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So I may have a happy problem. I just finished a game with a group of five players, all of them enjoyed it and we've been talking about the next game we would start. None of them are problem players, none of them will refuse the invitation (I think) and ultimately all of them are friends and will know if one is excluded.

However, I find five players to be too much for me: due to the nature of the game we play, the kind of situations I like to set up and the time it takes to go through so many people while having some RP in there. Those issues make it so I have trouble running the game I'd like to run. Making it less enjoyable for me and, I think, for some of the players.

So... How can I, as a GM, deal with a group that's too big for me if I don't want to force someone out?

In a perfect world, one or two of the players would drop out of the game of their own volition. But realistically, I would like to drop one or two, which I don't know how to go about making it happen, or make the game more manageable for the group I have.


Here are a few complications I have:

  • Everyone is friend of everyone else, so merely not inviting someone is just excluding them and hoping they don't notice or don't mind being left out.
  • Likewise, everyone seem to be looking forward to the next setting. So I don't expect anyone to turn down the game unless there is a big change of playstyle.
  • There are no obvious problem-players. The worst I have are follow-along-players. So I have no real ground to expel anyone.
  • The playstyle I've found most enjoyable is one of low-combat and more RP and problem solving. Making kind of hard to engage five people.
  • I also find I like to take the time to RP a bit even when resolving mostly basic rolls, so that resolving a full day's exploration in a single roll and narating the result is not something I want to do frequently.

I found some question close to mine on the site, the closest I have is this one: How can I manage a party that has grown too big?. But it doesn't help my problem. Mostly because on the focus on Roll20 and dnd (we run a homebrew system for which the closest comparison I have is: Dungeon World with crunchier combat).


For reference, Here are the main avenues I had in mind in case I still have five players for a while.

  • Run the next game in a Westmarch-like style. Off-loading the burden of who is present to the players and giving me a reason to apply time pressure on the players. I'm not sure how feasable this is and may have to resort to selecting two nights instead of one. Based on our current speed. I can't see how we could run a satisfying game in such a short time (that is partly my fault).
  • Keep the group and keep a close eye on the playtime IRL, keep things focussed. This is what I've been doing and I know it has the side-effect of giving little to no spotlight on the players who goes in the wrong direction and the difference between right and wrong direction is jarring in my narration (and I know some players noticed a few time). If someone decides to leave because of it... I can slow down because I have a more manageable group now. If noone dislike it, then I may be alright. But that is not the kind of game I'd like to run.
  • Keep the group and enforce a strict no-splitting rule. See how it goes. I tend to find 5 players+NPCs scenes tough to run and I expect the two least vocal players to just quit talking in such a game. But I can't find another
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil May 28 at 11:42
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Realistically, the best way to do it is to talk to the group

Your concerns are legitimate; being the GM is hard work. Not only planning the game, but running the game with all the player interaction with your story can throw some spanners on the works.

So first off, talk to the group. Tell them what you need, and discuss with them the solution.

If no one wants to drop out, there are ways to manage it.

Some alternatives could be an alternating roster. Limit the group size to 3, and have alternating games. You don't necessarily have to have different games, but it can be managed separately. Giving you a longer timeframe to manage the story development, and keep track of everything.

Another might be an alternating GM. this can work twofold; you get a break, and someone else can have a go at playing the GM. A newbie can get some practice in, and you can co-GM to help them out when they get stuck.

Ultimately though, the best way forward to to discuss this with your group. As you mentioned, everyone gets along, so it shouldn't be too much of an issue discussing how best to manage this.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It's a classic, but a classic we tend to forget. Talking's probably the first step and i guess now that I've written all of this, it's easier to pitch it live. Have a +1. I'll see later if another answer comes up \$\endgroup\$ – 3C273 May 28 at 16:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ In the end I accepted that answer because it was teh one that led me to think in the right direction. For the reccord, I'll probably try to set up a westmarch style with really small tipbit, and I expect the most interested players will try to be there for all 2-3 session of a particular questline. I expect most people to be there for most of the game anyway. \$\endgroup\$ – 3C273 May 31 at 15:54
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Slow the pacing of the game down

Instead of playing 3 or 4 encounters or scenes in a session, try slowing each down and playing 2 or 3, but having each one last longer. By slowing the pacing of the game down you may find that you can roleplay the situations you enjoy, and give everyone a part in the game, without running overtime. This does slow down your story development, so you will need to make adjustments. In my experience, this doesn't feel much slower as a player, since you spend the time socializing and roleplay to the same degree.

One game I'm playing at the moment has gone that way due to the pacing change when moving from IRL to online. In a normal session, we get about 2 encounters done, down from about 6. Yes, less gets done per week, but in the end, it works and we still get to play. The campaign just takes a bit longer.

We would all like to complete more encounters per game, but in the end, it's better to play 2 encounters rather than not at all. The importance of encounters has increased, for example less random goblins on the road or giant spider ambushes while sleeping, which keeps the pacing going the same rate. Everyone goes away from the session wanting more, but I think that's ok!

Shorter scenes

There are many ways to cut scenes short. Adding time pressure in-game, or out of the game can induce this easily.

During combat, you could introduce a turn timer. You have 10 seconds to state what you are going to do, or initiative moves on. This forces players to pay attention and make decisions when it isn't their turn. In my experience, this speeds up combat a lot and keeps everyone focused. It does change the feel from a more chess-like, perfect moves, combat, into a bit of a scamper. But I enjoy that.

Out of combat, you can add time pressure by having an imminent event looming over the party which progresses at your discretion. For example, if the party has an audience with the king, have the king be impatient, introduce an aide who informs the king a more important guest is here. If they can't figure things out fast enough, have the king end the scene. If the party is in a dungeon, roleplaying some camping, have thumping footsteps approach. Give the party something to react to, which develops when you want it to. Again, this tends to increase the intensity of the game, so if you want a relaxed game where you can spend half an hour making every decision, it may not work well for you. In games I run I like to keep my players under pressure as I find that it holds focus and helps the players feel that their choices matter.

Whoever shows up, plays

Another solution I've used before is to allow a large number of players to join the game, knowing that it's unlikely they will all be there every session. Yes, this may lead to you running 5 player sessions, but in my experience often someone can't make it. If you make it clear to the group that it's totally ok if they don't show up, then halfhearted players won't feel as pressures to show up (we all know what it's like to have a long day, then jump into a game that you are honestly too tired to play, but you don't want to let your mates down).

I had a particular PF group a long time ago where some players were pretty flakey. It was actually an 8 player game, but we ran with 4 or 5 most of the time. Often the monk spent weeks at local monasteries, and the dwarf spent many adventuring days sleeping off a drunken night.

Sometimes this meant the DM had to DM more players than they would ideally like, but for the most part we ran good games that everyone was happy with - without changing any other structural elements.

Compromise

Spending time with your friends is something you probably enjoy, whether you play or not. Likewise, just because your perfect game is suited to 4 players, maybe you can make some changes and play with 5. Ultimately you may not be able to come to a perfect solution, but playing your game with some changes to make it work with 5 may be worth it so you can play with your friends.

You may find that it's worth sacrificing a little of the situations you like, and the roleplaying you prefer, so you can have everyone together hanging out.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not too sure about slowing things down, the issue that things are slow already, so I don't think that's really a good solution. I do like the scenes idea - again not necessarily "shorter" scenes, that (imo) feels like you're suggesting forcing things to move along, which I personally wouldn't enjoy. But perhaps suggesting limiting sessions to a number of scenes? That can allow for some shenanigans, but also limiting the amount of work the GM needs to do \$\endgroup\$ – Ben May 28 at 7:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ben I'm assuming that scenes and encounters are roughly proportionally equal since a scene is where (ideally) your encounter should take place. Fewer encounters per session should mean Fewer scenes per session. I'll add some info. Time pressure shouldn't feel like the GM is pushing things along, it should feel like the world is moving. The goblins banging on your door aren't going to wait until you have an in-depth discussion and hatch the perfect plan. I think the problem the OP is having is more about scenes dragging on out of their control. \$\endgroup\$ – gszavae May 28 at 7:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you add some details as to how your players/table responded to these? I think setting some expectations about potential pitfalls/reactions would be really helpful. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch May 28 at 14:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ Reducing the number of scenes is part of my plan for the next campain. That however require a change in how I structure my games, since, as Ben points out : I'd still like to go throught a quest in a reasonable real-time. Same goes for using events to force the game on. Both require some restructuring on my part. \$\endgroup\$ – 3C273 May 29 at 0:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ Your suggestions are going in the general direction I wanted to go (outside the number-of-players problem), so it is encouraging. I'd be curious to hear how that transition went in your group (as NautArch asked before this) \$\endgroup\$ – 3C273 May 29 at 0:45
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@Ben and @gszavae gave some really good suggestions.

One more solution that's not brought up is that you could off-load some NPCs to the players.

Either let players play NPCs when they are not present with their main character.

Or designate a dedicated NPC player (or even co-GM), who doesn't have his own main character.

Of course, you might have to share some GM secrets with the NPC player, such as: secret goals, motivations or roles they are supposed to play in the larger story. (Such as "unwitting instigator of doom".)

This might also provide a more active role for your follow-along players.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ "Draft a co-GM" is a definite possibility, as long as you can give them enough to do. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden May 28 at 15:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ That idea could be good, but I think giving them enough to do would be a problem. Since I'm a really low-prep GM, making stuff up for the 2nd would be a big job for me. Have an upvote though \$\endgroup\$ – 3C273 May 31 at 15:51
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I don't know if it is viable, but I'd advise you split the group in two and perhaps invite one or two more people. Having two groups will mean more preparation time but if you enlarge the time between sessions I don't think it'll be a problem. That also opens the possibility of mixing groups or swapping people in them. Anyways this is a decision that would have to be talked with the players.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you have any personal experience (or published experience of others) handling this kind issue in this manner? Adding that to your answer would improve it greatly, see this meta, there's a lot to any one approach which isn't obvious unless you've actually done it \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil May 28 at 18:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ On the other hand, Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already and see the help center or ask us here in the comments (use @ to ping someone) if you need more guidance. Good Luck and Happy Gaming! \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil May 28 at 18:58

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