Tuesday 18 April 2017

Running for Big Groups

Update: For an audio version of this article, go to Blogs on Tape!

Since early 2015 I've been running for BIG GROUPS more or less constantly. We usually hover around 7-10 players per session.
This is great (since I never run into problems with not enough people showing up, a holdover worry from the shaky early days) but difficult to manage if you're not used to it.

This boat battle had 4-5 different mini scenes going on at once involving 8 players, it was awesome

So here are some tips.

Running the Game

Tell them to speak up
Possibly the most important, and something I learnt from Courtney when I was in one of his big hangouts games.
Make sure you stress that a big group is ok but you need people to speak up if they want to do something. Players want to be involved, so let them help you!
With this many players, it's not worthwhile to concern yourself with how much "spotlight time" people are getting. It's going to have to be up to them to seize the spotlight, and up to the group to give them that spotlight if they're not a natural spotlight-grabber.
Just keep an eye out for people who seem like they're about to say something but get interrupted by a louder voice. A quick "hold that thought" is usually all you need so you can circle back round to them.

Be lenient
Alex Chalk states this well in his recent Maze Rats house rule guidelines. Interpret play actions in good faith.
In a large group, it's very possible that someone at the table misheard or wasn't concentrating on something that happened way over on the other side of the table. Dumb "gotcha" stuff isn't usually fun, and being in a bigger group makes it worse.
I find it useful to get other players to describe what's going on for me, because it's not uncommon for me to discover that the whole group's imagining something differently to what I had in my head.
Usually a simple "so you're doing X, do you realise that Y?" is enough to realign understandings.

Embrace the chaos
There is going to be a LOT going on, and sometimes things will happen that just screw up everything! Spells will go awry, somebody will shoot into melee and hit a friend, a crit or fumble (fairly common when you've got up to ten people rolling attacks) will completely fuck you over, and all those random abilities and bits and pieces any normal party picks up over time will turn up at the worst possible time.
Embrace it!
If something really crazy happens, it's a good idea to take stock at the end of the round or other convenient break point. Give a little summary of the current situation. This is so that you can get a handle on what's going on, so the players can work out how this changes their plans, and so the guy at the end of the table who missed it can enjoy the spectacle of the dad-faced eel that is wriggling its way from the wizard's throat even now.

Split the party! 
If it gets too big, split the party! This is classic bad advice, but it works with big groups.
Make the two groups change seats to sit together to help with attention-switching. Easiest in sprawling megadungeons because they've got splitting paths in which you can run two parties more easily, but we've also had geographically displaced mini-parties before, with one group in a dungeon and another group travelling in the overworld. This gets chronologically messy when the groups are travelling on different timescales, but whatever.
If you haven't run a split party before, the main trick is this - get one group to a decision point where they can discuss what to do next, then switch to the other.

Group Initiative
It's really easy to get bogged down in combat with a big group. Group Initiative solves this little problem by meaning anyone can go at any time during the player's round. I'll generally sweep round the circle from one side to the other, and come back to anyone who's still deciding what to do.
Also with a big group, it's ok to be a bit heavy-handed with exactly how much a person is able to do in a round.
In a smaller group I'll tend to let several smaller actions slide, in a larger group it's going to be a round to grab the potion AND a round to drink it. The party has TONS of actions at their disposal, so it's ok to leech them away when you can. Just make sure you're not devaluing actions that are more interesting than "I attack". If someone wants to drink a potion AND attack in the same round, I'd probably ask for a Gambit.

Party roles
Something else I've been trying recently that's been well received is to use a variation on John Bell's Party Roles. They work well! It keeps people engaged because they're still keeping track of what's going on, and also takes off some of the DM overhead.

Party roles in my game, in general order of priority, are as follows:
Remembrancer: Records what's happening so I can do the recaps more easily.
Caller: Announces what the group as a whole is doing. This is even more important in a split party situation - you want a Caller per group so when you switch back to them there's someone to tell you "this is what we're doing next".
Mapper: Drawing the maps. A classic role.
Treasurer: Keeping track of party loot.
Quartermaster: Keeping an eye on consumables, weapon breakage, and encumbrance.
Guard: Organising marching order and initiative, and rolling for random encounters.
Tracker: Tracking party HP, spells remaining, and special conditions.

I'm giving 100 bonus exp to anyone who takes on a role, as an extra bonus.

There may be a time when you say "there are too many characters" and you will probably be right.

Game to Run

Run a sandbox
Sandbox gameplay is important for big groups. Your plot-based campaign can and will fall down when a plot-centric player drops out without warning or someone leaves who was the only one who really cared about recovering the Nega-Gems of the Boom King. A sandbox means the game's much more resilient to change.
With so many people in your group, there's no doubt that at least one person will have a goal, and player-set goals are the key to running a good sandbox.
Also, make sure you've got a rumour table to drive player goal-setting. This isn't specific to large groups, it's just real important. You're the car, the players are the driver, and rumours are the fuel.

No Session Zero
Having an assumption-setting Session Zero is good advice for lots of games but bad advice for big groups. Session Zero is a lot of time spent not playing the actual game, and a lot of time for a bunch of people in the group to get bored.

Play with whoever's there
It's impossible to run for a big group if you're expecting everyone to be there every session. It's a good tip anyway, but having a sort of West Marches philosophy of "we play with whoever shows up" is absolutely crucial. Gameplay is more important than narrative continuity.
I've seen groups where a single player being off that night means that the people who showed up do some little one-shot or side quest or something, if you did that with a big group you'd never play at all!
The most important person at the table is, of course, you. It can't go ahead without you there, so be committed! Even if you feel a bit shit that day, drag yourself to that place.

Abandon game balance
Are you hoping to have at least some semblance of combat balance in your game? Good luck buddy!
Maybe you'll have ten players. Maybe you'll have 4 show up due to everyone else being on holiday or something.
You can't plan around player numbers and with larger groups your players will have way more raw firepower than ordinarily available to a party. Modules will be skewed, monsters will fall before the laws of averages, and something that would kill your average group of adventurers only slays half of them because the rest couldn't fit into the trap room.
Luckily there is a natural balancing system inherent in old school exp-for-loot. The players are safer and more powerful than the average party, but they're getting the same loot and sharing the same exp out amongst a larger group. They'll need to go to some REAL dangerous places if they want to level up as fast as a normal party.

Hardcore Mode
Apparently I'm more hardcore than I realised, since it's not as common as I imagined to enforce a "new characters come back at level 1" policy.
This does a few things to the game:
- Death is actually scary. Just generally a nice thing to have in D&D.
- Attendance is rewarded. If everyone levels up together, isn't it unfair to the guy who turns up every single week? Sure, they're there because they enjoy the game itself, but it's nice to have that translate into an actual in-game advantage.
- High level is a high score. It's a mark of pride. Getting to level 7 (the highest level anyone's ever attained in like 3 years of game) is a big fuckin' deal, and you feel massively powerful compared to any new players and characters that show up!
- Increases campaign longevity. If people are occasionally dying and working their way back up the ladder, it keeps play from straying too far from the grotty lower level stuff I like running. This thing could go forever, there's no distant endgame where the players are arbitrarily powerful and have to fight gods to find a fair fight.
On that last point, it might seem that the massive setback of losing a higher level character and coming back as a level 1 woobie would be constant slam on the brakes for the party's capabilities as a whole. Yet somehow the power of the party as a whole is always increasing. Characters may die, but the party remains.

Play somewhere that's not someone's house if at all possible
I'm lucky enough to run my game at a pub, which is ideal. Access to food and drink, fairly central, enough room for everybody, staff to clear up the mess.
Plus it's hard to get ten people sitting around a table in a flat in London, and a bit of a dick move to your housemates who have to deal with a swarm of people all showing up at once and queuing for the toilet. And it'll be difficult for at least some of your players to get home, because the vagaries of fate ensure that at least one or two people will live right across the other side of the city!
These are pretty London-specific problems though.

And finally...
Enjoy your good luck! There are heaps of people who can't manage to get together even a small group of players. Obviously you're running a pretty good game if all these people keep coming back week after week!

You can do it! I believe in you!