The Eighth Wheel

It’s funny how things never develop how you expected. When I decided to start running a D&D game after going to DDXP this year, I was reasonably certain things would never get off the ground. I knew a couple people might be interested, but with schedules being what they are (especially with several parents in the mix, myself included), I wasn’t sure the stars would align sufficiently to get the first session of the ground – much less a multi-year-spanning campaign like we used to run back in the day.

As it turns out, I have no problems with finding players for my group. Quite the opposite, actually.

And Then There Were X + 1 (REPEAT)

We started out with five. A friend from work and his wife, who I’d played with for years before. Two more friends from work, and a guy I used to work with. There’s a theme here. We played our first session, it was rad. Everybody was excited. Then, one day, we talked about it at lunch with one of the new guys at work. (Theme, remember?) As I was riding the high off not crashing and burning through the first session, I asked him if he wanted to play with us. The invitation was genuine, but I was honestly surprised he said yes. Usually, people just sort of laugh nervously and politely decline. (Maybe I shouldn’t talk about my characters right out of the gate?) One of my players was with me at lunch, and she was very happy about this new development. I was equally happy. He was cool.

I was a little surprised at the response when I got back and asked the rest of my players if it was cool if we had a new member. Everybody thought the new guy was great, but there were a few reservations about the group getting too big. Worries that there would be too many scheduling conflicts. Concerns that scheduling would become more difficult. My last group was pretty big (8? 9? I forget…), and we all seemed to get by, so this was a little bewildering. The invite was already out, so I decided just to see how it went. It went well.

Two days later, one of my players tells me her brother (who had expressed interest in playing, but had scheduling conflicts), was no longer under said scheduling conflicts and wanted to play. The little monkey running the controls in my brain began pacing around anxiously. The screaming was nigh. So, I did what any noob would, and immediately consulted the Internet. Fortunately, in my case, that meant IMing Dave The Game. (Who, as we all know, is the living embodiment of the Internet.) He gave me the following subtle and nuanced advice:

Hard limit of 6 players. Any more than that and they will hate playing and you will hate running it.

Not understanding Dave’s cryptic message, I then consulted Josh and Eric, two of my former DM’s. I figured, they used to run our giant group. They will know. 6 seemed a good number, they said, if all your players are quiet and organized and well-behaved. I wasn’t exactly sure if my group qualified. Most were reasonably reserved, but we’d only played twice. I couldn’t base it off previous experience because, well, I was one of several forces of chaos in our old group. It was fun chaos, but I cannot count the number of times I had a great idea and saw the “aneurism” expression cross my DM’s face – and these were DM’s with years of experience. Suddenly, I realized the hidden cost of my antics, and I became afraid – that lurking somewhere at my table, someone had a big barrel of antics a-brewin’.

Studio 5d4

I asked the Internet what to do, and he recommended something that seemed a little strange – namely, a waiting list. That seemed kind of elitist, but upon closer inspection it made more sense. The regular players have a guaranteed seat – but if someone can’t make it, the next person on the waiting list gets called to make a guest appearance with a pregenerated PC. It’s a way to let some different people play, and a band-aid for those times when you’re one player down. I’d already decided to run player absence in my campaign as if that character vanished and/or took the day off, so this fit well – at least on paper.

As to whether or not it worked in practice – well, unfortunately I still had to frustrate yet another work friend (there are apparently legions) who wanted to play. He had a night off from his regularly scheduled WoW raiding on account of his guild getting their drink on IRL in another state for St. Patrick’s day, and wanted to make a guest appearance. I told him no, because I had 6, and I wasn’t sure if I could handle another. I still feel bad about it. I probably could have handled it, but I am not very practiced at saying “no” to people in general, much less when it’s regarding something I would love to share with them. I still don’t know if I made the right call, but I suppose at least I made a call.

Upon A Troubled Brow

I’ve been trying to run this group as a democracy. I’ve been in groups where the DM gets to decide everything, and it works sometimes but there’s a lot of potential for things to get weird and unpleasant. I didn’t care for it. Even with this in mind, though, I’ve tried to take point on putting everything together from scheduling to location to getting group communication going and putting the adventures together and answering player questions. It had not occurred to me until now that, even a group run by all its players still requires leadership – and the DM, for better or worse, is likely to have the job.

These clothes do not fit comfortably yet.

It is so damned easy to get caught up in trying to make everyone happy right now, even with a very low level of drama. (Hooray for low self-esteem!) I take my role as DM to be the guy who makes it possible for everybody to have an evening of fun. (I took it down a couple notches from “the guy who makes everyone have fun”. My you’re-going-to-give-yourself-an-ulcer filter doesn’t trigger often, but I’m happy when it does!) I don’t know specifically what I’m worried about. Maybe that everyone will be bored and frustrated and never want to play again. That I’m going to alienate all my friends who aren’t allowed to play and be considered a thunderous turbo-douche for the rest of my natural life. That WotC will send a representative to my house to repossess all my D&D sourcebooks and give me a season pass to a sporting event because I can no longer be a nerd. Yes, that about sums it up.

I have good players, though. One of them, when I expressed such concerns to her, replied simply with “We’re your friends! That won’t happen.”

Oh yeah. So, I guess I’m back to just trying my best to put together something exciting and simply enjoying a night with friends. Doesn’t make a very interesting story, but I’d much rather have expectations I can live with.

Photo Credit


  1. I ran with 7 players for a couple of years. It’s doable, but your players need to be patient because there’s only so much GM to go around. If you don’t have spotlight hogs among your players, you can do it.

    It all comes down to whatever you feel comfortable with. Focus on playing the game, and if things start getting weird talk to your players about what they feel isn’t working and how to solve those problems.

    Another idea I’ve done in the past is to have someone come in as a guest NPC. Enemy leaders work well for this, especially in a courtly situation where diplomacy trumps brute force. Some of my guest NPCs have had devious ideas about how to royally screw the group, and it’s nice to get some fresh perspectives from that side of the GM screen.

    In the end, an RPG is a game about communication. As long as you don’t stop communicating with your group, you’ll be golden no matter how many players you have at the table or which side of the screen they play from.

  2. Congrats on getting your new game up and running. I wish I had a similar problem! Scheduling issues have plagued me since I picked up my first 4e books a couple years back. Sadly, I can’t recruit at work because the construction industry is full of manly-men blowhard types, which keeps me pretty much in the closet, as far as my geektastic hobbies are concerned! Run with it! Can’t wait to read some play reports!

  3. Shawn Merwin says:

    I always love reading your stuff, Vanir! As long as you are getting what you want out of the game, and the players are getting what they want out of the game, just enjoy. But don’t enjoy so much that you stop writing!

  4. Having 7 players if you have scheduling issues may not be so bad actually. One of my groups currently has 7 players and we have a pretty strict every other Sunday schedule. That being said, we almost never have everybody there (in fact, I can only recall one session with all 7 players and that was with an early player roster — which has changed quite a bit since). Since we recently got back up to 7 in our group we still have not had a full group as one of the players is working on his thesis.

    The bottom line though is, it helps us deal with scheduling conflicts. If we even have 3 players miss a session, we still have 4 left to play, which is very much doable (particularly if I know in advance). It makes it easy for us to now schedule a session every other week. The players all know to mark it on their calendars, but they also know that if they need to go out of town, or have family in town, etc., that its not a big deal if they cannot make a session. Plus, if we simply said “When can you all meet again next?” we’d never play. :p

  5. Virgil Vansant says:

    I’ll chime and add another 7 player limit to the list. Back in college, if I had asked for seven players, I would most likely have seven players show up regularly. I was young, stretching my GM legs at the time, and eager for players. In hindsight, it was probably a bit much, but we all managed to have fun. Even when a player dropped out of the game from graduation or a co-op job, they almost always found a replacement, so I almost always had a full set of players.

    Now I am older (and maybe wiser) and I still have seven players. But due to jobs, kids, and everything else that occurs when you are an “adult” I usually have five to six players show up on game night. Four of these players are regulars that make it almost every night, and I have one or two of my other players that seem to rotate in attendance. These seven players I’ve gamed with for years–some of them are even the original college crowd. So when all eight us of show up and cram around a table, it’s never a problem, and everyone understands it makes a bit more work for me.

    And I agree vehemently that it’s the GM’s job to provide fun for everybody. Sometimes I get worried about the gaming police knocking on my door, too, but it’s important to remember to enjoy a night with friends.

  6. I stick by my mystic pronouncement 🙂

    More players exacerbates issues like spotlight sharing and time management, which exist in any RPG but can potentially be handled by good GMing. However, I really feel like 4e is exceptionally bad at handling more than 6. There’s a lot of role overlap, and the synergies of the PCs increases exponentially, making it more difficult to challenge them, The dreaded encounter length goes up even more, and before you know it, half the table it playing Pass the Pigs. Not that I have any experience with this of course…

  7. Dave: Sometimes you just can’t compete with Pass the Pigs, it’s a fact of life. 🙁

  8. My ideal group size is 5, but I feel like that ideal should be thrown out the window when it becomes a decision to choose whether or not to invite a friend that has a genuine interest in the game. There are 7 players in the game I’m currently running (seating eight around a dinner table can be a tight squeeze) and the players seem to be having fun. Combat is slower than I’d like and it can be difficult making sure that each player has time in the spotlight, but D&D is a social gathering and parties are always more fun when they’re well-attended.

    Another huge benefit, as mentioned in other comments, is that we never have to cancel a game because of attendance. If something pops up and one of our players can’t make it, we can deal with it and still have our regular game session.

  9. I like 6 as a DM, but players tend to prefer 5 (they get more chances to shine). 4 is a bit swingy combat-wise, but otherwise fun.

    A waiting list is a good idea, because realistically you will lose players no matter how good your campaign can be. It is good to capture those that want to join so you don’t forget their interest.

    If you start getting enough people, you can consider encouraging a second campaign. You don’t have to run it – you can get one of them to DM. This group can actually help with what I discuss next…

    Now, the really touchy part is that any group of gamers will have varying degrees of chemistry and common interests. You want a mix to some extent. For example, having an inexperienced player can be fantastic for a game because it can bring a fresh perspective. Having a munchkin can be fun for tactical vision, just as having a couple of excellent role-player/story-tellers can be wonderful.

    But, there will often be chemistry issues. To the extent you can, and for the benefit of everyone (because everyone wants to have a great time), it is ok to be a bit of a HR manager and be open communication-wise on what is and isn’t working. It is hard to manage. Here are a few ideas:

    – Let someone go. If they aren’t having a great time, and aren’t stellar players, then don’t do anything to keep them. It is best to be open about their level of enjoyment and just let them know that when the next campaign starts up, that might be a better fit.

    – Retain your best players. For the ones you really dig, do all you can to keep them and give them their/your style of play. Don’t cater to the average interest if it isn’t what you want. For example, if you love RP but 3 of 5 players don’t, you should still run a high RP campaign. Let the majority slowly drop and then add new players that fit your vision.

    – Don’t reveal the wait list order. Pick and choose. Even if Sahima contacted you three months ago, take the player that contacted you yesterday if they are a better fit. It is better to be open about this.

    – Always be prepared to end the campaign and restart. If you find yourself having just an ok time with your current group, but envision that a different set of players (say, exchanging 2-3 of them) would be awesome, it can be easier to wrap up the current campaign. Wait two weeks, then start up a new one with the players you like.

    A lot of it depends on how much you want this to be a really excellent campaign, how well you know the possible player pool, and how well your current group fits your needs.

  10. I’m currently playing with 6 players, which I’d also set as a hard limit. There isn’t more space around my table anyway… 😀

    Very often, one of them can’t make it for the session, so we end up with 5 players, and I don’t have to modify published encounters…

  11. I’ve been struggling with a seven player game (on average game night anyways). I can definitely feel the gradual shift away from role playing and detailed story elements and the shift toward “is it my turn to kill stuff yet?” It seems to have a significant effect on the dynamics of player archetypes.

  12. In the past 25+ years, I’ve had some large groups, including the entire floor of my freshman year dorm at college, my students when I was a community organizer several years later, and my first parties after relocating to new states. These groups quickly grew to more than a dozen people each.

    Some of them went very well, with patient gamers who got along and were able to break into subteams for various tasks, from role-playing and resource management to exploration and combat. However, some of those groups broke up and spun off into other games, depending on geography, other would-be Game Masters, or the dreaded interpersonal conflicts and rules lawyering.

    Lately, many of my players have expressed preference for groups of six or fewer, although I find it more difficult to have quorum when one of four people is missing vs. one of eight. We also have space limitations (I can comfortably seat only about eight in my basement), and the older gamers have work and family obligations that limit their flexibility for scheduling. I’m running two sessions per week, so I don’t want to run more side teams. I’m OK with a half dozen or more, as long as everyone is ready to have fun.

  13. I should add that a part of my “7 is fine” is based on the idea that you’ll likely have someone missing from most sessions. This was based in part on Vanir’s statement about coordinating schedules and such. I agree that 5 or 6 is really ideal and the game seems to flow much better with those numbers. With my group though, if I limited it to 5 or 6 we’d usually have between 3 and 5 available for any given session. The main advantage for my 7 man group is that we have a set schedule so there’s no “when can we get together next?” If I thought I would have 7 at the table every time, I might be a bit more concerned.

  14. I used to work at Wizards of the Coast. Around Christmas 2002, I discovered that some of the young people editing and marketing D&D had lots of training and credentials, but little to no experience with the game. I volunteered to run one, and my boss was very supportive. I started out with six players and a waiting list. The list was handy because we had some turn-over in the early days. Then the editors moved en masse to another department, and some of their new co-workers wanted to play. Between the dregs of the waiting list and these new players, I had enough for a second group. Again, my boss was supporting. I was evangelizing our brand, after all. So I ran two groups of six each through the same material for about four years.

  15. CrowOfPyke says:

    I have done groups of 4, 5 and 6. Each has its benefits and drawbacks.

    Four players and the rotation of focus on each PC moves quickly. There can be a lot of back and forth and who does what in what order and who has the spotlight matters far less. This is great for groups that are RP heavy with players who like the spotlight. And combat moves quickly. The drawback is that if the party gets overwhelmed in a combat they have fewer resources to fall back on, which can lead to some trickiness for the DM. I had a Vampire Camarilla campaign turn into Sabbat campaign because the table of 4 players made a few mistakes… resulting in a new campaign direction! You have to be more flexible with potential PC/party failure.

    Five players supports a good rotation as well IMHO. You do have to manage the spotlight rotation in some manner because the free flow you have with 4 players won’t work with 5 without some players feeling short-changed. I just rotate clockwise around the table when the situation warrants it – everyone knows they will get their turn, and how they “spend it” is up to them. Combats take longer as well – five players deliberating what they will do in a combat round is NOT a linear progression from four players. You have another player debating what they will do with their actions, and because there are now 4 other players to react to and play off of, there is inherently more to consider – hence combats take longer. Five players does give them them more flexibility of role – who will tank, who will heal, who will stab/slash/shoot/kill, who is the fence/leader/supporter/enabler…. And it allows for more crossover than 4 players does – in a 4 player game, each player needs to pick a single role and do it well with little crossover.

    Six players. My advice? Don’t do it. Unless you have a table of players that do NOT want spotlight time. I do not like 6 player games as a player or as a DM. I have played many different RPG’s and my consistent experience as a player and as a DM is that 6 players is so hard to manage, and bring together for a game, that such games break down FAR faster than games with fewer players – both in game session, and outside game session. When does it work? When you have a group of “RPG players” where you have 7 people who get together to play roleplaying games of different types and the DM duties rotate around depending on which game the group currently feels like playing – everything from DC Universe, Stargate SG-1, Vampire, Mage, D&D, Shadowrun, Dread, Apocalypse World, etc, etc, etc. In that kind of “rp group” environment I have seen 6 players work well since any burnout can be alleviated with a change for a while as needed.

    In the end, find a game size that YOU are comfortable running. If it is not working for you and you want a change in direction be honest with your players and player base.


  1. […] Frequency We’ve had to swap weeks a couple of times, and last week’s board game “D&D off-week” night found every last person with a scheduling conflict. Overall, though, I think we’re proving somewhat flexible. One of our group has his son’s soccer practice to go to on our D&D nights for the next month, so we’ll be doing some dancing around that. Keeping him in every week during this might not happen, but I think it’s safe to say we’ll be playing. […]