Laidback DM – Running Big Parties

Nope – this isn’t a post about hosting huge drunkfests the whole street will remember. But nerdfests? Bring it on…

There’s a reason most modules are written for four players. Over time this was considered the average number of players most DMs could get together for one game session. Times have changed though, and with D&D reaching a level of popularity far beyond the original golden years of the ‘80’s, parties are bigger, tables are bigger and the associated problems of running games are bigger. Yep, facilitating large parties of players can be fun, but they can also be awkward and fatiguing. I’ve regularly run large parties of players. Here’s a few things I’ve learned over the years to help run big games and avoid some of the pitfalls.

  • Set ground rules – this is important for any game, especially big groups as they can become unruly faster than a smaller one. Establish your basic game ground rules early: no insulting, no vilification, don’t humiliate other players, etc. get your players’ input in coming up with ground rules so the group is not only accepting but knows where they shouldn’t go regarding discussions/behaviours.
  • Involve everyone – managing a party of players is like managing a team in a workplace – everyone has different strengths and motivations. Over time you’ll get to know your players well, and you’ll know what best motivates and engages them. Use that knowledge. Directly involve your players in some time of the administration functions of the game. Got some who are rules experts? Ask them for help on rules decisions, if needed. Got overly responsible players? Let them take over roles like organising initiative, mapping, marching orders, etc. Got vocal players? Give them opportunities to role play and describe their scenes. Got quiet players? Be inclusive, give them opportunities to speak and be heard. Give everybody opportunities to shine. In short, let them make your job as a DM easier, while playing to each player’s core strengths and motivations.
  • Manage the pace – make sure the story is moving along. This may sound a little obvious, and it’s true for any game, no matter what size: slow pacing kills engagement. Make sure your game doesn’t drag. If the wilderness encounters are tedious, drop them and so a travel montage instead. Better still, get one of your players to describe the flow of days on the road. If there’s a part of the adventure that’s boring, move through it quickly. And combat? “Many battles do not a good game make,” said Yoda. Even if your party are die hard hack-and-slashers, every game should be a balance of role play and combat, so that everyone gets to do something they enjoy.
  • Let your players contribute to the story – give each of your players the time to describe what they do in down time, or how they react to a new environment or new NPC. But beware the over-talker! If someone’s going on too long and the other players are switching off, acknowledge that player’s contribution and continue to move the game forward.
  • Run faster combats – big parties mean more down time between turns. This is ok for those players who are intensely involved or planning their upcoming turn, but there will be a few who aren’t – playing with phones or side conversations about non-game stuff are an indicator. Use faster combat to keep players engaged. Forego some of the lengthy descriptions of battle. Make the combat fast and keep everyone involved and excited. Theater of the mind becomes tricky the more players and monsters are involved, but it’s still quicker than using a grid. That said, the bigger the party, the better a grid for combat becomes as it’s easier to manage where the PCs are in relation to opponents. It’s your call, just remember to drop the unnecessary bits.
  • Increase the challenges – as mentioned earlier, adventures are generally written for four players. If you have more, up the ante. Parties of eight are easy – just double the number of bad guys. But what about the big bad? Rather than duplicate him/her, increase their hit points. Give them legendary actions. Up their armor class. Give them a powerful magic item to wield (if they don’t have one already). Remember, the more players, the more actions they have and the more hits the bad guys take, thus lessening the threat. You need to counter player character overkill by ensuring each combat encounter and the final boss remain suitably epic.
  • Consider more role playing opportunities – large parties of people respond like large groups of people. Often they split into cliques, or favour particular people in the group they know or identify with. Role playing encounters give an opportunity for groups to play as a party and introduce some ‘game’ conflict into the mix. Just make sure it doesn’t become REAL conflict – as facilitator, maintain control of the flow of discussion and immediately cut off anything that vilifies or denigrates another player.

Big parties are lots of fun to run. Just make sure they don’t run all the way over you.

Game on!

Steve 🙂

PS Do you have any hints for running big parties? Leave a comment! Heck, I’ll even respond to the ones about wild drunkfests.

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You can find my D&D 5e and OSR products at​ https://www.drivethrurpg.com/browse/pub/13989/Laidback-DM
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