can pose is in encounter design and scaling the challenge level. I am okay with encounters turning out to be cake walks, unless it is one of the more climatic set piece ones as it can be a bit of a let down (note to self solo controllers suck), as increasing difficulty on the fly if I so choose to is relatively easy. I am less fond of encounters being significantly more challenging that I expected as they are generally not much fun for anyone and making adjustments on the fly can feel a little cheesy.
Currently I have a core group of 3 players (strikerish paladin, laser cleric, twin blade ranger). I don’t like scaling encounters for 3 players as I find it a little swingy and sometimes feel limited in cool options. I also find it requiring a little more work and forethought, which I try to avoid. I really feel the game works best with 4 to 6 players. Now in the past when faced with low player count I have added various companion characters/npc’s tied to the different story threads (one of them recently knifed the paladin in the back with a poison blade and left him for dead) to fill out roles and hit that 4 character threshold. I typically created these characters on the guidelines provided in the DMG 2 which allow you to build a paired down version of a character with fewer options to make easier to play. I found this a serviceable option but not great as the companion characters were less effective and needed to be built by hand (booo).
I found the perfect solution in the essentials martial characters. They are super easy for one of the players to run in a combat and they are wickedly effective even if you don’t fully utilize their limited options. They can easily be built using the character builder and with a click of the inherent bonus’ button you don’t even have to worry about gear. The players had befriended and trained a half-orc gladiator named Tomas when they were running a fighting school as cover for espionage in Netheril, and he has subsequently become an important henchman of the gang. So I stated him out as a slayer and he has worked wonderfully. It also provides a target for me to beat on mercilessly when I am worried about killing one of the players.
I have thought some on these essentials martial characters given that both my players and I tend to fine them boring and subsequently shy away from them. I think they are very well built but it is the lack of options that pushes me away. I think, in part, what makes them a little boring for me is when you couple the limited options with the length of the typical combat in 4th edition it can feel a little dull, at least my experience with the slayer. What’s funny is that when I play say pathfinder or older D&D I have no problem playing a martial character and have never been bothered by the “wizards rule fighters drool” deal. I guess when given the option within the same system I prefer the option with more options. Maybe some of it is psychological in feeling like your missing out or being deprived of something.