Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Maximum and Ideal Party Size

In light of the discussion in the comments to this post, I find myself wondering about readers' experiences with party size in their play of various RPGs over the years. In particular, I'm curious about both the maximum number of players with whom one has ever played successfully and what one considers the ideal number of players. I realize that one's ideal size might vary from game to game. A game like Dungeons & Dragons is much easier to run with a large number of characters, while one like Top Secret probably has a smaller number of ideal players. Nevertheless, I think most of us who've gamed for a long time has a general sense of what works best and I'd like to hear about it in the comments.

For myself, the largest group I've ever played with successfully consisted of ten or eleven players. This was a D&D game and the players were surprisingly well organized in their actions and ability to communicate it to me as the referee. That was the exception rather than the rule, though. Most of the successful games I've played in since have had probably half that number, which may explain why I tend to consider five to seven players to be ideal in most circumstances.

What about yourself? 

34 comments:

  1. Back at University (1987-1992) we'd regularly run 1E games with up to 15 people at a time. It was one GM (usually my friend Adam) and one assistant GM (usually me) to handle any of the fiddly details. We used a spare meeting room that had a whiteboard and an overhead projector.

    I suspect that only worked because of how rules light we ran it. I wouldn't dream of trying this with anything 3E or later.

    These days I prefer a group of 6-7 players. The pool of players we have is made up of folks who know how to manage themselves in a group and so things run smoothly. At a con or anywhere else with strangers I'd limit the size to 4-5 players.

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  2. The largest group I remember DMing for was 9 people in an AD&D 2e game. That was infrequent, though, as usually at least 2-3 people weren't available every session... but a few times everyone in the game showed up.
    I find 4-6 is a good number, though it depends on the personalities.

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  3. 5 would be normal; 6 is ideal. At 7-8 it's always just been a mess.

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  4. Most I've ever successfully run was 9 players in a 3e campaign. Preferred number is 5-6.

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  5. Back in the 70s, my group was 5 total, so always 4+ whoever was DM that session. My second group in the 80s was 4 total (3+1).

    As an adult I feel 3 players and DM/GM is perfect. 4 players is OK, more than that and it usually drags, people zone out, etc. Some of the afterschool, library groups, etc. from the late 70s/Early 80s I was in would have anywhere from 6-12 players at a table and it was usually just a giant ClusterF, and little to nothing ever got done in the allotted amount of time we had (usually 2-3 hours).

    I haven't found it much better as an adult playing with other adults in large groups of 5+. D&D and other RPGs have to move along at a pretty rapid pace to keep my energy/interest/enthusiasm up as a DM or player, otherwise I'd rather not play. Large numbers of players does not lend itself well to "rapid" play.

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  6. The largest I have ever run is 16 which happened when I was invited by one of my players to come to MIT's Summercon. By the time I got to the table they assigned me, my friend had recruited 15 other players. Some of the players were leaders (not officers) in the MIT games club. I impressed them so much they invited me to join the club (I was 16 at the time). This was also the first session with use of dominoes to lay out the dungeon (I had used miniatures, but made no representation of the space). That actually helped because I could see where all the PCs and monsters were. It also featured my friend getting himself in a pickle when he emphatically slammed his finger down on the table and said he wished (my home campaign had been a bit Monty Haul and there were rings of wishes and such) he was "HERE!", a space not yet revealed. I consulted the table setup and my map and determined he was solidly in rock... He wound up on the Astral plane. One of the MIT gamer's PC was a Kirin who rescued the other PC for a price.

    As mentioned in the other thread, my college Fantasy Hero game hit almost that many players with the most ever showed up for a session of 12 with many sessions 10 or 11.

    My sweet spot in college, especially running Cold Iron, was 6-8 players. I would still prefer that for Cold Iron or RuneQuest, but with 2 hour sessions, 6 players really is the most that works. While 6 players at a session may be a bit much, it allows 2 absent players and still feel like we can run where with what might be the ideal playgroup of 4 players, even down one seems a little shy.

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  7. Four is ideal for FRPGs. Nowadays getting to the number is hard. So, when refereeing, I encourage my three players to get a dog. That adds a little "fire power" for dangerous situations while three players is plenty for the exploration and social aspects of the game.

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  8. I think part of it has to do with how reliable the playing group is. I tend to like 5, assuming someone will flake. That said, we have noticed that three players can REALLY power through stuff; less quibbling, more focus?

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    1. Yes, fewer players can mean powering through things, except when you need firepower. Fewer players with some NPCs to provide firepower can be really nice. BUT if you have 3 or fewer players, one absence can shut the game down.

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    2. Is there a Grognardia treatment about the use of NPCs in campaigns besides the comments section for Wednesday, February 16, 2011? It would be interesting to know how prevalent henchmen & hirelings were in actual play, and how big the party size was in such campaigns. And did it correlate with the number of players, so that campaigns with few players tended to use them to compensate for lack of strength, while groups with many players avoided them because it made the game unwieldy? Their expense in 1e AD&D made them seem unaffordable, especially if the rule requiring 1500 gp per level (minimum) for gaining levels was actually used. (Did anyone actually ever use that rule? )

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  9. Great questions! When I was little and went to the Dungeon hobby shop in Lake Geneva, I remember a table with a dozen or so people playing. As i did not speak english at that time i did not understand completely. Sadly in my neighborhood, the most we could muster was 3. Only in the service and in college did i encounter groups over 3 persons. Both gaming groups were well run, both in the Army and in college. The collegiate group numbered 7 and the other one ran with 7-10.

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  10. Largest group at one session for me was 15 players in a face-to-face game. My current in-person group has 7 active and a couple inactive players. I play remotely in a group of 5 players, and DM a remote group currently with 3 players.

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  11. I once ran a game in the mid 90's by posting a flyer in the local game shop. I got a few players, and then one's friend wanted to play, who had a friend who wanted to play, who knew a guy... you get the picture. On the first night I think I had 12 people around my kitchen table. Eventually we got down to six players and then further down to four.

    I think four or five is a good number.

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  12. Most I ever played with was 7 players + the DM. It worked ok, although one player had a thing where he just lies on the couch and shouts when needed, rejoining only for combat. Ok...

    Ideal is 3-4 players + the DM.

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  13. I believe that the largest game ever I had run as a GM had 8 players. Frankly speaking, I feel that a 7 players situation is already overbooked. I do not care how many characters each player has: when running DCC 0 level meat-grinders I had to deal with parties with 20+ characters. That is not really an issue. It is the number of people in the conversation that creates insted a limit for me. I cannot have a non-shallow interaction with 7 or more people at time. My ideal party size when gm-ing is probably 5. 4 and 6 are cool. 3 is ok when the group is already focused on a task. With 5 though, there is a kind of magic when the game is simply about exploring and interacting with the world. In these cases, somebody always happen to have an idea for pushing on the game.

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  14. I think the most we've had in my GURPS game is 10 players. It was nine for sure one day, but we may have hit 10.

    Ideally, 4-5 is easiest. But 9 and 10 were more fun because we like everyone in the group. It's way slower of a game but not less fun.

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  15. I've enjoyed being in parties of between one and eight PCs; the smaller parties can feel more intense while the larger parties can generate a delightfully fluid intra-party politics. But it all depends on how well the players and DM gel.

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  16. Four to six is my favorite range, five really is my sweet spot.

    I think 10 was the most I ever ran a game for. It was a blast, but I felt like it was more than I'd like to do on a regular basis. As a player I would like to try a big party, with a DM who could keep up with it, callers, the whole shebang. At least once, to see what it was like.

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  17. I honestly don't think there is a maximum. The largest I've run for as a solo DM was 19 players. Co-DMing with 6 other DMs we once ran an overlap game with 99 players crowded around the same giant table, and that also went just fine.

    For the last decade and a half, my standard party size has been 8-10 (we technically have 15 signed up for our Sunday evening game, but life makes it so not everyone can attend every session). And it works great.

    This is true of my two mid-week games and various play-by-post games as well. It has gotten to the point that I really won't run a game for anything fewer than seven players, it just doesn't feel right. So minimum is 7, ideal is 10, maximum is... not a thing.

    So long as everyone is polite and patient, the more is always the merrier when it comes to D&D.

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  18. Best is 4-7. Less than 4 and the players don't have enough brains to come up with solutions. If there are more than 7, someone is always bored.
    Maximum I've done is 12, at a convention. I was the party leader and two players were running barbarian brothers who should've been named "Dumb" and "Dumber".

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  19. I've run solo games, and games for as many as 6 players (with Shadowrun), I think 4 players is ideal and 5 is the maximum I'm comfortable with.
    I'd never accept more than 6 players.

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  20. It depends on the GM's style, but I find 4 is optimal. It allows for me as GM to provide enough attention to each player, but it also allows for constructive inter-player discussion and cooperation. 5 would be ok as well, 6 would be stretching it. Anything bigger than 6 (which I've done), and the games degenerates into a pure tactical wargame with each character stating their actions in turn (if you can maintain discipline) or a shouting match (when there's no table-discipline at all).

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  21. I played in a Roll20 game with 11 other players. The DM/host recruited random people using Roll20's Looking-For-Group feature and just didn't say "no" to anyone who wanted to join.

    It was awful. We used voice-chat, no faces, and the result was twelve people all trying to get a word in at the same time. No-one knew who anyone else was, so you never knew who was talking, and there was never less than two people talking at once.

    Oh, and this was a Ravenloft game. Yeah. It kind of diminishes the horror when you have enough manpower to just overwhelm the monsters with human wave attacks.

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  22. The most I've played with successfully is for OD&D dungeon crawls, with a caller. The single most was the dozen we had for Palace of the Vampire Queen with Frank Mentzer at TotalCon in 2010, organized six to a table, a "front half" and "back half" of the party, each table with its own Caller. That worked surprisingly well. More recently, during the pandemic an OD&D game I've played over Zoom has occasionally had 8-9 players and still run pretty smoothly, though folks definitely get less spotlight time. That group also uses henchmen and hirelings, so sometimes we have as many as 15 or so characters entering the Castle Greyhawk dungeon or embarking on a wilderness trek.

    In general, I think 5 is usually best for most D&D groups without major use of henchman or hirelings (maybe a couple). Enough that you can still play when you're down a player, but not so many as to be unwieldy.

    In the old school game I'm currently running online I have just 3 players, but they use multiple henchmen and hirelings, often getting the party up to 8 entering a dungeon.

    In more acting/intrigue-heavy games, 3 players and the DM is IME optimal. Few enough that everyone can get some involved character play in every session.

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  23. My first campaign was DND 3.5, my buddy ran it, we had 5 players the first session, then 3 the rest of the campaign. It worked very well, but I think that was due to our personalities. I’ve run 5E for a couple groups of friends, and I’d say that 3-4 has been great. I could feasibly see running 5-6, but 5th edition is just so “roleplay”/theater focused that it’s rough. In my own “heartbreaker” ruleset, I’ve run 4 and it honestly feels like it would run better in the 6-8 range.

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  24. My early D&D games were generally around 4-6 players. When I developed something of a reputation among my friends as a good GM, my group size increased.

    Around the same time, I started running a number of games that weren't D&D and since few of my peers were doing the same, requests to join my campaigns grew some more.

    Throughout most of my time in the hobby I've had 'parties' with an average membership of around 9 players. I've had as many as 11 regular players for some games. Keep in mind these were not D&D games. Most were Star Trek, Star Wars, or Superheroes. My biggest consistent D&D groups were usually 7 people.

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  25. It depends a lot what's your playing style. Here in Italy, especially at the Cons when Epic games are organised, we tend to to say "play the American way" to refer to zero roleplay and just action. Supposed you are playing that way, then your party can be even 8 people. If you want to be more immersive, I guess you should not have more than 5 players at the table.

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  26. I took part in a game with eight players once. Despite the space being suitable for that many people and we had two long picnic tables butted up together, it was a total shambles.

    We never gamed with that group again, although we all gamed together as two or three mixed groups.

    The MERP/RM and Marvel group I played in had 6 players and the GM.

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  27. I find about 8 players to be the best but have had a lot of fun DMing with over a dozen players. But the number of players isn't the only limit on party size, players can have multiple characters, and those characters can have cohorts, henchmen, hirelings, battle beasts and conjured/dominated minion so the in-game party size can be quite large.

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  28. Up to four players always felt right to me. Although, my best games have come from just DM'ing a single player.

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  29. The largest table I ever ran was 13. It was raucous and a lot of fun. My finest campaign to date was with two good players. I guess, if you're looking for a statistic, four is probably about right. We could say three to five. But I think, as you suggest, James, it depends on the game/campaign and my objectives for it.

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  30. I've run LARPs for over 300 people, granted LARP is a whole 'nother kettle of fish. Currently running a PbP for 13 people (10 of whom post frequently), and it's not too unwieldy. Granted, Play-by-Post is also a whole 'nother kettle of fish.

    Largest face-to-face sit-down I've ever run was was for 11 Players and after several sessions that split decidedly into two groups of four and six (and one stopped playing). It wasn't bad with 11, manageable with some rough spots, but manageable. I personally prefer 4-6, for most 'adventure' style games that let's each Player cover a "role" to themselves, with a little overlap, so they can each feel 'special' in their own way.

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  31. I've run AD&D 1e with as many as 10 on a regular basis, without much issue, but I'd say for me, 6-8 is the sweet spot.

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  32. I’ve found that this is related to the span of control problem, which is to say that you can effectively manage about eight people. You can manage more, but level of detail must necessarily suffer. One guy up-thread said that he managed fifteen by going rules-light, which sounds like a wise choice given the load. (Also, by using a DM plus deputy DM, they spread the load.)

    Going by recent experience, four to six is ideal.

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