Does Size Really Matter?

About 5 years ago, a colleague at the genetics lab where I used to work burst into my office and said:

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!

Right?

Wrong.

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:

1 Player: Banewarrens

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?

6+ players: Drunken D&D

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?

* FWIW I answered “5”

Comments

  1. My max is 6 in that it’s the largest I am willing to go (and if a guest shows up now we play a board game).

    However my minimum is 4, although I’ve started to consider dropping that to 3.

  2. running 3 players in 4e dnd really works well

  3. Ashimar says:

    My sweet zone is 3 players. In my opinion that allows every player the optimal spot light for an average session. However, my Star Wars Saga game has 5 players and I am in a Saturday game that has 8+. 8+ in my opinion is okay if you have a GM that can handle it. Size of the group does not matter it is how skilled you are in what you have.

  4. Dixon Trimline says:

    What a great post! Any article that gets me a-thinkin’ after staying up until 2 AM watching a 16-inning baseball game is a powerfully engaging article.

    Let me start at the end and say for a good game of 6+, you need an extremely talented DM. I once played in a game with 9 PCs and 8 NPCs, battling Tharizdun and his army of demons, and it was magnificently epic, entirely because the DM had us in the palm of his almighty hand the entire time. The turns flew by, there wasn’t a moment of meta-conversation, and that’s because we were all engaged in every second of the scene.

    Alternately, I love playing in and running 1-2 person games, because of the magnified nature of the game. There’s not a lot of sharing on that stage, and that’s pretty wonderful.

  5. I have six in my weekend party, and four (often three) in my Tuesday night crew. Six can be rough, but I can manage it so long as I plan things out ahead of time and try to help them move through combat faster. To that end, I always display my monster defenses on my initiative tracker, and I just expect the players to tell me if they hit. That frees up my mind for preparing the monster actions so I am not the one slowing down combat.

    One way I make sure all the payers feel involved is I run my dungeon crawls in a round-by-round format, similar to how it sounds like Assault on Pelor’s Vault was run. It ensures that none of my players “tune out” for any length of time, and it forces them to coordinate their plans as they explore the dungeon.

  6. For the past 10 years, my groups have all hovered around 4 players + GM .That has really worked out well for us. I find too many players and the combats drag on too long, and it is hard to focus on players. Too few is less of a problem, but I think i would not go below 3 players, because I like the player-player interactions, and the need for the group to fill certain roles within the game.

  7. I agree, an orgy requires at least 5 active participants.

    As for players, my sweet spot is 5-7 players, but we’re usually playing old-school games, so the mechanics don’t get in the way like they do in newer iterations of DnD. With newer games, I would expect fewer players is better.

  8. My current group of active players numbers 9(!) though only 4-7 tend to show up for any given session. We keep the pool of active players large so that despite any last-minute cancellations, a reality when you game with adults that have jobs and responsibilities, we can still run. When I had only 5 player, we ended up canceling half of our games because of no-shows, so this system works much better. As far as the optimal number at the table, I believe 4E best supports a group of 4-5, with at least one defender, one leader, one striker. Anything else after that is optional.

  9. Size does definitely matter, especially with players of varying experience. I currently have a pool of 7 newish (to DnD/roleplaying) for my home game, and sessions generally run 4-6 players. At a couple points in the campaign, it was a pool of 8, and EVERYONE showed up. I’ve run tables of 7 or 8 for encounters, and when you increase the table beyond 6, things become tough to manage. It’s hard enough to maintain the pace of play with 6.

    Also as a rule to aid the pace of the game, we do not allow alcohol at our sessions… though that will change when I run a one-shot deadly meatgrinder game for my bachelor party… 😀

  10. The largest group I’ve ever managed at a single time was somewhere around 14 people. Yeah, /fourteen/. All at roughly the same time, and it was hell on wheels trying to come up with things to do with all of them – particularly when we would have two or three players drop in and join the campaign all of a sudden.

    In a real-life game, I think I can handle that for a time. It can make for some really interesting things, and ton of memorable moments, particularly amongst the core group members (those who were present most often). But no lie, combat tends to take *forever*. Especially in an AD&D game (which was what I ran at the time).

    Yet, somehow, I don’t recall the group ever really having a problem, and we tended to have a blast. Having been on both sides of that screen, there’s a certain something that just can connect when you have a group that large – it’s like running a game of *actual* adventurers who expect to die (and sometimes do!) – you never know who winds up being expendable, particularly when you’ve got level 1 characters mixing it up with those who are level eight or higher.

    With that said though? My preferred size is six, maybe seven. I run primarily online now, so a lot of that awesome table feel is gone. Getting everyone to remain focused on the internet can be nigh impossible, and for that reason alone I am hesitant to let anyone new join – because I have a hard enough time wrangling my own players and trying to find new, inventive ways to make three rounds of combat NOT take approximately an hour to complete.

    I’ve designed and semi-run a solo game as well (which grew to two players). Keeping it small can be amazingly awesome, if you have the right setup, and most importantly, the right players.

    Size DOES matter – but only in consideration to the type of game you want to run. I’ve played solo games before and had a blast, just like I’ve played games with 14 people – and acted as the party leader purely through roleplay (because 2E bards sure as hell ain’t warriors).

    It’s all in the game you play, and how your GM runs it. Any of those previously-mentioned games, if the count had been changed, the entire game would have been differently – my bard wouldn’t have been taking part in a drow massacre in a party of only four, and I doubt that my paladin’s investigations into a missing person would have been any easier with a group of five differently-minded PCs gallivanting about.

  11. I’m currently running three games. One with one player, one with two and one with three. They all give me different challenges and rewards. In particular the one player Traveller crew give me good feedback that the game is a more relaxing and fun experience than their large Pathfinder game. We can concentrate on RP, story and pacing.

    The one on one game is a great, fun way to do joint world and legend building. The player is basically the star of the show so the tone is like a tv show or novel with one star and some recurring cast members. Occasionally the spotlight falls on another character when the player DM’s for me and I play the NPC as a PC. We have fun with it and don’t take it too seriously.

  12. I currently run a group of six, sometimes eight players. We moved out of D&D precisely because the mechanics were taking too long, combat rounds were endless. These days we play Savage Worlds, which moves so fast that everyone remains engaged.

    I think that the larger the group is, the more chance that the mechanics of the game will erode suspension of disbelief and the quality of the game experience. I noticed that your larger games tend to be light-hearted ones in which conjuring up an atmosphere _other_ than the naturally joky, free-wheeling one which is native to gamers around a table is not an issue.

    My move to a more fluid mechanic with SW was pragmatic. I could not easily split or reduce the size of the group so I needed a game-system fix. The surprise for me was that the story-telling and role-playing component of the game significantly increased. Partly because a great deal of my attention was transferred from adjudicating/tracking to describing/engaging and partly because the players were more able to just try things, without needing to look at a power card.

  13. Thanks for your responses everyone. It’s interesting to see the wide range people are comfortable with.

    Lessee:

    @Ashimar: I too think that my sweetest spot is 3. You have the whole triangle thing going, greatest spotlight sharing and shortest wait between “turns”

    @Dixon: As usual, your praise makes me blush like a 12 year old girl. I agree that a highly disciplined DM (or one that feels perfectly fine with higher chaos) can easily handle 6+ players. I’m not such a DM. I like focused games, but I want the burden of that focus to be shared by the whole group, not just driven by a coach/manager GM.

    @Matthew: I love going “Round by Round” but I prefer to do it as a “Once in a while” thing as it’s a great change of pace from the usual “explore, fight. solve, rest” structure of classical dungeon crawls. My other favorite round-by-round was when we played a whole adventure underwater in a non-magical d20 hack (Iron Heroes).

    @DNAPhil Re: Playing with fewer players… The aspect of “Enough Roles covered” is an interesting insight I had forgotten. In the more modern games, its definitively worth thinking about.

    @Aaron: Yes, the further back in the game’s history you go, the more players you can handle at the table at the same time… especially at lower levels. The AD&D 1e DMG and adventure modules frequently mention parties in the 10s. OY Vei, I would not want to do this again… I’m not 15 anymore.

    @Sunyaku: A no booze policy definitively helps. I recall we once agreed, in our late teens, to do a sober, full-caffeine game session… It was focused all right. INTENSE even 😉

    @I-l33t: My main concern is that players don’t grow bored enough that they lose all immersion in the game. But if it worked for you, that’s awesome. I ran ONE 15 person one shot and I chose to make it into a huge tavern brawl. It saved my 14 year old sanity 😉

    @Ensign: I like that “one Star of the Show” model. It’s definitively worth investigating as a specialized game formula. Thanks for sharing.

    @Tim: Yes, Savage World’s thing is definitively “Larger, Faster, two fisted action” I’ve played it enough to notice it. I can imagine it handle a larger group no problem… Then again, it can also totally emulate the solo Indiana Jones scenes too.

    Thanks everyone, keep ’em coming!

  14. Nice post. I think a major factor in whether or not a large group can be enjoyable or not is the experience of the players. I’m currently running Reavers of Harkenwold for a group the bounces from 5-7 players. Only 2 of said players have any real experience in 4E. There are times I feel like I’m spending more time explaining how to read the character sheet than DM the game.

    On the flip side, some of my most memorable games have been single player (DM & 1 Player). The DM created several companion characters and gave me their stat cards to use in combat. It started slow so I had time to learn each new character before another would be introduced. We had a blast with that.

  15. Any article that mentions “orgy” and features a pic of Leia in her slave outfit is deserving of lots of praise.

    That being said, for 4ed I find 5-6 works well. The game I run technically has 7 players but they are almost never all there (I think this has happened once), so I usually am running with 5 or 6. The larger group actually helps me since it keeps the game going when 1 or 2 can’t make it to a session. It does though tend to lead to a fair amount of table talk that isn’t directly related to the game, so I can see where a smaller group would be preferable. I guess the other nice thing about a slightly larger group is that it gives the party more margin for error. If one character goes down, there’s usually enough people left to keep everyone alive.

  16. i used to think, the more the merrier, but that’s only because i game with just a couple of dudes.

  17. I’m looking at a situation tomorrow night where I may only have 2-3 players (Dixon being one of them, thankfully!) and due to this post I’m going to look at planning something that can be run quickly and effectively with those players instead of cancelling or running something else. It may be short, but in that case hopefully we can play something else for the rest of the night. Thanks for the inspiration Phil (as always)!

  18. I hang out now with a group of gamers that seems to have the philosophy of “If I can’t invite everyone I’ve ever met to my campaign, it’s not worth it.”

    We have a Mage game with 10 players where I spend most of my time making chainmail – but the game is entertaining enough that just watching other people do things is okay so long as I have something else to occupy myself. Another guy tried to run a 7th Sea game with 9 people and it did not work out at all.

    More than six is far too many, no matter how light the mechanics are – there’s just way too many people doing things for any one person to spend more than a small portion of the game taking actions, let alone taking the spotlight.

    As for smaller games, I’ve run for 2 and been fine. The only time I’ve run for 1 is a game of Toon while stuck on a train in Ireland. It worked out fine, but I don’t think I’d want to play anything longer than a one-shot with a party smaller than 2. And I prefer 3 as a minimum.

  19. I find the evolution of the “size of group” in D&D seems to be shrinking. Which seems to be for one main reason. The game is getting more complicated (Despite the 3.5 to 4E noise). This creates an attention deficit whereby you can’t accomplish as much as you once could in the same amount of time. I’m runnning a one shot basic First edition D&D night (Palace of the Silver Princess) for some friends and family who have never played first edition. They were all shocked when I told them the module suggests a party of 6-10 levels 1-3. Back in the day party sizes of 8-12 were not uncommon to be listed as required for modules, over the years this number has dwindled down to 5 at a very specific level.

    I recall some of the best sessions I’ve ever run had 12 players, and one of the best sessions I ever played in had 19!!! But those were both second edition games where combat could go by in a round or 3.

    Does size matter? I think it does and it doesn’t. I’ve had very good experiences with only 2 players and myself. Some very memorable ones in fact (which also took place in first and second edition), but with 4E two players just seems like more a chore than a gaming session. Maybe I’m just being nostalgic, but I think something might have been lost along the way in the way D&D games are meant to be played. What it is, I’m not sure yet.

  20. @Dungeon Maestro Re: Accomplishing a lot in a small amount of time. While I’m currently finding Dragon Age RPG to be better than 4e at this sort of thing (although still with few players) it’s very noticeable in Traveller that we get more done in a session. The combat is over very quickly one way or another and there is no need to create a combat ‘Out’ as the players will be searching for one as soon as you call for an initiative roll. Running screaming like Zoidberg isn’t shameful in our Traveller game, it’s a way to keep your character. This means we spend a lot more time of exploration, enjoying the setting and role playing.

    It was particularly noticeable when I converted the Tomb of Horrors to surprise the party with. I added in an extra combat and we still managed to stumble around for ages and complete the first half of the Tomb and get out (and get the injured to hospital to sit in intensive care for a week). This might have been possible in 4e if you avoided all the combat.

    Yes, I agree that something has been lost somewhere along the lines. I also think that from another point of view is that something has been gained. I still enjoy 4e for what it is but I do sometimes get nostalgic for the old edition feel. Of course I never got a very high level character in 2e, but the ADD inspired character progression in 4e is a completely different discussion.

  21. Size matters – I’ve played Savage Worlds with 6 players and 4, and the 4-player experience was orders of magnitude better. Whereas 4e D&D is better with 4-5 players than with 3 IME, due to the issues of synergy, and with strict DMing can still work well with 6. 3e D&D is more flexible and works with any number from 3+, even up to 9 or so if you know what you’re doing. AD&D was most flexible of all; high level PCs worked great in solo games but it’s simple enough to easily handle double figures.

    In terms of general comfort I think 2-4 players is easiest to run for, gives players plenty of spotlight time, but games for public play (I play at the London D&D Meetup) benefit from being able to handle larger groups.

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