I found this picture under the title pete and immediately thought of my days playing fallout 3.... Due to rather gaming starved area where I currently live, I’ve recently gained a rather large gaming group through my inability to say no. There isn’t much of a gaming culture here, and I just couldn’t say no to the people who heard about my game from shared friends and wanted to jump in. What started as 3 players became 5, which turned into 1 not being able to join in and another 2 saying they would fill the spot.

Crap – now I’m at 6 players for a game I haven’t run before and no one has ever played. So we’re at zero experience in the group and I’ve got about a few more players to juggle.  It’s not too hard to prep the game, but having six relatively inexperienced players at the table is a bit much sometimes. I was mulling over trying to reduce the group a bit, but then I came up with a rather interesting solution – split the party!

Split The Party? What Kind Of Crazy Are You Spewing, John?

If I were thinking of splitting the party in each session and running with them separately while the others waited at the table, yes, I am crazy and will gladly go with the nice men in the clean white suits. I’m actually talking about splitting the players and running smaller sessions with different focuses, which can work quite well. We’ve agreed to run games  every 2 weeks or so on a dedicated night. These are the times when I’ll have all 6 players, or as many as show up, at the table. On the off weeks, if I’m feeling like running or I want to do something small with players whose schedules match up, I run mini-sessions meant to achieve a goal or fit with certain player combinations based on who is available. The entire group meets up for major plot points, smaller groups get more focused play, everyone gets more gaming.

To make this work, I’ve had to do a fair amount of analyzing the players and their desired play styles in order to craft the mini-sessions. A few characters are definitely more combat ready or rough and tumble. They make a good group with similar goals and play styles. A few like the more social aspects and the intrigue theme that is going on. One player has a character suited to both angles. So, what I’ve done is written up some extra small scenarios and offered them up via email if people are available. These build off the clues and events in the bigger sessions. The emails look like this, generally:

Hey guys,

I’ve got some time this week on Tuesday night and Friday. I can run a small session at 7 on either night with a max of 3 people. First 3 to respond get in on it. Here are the mini-scenarios I’ve got written  up:

  • Interrogating or gaining the trust of the Ogre that Jim and Finnegan kidnapped.
  • Following up on the street preacher and his cultish rantings (much more social and research based).
  • Protecting The Gnome – That gnome you guys met with still needs protection, so if someone wants to stay with him and get involved in the combat that is coming his way, I can run that or we can do it shortform before the next big session.


Crafting the mini session and laying out the basics of what they involve helps attract certain players. Since I’m not trying to fit everything into a session, we can stop with more cliffhangers but know those threads will still be followed up. Those who want to follow up on the plot points they introduce can chime in and request that a session gets run when they are available. Those who are more interested in one style of play than the other tend to move towards that play style when I offer it. When we get a mixed group with different play styles for a mini-session, I make sure to tweak some things about the adventure so it all works together.

Since, the game I’m running is not a straight combat and dungeon crawl style of game, that helps enable the mini-sessions and their divergent themes. The way the characters are connected within the game is also something that allows them to engage in missions without feeling the need for everyone to be present. The characters are all members of a larger social club that often sends out specialized groups of members to deal with situations. The players can share information when they get together for full game nights and this usually has the same result as recapping the barely remembered things from a session that happened 2 weeks prior.

This set up isn’t perfect, but it helps me get the larger group involved with the type of gaming they want and allows me to get more gaming in overall. The split groups are easier to manage and there is an element of fun in letting them tell stories of their exploits to each other during the recap segment of the full game. It seems to be an effective tactic in need of a little tweaking that will happen as the game goes on, but what do you think? Have you ever split a large group to make it manageable? Did running multiple smaller sessions prove troublesome or make it easier to handle? How else do you handle larger groups when you game?

14 replies
  1. Razjah
    Razjah says:

    This is a great idea, if the group can do it. It reminds me a lot of the West Marches: http://arsludi.lamemage.com/index.php/78/

    The problem I see with this, is what to do when the group wants to meet every week, once a week, and can’t do multiple sessions a week. This solution won’t work. Help me Gnomes, you’re my only hope!

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      For my game, the regular meeting time is every 2 weeks and I’m firm with that. I’ve only got so much time to prepare. I cast the mini sessions as “following up on the things we didn’t get to” sessions. Jim and Finnegan want to keep going with that captured Ogre thing they did, I’ll run that mini-session with 3 max people. I stick firm to those boundaries and I kind of rely on making sure the players know that I’ve got limited time and the mini sessions are a way to keep the game manageable and enable more play time.

      • Razjah
        Razjah says:

        Oh, I missed that part in your article. Whoops.

        Would you allow the players to present mini-adventures to you?

        I don’t know your group so I’ll use an example from the game I am currently a player in. In a Dresden Files game we ended up going to Hell to close three portals that were permanently opened to the world. A few of the PCs were all on-board a probably suicide mission to stop a demonic apocalypse.

        Others felt that they wouldn’t be of use in that situation, we needed to continue the main mission we had. So it could have been possible for one group to run the Hell-run and the other group continue the investigation that landed us on discovering the portals.

        • John Arcadian
          John Arcadian says:

          Absolutely. Those would make great mini sessions and things that don’t need the full group for. The player who presented it would have their spotlight moment and another player or two might get to tag along and enjoy the mini plot.

  2. Norcross
    Norcross says:

    I would much rather run a game with six players than three!
    Three might be good for running a combat game, but it really limits the role-playing opportunities. Six is a great number – so many character interaction possibilities! You could easily run sessions that had little or no combat and let the players have fun playing their characters. This also lets more people enjoy the game – I have found a lot of players really enjoy role-playing but get bored if it just turns into a game of small-scale Warhammer. Allowing new people to get into the game is essential if the hobby is going to survive (and let’s face it, it is really struggling in a lot of places).
    Having more than seven or eight players can get unwieldy, but I would probably end a campaign that only had three players left.

    • Razjah
      Razjah says:

      I am currently in a group of 6 and most of my favorite sessions have been ones where we are missing 1-2 people. The discussions move faster, in character arguments occur less, decisions are made quicker, and combat rolls by at a better pace.

      With 7 people at the table, and we are often dealing with an NPC or two, every decision feels like a committee meeting. I prefer having less people to make everything operate smoother. Oh, and it is harder to get forced out of the spotlight by a few more vocal players who typically talk with each other.

    • Blackjack
      Blackjack says:

      Having played with bigger and smaller groups I’ve observed that whether or not you can accommodate 6 (or more!) players depends on the type of players involved. Some are very active, always roleplaying and seeking out spotlight moments. Others are content to wait their turn quietly and will say something in character only when called upon. I’ve seen groups of 6-8 work fine when only 2 or 3 of the players are the active type and the rest are more passive. Having more than 4 energetic players strains my attention as a GM. It also makes it difficult to stay focused on a storyline.

      In the cases where there are only 3 players total and they are energetic and play together well, I would not cancel the game. If there’s a need to broaden the party’s skillset or strengthen its capabilities I would add retainers, employees, or allies to round things out. Note that having a significant NPC who’s fairly involved with the group also enriches roleplaying opportunities.

  3. Lucas Curell
    Lucas Curell says:

    We have done several different things to handle a large group, in the past including drafting a second DM to run half the party, doing smaller group sessions during the week or playing by email between our regular sessions. All of this requires a larger investment in time by everyone participating though and so we do none of it regularly.

    You may run into some trouble doing this, depending on your group, their willingness to ‘play nice’ and good or bad rolls.

    Some concerns I have seen come up from this type of thing include:

    (1) Players feeling left out (either because they don’t have time, or were not quick enough to reply to the ‘first come first serve’ email)

    (2) Unfair loot distribution (those players with more time are now at an advantage compared to those with less)

    (3) Perceived favoritism

    (4) Bad things happening to one of the sub-groups with disastrous effects on the larger party (had a TPK once with a small group that rippled back to the larger campaign and ended it early)

    As an aside, personally I find 5-7 players an ideal group and do not consider 6 a ‘large’ group. When we split in the past it’s always been because we were between 11 and 15 players at one session.

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      I think type of game is a big factor in what feels like a large group. I’m currently running Victoriana as a playtest of some things I’m writing and a lot of it revolves around character interaction and engagement with the story arcs. A more combat based game could handle a larger group without a lot of hassle, but the more focused I want to be on the narrative and the player investment, the smaller a group I want.

  4. randite
    randite says:

    John, are your adventures each main session pretty self contained w/ downtime inbetween?

    Otherwise it seems like it’d be painful to keep a coherent timeline with frequent side adventures.

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      Yeah, mini-sessions would be pretty self contained. The sorts of things that affect the main plot but are more side quests. It also helps a sense of individuality. Player x has a contact or some new knowledge that is developed through the mini-session, but Player y gets to know about it in the recap and can incorporate it into the overall plan. Player x is still the gateway to that resource.

  5. Scott Martin
    Scott Martin says:

    That sounds very cool, but are you okay with essentially weekly sessions? If it was player coordination issues that set the every two week schedule, I can see this working very well. If it’s because you have time for every two weeks… it sounds like you’ll be hustling! [I mention this possibility, because I sometimes over-commit for similar reasons.]

    • John Arcadian
      John Arcadian says:

      If I’m not feeling the mini-sessions one week, I don’t offer them. They also tend to be easier and more free form. A lot of times they are built off of things that the players never got to, so it feels like extending the session without all the players present, just the ones interested in that plot point. But yeah, I can see where once weekly is overcommitment if I aimed for every 2 weeks for personal time issues. In my case, it is more for dealing with the large group and different levels of commitment. Like blackjack mentioned about energetic players being a good thing, the smaller sessions usually draw the ones with more investment and thus they are more energetic, rather than feeling like they have to share the spotlight in a bigger session.

  6. Brandon Haase
    Brandon Haase says:

    I am running a D&D 3.5 campaign based in the Eberron setting that has reached 12 players. Ages 8 to 44, four husband & wife couples, my wife, and 3 kids.

    The members of this group has had many incomplete campaigns over the last few decades for the usual reasons.

    I stepped into the DM role with a few ideas to help keep a large, inconsistent group going:

    – create a “character stable” of shared PCs. Anyone can play any PC from the pool. we currently have a pool of about 25 PCs all across the spectrum of classes. This is a lot of fun because players can cherry pick characters based on known information if they choose. They also have frequent opportunities to swap between different classes, alignments and play styles if they choose.

    – the character pool is part of an adventuring guild, so the players have a common thread to bind them

    – the basic character sheets and inventory for the PCs are public, but each character folder contains an envelope that contains “private” details. Players only get to read the private contents when they play the character. I sometimes add information to these envelopes to provide potential individual motivation for players. Players can also add whatever the like to the envelopes while they are playing the character.

    – The game consists of many different quest lines. I have one “mega” quest line involving all 12 players, and I split of many side quests and one-shots as needed. We play the main quest line whenever possible, but if there are a handful of people missing, I run a side quest or one-shot adventure.

    – I run the game for whomever shows up. I choose the quest line in advance based on attendance, but reserve the right to change plans in case of no-shows or guests.

    Apart from some delay over the summer due to vacations, we have been able to keep this game going!

    Now that you have some context for this crazy experiment, here is how I deal with an 12 player group without using a co-dm:

    – Combat was an exceptionally slow drag, so I split the initiative into two lists. Two players are typically acting and making decisions at the same time. If a conflict in action choices comes up, the players sort out the order or Dexterity score wins. The round starts and ends at the same time for each list, so if one group finishes quickly, they do have to wait for the other group. However, this is not nearly as bad as waiting for 11 other people to go before your turn comes up.

    – Give the players multiple things to worry about in an encounter. Smart opponents attack from multiple flanks and create distractions. Sure joining in the melee is tempting, but the dropped torch has started a fire that has spread to the bedding an the table of unknown vials and flasks. The smoke could become very hazardous and who knows what will happen…(poison? explosive? valuable potions?)?

    – The players are adventuring on the continent of Xen’drik which has an unusual characteristic called the “traveler’s curse”, attributed to ancient cataclysms. Time and place is inconsistent. Distance and locations change, time flows oddly, maps are untrustworthy. I use this judiciously to keep the various quest lines and groups in sync.

    It’s a crazy game, but we’re having a blast!

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