It’s Not the ‘Size’ of the Party…

But the quality of the game that counts!

The Composition of the party definitely defines the kind of game you play.  The composition is both the number of players vs NPCs as well as the type of players and their characters.  This post will be about dealing with the issues of player groups of various sizes, And yes, I will cover ways to deal with the party of 5 players that all want to play bugbear assassins later!  For the purpose of this discussion, each player is only playing one character at a time.  Multiple characters is for a later discussion…

Let me start by discussing my most common game setting; one ref, one player.  This has some of the best strengths, but it also has some of the biggest weaknesses.  First, the game can be tailored very fine to give the player exactly the game they want.  It is incredibly well suited to epic styles, and because it is a single player, the easiest set up for player dilemma and intense drama.  Besides that, you don’t need to worry if a player is not going to show up or not…if your player doesn’t show, then the other characters won’t notice, because time will not have passed the next time they meet.  These can be intensely story driven and satisfying adventures, probably the closest thing to an interactive novel experience one can get.

The downsides can be crushing, however, particularly for new ref’s.  The story is a very fine balance, because if you lose a character because the character dies, or the player tires of that one…well, the game is over, literally in the only way an RPG can truly be.  The cure is to have a character make a new character and take over somewhere else in the story line.  But, this is not as fun for the player, and it requires a significant understanding of your setting to find the place to weave in a new thread.  There are ways to circumvent this, such as have the player in an organization that controls their involvement in the plot.  That way, the next character can be sent in to find out what happened to the last character.  Or maybe the new character received a letter (maybe a bit meta-gamed) from a distant relative asking for their assistance.  NPCs need to be very carefully run.  they have to be able to assist the player, without taking too much away.   On the other hand, they can spoon feed a character exactly as much or as little as you need to press forward with the story.  Character interaction can be a problem, because there are no other Player Characters to interact with., so any in character conflict must be handled by the “REF’s of the world” and leads right back to how you handle your NPCs.  One final weakness, which is somewhat being alleviated in today’s connected world, is the isolation.  The only person a player could reminisce with about their phenomenal gaming experience, is the ref, that set it all up.

Two players are similar to one, but it blunts both the highs and lows somewhat.  I find that a party of three through five is usually about the perfect mix for my ref style.  I know many refs who would rather run about five to eight for the skill spread, and this can fairly easily be argued when you look at many game designs…with that type of character base, almost all skill sets have at least some coverage.  So, lets look at a group of anywhere from three to about nine or even ten (Probably pushing that high-end) for this piece.  This is usually the best balanced game setup you can get.  The character interaction tends to be good, but the number of people can be chaotic if not controlled.  A killed character can be replaced in the party with several different techniques and without major disruption to the rest of the plot.  In parties of this size, NPCs are not mandatory, and are as much set dressing or intrusive as you want.  A group this size, especially at the higher end, really limits the possibility of EPIC role play, simply because of the vast amount of time that would be needed between players turns.  One of the benefits of this size group, is a missing player will not really screech the game to a halt, where it can with smaller groups.  On the other hand, that makes coordinating times more difficult, particularly with adult players that have mundane lives and families!  Also, if you have a munchie table (as in someone brings and everyone consumes munchies, not as in munchkin as that would be a crunchy table) you can end up with bags of refuse every night (to say the least!)…

And lastly, a huge game group…more than about seven or eight in my opinion, but some refs are happy with more…This is usually the least enjoyable type of game.  Too many people all wanting to do things, and trying to build adventures or stories that challenge everybody without boring everybody…well…individualization is pretty much out.  You can, however, come up with some interesting things you can do with this size group.  Co-Ref’s can run simultaneous games, and separate teams can be playing in a similar setting…I have never done this, but I know folks who have and it is apparently quite enjoyable.  Or, partial games…where half your players meet in one game session, and the other half in another…you can again run parallel games, or, of course, different games…but some ref’s find it difficult for more that one game running at a time.  If you can find a place big enough to support all of these players, and you have players with excellent manners and are very patient, there is no reason it can’t be played like any other game…but just writing the types of adventures when you have an entire platoon of characters can limit the style and type.

Does this give you some insight in how to choose your player group?  I love single player games, but they are an entirely different flavor of game from a social group playing (where sometimes the social wins out over game.  yes, another topic for later!).  If anybody wants, I can work out any of these in more detail, but like some of the other very broad topics, this is more an awareness of the benefits and challenges that could be encountered when setting up your game session.

Some Common Ground

In an effort to make certain everyone knows what I am talking about, I want to start with a bit of a glossary.  This will probably be referenced a lot.  I will present the info in pairs of opposites.  Be aware that very few things fall all the way to one extreme or the other, but somewhere along the continuum   I don’t intend to get into the various merits or problems with these, as they will probably all be posts of their own.  My intention here is simply to explain some of the terms I use, so you can expect to see in these posts. The TSR – FGU Scale: Back in the early days of our hobby, there were two big companies.  TSR (Dungeons & Dragons (hats off), Top Secret, Boot Hill) and FGU (Space Opera, Chivalry & Sorcery, Bushido) who, in general approached the games from two different sides. TSR (Originally Tactical Studies Review, but became just TSR by the time RPGs were coming into fashion) tended to make games that were very easy to pick up and play, but they tended to make it very difficult to suspend the disbelief because of game play decisions that were made for the sole purpose of game balance.  FGU (aka Fantasy Games Unlimited) decided to more closely represent real life by making the game simpler to suspend disbelief, but made character creation and rules in general much more complicated. Epic – Episodic Game: Epic games cover from the start of the story to the end.  This includes the mundane as well as the fantastic.  The depth and length of these games tend to create very deep and detailed characters.  Episodic games are more like TV shows in that they go from important scene to important scene.  These tend to make highly specialized characters. Monty Hall – Pauper:Monty Hall (or haul) games (named after  the game show host: are games where the rewards (money, magic and/or experience) are very high, some might even say way out of proportion…1000GP for killing the rats in the cellar.  These games often end up with 50gp mugs of ale.  Pauper games have the characters scrimping to buy their next meal, and hoping to make enough to repair their second hand armor.  These games tend to have a more realistic economic model. Top Down – Bottom Up: World, town, universe design models.  Top down creates the Universe first, then the planets, then the terrain, then the empire boundaries  then the capital cities, then the small cities, then towns, hamlets, castles, dungeons…resulting in very rich tapestry, sometime light on local differentiation.  Bottom us is exactly opposite…start with the tavern, then the village and it’s inhabitants, then the haunted forest…can lead to patchwork worlds. Narrative – In Character: Play style.  In Character Players and NPCs speak as the character.  Great for adding accents or speech characteristics.  In Narrative, the actions and speech of the characters are described rather than word for word spoken.  Very handy when the player and the character have very different verbal (or knowledge) skills. Story – Character: Arc styles.  In Story arcs, The characters are involved, but do not have a great deal of influence on the overall outcome but specific pieces of the arc.  In Character arcs, the characters directly affect the story, and are not only main characters of the stories, but critical to it’s outcome.  Although this sounds perfect, it can present significant challenges to the ref, or leave characters with little to no guidance. Persona – Idealized- Munchkin: This triumvirate is broad stroke player styles.  They Persona player makes and plays characters to escape or explore.  These players usually have the most difficulty creating a character that fits (easily) with in the rules.  The Idealized player makes and plays characters to be the best at what they do.  They often find their character idea in the archetypes set forth by the rules as representative of their desires. The Muchkin, or min-maxer makes and plays characters to “Win,” to be better than everyone else.  They often are great during play-testing as they tend to push the rules to limits to see where they break, by taking as many advantages and as few disadvantages as possible. If there is anything that is not clear in this post, please let me know!  Remember, there are no stupid questions, just stupid people!