Saturday, 25 January 2020

Playing D&D with large groups

I'm currently playing D&D with two groups, one on Thursday evenings and one on Saturday evenings. I can't say I'm getting to either on a regular basis, due to work pressures, but the Thursday group is proving popular, as it takes place at the Dice Saloon in Brighton and has consequently expanded.

We are now up to seven players at the table, with scope for eight if we have a 100% attendance record. This would be a very rare eventuality, but not beyond the boundaries of possibility. I've noticed some other eight player groups playing D&D at the Dice Saloon - the game has become trendy again and many in the under 30 age bracket are getting into playing it.

Your humble correspondent is somewhat of a grognard by comparison, having first opened his D&D red box set at Christmas in 1983.

What to do with large groups of players

This post is really about how you actually play a tabletop RPG with that many players, as sessions can be a bit chaotic. The GM needs to be a little bit more assertive than usual, and can't pay attention to each player as much as he/she would like. As my GM Adam has stated, you need to avoid giving the noisiest wheel the most oil!

We are currently playing through the Tomb of Annihilation campaign, and I can report that after four months in the jungles of Chult and another two months in the lost city of Omu, the party does seem to have discovered the actual tomb.

New characters are being added as we encounter lost adventurers in a predicament - the latest joined when we found her languishing at the bottom of a pit trap. Adam has been very good at sewing each new character into the overarching plot - they are not just a random encounter, they have a reason for being where they are, and a good motive to join the adventurers.

As we have progressed into the tomb, however, the party has narrowly avoided splitting up, always a bad tactic, and in this case we almost lost one of our tabaxi scouts to a poison gas trap. With so many traps in the tomb, there is a delicate balancing act between sticking too close together that multiple adventurers can be claimed by the same trap, and dispersing so far apart that we can be picked off easily - something that occurred earlier in the campaign at another ruin, causing the death of our wizard.

Splitting up is something larger parties have a propensity towards, however.

Table-wise there is a lot of noise on the night and some quieter players seem spend most of the session saying little at all. You need to keep a close eye on where your miniature is on the map and make sure the GM knows from time to time what you are doing, but it can be very easy to go through three hours of gaming saying little. For me, this is less of an issue, as after a hard day at the coal face I'm happy to just sit there and enjoy the carnage. But I can see how some gamers, perhaps used to smaller groups, might find this difficult.

Coping with the big party experience

D&D seems suited to the big party experience. To be honest, that's really what it was intended for. Read adventures from the pioneering days of the game (e.g. Against the Giants) in the late 1970s and you will see they are written for larger parties, frequently in the 6-10 bracket. When I started running D&D at school, in the 1980s, we might be able to muster six players on a good day, but parties typically resorted to hiring retainers to make up the numbers and plug gaps in the skill set (I remember one entire session devoted to the player characters interviewing retainers in the upstairs room of an inn, with the young GM playing each prospective hireling in turn).

More recently, with smaller groups, the issue has been one of simply making sure the main functions are covered. Finely tuned games like Pathfinder seem to punish lower level parties without healing magic, for example. But I can also see how other games, like Call of Cthulhu, could really struggle with a large party, although I recognise there are many tournament adventures written for CoC for six players that seem to work fine.

The big question is - what sort of game, other than the classic dungeon bash, which is Tomb of Annihilation, works with a large party? I would argue there are two - the troupe game and the political game.

The troupe-based approach

The classic example of the troupe game is Ars Magica. This game of medieval wizards is structured around the idea of a community of characters who may / may not participate in each adventure. And not all characters are wizards. Some, called grogs, are more your standard spear carrier. But I can see how a GM could let more experienced / regular players take on the role of magi or companions in Ars Magica, and leave the occasional punter like myself to play a grog.

The system seems designed to manage a larger party as well as allowing players to run multiple characters. It is not everybody's cup of tea, but could work for bigger groups of players and has been used as the basis for substantial LARPs in the past.

The multi-faction approach

The other approach is the political game, where multiple players each represent their own interests, either in a long form, multi-session campaign, or in a one shot. I've seen examples of this in the pages of 1980s RPG magazines, using the background of a night in a roadside inn. Each player has a character with their own mission objectives, who may or may not know the other characters. Some start off in the inn, others arrive not long after the scene opens. I seem to recall the late Joe Dever wrote one such scenario using his Lone Wolf campaign.

This kind of scenario can be extrapolated into different settings. Robin Laws has even created his own set of rules, called Skulduggery, which represents situations where characters may not necessarily be part of the same group. Skulduggery is probably too heavily focused on player vs player contests for some tastes, but a political campaign would work with a large group of players because it would switch focus constantly and would also credibly be able to push forward with the narrative even if some individuals are absent.

Vampire the Dark Ages, the old White Wolf RPG, seems well set up for this sort of a game, as players typically end up in different vampire factions. Unlike its more modern counterpart, Vampire the Masquerade, it takes place well before the foundation of the Camarilla and the Sabbat, which effectively divides Cainite society into good guys and bad guys in the 15th century (check out the Giovanni Chronicles if you want to actually play through this epic schism, like I did).

Vampire games, even medieval ones, take place in fast moving urban environments (usually) with plenty of political intrigue, and the scope to constantly shift focus between players. They are also flexible enough to accommodate the sudden changes of direction in the plot that a large group of players can come up with. My only experience of this so far has been to play in the aforesaid Giovanni Chronicles, with a plot that stretched over 200 years. But I can see how a local campaign using something like Vampire or Urban Shadows would serve a big group of players very well.

1 comment:

  1. I once ran a Call of Cthulhu game at the Railway Club that had at least eight players, and I'm pretty sure Adam was one of them! I remember it being about of a struggle to keep track of everyone but I think the game went well enough.

    That said, I also remember promising never to run a game of that size again, so maybe it didn't go as well as I think!