Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Bigger is Better

Leo Jenicek is a writer, improv comedian, gamer, game designer, and a very good friend of mine whom I RPG with on a regular basis. He was the key force behind the D&D, Actual Play Podcast Comedy series The Pod of Many Casts, and definitely knows a great burger joint when he sees one. 

If you're not familiar with Leo Jenicek and his writing, well, your life is simply not as fulfilling and enjoyable as mine. Pity. It's not too late though as Leo has a blog that is well worth your time to check out.

A recent post on said blog got me thinking and I've decided to put forth my thoughts in a post of my own. My opinion is different from Leo's. This is not because I think that Leo's sentiments are incorrect. Rather, I'm simply of a variant mindset and I'd like to share my viewpoint with all of you just as he did. 

The core of Leo's post is that it can be difficult to get a sizable group of gamers together for a session and that's OK because smaller groups are awesome.

There is certainly more to it then that and Leo gives a number of solid reasons why he feels less is more when it comes to the number of players at a gaming table. All of his reasons make a lot of sense and I actually think that from a practical and logical standpoint most people would have to agree with him. Certain things are just true and make sense regardless of how one feels about them. 

And then there's how my brain works...

For me personally, smaller groups really aren't to my liking. In fact, I prefer a group size many GMs find a tad unwieldy. I have discussed this on my blog in the past but maybe not in as dedicated a way as I am going to do here.

First, what's considered a small group, a standard group, and a large group? While there are no definitive stats, I would say a small group is roughly 2-4 people, a standard group is around 5 or 6, and a large group is 7 or more. 

Throughout my 42 years in the RPG hobby I've run a considerable number of large groups. While standard size gatherings were indeed've had numerous campaigns with groups of anywhere between 7 and 11 people. 

Now, let me explain why this was [and is] the case.

From as early as 1978, when players needed a GM, most of my friends preferred to play and handed the reins to whomever was willing to run.  I was one of those people and over time I found I liked Gamemastering more than playing. When my truly formative gaming years came along* - roughly 1980-1990 - the dynamic changed slightly. Most gamers I knew would still rather play but the GMs seemed even more scarce. When you found them, nearly all wanted to run D&D. Furthermore, they weren't all good. 

At the time, I was considered a really good GM. People wanted to be in games I ran. I very rarely ran D&D. People came to my table because they wanted a talented GM to run something different. As it turned out, there were a lot of those people.

If I announced I was running a Star Wars game, a Mekton campaign, or something else popular with my gaming buddies (who were also Art, Anime, Comic Book, and Sci-Fi fans), I could easily end up with 9 people asking to join in. Instead of turning some people away, I just said yes to everybody.

This happened again and again. Over time I developed a style that not only accommodated the larger group sizes I was getting but I also found certain advantages inherent in the greater numbers. Through the process of trail and error over many one-shots, short and long campaigns, I discovered that my games run with large groups were generally superior to the ones with very few players. 

The majority of the plot material I use in any given campaign is based on or connected to the backgrounds of the PCs. I take the plots and subplots of the Player Characters' backstories and intertwine them into the setting, the NPCs, and what is going on in the overall narrative. The more PCs I have, the more material and interconnecting stories I have to work with. The more material I have, the longer I can keep the game going and the more involved and rich it's going to be.

Fewer players means less material to work with. Less material means a world that is less rich, less developed, and less alive.

I also found there is more depth of character when there are more players. I've noticed that with fewer PCs, more NPCs are needed. PCs end up interacting with those NPCs, which really means interacting with the GM, instead of interacting with each other. This isn't how it should work but in my experience this is what happens. In my experience more PCs means less NPCs are needed. As a result we get more scenes of players as their PCs talking among themselves.

Another benefit is one of speed. This is one of those bits that may seem counterintuitive at first but bear with me. Most people feel that fewer players means a faster round of activity, especially combat. It won't take long to get back to the first player if there are only one or two players after them.

In practice I've found that this causes/allows each player to take their sweet time in figuring out what they want to do. It takes each of my 4 players a good while to decide, or at least to describe, their course of action in my bi-weekly Star Trek campaign. In comparison, the 6 guys in my Ghostbusters one-shot a few weeks back snapped out moves at lightning speed. Why? My thought is that with a small number of players, none of them feel the pressure of needing to get their move done so their friend can get a turn. In a big group, being aware that you have a larger number of people to get through, each player keeps it short, sweet, and to the point unless absolutely necessary. 

Those are the main points I have on the subject. Less is definitely more in many cases but I don't feel player group size is one of them. I've always been a fan of fiction with a large cast of characters and that probably factors into my opinions here as well. 

How about you? What is your perfect group size? How many is too many? Anyone else prefer a large group? Let me know in the comments.

Until next time,

Barking Alien


  1. In college I ran a Vampire saga for something like 9-10 people, and I knew GMs running similarly large games for both Rifts and Call of Cthulhu. The reasons you cite were similar: people wanting to play, scarcity of GMs, folks not into D&D. *I* wasn't into D&D in those days (1990s) and those who were, well...yeah, not really my scene anyway.

    However, trying to GM games like those for groups that big was just...madness. And most, if not all, of these groups fell apart after a handful of sessions. Trying to establish something like longterm, open-ended campaign play was pretty much impossible; about the only way to make that kind of thing work was to have fairly strict plot lines (railroads even), and/or short-term, goal-oriented campaigns with specific "story arcs," tightly reigned. Or scrap and hand wave big bunches of the rules. Or both.

    All of that is kind of antithetical to me now, which is probably why I've gone back to old school D&D play. And as I've found 6-7 people to be about optimal for the number I can handle and attend to, that's where I try to limit my table-size.

    1. I can understand where you're coming from, though our experiences and results clearly differed. A group of 10 is tough to maintain and coordinate for a long period of time but as noted I've had groups of 7-9 regulars last years.

      In my mind strict plots along the path of railroads are never the answer (NEVER Do You Here! NEVER! Ahem) but I can also see why that approach would make a larger group easier to facilitate.

      While I haven't gone the way of old school play (and certainly not D&D), even I generally have smaller groups these day. On the average my campaigns over the last three years have been around 4 or 5 players and myself. It works great but it isn't my favorite. My passion and where I think I shine as a GM is bigger groups.

  2. GM plus 4 or 5 players is my golden standard. I'll rather have 3 than 6, although this depends on the environment, their degree of implication in the game and if they bring companions or not.

    If people take their time to decide their actions, or have limited knowledge of their character's abilities, larger groups can become tedious to run or be part of. But this is particularly acute in D&D style games with a battle grid, so your experience may be different.

    1. I agree with your second point wholeheartedly.

      I feel however - and it really might be my idealism clouding my perception - that the larger group size makes players decide faster. To clarify, while 'people [who] take their time to decide their actions or have limited knowledge of their character's abilities [can make] larger groups become tedious to run or be part of', in my experience I'd argue that the players used to larger groups take less time to decide and know their characters better than those in smaller ones.

      There is, as I pointed out in my post, a sense of urgency in moving things along in a large group that a small group doesn't feel.

  3. Our group has settled into a standard five players (plus one GM) in recent years, but that was restricted by space (that was as many as we could fit round our old dining table). There's a possibility, now we've moved, we might be able to expand our numbers.

    Sadly, the other restraint, is time. We can only manage once a month for two-and-a-half to three hours of gaming, and I'd be concerned that the more people we had round the table might mean less "spotlight time" for each.