Too Many Players! (sung to the tune of “Too Many Puppies”)

This week Sean writes us with a tricky situation:

Dear DM,

I was recently invited to run a D&D game for a group of friends who have been playing together for a couple years. I am struggling with making the game challenging for the 7 or 8 players in their group. I wouldn’t feel right “culling the herd” on them since they have been playing together for so long.

While we do plenty of role playing and story based quests, I try to squeeze a combat in every session. I’d like these to be challenging, but I am finding it very hard to balance. More often than not, the combat is either very very easy or I have to fudge a couple rolls to keep from killing the whole party off at the end. (On either extreme end). The players seem to be having a lot of fun, and I am too, but I was hoping you might have some tips on running D&D for a large group of players.

(I’m running 3.5e D&D – Call me old fashioned, a few hundred dollars into buying 4e books, I just didn’t care for that system…)

Thank you,

This is, oddly enough, a more common problem than you might assume.  I remember when I first started playing D&D and the biggest problem I had was actually finding people to play with.  When did being a nerd suddenly become so awesome?  Not that I’m complaining.  Anything that increases my level of awesome is a good thing, but alas, it is a double-edged sword.

Having too many players can cause a torrential downpour of problems, not least of which is learning how to restructure combat.  Plenty of DMs have their own idea of how many players is too many.  For me, 3 or 4 is ideal, and I try to max out at 5 (if I’m feeling particularly nice I’ll consider 6).  8 and 9 players, I have done, and I found it to be a nightmare, never to be repeated.  Rounds take forever, arguments increase tenfold, and combat becomes dull.  The roleplaying side of things can be more fun at times though.

We often find ourselves in situations where we don’t feel right kicking people out of a game.  Some DMs might say that we can’t afford to be soft, and creating a great game should take precedence over friendship, but for me, D&D will always be a social experience.  I like playing with friends more than acquaintances; I enjoy my players’ company as much as I enjoy the game.  For the antisocial DM, not playing with friends might be feasible, and even ideal, but for those of us riding the friendship train, we need better alternatives.

I haven’t found solutions to all of the problems associated with big groups, but combat is one thing I’ve worked on a bit.  I went through the same problems of encounters being over or underpowered.  A tool I’ve used before is Pen, Paper & Pixel’s d20 Encounter Calculator.  One of the problems with the Calculator is that I don’t think the Difficulty scales all that well as the party size goes up. It works great for your standard 3 to 5 person party, but when the party starts getting bigger, the Difficulty level doesn’t seem to be as accurate. It’s not a perfect tool, but it can be helpful.

Another problem with determining Challenge Ratings is that the combat Difficulty can be effected by the players’ and DM’s personal style of combat.  Some players are extremely precise and detailed in their approach to combat, and take full advantage of every possible opportunity, special ability or feat they may have, while others rush into combat and hope for the best.

As DMs it’s important for us to play enemies to the fullest extent of their abilities.  It’s helpful to really understand how to work a monster to your advantage, and think about combat strategies that will challenge the PCs the most.  After we become familiar with how players approach combat, we can devise combat scenarios that will work against them without necessarily making the enemies more difficult.

Much of D&D was designed assuming a standard party of about 4 players.  This means that as monsters become more challenging things can get skewed when the PC party size increases instead of character level.  8 level 1 PCs can take out a CR 1 Monster without any problem, while 4 level 1 PCs would have a moderately challenging time overcoming it.  As a DM, you might automatically assume that you should up the CR rating of the monsters, but this can lead to problems.  The Monsters AC might be too high for the players to hit it effectively, we could run into Damage Reduction issues, or the Monsters special abilities could be too strong.  The best solution I’ve found to this is to simply tweak the Monster’s stats.

If you’ve found a really great demon that you think would present a reasonably difficult enemy, but the PCs have no actual chance of doing damage to it, just mess with its stats!  Get rid of Damage Reduction, lower its AC or attack bonus, shave off some HP.  On the other side of things, if you want to send a bunch of goblins at them, but they’re slaughtering them too easily, just bump up some of their stats a bit instead of increasing their numbers.  This has the benefit of allowing you to use the Monster you want, while still challenging the PCs.  Additionally, it’s nice to surprise the players from time to time.  If they run into combat overconfident, it makes things more interesting when they realize they’re not up against ordinary goblins.  I know I enjoy the looks on their faces, but I am a slightly sadistic DM.

Any advice I give you is going to have to be tested and altered based on your particular group.  You’ll definitely have more experimenting to do, but hopefully some of these ideas will help the process move along more efficiently.  D&D isn’t really meant to be played with 8 people though, so ultimately, I say if you can’t get out of the current situation, avoid it at all costs in the future.  It makes our job as DM much more difficult, and we already have a lot to do!

You might still consider approaching the group and explaining your difficulty.  Perhaps they would be willing to break up into smaller groups, and alternate sessions.  Or maybe there are one or two players that just don’t care as much as the others and would leave, or find another DM.  Or (and I know most players would scoff at this) just tell one of them to get off his (or her) lazy ass and learn how to DM and start a second campaign.  With that many people, someone has to be a halfway decent DM.

Yours in Frustration,
The Dungeon Master

PS: If you’re old fashioned than I’m ancient.  I still miss things about AD&D.  But I too really don’t care for 4th edition.

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You can also see me in action in One Die Short.

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