By - January 31, 2009 - 29 Comments

Size Matters: How to Manage a Big Gaming Group


Got 40 chairs – I’m ready for the game!
Image by C. Augapfel

Remember when the “perfect” D&D group consisted of 4 PCs? Fighter, mage, cleric, rogue. As long as you had that core dynamic, you were ready to whomp some orcs, disable some traps, and heal the resulting damage. It was a fast, efficient approach to dungeon crawling.

But sometimes big groups happen. Actually, they accumulate. It all starts innocently enough, with a few friends getting together to draw up characters. Then another friend stops by and wants in on the action. Then an old friend comes back to town, so you invite them to join, too. Before you know it, you’ve got a really big gaming group on your hands.

Some game systems were designed to accommodate large groups of players. Unfortunately, D&D wasn’t one of them. Once you pass the 6 player mark, things can start to get tricky. (Note: that number is totally arbitrary. You might have a different idea of what constitutes a big group.) Worse, combat can take forever while you wait for everyone to look up rules, roll the dice, and resolve their actions. My own DM once ran an 8-person game in 2nd Edition. Combat rounds took an average of 45 minutes. Does this sound like your group? If so, here are some suggestions for streamlining your game sessions.

Get Help

4E formally introduced the concept of D&D as a cooperative game, but plenty of DMs have enlisted the help of assistants in the past. If you’d like to give your big group a more immersive game experience, but just don’t have the time to incorporate every PC into the storyline, put out the call for an assistant DM or two. They can help you develop plots and storylines that take every PC’s background into consideration – no matter how many PCs you have.


Manage expectations or your large group
campaign could come to a grinding halt.
Image by Arne Hendriks

Manage Expectations

Big groups run differently than small groups. If everyone wants to keep the party oversized, it’s important to set up realistic expectations right from the start. If you have a party of ten, each player will get roughly 10% of your attention at a game session. Also, out-of-character chatting and rulebook consultation should be kept to a minimum. Encourage your players to use “cheat sheets” that contain rules for all of their spells and powers. You could also agree not to pause the game to look up rules except in deadly situations.

The Law of Averages

In Dungeon #159, Stephen Radney Mac Farland advises a 10-person party to cut down on their dice rolls by using average damage. The PCs do their average amount of damage on every successful attack roll. If they roll a crit, they can either deal average crit damage or roll for it.

If the players are happy with this sort of give and take, then it’s a good idea to use averages. If the players don’t like it, then it’s a bad idea. The bottom line: you want to run a game that your players enjoy. Most players would probably choose average damage rolls over 45 minute combat rounds. However, if they don’t like this solution, it might be time for more drastic measures.

Split Up the Group

Sometimes it just has to be done. When the size of the group and the length of the combat rounds start to detract from player enjoyment (and your own enjoyment), it might be best to split the big group into smaller ones. Just make sure you have enough time to plan and run two campaigns. You might lose a player or two in the shake-up. Then again, if the groups dwindle, you could always merge them again later.

Do you have advice for managing a large group? Share it in the comments section.

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Written by Janna

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  1. Lisandro Gaertner says:

    I run once in a convention a game with 40 players. We were playing Teenagers from Outer Space and it was kind of messy, but everyone enjoyed because each one of them could make a decision. Dice rolls were not a problem!

  2. Nicholas says:

    I live the accumulation effect that the intro describes, sadly I also live the inverse. As a college student myself and all of my friends have constantly changing schedules. Over winter break our Monday night D&D game swelled to 7 PCs, once the spring semester started we couldn’t even get up 3 to keep the going.

    I’ve run big groups for a couple system and particularly in D&D it is messy and less fun for everyone. I tell myself never again but when a friend that I like playing with asks me to join it is hard to say no.

  3. Vulcan Stev says:

    I’m a novice GM. My very first gamr run outside of the family took us an hour and a half for character generation. Things ran fairly smoothly though as all three of my regular gamers were part of the big group. They were a tremendous help in getting everything flowing

  4. Jessi says:

    Matt and I jointly ran a BESM campaign with 25 players at it’s height. However, we split the group up into smaller teams, so that we could have different storylines running at the same time. Some of the storylines eventually intercepted, making it easier for groups to come together. During the fast few sessions, we had a fighting tournament, and when characters weren’t in battle, they were giving reactions and cheering on the others.

    @ Lisandro: TFOS is meant to be messy, I think, but I’ll bet it was a lot of fun. :D

  5. Johnn Four says:

    A friend runs large groups frequently. He puts a lot of strategy, planning, and preparation components in his games to keep players busy in sub-groups. Moderators help shuttle questions back and forth, or answer questions directly. He also ran a Star Wars game once with groups in different rooms in his house who each had a walkie talkie. Groups could only talk with each other through those.

  6. Georgiana says:

    Well, I’m one of the gamers in Nicholas’ group and I was running the Monday night game during the winter break. When it was 7 players, it was very hard to keep them on task, especially right after a combat. With everyone all together, everyone kept on talking about whatever so much, that sometimes I’d even get caught up with it. It can be very frustrating at times, but everyone seemed to have fun (even when I accidentally skipped turns during combat….oops…)

  7. symatt says:

    I have the pleasure of running a group on a Friday evening, numbers ranging from Four to fourteen and i will alow more if they turn up.
    I was asked originaly to GM a D&D 4ed game for a few people at a Magic the gathering game club for those that where not to keen on Card games.
    Anyway each week more and more turned up and i hate to turn anyone away because they are there to have fun too, the age range is from 10 to about 44, i have more young ones though but they have to learn somehow.
    Chaos is what each game is turning into now, i spend 4 hours plus each week aranging the weeks gaming just so i can cover the multipl choices that could arise, what a nightmare this game is becoming, if i turn any away they will not get a game but it just can not go on…
    What should i do ?

  8. Nicholas says:

    @Symatt: Eventually you’re going to have to say no to someone. I recommend having an official sign-up and ask that only those who can come regularly join in. If you have another night free you can set up you’re own gaming night for the excess players.

  9. Nicholas says:

    @Nicholas: You really need to proofread your comments, it is shameful.

  10. Smart13 says:

    I currently run a weekly 4e game with 7 regular players. Because we’re all adults, and we come to have fun and play, sharing time equally has never been an issue. 3.5 took forever to adjudicate with 7 PCs, and 4e combats run in about the same time (usually we get in 2 combat encounters and some roleplaying/skill challenge in each 4 hour session) but in 4e there are more rounds in each combat so the players feel like they’ve gotten to participate more than in 3.5.
    A few things we’re doing to simplify things and speed up the game:
    Each PC must have their action choice ready to go when their turn comes up in initiative order, or else they forfeit their turn.
    We have a whiteboard on an easel with PC stats on index cards in hard plastic card sleeves with magnets stuck to the backs (the board is magnetic), as well as a few generic monster cards in sleeves (labeled monster #1, #2, etc.) to track initiative. Just move the cards into the order of initiative, and away we go. The cards also have a few key PC stats on them, so as a DM I don’t have to tell what a monster’s hit roll is vs. whatever, I just look at the PC cards to see if they were hit. The cards also have passive perception, passive insight, etc. on them so I don’t have to ask for these numbers, and can just tell PCs anything they discern during the game. This has sped up our combats significantly.

  11. symatt says:

    Nicholas
    Thanks for pointing out my spelling errors and you are right maybe i should re read things before i post them…

    You are right though i should reduce my group or it is just going to fall apart.

    smart13, i like you idea for tracking initiative, ive used the Character builder from the official D&D site and printed them out. So, i have there stats on cards in sleaves already, the board is a good idea..

    thanks to all

  12. Johnn Four says:

    @symatt: A signup sheet is a great idea from Nicholas. You might also consider asking for a DM to step up and split the group in half. If space allows, you can still have everyone over for game night, so the social aspect can continue, but you play at two game tables in seperate games.

  13. Nicholas says:

    @symatt: I was talking to myself with that one actually. I used “you’re” when I meant “your”, it really bugged me. I don’t mind other people’s typos as long as I can read it (which I had no trouble reading your comment) but my own really bother me. Sorry if it came off like I was insulting you, I was actually insulting me.

  14. Jason says:

    I recently ran a 3.5 campaign with 8 players, and am starting a new one with 6 or 7. We used all sorts of pen and paper tricks, like index cards on a wire loop that we would flip through to keep track of the rounds – the first card had a counter and each character’s card had a little row of boxes that we would use as a counter for spell effects etc… We tried some software on a laptop for a while, but it wasn’t quite the same.

    The biggest issue seemed to be how to handle initiative. I would usually have all of the baddies go at once (or break them into groups by type), but a lot of discussions arose as to how to make the process run smoother. With the rounds taking as long as they usually did, players were often changing their minds several times each round. While I wouldn’t usually have a problem with a little flexibility and creativity on their part, it really seemed to drag on and on, so we established a house rule where everyone basically called their action in the beginning of the round and had to stick to it as close as possible.

    I generate a bunch of generic sheets for encounters +/- 2 levels of the group, so if I have to wing it or they go off topic too much I can throw something at them without much prep, otherwise the key seems to be being well prepared. One bonus of a big group is that you can stretch campaigns on indefinitely, as one long combat session might take a whole game night, where it may take less than an hour with a smaller group. As long as the players are happy playing, I’m happy running a big group.

  15. symatt says:

    Initiative:
    To follow everyone in the order that they rolled Initiative what i do at the moment is on my handy bit of paper i draw an oblong to represent the game table, then as they give me their rolls i write them in the location that they are sitting at the table.
    One init roll for the bad guys.

    Nicholas, i Wasn’t insulted but thanks for the kind reply

  16. DIre Bear says:

    I have run large groups in the past. It’s not my first choice, but it is doable. Particularly if the players remember the first rule: The DM is ALWAYS right!

    Getting everyone used to playing with or in a large group does involve a learning curve. As the DM, your responsibility with a large group is to keep things moving. You have to know your material, know where to find all the data you need when you need it, and, probably most importantly, be ready to shoot from the hip when ever the “right” answer doesn’t leap to mind. Your players won’t mind or even realize you made up an answer if you give it NOW, rather than later. “Uh, I know that AC is here somewhere…” , just doesn’t cut it.

    The players have the responsibility to avoid out-of-game conversations, to pay attention to whatever information the DM gives out, to be ready for their combat turn when it comes up. Once everyone was used to my methods with a large bunch, they knew that telling to wait while they looked up their spell’s range would result in, “OK, you’re busy trying to remember the gestures for your spell. Next!”

    You cannot hesitate to keep the game moving or your players will use up the session with nothing to do with the game. I also make the players responsible for tracking treasure gained, information gathered, critters killed, and where they’ve gone
    (mapping). I only give out information once. If they miss it, they miss it. (Well…usually…)

    You can run a large group and accomplish a lot if everyone works at it. If they don’t, well, you may have other problems.

  17. Dumok says:

    I DM for a group that usually runs between 8-11 people not including myself.

    One trick is to simply ask one of the players to co-DM with you. This does 2 things.
    1) Helps lower the number of players by 1 and doubles your resources behind the screen.
    2) It’s a good way of coaching someone who is interested in becoming a DM so that eventually you’ll be able to step back and play sometimes.

    Another trick is when a character becomes dead or disabled and the player must sit out of the action for a period of time. Recruit the player to run one of the monsters. The reward I offer the Player is that if the monster does well, his character gains the monsters XP value as bonus xp. It tends to take the sting out of being out of play with their character.
    NOTE: Never EVER try this with having the player run a Great Red Wyrm. Twas the nastiest party wipe I have ever witnessed.

    To run large groups you simply HAVE to know the rules. It’s the DMs job to keep the action popping and as much as it breaks immersion with a small group to have to stop and look up rules, with a large group it’s pretty much a game breaker.

  18. Janna says:

    @ Nicholas: u rite gud.

    @ Georgiana: Lots of out-of-character talk can get annoying when you’ve got a large group, but I’ve found that a nail-studded board keeps ‘em on task. ;)

  19. mrk says:

    Four to six Players is my preferred choice with 1 to 2 PC’s each. Recently I’ve been toying with the idea of having everyone play a single PC just like they use to do in OD&D as it makes the stakes higher for the players as they can’t rely on using another PC for back up. I also on occasion, will run a single PC of my own as I tend to DM more these days.

  20. rob says:

    Yeah, Last night I ran my first D&D game as a DM (also my first ime ever playing the game, period). We had 9 PCs, and it was pretty crazy indeed. The amount of actual roll playing was minimal, and I had to double the number of goblins the encounter had to make it a lvl 1 encounter. But we all still had fun, and I am hoping that most future game nights will not have more then 7 PCs. Anyways, just saying that 9 PCs can be done, and that was by a novice DM, first time ever playing D&D.

  21. Leaf says:

    I know what you are talking about! I have a ten player campagine going on right now and it is so hard to keep everyone focused and ready to role. It usually takes two or three sessions to complete something that a small group would have gotten done in one. Furthermore, I had the issue where everyone kept joining. I started out with five basic character and then everyone plus their girl friend wanted to join. I understand it, but it can be so hard to do. I had to run my last session with all of them after getting all for wisdom teeth out.
    Sometime it can be fun though. It gives newbies a chance to play with older pcs that have lots of experiance and time to help them with rules. It is alos nice because I, the DM, have people to help me with my first campagine. Also I cab try out new monsters with too much HP for your smaller groups. I also can have huge encounters. It is fun, but overall I think the preferance for smaller groups is nice, but in the end every DM should try to run a big group at least once so they will learn to enjoy the small groups even more.

  22. Rexxx says:

    Well alot of people tell me the bigger the group the more fun it is well that can be trough but i have been running a solo with one player for 3 monthes now. Its some how more fun but alot more fast then haven a group the storys and history is alot more ritch in a solo. But you do miss the good old large party with there fights with in the party. playing a npc the whole tome realy gets tiring after a while. But if no other choice try a solo maybe it starts out boring but it realy pays of.

  23. Rexxx says:

    Well what we did with a group of 11 is we split them up in to two teams working towards the same goal. you dont even need 2 dms but i recomend you do. the two teams works for the same master, king, god or whatever. you can have alot of fun that way swoping pc’s. The dm’s work towords the goal but its up to theme how they do it. if it is a must that the party is forced together one day the one dm can take the role of a npc or just help the dm. We got some great encounters and ideas as they say 2 heads are better then one

  24. Nuckles says:

    We had weekly gaming sessions up at the Dragon Roost in Ogden, UT. We would switch between L5R with on GM, and Me running D&D every other week. We had 18 players when all was said and done! Of course, not all of them showed every week, but 10-13 did and it made things interesting. It was an in store game made to encourage regulars, so we didn’t put a player cap until possibly to late.

    L5R ran amazingly smooth with this large amount of players. All players had to chose from one of three clans, and with the Rokugan society, each group had a leader who was in charge, essentially giving us three separate gaming groups working together. This game lasted about a year.

    My 3.5 game lasted about half that time. As GM i was being run rampant taking care of a dozen people, and then horror struck. one week EVERYONE showed up! The game just floundered and died under it’s own bloated mass. I tried it with 4th edition, and was surprised how smoothly it ran. we only had 8-10 players but I was able to control combat smoother, people felt more involved, and even role playing seemed to help since we ended up being much more free-form. (We didn’t use skill challenges)

  25. JohnL says:

    Hi, I run a now 4e game was 3.5 but my characters transferred their consciousnesses into people from a 4e world just to see if they liked the game, Keep on the shadowfell with a story line tweak to match our storyline, didn’t take much, they were already after a cult of Orcus, how convenient.lol. Anyway, Just getting the adults and their teenage kids together is a huge chore. Different work schedules, school and life stuff makes it hard. That said we have to make the most of the time we are together for gaming. We make it clear to everyone that is the reason we are getting together. My oldest nephew is my assistant. He runs a Drow Warlord and keeps everyone on the battle field focused and on task, just like his character would. We do initiative clockwise around the table. Monsters go when I say they do. If you are not ready when your turn comes up you receive an attack of opportunity from the nearest monster. I track everything on my laptop and have a spread sheet for monsters with a math formula that lets me just type in the damage for each monster and it flags me when they are bloodied and when they die. I use the free clone of excel from SUN. Everyone is encouraged to shout out encouragement and to help each other during a fight. They are very good at fighting as a team as My nephew coordinates them and out side of them game develops battle strategy with them, They even use code words for special maneuvers. I Keep the pace fast and furious. Whatever the combat round needs to make it great it gets, no matter how many rules get broken. At the end of the fight my players are usually ready for a short break to let their voices relax and to ease some tension with snacks and well dones. The key is to remember it’s all about the fun and everyone having a good time if a PC wants to do something spectacular out of sequence or against the rules, say yes and make it fun and exciting. I can usually fit about four fights in a six hour game, but thats a lot due to they like a lot of story time from me and some time to roleplay with fun npcs. Just my thoughts, have fun out there. JohnL

  26. Loki Lupro says:

    I just started dming i had one pior group that was small but we ended it because we had a few more people that wanted to start it turns out we had 5 PCs and me then a few people came over now there is 9 people and one DM (me) and it gets absolutely ridiculous with their /b/ humor and all there out of game conversation and only 3 or 4 of them really get into character so i am devolving a plot twist to turn their group into a Mercenary group with a base of operations and that quests are only going to need 3 to 4 characters or that certain characters will get personal missions that they find around town and those PCs will get to pick their adventuring PCs which will hopefully be the better role players and such so that the ones causeing problems will just give up on playing

  27. LordVreeg says:

    Big groups are hard to handle, and the more complicated and deeper the setting, the more this can be difficult. Streamlined, simpler systems or encounter-centric games are preferable.

    One of my 2 major groups is 8 players in a social-heavy, skillbased sandbox setting. I find myself setting up spotlight-moments for tandems instead of single players. Spotlight moments are critical, but you can sometimes spotlight a few Pcs instead of just one.

    I also recommend the more players you have, the less leeway you can give to a screwup. One of my Players came in a few years ago and moaned, “Everyone’s here tonight? Crap! I always get nailed when everyone is here!”

    Go oldschool. Remember our old rulebooks, when there was a ‘caller’ or leader PC? Nothing is more useful than to have a filter for the non-combat decisions. Also, when a PC asks for a re-description due to being in the bathroom or going for another bottle, make a player do it. Keeps them on thier toes, shows you what you might have screwed up.

    Manage expectations. YOU WILL NOT GET AS MUCH DONE! And if you play a detail oriented style, the pace will be different than what newer players are used to.

    And most importantly, in a bigger session, no one gets the keys to the Wine Cellar except you. I don’t care if the Cos is still breathing, I’m not openning a third bottle of Forman!

  1. [... Got 40 chairs - I'm ready for the game! Image by C. Augapfel Remember when the "perfect" D&D group consisted of 4 PCs? Fighter, mage, cleric, rogue. As long as you had ...]

  2. [... Got 40 chairs - I'm ready for the game! Image by C. Augapfel Remember when the "perfect" D&D group consisted of 4 PCs? Fighter, mage, cleric, rogue. As long as you had ...]

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