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Original D&D is often the shorthand name for the 1974 Dungeons & Dragons, Vol. 1, Men & Magic, written by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. The section on "Scope" has this quote:

Number of Players: At least one referee and from four to fifty players can be handled in any single campaign, but the referee to player ratio should be about 1:20 or thereabouts.

This is mindboggling to me that a campaign, not just a one-shot, is expected to be able to work with one referee (a precursor to a Dungeon Master) and up to 50 players, although admittedly not as ideal as one referee and 20 players, which still sounds ludicrous to me. I find 8 or 10 players for one DM to be especially challenging to work with, particularly as you are trying to gauge if everyone is having fun, and I can't imagine how this many people would be a practical or satisfying experience.

If nothing else, this many players would be a problem in that if each player is working quickly and takes an average of 1 minute (and we don't have delays like dice rolling off the table), you're going 20-50 minutes between turns.

How was this size of group expected to work out and still be a fun experience for everyone?

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A "campaign" isn't what it used to be...

Early campaigns often had multiple groups running within the same campaign. That is, the group of {Alice, Bob, Charlene, Dave, Edith, Francis, Ginny, Hal, Iris, and Jake} and the group of {Adam, Betty, Chip, Delilah, Edwin, Frances, Garth, Harriet, Isaac, and Jessica} and the group {Alice, Adam, Karen, and Luke} could play in different sessions but in the same world: all in one campaign.

From the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide, italic emphasis mine:

Time in the Campaign
Game time is of utmost importance. Failure to keep careful track of time expenditure by player characters will result in many anomalies in the game....

One of the things stressed in the original game of D&D was the importance of recording game time with respect to each and every player character in a campaign. In AD&D it is emphasized even more: YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.

-Gary Gygax

You didn't need to keep track of time for your group, you needed it for each character. The actions of one group might redound to the benefit or detriment of another group. You might have them racing to achieve the same objective... or working at cross-purposes.

Consider, for example, these players' anecdotes:

I played in a couple campaigns in the 1978-1982 time frame that were run this way -- one DM and 3-4 groups of 3-6 players who met on different evenings and never encountered one another. Required a pretty dedicated DM.

-user Zeiss Ikon, comment of 3 Jan 2017

I once ran a "Fall of Myth Drannor" campaign, it had 15 players spread over 4 groups. Some players played different PCs in separate groups (around 24 ~26 PC total). As the campaign ramped up and the mortality rate did too, the groups were merged, we ended up with a single group of six people. I have to agree that timekeeping is paramount when dealing with such campaigns.

-user Mindwin, comment of 4 Jan 2017

Run this way, it's not too hard to imagine scores of players involved in the same campaign.

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A couple things that hopefully add insight:

One: Note that this comment is about "any single campaign" (with more verbiage in that regard in the answer to which you've linked). Those players may or may not be a single game session, i.e., all at the table at one time. My understanding of Gygax's early games is that he had an "open sandbox" style in which he was running a game every night of the week and a variety of different people showed up any given night.

Two: The original D&D rules are so stripped-down compared to modern rules that there's almost no debate/deliberation/book lookups needed to run the game. In this regard, you can give a new player a fighter and teach them no rules whatsoever, and they can perform admirably with just common-sense and raw role-playing the situation and real-life resources. This is also combined with the expectation that the DM will be making reasonable adjudications, and the players will not be rule-debating them, at all times. Therefore the play is much speedier: an average action of 1 minute per player would be considered painfully slow.

Three: Initiative is for the team, not the individual. So there's no overhead in tracking or evaluating who's up next; when it's the players' turn in combat we can just go around the table in order of seating very quickly (like other more basic boardgames). Other rules are likewise geared towards the party and not the individual.

Four: Games are expected to use a position referred to as the "Caller" or team leader. In particular, all of the exploration decisions can be relayed to the DM by this one senior player, which vastly cuts down on the communication time. From original D&D (1974), Vol. 3, Example of the Referee Moderating a Dungeon Expedition:

REF: Steps down to the east.

CAL: We're going down.

REF: 10', 20', 30' — a 10' square landing — steps down to the north and curving down southeast.

CAL: Take those to the southeast.

REF: 10', and the steps curve more to the south; 20'. Steps end, and you are on a 10' wide passage which runs east, southeast, and west. There is a door to your left across the passage on a northwest wall.

CAL: Listen at the door — three of us...

In this entire section, there is no instance of a player other than the Caller (CAL) communicating with the Referee (REF). That dramatically cuts down on play time. (Note that this has the added side-benefit that splitting the party due to a disagreement is nearly impossible.) This is elaborated on in the later Advanced D&D Player's Handbook (1978), in sections on Obedience, Organization, and Successful Adventures; and the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide (1979), with a longer example of play in which again the DM is almost solely interacting with a leader character (LC).

Personally, I still run games using original D&D rules, and they can be very quick and fast-paced in a way that later games ultimately frustrated me. I've had up to 12 players at my table and it worked very well; I feel like the more players the better and more exciting the games are (and I have players asking for more sessions of this game at the mini-convention my friends run every year). I do still use a Caller, but it is a very low-key usage; the Caller has a responsibility to manage party deliberations and present consensus to the DM, rarely making a personal call except if there is no agreement and we need to keep the game moving (more on my personal blog here).

Late-Era Gygax Reflection: I found more information on this point from Gygax in the ENWorld Q&A thread (dated 14th February, 2005). It seems like the most he dealt with at a single table at once was around 20:

For about six months the typical number of players in an adventure session in my basement was 18-22 persons packed in. That was when I asked Rob Kuntz to serve as my co-DM. Getting marching order was very important. Of course most activity was dungeon crawling, so actions were just done in order around the table. Be ready or lose your chance! Stick with the party or else something very nasty is likely to befall your character away from the group. The sessions were fun but somewhat chaotic, lacked most roleplay, and surely didn't allow for a lot of one-on-one time player and DM.

I DMed a con tournament with 100 entrants, and i managed 20 in each group. I took time to check individual actions there, as it was an outdoor adventure. Each session ran four hours, and a bit. I was surely tired when that was concluded, but to the best of my knowledge all the participants had a good time of it, even those on the teams that didn't finish in the top spot.

Personal Experience in 2018: At GaryCon X I had the opportunity to play in games on two nights run by Bill Webb (Necromancer Games, Frog God Games) that had 20+ players at a single large conference table (I think 27 Friday night and 25 Saturday night). Lightweight Swords & Wizardry rules were ostensibly in use. The DM never looked at any rules or notes while the game was in progress; and only ever used a single d6 and d20. PCs were mostly 1st-level, with a few legacy PCs of 2nd-6th level, and no one had any ability for more than one action per round. As above, team initiative was used and actions were taken around the table in seating order; the caller was not used.

Much of the action of the game was the DM allowing the players to observe a monster, and then discuss plans/strategy almost without limit until combat was engaged. No wandering monsters were in use, and also nothing one could parley with (monsters were undead, aboleth, purple worm, displacer beasts, etc.). A tapestry-sized illustration of the dungeon was on display, so that mapping and navigation were non-issues (although we found several secret chambers during play; of course, this is very different that what we know of Gygax's games). General process was for DM to possibly leave the room and let players discuss strategy for 20-30 minutes, then engage in combat for 20-30 minutes, then proceed to next encounter area. Very interesting experience.

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    \$\begingroup\$ OMG: you're Delta! Thanks so much for the great stuff on your blog. I love the silver standard and your writing on the cleric, particularly. I've linked your blog as "further reading" a few times in posts of mine here--I hope you don't mind. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jan 4 '17 at 5:47
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OD&D was really quick to play

Once the party was stuck into a fight, a player's turn could be done in seconds. There were no feats, few magic items, one attack per round, the whole party on the same initiative, and no long-winded descriptions of moves and blows. It could be as short as:

"Joe."

(d20 roll.) "Rolled 14, plus 2, 16 to hit as a third level fighter."

"Hit."

(d8 roll) "Seven points damage."

You didn't have all those players in the same session

When there were few GMs, you might well have an excess of players. There might well be twenty players who had characters in that GM's world, but on any given evening, you'd make up a party from the characters of the players who were there, plus henchmen, hirelings, NPCs, and so on. That's one reason why henchmen and hirelings were important in the early days. That party would head into the dungeon, do a few rooms, and pull out for a rest with the loot they'd got (if any).

The model of role-playing that says the PCs are always a tight-knit group, on an epic quest, and always together except for epic plot reasons, came later. It seems to come from reading too many sub-Tolkien fantasy novels. It wasn't the prevalent idea in the seventies. Indeed, it was quite unusual.

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I find 8 or 10 players for one DM to be especially challenging to work with, particularly as you are trying to gauge if everyone is having fun, and I can't imagine how this many people would be a practical or satisfying experience.

I suspect one aspect is that the referee wasn’t worrying about gauging whether anyone is having fun. Especially in the cases where they had 20 or more players. If people weren’t having fun, they wouldn’t come back. And when you have 20 players, you’re not worried about retaining them.

If nothing else, this many players would be a problem in that if each player is working quickly and takes an average of 1 minute (and we don't have delays like dice rolling off the table), you're going 20-50 minutes between turns.

I suspect this is another aspect that is different. The referee only deals with between one (if there is a caller) and a handful of players who are currently actively engaged. The rest of the players are being mostly passive until—for whatever reason—they start being more active and a formerly active player switches into a more passive role.

This is what I’ve seen happen in games with more than about a dozen players. And even by the time you get to a dozen, you often see these kind of dynamics emerge.

I believe a lot of what we consider typical table dynamics emerged later as groups with more than half-a-dozen or so players became extremely rare.

(It is worth noting that in the early days, not only were there campaigns and sessions with large number of players, there were simultaneously sessions with only one (e.g. Rob Kuntz playing Robilar) or a few (e.g. Robilar, Tenser, & Terik) PCs.)

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