Six is Company, Seven’s a Crowd? (Part 1)

by | Jun 27, 2015 | Notes From the Dungeon Master

My ever more enjoyable Star Wars: Edge of the Empire game recently required a tough vote by the group whether to add another player. But Neil, don’t you WANT more players in the game? The more the merrier, right? In a lot of gaming groups, I’d say ABSOLUTELY! But most game groups I’ve been in have a roughly 50% attendance rate at best. However, we have 7 players that almost always show and another who is a bit of a wildcard so far. That means on a bad day, 7 players, on the worst day, 6 players, and on the best day, 8 players. And best day is used loosely here. 8 players is HARD to manage if you haven’t dealt with a group that size before. I have on a very few occasions and it can be draining. The GM for our game does it week in and week out. So that’s why the decision is hard. On one hand, a player in the game has been regaling his friend with the tales of our sessions, which are truly a testament to the quality of our GM. I don’t want to deprive anyone of that joy. But, at some point, the whole will suffer from the needs of the one. Let’s take a look at some of the considerations.

The GM Perspective

The GM’s role is tough. They have to routinely prepare story material, wrangle a typically rowdy group of idiots to actually play the game rather than just sling one-liners and nerd quotes, and improv said story on the fly to deal with the improbably insane decisions every group will inevitably come up with. The list begins:

1) Preparing stories

The GM doesn’t have to plan to make everyone shine every session (help them out as much as you can). However, good GMs do try to give everyone a chance to have their day in the sun. In some cases, it’s a diverse set of circumstances that means the team has to use each individual specialty to save the princess, score a big payoff, or just not die. In other cases, it’s individual plot lines  or side stories that focus on one individual to tie them more tangibly to the game world. These get mixed and matched regularly, but man, it’s tough the more people you have in the group. Everyone is trying to jump in and negotiate a price versus lie about the quality of goods, NPCs pile up like yesterday’s recycling, and that doesn’t even touch on character motivations and party cohesion. How do you write stories that keep a ruthless bounty hunter together with an idealistic freedom fighter? Then add in someone in it for the money and another for pure bloodlust and you’re basically spending all your time trying to make the game exciting without the party literally killing each other every 20 minutes. At some point, you have to limit the work on the GM.

2) Keeping the game on track

This one goes double for any group I’m in. The more people you have, the more side comments, movie quotes, non-game conversations, and general distractions you have. As a GM, you really strive to strike a balance between moving the game/story forward and letting your players have fun. That is the point after all, right? Our current group definitely can get off track pretty easily with Star Wars quotes, what if scenarios, and snarky remarks. I think there is definitely an exponential increase in these distractions once you have more than 5 people. It can be tough to wrangle. So if you do have a large group, try to stay as focused as you can to help the GM out. I’m pretty sure our horsing around causes our GM to have to cram the crazy action packed finale into far too little a span of time rather than getting to let it play out naturally. We’re time constrained so occasionally we just “blow everything up and get away” when he wanted it to be a lot more Michael Bay.

3) Rolling with the punches

Roleplayers notoriously choose to do the one thing the GM never anticipated. From telling a Lvl 10 Murderer to go fuck himself to deciding it’s more fun to trade in the commodities market than explore that ancient alien shipwreck you just found, players will come up with some wacky stuff. Trust me, it can be fun to roll with the punches as it give you a chance to really be creative as a GM and react to the unexpected. But when you get too many people exercising their right to a seriously quirky character, it can be less rolling with the punches and more getting beat with a sack of doorknobs. The challenge is balancing keeping within some boundary of what you prepared for, the overall story, and letting the players really shine. My inclination is to let it ride and see where things go. If I have to reskin enemies to be appropriate for where the players went, so be it. Otherwise, I just try to create some sort of reasonable outcome based on their success or failure and hope for the best. However, with a lot of players, a major PC problem can easily become a major GM problem . . .

4) Split the party!

When you have 3-5 players, splitting the party almost becomes the thing nightmares are made of. If you do, you just know the boogeyman is going to drag one of your PCs into the depths of the netherworld. But when you have 8 players, you just have two fully capable parties. That means we can tear twice as much shit up right? Not so much. This is where things can go really badly for everyone. The GM many times will be dealing with split parties and sometimes they stay that way for nearly a whole session. That means the GM has to not only keep track of what each group is doing, but when they are doing it. How long did it take this group to get to the bridge and hack the main computer while the other was sabotaging an enemy frigate? How far away are they when the dock master notices and starts laying down heavy blaster fire? It’s not just a story issue, but a logistical one as well. A group can negotiate a trade contract back and forth over the course of a few minutes in real time, but that same amount of time is only a few seconds in combat. That’s a big mismatch when everyone starts doing something else. A good GM usually can switch between these things fairly easily. The biggest issue I’ve seemed to run across is excess metagaming. Half the table hears how the other half is about to get ambushed in the local bazaar and just “happens” to decide they desperately need to pick up some fresh tube socks. How could I forget? It’s up to the GM in this case to really dial this back and explain how improbable those coincidental meetups would be (stay strong!).

Worst of all though, worse than anything mentioned above, splitting the party into these independent, functional groups means one half or more of the players are sitting around waiting to do something until it’s the other group’s turn to wait. You know what they say about idle hands. This really ramps up the side chatter, impulsive reactions, and more often than not, the best justified (as the players see it) and absolutely least sane (as the GM sees it) plans possible to be conceived. I encourage you all to have fun with those. Play like nobody’s watching and be ready for the TPK, cause that Imperial Star Destroyer ain’t gonna steal itself.

So as a GM, let us know in the comments what is your preferred party size and/or what is the max number of players you’ll let in a game?