Last weekend I attended a one-shot Pathfinder campaign; monsters were slain, pizza was eaten, and fun was had by all. Sounds like a normal session, right? This one was different: there were 14 players, almost half of which had never played a role-playing game in their life. The fact that fun was had by all is a little bit more impressive now, isn’t it? Sure, each combat took an hour (or more). Sure, the story was a bit contrived. However, the bottom line was that I would do it again in a heartbeat. The GM was a long-time veteran and put many hours of preparation into the game, which is the main reason it was so successful. Still, there were several aspects of the game which could have been improved. This got me thinking: how can the GM best manage large and inexperienced player groups and keep the game be enjoyable? Here’s what worked and what didn’t from the weekend.
1) Pre-Made Characters
The GM put in an incredible amount of work pre-generating 17 unique and fun characters from which players could choose. This drastically cut down on the amount of work needed during the session and got people into the game faster. Printouts of all relative spell and skill information also decreased the amount of core books required, a fringe benefit.
2) Splitting Up the Party
Under normal circumstances, this would spell disaster. However, when your party could field a football team, it’s less risky. In larger groups, much of the player-to-player interaction (strategizing, teamwork, etc.) is lost in the huge melee. The GM splitting the party into manageable sub-groups of 3-5 allows for players to mix and strategize; furthermore, he varied the sub-groups from combat to combat which gave players a chance to play and interact with new people (many of those playing didn’t know one another) and adjust strategies according to the limitations of each team.
3) Diverse characters
With a large number of players comes the potential for a highly diverse character set. Most, if not all, of the character classes were represented that evening, along with numerous supplemental classes. Even when there were duplicate characters in the same class, there were completely different builds. Not only did this give players choice, it led to interesting combinations in-game that you probably wouldn’t find otherwise. For example, there was a sub-party of a bard, sorcerer, and scout having to plan for combat. Woot for the rarely seen bard-tank!
4) Sub-Encounters Managed by Players
Given that our mega-party was split into 3 or 4 sub-groups for many of the engagements, having one person manage all of them would be have been infeasible. The GM assigned an experienced player in each sub-group to the role of playing baddies for their group. While this certainly presented a conflict of interest, it allowed combats to move at a normal pace and freed up the GM to float between groups, making the story-related and more important decisions, rather than rolling dice for dozens of baddies. He did this for run-of-the-mill baddie fights and it worked swimmingly; he took control of all the encounters significant to the main story-line (e.g. a big boss fight).
5) Player Ordering
When we did have combat with our mega-party, the GM had the players physically order themselves by changing seats according to their initiative order. While it felt like a game of musical chairs whenever we needed to switch seats, it helped keep the group focused on remembering whose turn it was: I go after the person on my right, no need to keep calling out asking where in the initiative order things are.
6) Single GM
While he split up the mega-party as often as he could, the game was too big to be run by a single, dedicated GM. I think it would have worked better if there was a second person acting as a co-GM, who could run engagements, interface with players, and split the time of all the things that GMs have to do effectively in half. Having 2 GMs could eliminate the need for having players run their own engagements entirely and I believe it would have streamlined the experience, creating more playtime for everyone.
7) Time Limits During Combat
The GM instituted a 30 second time limit for each player to take their actions during combat. While this may have been a necessary evil, it felt limiting as a character. Given that each round would take 7 minutes if everyone took their 30 seconds, think about how many rounds most combats take. Some turns are more important than others and some actions need more forethought, so a 30 second limit (as flexible as he was with it) left me, even as an experienced player, feeling a bit rushed and prevented me from enjoying some of the tactical aspects of combat.
8) Social Limitations
This naturally happens in the social dynamics of a large group of people when they get together: the loud, boisterous types dominate and the more quiet and shy people get left out. As a loud and boisterous individual, this didn’t impact me personally, but I noticed that some people enjoyed themselves less, as they were more uncomfortable with the situation. The GM, and I as a player, could only do so much to include everyone in the game. As such, the experiences of individual players in large groups are more varied, with some having a great time and others feeling forgotten, than that of a smaller group.
All in all, I counted the experience as a wild success, kinks notwithstanding. The fact that I got to play Mr. T, Night Elf Mohawk, didn’t hurt things either. After he was crushed to death from a failed attempt to “Pity the Fool” at a giant, I then took over as Yoda, the goblin wizard. The GM was really boss at making fun characters.
- Jake is one of High Level Games’ international correspondents, reporting from the great state of Texas in the U.S. of A. He aspires one day to become a Night Elf Mohawk himself.
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