Size Does Matter: Small Game Groups Vs. Big Game Groups

Would you say this game group is too big, too small, or just right?

When it’s time to get a new RPG campaign started, there are lots of things to consider. What game system? What campaign setting? What’s the main plot? And, perhaps most importantly, how many players should be at the table?

You can’t play a tabletop RPG by yourself. Well, I suppose you technically could, but it wouldn’t be much fun. The interactions between the GM and the players, and between the players, are what make the game entertaining. Beyond that, those interactions are what drive the game, whether in the direction the GM intended, or on a tangent that may end up even better than the original plan.

Different games call for a different number of players; some games are best suited for one-on-one play, while others need a handful of players, and still others can be played with a large group. But it’s not just the game that dictates the number of players that will work best. The GM and players involved also help determine how many gamers will be manageable.

In my experience, the average game group is usually 4 to 6 players, plus a GM. When should you go with fewer players than that? Or when should you go big or go home, and open the table to 7 or more players? While there aren’t any definitive answers (sorry!), there are pros and cons to small and big groups alike that should be considered when setting up your game.

Small Groups (No More Than 3 Players)

The Pros:

Easy to manage. Unless you end up with three alpha males (or similarly strong personalities) at the table at the same time, odds are the GM will be able to keep all the players in line at the same time. The table will be quieter and more peaceful with a smaller group.

Each character gets time in the spotlight. With only a couple PCs, no one will ever feel like they’re just tagging along with nothing to do. Even if each character has a significant personal storyline, there will be time for everyone to get some attention in almost every session. Less downtime for the players keeps them happier, and keeps the GM happy as well (see “easy to manage” above).

Roleplay opportunities like you wouldn’t believe. The smaller the group, the more time and opportunity there is to really delve into the characters and develop them. An extended in-character conversation is often easier to accomplish with a small group. For games that are heavy on roleplay, a small group is better.

The Cons:

Standard party structure? Forget about it. If you have a maximum of 3 players, you’re going to be missing something important in terms of skills and talents. Unless everyone plays a multi-classed character, or characters with multiple talents (like a paladin, who can serve as the tank as well as the healer), the party will just have to accept that there are some things they won’t be very good at.

The big boss battle is harder. Whether you’re up against one BBEG, or a horde of enemies, your small party may be overpowered or outnumbered, even after the GM has scaled things down to what should be reasonable for a party of your size. It can be discouraging (if not deadly) to be out of spells and arrows and that cave troll is still marching toward you as if you’ve barely scratched him.

One player calls in sick and the game’s off. With each PC being so important in a small group, a player’s absence is sorely felt. In a bigger group, the GM can just put the focus for the night on the PCs who are present, or have someone run the absent player’s character for that session. In a small group, that’s not as simple, and it’s usually better to just call the game off.

Big Groups (7 Or More Players)

The Pros:

A well-rounded party. With so many players, you can end up with just about every Pathfinder or D&D core class available. Or a full pack of werewolves. Or the entirety of a vampire clan’s force in the setting city. A large number of characters means a large number of abilities, and there will be little that the party can’t handle.

Big battle? No problem! A big party can easily divide and conquer most foes. This means the GM doesn’t have to be quite as careful with the monsters he throws at the PCs, and the players get to have fun flexing their battle muscles.

The world doesn’t end if one player can’t make the game. There will be more than enough other PC storylines to carry the game for the night if one person has to skip a session. The game can go on and the player won’t feel bad for ruining everyone’s night. (Which means they’ll be more likely to stay home when they’re sick!)

The Cons:

“Splitting the party” takes on a whole new meaning. If you have 8 players, there is the distinct possibility that the party may split and go 4-8 different ways. Not only is this a nightmare for even the most experienced GM, it’s a buzzkill for the other players not involved at any given time. I’ve written before about how both the GM and the players have responsibility to keep boredom and misbehavior to a minimum when the focus is only on one or two players, but the more players there are, the harder that becomes.

Bigger isn’t always better. A group of 10 adventurers is more difficult to find rooms/food/equipment for in a small village than a group of four. That’s also a lot of characters to try to heal after a big battle, even for powerful clerics and paladins. And if the party doesn’t split when going through a city, a big group will draw unwanted attention and may also intimidate potential contacts. Character development has to take a backseat to the main story if there’s any hope of accomplishing anything. Then there are the out-of-game logistics: do you have room for 10 players to sit? Can you afford to provide snacks or drinks for that many people? Do you have two bathrooms?

It’s like herding cats. The more people you have in one place, the more difficult it is to manage them. Noise levels go up. Side conversations increase and become more distracting. Players not involved in the current scene sometimes become disruptive as they try to entertain themselves. The cacophony of sounds and visual distractions makes it difficult for players and the GM to make themselves heard and understood (especially if they’re soft-spoken), and it can actually become stressful for some folks.

Take The Good With The Bad

Going with an extra small or extra large game group comes with both benefits and detriments. The GM needs to keep all these things in mind when opening a game up to potential players, and also be sure to consider his own personality and those of his players. Simply knowing that a player has hearing problems and will never be able to hear over the din of 7 others talking, or that a player has such a bold personality that they’ll completely dominate a group unless there are enough other people to balance them out, may be all it takes to decide that a small or large group will be best.

Groups of all sizes can work well when the players and GM cooperate to make it happen. If you think you can counteract the inherent problems with a very small or very large group, give it a try. If it ends up not working for you, chalk it up to experience and know better for next time.

Have you had luck playing with a group of unusual size, be it small or large? Do you have any tips for playing with a small or large group that might help other gamers?

About c

By day, Connie Thomson (aka Ariel Manx) is a mild-mannered shoe salesgirl, geeking out about insoles, outsoles, and shanks. But when night falls, she takes her turn at the helm of 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming, where she writes, edits, and does layout for table-top RPG products. Regardless of her persona, C is always a fangirl, bookworm, and craft diva. (Email C or follow @arielmanx on Twitter.)

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