Lost in a Crowd (GMing Large and Ensemble Cast Games)

Telepathy Bar Small

Sometimes a story’s natural progression takes a GM into a development that fields a large number of characters in play. Even the principle Pathfinder Organized Play environment places the players’ party as one of many in a far larger pool of operatives. Large numbers of NPCs can detract from principal action or otherwise relegate player character’s to secondary concerns. The issue is of course one of how to remain true to verisimilitude while still engaging players and building relevance for the individual party. While Organized Play has the convenience of serial compartmentalized stories, it also lacks a clear visibility to other PC or NPC actions in the same moment making it easier to inflate PC importance. So how do we deal with this situation in a standard campaign?

GMing Large and Ensemble Casts

First remember that these moments of convergent plot action are probably just that… moments. Such gatherings are often just below the need for Ultimate Campaign’s mass melee rules, rather representing multiple parties of adventurers. Consider the gathering of the kingdoms heroes is probably happening to deal with a singular threat or issue. These events are transitory and the need for the large cast can recede post-event back to more manageable levels of characters and face time. As for navigating the large cast sequences consider using one or more of the following:

  • “Two Pronged Assault!” and “Divide and Conquer!” – Sometimes for the battle to succeed, it has to be fought on multiple fronts. Maybe to assault the mages lair one group needs to disable to artifact powering the tower’s defenses while the second group (the PCs most likely) has to move in before the foe can recall more guardians or create new defenses. Maybe the villains are after a dozen objectives and each “team” needs to guard one or more of them. You can add drama to these scenes by using telepathy or even visible geography to update the PCs party on their allies progression.
  • “Where Only You Can Tread!” – Perhaps the PCs have an item, mark or prior grant of agency that allows them to move into enemy territory unmolested or defeat a critical countermeasure. Remember that exclusivity is as powerful as difficulty when building campaign relevance. If only the PCs can do it, then only the PCs matter in that moment.
  • “Body Doubles!” – In a more complex but sometimes fun twist a large cast can be run by assigning a second character to each player. A character sheet with an attached directive on motives and favorite tactics can enable you to run a far larger cast for an extended scene or time and cut down on GM “processor power” while allowing for some pretty epic scale combats. This option requires a significant amount of preparation and probably should involve player consent–some players might be overwhelmed trying to figure out a second PC on the fly.
  • “Mixed Fruits!” – A variant on the above, where the party is split into two groups of PC/NPCs all played by player characters. This switch up may allow people to step out of roles for a few sessions as the Party healer runs an NPC  damage dealer or the party stealth characters are finally allowed to go “full dark” with other players running NPCs thieves and rogues of their own. This can allow for sessions exploring vastly different modes of play and build value for the orginal party as people may experiences lacks in party make up that they are used to (and might take for granted).
  • “If Only We Had Time to Help…” – A drastic but possible solution is to assault the gathering with lethal force and ensure that only the PCs survive the incident. Long game consequences to setting or morale might be pretty extreme in this solution. Players who feel a GM will kill large numbers of NPCs at the drop of a hat aren’t likely to feel very safe themselves. Over reliance on these tactics may lead to PCs feeling they are cursed and bring doom with them wherever they go.
  • “It All Hits The Fan!” – Lastly, when running a temporary swell in cast size, you can just go for it. This often means a LOT of GM vs. GM battles which they will be required to emphasize to make them matter and entertain while being clear not to “out budget” the actions of the PCs. This one is a very challenging balance, particularly in that twice as many characters on the PCs side means double the challenging bad guys.

Moments of large ensemble casts can really help build realism and dramatic tension into the story. Don’t be afraid to creatively utilize them from time to time. With a little effort they can result in truly unique play experiences and enjoyable NPCs that share a mutual history with the party going forward. Just don’t forget to keep the PCs at the heart of the action!

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