I have a buddy – let’s call him Merrick – who I’ve played roleplaying games with for a long time. He was in the first game of Mutants and Masterminds that I ever ran as the GM, and he has been in the majority of the games I’ve run or played in. We don’t get to hang out as much as we used to – when I started working for my current employer I moved away – but we still keep in touch and from time to time we still get to play roleplaying games together. At one such get-together over a year ago, Merrick said to me: “Ian, I’m thinking about having you GM my bachelor party.”
At the time I had no idea what that meant, so I just said “sure, yeah, keep me posted,” or something equally vague. Well last week, the guy who I think is Merrick’s best man – let’s call this fellow Elliot – reached out to me over Facebook messenger and said “hey Ian, so I know this is short notice, but we’re having Merrick’s combined bachelor/bachelorette party in about a month and would like you to run an RPG. Also, here’s a list of the 15 people who will probably be there.”
If you have any experience with tabletop games, you likely understand my startled reaction. The golden ratio for most roleplaying games is four players to one gamemaster – many can comfortably support five or six but start to break above that. I have both run and played in games that hit eight players, and that often felt like a circus. So the idea of nearly doubling that – having fourteen people at the table – is an intimidating one to consider. So naturally, I said to Elliot: “yes, I would love to GM!” Call me what you will, but I can’t say no to a ridiculous challenge – the very idea of doing this and doing it well has me salivating.
How in the world does one GM a roleplaying game for fourteen people? I immediately began to explore that question. The internet, of course, had plenty of suggestions for me, ranging from the always-helpful “don’t even try it” to the inevitable “just run Savage Worlds, it’s the best game in the universe.” Seriously, type a question about roleplaying games into Google sometime and see how many recommendations for Savage Worlds you can find. Those players are more aggressive evangelists than the Gideons.
It was then that I remembered about a phenomenon that I heard about on Twitter recently, the revival of an age-old tradition that got mixed reactions when the possibility was mentioned. There was a time when that most celebrated of roleplaying games, Dungeons and Dragons, had its very own competitive scene at gaming conventions. Yes, you heard me right, adventurers: D&D tournaments are a real thing that at some point in time actually happened. For all I know, they still go on now.
After doing a little bit of research, here’s what I know about how this worked. Teams of players with pre-generated characters would be assigned a GM and make their way through as-yet unpublished adventure module. Based on how quickly they completed the adventure, how much treasure they gained, how healthy they were at the end of the session, and how many monsters they defeated, they were assigned a score. The best teams went on to the next round and played through a new adventure, and this continued much like any other tournament until there was a champion.
One GM running a game for 14 people might be wild, but three GMs each running a game four four players hits the golden ratio. This would allow the groups to all experience a fun adventure where their game master can give them the ideal amount of attention, while engaging the party as a whole by having them compete for the most points. Since many of the players have likely not experienced a competitive roleplaying competition, it would be a new and innovative experience for even the more practiced players at the party.
Of course, this method comes with some complications as well. Since as far as I can find, there’s no scoring system that has ever been officially released, I have would have to build the scoring mechanisms from the ground up. And unlike Wizards of the Coast, I don’t have the resources available to me to playtest the module a few times to get an idea of how long it should take or what kinds of feats should be worth points versus. I also already know that Merrick’s game of choice for the session is FATE, a game for which I don’t have any published adventures and therefore would need to build the scenario from the ground up too. Plus there are space issues – if there’s not room for three separate RPG groups to play simultaneously without overhearing or interrupting each other, this format will be a lot more difficult.
Inspired by the tournament idea, though, I thought of a second method which would focus on cooperation rather than competition. Rather than having three GMs run the same game for three groups, what if they ran different parts of one overarching game? As an example, the twelve characters could all be one big adventuring party exploring a complex, multilevel dungeon. The dungeon has three distinct sections that must be completed before the final segment opens up. The three groups could play a section each, then come together at the end for one huge blowout against a final boss.
This addresses another potential problem of playing with so many different people: the diverse interests. As a GM it’s important to tailor your game to the interests of the folks at the table. While it isn’t your job to make people have fun – that’s not something that any person can guarantee because of all the possible moods at the table and the subjectivity of fun as a concept – it is important to make sure the game is something that all of the players are interested in participating in. By having three separate dungeon segments, I could design each one to appeal to a different playstyle. One section of the dungeon might have more combat encounters while another focuses on stealth and subterfuge. Players could choose which dungeon team they are on based on what kind of gameplay they want to experience.
Once again though, I can anticipate some similar issues to my tournament plan. Spacing is a significant factor in this whole equation – if our venue simply doesn’t have room for three separate RPG groups to play comfortably, then either we try it and every conversation overwhelms the other or we have to change tracks and go with a different plan. The final moments when everyone comes together could also be highly problematic. Even if it would be for a short time instead of for the length of the entire session, trying to juggle a dozen players would make it difficult for everyone in the group to get “screen time,” so to speak. And what happens to the other two GMs? The idea of multiple game masters works when there are three separate tables, but some serious negotiation would have to happen once we’re all at the same table. Not that I don’t trust my friends to manage our co-power responsibly, but it definitely makes the whole scenario a lot more complicated.
So because potential space problems are a flaw in both of these plans, I have to figure out a way to manage that. Luckily, this exercise in hosting for fourteen people isn’t the first time I’ve experimented with session structure at the table. I’m thinking specifically of a game of Dread that I once played where the setting was a formal dinner party. The intent was for the night to play out like a murder mystery dinner. My wife and I served a bunch of finger platters in the living room and set up the dreaded Jenga tower in a separate room hidden from view. While in the living room, the investigators could share ideas, eat food, and have pleasant in-character conversations while waiting for the opportunity to go in the back room. The back room is where the investigation happened, where players pulled blocks from the Tower to take actions and to survive setbacks.
This ended up working out pretty well, at least for this one particular experiment. Walking into the back room after being gone for awhile and seeing the Jenga tower ready to topple added to the dread of the scenario, and having a real house party during a game about a house party sold the atmosphere to the group. While I don’t just want to rehash a previous idea, I know from experience that providing other options for the players who aren’t directly engaged in the game at the moment can be an effective way of making the whole experience feel connected instead of simply like waiting for your turn to play your character.
The potential issue there is that what works for Dread probably doesn’t transition well to FATE. Dread is designed to build anticipation, and its success rides on doing so effectively. The folks in the living room eating and talking are also listening for the telltale sound of the Jenga tower’s fall, a tangible signal that things are about to escalate. FATE doesn’t focus on that anticipation – it instead focuses on characters doing cool things. The time away from the table wouldn’t necessarily be as engaging, especially without a strong concept to make that time compelling. If I can’t come up with a hook at least as powerful as the murder mystery party concept (and right now I realistically don’t have ideas), then whoever isn’t actively engaged in the session at the moment may feel that they aren’t getting a full play experience.
So let’s assume that this party ends up being my worse case scenario (from a GM perspective): all fourteen players show up, I have a tight space where groups can’t play separate games or separate segments of the same game, and there’s no way to implement an interesting structure where folks can engage each other while I focus on a small section of players. How in the world do I make this massive game of FATE a successful event for my buddy Merrick’s wedding celebration?
First off, I think it’s key to establish expectations. Everyone in this group needs to understand that we’re not playing a roleplaying game in ideal circumstances, and that in order for everything to run as smoothly as possible they are going to have to buy-in to the scenario. If the players can do a good job of sharing the spotlight by creating moments that highlight other characters, that will go a long way towards keeping things smooth. Getting excited about the moments that someone else is doing something cool will help keep the entire group engaged. And if someone needs to disengage for a few moments – to check their phone or doodle on their character sheet – that’s totally cool. The important thing is that players who disengage need to be careful not to pull other people in with them. A couple of folks on their phones doesn’t break a game, but three people watching Music.ly on full volume and laughing during an interrogation scene can definitely break the tension.
Second, I as the GM need to streamline as much of the experience as possible. With only three-and-a-half hours to give fourteen people a satisfying roleplaying experience, I can’t spend an hour on character creation and another thirty minutes trying to explain the rules. Having enough reference materials for the whole table to be able to quickly look at a rule is key to keeping the game running smoothly during play. Pre-generating characters so that we have ten minutes of character selection instead of thirty minutes of character creation allows us to jump into the action as quickly as possible. As the game master, the best thing I can do to make this game run effectively is to be prepared so that as much time as possible can be devoted to actual roleplaying.
Thirdly, lack of space doesn’t have to mean lack of groups. Breaking the players into teams creates dramatic tension as well as assisting in sharing the spotlight. Even in my normal group of five players, we tend to do scenes in groups of two and three. Being able to jump-cut from one group to another allows me to set up small cliffhangers or give teams the time they need to discuss the plans for their next action. Having a couple of scenes running at once creates variety and keeps one particular group from being disengaged for too long of a time. And on a practical level, it is so much easier to create suitable challenges for four characters than it would be to try to present a challenge to fourteen of them.
Finally, the most important thing the whole group can do is have realistic expectations. It’s easy to fantasize about one-off roleplaying sessions as these amazing experiences. We picture it like a movie, something that will build to a satisfying climax, perfectly spotlighting every character and giving them meaningful interactions and moments to shine. We forget that even during the typical sessions of our normal campaigns, it’s hard to create that scenario. The sessions that go perfectly smooth and are mind-blowingly amazing are rare and depend on so many subjective factors. My perfect session may not be yours. Some folks at this fourteen-person table will have a great time. Some will be disappointed. We’re not going to be able to create a masterpiece at this table, but not every session of a roleplaying game has to be a masterpiece. The goal is to share a game together, and regardless of what else happens, we will have accomplished that goal by the time the party is over.
Those are my final thoughts on running a game for a huge group of people – but maybe you have some thoughts that you would like to share. Have you run a game for such a large group, or played in one? How do you feel it went? Do you have any advice for me as I take on this challenge? Let me know in the comments, and as far as the party goes – you’d better believe that once this session is over that I’m gonna tell you all about how it turns out!