Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Large Tables - The Unfun

I'm starting to really have a personal issue with large games.  I play in several different RPG's right now, and it really seems like the upper limit for enjoyable play is seven players. 

I generally think of three players (and one GM) as too small.  It just seems like an empty table.  This is especially true if there are six players (in the game) and only three show up.  It's almost impossible to advance the story line, because you don't really have a quorum to decide anything.  I always feel like I shouldn't make decisions on behalf of the rest of the players if they aren't there.  So it always seems to me we end up spinning our wheels when there are only three players.

Four players generally seems like a good number.  You can (hopefully) fulfill all of the traditional party roles (striker, defender, controller, leader) or (fighter, cleric, rogue, mage - not necessarily in likely in that same order).  And even if two people are filling the same role, you don't feel quite so fragile as a party. 

Five players is good too.  You can add support roles, and players can feel more free to play non-traditional characters, knowing that others can help pick up the slack.  (A bard starts to really shine at a five player table, where he might  be more of an anchor at a 3 player table.)  And I still feel like my character can get face time in when there are four other people competing for the GM's attention.

Which brings us to six.  I am in several games with six players.  Deadlands has worked well for our gaming group at six players for a long while now.  I'm still getting time to advance my character's storyline.  I'm still getting time to do my shtick in combat, and I don't think anyone at the table is getting left out.  The farthest anyone is from the DM is three seats away.  (DM at one end, three players on each side of the table.)

And at seven, things start to go to crap.  Now, someone is sitting four seats away from the GM.  I've been there.  It feels like the GM never hears you, and almost all of his attention is taken with the four players closest to him.  Combat is mostly time spent waiting or your turn.  And if you have a narrow corridor, you might as well go get something to eat until combat is over.  I've had whole combats where I just tell the GM to put me on delay, and I'll let him know if I want to do anything.

And higher numbers than seven only compound the issue.  I've heard people argue that animal companions make the problem worse, but as having played a character with an animal companion, having watched players with animal companions, and having DM'd people with companions, I think these players fall into two basic groups - people who have their shit together and don't waste time deciding what their animal is going to do, and people who generally tuck their animal out of the way until combat is over.

Maybe I've been lucky, but I can't remember any recent play experiences where other people's animal companions took any more time than "that guy" who was running a mage, but couldn't be bothered to have any idea what he wanted to do on his turn.  I know that I tend to tuck my player out of the way while my character's companion is in the midst of combat.  Or else my character will do something in a support role, and my animal will be up-front combat.

I know a lot of DM's believe that getting the most number of players at the table is a good thing.  But I think there's a point where the logistics of paying attention to a large group of players really starts to outweigh any increase in fun.


  1. Totally agree regarding big groups. Like you, I have from years of Gm'ing and gaming that I like groups of between 4 and 6, exactly for the reasons you stated.

    I am in a World of Darkness game that usese psuedo Larp/tabletop rules and currently numbers 25 players, give or take. We have just added two more Storytellers to help keep things going.

  2. I'll tell you the truth. In the complete abstract, my perfect sized Pathfinder group would be five people. Slightly more than the "assumed" size, but not so large that the extra person actually changes the encounter difficulty by too much.

    On the other hand, in the "not abstract," I keep running into people I really enjoy gaming with, and people that have to step away for a while and come back, so when groups creep up to seven or so, I have a hard time not bringing them back into the fold, especially given the gaming quirks I've had in the past.

    Part of why my "more or less" cap has defaulted to around six, when I like to have five people for a campaign, is due, in part, to what I have noticed from running other games as an adult type person. Gaming as an adult is a pain. Things come up, and I'd rather pad my group a little than try to find an ideal sized group and then have to cancel every other session because something doesn't work out for a few players.

    It is kind of interesting. I enjoy all of the people in my games, and I still stand behind my logic, but I have noticed a few times, on nights when we've dropped to five or four, that people do get more time to roleplay, plans seem to come together a bit better, and its easier for me to keep up with what everyone in the group is doing.

    Of course, there are a lot of variables. Some nights, even a group of seven knows exactly what they want to do, everything in the adventure is pretty obvious to everyone, and everyone can hear and react to everyone really well.

    Other nights, even four or five people are hard to hear or concentrate on, because there is a lot of chatter, or just because the adventure has lots of twists and turns that aren't as easy to keep up with.

    But, yes, in the end, there is a "cap" to things, and seven is definitely pushing my GMing cap when I run things.

  3. Given the demands of time, It's not unreasonable to have a party of seven in a long running game. The fact is that not everyone shows up every week, and the large party size allows us to consistently have a table of 5-6 players.

    The fact is that all of the players in our group are really great gamers, and I don't feel like we're getting slowed down by anyone.

  4. I belong to a group that meets on Tuesdays and we usually number 7 (6 players & GM). Well, because of real life we have had people drop out from time to time, usually one at a time.

    We just finally finished a Star Wars game and I volunteered to run a Dark Heresy game until someone else had something ready to go.

    Then it happened. First one guy dropped out for a month after his wife just gave birth to their first child, then another guy dropped out for a couple months...and then this week i find out another guy is dropping out for at least a semester due to personal reasons.

    Now we are down to 4 (3 players & GM). That's really a small group for this game. We talked about asking more people to play, but then when the other guys come back we would end up with 9-10 players, which is too big a group for me to run. So right now it looks like the group may go on hiatus for a while. (Gee, the DC Heroes game at Armoured Gopher is looking pretty good right now.)