Most ATGMs questions I can at least start to answer right away. This is not such a case (which is why it’s taken so long). I simply don’t have any experience in the particular problem being addressed – so, while I’ve done my best to offer as comprehensive an answer as usual, it’s all strictly theoretical from my end. Take the advice that I offer with a grain of salt…
The largest group I’ve ever GM’d was six, and I found that to be a bit of a struggle. Four-to-five players is my personal optimum. The Pulp campaign at one point had eight players, but that was a co-GMing situation, which spread the load. But I think that both these questions are symptoms of a single, simpler question:
“How do I GM a larger group than I am comfortable with?”
Let’s start by assuming that you must be doing something right, or the campaign would never have lasted as long as it had. Nevertheless, it’s my experience that each additional player added to a game carries an overhead in terms of GMing difficulty over and above a simple numeric increase, and that this overhead increases in size with every player added.
I talked about this problem with Blair Ramage, my Pulp campaign co-GM, because I remembered him telling me of his early RPG days (D&D first edition) and the number of players that were involved in those early sessions (8 to 10). He reported experiencing, as a player, the same sort of problems that GM Joel describes, and all came down to too small a fraction of screen time. The solutions employed to the problems were less than completely effective, but they did help somewhat.
- Roleplaying: The GM made a point of going around the table and ensuring that each player got input. He broke any dialogue scene up into multiple smaller dialogues that were occurring simultaneously. Only a few people could participate in any one of these dialogues. Quite often, one group would get information while the others would get context within which to frame that dialogue.
- Combat: Given that the game being played was early D&D, the GM tackled combat by class: All the fighters and fighter sub-types acted simultaneously, then all the clerics & druids, then the rogues, then the mages, and so on – in order of combat capability, in other words. Each person had a limited window to state their action or they simply missed out for that turn – which meant that you had to have decided what you were going to do and be ready to make any rolls required as soon as your name got called.
I also discussed the question with one of my players (part of both my superhero campaign and the co-GM’d pulp campaign), and a GM in his own right of a larger group, and he offered the following thoughts:
One of the roleplaying groups I game with has been in existence for something in the order of twenty five years or more. This is a group of friends rather than a formal club. There has always been a certain turnover in membership. Sometimes this was because of people moving away, sometimes it was because of work-, family- or other commitments, and sometimes because of interpersonal conflict. There was a lengthy period when the number of members was so low that there developed a de-facto policy of open invitation to new players that continues even now that the group has eight members.
The thing is that non-gaming commitments have long interfered with the timing of gaming sessions and the availability of members in general, and these limitations have gotten more stringent as the members have gotten older, gotten married and had kids. The group has almost always tried to schedule for every two weeks on a mid-week evening, even though this allows for barely two to three hours for most sessions, plus recent attempts to add some all-day meetings on weekends two or three times a year.
The comparatively large number of current members does have the advantage that if some of them cannot make it at certain times, the group still has enough players to continue rather than canceling all together. This in turn means telling the missing players what happened while they were away. For a very long time this was done from memory of the players who had been present. Only relatively recently have players actually started keeping notes, usually typed up on laptops during play. (Although recently when comparing the notes of two different players from one session it was found that they wrote down slightly different summaries, then had no recollection of the overlooked incidents.) Additionally and most usefully for us, just under a decade ago we started sound recording the game sessions and then uploading them as a podcast for the absent players to listen to later.
Managing to keep all the players at the table engaged in the game has always been a bit slapdash. The group rotates through gamesmasters, who run different campaigns with different game systems of their own preference. Actual engagement in combat is good for making sure everybody gets a turn, but depending on the gaming system combat can be rather slow. (One gamesmaster has gone heavily into streamlining the system he uses over the years to make it rules light and quicker. Another has been using various fan-made computer apps for Dungeons and Dragons to speed up combat). However, almost all the games we have ever played have had a hefty amount of non-combat role playing involved. At that time the extroverted people who enjoy playing extroverts – such a diplomats, paladins, or con-men – have tended to dominate the game play, while other less dominate player personalities have tended to sit back, and in extreme cases simply read on their iPhones. This includes people playing characters such as police and military officers, who should by rights be taking a more active role in handling events than the civilians.
The later phenomenon is something we have never properly gotten a handle on. At some point or other gamesmasters have realized that they should make a point of focusing on the people who haven’t been participating as much – but that usually happens during a lull in the action when the extroverted players have stopped talking. I know I’m guilty of this, since in the last adventure I ran I made a mental note to myself to ensure that all players participated – but still allowed myself to get distracted by the enthusiasm generated from cool and/or weird game play. For next time around I’m toying with the idea of have a tick sheet – something like what can used to keep track of character actions during combat – and applying it to character actions in response to set non-combat events.
Armed with these contributions, I was able to start thinking clearly about the problems – from a strictly theoretical standpoint, as I said earlier. And it seems to me that in order to make a large group practical, you need to pull out every trick in the book. The problem is larger than simply having difficulty crafting suitable encounters; that’s only a symptom of the bigger issue of GMing such a large group. To really solve it, we need to go beyond crafting encounters to look at every aspect of the GMing. Unique requirements call for unique solutions.
My advice falls into four categories (with the occasional overlap): Planning, Division, System Simplification, and Table Etiquette.
Proper planning would be, I think, essential to handling a large group of players. The fewer players you need to accommodate in a game, the easier it is to get innovative and game on-the-fly; with a large group, even one as large as five, my experience is that someone gets forgotten. I shudder to think how bad things would get with still more players.
Roleplaying: Something for everyone
One of the absolute essentials would be making sure that there was something for everyone in each day’s play. Each character should be sufficiently unique that something – be it a key conversation, a roleplayed situation, a personal relationship or reaction, or just the interpretation of a critical clue – can be laid at their feet. And for each of them, ideally, you should have a “plan B” in case that individual simply can’t be there for that game session.
One of the easiest ways of making sure that no-one is overlooked is a checklist of the PCs. In fact, you will want to use these things for so many purposes that you may as well make a whole bunch of them at the same time. They don’t have to be anything fancy; the simplest design would be a table with the PCs names down the left hand side (and the player name underneath, perhaps), space for a couple more names under that, and a whole bunch of unlabeled columns running across the top – unlabeled so that you can label each column as you use it.
I would use such checklists for adventure development, for making sure that everyone got a chance to roleplay, for making sure that everyone got to do their thing in combat, that… well, you get the idea. It wouldn’t surprise me to use a page of these or more in a game session.
Combat Option 1: Percentage Of PCs
Designing combat encounters would be a whole different headache when you have so many characters to corral. There are two different options that I would consider, in terms of designing encounters; the first is “Percentage of PCs”, in which each creature encountered represents a given power level relative to the PCs. For example, if I wanted an encounter that was 70% of the PCs power level (which would be a relatively easy one), I might simply take the stats, HP, etc of one of the PCs and multiply by 70% to get a creature equivalent to that PC – then move on to the next one.
That would be a lot easier if you used a page or two of “the checklist” to list the stats of each PC. Use one column for STR, one for DEX, and so on.
The big advantage is that this produces a bunch of opponents that is as varied in capability as the PCs. The big disadvantage is that it produces opponents that are just as varied as the PCs. Quite frankly, there are better ways, which I’ll get to in due course, to use most of the time. But there are times when this is the easiest possible solution.
Combat Option 2: Differentials
How about if, instead of using a percentage, you simply applied a fixed modifier to the PC’s stats. “Everything is at -2”. If done correctly, this yields a specific variation of this approach called the “Unity Option”, and which I’ll talk about in “System Simplification”. Right now, I just want to put the option onto your radar.
Combat Option 3: Duplication, one exception
The first alternative would be for each encounter to consist of (N-1) identical critters, all of whom have exactly the same stats, and one “Boss Monster”. This would speed combat because you would always be working from the same calculations. I’ll also have more to say on this subject in “System Simplification”.
Addition, not subtraction
Addition tends to be a lot faster than subtraction. Unless you’re using an app/utility (again, something I’ll get into later), always arrange things so that any calculation is in the form of addition. I never track how many HP my monsters have left in D&D – I track how much damage they’ve taken and know that at a certain total, their behavior will change, and that at a subsequent total, they are dead. To keep things simple, that threshold is usually half, round up to the nearest 10, because that’s something I can calculate at a glance.
I would also strongly recommend that you read The Application Of Time and Motion to RPG Game Mechanics and apply its principles ruthlessly to absolutely everything you do. Not just to game mechanics, but to every action and interaction at the table that you can.
If it takes one second to name a character (asking for a response or an action, because it’s that character’s turn), and half a second to point at them, and you have to do so for five rounds of combat for 9 characters, that’s 45 half-seconds that you can save, per combat. Figure that such a combat will last for about 9 minutes per round (1 minute per character), real time, that’s 45 half seconds in 45 minutes. Assume that you have to call on other characters at about 1/5th this frequency outside combat – so that’s 45 half-seconds in 3.75 hours. If there’s one 45-minute combat to each such period, that gets us to 45 seconds every 4.5 hours of play. Doesn’t sound like very much, does it?
Those numbers are wildly unrealistic. If there are six steps to combat, plus 6 steps for each enemy, per combat round, saving half-a-second on each for 9 PCs gives 12 x 9 x 0.5 = 54 seconds per round of combat. Five rounds of combat – that’s 4.5 minutes saved. 45 seconds per character per round is a more normal sort of number, if you’re trying for speed – so thats 4.5 minutes in 30 minutes of combat. Assume like savings in non-combat, we get about 2 hrs 50 minutes of Roleplaying time to get another 4.5 minutes saved. That’s just about enough that you could have two roleplay sections and two combats per game session – so those half seconds add up to 18 minutes saved, per game session. Now, let’s assume that you can find four other such savings in the way you do things – those 18 minutes are suddenly an hour-and-a-half of extra play.
An additional implication is that you’re able to move the spotlight from one PC to another more frequently. That’s the sort of thing that makes a reduced net share less obvious – and the reduced share of the game spotlight is the number-one complaint identified by all three GMs who have experience with GMing this many players.
The more you have to deal with players in a combat situation rather than managing your own side of the battle, the less time you are going to have to think on behalf of the opponents, whoever and whatever they may be. You’re already at a disadvantage because you have to keep several characters in mind at the same time; this only makes it worse. As soon as you add in a complex set of options and alternatives, a range of powers and abilities, the effectiveness with which you can handle these encounters declines markedly.
The solution is to have as many tactics prepared in advance as possible, with predefined triggers. “If X happens, the opponent will do Y. If not, move on to the next decision.”
Get Inside the Enemy’s Head
The key to mapping out tactics in advance in this manner is always to get into the head of whoever or whatever the enemy is. How aggressive are they? How Cautious? Is there something to which they are especially fearful or vulnerable? If so, a more aggressive creature will target anyone using that type of ability first, while a more cautious creature will be more easily driven off. Most creatures will fight until they reach a threshold of damage – as I mentioned earlier, the normal level I use is 50% round up to the nearest 10, but I might deduct 10 for a more aggressive creature (who will stay in combat a little longer) and add 10 for a cautious creature (who will attempt to retreat more quickly). What are the enemy’s strengths? How could he apply them to a perceived weakness on the part of the PCs? Is there something he can do to give himself an obvious advantage?
Always On effects vs triggered effects
The other cheat that I employ is to favor “Always-on” effects over triggered ones, even if they are less powerful. By taking decisions and complexity off the table, you make it easier to focus on simpler decisions. That alone can save bucket-loads of time.
It used to be a truism – don’t divide the party. I used to lead the chorus against doing so. Over the last few years, I’ve changed my mind, and the larger the group, the more benefits you can derive from following my lead. (I know I’ve written an article here at Campaign Mastery in which I expound on the techniques I use, but do you think I can find it to provide a link? No chance. Be that as it may…)
Splitting a large group up into smaller groups, each engaged in a different activity that is relevant to the overall plotline not only gives everyone a shot at the spotlight, it acts to prevent a few more dominant personalities from monopolizing the roleplay and conversational prospects. Add to that, smaller combats are far easier to balance, and the advantages just keep adding up.
But, of course, there are some other ways of dividing your problems into more manageable chunks…
Seating & Re-seating
I’ve written a quite extensive article on seating at the game table. Most of it goes out the window when discussing large groups. Instead, make table seating work to your advantage in dealing with the sheer size of the group and the benefits obtained will far outweigh the other impacts.
There are three ways that I would suggest organizing players at the table to be of practical benefit.
Rotating Table Order
Instead of letting players sit wherever they want, assign seating – and deliberately rotate the positions so that each player gets a turn at being next to the GM. This would work especially well in roleplaying situations (as opposed to combat).
Group subgroups together
If you accept the advice about splitting the party up, have players move so that the members of each subgroup are sitting together. The advantages should be obvious.
There are clear advantages in a whole-group combat situation to having the players sit in the initiative order of their characters. This enables you to start to your left and proceed clockwise, or start to your right and proceed anti-clockwise. It takes no thought to work out who you have to talk to next in a combat round.
But this is useless if you adopt some of my later advice and junk initiative to make combat more manageable.
By Character Type
If you do decide to forget the Initiative system of your game – something I’ll talk about a little later – getting the characters to sit together by character type makes a lot of sense. There are two ways of organizing this dividing principle: by character mobility (most to least) and by attack type/capability.
The first permits the characters with the greatest mobility to move first, followed by the next most mobile, and so on, down to the characters who are slowest to move. This can greatly simplify combat.
The second groups characters who use ranged weapons together, then those who use physical strength and melee weapons, then characters who are more jack-of-all-trades, then characters who use rays and spells and so on, then those who use stealth, and finally, anyone who should stay out of combat entirely.
Rearrange Seating On The Fly
To obtain maximum advantage from these options, you can either make your choice based on the activity that you suspect will dominate the day’s play, or you can get your players to change seating as the in-game activity changes. If it can be made practical to do so, the latter is the best answer, but that’s one heck of a caveat.
I have two suggestions to aid that practicality. The first is to recommend that you permit minimal accouterments at the table – dice and character and pencil, full stop. Everything else should be on a separate side-table.
Secondly, to enable players to pick up and move their dice quickly, you should make a set of dice trays, each with the names of one player and their character prominently displayed. This enables them to serve as a nameplate as well as a quick dice caddy.
Old tissue boxes covered in self-adhesive book covering material or even kitchen bench contact (which is essentially a heavier-duty version of the same thing) would be ideal, and relatively easy.
Divisions in Roleplay
Nine players falls naturally into three groups of three, or one of five and one of four, or one trio and three pairs. The group is large enough to be in multiple places at the same time, making multiple simultaneous steps to further the plot. This eases if not eradicates the problem of a couple of dominant players hogging the roleplaying spotlight – it’s hard to steal spotlight time when your character is not there and is in the middle of a completely different encounter.
Every character is a gestalt of the personality defined for the character, the player’s ability to manifest that personality, his natural ability to roleplay, and the dictates of the relevant rules structures. It follows that the combination of character and player that participates in a roleplayed encounter may be less effective at producing a satisfactory outcome from the encounter than one of the more vocal, dominant, roleplayers. Over time, the group will learn the parameters of what individual combinations can and can’t do, and alter their groupings accordingly. I know one player who has two favorite characters – one he loves because he finds it a very difficult character to roleplay, and the other because the character’s personality meshes with his own so naturally that he can adopt that role effortlessly. The second is well within his capabilities but doesn’t challenge or grow those abilities; the other is only barely within reach, and is nothing but challenge and growth.
Any inability to roleplay the character should be considered part of the character’s personality, even when its the player who is having problems. If the player has trouble making up rousing speeches on the spot, that’s a foible of the character. If the player is not good at haggling, and routinely overpays for goods and services as a result, that’s part of the character’s profile. The character is a blend of the theoretical construction written on the character sheet and the capacity to express that construction in various ways of the player.
While initially, characters may be assigned certain tasks by the group based on that theoretical construction, they will soon learn that such typecasting doesn’t always work, and should modify their task allocations accordingly.
It follows that any discussions of whether or not character A should be sent to do B in future should be conducted in character and not at a player level – and this should be enforced by the GM.
Divisions in Combat
The same technique yields more manageable combat situations. Instead of one big combat, think of them as multiple small combats occurring simultaneously. The side-effects of all the other battles are nothing more than changing environmental conditions for the combat that the PC that is your focus at the moment is engaged in.
Of course, you can’t dictate how the players will subdivide their ranks in response to the apparent challenges set before them, for the most part. Some things can be predicted – this is a creature of magic, so the mages are best to deal with it; this is a creature of supernatural evil, so that’s a job for the clerics; this is a creature of stealth, so it belongs to the sneaky of the party. So long as you match each overall mini-combat in power and effectiveness, it doesn’t matter how the PCs rearrange themselves in response, the overall battle will remain balanced.
Handler, Scribe, Lawyer, and General
There are certain tasks that can be allocated to different players in order to assist the GM in handling so large a crowd. I’ve identified four of them, as shown in the heading above, but want to start by dealing with a fifth, and the only one that is actually official in a number of game systems, the Caller.
I don’t like Callers. I’ve never known them to be necessary with a small group (five or less) and never known them to be effective or efficient with larger groups (five or more). The idea is that the caller gets told by the other players what their PCs are doing, or trying to do, and the Caller then serves as intermediary and single point-of-contact between the players and the GM. In my experience, it simply adds to the potential for confusion (the caller misunderstands what a PC wants to do, or misinterprets what the GM tells him), ill-will (the player wants to do one thing and the caller disagrees and so overrides the player’s choice), and duplicated effort (player A tells the caller who then tells the GM). So I don’t use them and don’t recommend them.
When you’re using miniatures, on the other hand, it can take an age for every player to maneuver themselves to where they can lay hands on the figure representing their character, move that figure appropriately, and then get out of the way for the next player. I’ve seen groups as small as three or four players struggle with this. Designating one person as the miniatures ‘handler’ and creating a strict protocol for the communication of moves can be a lot more efficient – and the larger the group, the larger the savings.
The basic protocol is direction of movement, number of spaces, turns, and facing. “North, five inches, turn west, five inches, face east.” This requires that each map have some clear compass points regardless of how the map orients on a larger scale. Because that larger scale also uses north, south, east, and west, confusion is possible; you have the same terms representing two different things. That was one of the reasons why in my Fumanor campaign, the compass directions used by the society are “Sunrise, Sunset, Dexter, and Sinister” – which frees me to employ the traditional East, West, North, South compass points for battlemaps exclusively. In my Shards campaign, the locals use the traditional compass points, but my battlemaps use Alpha Bravo Charlie and Delta, or sometimes Alpha Beta Gamma Delta. Or I will carefully place key landmarks at the compass points – “Bridge, Tree, Statue, Windmill” then becoming the directional axes on the map.
If it comes right down to it, using the terms “towards” and “away” permit all this to be chopped down to just a pair of compass points. So the handler is a practical, time-saving solution to the problem.
The Scribe documents things for the players. This is invaluable, especially if the GM has access to those notes in between sessions, because that is one less thing that he has to do at the table.
The requirements are speed, legibility, and judgment. I think faster than I can speak, and speak faster than I can type, and type much faster than I can write – so I would make a poor scribe. But unless you all know shorthand, speed is the number one requirement, and you can never be fast enough. That’s where judgment comes in; if you have to summarize and document selectively, good judgment is essential in terms of what to record and how to abstract the rest. The faster you write, the easier these judgment calls become, so judgment – in an editorial sense – is not the most important characteristic required of the player Scribe, but it is a close second. The third requirement is legibility. We can all write quickly but the legibility normally suffers massively when we do so. Using a laptop ensures perfect legibility, but may not be as fast as handwriting at top speed.
Stephen Tunnicliff was always the natural scribe for any group he played in. His judgment system was simple – he recorded what happened to his character and what his character did and learned; but that was often enough for his notes to trigger recall on the part of the rest of the group. He wrote very quickly, so he had the number one and number two requirements down pat. Legibility was the big issue; there were occasions when he could not read his own handwriting! Nevertheless, he could usually puzzle most of it out, and I was often able to interpret the rest when he had trouble.
The more players you have, the more important the function of scribe becomes. You don’t want the GM using up to half his time documenting what happened, you want him to be free to get on with running the game.
Some people may not consider the role of Scribe to be that important, especially if the GM performs comprehensive game prep. This is flawed reasoning. First, the GMs prep reflects the way he expects the adventure to develop, not what actually happens. The two are hardly ever synonymous; in my 30+ years as a GM, I think I’ve had exactly three game sessions that went exactly as expected. They usually start off in close accord, but at some critical juncture the PCs will make the wrong choice, or have a clever insight, or come up with some crazy interpretation of what’s going on and act accordingly, or simply prioritize differently, say something clever, or say something stupid. From that point onwards, the adventure as played begins to diverge from the “script”, and oftentimes never recovers. So GM prep is insufficient.
Relying on memory is fraught with danger. Players are more likely to remember their pet theories and interpretations as fact, and forget anything that doesn’t fit those theories. On top of that, you have the proven unreliability of eyewitness testimony, even when people are doing their level best. If you have nine players, you have nine different recollections of the game session. Throw in any distance of time, and things begin to drown in noise very quickly. Documentation is essential, and the GM needs to be able to correct and annotate that documentation after the game session. So either he makes the notes – or you have a designated Scribe.
Some groups record their sessions – if you have decent microphones, this can be quite successful, I’m told. That automates the Scribe function, but it doesn’t eliminate it.
One person may be tasked as the group’s lawyer, the only person at the table permitted to look up rules. When there is a disputed call, rather than halting play, this person finds the relevant rules while the GM deals with the next player in line; the GM is then presented with the rules and can either affirm, amend, or reverse his earlier decision. There are even times when the GM can tell the Lawyer in advance, “look up the rules for X”. This permits the GM to get on with running the game, most of the time.
If the GM is confident that he has taking everything into account in reaching his decision that he should, the players have to accept his call and should assume – if the rules seem to contradict the call – that there is some factor in play that the GM knows but the players don’t.
Having a single lawyer is essential, because it limits the number of disputed calls that can be processed to just one at a time. But there can be limited exceptions – whenever a PC casts a spell, I require them to have the rulebook open to the spell description so that the effects can be properly interpreted. I may not need it, but it saves time when it’s at the ready. Beyond that, everything is left in the hands of the lawyer.
It might seem that one of the primary requirements of a Lawyer is an understanding of the rules. This is emphatically not the case. What you need is someone who is good at knowing where in the books a particular rule is written. Even being able to narrow it down to two or three places and then checking each of those to find the right one is good enough. What you don’t want is the lawyer citing his interpretation of the rules as “the way it works” without having the documentary evidence – because the players may not know everything that the GM is taking into account, and the lawyer’s interpretation of the rules may not be the same as the GMs.
The final position to discuss is that of the General. This is the player who formulates the overall strategy and tactics for the group, a strategy that the group then attempts to carry out. The fewer the players, the less essential this role is. With a large group of players, I can see it as being absolutely essential. This does not have to be the owner of the character who is the natural leader or strategist, or even simply the designated tactician of the group.
Here’s how it works: The player who is running the character who naturally would lead the group determines what the objective is. The tactician – who may be an entirely different player – then devises a plan to achieve this, and offers it to the group as though it had come from that natural leader. So long as the natural leader is not engaged in the battle, the tactician can modify and amend the plan to cope with changing circumstances; when the leader-character is busy with more immediate problems, the general can’t do anything except run his own character.
The GM should be aware of what the leader has specified as an objective, so that he can monitor the plan offered by the General for bias or self-interest or any attempt to alter the specified goal to one that the General thinks more important; that’s not his job, he’s there to achieve what the leader wants to do.
The more characters you have, the more anarchy you will have on the battlefield. This approach replaces that chaos with a more orderly approach, greatly simplifying the GMs workload and speeding up combat as a result.
As a step up from these “helper” positions, the GM with a large group may entertain the notion of appointing a couple of them as assistant GMs. “A, B, and C are buying provisions for the group. Dave [C’s player], here’s the personality of the vendor, here’s his price list, go over to the corner and roleplay it for them.”
Dividing a large group into smaller groups and appointing an assistant GM from amongst those groups enables the GM to handle the group whose encounter is the most significant while the others get to roleplay scenes that might otherwise be hand-waved. If a PC does something unexpected, the Assistant GM can always bring the group back to the main GM or seek clarification from him. Because everything is being done according to the GMs script, he remains in overall charge of the adventure.
This can work in combat situations as well. It’s a way for the overall GM to be in multiple places at once, which (of course) enables a lot more play to happen, and a lot more players to get a share of screen time.
The ideal choice would be a player who is also a GM in their own right. Failing that, the simplicity and narrow confines of the Assistant’s remit can be a good way of giving a potential GM the experience to eventually step up to the screen.
The key is for everything – initial situation, location, personalities, and desired outcome – to be handed to the Assistant GM who then acts as the primary GM’s proxy for that encounter.
It might even be that the primary GM chooses not to take any one of the three groups for himself, but instead adopts a supervisory role and coordinates things. He can even stop by and drop a bombshell into the middle of events that the Assistant was Not briefed to expect (“It’s at this moment that there is an Earthquake that knocks you off your feet for a few seconds. Carry on”) – and only later will they discover that one of the other groups had an encounter that resulted in someone casting an Earthquake spell.
A further step up is for one or two of the players to become co-GMs. The big difference between an Assistant GM and a Co-GM is that the first has no input into the plot or story; the latter is an equal participant in all aspects of the game and the planning.
Co-GMing is something that I do know first-hand. In some respects, it makes game prep a little slower and more difficult; you have two or more people throwing ideas into the pot, and a consensus has to be reached, which can sometimes take considerable discussion. The world becomes a shared world. But there are other times when having multiple participants brainstorming can take a lot of headache out of the planning-and-prep process, and it really helps at the game table. You can read more about the difficulties and benefits of co-GMing in my article on the subject, An Adventure Into Writing: The Co-GMing Difference.
You can take everything that I said about Assistant GMs and the benefits that they offer and elevate them a notch when thinking about the advantages of co-GMing. The key is to make sure that the objectives are spelled out in advance, so that both GMs are on the same page going into any divided experience.
Let’s face facts: most game systems aren’t designed to cope with eight, nine, ten players, and the result is a significant contribution to the difficulties GM Joel describes. While the suggestions made so far can help, if they aren’t enough (and they won’t be), you have to grasp the nettle and simplify the game system itself.
Most initiative systems (and especially the d20 one) don’t carry a whole lot of overhead. Nevertheless, this is the first rule that I would junk. The reason is that several other economies only become possible once it is removed; it functions as a roadblock to those options, which all revolve around handling other aspects of combat in bulk, and which I discussed earlier. If you handle the fighters as a group, and the creatures attacking them as a group, and the clerics as a group, and so on, you can really speed combat up.
Attacks Option 1: Unified to-hit scores
Another choice to think about is always choosing creatures with the same effective to-hit score. Use magic/tech enhancements as necessary to achieve this, and don’t tell your players; they will assume that heaviest magic is on the stronger creatures (which would be sensible) and not on the weaker ones (which gives a practical benefit to you). So long as you aren’t blatant about it (giving a goblin the same attack roll as a dragon might be a touch obvious), this can greatly simplify the bookkeeping that has to be done for every attack in every round of every combat for every enemy.
Nine creatures, 2 attacks each, five rounds of combat – a saving of 5 seconds from this (which is the very minimum that I would expect) adds up to 9x2x5x5=7.5 minutes saved per battle. At ten seconds, fifteen seconds, twenty seconds or even thirty seconds (all more realistic numbers) those savings come to 15 minutes, 22.5 minutes, 30 minutes, and 45 minutes, respectively!
Attacks Option 2: Unified chance-to-hit margin
An alternative that requires a little more prep but which I favor is to ensure that the creature each character attacks (or is attacked by) has the same AC relative to the PC’s highest To-hit so that all the creatures effectively have the same chance-to-hit, when all is said and done. This works with just about any game system, only the names change. If you know (because that’s how you’ve defined the participants in the encounter) that each of them have to roll 13 or less on d20 to hit, you can roll a whole heap of attacks all at once, and process them in bulk – all the opposition in one hit.
Roll as many attacks as your creatures have. Your dice will scatter; simply line them up starting with the leftmost and then the next leftmost, and so on. Then go around the table, counting off the number of attackers on each character, and in no time you’ll be able to announce “Three hits on Ernie, Two hits on Fred, Four hits on Gary, they all missed Hank, One hit on Ian,” and so on.
Combat Modifiers & Complications
An awful lot of these should get dumped and replaced with something simpler. The easiest approach I’ve seen is the +1/+2/+4/+8 approach, which replaces every tactical, conditional and environmental modifier (aside from magic) into one simple question: the relative degree of advantage one combatant has over the other. +1 is a minor advantage, +2 is a strong tactical advantage, +4 is a VERY strong advantage, and +8 means they have an overwhelming advantage. If one side gets a +1 to their attacks, the other side gets a -1 to theirs, and so on.
This is something of a hybrid between 3.x and the D&DNext Advantage mechanic, but in a lot of ways it’s a lot simpler because this is a succession of flat modifiers, while at the same time, retaining some of the finesse. The big advantage is that you don’t have to add up a whole string of modifiers, you simply make an overall assessment of the situation and plug in the number.
Defense: Unified ACs, Unified to-hit margin
The same principles apply. You can tweak the enemies that you present so that they all have the same AC, or can match ACs to PCs so that the players all have the same chance to hit. This will be a LOT more obvious to the players, though, and they get to do the math, so it’s less beneficial to you, so I recommend these options be kept for a last resort.
Damage Tracking: Spreadsheet or Game Utility/App
It’s very easy to set up a spreadsheet that does nothing but add up part of a column of numbers and then subtracts it from a number in the first row of that column. I have minimal spreadsheet skills and could do that in two minutes or less.
In the top row, you put the HP of the enemies in the encounter. Each time one gets damaged by a PC, add an entry beneath that for the damage done. Instantly, the total damage done, and the HP remaining, get calculated for you.
There are gaming utilities and apps out there that work in exactly the same way. Find one that’s quick and easy to use, then use it!
Mass Attacks: Base Roll plus variation
“He shoots a 24d6 Fireball at you.”
How many GMs and players would insist on rolling all 24d6?
There’s a much faster technique. In fact, there are a couple of them.
1. Assume average results on half-to-three quarters of the dice, roll the rest.
24d6 – so assume that 12 of them roll an average of 3.5 and just roll the other 12. Or assume that 18 of them roll 3.5 and just roll the remaining 6.
Every pair of “3.5” results gives a total of 7. So these options yield 42+12d6, and 63+6d6, respectively. This technique is not perfect – there is a small probability on 24d6 of getting a result that lies outside these ranges of results. But it’s pretty tiny: The chance of getting 53 or less on a roll of 24d6 is 0.01%, and the chance of getting 68 or less on 24d6 is only 3.18%.
These are trivial compared to the other compromises that are being made.
2. Assume half of the total of average results plus a die roll of appropriate size for all but 5 of the dice. Roll the five dice.
This one’s a little more complicated, but it gives a better result. For the 24d6 example, we roll 1d6 and average the result with 3.5, then multiply the result by 19. Then roll and add the remaining 5 dice to the total.
This restores some of the capacity for very high and very low results, but the differences compared to rolling all 24d6 are still fairly minimal. It’s a compromise between option one and rolling all the dice. The example yields a results range from 41 to 111, which is not a lot different from the roll half and use averages for the other half. But it’s rarely worth the extra effort.
3. X dice times Y plus X dice. X is any number that divides evenly into the total. If necessary, increase the number of dice rolled by 1 or 2 to get a larger Y.
More complicated again, yet strangely simpler in execution.
24d6: 4×6=24, so either roll 4 dice and multiply the total by 5, then add another roll of 4 dice; or roll 6 dice and multiply by 3, then add another 6d6 roll.
37d6 (for some reason): 4 nines are 36, so roll 4d6, multiply the result by 8, then roll 5d6 and total.
This is the shortcut technique I use most often, or a simple variation on it based on ten dice times X plus Y dice. Much faster than rolling them all.
248 d6 (just for the sake of an extreme example): (24 x 10d6) + 8 d6.
Ideally, I prefer the second number of dice to be higher than the first, so I would probably use (23 x 10d6) +18d6, but it’s not really necessary; the differences between these rolls are tiny. The odds of rolling all ones, or all sixes, on 18d6 may be massively greater than the odds of doing so on 248d6, but in both cases they are so tiny that it’s a non-issue – relative to the time saved.
If there’s some effect that has to be saved against, have everyone make their saving throws at the same time. It takes more time to chop and change and then go back to one mechanic in battle than it does to process multiple results using the same mechanic at the same time.
Alternative System Selection
The ultimate technique for simplifying your game system has to be choosing a different one with simpler mechanics. With more than five or six players at once, you are pushing game systems way beyond what they were designed to do; some will adapt to that better than others. As general rule of thumb, I think that a lot of older game systems like AD&D, original Traveller, etc, scaled a lot better in this respect – perhaps because they had not been optimized for the typical group size so successfully. Others may hold different opinions. But if you’ve tried everything else that’s been suggested, this is the only option left to you.
Table etiquette is important all the time, but far more so when you have so many players. The number of ways players can combine increases geometrically with each additional seat at the table. And each of these combinations carries the potential of manifesting in breaches of player etiquette.
Probably the biggest single breach that is likely to occur comes in the form of side conversations, especially since GM Joel has a number of husband-and-wife players at his table. There are so many players that he can’t focus on all of them at once, and that is an open invitation to those not directly participating to chat amongst themselves.
I treat tolerance for side-conversations as being another emotion to be paced within the adventure. There are times when I’ll be permissive, and times when I’ll be intolerant. After a climax of some sort, it’s good to let the players blow off a little steam; when things are approaching such a climax, I’ll be a lot firmer in keeping people on track.
Normally, an imminent climax grabs and holds player attention, so there is already a natural tendency towards this behavior; I simply encourage it.
Player-out-of-the-room takes the PC out-of-the-room
A rule that I rarely enforce at my table, this principle becomes more important with more players. If you need a rest break, or want to get a drink, either ask for a five minute recess, or assume that your character will wander off while you aren’t there to control it – and there will be times when the only direction in which they can wander is into trouble.
Reward in-character conversations
This is something that is good practice at any time, but it becomes even more important with many players – simply because conversations in character are not unrelated side conversations. The rewards don’t have to be massive or game-changing – but they will add up.
Penalize unnecessary out-of-character conversations
The other side of the coin. Speaks for itself, really.
Yield a certain amount of control
Finally, it may be necessary at times to let the PCs argue over the steering wheel of the campaign, wrestling it out of each other’s hands. Unless strong discipline is enforced by them, so many voices will tend to ride off in six different directions at once. If you’re comfortable improvising, that can be fine; but if you have a strong preference for more organization and unity amongst the players, this can be a real problem.
One point that should be emphasized because I had not consciously realized it myself until I wrote the preceding paragraph: this factor is also game system/campaign dependent. I am more prepared to cope, or more able to cope, with anarchy amongst the PCs in some campaigns than in others. So if this is an issue, try switching to a game that is less mission-oriented and more casual, more lassoire-faire.
This answer has probably come far too late to help GM Joel. By now, he will almost certainly have either found his own solutions or trimmed his players to manageable proportions, possibly by splitting his campaign into two. But, on the off-chance that he is still struggling with the same issues, and in the certainty that others will encounter similar problems in the future, this advice is offered with the best of intentions and the hope that it helps.
I have to thank my fellow GMs for their time and their insights. While I seem to have done most of the talking in answer to the question, I had virtually nothing other than the section on Assistant GMs until the others put in their two cent’s worth. Blair & Saxon: Much appreciated!
About the contributors:
Mike is the owner, editor, and principle author at Campaign Mastery, responsible for most of the words of wisdom (or lack thereof) that you can read here. You can find him on Twitter as gamewriterMike, and find out more about him from the “About” page above.
Blair Ramage was one of the first players of D&D in Australia, using a photocopied set of the rules brought over from the US before they were on sale here in Australia. When the rulebooks finally reached these shores, he started what is officially the fourth D&D campaign to be run in this country. He dropped out of gaming for a long time before being lured back about 15 years ago, or thereabouts. For the last eight years, he has been co-GM of the Adventurer’s Club campaign with Mike.
Saxon has been vaguely interested in gaming since the early 1980s, but only since going to university in the late 1980s has the opportunity for regular play developed into solid enthusiasm. Currently he plays in two different groups, both with alternating GMs, playing Dungeons and Dragons 4th ed., the Hero system (Pulp), a custom-rules superhero game (also based on the Hero System), WEG-era Star Wars, FASA-era Star Trek, and a Space 1889/Call of Cthulhu hybrid. When it’s his turn he runs a Dr Who campaign. He cheerfully admits to being a nerd, even if he’s not a particularly impressive specimen. He was a social acquaintance of both Mike and Blair long before he joined their games.
Hungry of RavenousRPG.com has been a long-time supporter of Campaign Mastery through his recently-retitled “Friday Faves” column and was kind enough to pen a few words of response to my hypothetical solutions (above), since he has real-world experience from both sides of the gaming table. Unfortunately, a problem with the systems here at Campaign Mastery meant that his contribution wasn’t being accepted as a comment. I have appended his comments to the original article, and I’m also going to put them up in an extra, out-of-continuity post for the benefit of anyone who’s already read the original article.
I’ve run games for large groups before. My average seems to be around 6, but I’ve gone as high as 10 players (with most games having 6-8 of them, but sometimes we’d have all 10!)
The advice given here to keep them all engaged is very good. I’ll drop a brief comment on some of Mike’s bullet points:
Planning something for everyone: Usually, with a large group, someone will inevitably not make it. Just be prepared that your key plot point might have to shift to another player. It’s best if you can develop key points that involve 2-3 of the PCs. That covers your GM bases, and gives the players something to chat about during their downtime, which will happen in large groups.
Checklists: I tend to keep a running checklist in who I’ve engaged in a personal bit of role playing and who I haven’t. When I realize that I’ve left someone out for a short bit, I drag them back into the game by having a monster or NPC look them in the eyes and do/say something. This lets the player know that I’ve not forgotten them.
Combat Options: These work really well. I love the “N-1” option because that’ll be a challenging encounter which will allow the PCs to shine as a group, but won’t leave anyone out until near the end of the encounter when the monsters are dwindling down to 1 or 2 left.
Prepared Tactics: This is a great bit of advice for GMs, especially if the Bad Guys are character-type critters with many abilities/powers or if it’s a monster packed with special abilities. I also flip this around on the players. I use some web-based software I’ve written to track initiative orders. When someone starts their action, I’ll point to the next person that gets to go and tell them, “You’re up next.” This engages the person that’s not actively doing anything, and lets them gear up mentally for what they want to do. This is a real time saver in those large combats.
Seating & Re-seating: I’m not sure shuffling players about the table would be a wise idea because of the time and distraction involved. I did read the ideas about being minimalist at the table, but there are also snacks and drinks at the table at most of my games. The players typically have more than two hands worth of stuff to try and move. It also draws them out of the game world and into the real world while they move from this side of the table to that. The best thing I’ve done for a split party in the past is to run a timer (smart phones are great for this!) in which one group gets a certain amount of time to do their RP, and then focus swaps to the other group. If one group gets into combat…. I wait. Cliffhanger style. I’ll see if the other group can find their way into a combat quickly, then I’ll run the two combats simultaneously. There’ll be one initiative order, but two separate combats going on. Yes, it’s more brain work for the GM to keep things running smoothly, but pulling it off makes the GM feel great.
Divisions in Roleplay: Mike’s take on 9+ players breaking into smaller groups works well, and I’ll take it a step further. Hand some minor NPCs to one group and have the players run the NPCs. This works really well with a little prep on index cards to let the players know what goals, motivations, approaches, and attitudes the NPCs will have. This will take a little load off of the GM, and keep the players engaged.
Caller, Handler, Scribe, Lawyer, and General: If the players want to establish these roles, I’m all for it. However, I (as the GM) will not dictate roles and responsibilities at this level, with one exception. If there’s a player at the table that’s comfortable with the rule book for the system, I might use them as a Lawyer if I can’t recall the particulars of a rule or power.
Assistant and Co-GMs: I’ve seen this done once to good effect, but we had somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 PCs at the table. I’ve never used them, and I’m not sure I’d want to “remove” a player from the playing experience and have them turn into a referee or rules adjudicator in addition to playing their character… or not playing a character at all.
I’ll make a few broad comment about the system simplification ideas Mike’s presented: These are very effective at speeding things up at the loss of “realism.” I like these ideas, but I’ll counter with the concept of, “If you need to simplify your system, perhaps you need to play a simpler system in the first place.” I’ve had players that can’t add d20+STR+BaB (even when STR+BaB are pre-added) in less than two minutes without a calculator. That REALLY grinds play to a halt. For those players, I make sure they sit next to me, and I do the math for them. I’ve also had players that could roll 24d6 and add it up in under 20 seconds (so long as they were pips, not numbers, on the dice). Many things come into play when picking the “right” system for your group, but that’s off topic for this post.
Table Etiquette: Mike has some great points here. In the weekly game I used to play, the “out of game chatter” was limited to the first 10-15 minutes of the session, then we got down to business. In my monthly game, the chatter runs about 30 minutes and rises up here and there during the course of the game. This is because we see each other so rarely and much has happened in the intervening month. It’s part of the game that I have to accept, but when I feel it’s getting in the way of the game, I step in and ask people to quiet down with the side chatter. We’re all adults, and I’m not mean or malicious about it. I just point out that the side conversations are making it hard for the other players to hear me. They get the point, and quiet down.
One last point that I’d like to make is that each player added to the table is a multiplier in effort, not an additive in the equation. From my experience, it’s not an exponential explosion in effort, but it’s probably 3X where X is the number of players. Before expanding a group, be prepared for this.
I hugely appreciate Hungry’s efforts at putting a real-world perspective on my musings, and apologize again to him for the (still ongoing) problems with comments.
Next in this series: Making Drow (and other races) feel different. It’s not as simple as it sounds…