Quick Phil! How many people does it take to call something ‘an orgy?’
While this is a fascinating question, that’s not the main point of this post*. Rather, I found that raunchy anecdote to be the perfect intro for what’s been on my mind lately. You see, I’ve been pondering just how much of an impact the number of people sitting at my RPG table have on the overall playing experience. I ask that question as some of the last games I played felt handicapped by having too many players around the table. As I always do when I’m not entirely satisfied with my play experience, I start an introspective post to analyse the emotions that tinges my memory of that session.
Interestingly enough, such blogging often helps me understand side-issues that, on the whole, leads to far more interesting insights.
Here’s the crux of my problem: I find that when I run mechanically intensive games like D&D and Pathfinder, the overall playing experience gets significantly reduced when there’s 5 players or more. Yet… as I grow older, I have a harder and harder time getting my gaming friends all together to play.
It would seem that issue 2 resolves issue 1 right? All I need to do is adopt an episodic approach to gaming (the adventure starts and ends at each session) and whomever shows up plays (like a revolving cast of actors). Alternatively, we can just bust out one of our near endless number of incredibly well designed board games and have a great evening of fun. Right!
See, I have others issues that hang around, like a phlegm-filled consumptive cough, blurring the lines of my main pet peeves. First, when I want to plan to play RPGs I wanna PLAY RPGs. Having to convert such a session to boardgames is always disappointing to me. Second, I’m viscerally not comfortable playing with too few players. My sweet spot lies at 3-4 players. At that point, I find the pressure of the roleplaying spotlight is spread over enough heads to make everyone comfortable enough.
It’s the thought of playing with only 2 or, heaven forbids, 1 player that makes me queasy. I can’t really explain why I feel like this, I just do. It’s an atavism, the RPG equivalent of men sharing their feelings. (Remember, my core group is all-male)
However, as I look back, I realize that many of my discomforts are unfounded because I’ve disproved them with my own experience!
Here are a few short case studies:
Back in my D&D 3.5 days, I ran Monte Cook’s Banewarrens module, set in his Ptolus campaign setting. The PCs were exploring this unsealed vault of the world’s most evil artifacts. At one point, the players left the dungeon for an extended period of time. The adventure called for the villain to scour the dungeon while the PCs were away. At that time, since the adventure was really vague about what the villain could do, I called my friend Math and asked him if he’d like to play the bad guy for one session. Math wasn’t playing that adventure (he was in another gaming group at the time), so he was the perfect candidate. So he spent about an hour or two setting traps for the PCs, freeing disgustingly strong demons into the city and do other dastardly deeds. He even abandoned his Ogre Mage ally who got squished under a huge slap of Granite.
Ogre Mage minion (gurgling): Help me mistress…
Villainous Vampire Chick: You can regenerate, I trust you’ll find your way back to the manor eventually, I’ve other errands to run now.
Truly a great session. One that makes me wonder why I still bristle at the thought of playing with just one player.
In fact, that’s why I pre-ordered a copy of the Guestbook RPG.
2 players: Assault of Pelor’s Vault
Once, during the time we played our longest-standing D&D 3.x campaign, we only had 2 players available for a session: Yan and Franky. I had some free time for adventure design and their characters were both the furthest away from being good-aligned. Thus, I devised a short adventure based on two questions I had on my mind back then. 1) What would a Lawful Good dungeon crawl be like? 2) What if we did the whole session into a round-by-round heist scenario?
And you know what? To this day, this game features among the top 5 I’ve played with my main crew. It was one of those “stars are aligned” games: buying one-use items, tracking potion effect times, sneaking between disgustingly powerful guardians, fighting a paladin whose penance for transgressing his vows was to remain soul jarred into the body of a steel warrior for a millennia … and the surprise twist when the characters finally grabbed the Codex of the Thousand Suns was phenomenal and game changing.
Yeah… what the hell is wrong with me? How can I play this game and still think playing with less than 3 players suck?
For the last 3 years at Gen Con, I’ve been playing this fusion of a classic one-shot D&D game with that of a collegiate drinking game. Throughout the years, the number around the table(s) has stayed around 6 and we managed it successfully. Of course, copious amounts of booze and the fundamentally silly and funny aspect of the adventures that we designed for it made up for the increased chaos that make up more people at the table. Overall, the formula has remained fresh and renews itself each year. I love it!
So I guess it can be still be enjoyable. I’m starting to see a pattern here.
So Does Size Matter?
When I look over my past games through the lens of experience, I realize that the number of players matters when you play an average game with a non-average number of players. Published adventures don’t work all that well for me when I have to hack them for less than 3 players or more than 5. However, when I design with a specific number of players in mind… or when I see an adventuring opportunity that calls for an unusual part (either in size or in composition: ask me one day about my Monstrous Brotherhood convention adventure I use to run for GURPS).
I still have lingering doubts about playing, especially with more than 5 players. But at least now, having written this post and cleared up some of my tangled issues, I have strategies to address them and plan for when next I get a group that sits outside my comfort zone.
And so, I turn the questions to you… does size matter?