Check any ten roleplaying games, and you’ll get 11 different answers on group size. It hovers somewhere around the 2-8 bodies-at-the-table range — including the Game Master — but authorial whim plays as much (if not more) a role in the listed numbers as actual game balance and mathematics.
But how do you determine the right size for you, as an individual, unique Game Master? And what happens when you’ve already committed to running a game and there’s too many players to handle? Or you get some no-shows, and the group seems too small for the task at hand?
Ideal Group Size
To determine your ideal group size, consider the following questions:
- What does the game say on the subject? That’s usually a good starting point.
- How mechanically complex is the game? The more complexity there is overall, and the more decision points each individual player has, the longer each scene will take. Individual character actions and entire scenes need to be considered.
- How player-driven is the conflict? If the players have to do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of creating drama and conflict, you need enough players for there to be plenty of conflicting goals, but not too many that you lose the poignancy of each dramatic twist. If the players are on a railroad, it’s easier for them to make decisions (maybe there aren’t any, but that’s a bad railroad!), and thus there’s less need for individual moments of conflict.
Anecdotally, I find that the right group size depends on the genre/style of gameplay.
GM + 2-5 players. Less if there is a lot of learning and teaching going on, and if the game is deadly at lower character numbers, just give people pets or secondary (simplified) characters to beef up the party numbers.
Mixed “Tiers” of Play
If there’s a decent mix of exploration, social interaction, and combat (but maybe leaning towards fighty), a GM + 2-7 players should work, assuming the rules aren’t complex. Lean towards the higher end to increase the variety of actions and ideas bouncing around the table. If there are a lot of options (generally also involving a lot of numbers) on the character sheet or in the game’s rules, consider dropping down to 2-5.
Investigation & Exploration
If you want people brainstorming, planning, pressing buttons, pulling levers — basically anything like the Myst games, or a GUMSHOE system game — you want a lot of people to bounce ideas off of. GM + 4-7 players.
Horror & Player-driven Drama
GM + 3-5 players, but erring towards 4. You want enough players to get the drama going (minimum 3), but too many (more than 5) and you’ve got a lot of opportunity to split the party, or to have conflicts between player ideologies that won’t be solved without a lot of metagame (out-of-character) discussion and negotiation.
Problems & Solutions
What follows is hardly an exhaustive list of problems and solutions that gaming groups will face based on the number of players, but hopefully it provides a good foundation for ways to determine what works best for you.
Consider these issues before forming your group, if at all possible. If it’s too late, use the solutions below to help you manage the group you’re already playing with. As long as everyone approaches the game as a fun hobby and treats everyone like adults, you can’t lose. When in doubt, talk it out! Your group may have different solutions to any and all of these problems: do what works for you.
The Problems with Big Groups
Whether it’s the Monty Python quotes that us old geezers do, or the latest gossip on who makes the best cat memes that the Millennials are engaging in, the social nature of roleplaying games is going to lead to some amount of out-of-character conversation. Different groups and different individuals each have their own tolerance level for this sort of thing, so when you have a bigger group, the chances are that two people won’t meet exactly eye to eye on this subject.
Solve this by setting an agreed upon etiquette for players not currently involved in the in-game action removing themselves from the table to chat, or by relying on technology to handle out-of-game conversations, such as text messaging, instant messaging, and so on.
Constant abuse of cross-chatter should be dealt with in an fair, open-minded, and adult manner, whether by conversation, email in-between sessions, or the like. Keep in mind that gaming is a social activity, and there may be players who are as much doing it for the social stimulation as for the actual gaming piece of it.
Only in extreme circumstances should you consider resorting to penalizing players through in-game methods, such as reduced experience points, automatic damage, or drawing “aggro” from enemies. These sorts of methods are passive-aggressive, and generally lead to arguments over fairness or favoritism, because the two things at work here — in-game and out-of-game — can be pretty wildly divorced from one another in some people’s opinions.
Competing Character Goals
Character backstory can lead to lofty goals that may not be in tune with the rest of the campaign at times. Allegiances to multiple organizations — the Thieves’ Guild, the Order of Wizards, and the Knights of Valor — can very well lead to cross-purposes, or at the very least, different levels of prioritization for different quests.
Don’t let this stuff kill your campaign. With a big group, there’s a good chance the party may want to split up to cover more ground, and while that can work from time to time, it can be bothersome for both encounter balance as well as handling “spotlight time” for different players.
Solve this by having a regular conversation outside of the game about the goals of the campaign, and the appropriate themes and motivations that work best to create a cohesive party of characters. Stress the problems of splitting the party — difficulty balancing the spotlight, more deadly encounters, increased mechanical complexity — in a manner that doesn’t single out any one player’s goals as detrimental, but instead to highlight how important teamwork and negotiation are among the characters.
For in-game solutions, limit the number of player-accessible organizations, loyalties, and obligations. If there are multiple competing factions, and players develop affinities for several of them, you threaten to split the party by giving them too many decision points. When players create incredibly complex backstories hinging on many NPCs, they threaten to create a problem balancing the spotlight, so it’s okay to enforce strict limits.
Competing Player Expectations
Two people who love fantasy movies can sit down to The Lord of the Rings trilogy and walk away with very different views: one wanted it to be just like the books, the other wanted way more Legolas slaloming on a shield action. Neither is badwrongfun, but it’s very easy to have wildly different underlying assumptions when most campaign planning is skin-deep, “We’re playing D&D this week!” Hell, Dark Sun vs. Birthright is practically talking about different games.
Solve this by having a similar conversation as mentioned under the Competing Character Goals section: talk your way through the campaign’s overarching themes and plotlines (without spoiling anything, if possible!), and negotiate with the entire group to come to a consensus on what works and what doesn’t. Clear motivations, and even a clear sense of the genre tropes that may be at work can help solidify a single, unified vision of what kind of game you’re playing.
When players have different expectations than each other, try to balance those expectations by catering to both at different times, if possible, or to confront such issues immediately. This is one of the few times where breaking the flow of a game to have a metagame conversation can save a lot of aggravation and bad blood, so meet these challenges head on. When the players have differing expectations than the Game Master, it’s perhaps even more important to figure out a solution immediately, in as honest and up-front a conversation as you can manage.
Remember that these are games meant to be enjoyed by everyone at the table.
The more complex the system, the more time it takes for people to suss out the details of their actions. The more options each individual player has open to them at any given mechanical decision point, the more time each decision will take.
Solve this by sticking to games with simpler mechanics (a core, universal resolution system helps), or games with very clearly defined structure and options (D&D 4th edition has a pretty concentrated pool of Powers for every given character).
Consider house rules that either decrease complexity, or provide just a little extra bang on resolving conflict faster, like dealing more damage or having access to the more powerful options more often, or earlier on.
The Problems with Small Groups
Encounters Are Too Hard
Having fewer players than expected — for some of the more complex mechanics, or games that rely on a healthy dose of player-driven drama to create an economy of bonuses (such as the ones provided by Fate points) — can really create a disparity between what the typical encounter looks like and how it plays out when there are loss player actions to bring to bear. If you just happen to game with a small group, you may have to carefully weigh how powerful opponents are that can affect multiple people with their abilities and attacks, because it’s a lot easier to cast a net wide enough to disable the entire party.
Solve this by following the game’s instructions to reduce the difficulty of encounters, if any. This might be as simple as reducing the number of opponents or their ability to hit effectively and deal damage, or it might be a much bigger process of choosing all new, level-appropriate opponents. If you’ve got some prep time, this shouldn’t be a problem, but if you have some last minute cancellations, you could be facing a lot of extra work. It pays to do some of this work ahead of time: keeping a few extra weak and a few moderately challenging encounters “on deck” in your GM bag of tricks really pays off when there are last minute changes to your playing group.
Alternatively, consider beefing up the party using existing Player Characters as NPCs, or — often more effective and less difficult for the GM — handing those characters to the players that are present as a secondary character. For some game systems, player characters may be fairly complex, so another option would be to have simplified NPCs (or simplified versions of the PCs, if you have the prep time) that you can hand out as secondary characters for the players to control during combat or system-heavy scenes. While every system will have its own particulars, it’s generally a good idea to keep simplified characters reduced to a single 3×5 index card (preferably just one side of it, too), as this will keep the decision-points necessary to play these characters relatively small.
Not Enough Dramatic Conflict
Some games rely on drama between the player characters to get things moving. This may key off conflicting relationships, different values, allegiances to multiple disparate groups, or simply a lot of player conversation. This latter type of situation crops in investigative games: if there’s only a couple players to toss around ideas and deduce a crime or mystery, it’s easier to go off on a wild goose chase, miss a clue entirely, or keep on hitting a dead end.
Solve this by considering a simpler style of session, with a unified dramatic goal for the few players you do have; in other words, give them something outside of their drama to focus on. Alternatively, introduce more NPCs as major characters for a short time that specifically target the relationships of the player characters. You can look to games like Smallville Roleplaying Game (or any Cortex Plus Dramatic-derived game) for advice on how to build these “Wedges,” but suffice it to say you are looking to build an NPC that either has a relationship at odds with one or more of the player characters, who will approach the player characters in a way that exacerbates an already negative relationship. Got two players whose characters are troubled ex-lovers? Introduce a character that’s guaranteed to get romantic with one of them, but has something the other player wants; drama will ensue!
Not the Right Mix of Player Strengths
Some games have features that encourage — or even require — a variety of player character types in order to engage with separate subsystems, or different “pillars” of play. For example, old school D&D tends to have undead that are absolutely nasty TPK material unless the party has a Cleric. A “challenging” trap in 3.5 D&D is absolutely untouchable by most characters who don’t have class features (or haven’t multiclassed) that mirror the abilities of a Rogue; the DCs are just too high for cross-class skill ranks to reach.
Solve this by house rules that increase the breadth of character abilities, or by providing secondary characters for the players to run that fill in gaps in their primary characters’ skill sets. While it’s sometimes easy to simply focus the adventure on things that play to their strengths and avoid the stuff that doesn’t — which is a totally legitimate solution, by the way — this is often going to create long-term difficulties in keeping adventures fresh, or might cause certain fundamental pieces of a game system to fall by the wayside, which might some impact on mechanical balance, or spotlight balance between the characters.
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