The Gnome Stew suggestion pot has 2 questions about a tricky situation that comes up every so often. Parties and gaming groups that have grown too big. This is something I just finished dealing with in my current gaming group, so I thought I would tackle the issue. The first comment was from Zaraphina:

I’m a fairly new DM with a problem. I have a HUGE PARTY. I’m not exaggerating. My whole party is about 13 people, with 7-10 showing up regularly. It’s sort of my fault. I wanted to have a big enough group so that even if half the people were gone i could still run. I kinda expected that by now the party size would have gotten smaller (due to scheduling conflicts, etc.) but it hasn’t. The game is going fairly well, everyone is excited to come back every week. So I’m not looking to downsize, (plus it’d be rude as I personally asked them to come), but am looking of r some tips on how to manage such a large party.

Ok. That is an interesting take. A group with 10 people showing up on a regular basis would be VERY hard to deal with. I’d be looking to get the group down to 5 or maybe 6 people at most. I’d also be wringing myself senseless with guilt over asking people to leave, so I get where Zaraphina is coming from. That being said, let’s look at a few ideas to keep the party size and make the game playable.

1. New Game System – This is some very basic thinking, but some game systems are made to deal with larger groups in a better way. If you are playing something fairly rules complex with a large group, then the game is going to get slowed down and you’ll be doing a lot more work. We are talking exponentially more work than most game systems are designed for. The more rules light the system you are using, the easier it will be on you for GMing. What I am about to write next will make Patrick smile with glee. Try out Fudge. At Con On The Cob a Fudge game was run with at least 13 people there. It was of course a very big group and it took a while for everyone to get a turn, but the rules-lightness helped out a whole lot. 

Another one to look at is QAGS (Quick Ass Gaming System). I haven’t had the chance to play this myself, but have heard a lot of great things about it. I think with either of these game systems you could handle a large group relatively easily and still get a play feel you want. The reason I mention these two is that they are very free form. I can easily see someone taking their Cleric’s or Street Samurai’s character sheet and quickly making the same character in Fudge or QAGS. There are a LOT more out there though. This might be a good place to look for some.

2. Split The Group –  At one point I had so many players wanting to get into the game that I was running that I decided to run the game twice. Once on a weeknight when some people could attend, and again on a weekend day. I ran the exact same scenario, but used two groups. This was a 2nd ed. D&D game and I was running out of a published adventure. It worked very well. Everyone got to play and have a good time. The group didn’t split optimally (some people changed characters in order to have a party balance), but it worked out in the end. I did make some modifications to the adventure between sessions. The second one always ran better because of the test-play with the first group.

3. Play to the Epicness of the Party Size – Ok, so you don’t want to split the group and you don’t want to change the game system. Understandable. Make a change to the type of game you are playing then. If you have a group of 10 regular players, then understand that you are dealing with a large group in-game and make the adventures reflect that.  A group of 10 regular characters, even low level ones, are going to be taking on much larger and fiercer opponents. It is time to throw out some dragons, giant robots, megacorp death squads, or Cthulhu himself. If you aren’t playing a combat-centric game, then make the social situations much more world altering. One phrase that I hear bandied about is that 1 PC is worth 10 real people. 10 PCs is equivalent of an Army company.

If you are going to do things to make the game more epic, I have 2 suggestions. The first is to make sure that each player feels more epic. With 10 people, you are zipping the spotlight around a LOT. Make sure it does get to shine on everyone and that everyone has something awesome to do.  Encourage group interaction as much as possible so that everyone feels engaged. Getting someone to be assistant Game Master is also a good thing to do.

The second suggestion is to work up an in-game organizational structure within the group. Determine which players are going to take leader roles and ask them, privately, if they are ok with that.  I like to determine things like this randomly, but some people aren’t suited to being leaders. Once you know who is going to become an in-game leader, have an in-game reason for them to be leader, but make them earn it.  Maybe a King gives them a title and deputizes the rest of the party under them. Maybe the party gets a ship, but only if the leaders are in charge.  Just make sure that all the other players get some upgrade when the leaders get their leader upgrade. Large size parties are hard to deal with, but jealousy is a game ender.

4. Change The Nature Of The Play – I once had a Vampire game where the group was too large for the story being played and was on the verge of being split. So in order to get the type of game we wanted we changed the way we played. I met with or called people individually or in groups that were connected in-game. When needed, we met for a big game and it played almost like a larp. People plotted and worked on their own plans in private, but had times when everyone got together. This might work for your group, but depending on what your game is, it might not. Sit back and take a long look at what it is people are enjoying most and what the biggest issues with the group size are. Maybe you stop using a table.  Maybe you rearrange the gaming room so that it accommodates your group better. Maybe you implement an game-show buzzer system for imitative.

5. Use Technology – While I dread seeing iphones around my gaming table, there are a lot of places where a large group could benefit from even a simple chat program on a lot of wirelessly linked mobile devices. Making your maps all digital and using a program like maptool and a cheap digital projector can help some of the confusion of a large group. Even getting a magnetic whiteboard and a bunch of magnets to determine the initiative order can help. While I’m on Google Wave, I haven’t tried it out to be familiar enough with it’s capabilities. I have however heard it touted as a new platform for running games. Anyone have suggestions for good software programs?

Great_Idea posted a similar question, but his situation was a bit different. His group ballooned with friends of friends and then became smaller, but with different people. Now he is playing with people whose play styles don’t mesh.

I have been GMing a group for about a year and a half now. It started out with me playing with my close friends, who are all very good, very fun players to play with. Over time, my friends brought in their friends, which I encouraged, and over time, they brought in their friends. We had an unwieldy huge party for a while (It was not unusual for twelve players to show up), and we tried to split it into two smaller groups, but nobody but me was willing to commit the time and energy to GM regularly.

Eventually, my original core players started leaving the group. Some of them didn’t like the size that the group had ballooned to, because it made everything take forever, and reduced everyone’s spotlight time to practically zero. Some of them didn’t like the playstyle of the newer players, who were combat-hungry minmaxers while the original players had played light, humorous, but roleplaying-heavy characters.

At this point, the party is down to a manageable size, but I’m no longer playing with my friends. I’m now playing with people I don’t really know, and I don’t really enjoy their playstyle very much. They are not people I would spend time with outside the context of the game, and I feel a little cheated that I am having to adjust my style to suit their wants, when I started out with a group that shared my interests exactly.

I just finished a fairly long campaign (with only one of the original players), and I’m currently taking a break while some of my players run short adventures and mini-campaigns. I had kind of hoped that this might encourage one or another of the players to take on a major campaign of his own, and maybe take the new crop of players with him, allowing me to go back to my incompatible older group. This is looking less and less likely as they fail to prepare for their sessions, and their adventures are generally treated as inferior to my “official” ones.

Anyway, I’m preparing for my next campaign now, and I’m just not enjoying the prospect of returning to the other side of the screen with these players. I want to play with my friends, and with players who are interested in something other than killing monsters and taking their stuff. Is there any good not-hurting-anybody way to get my favorite players back (without adding another high-preparation, time consuming weekly session), or am I stuck catering to the players who still show up?

I definitely hear where you are coming from with this. Running with people who you don’t mesh with is hard, especially when it wasn’t what you signed up for in the first place. I’m adding a 6th point to this Johnny’s Five. It is based solely on how I would handle the situation.

6. Stop The Game, Take Time, Then Restructure How You Want – This is as extreme a measure as you get, but it is one that sometimes has to be taken. If running for too many people is getting to be too cumbersome you can always step back for a short break and decide if you want to come back to the game or not. When you come back to GMing, you can always say you need to limit the party size in order to not burn out. Make it known that you’ve got a max party size and will only let new players in if old players leave or don’t show up on a regular basis. It means you have to be a little forceful, but sometimes that has to happen.

If you have certain players that you mesh better with, then invite them first. I’ve approached specific friends for a game before other friends because I knew they would mesh with what I was trying to run better. Being the Game Master is still playing in the game. It shouldn’t be something you dread. It means you have to say no to some people, but that is better than running yourself ragged and coming to hate Game Mastering and eventually gaming itself. If someone says it isn’t fair that you aren’t GMing for them or that you didn’t invite them, kindly respond that they could start a game up themselves. It’s a tricky situation.

So, what is the biggest group that you’ve played in or run for? What is your optimal group size? How do you handle large groups in your game? Any software suggestions for handling large groups?

16 replies
  1. TwoShedsJackson
    TwoShedsJackson says:

    In 4e, the ripples extend into the environment, too. Put a party of 10 into a 30-foot square room and watch the OAs and “friendly fire” problems multiply.

  2. Target
    Target says:

    My game typically has 7-9 players at the table, essentially running 3.5. For combat I have found group initiative and 2-hit mooks to be useful in speeding up combat. I also have my players take their actions in sequence around the table so it’s easier for me to keep track of who’s next.

  3. LordVreeg
    LordVreeg says:

    Once again, a good enough post that I am stopping working and responding. Kudos.

    John, interesting cuttting this into 2 issues…handling party size AND controlling group growth. Which are 2 sep issues.
    And these are both issues I have dealt with extensively.

    To the second issue, Great_Idea’s conundrum, I would need to stress the social aspect of the game. The older you get, the harder it gets to make time to game with your friends, but it is critical to do so. RPGing is a social game, and the older you get, the more the ‘Social’ aspect becomes apparent. The way gaming changes the longer you do it is a good topic in itself, but suffice it to say that gaming with the people you want to be with is a tremendous luxury you should never let slip by.
    One of the groups I run is comprised of 3 of my earliest players (my Miston group). They have played this particular contriguous storyline since 1995. All three of them are original players in the campaign, which began at the end of 1983. All of them played with me before this campaign. And I go briefly into details to illustrate the importance of playing with the right people, the ones you would spend time with outside of gaming. Because at the end of it, the people are the most important aspect of the game. Always remember that.

    Zaraphina’s problem is also one I am familiar with, and I think most of the solutions you came up with are very good, especially the out-of-game organizational stuff.
    Let me add a few things.

    Large groups or multiple groups do best if organized with a wiki. It’s great for the GM to put stuff up that is common knowledge, but Multiple contributors can work on it, so the PC’s can put up their notes and work together as well.
    My Igbarian group is 7-10 folks with 100% laptop inclusion, and they all have the game wiki up (we use our own rules, so this is a huge help in game). No one has an excuse to hold up things looking for a rule…

    I do ‘office hours’ on IRC and have specific email address for gaming-specific stuff, which allows more to get done outside of game time. I recommend this for any GM, but especially one with large or many groups. or those with both.

    I recommend, if you go the rules-change route, to find a game with heavy social interaction and one with fine-gradient PC growth. Combat is the killer for big groups. And if you play a game with PCs being able to take a few warhorses worth of damage before even thinking about worrying, it slows stuff down even more.
    AS John referenced in his LARP comment, interaction is what makes a huge group memorable and fun, sitting around a table waiting for 10 minutes to roll a d20 to see if you hit, then doing it again..and again…, well, perhaps not as much fun.

    And back to the tech comment, having texting/IRC/SKYPE whatever enabled around the table is actually a great GM tool when the group gets big. Something I find is true in salestraining is also true in GMing (actually, sadly, most of sales training is applicable to GMing…), something the players discover or see or that comes from them is much more affecting than when it comes from the GM.
    One of the spookiest large-group sessions I ran I PM’d players when they saw/heard/felt something. When a PC suddenly bursts out (in a dark room lit mainly by candles and Laptop) that they hear something laughing in the dark…it spooks everyone…

    Back to work. Great topic.

  4. umbral.fury
    umbral.fury says:

    The Largest group I’ve GMed for was around 7-8 players, it was a Vampire Sabbat game, so a little more combat heavy than most other White Wolf games. The best way I’ve found in situations like that is to encourage more free form and cinematic combat, rather than “I hit him, he hits me,” making actions in concert and playing off of each other, I’ve been lucky in that my groups would rather see the whole group performing really cool actions than seeking personal glory, however if your players need encouragement some things I’ve found to work are granting an extra move-action for movement, especially cool actions (flipping over people, swinging off of chandeliers, wall runs, etc) and giving bonuses for characters acting in concert (eg in DnD, giving a flanking bonus, even if they aren’t actually flanking the enemy). Getting the characters to go on one initiative and one player to more or less skip an attack roll really shortens combat, with the added benefit of making cooler stories.

  5. Rafe
    Rafe says:

    Spot-on advice for the first question. In terms of the second one, the solution is simple: Don’t start up a new campaign with that group. You aren’t having fun. Why are you dedicating your spare time to meet with people you aren’t really friends with (they’re friends of friends of friends) and do something you aren’t enjoying?

    So my #6 would simply be Stop the Game. Get back in touch with the original gamers and see if you guys can schedule something more regular and take things back to the way they used to be. Take the campaign you’re working on now and use it with them.

    That may be really blunt advice, but let’s face it: Leisure time is at a premium, and GM’ing takes up not only the time spent during the game itself but also includes prep. Why are you portioning time aside for something you don’t enjoy, with people you aren’t close with, when you could be having a blast with people you know well and whose gaming ideals mesh with yours?

    I’m not patient when it comes to my time and enjoyable gaming. I’ve left groups after a single session because it was clear things simply were not working, and would not ever work, no matter how much discussion occurred — playstyles were too dissimilar and the feel was totally off.

    So my advice is don’t waste your time looking for a clever way to get around this. Stop. Go back to your original group. Run your campaign with them, and actually enjoy your hobby. 🙂

  6. Scott Martin
    Scott Martin says:

    I have to admit that I prefer Rafe’s take on the second question. I know I’d agonize over it, and I’d try to encourage the friend-of-friends group to make something fun (that I could play in), but I’d dump the people you’re not enjoying and return to friends you do enjoy.

    A good solution may be to introduce them to other groups in your area– particularly groups that didn’t work for you, but that might work for them. Or “promote” one of the players and pass the baton to him.

  7. Kurt "Telas" Schneider
    Kurt "Telas" Schneider says:

    First situation: Co-GMs. Spread the workload, and recruit a few players to handle damage, initiative, etc. If this means that the players occasionally know how well they’re doing against a critter, then so be it.

    Also, speed up combat. Get a one-minute (or less) timer, and use it. If you haven’t gone by one minute, you just delayed your action.

    Second situation: If the GM ain’t having fun, then ain’t nobody having fun!

    Reboot the campaign, save whoever is worth saving, and let the rest of ’em play WoW… This is harsh, but life is too short to game with people you don’t like.

  8. BryanB
    BryanB says:

    I’ll just echo the good advice already given.

    Life is too short to share hobbies with people who’s company you don’t enjoy.

    Why do it?

  9. Havukin
    Havukin says:

    I prefer gaming in a very small group. For my gaming style 3 players is optimal. In my opinion a group any larger than that doesn’t bring anything interesting to most games but starts to steal spotlight time and makes it harder to hold everyone’s attention in the game. Also I usually run games where I want everyone to be present every session and larger group makes scheduling harder.

    I’d actually be interested to hear reasons for playing with a group of 4-6 since that seems to be quite typical. Most reasons I’ve heard of seem to revolve around party balance, which I don’t consider very important.

  10. Rafe
    Rafe says:

    I don’t think larger parties occur on purpose, necessarily, Havukin. They just kind of… evolve and grow. 🙂 At least, that’s been my experience. Some groups (and certainly systems) do very well with large groups. Other groups (like mine and yours) prefer smaller numbers. But yeah… I think it just sort of happens.

  11. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @TwoShedsJackson – I’ve not played much 4e, and have never had a large party to deal with. Still, large parties definitely make combat interesting in lots of ways. Challenging large parties can be very hard to do.

    @Target – Easy to kill creatures are great for speedy combats. Do you find trouble with your players feeling challenged though? I like to make sure my players know that I WILL kill their characters if the situation turns that way.

    @LordVreeg – Thanks! I always try to keep articles open enough that they encourage comments and community discussion.

    “interaction is what makes a huge group memorable and fun” This is definitely true. Big groups, and often small groups, get bogged down in the mechanics and sometimes don’t get the whole experience. The bigger the group, the less mechanics necessary. I think a lot of the structures that LARPing uses are good things to crib for big-group play.

    @umbral.fury – The game that I develop uses a lot of cinematic actions in the vein that you are talking about. I like your idea of giving an extra move action in D&D. I’ve long been a proponent of letting players do anything with their action, so long as they don’t expect it to mechanically effect the game. Jump off a wall and make your attack a large leap and swing: Awesome! I might give a bonus for an awesome description, but I prefer when the players aren’t doing it for the bonus.

    @Rafe – Like Scott, I tend to agree that stopping the game is the best solution. It can be hard to say no, especially when you know that you are the source of other people’s fun.

    @Scott Martin – “Or “promote” one of the players and pass the baton to him.” I like the way you phrase that. It has an almost devious tone to it. There are times I would have loved to get one of the players to take over. I find there are far less people who want to give up the joy of playing for the joy of GMing.

    @Kurt “Telas” Schneider – Co-GMS are excellent when the group gets too big. If my group gets too big I try to get someone to take over initiative order. In one game I “granted” the CO-GMs character a precognitive combat sense that let him know things about enemies. He kept track of HP and Initiative and was free to disseminate the information to the other players. It made an interesting element to the game, especially when enemies would knock him out first or his power would malfunction on BBEGs.

  12. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @BryanB – I can’t come up with a situation where I would stay with a group whose company I didn’t enjoy. If the other people were the problem, I would be gone quick. I can see trying to politely end the situation or excuse myself, but if it was the people (even if just a difference in personality and no fault of the people themselves) it just wouldn’t be fun.

    @Havukin – I prefer 3 or 4 people myself. Too many and it feels crowded. I generally have groups of 6 with 1 maybe. I keep playing with that many because they are my friends and I want them to get gaming time. If I were the GM and were playing a game that required a party size for balance, I would just modify the game as I was running it.

    @Rafe – “They just kind of… evolve and grow. :)”
    Can’t say it any better. Every large group I’ve run for started smaller than it ended.

  13. Target
    Target says:

    @John Arcadian: The trick (which I picked up from is to make the mooks dangerous. They can deal damage, they just can’t take it.

  14. GeoffA
    GeoffA says:

    A gaming group that I played with in college had about 10-12 members, and we had an interesting twist on the co-GM idea. The two GMs would get together and plot out the main events that were happening in the world, but most days there would be two concurrent missions going on.

    Every couple of weeks the two parties would run into each other, and we’d have a big 10 player session where everyone compared notes and decided what to do next. Then we’d divide up who was best suited for (or most interested in) the next two missions and redivide the group. It always came out pretty even with a minimum of GM manipulation.

    It all came to a nice conclusion as the two groups tracked two different bad guys back to their lair and there was a grand finale battle involving everyone.

  15. Chando42
    Chando42 says:

    I thought of a solution to the too large group problem that is simple, if slightly extreme. It goes to John’s first bit advice, and I think that it would work well, provided you don’t mind missing a few faces.

    Run a game of West Marches.

    For those of you who don’t know, West Marches is the brainchild of Ben Robbins at ars ludi. It can be adapted to any system, though I believe Ben ran it on DnD.

    West Marches takes a large, unwieldy group of players and splits it up into sessions of “I can play now, who’s coming?”. The players schedule their own sessions and whoever decides to show up can go on the adventure.

    Naturally, this leads to interesting social dynamics, and I myself am dying to start a game. If I ever find enough people, it’s first on my list.

    Here’s the link for those of you interested.

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