How Many is Too Many…Or Too Few?

Seems like an easy question for the new DM. How many players do I want in my game to make it as easy as possible? As few as possible! Like most things in life, the answer really isn’t as simple as that. While a large party can get unwieldy quickly and combat will slow down fast, there are more challenges to a small party than first meets the eye. Again, it’s a personal thing. Some people feel more comfortable with large groups, some feel overwhelmed and do better with smaller groups. Here are the pros and cons of groups of various sizes. Just so we can make sure we’re on the same page on terms, I consider a “small party” being a group of one to three PCs, an “average party” being four to six, and a “large party” being seven or more PCs.

With a small party, things tend to move a lot faster. With only a few PCs in the initiative order, combat will seem to whip right past. Having fewer players also means that everyone gets the spotlight more often, which can solve problems of someone feeling lost in the shuffle constantly. If you have a smaller group, you’re able to tell more personal stories as you can spend that time in the spotlight to explore the character in a more in depth fashion, drawing from their backstory and creating relationships with NPCs more easily. And, of course, fewer players means less that you have to deal with in terms of keeping track of what each PC can do.

However, you’re going to end up with an unbalanced party, no ifs ands or buts about it. This doesn’t matter what the game system as the Striker/Leader/Controller/Defender dynamic exists in a different form in every gaming system. Shadowrun (my favorite non-D&D game system) is a good example. To have a good shadowrunning team, you need muscle (be it street samurai or adept), magic, a face, and a hacker/decker (depending on edition). You can overlap roles more easily in a game like Shadowrun than D&D, but it still makes you a jack of multiple trades and master of none, and the group suffers for the lack of focus. D&D 4e has it even worse as missing any one of the four roles will seriously hurt the party’s ability to handle what’s thrown at them. No striker seriously drops their ability to do damage, no leader means everyone’s struggling to stay on their feet, no controller means a lack of options for herding (and just generally annoying) enemies, and no defender means your party is far more likely to get smacked around.

This doesn’t just mean that the party will have difficulties in combat, it makes your life as DM much more of a headache. Any pre-published adventure you want to run has to be heavily modified, and just putting them through adventures geared for a level or three below them won’t cut it. Because the encounters are designed for characters of a specific level, things like attack bonuses, skill check DCs, defenses, etc. are all built around that level. Putting a group of three level 7 characters through an adventure meant to challenge a group of five level 5 characters will mean that the monsters will have a much harder time hitting the characters and the PCs will be able to roll over them far easier than they should. The only way to really scale those adventures is to reduce the number of monsters or encounters the group will have. Also, you’ll need to recognize the weaknesses of your group due to the lack of a role. If your group is missing a striker, throwing a solo at them is going to make combat that much harder as it’s going to be neigh impossible for them to quickly grind down the massive amounts of HP those creatures have. If you throw a large group of minions at the players and they’re lacking a defender, the leader and controller are going to have a much harder time of things because they’ll be getting smacked around much more frequently.

What about when word gets out that you’re playing D&D and all your friends want in on the game? One of the first ongoing campaigns I ran at the local comic book store had between eight and twelve players in every session. It can be hard to manage that many people, and everyone’s going to be fighting for their moment in center stage. Again, published adventures are going to cause problems because a party of seven or eight will steamroll their way through every encounter without being in any particular danger. Upping the number of monsters will help, but that will just slow down combat even more than it already is with the large number of players, and a single combat encounter – not even the last encounter of the session – can take upwards of an hour. The problem with using a higher level adventure or monsters goes in reverse here, as the players will get quickly frustrated when they’re unable to hit the bad guys.

The plus side is that more players mean more brains and therefore more ideas. A larger group is going to be much more likely to give you cool moments as someone’s going to do something crazy every session. You can also throw stronger challenges at a larger party knowing that they’ll be able to prevail – or at least have the cash to pony up a Raise Dead if someone shouldn’t make it. While combat may be slower due to the extra steps in the initiative order, other aspects of the game will typically run faster as the “hive mind” will come up with solutions to problems much more quickly. This collective intelligence of a large party will also help you out while running the game, since odds are at least one player will remember the specific rule governing the current situation or at the very least remember where to find it. You’ll never have to worry about not having all your bases covered when it comes to party roles as at least one person in the group will have a strong desire to fulfill each role. And when your players are playing characters they want to play rather than playing what they feel the party needs to be complete (as nothing kills enjoyment of a campaign faster than “Meh, I guess I’ll play the cleric since no one else is”). Speaking of which, you’ll also be covered if one or two players can’t make the session. If you have a group of eight players and two of them are out of town, you’ve still got a six player party so you don’t have to cancel the session or work too hard to adjust.

Don’t feel discouraged from running a game just because you don’t have as many people willing to play or if you get an overwhelming response once word gets out. It’s great if you get that perfect 5-player group, but it’s not going to ruin the game if your numbers don’t match what Wizards of the Coast suggest. The reason that all the published adventures, treasure parcels, and the rules in general are set up for a five character party is because it’s one of the easiest to manage. With four to six players, you’ll have every role covered, you can run everything out of the box with only minimal modifications, and you won’t feel overwhelmed by managing a party that size. But there’s a trade-off for that “perfect” party size because you don’t get that intimacy (for lack of a better word) of the small party or that built-in backup system and “collective intelligence” of a large party. So don’t fret if you can’t get the perfect party together and learn to love the group you have rather than try to fit your game into someone else’s mold.

Published in: on December 15, 2010 at 10:40 PM  Leave a Comment  
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