Tabletop Highlight: How Many Players is too Many?

The first campaign I ever ran started with six players, made its way down to four, and eventually settled at five with one more who’d play once every couple months. The second one had eight. The third one had almost a dozen, but only about six-to-eight ever made it to a session at any given time (it was specifically built for this). My main Dungeons and Dragons group in Madison was six players for a while, but then it shot up to eight and now sits nine after a couple years of jumping around. The campaign I currently run the most frequently, “Broken Worlds,” has three players. I’ve run a campaign for two people, and even ran a one-day campaign for a single player while introducing them to D&D. While a specific idea of a “basic party” exists for D&D, which is what the D&D rules expect when it comes to assessing difficult or setting up appropriate encounters, I have rarely had four players in my group and the party has almost never been “balanced.”

As I’ve said before, a good GM can find a way for any party composition to work, but what could bear saying is that even a good GM can’t always make any size party work. I know a lot of GMs who thrive in that four-to-ten player range, but who absolutely struggle to make the game work for fewer than four. I know a couple GMs who can’t handle more than four or five, but almost prefer the super small groups of one-to-three players. Personally, I struggle with anything over seven players, but can easily handle anything up to that point. What usually gets me is trying to manage combat and player engagement for eight of more people. There’s just so much to keep track of that I often can’t keep the turns going so my players can stay focused or I keep needing to pull people aside so they do their little solo mission because they feel like they’re getting lost in the crowd and thus start doing things alone to force their character to stand out. The latter is a slippery slope if people start doing it for unnecessary stuff, since it usually means more people start to feel like they’re not getting enough of a chance to act so they start doing solo stuff as well and then you might as well be running several small D&D sessions instead of one larger one.

To be entirely fair, that can be a way to manage a large group. If you know there’s a stealth section coming up that the Ranger, Rogue, and Bard want to do without the noisy Fighter, Cleric, Wizard, and Paladin following then around, call a separate session just for the sneaky people. Even if the non-sneaky people are waiting outside to start busting down the gate in the case of an alarm, you can always run the sneaky-people along until they either set off the alarm or finish with whatever mission they’re on. If they set off the alarm, mark down where they are and say you’ll pick it up when everyone is around.

Another thing you can do for player engagement is handle down-time adventures via some text format. There are plenty of forums that are set up for this kind of thing or you can just do it all via email. Heck, you could even do it via text message between sessions. Or set up a session day as half-hour increments of time people can come to you to do whatever they want when they’re in town. That way, they can include other members of the party in decisions or little role-playing moments just by going into the next room and asking for an answer or whatever. Anything works, so long as it’s happening outside of the actual session. This way, the time you’re all together to play is when your party is all together and everything that’d slow your group down is handle at another time.

For combat, managing large groups is trickier. You can tell everyone to have their actions figured out and establish a turn timer, but the longest turns are usually the GM’s turns (well, the turns taken by whatever it is the players are fighting). Because everything in D&D is set up for an optimal four-person group, doubling that number of players can mean that some encounters that should be challenging just aren’t. With a large group, few GMs have their players fight against a single tough monster. Instead, they’ll have them fight more, but slightly smaller, things. Or, as is more common, a huge number of much smaller things instead of the large number of medium things. Here, it gets tricky. If your players are all fighting the same thing, that makes it a little bit easier, but that’s rarely the case. Usually they’re fighting a variety of smaller hings so it’s not all spear-chuckers or sword-swingers or spellcasters. Sure, you can save time by making everything that’s the same move or act at the same time, but that’s still a lot of moving, acting, and rolling you need to do.  All of which needs to happen in addition to managing the players are they react to what is going on and need questions answered. The only real solution I’ve come up to this–aside from having super patient and understand players–is to have a second GM step in.

While that might seem difficult, it usually isn’t. All you really need is a knowledgeable player or someone who you can trust to avoid meta-gaming. If they’re knowledgeable, instruct them to handle player questions about the situation and you likely won’t even need to show them your notes. If you can trust them to avoid meta-gaming, have them play the parts of some (or all) of the enemies. If you get another GM to sit in on your session, then you don’t even need to worry about everything else. Just give them the enemies for the party to fight and make sure you set a reasonable expectation for the other GM on how you’d like the fight handled. If you trust them to mesh well with your game, you might even be able to get them to not only run the enemies, but also create them in the first place. They’ll probably want a little more autonomy then, but that’s not a problem if you trust them to carry your intentions into their monster/enemy creation.

After that, the only real problem you have for large groups is how to keep everyone playing in a friendly manner and where you can get enough seating. I suggest folding chairs and regular potlucks. Can’t hate someone if they feed you regularly. Though, to be fair, this is less likely to be a problem than anything else since GMs should be good at monitoring groups and understanding which people will play together. You’re unlikely to need to deal with inter-player conflict for long, though, since people tend to just leave. Good luck with your big groups and let me know if you’ve encounter similar problems before!

Tabletop Highlight: What to do When You TPK

It finally happened. Because of some mistakes, poor decisions, or just a run of bad luck, you’ve encountered your first TPK. Don’t worry! A Total Party Kill isn’t the end of the world! You have options! But first, as you should do any time you have a serious, potentially irreversible character death or one that felt like a particularly stinky pile of bullshit, take some time away from the table to breath. Thankfully, only characters have died. The players can still play, the DM can still run, and the game can go on. However, it will likely be different. That’s okay, though. Every time anything major happens, the game changes. This will be just one more of those changes.

The first option is generally the easiest. Instead of being killed, the party has been captured and now must escape the clutches of some dreaded foe. Finally, the rogue can put that escape artist skill to use! The paranoid ranger who has a chime of opening hidden on his person is finally vindicated! The barbarian… well, they just hulk out like usual, but it’s still fun! They’re short on gear, don’t have many hit points, and are on a time limit! They need to escape quickly or quietly. If they’re spotted, they need to move fast. If they get stuck, they might need to make some tough choices about who lives and who dies. If they can remain hidden, they might need to find the hole in the guard rotation so they can escape undetected. Maybe they need to talk their way out and suddenly the paladin’s high charisma is good for more than never failing a save. Or maybe the wizard finally gets a chance to show just how capable he can be in a pinch, even without an hour to prepare his spells. No matter what choice you make, it’s sure to make a memorable adventure.

The next easiest option is to have a conversation with your players. There are three options most players take, sometimes individually but usually as a group. First, they might elect to create all new characters who are going to pick up from where their previous characters left off. Sometimes they’re intentionally recovering the remains, sent on a mission to find the now-dead characters by whoever sent the characters in the first place. Sometimes they’re doing their own thing and stumble over the remains of the dead characters and choose to pick up from where they left off. If they don’t do that, another option might be to just create new characters in the same world, doing their own thing, in a space far from where their characters died. Maybe they’ll eventually have to defeat the villain their previous characters fell to at some point, but maybe not. This is a new adventure and that doesn’t mean they need to even inhabit the same world, much less inhabit the same area of said world. The third option is to decide to stop playing. Some players might decide they want to move on to something else, now that the journey their character was on came to a conclusion. That’s totally fine, as long as they’re not departing angrily. If they are, or if all of your players are choosing to abandon ship now that their characters are dead, it might not be a bad idea to look back and assess if you were running a game they wanted to keep playing.

Another option, which would require a lot of work to keep the players from feeling like you just saved them for expediency, would be to have them wake up in a stronghold of an ally. Maybe they were brought back to life or maybe they were rescued, but it must have been for an important reason, whatever the method. Maybe this ally wants to use them for something and figured having a group of adventurers in their debt due to being returned from death would be sufficient motivation to get them to do whatever this ally wants. Maybe it isn’t an ally but a previously neutral NPC who wants the characters to work for them. Perhaps there’s even some kind of curse or geas placed on the characters that forces them to work for this NPC and now they need to not only pursue their given goals but figure out how to escape from the NPC controlling them. This would be a lot of fun because it’d require a lot of clever thinking on the part of the players, though I can understand that it wouldn’t work for every group.

There’s always an undead campaign. It’d work really well if they died fighting a necromancer or failed to disrupt some horrid ritual that would give the souls of everyone mortal on the material plane to some evil god. Maybe something didn’t go entirely wrong and some aspect of who the characters was before their transformation lingers. With the right kind of build-up, you could create an adventure where they either embrace their new undead forms or find a way to undo their transformations. Maybe they find the last divine caster in the area who was saved from the ritual because they were praying within a consecrated area and they can be returned to life. Or maybe they figure out how to save their souls and then take on the new undead overlords before (or maybe after) using a miracle spell to return the world to the way it was before the ritual went off.

There’s always retconjuration, the magic of changing how things happened, but that almost always feels cheap unless they died because they all rolled a bunch of fails in a row while their enemies rolled nothing but natural twenties. I’d recommend against it if you have literally any other option. You could also effectively un-do their death by stripping them of their gear and saying they managed to just barely survive, but they were looted and left for the vultures. Whoever beat them did to them what they’ve likely done to countless other humanoids and monstrous races. That would be a fun spin on things and I’d love to see how a group of players recovers from being stripped of everything that wasn’t hidden. I love creating moments for improvisation and outside-the-box thinking, so I’d really enjoy seeing what my players did in that case. I might do it as a one-off, sometime, just to see.

All of your options pretty much fit into three categories. Figure out how to get the current characters back into play (capture, not-quite-dead, or undead), create new characters (who may or may not encounter the corpses of their former selves), or just stop playing. If you have any ideas of other options, besides what I’ve listed here, I’d love to hear about them! I’m really curious about what other people do in TPK scenarios when they come up.

Tabletop Highlight: Don’t Split The Party

“Don’t split the party” is probably one of the most common lines throughout all D&D games. There is a built-in fear, for almost every (even moderately) experienced player, that splitting up will lead to certain doom for the party or members of the party. The idea of strength as a group holds true in common media depictions. Everyone dreads the moment in a horror movie when the future victims split up for whatever reason. Even in Scooby-Doo, nothing good happens when the gang splits up to search for clues. It is almost always the precursor to them getting chased around the mansion/factory/cave/woods by the monster they’re trying to investigate. The idea is also expressed in more real terms via phrases such as “divide and conquer” and pretty much any time someone conquered a bunch of Europe. However, history is also full of examples of when splitting up was a great idea. Guerrilla warfare has used successfully on numerous occasions. Breaking empires down into smaller administrative chunks for management is always a great idea until the person who built the empire dies, at which point the whole thing falls apart–providing a wonderful example of both sides of the idea.

In D&D, there are plenty of reasons to stick together as a group. Given that most parties have a diverse set of skills, it makes survival much easier since someone with decent perception skills is going to be able to spot the monster sneaking up on the party’s camp and someone else will be the one to go confront it. Generally speaking, the same person spotting the problem isn’t the same person solving it. At the same time, having multiple people able to attempt something like that perception skill check makes it more likely that at least one person will pass and only one person needs to pass in order for the group to know. Unless the person who passes is trying to get the party killed or keep something for themselves. There’s not much you can do about that degree of undermining, though. Most combat encounters and even the rules about combat encounters are geared toward groups. Flanking bonuses, assist actions, melee versus ranged combat, distractions, and mid-battle healing are all things that require a group to properly use.

However, when it comes to exploring, it is often a good idea for the party to split up. If there is scouting that needs to be done, it would be better to leave the tank behind. All that armor is only going to make too much noise. If there’s a door that needs to be held, the tank is great at that, and the rogue is better off finding another way around so they can hit the enemies from the back. If there is research to be done, perhaps the wizard or cleric should be left to their own devices while the rest of the party takes care of other business. Maybe there’s a maze and the party needs to figure out which way to go. If the routes are narrow, best to leave most of the party behind while one person scouts ahead. If there’s a combat encounter about to happen, maybe the rogue should sneak off to make sure the enemies aren’t going to receive any reinforcements.

There are a lot of times when splitting up makes a lot of sense for a D&D party, though they don’t always match up with the examples seen in the primary world. Guerrilla warfare utilizes strike forces and a D&D party is pretty much the epitome of a self-sufficient strike force, so there’s no need to break it down further. Additionally, few D&D parties ever actually form their own empire or conquer nations. There’s little need to delegate or decentralize your government if the most you’re governing is a base of some kind.

Party splits larger than the ones I outlined are a bit more difficult to manage in a D&D session, though. If half of the party decides to explore the underdark because they’re not good-aligned and want to figure out where their demon-adjacent target went, then you should probably come up with something for the paladin and super-good scout to do since they’re going to get instantly busted if they go to the underdark. I wound up running split sessions for a couple of weeks, and had to come up with some way to give everyone something important to do. Their decision to split the party helped give shape to the rest of the campaign because I needed something relevant for the above-ground party to handle. The more recent split I’m dealing with, the scout towing the rogue’s body back to the base of some druids for reincarnation and their subsequent slow trip back (a Halfling corpse is easier to carry than a half-elf person), will not be so easily managed. The other half of the party is currently camped right on top of a dungeon that is aware of their presence. They have captives from their previous forays into the dungeon. There’s at least one young-ish black dragon hanging around somewhere near them. All they have is a camp of NPC hirelings and a DMPC cleric they hired to Remove Curses and Raise Dead. Plus, the party-members waiting at the dungeon are the go-getters, so it isn’t like they’re just going to wait for the rogue and scout to get back.

Party splitting can be fun, but it can also make a LOT of extra work for the DM and slow down sessions to a crawl, since each sub-group doesn’t have access to the same information anymore. Splitting the players up is the easiest way to handle that, in my opinion. It just requires copious notes since it can be easy to mix up what everyone is doing and what each group knows. That’s usually why I try to reunite the party by the end of every session if I can. Makes my life so much easier and keeps things running smoothly.

Tabletop Highlight: Concept

I hope that you’re having a wonderful holiday season and that those of you who celebrate it are having a wonderful Christmas. My family does most of our celebrating on Christmas Eve, so I’m already home and bundled up in front of my computer, preparing myself for work tomorrow. I’m also starting my search for deals and bargains on a few post-Christmas presents to myself, and one thing has jumped to the top of the list for me as a result of this past weekend.

Part of my family’s Christmas ritual includes time for board games and this year, we played a wonderful game my sister brought called “Concept.” Concept is, as Wil Wheaton describes, “like pictionary for writers.” You can get a nice summary of the rules in the video I linked there, so I’m going to focus on a few of the higher concepts of the game. Unlike similar games, where it is a player’s job to communicate something to the other players, such as pictionary or charades, Concept limits your communication to only placing little plastic items on a board covered in icons. You aren’t allowed to communicate using pictures, gestures, or any of the other ways available in pictionary or charades, which means there is often less for the players to go on when they’re guessing. At the same time, the variety of items and icons means you can sometimes say more. Both of these things can be severely limiting.

If you put down too many items on too many icons, it becomes hard to tell what concept you’re trying to communicate and the people guessing can guess a wide variety of things that may not be related to what your concept is. If you have too little, its possible the players will get stuck and be unable to made the intuitive leap you’re trying to nudge them toward. Hard concepts, such as people or movies, are generally easier to communicate. Soft concepts, such as phrases, are much harder. That being said, that’s not always the case. My brother and I spent ten to fifteen minutes trying to guess what our sister had picked and she got so frustrated with our inability to guess that she accidentally let her concept slip when she was berating us.

To be fair, neither of us had seen that movie in a long time. To continue being fair, it shouldn’t have been that hard and I feel almost ashamed of how dense I was in retrospect. The intelligence of your players is the only real limitation on the game, so you should probably be careful when considering playing it with young children and adults who have been drinking. I’d like to say the alcohol clouded my wits, but I hadn’t drunk enough by then to use it as an excuse. Also, alcohol is really only limiting when you’re the person who is trying to convey the concept. Guessing just gets easier and more fun the more you drink.

You can play it with as many people as you like, so long as they can all fit around the board, and all the concepts are family friendly, so no need to worry about upsetting Grandma or Grandpa. I definitely recommend it if you’re looking for a new party game to try.