Saturday, August 16, 2008

Handling Large Groups of Players

Yeah, it's another thing. Deal. :P

So the question was raised, "How do I deal with a large group?" Large in this case being defined as 9-12 players in addition to the referee.

Many said don't. It seems that for many people, more than four people is quite the large group.

I gave advice. I'd like your comments on how good this advice is, since I pretty much wrote it all at once without so much contemplation:

*** *** ***

I don't even consider myself as having a "real" group together if I don't have at least 5 players (not including me in that number). For awhile about a year and a half ago I was running 9 players every week, ran 9 players for a session all night at Ropecon last weekend, and I have experience running sessions for 12 people.

My advice:

Practical considerations: Is there enough table space for everyone? Are five people going to have to get up if the one person in the corner has to take a piss? Enough chairs? Do you have that many water glasses for people without resorting to using the wine glasses? Make a rule that cell phones have to be turned on silent, and if someone needs to make or take a call, they leave the room. Running a game and being heard clearly across a large table while people are having unrelated conversations at the table is impossible.

Players are responsible for their own face time. Wallflowers and followers and shy people will sort themselves out. They'll either not mind sitting back and letting others take the spotlight, in which case there's no problem, or they'll stop showing up, in which case your group shrinks to a smaller amount of more active players, or they realize they need to make their own space and they step up and take it.

The referee's job with a group this big is not making sure that every player gets a time in the spotlight, but putting checks on those that are hogging the spotlight. If just a few players are doing everything, it's important to say "OK. And while that's happening, does anyone else do anything?" If someone is just sitting there all day doing nothing, point them out. "OK, while he's doing that, what do YOU do?" Nine times out of ten, they got nothing, which is why they're sitting there quiet in the first place.

Don't be afraid for the party to split. With a good number of people, there shouldn't be serious power deficiencies between any one group. The key here is to not let any one group hog too much time which everyone else sits around.

Low-crunch system! I run Basic and AD&D 1E when I have groups this large, and ran Marvel Superheroes in the past with large groups. I think I'd go mental dealing with HERO or GURPS or Palladium with its dodge rolls and things for every attack every combat round. Anything with battlemats... arrghh!

Important encounters should be with a multitude of foes. If it's just one big bad (and this is the mistake I have usually made, trying to keep things organized by having just one powerful enemy for the large groups to fight), then there are going to be stars in the group that shine and the guys that don't shine will feel useless, which is really worse during the action than it is during planning and setup and social stuff. Having a horde of foes (in hopefully an interesting location) allows tactics and opportunities for everyone to do something, especially if the referee has planned out a strategy the bad guys will use to isolate and pin down characters who think of nothing more creative than "I roll to hit." If the foes are all meaningful and dangerous, even better, since nobody wants to sit around mopping up goblins (who themselves are meaningful foes for low-level characters) while others are taking care of the "real" threat. As the referee, you can make a force of enemies that will fight as a cohesive unit. Make sure it's to the players' detriment if they fight as ten individuals instead of an organized unit.

If players miss their initiative cue, or if they hem and haw and aren't sure what they do, or if they're texting on a phone or playing Minesweeper on their laptop when it's their turn to act or decide something, THEY LOSE THEIR TURN that round, no argument, no exceptions. Pay attention, bucko and don't hold everyone else up. With 10 people, you have plenty of time between your actions to figure out what it is you want to do. If you want to play, pay attention.

Let the dice fall where they may. While that's my normal philosophy, seriously, with nearly a dozen players there, they should be able to watch each others' backs and someone should have ideas to keep them out of instant-death situations. And it shouldn't shake up your adventure to lose a character or three - you shouldn't be making plots that centers around one or two characters if there are 10 that are participating. Those that lost players can be making new characters while you're still running the adventure for a full group - no holdups.

Give enough rewards to be really useful and rich if there were half the number of characters present. Sit back and watch them role-play the division of the loot. Interparty dissension isn't necessarily a bad thing. "Ten robots walking as if of one mind" gets boring real quick. With a large party, bad guys will offer rewards for characters to betray the party, charms and such work wonders as well.

Choices, choices, choices. Make sure there's always more than one thing to be done, and more than one way to do what needs to be done, and more than one way to get where they need to go. One choice must not be the obvious correct choice, and bonus points if all the choices really seem to suck. Make sure those choices make a difference... no bogus "no matter which path the party takes, they will meet the Old Man..." or else all you're doing is jerking the players around. You only need to prepare half the adventure if there are twice as many people - they'll kill enough time "discussing" amongst themselves what the next course of action will be, especially when the choices come frequently.

And then penalize them for excessive arguing. Rule that out-of-character discussions about in-game decisions are happening in-game between the characters. Make sure NPCs react appropriately if the party is almost at each others' throats (or if they are talking all over each other and being obnoxious and ill-behaved in a formal situation). D&D wandering monsters checks (for both time spent and bonus checks for noise as ten people debating what to do isn't quiet...) are awesome for this too. Making time-dependent set pieces or overall plots can be effective as well.

Basically, in the end it's not the referee's job to maintain order and keep the scenario on track. It's the players' job to keep themselves focused. I assume you're not playing with a horde of children (and God help you if you are...). Prepare your scenario as usual, but for the expected number of people. Anticipate chaos amongst the party and make specific notes about how foes and situations will encourage it, cause it, and take advantage of it. The players, with a boatload of characters at hand, will have the variety of skills and enough muscle to do what they need to do, so allow failure to be a real option. The look on players' faces when they realize they didn't win, not because of the outside threat, but because they couldn't get their own shit together, is often priceless.

But if your group is tight and on the ball (which won't happen in a one-shot, but could after just a few weeks time if it's clear that disorganization endangers the characters and the mission), it really shouldn't be any harder than running for a group of three or four, and scenario preparation is a lot easier for a larger group since you don't have to worry about throwing too much at them, and a lot of ideas need only be described in general form since somebody at the table will start filling the blanks in for you.


  1. Thanks for repeating this here. It seems like good advice to me, but I've only once run a game for a large group, and it didn't go well.

    Your advice does affirm for me that I don't want to run a large group again, but if I am in that situation again, I think this will be helpful.

  2. Gut reaction: Mostly good stuff. Actively punishing players for negotiating among each other does not sit well with my way of running games; I'd rather say what the effects will be so that the players know what they are getting into.

    E.g: "I'll roll for wandering monsters if you argue for too long."

    Or just ask them to argue in character.

    I don't have experience, though, so take all of this as idle speculation.

  3. Well done. Thanks for taking the time to type that up!