As I mentioned in one of my previous articles, I had a chance to play Pathfinder recently. I played as part of a group of seven, not counting the GM. That made it the largest group I’d been involved with in some time, and it got me thinking about how much I prefer a slightly smaller group.
I thought I would share my insights on what I consider optimal group size and why. It might have you thinking about your own group the next time you organize a game.
The Roar of the Crowd
When I was in 5th grade, I went to a special “Lab Class” for advanced placement students several days a week. The teacher, Mr. Byington, was intrigued by D&D, and he asked me to run a game of it for the class. That meant that I was trying to run a game for about twenty people, only one of whom was over age 13. It was kind of a disaster. I had to keep asking people to quiet down so I could hear what the person who’s turn it was said, a couple of strong personalities made the group do whatever they wanted, and we didn’t make it through even one combat. Although that’s an extreme example, it does illustrate some of the weaknesses of playing with a large group.
I find that playing with a large group makes the game run slower in general. A good GM wants to give equal attention to everyone, but when you have so many demands on your time, it becomes easy for your story, and your overall game, to get swallowed up in an effort to make sure that everyone has a moment to shine.
It’s even more difficult when you have one player who wants to go off on their own, to some degree. You know you’ve played with loners; I certainly know I have. They want to be the hero, or they want to be the badass, or they just seem to be off on their own plane, doing things that make sense to themselves, if not to anyone else. An attention-craving player can derail things, making it difficult for the GM to keep the plot moving. And if they’re not getting the attention or the results they want, they can be crankier than an owlbear with IBS.
On the plus side, a larger group is less apt to have to cancel if one or two people can’t make it. While continuity may suffer a bit, a larger group makes it more likely that you can forge forward with a decent amount of players even when not everyone is present. It also makes it likely that people will be able to play a character they enjoy. A larger group makes it more likely that you’ll have the major roles covered and that folks will be able to play those oddball character classes they’ve been wanting to try…
I find a group of 7-8 on the upper end of doable. Anything larger than that is just chaos to me. I can run a game for a group that size, but it isn’t something I’ll necessarily enjoy doing.
I have very fond memories of playing a one-on-one game, where I was a rogue, and the DM had a cast of supporting characters who might be there to assist. I never set foot inside a dungeon. It was a very urban game, involving burglaries, occasional pocket-picking, intrigue, and a lot of very enjoyable RP, including a great romance. Unfettered by the needs of other players, my DM was able to tell a very strong story, driven hand-in-hand by the character I was playing and the dictates of the plot. It felt extremely cooperative, and extremely intimate.
Despite my great memories of that campaign, I don’t actually tend to enjoy games on that micro-level. When I’m the DM, I feel like I have to really work to entertain that one player, and if I don’t like where the game is going, my ability to change things is somewhat limited. It’s also really hard to suggest that what happens in a game is “nothing personal” when it’s only happening to one or two players.
It’s also difficult to have a nicely rounded party, unless people are playing multiple characters, or there are NPCs along to help. This can make it difficult to fairly balance encounters, and a GM has to plan around the possible absence of a cleric, or a fighter.
A smaller group is also much more vulnerable to being derailed if a player can’t make it. If there are only two or three players, someone missing a game is a big deal, and, unless your story is one that can handle having major cast members absent or reduced to NPC status, it might end up on hiatus more frequently than otherwise.
On the plus side, however, an intimate game like that can be a fantastic place for RP. With fewer people present, otherwise shy players may feel less inhibited about expressing themselves. You can concentrate on the individual stories of the PCs with a great deal more focus, and you can run a story that’s driven more by the personalities of the PCs than an over-arching plot (though over-arching plot is good, too.)
Smaller games also lend themselves to certain genres better as well. A game that involves roguishness or intrigue is well-served by a more intimate group, and the horror genre loves small groups. It’s much easier to build an air of tension and foreboding when you’re only playing with two or three very invested players.
The Sweet Spot
My optimal group size (and, of course, Your Mileage May Vary) is five to six players. I find that such a group gives room for everyone to play a unique role in the party’s success. It’s easy for me to make sure that every player gets a turn in the spotlight, that everyone’s story gets some attention. Combats don’t take forever, but there’s enough variety to allow for a lot of monsters and still have a great time.
From an out of game perspective, I like this number, too. If one player can’t make it, you still have a big enough group to have a good game. If you participate in a rotating “bring the snacks” set-up, no one minds being asked to provide snacks once every month and a half or so.
Maybe it’s just that most of my favorite games have been with groups of this size, but, for me, this is definitely the mix that I prefer.
Do you think I’m off-base with my sweet spot? Do you prefer a larger or smaller group? Are there advantages or disadvantages you think I’ve missed? Let us all know.