When I was just starting out as a wee DM of 11 years old I had to make due with the players I could find. Before too long I was good at recruiting and training players. I typically had 3-7 people at the table with me.
But I always had 6+ characters in the party. Sure, sometimes they were henchmen, but always 6 or more.
When I joined Lew Pulsipher's group he had a pretty firm rule - at least 6 'tough guys' (meaning PCs or close-to-PC-level henchmen) in the party. Eight full PCs and their henchmen is best.
So you can imagine my surprise when I realized that in the last week I have seen 5-6 references to a party size of 4 being 'optimal' or 'how old timers played', or a 'pearl of wisdom from the past', or something similar.
Not how I remember it.
Heck, my current party in my AD&D 1e campaign sometimes looks like a field army - 5 PC's; 12 or so henchmen; about 8 men at arms; another 10 NPCs composed of cooks, healers, teamsters, and such. The most recent expedition to Skull Mountain had party size creep up to about 40 people (most of whom built, ran, and guarded the camp).
I have mentioned in quite a few posts my theory of The Roles - the positions filled by character classes in iD&D and its clones. The roles are:
-Scouting and Intelligence
The AD&D 1e classes fill these roles like this:
Fighter = Physical Offense
Ranger = Physical Offense + Scouting & Intelligence
Paladin = Physical Offense + Magical Defense
Cleric = Physical Defense + Magical Defense
Druid = Magical Offense + Scouting & Intelligence
Magic-user = Magical Offense
Illusionist = Magical Offense + counter Scouting & Intelligence
Thief = Scouting & Intelligence
Assassin = Scouting& Intelligence + Physical Offense
Monk = counter Magical Offense + counter Magical Defense + counter Scouting & Intelligence
Bard = everything
"But, Rick," you say, "With a fighter, a mage, a cleric, and a thief the party covers all of the roles. You only need 4 guys!"
I never said the four roles are boxes to be checked. they are a tool to help you understand that TRPGs have a sort of rock/paper/scissors element so that the party needs to be able to hit the roles consistently as needed. Physical offense has melee and ranged components (if you are using encumbrance like you are supposed to the archer may need to be dedicated!) so you might need two of them; magical offense has a count limit so you might need two of them; etc. So a mere four is, in my opinion, too risky.
Back to the discussion from earlier.
What I saw most commonly Back In The Day was the Five Man Band: fighter, cleric, mage, thief, and The Other Guy: a ranger, a paladin, a fighter/magic-user, etc. Bards are the ultimate Other Guy with monks being a close second. But I always noticed that with 5 guys there was a tendency for someone to get hurt or dead which led to a cascade resulting in a TPK. With 6 characters or more, this was much, much less likely. Essentially, if you lose one of the roles the odds of you losing the entire party go way up.
In my opinion, one of the best ways to cover this is henchmen.
From all reports, henchmen were ubiquitous in the gaming of E.G.G. and I have to admit they are ubiquitous in all of mine, as well. I have never understood the entire 'wno one wants to play a cleric, but Joe has to' dynamic when you can just get 2-3 cleric henchmen and let everyone play the class they like.
Henchmen also help with encumbrance - many hands make for light work. Heck, they help with looking for secret doors - more dice get rolled!
D&D always has an element of resource management in it and I am not sure why people don't seem to grasp that PCs/henchmen are part of those managed resources.
So next time you are in town post some flyers, hire a crier, and buy some drinks for strangers!