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I am currently running a Dungeons and Dragons 4 campaign for a group of 9 players. Whittling the group down to a more manageable size is not really an option since they are all family. When we do combat it takes forever even if I have one player help me and allow them to go 2 at a time. When we do story based adventure there are 2-3 players that do most of the talking and the others twiddle their thumbs.

I've tried encounters with many foes, encounters with only a few tough foes, dialog only encounters, social puzzle encounters, everything I can think of. What else can I try to get this group more engaged?

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Seems to me you have two areas where you want to optimise; I've run large games before (8 players in a Rolemaster campaign, I must have been mad!) and keeping all the players involved is tough, here's what I learnt from it.

Combat

  • Preparation; I don't know about AD&D 4e but I do know about complicated systems and preparation can save you loads of time. Make a carddeck of monster information you can quickly refer to, no referencing is quicker play.
  • Numbering. Number everything and order them and write a short name after it for fluff. Get a bit of paper and write down the initiative order for everyone in a fight and list your monsters as numbers; then track resources next to their name. While a player is deciding you can decide what the next monster is doing.
  • Tracking: Monsters can be very complicated to track with multiple resources, hit points, abilities and so on. So keep them simple, put check boxes in your initiative list to mark what they've used so you don't have to keep checking; if it helps. Also you can do the same for the players; make a table where you track each players hits, ac and so on so you don't have to keep asking if you've hit, if they're at 50% hits or whatever.
  • Mooks and minions. It's been mentioned before and it's a great timesaver; Splat the 2 hit point Kobold really has only two states, annoying and dead. Don't bother counting.
  • Simplify, simplify, simplify: Round monsters stats off, ignore time consuming abilities, if they're nearly dead make them really dead. If a monster is unconscious don't bother with stabilisation rolls (for example) fudge things away dramatically to save time, keeping the fight flowing is more important.
  • Rounding: If maths isn't your forte round damage to the nearest five or ten either way and it'll save you a lot of headaches and counting; you can even then use a simple bar/gate system to add on damage in blocks of five to count damage.
  • Poke players in order, tell the player who's next after whoever's deciding to get ready each time. "Bob you're up, Eric start thinking of what you want to do."
  • If you really want to harsh it, give players a decision time frame; 1 minute per turn, maybe less. This will encourage them to prep their decisions!

Social

I notice in your question you have When we do story based adventure there are 2-3 players that do most of the talking and the others twiddle their thumbs. To me, social situations are where a GM can be the most lazy, especially with a big group.

  • Encourage PC to PC interaction, backstories are gold for this; players should be talking to each other and deciding stuff as much as possible.
  • Draw out the quiet ones, it's been said before but "victimise" those who keep quiet, encourage them, drop bits from background into their story "Bob you notice an old book on the shelf that is titled 'A history of Bobland' where your old village Bobford was" and so on.
  • Round Robin it. Break the group into smaller ones and give each one a bit of time; Two groups are out buying stuff? Tell the first about the shop, do a bit of interaction then switch to the other group for a bit - this can take a bit of getting used to but I've found it very helpful in stopping players sitting around being bored - just switch every few sentences or so between groups, the other group gets a chance to think some more and the previously waiting group gets a go.
  • By the same dint give NPCs in social situations more people. How intimidating is it for 8 people to try and talk to the same person at the same time? Add in the Wizards familiar to talk to, another shop assistant, add in extra NPC's to situations so you can use the Round Robin tactic.
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Have you thought about breaking it up into two groups in the same campaign setting? That might be a way to make it more manageable. To get the quieter people involved, you will have to give their character information or knowledge that no one else has and get them to share it. This requires a bit of enforcement regarding what is in-character vs. out-of-character knowledge.

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I really like the private information aspect of this answer. –  digitaljoel Aug 19 '10 at 20:47
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One 4e specific option is what I've seen referred to as "Brutal 4e." It's a way of speeding up combat while also making a bit more "swingy." People do different variations, but in my game we do the following:

  1. Monster HP is halved.
  2. Monsters do +1 damage for every 2 levels (e.g., a level 5 monster does 3 extra damage on hits)
  3. Critical hits do max damage plus 1W (roll the 1W)

I'd say this cuts combat time roughly in half without upsetting the balance in any way I've noticed. Monsters equal to the party's level usually go down in two hits or so, and an encounter power can take them down in one.

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Wow ! I think I will try this and see if it can help accelerate my combats as well. –  Monkios Apr 29 '11 at 14:58
    
What's a 1W? Is it a type of die? –  Gordon Gustafson Sep 18 '11 at 23:12
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@CrazyJugglerDrummer that's 4e speak for 1 weapon damage die –  Zachary Yates Jan 6 '12 at 15:34
    
Regarding #3, I assume that should be in addition to the extra 1W from a High Critical weapon? –  Brian S Nov 18 '13 at 16:03
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I was in a Shadowrun campaign in college that had 8-10 players. The characters would often break up into 2-3 smaller groups at different parts of the adventure. We had multiple GMs that would run each smaller group. It was like have 2-3 constantly changing groups in the same adventure. If the whole group was in a single combat it still seemed to break into smaller skirmishes.

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Last time I ran a large group, like Eric, we used two GMs and split the party a lot. That was 12 players in a 2e Dark Sun game. –  Iain M Norman Jul 5 '12 at 9:50
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Combat takes forever even if I have one player help me and allow them to go 2 at a time.

I applaud you for tackling this from a traditional D&D approach. That said, I recommend a war game. Pull ideas in from the 3.5 Heroes of Battle or any other mass combat game. Specifically:

  • For ranged attacks like fireballs or artillery that could affect the whole party, roll damage dice ahead of time and note it.
  • Flesh out types of enemies instead of specific enemies. Ie. "goblin," "goblin guard" (3rd level warrior?), "goblin prince" (6th level fighter?). Then not only is prep simpler but you'll be juggling less varied creatures in combat.
  • Green screen! For overwhelming numbers, use the 'scrubs' concept from GURPS (where I first encountered it, at least). Some enemies are just pawns to be tossed aside, so a single hit will suffice. Added bonus, used sparingly this can make the fighter/paladin/barbarian feel like they're just that cool. Just up the amount of minions used, in a 4e game.
  • Consider having multiple choke points for PCs and enemies alike. Then you could maintain you multiple-turns-simultaneously approach and give it an in-game reason.

When we do story based adventure there are 2-3 players that do most of the talking and the others twiddle their thumbs.

Grant each (or even subgroups) of PCs separate 'orders' or intentions. For example, in any given roleplay this group of sorcerors could be looking to replenish the parties consumable items and the paladin and cleric could be gathering intelligence about what undead are about. If everyone has their own distinct goal, or at least multiple shared goals, everyone can get more of the spotlight since they'll have different concerns.

Expanding on the above, focus each encounter on **whoever spoke least in the last one. The paladin didn't get to talk with the guildmage much? Well, the wizard might not have much to say to the archdeacon of the paladin's church - at least not as much as the paladin would. In this way you can bring even shy/passive players to the front of the party. While my group has been big but not as big as yours, I've tried this and it works.

I've tried encounters with many foes, encounters with only a few tough foes, dialog only encounters, social puzzle encounters, everything I can think of. What else can I try to get this group more engaged?

If I were to go with such a large group, I'd definitely try out a Dirty Dozen war campaign at least once. Some of HoB is RAW 3.5 mechanics, but even that might be easy to translate to your 4e game. A lot of it is simply DM tactics to use with the group, from planning encounters to designing a battlefield to handling large scale battles.

Note it doesn't take into account large parties (anywhere I know of) but with a bit of tweaking, tactics to handle large parties on the NPC end can be applied elsewhere. Maybe your wizard could roll their spell damage when they prepare their spells, even?

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Note on scrubs: 4e already has these in the form of minions. –  SevenSidedDie Dec 14 '12 at 5:00
    
@SevenSidedDie thank you :) will incorporate that into the answer. –  LitheOhm Dec 14 '12 at 5:08
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+1 Much good advice here –  Rob Dec 14 '12 at 9:41
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We have 6 players in our group, and even that is too much. Combat is horribly slow, but the players have to pay attention to the other's turns as some of them have interrupts that trigger on specific events. This "concentrating on nothing" is really taxing, they start to talk about their work and family among themselves. I can not blame them, they came to be entertained, and they are not.
Interaction with NPCs are just as bad, every room feels crowded, does not matter if it's a boudoir or a courthouse. Everyone wants to talk at the same time, impossible to have a meaningful conversation.

If you have 4 players they take their turns patiently, because it is in the visible distance. If you are one of nine, your next turn is so far away it might not even come. They will talk over eachother. Not because they are jerks, they are only humans.

I suggest you create 2 groups, either divided on what day works for them, or about playstyle. Some people prefer combat, some investigating and interaction. Some might drop out as thatgirldm pointed out, but it is less likely if they are one of 4 instead of one of 9. In the first case they have more fun, and more pressure (my group depends on me). The second case is just the opposite (they wont even notice I am not there).

So it all comes down to your preferences:

  • If you have time to prepare to to separate sessions, and want to keep two groups, separate them.
  • If you only have the time for one group, likely more people will leave, and sooner. Also, as Phil pointed out in the comments, it will probably drive away the new players first. It will be reduced to a managable number quite soon.
    • If it is not your goal, but still have no time to prepare twice, you should probably find another DM for the other part of the group.
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I like most of this answer apart from the last sentence. It is not about 'weeding out the weak'. People will leave because the large group makes the game unfun. There are issues with this, particularly if they are new to roleplaying as it may well give them the impression that ALL games are like this. –  Phil Nov 11 '13 at 11:18
    
Thanks for the comment, it sounded less offensive in my head. Included your idea. –  András Nov 11 '13 at 11:32
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An additional note: D&D4 is one of the worst games for generating some of the issues you describe; it simply wasn't designed to handle groups over 6. There are games where parties of 9 can work quite well; D&D 4e isn't one of them. –  Tynam Nov 11 '13 at 13:20
    
Star Wars d20 and Original are both bad with a lot of players (above 5), same for every edition of DnD, Shadowrun, Cyberpunk, Vampire, Werewolf, Firefly... Even Risk and Monopoly has a sweet spot about 4-5. What rpg is good for 9 people? –  András Nov 11 '13 at 13:50
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I've run large groups (up to 9 people) before, and the first rule of thumb is that some players will always drop out. This isn't a reflection on you or your campaign, but a simple fact of life - people get busy, life happens, etc. So you're likely to end up with fewer than 9 regular players. (My first 9-PC group dropped to five regular players, then added a sixth much later; my second has dropped from 9 to 7 and two more know they will have to leave in the spring.)

The second rule of thumb is to keep things focused and moving. With up to 9 PCs, it's very easy for the game to get bogged down as everyone wants to go off and do their own thing. Make sure you use situations which allow you some control over what the PCs are doing. Which isn't to say railroad them - just that open-world/sandbox campaigns are VERY difficult to run with large groups, and you should consider focusing on strong plot drivers that give the group something around which to unite.

The third rule of thumb is to find ways to keep combat interesting. This means balancing your encounters properly, yes (although how you do that depends heavily on your group, i.e., lots of strikers? Mostly defenders? Players who would prefer traps and puzzles in the middle of their combats? Players who just want to blast orcs in the face? etc). But it also means finding ways to trim off the boring bits. For most encounters, especially if they've already run on for several rounds and most PCs are down to at-will powers and/or it's very clear that the PCs will win the fight, I will ask the group if they want to just kill it. This ends the fight as if we'd played out the whole combat and doesn't cost them anything; it just means we as players don't have to sit through the last however many rounds of the PCs pounding on the remaining monster(s).

Regarding your idea of splitting the group, I'd be cautious with this. Splitting the group is likely to end up being a complex proposition, and whether it works would depend largely on how much time you're willing to invest in both groups and how good you are at juggling them. Consider the following points:

  • If you run two split parties during the same session, then for half the session, half your players will be sitting around doing nothing. Boring!
  • If you run two split parties on alternating sessions, your players' progression will suffer as each group is only progressing half the time.
  • If Party A does something that will affect Party B, you have to be prepared to integrate that into whatever you had planned for Party B.
  • If Party A does something that requires Party B's immediate input (e.g., decides to ambush the group because B has something A wants), then the game grinds to a halt until you can get both groups playing at the same time.

Which is not to say it's impossible, but it will definitely take a LOT of effort on your part.

My personal preference has been to just manage the large group as one. Especially considering that you're likely to lose some number of players over the first few months, this isn't as daunting a prospect as it sounds.

And finally, remember to communicate with your players! They want the game to be fun just as much as you do, so communicating up front that this will be a large group and you'd appreciate any help you can get (such as avoiding off-topic talk during important moments, players taking over minor duties during combat such as initiative tracking, etc) will go a long way.

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See if you can't recruit one of the players as a co-DM. 8 players with a 2-DM team is a much more manageable situation.

With 2 DMs, there are a lot of possibilities—aside from simply being able to divide the work of creating maps (or drawing out maps for the players), controlling monsters, and maintaining game flow, (and all the other million little tasks a DM handles), it can provide the opportunity for lots of things a DM might not have time for on their own.

Want to use music or sound effects for ambience? Easily managed when one person is in charge of that, and one person is handling the "ordinary" DM tasks. Want to split the party? Easily managed with a DM to handle each portion of the group. Want to run a larger, more-complex battle? Simply divide up the work and it's about the same as running an encounter of normal size/copmlexity.

It's a bit unusual, and takes a bit of getting used to, so you don't step on each others' toes, but it can have some really amazing outcomes.

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