Recently I've been looking through AD&D modules for session ideas. Something I've noticed is that many of the modules were designed for more player characters than I've generally seen in one gaming group. For example Ravenloft (I6) and Day of Al'Akbar (I9) are both designed for 6-8 player characters. Was there an assumption that AD&D groups had more people? Or was it perhaps standard for players to play multiple characters at once?
For the most part, it’s the former: AD&D groups often had six, eight, or more people playing. When those adventures were written, tabletop gaming, and AD&D in particular, were extremely popular. You could find RPG clubs just about anywhere, and when the clubs met it was not uncommon to have ten gamers to a table. And remember, when they say 6 to 8 player characters, they really mean 7 to 9 players, because the DM isn’t counted.
It’s hard to find exact numbers, but for TSR products specifically, I found some circulation figures for Dragon that indicate the year after Ravenloft, 1984, saw the high-water mark for Dragon subscriptions. Some caveats, of course: back then, Dragon (as well as other magazines published by companies that also published their own games) covered more than just their own game.
According to Acaeum, adventures in the eighties were selling between 50,000 and 150,000 units—per adventure. The number has dropped considerably since then.
There were a lot of people playing, and so the culture supported larger gaming groups. In 1982 when I started college, our core group was seven people—brought together by the Dungeon Master walking the floor at the beginning of the year, looking for who was unpacking gaming books and inviting them to join his game. Others would join the core irregularly. We considered ourselves a relatively small group!
Unfortunately, since cameras were not as ubiquitous at the time, and pretty much none of them were digital, there isn’t a lot of photographic evidence online. However:
- A Portrait of Young Geeks Playing D&D (1980) shows at least six people at the table; it’s a crowded shot, so there could be more hidden, and the picture-taker may be a player, too.
- Clarion 77 D&D game (1977) shows at least six people on the floor, possibly seven (at about 3 o’clock there is either a pile of clothes or another player), and of course the picture-taker may be a player.
- A Portrait of Young Geeks Playing D&D (1982) has six players and one DM.
- Even Jack Chick’s infamous game had six players, plus a Dungeon Master!
Because of the way people thought of cameras at the time, most photographs from the period are staged. So we don’t know, without additional evidence, that the Pingry School Dungeons & Dragons Club of 1984, for example, played with seven players to a game (plus DM), but it’s a good guess they occasionally did. And this Dungeons & Dragons Club (1983) may have been posed with everyone at the table, but it looks like they’re fairly experienced bringing enough chairs to the table.
Another source for number of gamers per game are the old Dungeon Master’s Adventure Logs. Here’s a log from Donald Colton, circa 1985, that lists nine players, not including the Dungeon Master. And the Rythlondar Chronicles lists group sizes from 7 to 15, with an average group size of 11.
While researching this answer, a whole lot of photos popped up from 2 Warps to Neptune, which looks like a great compilation of historical photos.
“And with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark. That place where the dice finally broke, and rolled back.”
This answer make me the feel like the crusty old DM. AD&D was far more based on roleplay than dicerolling (see What are the big differences between the D&D editions? ). Because of that it was fun and easy to get a group of friends together and play with a great deal of flexability and imagination.
As an example the AD&D answer to this question (Is there any edition where it's possible to play as Animated Armor?) in campaigns I ran is, "No problem Bob, but use the fighter tables and you'll have to have another character help you oil yourself periodically or make a save vs rust roll" Bob would also be hearing sounds of rust monsters, and I'd roll ever so often to see if one shows based on what was going on. Things like that are exactly how worlds like Greyhawk, the forgotten realms, blackmoor came about. It was a organic environment then without a ton of rule lookups making the gameflow relatively fast. In fact in my group had 1 DMG and 2 PHB copies, and we had about 8 -10 players that came in and out with 6 of us "core" players.
New players new nothing and frankly didn't need to - that's the DM's job to adjudicate. You could be Puff the magic dragon for all we cared as long as you had a great story idea behind it. Most of the time while you would roll your character, the players and DM would weave the "finding Puff" adventure into the campaign. (for those of you playing the home game Puff used the cleric tables since dragons don't need books to memorize spells). All in all it was both new and easy to play, as well as fun. I suspect under 3rd ed. or later rules we'd still be rolling dice, trying to save the great Bahpoo of the lizardmen's tribe that lived outside of town daughter.
In short the modules were designed with what was common for the game at the time.
For another perspective, it was a basic assumption that every PC would have 1 or more NPC henchmen. So having 6-8 characters did not assume that they would all be player characters.