I currently, and I should say consistently, play a game with five players. I have been doing so ever since I moved to my current location, which would now be five years of GMing, from Dark Heresy to Shadowrun to Pathfinder, and an absolute slew of games in-between.
I will openly and honestly say five is the limit.
I tried to bring in a sixth PC to games several times throughout this time period, and each time it really does not work. In my experience, six players is too many voices to accomplish a fluent story within, as there are too many attentions to attempt to keep and too many voices to listen to for one person running a game.
That’s not to say I didn’t continue to try and play with six PCs during these times, as I was determined to have everyone play, but it did lead to a direct decrease in entertainment for the players, and an increase in stress for myself as the GM to try and constantly keep all parties entertained and active.
All of this is my own experience, I do not mean to command your games or tell you what to do, but I can honestly say that I’ve tried to bridge the five-to-six gap, and it just would not fly.
I don’t think I’ve ever run a group of less than 6, my current group has 8 players, and my lifetime record thus far was a campaign that started with about 17 players.
In my experience, the number of players isn’t nearly as important as the diversity of player character archetypes. If you have 2 players both playing charisma-oriented “face” type characters, that leads to duplication of effort and somebody feeling superfluous. If most of them are damage-oriented combat junkies, then they’re going to be tripping over each other to get the first strike or kill shot in. The best thing I’ve found to preserving group cohesion and keeping it enjoyable for everyone is making sure each character has their own “lane in the road” that they know is theirs and nobody else’s.
So player management doesn’t have to be that difficult. Here’s a few tips I’ve picked up along the way that really help out in order of how important I find them:
- Ensure obstacles have more than one solution. When dealing with a large array of archetypes, or even multiple characters with their own spin on the same archetype, it’s necessary for everyone to feel useful. If the thief can take care of every trap, lock, & riddle in your dungeon, everyone else is going to get bored. Provide some obstacles where the entire group isn’t dependent upon 1 player’s success. You have a wide array of skills in your PCs; make sure they are all seen as viable options.
- Provide obstacles for every skillset. Directly related to #1 is making sure that there are some opportunities which DO require a specific skillset. Every character needs to have his moment to shine, so make them meaningful. I generally don’t make these a *requirement* to complete the quest (ie, the thief HAS to be able to unlock THIS door, or else you can’t complete the dungeon). Instead, these unlock sidequests, helpful items, gain allies, or do something else to impact the group’s success without all the pressure of the entire group’s being dependent on one character’s one skill.
- Establish a leader. This doesn’t have to be “the boss.” Most of the time it tends to be the player character with the highest charisma and at least average intelligence. They shouldn’t be barking orders, but they should have enough respect so that when the group is arguing about what to do next they can mediate between the different perspectives.
- Don’t roll initiative every round. A lot of systems are moving away from rolling initiative every round which always slowed down combat is seemed to me. I have a house rule for all the systems that I play that we don’t reroll initiative every round. Sure, it means some combat encounters you’re going to spend at the bottom of the stack, but it really helps maintain momentum and keeps things from slowing down with larger groups.
- Make your rolls ahead of time. Theoretically, everything that happens in a round is happening at more or less the same time. While I don’t have a problem with a character reacting to something that has directly affected them, players should know at the top of the round what they are going to do. That means that by the time I call on them and it’s their turn, they should be able to say “I attack the kobold adjacent to me with a 24, damage of 15.” I let them know if that’s a hit and record however much damage that comes out to, and then move on to the next person.
- When feasible, sit in order of initiative. When I ran my 17-player game, this was key. Everybody sat in a circle in order of initiative so we weren’t referencing who was supposed to go next. This made combat go a LOT faster.
Between #3 & 4, I was able to move through combat faster with a group of over a dozen people than you average group of 5 or 6. It helped keep combat fast-paced and dynamic. If I got to a player who didn’t have their rolls ready, then they got to involuntarily hold their action to the end of the round. By our third session that wasn’t ever a problem again.
So yeah, there’s my tips on running larger groups. Personality is also key, but it’s harder to make a rule written in stone for that. Some people get along IRL better than others. If you think a player’s personality will mesh well with your group, don’t let the number of players stop you from letting them in.
Good point all around. Just to toss in my own experiences:
I started 3.0/3.5 in a very large group, 11, and the DM made it work. I myself ran for 7 which eventually expanded to 16. But the group at that size did not last long.
My group is now down to 8, with the DM, and 7 players. We used to have his wife, but she will only play heroic (level 1-10) games. We do have my daughter. We have various roles, and 3 leaders, each one focusing on a different aspect of leadership. A face, a strategist, and a religious leader.
In 4e terms we have 4 strikers (blackguard/fighter, rogue, hunter/paladin, and warlock/ranger, and 3 leaders (bard/cleric, warlord, and warlord/paladin) The healers keep the strikers alive, while they do their thing. 3 of the strikers are melee and they usually split up, while the warlock sticks close to me, or the bard/cleric. Our group works well, and while it can take time for a combat (especially at epic tier), most of know our tactics, and can be ready for our turns almost immediately.
Some advice about running large groups from those that have accomplished it! Thanks guys!