Does everyone remember the Tarrasque? The fabled Tarrasque is a unique monster from the D&D world: one of a kind, huge, a mindless force of destruction. It appears every couple of generations, has ten gazillion hit points, and wreaks utter havoc on everything in its path. It’s not something that anyone in their right mind would seek out.
In the world of Game Mastering, there is another Tarrasque, a unique challenge that only the bravest survive: I’m talking about the mega-party. The mega-party is an ungainly group of eight, nine, ten player characters, a mixed bag of gaming noobs and veterans, bards and battle-turtles and min-maxers. It’s usually brought about by a mixture of poor decisions and good intentions (hey, my cousin Bob is in town, and he’s always wanted to play, so I brought him along!). To non-gamers, a mega-party sounds awesome: the more the merrier, right?
To the Game Master, the mega party is a nightmare. Every burden, every clerical detail a GM faces is amplified when a group reaches a certain size. Combat becomes double-entry book-keeping, players get bored, challenging encounters become dice-rolling marathons, and no one ends up having any fun. The GM ends up frustrated and exhausted, and the players get disengaged and bored.
I met my Tarrasque recently. My wife has a friend we’ll call Nice Debbie (she’s Nice Debbie because my wife knows several Debbies, and not all are nice), and Nice Debbie asked if I could run a game for her kids and some friends. I like Nice Debbie, so I agreed, and brought two of my players from my regular game along with me. Five players. Perfect. We started the introductory 5th Edition D&D adventure, Lost Mines of Phandelver, and had a blast.
But word began to spread. Friends of the players got added, and suddenly we were at seven players. I decided that seven was my limit. I started prepping the next session, but then came Player Number Eight. Number Eight is a teacher at my kids’ school. He’s a very cool guy, and one of their favorite teachers. He’s been itching to play. He bought all the core books and then some. Worst of all, he’s the kind of guy that you meet and think, “damn, I bet he’d be fun to roll dice with”. He made us eight (nine if you count me), and, despite all expectations, we’ve ended up having a great time.
I survived running a table of eight. It can be done, and it can be fun. But I learned some critical tricks along the way. I hope they prove useful if you ever find yourself fighting your own Mega-Party Tarrasque.
1 - Simplify Combat
I can’t overstate this: combat is the bottleneck in almost every tabletop RPG I’ve played. It can bog down a normal-sized group, but when you get beyond six players, D&D-style combat can rapidly become an excruciating slog. Your only hope is to simplify and streamline combat in every possible way.
1 - Initiative Cards: I had all the players fill out standard 3” X 5” index cards before the game with some basic information: Armor Class, Hit Points, Character Name and Player Name, and all of their Stat Modifiers. Pre-game, I had all the NPCs and monsters statted out on cards as well. When combat starts, make a stack in initiative order of players and foes, and just flip through the stack. This prevents rolling over a combat round and having a player (who’s been noodling on their phone the whole time) complain that they didn’t get their turn. It also provides a handy place to scrawl down status effects, conditions and spell durations.
2 - Bring Back the Minions: 4th Edition D&D got a lot of hate, but it had some good ‘crunch’ mechanics. One of my favorites was the Minion. Minions were like any other low-level cannon fodder, but they had a single hit point. Basically, if they get hit, they’re dead. These are great for large-party combat because they simplify tracking monster damage, and they also let everyone feel like a hero as they mow through hordes of underlings.
3- Have Players Use Off-Time: this is hard, but it’s critical. When a player is waiting for their turn, they need to be planning. They need to be looking up special attacks, spells, whatever it is that they want to do on their turn. If a player’s turn rolls around and they start flipping pages, put their character on ‘defense’ or ‘hold action’, depending on the game system, and move to the next player. This is really hard, and it pisses people off; but, when you’re trying to manage eight players and sixteen goblins, you don’t have time for a player who waits until their turn to look up how Burning Hands actually works.
2- Small Spotlights
Look, the worst part of running a large group isn’t the pain it causes the GM. It’s the simple fact that, when a group is too big, nobody gets any time in the spotlight. We all play RPG’s to be heroes, to be badasses, and when you’re one of eight, it’s hard to have any heroic moments. Hell, if the dice favor other players, a monster might be dead before your turn even comes up.
This is a problem only you as GM can fix. Make a conscious effort to find a place for everybody to do their thing. If you have a Thief, toss in some locked chests or trapped doors, and ensure they get to find them, even if you have to fudge dice rolls. For arcane types, maybe include some ethereal monsters immune to physical attacks, or maybe a magically warded door. Divine players can save the day against undead, so, by God, throw some skeletons at them. For the Fighter types, give them a mob of 1HP minions to demolish or a door to kick in. Regardless of party make-up, you have to give everybody a chance to be badass.
I know this goes against basic GM advice to “make a consistent world and let the players work their own way through it”. That’s generally good advice, but it sucks when you have a large group. Find places for your players to shine, even if it pushes (gently) against narrative plausibility. Please trust me on this: your players will remember the time they brandished their holy symbol to Turn Undead against the skeletons more than they’ll bitch about the narrative inconsistency of why there were skeletons in a goblin den in the first place.
3- Find a Home
Figuring this out was pure serendipity, thanks to Wizards of the Coast and The Lost Mines of Phandelver. You need a base, a place like Phandalin, someplace where the adventurers can return to between adventurers. This is important, because, as GM of a large group, you’ll soon find that large groups are really damned hard to get together. Someone in the group will have a sick Aunt Edna, or a kid with the flu, or band practice, or a wicked hangover, and won’t be able to make a session. Missing players can really break immersion if suddenly Willow Cloverleaf the Druid disappears in the middle of dungeon; but if you can keep things episodic, plot-wise, they can start and end each session at ‘home’. This way, when Aunt Edna gets sick and Willow Cloverleaf won’t be with the party, it takes minimal hand-waving to explain that she had to go ‘commune with her druid circle’ for this session. Likewise, God forbid you have to add someone or get turn-over in your group, it’s really easy to narratively explain meeting Barfbreath the Barbarian at the Coloured Animal Inn and why he wants to join up with the group.
4- Be the Dad if Necessary
Look, this sucks. Trust me, I know: you’d be hard pressed to find a more conflict-avoidant person than me. But when it’s my responsibility to keep the game moving and maximize your fun, there have to be some ground rules: force players to be ready on their turn, ensure they minimize side-conversations during other people’s turn, and, man I know this sucks, maybe require people to turn off their frigging phones while they’re at the table. A lot of stuff that can slide at a normal sized table turns into a problem when the party becomes a crowd. It’s a fine line, and nobody can draw it or walk it but you; but be prepared to enforce things that normally aren’t an issue.
Don’t worry about me and my Tarrasque: I’ve got a handle on this particular group, all eight of them. And the best part is that Number Eight, the guy who just seemed like a great gamer in the making? He’s itching to start running his own game, and I have a pain-in-the-ass Half-Elf Rogue already rolled up. It’ll be nice to roll dice without having to spend a week prepping monsters and herding cats beforehand.
Jack Benner is the Renaissance Redneck and sole roustabout at Stick in the Mud Press http://stickinthemudgames.blogspot.com/
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.