What is the ideal number of players to have at your table for any given game? Is it three? Four? Five? EIGHT?!? Ask a dozen GMs and you’ll probably get a dozen slightly different answers.
Recently, I was checking my events for an upcoming con and noticed the player limit was five. I panicked slightly, since this was for a game I designed for six players and while I can run it for fewer, the game is about the secrets between the characters and can lose some of its spark if certain characters aren’t in play. Shortly after this panic, a friend asked about my preferred number of players, sparking a conversation about how running games changes depending on the number of players at your table.
When I first started GMing, I thought if you couldn’t run for at least eight players, you were a subpar GM. In part, this was based on my memories of games from the 90’s and some of the oversized groups from my college days. Because of this, many of the early games I brought to cons had eight characters for the players to choose from and I would always accept eight players at the table. Later on, when I started getting into more indie, more story-based games, I was surprised to find many of them advocating for having only four or five players. Heck, I nearly got myself into trouble the first time I ran Headspace, because I put six seats in for the event only to realize the game kind of needs you to run for five or less.
The more I talk to other GMs, the more I realize everyone has their own threshold for what they consider a good or manageable table size. It definitely varies depending on the game being played, but everyone has their own perceptions of what a ‘good’ table looks like. Of course, many folks will speak of their preferences as if they were an absolute and look at anyone who varies from that preference as if they were insane.
Your mileage may vary on what constitutes a small, medium, or large group, but here are *MY* thoughts and advice on various table sizes:
- I consider a small group one that contains three or fewer players, plus the GM.
- With a tiny group of players, the GM has to be ‘on’ far more. You get fewer moments where the players carry the action through interactions with one another, allowing you to take a moment to breathe. They look to the GM to fill the void. I tend to find this exhausting, which is why I prefer a larger table.
- Games tend to finish faster than expected. With fewer players, there are fewer distractions, allowing them to get through any planned material quicker. While the focus the players can have on the game is nice, it can be difficult to fill the standard four-hour time slot at a game convention.
- A small table allows for a more intimate focus on each character’s story without sacrificing spotlight time from anyone else at the table. With fewer players, you can interweave all their stories into the main story of the game easier.
- My medium groups contain four to six players, plus the GM.
- These are probably the average (ha!) size seen most often for home groups and at cons. My preference usually leans towards this size. There’s enough interplay between the players, but the group is small enough I feel like I can still give everyone the right amount of attention.
- Many games are designed around the dynamic of four to six players, so going with fewer or more players requires being mindful of any potential changes to the game’s balance. You can generally assume a game is going to run as described in the rules when you fall into this sweet spot. Another benefit is that any modules or other prepared material are designed for this number of players, often making the GM’s job easier.
- This size group usually offers a good balance for mixing experienced and inexperienced players, or passive and active players. You can still spread your focus equally among the players, but sit back and let some of the active/experienced players take a lead in roleplaying scenes or discussions.
- I would call any group with seven or more players, in addition to the GM, a large group.
- Large groups allow getting more people involved in the game and prevent having to leave one or two people out. Occasionally, with a slightly larger group, it can end up being more fun to have one large table than splitting into two small tables.
- Certain games will work better for larger groups. The simpler the mechanics are, the less lag time you’ll have as players progress through the game, hopefully keeping everyone focused on the game. Complicated mechanics can often drag the game down. Lighter games focused on humor also tend to work better than more serious games, unless you are prepared to handle the game more like a LARP than a traditional tabletop RPG.
- The GM has to function like a circus ringmaster, keeping the game moving and shifting the spotlight around the table while making sure everyone gets a chance to do something. This can be taxing on a GM, and it can be harder to reign in dominant players while pulling in quieter players.
We all have our preferences for the style and size of game we prefer to both run and play, but that doesn’t necessarily mean another style and size is going to work for someone else. I generally don’t enjoy larger games, but I appreciate the artistry and efforts of the GMs who somehow make those massive tables work and all their players walk away from the table with smiles on their faces.
What’s your sweet spot for the number of players you run for? Do you have some tips and tricks to offer for running smaller or larger tables? I’d love to hear your advice too.