No Room at the Inn… (Managing Large Play-Groups)

Sometimes you nail it as a GM.  Sometimes you nail it more than you don’t and you can get a bit of a rep.  Sometimes a friend of a friend of a friend REALLY wants to try gaming and has heard you are a great GM.  Sometimes the significant other is TOTALLY fine with a second weekly game, as long as they get to come along.

Sometimes all of this leads to you staring over the screen at a group of ten people.

More the merrier, right?  Well… not really.  The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is designed for about 4 to 6 players and a GM.  Some balancing factors of the game “break” when pushed to the limits without nuancing.  With practice and learning your group, different “coping mechanisms” might work to allow you to “optimize” your larger than normal group. Here are some that have worked for me:

1) Best Possible World – Lay out your schedules and look at commonalities and play nights that make the most sense for the most players. Ask players to be clear about the regularity of their expectations for play frequency. It may be that 8 people have a good line up but it is more likely to be a smaller number. Let the players who game less frequently know that you can run events when the standard group cancels but it is perfectly reasonable to expect a baseline commitment to play nights. This will probably leave some people out and isn’t always a great option.

2) Alternating Games – If you can’t narrow down a manageable group by playnight then consider alternating games. Semi-Weekly games can allow a broader range of players regular gaming or turns at the GM screen. Also give options to players who need to play less. Varied campaign settings, alternate rule-sets, and genre burnout are easier to manage with this technique.

3) Dual GMs – Double GMs running related simultaneous tables can be a blast.  Especially when the games interact or players can mingle.  This notion is the larger concept behind a lot of Organized Play settings and events but it can be quite brilliant in a home game as well.  It DOES require significant play-space however and GMs who have a very clear and shared intention for the campaign or event.  The groups can be combined for mega-scenes and then split back out again for divergent actions.  The intense coordination for these campaigns usually works best for shorter duration campaigns or story arcs.

4) Mitosis – Sometimes attempts at 1 or 2 above make it clear that there are splits that are natural in a group. Maybe four players want to play low-level, low-magic.  Maybe another three want high-magic horror. And maybe both groups have ideal game nights that are not the same. Sometimes, this is the right way to go. It may mean double GM-duty or finding a second person willing to run, but qualitatively it can lead to better games for all parties. Games can always swap players and change lineups as life alters.

5) Freaky Friday – A very advanced solution is to pair players in a way that causes two of them to share their character.  Examples include a young hero and his ancestral spirit guide, possessing spirits struggling to take over their hosts and even living shadows.  This scenario can keep mechanical balances more in hand and allow for a published 4-6 module to be used with a much larger group.  Just remember that even if they have two distinct personalities and sets of powers, there is only one body’s worth of actions to use.

6) More is More – Just do it anyway. It is very possible to just run with the bigger group and ad-hoc the challenges. This can require a little more case by case adjustment as that a large group of social role-players is not going to be as crazy as a large group of alphas. As a general rule per 1 character it very safe to add one monster of a CR = level – 2. I generally swing a little harder than this with a group as that the “focus fire” effect is generally far more powerful in a large group. I routinely use CR = level+4 for rough fights with strong support about 2 CRs lower. These fights tend to be engaging and challenging but sometimes a big group still melts through them like butter. Area-of-Effect attacks can be a singular exception in that higher density of targets make them FAR more effective. Keep this in mind for blaster-mages, dragons and the like.

When using the More is More option a few specific things come to mind:

Enlist EVERYONE to maintain focus – Big groups are tangent-breeding nightmares and while this can make for a fun night of a dinner party it will make a story-driven GM cry blood.

Use an “on deck” system – Let the next player you intend to prompt for actions know they are coming up.  They can then think and have a faster reply ready, and move scenes and combats along faster.

Set ground rules – A really big group needs a little structure. Don’t be afraid to ask if everyone is ok with “only in character or rules discussions” or “please refrain from cell-phone use”. Nothing grinds a big game to a halt like someone looking up from Candy Crush and asking “Where are we again?”

Coordinate, communicate, and coordinate again – Group meals, break times, mechanics chats, and the like together to keep the distractions minimal and the disruptions short. More people means more actions and more cats to herd, encourage the group to synch up in anyway that makes sense.

As always, don’t forget that it is a game. Remain flexible and let players have input as to the format. Nearly any configuration can be worked around with good communication and considerate planning.  Creative resolution of large group games can create amazing and unique game experiences they will talk about for years to come.

Next: Crossovers.

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