Adjusting for Players: Party Size and Game Groups


I would imagine that many of us that have hosted a game have experienced at least once the need and desire to tell a story, only to discover that there's not really many players or participants to tell it to. I have had this problem many times yet decided to damn it all and move forward anyways. Most of the time, this has ended in disaster or at least, very short sessions. At the end of the day it seemed that the adage of "four to a party" was true, that a game couldn't run without that many people.

As I mull over it some more and reread some old articles by veteran Gamegrene members, I am beginning to reevaluate that opinion. It occurs to me that in fiction, there are many tales about two or three heroes, against the odds of the world, going on fantastic adventures and doing epic deeds. Some are as old as time: Beowulf is of course the epic of a lone hero, but others where heroes were accompanied by only a handful of companions come to mind: The Epic of Gilgamesh, Don Quixote (although Quijano is not perhaps the hero in the sense that I am talking about), and some others that my law-riddled brain is too tired to think of. But the point stands. And I began to think that perhaps if I wasn't so caught up in game mechanics, I could balance both the mechanics and the storytelling to be able to fit however many players I have at the time.

It always seemed that player availability would inevitably dictate whether or not I could tell the story I wanted to tell. Having created a world that I love and cherish and spent perhaps far too much time on, I have a great desire to experience it with players. I've shared this world with a large gaming group, decidedly too large (I think about seven people in the party, which is quite too much) as well as with what I thought was too small a group (3 or so people). Faced with the prospect of potentially only having two people, and with the argument from my better half (who insists that there should be more people, the ideal size of four) I began to think that perhaps the stories of the world I made would not be told. It's quite the depressing thought, and I'm sure we've all been there before.

So my question to Greeners is this: Is there really an 'ideal' party size? I'm beginning to think that there really isn't. Experience seems to demonstrate that you can have too many people, but experience all seems to demonstrate that, as numbers dwindle, you can still have a game session, as long as all of you are determined to share a story.

Before I weigh in on this interesting topic I have to "fess up" to my proclivities as a GM. I like having NPC's. I like having a voice at the table that can agree or offer a counter-point to a situation. I use them to drum up emotion. I also like to let them leave the group and meet back up in a different scenario -- sometimes on the other side of the field of battle. I use them to counter-point the player characters. I can't really tell stories without embedding the agents of my varied perspectives with the group. When the time comes I kill them off or move them on.

We played with 4 people for a long time (3 and a GM) and had a real blast. I found that with this size group it was easy to break out for solo-play. Once you had time alone with a player and their character there was better development of motives and plots. It also allowed for a player to leave the table, attend to making lunch or doing something, and coming back with new purpose. Three people and a GM is my favourite sized party.

Four players and a GM is my second-favourite configuration. There are enough voices at the table to have lots of action; the party is big enough that it is resilient to challenges; and there is still the option to split the party for some breakout action without bogging things down too much. Four players is better for dynamic action, but not as good for narrative exploration.

Two players and a GM is a bit trickier -- great for roleplaying... to a point. The third opinion will "break" up a social dynamic. If you play with two and a GM I think the DM needs a couple of NPC's embedded in the group so that they can shake the dynamic around. Here you are a bit constrained. You can't add a third NPC without out-numbering the players; and dropping to one NPC limits the party. I have had some success with a two-player structure, but it can be tricky. It is still worth the game. I have some great memories of tandem gaming. I prefer tandem to 5-player.

When there are too many people it is hard to attend to the individuals at the table and it constrains the story a bit. Five players works for a dungeon romp or action adventure just fine. The bits between are a bit harder to manage from a time-division point of view. The GM is inclined to keep the group together more than not and that imposes an artificial meta-structure on the game. Also, with five players you often get an overlapping of roles when you play Dross & Depravity - based systems.

Although, I really can't throw stones about party balance. In my campaign we have a Cleric/Monk, Cleric/Ranger, Cleric/Mage, and Mage/Ranger as the four PC's. Cleric x3, Ranger x2, Mage x2, and Monk -- that is a world of overlap. It helps that each cleric has their own spell list -- the Monk follows the Goddess of the Winter Moon (Cold and Purity), the Ranger follows the Goddess of Love and Beauty (Emotion and Charm), while the Mage is a Mystic Theurge of the God of Night Magic and Wisdom (Divination based)... oh and he is a bronze golem (his body was killed years ago, but was able to transfer his essence into his golem companion). The Mage/Ranger is archery-focused, while the Cleric/Ranger wields a big sword. In a nutshell a party finds its own balance points. It also helps that the lack of pure optimization means that they have fairly similar and balanced saving throws which is really useful when playing at epic levels.

Solo-gaming gets relegated to my fourth spot. You can't really sustain a campaign, but you can get some great RP moments. Six players is too hectic for my tastes, but structurally works fine for action-centric games.

My suggestion is to forge ahead with the two or three players. Throw out the notion of a balanced party (I really like Lurking Gherkin's series of articles on this topic) and you will find that they have to engage with your world. I'd come play with you, but the commute would kill.

It's interesting that even with the advent of technology like Skype and Google+ conferences, roleplaying is still best done in person. I would love to be a player amongst a Greener group, but the commute, as you say, would kill. It's always been very difficult to grapple with game vs. roleplay when I am faced with two people parties. At the moment honestly I am probably faced with three people, but one calls in on Skype and that's always a struggle. It's so hard to account for technology and the like. That is an interesting topic in itself, which I suppose is relevant. I find it ridiculously hard to include players via the internet, yet lots of people do it all the time. My favorite D&D 4 ed podcast has two people call in. Of course, they have access to much better sound technology than I do, but I still find it intriguing. Lots of people say they successfully run and participate in campaigns online all the time, but I still find it very challenging. Maybe it's just how I work. Who knows.

I think my biggest hang up in D&D of all time is combat. I don't want to exclude it, since arguably it's a large part of the game, but I really really find it a pain to include it. It jolts the rhythm of a session to an absolute halt, I find. It's interesting because as a player, I don't mind combat. But as a DM, I absolutely dread having to do it. I think part of it is an eagerness to tell a story, but an unwillingness to spend time on something that lasts maybe several minutes in game time, but hours upon end in real time. In my sessions, I don't think I ever have more than one or two combats at a time. And even then it's really painful to do. I can never seem to get past that barrier, probably because I know my players want to have something to do other than roleplay. As you said, it becomes trickier when the player count drops to two, but maybe I'll just cross that bridge when I get to it.

Speaking of, my party is barely balanced. It somehow ended up currently as a Cleric (formerly a warrior, now deceased), a Magus, and a Barbarian for class purposes (A Fey agent story-wise). The Ranger may still be invested, but that's up in the air.

Which would turn into an interesting discussion in and of itself, as my Ranger player and I had an interesting discussion on tropes, roleplaying stereotypes, and how strange, sensational, and improbable backstories are sometimes less interesting than well made mundane ones.

Hey guys, it's been a while for this poster, but I'm glad to be back, and I'm glad to see there's still stuff happening here. :)

As much as I continue to love fantasy settings for roleplaying, the more I play, the less interested I become in using the combat rules within D&D. I think the primary reason for that has been that most of the group I've been playing with are phenomenal roleplayers with a strong sense of character and story, but are simply not interested in the more "gamey" aspects of roleplaying, building character sheets and rolling dice and such.

So in the last game I ran, we ended up with a decently "balanced" party for 4E D&D (a wizard, barbarian, warlord, warlock, and rogue) but that happened mostly by accident, as players picked classes that matched the character notions they had rather than building characters around a sense of party balance. And it was great, but, as Eruantien has pointed out, even the combat that was relevant to the plot was a slog, exacerbated by the fact that 3 of the 5 PCs continued to have no understanding of how the combat rules work, even through the end of the 6 month campaign. As a result, I've given up on 4E, as it's just too gamey for my group of players. I've picked up a copy of True20, but I have yet to give it a run.

So the question I propose is this: In a genre that relies on violence and combat as powerful story mechanism, how do you keep roleplaying combat fresh, exciting, and compelling, particularly for a group of players who aren't interested in the more gamey elements?

That is a good question. It is why I have spent many years working on my own RP system. I find that many RP systems suffer from one or both of two curses: abstraction or complication. However the anthesis does not work either. A RP game that is too concrete and too simple is not flexible and not fun to play.

Imagine trying to go camping with a Sailboat. All the action happens near the lakes (combat). If you had a canoe you have new experiences. You can even take it with you when you venture inland.

I see RPG's like camping. You are constantly trying to go to new ground and set up an encounter. It matters what kind of boat you have just as it matters what kind of role-playing system you use.

How easy is this?

Skills are groups of actions. Swordfighting contains Hit, Parry, Prevent. Parry and prevent are interrupts.
You can load 3 skills into your action queue. Each skill has a colour. A character can load Swordfighting, Movement, and Athletics -- for instance.
The GM (Game Moderator) calls out colours. Some colours are "faster" and get called more often.
When your colour is called you take one action from the skill or make the action ready. Roll two dice... unless you have a narrative advantage
You add any narrative advantage/disadvantage based on the rule of focus. Roll three dice.
Others can interrupt your action with counter-actions that are ready in their queue. They roll one die.
If you meet the target - what you are acting against you get partial success (called a crown). If you double it you succeed without qualification. If you triple it you have a great success.

In narrative action you don't roll dice. You determine who has the advantage (based on the actions on the table) You detrmine what the default level of success is and how many mitigating factors they need to sway it one way or the other. ie. The GM calculates they will need four advantages to talk their way past the guard, but if they lose 2 the guard will get angry. Start roleplaying...

This model is free from the stupidity of turn-based systems. It is freed from banal abstractions like armor class, hit points, rounds, attacks of opportunity, charging, etc. It has more tactics as players can respond to changing environments. They can use different strategies to victory. They can learn new skills. They can customize their skills to contain different actions. They can improve their actions to hold new crowns (ie an athletic person may know about balance and replace "5ft knockback" with 5ft knockback and reposition, or "5ft knockback and unready a move action").

Because all skills have a tactical and narrative pre-requisite, the GM can ensure that the game is consistent with the world. Most RP systems force an implied setting. If I never let the players visit the Mist-Lands of the Faey (maybe because it doesn't exist) then they can't take that branch of skills; if the dim-lak 5ft death punch requires that a player be struck by the Mountain dragon's song, or trained in the temple of a hundred hands then you don't have wandering shaolin monks in the Northlands unless they belong there. Players seek out new experiences because they access abilities through experience.

Further, Physique, Daring, Alertness, Insight, Artistry, and Volition are not only skill divisions but ways of playing. A rogue who only gets Daring (because they never show Alertness) will quickly realize that her character needs to develop in other ways and is forced to develop an "alert" playing style to match the skills they want to achieve.

I wish I had an RP system, other than my own, to recommend. But after a while (14 years) you get very invested in your own ideas. I've probably cut 600 pages of ideas out of my game on the way to the 300 pages that I have (well, there are 400 pages now, but the back 100 are labelled "Dross -- they are cool but don't fit. I will have to cut them too.)

Welcome back, Lorthyne! A pleasure to see another fellow around.

Upon first reading Gil, the concept actually seems complicated. But that's only in the initial reading. A more detailed analysis of your process does make it seem easier. It reminds me somewhat (read: in the loosest of somewhats) of Technoir's system, which I don't have in front of me right now, so I can't explain it. But it ought to be easy enough to look up. It made a rather interesting and loose use of a d6 system that made for rather easy narrative play and very loose combat that seemed more like a sequence of scenes than an actual fight.

One thing I did like about 4E was the skills challenge portion. I find that they are really useful for scenes that require lots of exciting actions on the part of the players, but not actually combat. I occasionally toyed around with the idea of incorporating the skills challenges to fit for combat, but never really got around to it, probably because subconsciously I thought it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense.

I also thought that for all its seeming complexity, that the rules for Exalted combat, once learned, actually moved much more quickly than D&D combat, despite the fact that you roll an inappropriate amount of d10s during combat. Despite having more reading than D&D to grasp, it actually went faster when everyone knew what was going on. But there's the rub I suppose: everyone has to know what is going on. I've had a similar experience with players that after many months still couldn't remember that a d20 is what is used for combat initiative, attacks, and so forth. I do like that Exalted encourages flavorful description of combat, and gives the DM leave to award bonuses for that fact.

I think the next time I approach combat I'll experiment with a bit more leverage in favor of the players to speed things up a little. I'm still a bit fond of traditional combat, partially due to the game-y side of me. But I do want it to go faster. I already expedite the process of criticals by skipping the second confirming roll, which always made no sense to me.

An idea that occurred to me during gaming discussions with friends was the idea of varying degrees of success, perhaps similar to what Gil described. I thought that combat may go a lot faster if the characters describe their attacks and intents with more creativity and specificity. After all, in combat, one rarely chooses to dally about with a vague 'attack'. Combat has been of course designed, throughout the ages, to kill the opponent, which can be done in a variety of ways. A arm cut off will surely be fatal as a decapitation, even if the speed of impending doom varies. But I imagined a scale system where a low result creates a superficial wound, a middling result creates an injury, and a good result creates success in the intent. So i.e. if Player A wishes to lop off the arm of an attacker, a low result might result in a failure or a scratch on the arm, a middling result might create an arm gash, and a good result would cause the intended result, and put the enemy out of the fight. I've yet to test this system, but who knows? It might result in quick yet roleplay-heavy battles. A typical 'classic' D&D battle, I find, focuses too much on the gamey sense of "kill the opponent aka reduce to 0 HP", which implies that the party killed the entirety group of aggressors. Too often is it ignored that sometimes, a non lethal solution is desired (which I suppose is provided for in very clunky rules regarding nonlethal damage) or that a fight can be ended by disabling attackers.

"I thought that combat may go a lot faster if the characters describe their attacks and intents with more creativity and specificity. "

That's the trick -- unifying the gamey and narrative worlds. I guess there are two things to talk about: "How fast does it go?" and "how fast does it seem to go?" Both, I think, are important. If players are enganged with things and making decisions things can seem to go fast even when they are taking the same amount of time. An effort should be made to keep dice in the hands of the players and let them drive the action. Players should be defending against opponents' attacks and resolving their own attacks. Note, that it doesn't matter if bad guys have any time spent on their attacks or their defences. These are ancillary actions -- beholden to the players.

"It might result in quick yet roleplay-heavy battles. A typical 'classic' D&D battle, I find, focuses too much on the gamey sense of "kill the opponent aka reduce to 0 HP", which implies that the party killed the entirety group of aggressors."

Amen to that. Eroding hit points feels nothing like fighting. In a fight you want to knock them back, knock them down, or knock them out. You negate their defense with your footwork, or shatter their block with a strike, or break their balance with a sweep. You want to create effects.. visceral, tangible, results that have a narrative connection. In D&D you can't build a scenario where you have tactically dominated a person to surrender. I think that is why they make all the monsters so spectacular and different so that nobody notices how boring combat is.

"I cut upwards at the warpriest with my sword." [rolls 2d8 and gets 13] "Thirteen"

"The dark clad attacker steps backwards [interrupt footwork -5] and waves his left hand in a dismissive gesture [interrupt arcane touch -6]. Your blade encounters a strange resistance as it clatters harmlessly off his metal armor [hit of two vs difficulty of 4]." While the priest is mobile and able to focus on his arcane defence the character will have limited chance of overcoming the foe. Here they must recognize and disable either his arcane defence or his footwork -- they are not attacking a flat AC. The defense of the opponent is situational and grounded in the narrative. It behooves the player to find out what is happening by parsing the narrative. Sure, they can keep rolling and hope that they roll a "16." An experienced player would solve one of the smaller problems (mobility and telekenisis) first, before attacking again. They could shift their own actions towards defence, etc.

They don't need to know the rules (the GM does) -- just alter their actions to suit the narrative.

Here is a checklist for any RPG combat (in no particular order):

Does it have verisimilitude? Does it feel like real fighting when you play?
Does it play quickly at the table?
Is it adaptable?
Is there a necessary narrative component?
Can you parse the narrative into rules, and rules into narrative? Ie. how abstract is the system?
Is it strategic?
Do the dice rolls slow the game down? Are they hard to add or hard to interperet?

"One thing I did like about 4E was the skills challenge portion." How did that work again? It has been a long while since I looked at it.