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6 Tips for GMing a Large Group

Somehow, you find yourself about to run a game for waaaay too many players. Maybe you’re just a softy, and can’t say no when too many people are interested in your game — or maybe you’ve never tried GMing for a large group before, and you just want to give it a shot.

Whatever the reason, chances are you’ve got at least a few worries about how things will go (I know I did!). Don’t sweat it — here are 6 steps you can take to make things go smoothly with a large group.

What’s a “large” group, though?

Most GMs I’ve known consider 7+ players a large group, although it all depends on what you’re used to. The bottom line is that if the group is bigger than you’re accustomed to, it counts as a large group for you.

These tips are based on my two experiences running an RPG for a bigger group. The first time, it went very badly; the second time, it went pretty well — largely because I figured these things out as I went! Hopefully you can benefit from my mistakes (a topic that’s come up here before, in Martin’s Maxims for GMs [1] and Write Your Own Naughty List [2]).

It’s also worth noting that my large-group experience is all with D&D. Some other RPGs handle large groups more easily than D&D does, but these tips should still translate over pretty well.

6 Tips for GMing a Large Group

Sound good? Let’s get into the details!

1. Ask for help from your players

With most RPGs, as the GM you’re already doing most of the heavy lifting — coming up with adventures, drawing maps, arranging things, keeping everyone on track, etc. Some of those things won’t take you any longer with a bigger group (a map’s a map, whether it’s for 4 players or 10), but others will.

With more people to manage, you’ll have less time for things like taking notes during the game, keeping track of which items were found where and other side tasks. Some players enjoy doing these things (I rarely have trouble finding a quartermaster for D&D campaigns, for example), while others might be interested in helping out in exchange for in-game rewards — like bonus XP.

Some players don’t like doing anything but playing their characters, which is just fine — don’t take it personally if not everyone leaps at the chance to take on a side task!

2. Plan ahead — even more than usual

If you have to take 15 minutes to draw up a map during the game, a larger group is likely to get distracted (or bored) more quickly than a small one. Spend a little more time on prep than you would with a smaller group of players, and your sessions will go more smoothly.

And if you can’t avoid stopping the game to tackle something, call a short break and let everyone stretch their legs and get snacks. When they sit back down, you’ll be ready to rumble.

3. Don’t split the party!

Splitting the party always slows down the game, but with a larger group there are more people left out of the action — and as with tip #2, more people get bored/distracted more easily. You can’t always avoid splitting up the PCs, but try to come up with a different solution as often as possible.

Sometimes the best way to accomplish this is with an informal social contract, which you can cover before the game. For example: The players agree to avoid splitting up the party (even if it would be more logical to do so), and you agree not to include adventure situations that require them to split up.

4. Streamline combat

In a lot of games, larger groups = longer battles. D&D 3.x is a perfect example: Even with streamlining, I’ve had D&D combats with a group of 6 take 3+ hours. Things you can do to cut down on this time include:

5. Handle some things outside the game

Some activities always seem to take a long time, no matter what you try to do to speed them up (item management in D&D, I’m looking at you). Levelling up, spending skill points, sorting out treasure — these are all things that can be done before or after each session, over email, on your Yahoo! group, etc.

6. Take shortcuts

With a large group, some problems are magnified — for example, the downsides to having the PCs map dungeons as they go. I don’t like this approach even with a smaller group, but with more people involved you wind up wasting a lot of time when a) the map isn’t accurate, or b) you have to re-describe rooms.

The solution is to take a few shortcuts — and you might need to run a session or two to identify areas where shortcuts can be taken. Here are a few examples:

Other Tips

Over in the GMing Q&A Forum [3], the thread What are your top three organizational tips for GMs? [4] includes some great timesavers that can be applied to large-group games (as well as a host of other tricks for getting — and staying — organized as a GM).

If you’re brand new to GMing, you might want to take a peek at another thread in the forum: What is a good group size? [5] It’s full of good ideas about how find your ideal group size, and addresses some other concerns related to large groups.

Have you run a game (or games) with a larger group? If so, how did it go? What things did you do to speed things up that aren’t covered by these 6 tips?

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "6 Tips for GMing a Large Group"

#1 Comment By Wolfsbane114 On January 17, 2006 @ 9:27 am

Great tips. I often find myself running lagre groups. Usually I invite 4 ppl then they each invite one or two more. “This so-so can he play with us?”

#2 Comment By ScottM On January 17, 2006 @ 10:26 am

That’s all good advice, and important for the large group GM to absorb. Another option is to realize that 7 players + 1 GM = 2 groups of 1 GM + 3 players. (Plus, you can still do crossovers– with the assistance of a co-GM– as special occassions.)

#3 Comment By Martin On January 17, 2006 @ 10:45 am

Wolfsbane: Thanks — I’m glad you liked the tips. 🙂

Scott: Great point! Splitting into smaller groups makes a lot of sense.

#4 Comment By Lebkin On January 17, 2006 @ 2:28 pm

Though these tips are directed at larger groups, they are all valid for running a more efficient group of any size. This is especially true when it comes to streamlining combat, which is a huge time consumer for all groups.

#5 Comment By Obadiah Jib On January 18, 2006 @ 10:36 am

I loved the tips. A suggestion of mine is to invest in a white board/ dry ease. Easel or wall mount. You can pick them up at most office supply stores. I keep track of combat rounds, marching orders, who is next in combat on the board for all the Players to see. I will often write down a monsters AC just to speed up combat so the party knows what they need to roll.

#6 Comment By Crazy Jerome On January 18, 2006 @ 11:43 am

Expanding on #1 and #3, I’m a big believer in letting the party roleplay with each other as much as possible and play many of the monsters. Some good, healthy rivalries among the player characters works well. With a large group, you don’t have to worry so much about the party being cohesive in order to survive. So might as well let them mix it up a bit, at least verbally. Moments when the PCs are interacting with each other are moments when the DM can catch his breath.

On playing the monsters, you can push this as little or as much as you want. I vary quite a bit, depending on the encounter. For example, it could be something as simple as having a couple of players move all the miniatures. The “players make all the rolls” option from the 3.5 SRD (originally in Unearthed Arcana) works well for big fights in D&D. The idea can be made to work in many game systems, though. You can even go so far as to hand certain players the monsters stats, and let them run the monsters for you.

Another good thing about letting players run monsters is that it gives you an out when a character is temporarily disabled. Being turned to stone and other such tactics work better with a large group. In effect, you know that some of the characters will be disabled as the action continues. Normally, you’d avoid this because of player boredom. However, if the player can be assigned some monsters to play, you can really rachet up the tension. Consider that the pace will pick up–both because of fewer active PCs and because a player handling a few monsters will probably do it faster than the DM.

It also should be noted that running a large group successfully is not just a DM thing. The players need to develop good large group skills, as well. For example, it is imperative that the more extroverted players draw in the introverts, as much as possible. The DM simply will not have time.

An easy way to handle this is to direct a lot of questions at the other players. Instead of asking the DM a question, ask the player of the character that would most likely know. That player may need to turn to the DM for some information. But the DM just heard the question and, and once he gives the info, the two players are naturally inclined to dicuss the relevance.

#7 Comment By Crazy Jerome On January 18, 2006 @ 12:26 pm

Forgot one of my best tips on large groups, then Pedro’s post reminded me: When designing encounters for D&D (3E and later), design two encounters that work well together, rather than one big encounter.

Why? First, it’s just plain easier. You probably have some disparity in character level with a big group, and varying numbers of PCs per session. Take your four highest-level characters, design a normal encounter for them. Easy. Now take the remainder, and design an encounter for their average level. Usually pretty easy, as you can afford some mistakes here. (This is a weaker encounter than the first one, by definition.)

Second, you’ll force yourself to avoid a lot of the inherent problems when designing D&D encounters for large groups. You’ll have at least 2 creatures, but neither one will be an absolute killer. OTOH, you didn’t simply keep piling creatures on, making the battle that much more unwieldy. For best results, make the second encounter different creatures than the first.

Finally, it’s easy to handle the situation if some players do not show up or the party gets clever with tactics. Two guys don’t show at the last minute? Simple, drop the second encounter in most battles. (Maybe keep it in a few of the weaker ones, if you still have more than 4 players.) Party tricks the monsters into a “split”? You already know what the split might be.

#8 Comment By Pedro On January 18, 2006 @ 1:52 pm

Hey Jerome,
Your comment reminded me of another thing that I’ve done. I create a small number (3-4) of encounters that are a single entity — perhaps its a group of interconnected rooms, or something of the sort. Then, each area has a smaller encounter. However, when any one of them starts, the other creatures start moving in that direction. Unless the party specifically does something to prevent it: use silence, cut off entries with a wall, etc.

Then, these encounters happen either in quick succession, the end of the first overlaps the start of the second, or the 3rd and 4th start at the same time. You can vary creatures or use the same ones. And, it makes sense that things within a close range would react to noise in adjacent areas, especially for smart creatures or trained humanoids. It also helped with pacing, too much time between encounters let the party re-buff to maximum, while a succession of encounters forces them to be more mindful of their resources. I used this technique when the characters got to higher level. This would probably be too deadly for low-level characters.

And, as you said, you can scale these depending on the number of players. Perhaps only two of the encounters happen, or they’re separated by a round of to recooperate, etc. You just have to be careful not to make any single encounter too difficult if they’re being run as a group. And, you can’t use this strategy all of time. You need to keep the players on their toes.

#9 Comment By Martin On January 18, 2006 @ 6:19 pm

Odadiah: I mentioned the whiteboard in the context of initiative, but you’re right: It can be a big timesaver when used in other ways, too.

CJ: I can’t believe I left out “let the PCs play monsters” — I’ve even mentioned it before here on TT! Thanks for bringing that one up. 🙂

That’s an awesome way to deal with split parties, and with incapacitated PCs in battle. Some players might look at you funny, but most seem to be pretty gung-ho about it — and will play the monsters fairly, and with gusto.

And I’ve never tried the 2/1 encounter thing with D&D 3.x — I’ll have to give that a shot, as it sounds very useful.

Pedro: Thank you — and thanks for the link. Your expansion on my tips looks solid. 🙂

#10 Comment By Ben On January 18, 2006 @ 7:10 pm

Our group is large (8+ players) and we usually run with 2 GMs concurrently. They tag team running the content and one can split off if a player needs a quick “private chat”.

When tag teaming one often “GMs” and runs an NPC or two while the other “roves” and role plays one or more of the other NPCs. Gives the GMs a chance to play too.

In combat one GM concentrates on running the combat and book keeping while the other concentrates on being the opposition side. Makes for some very cunning enemy.

#11 Comment By Frank Filz On January 18, 2006 @ 11:20 pm

I use waves a lot. In my Arcana Unearthed campaign especially, but sometimes in my Arcana Evolved campaign. The PCs kept having fights right near other opponents.

It makes for interesting fights, where the PCs really have to pay attention to how their resources are going.

I don’t use waves too often in Cold Iron, but that’s a much easier game to scale I’ve found (and it demands a larger party than D&D does, so if you have extra players, you’re not doubling, your more like adding 50%).


#12 Comment By Martin On January 19, 2006 @ 9:20 am

The waves idea actually makes me think of World of Warcraft, where mobs (monsters) are often spaced out a bit — but not so far apart that carelessness can’t pull in extra baddies, and thereby turn a manageable fight into a deadly one.

It’s not the same thing, but I find the similarity interesting.

#13 Comment By Pedro On January 19, 2006 @ 10:30 am

I haven’t played World of Warcraft, but that sounds like a good thing.

I started using waves when the PCs got to higher level and challenging them became harder. Besides the meta-game reasons, I think it makes great sense in-game as well. Why would creatures (especially those trained to work together) not be attracted by combat nearby? In my early D&D playing, I always found it weird to go room to room clearing out monsters.

#14 Comment By Martin On January 19, 2006 @ 2:34 pm

(Pedro) Why would creatures (especially those trained to work together) not be attracted by combat nearby? In my early D&D playing, I always found it weird to go room to room clearing out monsters.

Most published scenarios have taken this into account for quite awhile now, though. I don’t view monsters in other rooms coming to check out sounds of battle in quite the same way as the waves you’re talking about.

Thinking about larger encounters in terms of waves involves meta-consideration of the game in a different way. The more I think about this idea, the more I’m digging it.

#15 Comment By Pedro On January 30, 2006 @ 4:32 pm

Glad to hear it Martin. I’ve made good use of it and our group is nearly 19th level. So, it would be interesting to hear what you experience trying this.

#16 Comment By Martin On January 31, 2006 @ 8:41 am

Pedro: It probably won’t happen anytime soon, unfortunately. I’m playing in two games and GMing none at the moment, and Primetime Adventures and Pendragon are the next things on my slate to run. But I’ll definitely keep it in mind. 🙂