Running Huge Tabletop RPG Parties
Being a DM, Narrator, Marshal, or GM is a mighty task – Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik from the Penny Arcade webcomic empire once very accurately equated it to hosting a dinner party. You invite your friends over to partake in your “menu” of carefully chosen and prepared dishes, which you’ve been slaving over all day (or all week, or all month). You choose the right music, you’re responsible for setting the table and providing enough utensils for everybody. You’re supposed to make sure everyone gets to eat, everyone has a good time, that nobodies drink run empty. You’re supposed to stimulate discussion, keeping it going if it lulls or deftly change subjects if it becomes untoward.
If everyone has a great time, you bask in the credit, if the party is a dud, it’s completely your fault. And by the end of both, you’re exhausted and just want to lie down.
That’s why, when you host a dinner party, you usually only invite 4 to 6 people unless you live in Wayne Manor. The same definitely applies to DMing – more than 4 to 6 players, and things become dicey(!).
In this week’s “Tabletips,” I’m going to cover ideal party size, how games become too big, and how to pare them down. Next week’s article will cover how to run larger parties if you can’t prune them, and what you should expect when you do get to the table, including strategies for making life easier.
Most RPG manuals suggest the game be played as such: 1 DM and 4 players. It’s solid advice, for a lot of reasons.
If you want to get classical, 4 characters can easily fill out the “four humors” – choleric (the goal-focused leader), sanguine (the charming/fun “face”), phlegmatic (the heart of the team), and melancholic (the smart introvert). The Kevin Smith movie “Clerks” has Dante (obviously the smart introvert), Randall (perhaps the best example of sanguine ever), Jay (a sort of twisted/failure version of a choleric), and Silent Bob is easily the phlegmatic heart of not only the movie, but probably that entire universe. This dynamic works for the ninja turtles, the A-Team, the characters of the Hangover, Charlies Angels (with Bosley), the “big four” Scoobies of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “How I Met Your Mother” (if you keep Ted as just the narrator), and even Seinfeld.
If you want to get tactical, four is essentially the perfect amount of “slots” to fill traditional RPG party needs. One melee-type “beef wall” meant to absorb and dish out physical punishment, one healer to keep the party alive, one wizard-type to solve mystical dilemmas and control the enemy, and one skill-based rogue character to sort out problems that a sword or a fireball can’t handle. Now, that’s a little stiff for me – the groups I play with don’t tend to stress about party roles so much as making interesting characters – but it’s still something to think about.
Now, the most important reason four is often touted as the perfect number is from a time-management standpoint. Combat with four characters goes pretty fast (relatively speaking), it’s easy to keep track of, and (if you’re using miniatures), every map doesn’t look like Woodstock.
If four is the ideal number, anything from 5-8 is considered “large.” The DM difficulty spikes a bit, but if you prep properly (and a few of the players are more introverted), it’s not too bad. When the play group expands to 10 or more, however, you’ve essentially opened a stress circus with yourself as the main attraction.
Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
So, you’ve decided to run a tabletop RPG with 8/9/10+ people. Well, first let me start by saying that you should immediately rethink your decision. I’m serious. Don’t laugh. Stop smiling. I’m a writer known(ish) for hyperbole, so allow me to be absolutely straight – running an RPG game with over 10 people is insane. If you’ve done it before, or are currently doing it, or plan on doing it, please don’t take that as an insult – I’ve run a 10+ party game for a few years now, and I offer you the highest of DM salutes if you’ve even managed to half pull it off.
Options for Lowering Party Size
1.) The Cut – First, check if it’s possible to cut people from the party. Now, this can be pretty harsh, especially if the soon-to-be-players are friends. Often times it’s damn near impossible, which is how we get in these situations. If some of the potential players don’t seem as enthused about playing, and are maybe just going with the crowd, speak to them earnestly and ask them if they really want to play, or if they just want to hang with friends. Obviously, be tender with this one – judge whether or not the person can handle the honesty.
2.) The Cut and Paste – If it’s not possible to cut anybody, then consider splitting the would-be party in two. Then, if one of the many players is willing to DM “group B,” the problem is solved. Two different groups, two different DMs, two different games. You’re not all playing together, but at least you’re all playing. If you keep it up, you can even choose to mix the groups and DMs up later, perhaps when starting a pair of new campaigns. Plus, there’s a fun element of being able to exchange war stories about the last games, which is half the reason you play tabletop RPGs anyway.
Sidenote: This idea was actually the advice given to me by Penny Arcade artist Mike Krahulik (aka Gabe) when I had a brief conversation with him at Comic Con International a few years back. When I told him I had 10 players, his eyes bugged out and he said, “Oh, no no. That’s way, WAY too big. Someone else needs to step up as a DM.” This is the same guy that invented the Greater Internet Fuckward Theory, so, you know. Wisdom.
3.) The Weave – This option is highly advanced, and it’s something I’ve wanted to try for awhile. It works best with a new campaign, but it could be altered to work for an existing campaign. It takes the idea of Option 2 (two DMs, two groups), but instead of making it seperate games, you make it all happen in the same game world. Essentially, you have two teams working toward a similar goal (or an opposing goal, if you want to get really spicy), where each team’s sessions are run by a different DM. If you have a large enough game space, you could even run the two sessions in the same location (with some physical distance between the groups, or you’ll get too much overlapping chatter).
This option requires a lot of communication between the DMs – keeping track of characters, setting, events, and the sudden “twists” DMs are known to come up with on the fly that may screw the other DM.
You might even want to have the groups occasionally cross paths, and do a sort of a “super game” for big plot events where everybody plays together. Only do this once and awhile, or you’re defeating the whole purpose.
a) The One-Man Weave / The Widowmaker – Another idea, if you don’t have two DMs (but you do have a lot of free time) is do Option 3, but with you as the only DM running two different sessions for two different groups. Now, I don’t recommend this – running one game is difficult and time-melting enough. Two is madness. Keep in mind, I say that because I’ve run two games at once before, and it’s sort of like having your brain explode inside your skull.
None of this advice helping you even a little bit? Dead-set on running a game with 10+ players? You know what I say to that? I say GREAT! Come back next week for tips on how to actually run a tabletop RPG game with a massive party. Common mistakes, combat tips, personal anecdotes, sob stories, and maybe even a helpful stratagem or two on how to best manage your prep-time.
“If you guys don’t stop arguing, I’m going to turn this ME right around,” said by Vessel 12 (Player Tony), a Warforged PC whose spirit had been temporarily forced into the body of a flying airship.
It’s a long story.