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The question is: how do I balance gameplay when it comes to initiative?

The game is in person, every other week or so. My party is comprised of 7 players, two of whom are noobs. I, myself, and also relatively new to this. I ran a published one shot and used it as a prologue to the homebrew campaign (extra narrative included that involved the characters being summoned by the King of Daudorth for a mission... none of the characters knew others were being summoned, didn't know each other when they finally came together, and don't know yet what the mission is, even though they have begun the campaign). The mistake was pointedly having them come together and not know each other... that is, having that concept be a "thing". During the one shot, because they didn't know each other, they wandered off in their own directions of choice to find the items requested and to deal with some goblins, but didn't really work together much. Hindsight. So, it was like herding cats. Or so I thought.

Now that we're 2 sessions into the campaign, there's a tiny bit more "togetherness", but I asked the players at the end of the one shot if it seemed like it took forever to get back around to them, and it was a unanimous "yes", even though everyone understands that this is a large party.

I attempted a variation of initiative where it was reserved for combat, but when it came to simply moving about, checking for traps, rolling for Investigation, and the like, I gave free reign for "no particular order", and made sure each player had a chance, at will, to "do something".

THAT was herding cats. We use text messaging (player texts the DM) when someone's character wants to do something without the other characters knowing. It got a bit crazy and I was having trouble keeping up with the notes for the campaign notes.

Is there a better solution? I hate for it to take forever, seemingly, to get back around to Player A by using initiative RAW, but letting loose the reigns on non-combat actions is chaos.

Characters are all Level 2: Vedalken Necromancer, Vedalken Blood Hunter, High Elf Rogue, Tabaxi Paladin, Dwarf Barbarian, Goliath Fighter, Tortle Monk. (Goliath and Tortle have low Int... almost dumb as a box of rocks. Goliath thinks everything is a puppy to go hug or soup to drink....Tortle will wander off to the next area without concern if he has nothing to fight or find.)

And before anyone suggests taking some players out of the party, that is simply not an option. I won't add any, no matter how much some coworker or friend wants to join, but I have no options for cutting out players in this group.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Hello and welcome, it's quite a tricky situation you've got there, that's for sure. \$\endgroup\$
    – biziclop
    Aug 18, 2023 at 11:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you able to / open to adding a second DM or assistant DM? \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Aug 19, 2023 at 5:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't have the time to write an full answer at the moment, but back in the day a party often had a ["caller" ](dreamsinthelichhouse.blogspot.com/2020/06/…) \$\endgroup\$
    – aslum
    Aug 21, 2023 at 16:18

4 Answers 4

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7 players is a lot. It takes very little for the game to stall with that many people. My group solved that issue with a few rules:

  • Everyone gets a turn. We just go clock-wise and DM asked one after another what are they doing and then resolve that. That way everyone can get a bit of spotlight. It is impossible to share the spotlight evenly, but in the long run we found that to be the best solution. DM should encourage more shy players to use their turn to mitigate that issue. Mind you, this is not an initiative order like in combat but a tool for a DM to manage such a big group.

  • You don't talk when it is not your turn. When having more than 4 players in a group it can get loud. And that is distracting. So we have no talking rule. We meet up at least an hour before we start playing to get the talking out of our system. And we take a break or two. But while playing we try to limit chit-chat to a minimum.

  • Know what your character can do. If you know what you character can do you don't need to check the character sheet all the time and slowing down combat. With that knowledge and a bit of planing when it is not your turn there is a little reason for your turn to last more than a minute to resolve. That way combat doesn't drag forewer.

  • Don't split the party. Really. Just don't. Splitting the party in 2 quadruples the DM's work. Not to mention it often lead to bad things happening to PCs.

A little bit of discipline will drastically speed up your game. That and experience - both of players and of a DM.

As for your private notes part of the problem: players should be sure those notes are really needed as to not needlessly burden the DM (running the game can be overwhelming as it is, especially when new, and doubly so for such a big group). Player's and character's knowledge should be separated. So unless other players knowing those things would ruin a surprise there is little need to hide them from them. And it goes without saying that unless you agree otherwise during session 0 players should cooperate and not work to undermine each other (which removes majority ot cases when passing notes would make sense).

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    \$\begingroup\$ On that first bullet point, "going around the table" is a really good habit to get into no matter what size the party is just to make sure everyone gets some input even if they aren't loud about it. You set the scene, then ask each player what their character is doing (it's a good idea to rotate who you ask first so it isn't always one person!). Make it clear that "nothing much" or "come back to me in a minute" is fine if they don't have a particular idea at that time (but might think of something based on another player's action). \$\endgroup\$ Aug 18, 2023 at 15:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ When it comes to splitting the party, note that this is a player responsibility, not the DM's. Be frank with your players about this. If your players don't feel like staying / working together is in character for them, this may help: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/37103/… \$\endgroup\$
    – Izzy
    Aug 19, 2023 at 18:18
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With so many players, it is very important to manage your time well.

In combat you can implement a turn timer. Make sure everyone is aware of initiative order and is preparing their next move before you call on them. Then give them 20 or 30 seconds to describe their action. If it takes more time for dice rolls and consequences of that action to resolve, that's okay. The idea is to make sure they can tell you what they want to do as soon as you call on them or get their turn skipped. You may only need this for a few sessions until your player get into the habit of being prepared.

Outside of combat, limit player actions. Not everyone needs to take an action in every room of a dungeon or conversation with an NPC. Let the people who are ready with something their character wants to do take their actions. Prompt players who are shy or who haven't acted in a while until they learn to jump in.

Lastly, get rid of the texting mechanic. It is only going to cause you headaches. Players should not often be doing things the party doesn't know about. If they do, it's also usually done as a role-playing issue. The players at the table all hear about it, but they continue to role-play their character as not knowing. This works for things like the rogue pocketing extra treasure or the necromancer stealing bones to resurrect. Keeping secrets should be used for bigger picture things where you want your players to all be surprised like the Paladin being a double agent! This is better to discuss with the individual players outside of the sessions.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a solid answer, not sure why it has no more upvotes. +1, and welcome to the stack! \$\endgroup\$ Aug 19, 2023 at 4:52
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Here is the way I handle large groups (6+ players). It it design to work for RP-centered games so for DD5 it would cover most stuff that happens outside of combat.

Prepare a bunch of tokens (it can be whatever you want: glass beads, poker tokens, coins...). Give two to each of your players. When someone wants to intervene, typically for their character to take an action, they have to spend a token, that goes to a pool in the middle of the table.

Players who are out of tokens aren't allowed to speak, unless directly asked to. You don't have to be a jerk about enforcing this rule, but be careful that it is generally followed.

Once there are as many tokens in the middle of the table that there are players, redistribute them, one to everybody.

At some point, token are going to be unbalanced between players: this is intended. When it happens the players with the most tokens remaining are likely the players with the hardest time speaking up. If they truly have nothing to say (it can happens: some players truly are just here as audience members), they can surrender their tokens to the middle of the table so everybody can get one back.

You don't have to use exactly two tokens per player: I recommend increasing the numbers once your players get used to this system and are starting to police themselves to let everybody speak.

To me, the big advantage of this over using an initiative-like system is that it doesn't force anybody into a specific moment to act: a player could not having anything to say during a specific scene but want to take a bit more space in the next one. You don't have to keep a track of anything, and it gives direct feedback about who haven't had as much occasion to speak as the others.

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Initiative RAW is combat only as per PHB chapter 9 (Combat):

Initiative determines the order of turns during combat. When combat starts, every participant makes a Dexterity check to determine their place in the initiative order.

TL;DR: go back and forth among players, solve actions all at once, try to keep party from splitting.


However, it is always useful to go around the table (specially big ones like yours) to check what each PC will do. If they are all together in a scene, try giving each one a chance to tell you what they are going to try, where are they positioned, or what their PC is doing while others go on with their actions. Then, ask for rolls and tell them the outcomes as if all happens at once (because it usually does). Remember to prompt shy players for their inputs, give options if they're not sure or can't think what to do.

If they are separated, it gets a little more complicated. In my experience, players get bored when not included in the scene, or if left aside during an encounter in which they were present. Try to go back and forth between the split parties, pause the scene in a decisive moment to keep the tension and move to the other half: "MEANWHILE! the other guys such and such".

That said, the best is to always try to get them together again naturally, but if naturally isn't possible you can always have something happen to make it important to get them all in one spot again.

If one of the parties is safe at the camp while the others are gathering info or shopping, scare them with a handful of kobolds, have a guard find them and ask what are they doing there at that time of night or whatever. But give them something to do before they pick up their phones.

And don't stress to much about it. You'll get a feeling for these things as you get more xp in GMing. Being a GM can be a bit overwhelming, but it does get easier with time. Keep up the good work, friend.

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