Handling Large Groups: Keeping Players Busy

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0093

One of the biggest problems with managing a large group of players is keeping everyone entertained. More people are asking for clarifications of your descriptions. More are jostling for attention. More are crowding in the way of the bad guy. And each player gets a lower fraction of “screen time”.

Players in this situation can grow bored or become frustrated. They start building scale models of Mt. Everest using ten-siders. So, the core principle of large games is this: keep the players busy at all times. All the following tips proceed from this one.

Reacquaint Players & Characters At The Beginning Of Each Session

With so many players, and so many PCs, it can be tough keeping track. To help everyone remember who their comrades are, go around the table and have the players describe their character and relate any interesting relevant tid bits about the last adventure. The description should be current (i.e. health and condition, current clothes worn, etc.) and attentive players will note the changes. This helps get people into character and recall the last game so you can jump right into the current session’s adventure.

Keep Players Busy By Pre-Planning Rewards

A busy player is a happy player. While it’s not possible to keep the limelight focused on every PC all the time, you can do some brief pre-session planning to ensure that each PC can get involved in a special way in your story, dungeon, or adventure each session.I’ve recently found a fast way to do this by starting backwards, with rewards:

  • Divide a page into five columns:
    • PC Name
    • Player Name
    • Notes On What’s Important To PC
    • Notes On What’s Important To Player
    • Reward
  • Fill out columns a-d.Column c represents what is special and important about the character to the player. Basically, why does the player enjoy playing that PC?
    • Skills
    • Special abilities
    • Race or class features
    • Background or character story line
    • Personality, etc.
    In column d write brief notes on why the player shows up to each of your sessions and has fun:
    • Combat, action
    • Adventure
    • Roleplaying, social interaction
    • Wonder, high-fantasy, imagination
    • Building a character, etc.
    Be as specific as possible (i.e. skill: climbing, being an elf in human lands, exploring ancient ruins, etc.). More tips on rewards:
  • Use your analysis of each player and her PC to create 2-5 meaningful reward ideas and note them in column e.
  • Now work backwards by taking a reward idea for each player and integrating it into your upcoming session plans.
    • Add a special gadget or magic item to an existing encounter (possibly by putting it in the hands of a foe).
    • Create a new encounter focused on the reward that also helps you move the story along.
    • Introduce a new NPC who could train the PC and who also knows important information about the whole party’s current quest.
    Multi-stage (i.e. over a period of several encounters) reward threads are even better, if you can think of any, as they’ll keep players interested throughout the session. However, it’s important to reward every PC in some way each session, so keep your threads short enough to fit within a typical session. It’s great if you can turn reward ideas and threads into multi-tasking situations as well:
    • Advance the story
    • Benefit multiple PCs
    • Entertain multiple players

Once you’ve made this list, it’s easy to update between sessions. Also, by thinking about each PC and some potential rewards for them, you’ll find more ways to keep players busy during sessions on-the-fly.

And, most importantly, by starting backwards with rewards, you’re sure to entertain every player in a significant way each session.

Create Major & Minor Encounters For Each PC

Another way to manage player activity is to run both important and trivial encounters for each PC each session. For example, if a PC is going to have a spotlight encounter at the end of the session where their skills, abilities, or relationships become important and carry the story onward to the cheers of the other players, then find some trivial job for them to do at the beginning of the session.

Appoint A Team Leader Or Player “Champion”

This tip will be covered more in a follow-up issue, but for now we’ll mention that you should appoint one player to be your eyes and ears at the game table so they can let you know if any players are being ignored or are getting bored.You decide how much power you want to give this person (i.e. party decision-maker, co-GM, rules referee, etc.), but at the very least they can help you keep everyone involved and busy by nudging your elbow or passing you a note when they spot a bored or frustrated person.

Also, your GMing style might cause frustration in larger groups (i.e. your attention is easily grabbed by the loudest player, you provide too much detail and play is slow, etc.) and a champion can be your feedback mechanism to help with ongoing improvement.

Allow For Multiple Solutions To Challenges

With so many PCs, it can be difficult to coordinate an encounter so that a PC with the needed skills is in the right place at the right time. While it can increase the drama when players try to come up with alternate solutions to make up for a missing PC’s skill set, just make sure that there are other solutions available.This would be very frustrating: “I’m sorry, you are not a BlueClaw Ninja. Though you just completed the trial of fire and water, I cannot give you the artifact. I’m sorry. No exceptions can be made. Find a BlueClaw Ninja, and I can give you the artifact.”

Turn It Into A Learning Process

Anytime a lull occurs and players grow bored and restless, assess where it occurred and change focus quickly. For example, perhaps you are allowing individual players to monopolize your time. The solution would be to have them stand by while you ask what everyone else is doing. However, acknowledging and then diagnosing the problem is the first step.Therefore, allow yourself to make mistakes without getting mad at yourself, as GMing large groups is challenging, but try to not make the same mistake twice.

You can do this by being perceptive and trying to learn all the time.Another challenge is that different players focus on and are entertained by different things. So, treat this as a learning process as well. Remain perceptive and note what your players react favourably and unfavourably to during sessions. Try different things to see if you can get and keep players’ attentions and then remember what you did so that you can do it again when they seem to be gazing off at nowhere.

Keep All Conversation In-Character

This is a great way to keep players busy. Each part of the group must know that they are going to be just a part of the story. And much of the group’s time is often spent discussing their plans, their findings, and what it all means. So, if you have them to do all this in-character, it can lead to a lot of good roleplaying and create a more compelling atmosphere around the table that will keep players focused and engaged.

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Thanks To The Following People Whose Ideas & Words I Used In This Week’s Issue: Robert A, Scott F, Casey D, Andrew G, Joe The Wombat, Ron C, Dwayne T, Rick K, Trentin B, Matt L, Rebecca R, Simon T.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

“Player’s Pocket” EXP Awards

From Andrew G.

About the tip from Andrew T about players rating each other for XP, I use a system called ‘Player’s Pocket’ in which each PC has 1 experience point to give another player per session for any reason they choose.

They cannot give player’s pocket points to themselves, and everyone’s point must be expended by the end of the session.

This lets the players give and receive feedback and reward for good roleplaying during the session (“Hey, Vic, that was brilliant! Have an XP!”)

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Juicing Up Gaming When Players Lose Interest

From Peter W.

My group periodically loses interest in playing D&D.

While campaigning in the summer, when interest in gaming is lowest (and the lure of billiards at the bar is highest), I generally award 3 or 4 times the normal amount of per- session experience points. The characters level up incredibly fast (every third session or so) and it keeps the flow advancing quickly.

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How To Make Encounters Challenging For High Level PCs

From Paul D.

Play to the encounter’s intelligence. Most opponents who are the same level as the PCs didn’t get there by stupidity or chance.For instance:

Have the opponents nullify the best asset of the characters

Use an anti-magic area, device, or ability, or use a dampening field that inhibits energy weapons, etc. The characters will have to face the opponent without the tools they rely upon.

I used this in my 3eDnD game to have the players run into a white dragon ‘resting’ in his lair. They entered the lair, the trap door fell on the exit (meaning no retreat!) and the anti-magic zone was setup.

The players had none of the handy magical devices or protection from cold spells in place, etc.Another idea along these lines is that undead don’t need to breathe. An encounter could have the undead attacking the PCs and the air being removed from the room at the same time or have the room fill with water.

Give abilities and skills the players use to their opponents

Give abilities and skills the players use to their opponents, even to opponents that don’t qualify to have them; or make a new one just for them.

I modified the spell penetration feat for gaze weapons penetration (adding 2 to the roll needed to overcome the effect) to make a lower level creature more dangerous than the players thought.

Always have an escape route

The characters have this, their opponents should too. More importantly, the opponent should use it when it is obvious they will be killed or defeated if they stick around.

Give NPCs healing

If the ability to heal quickly is available, be it tech or magic, make sure the NPC has these as well.

Nothing is more challenging than beating down a powerful opponent, losing half your forces, just to have them heal themselves back to full strength with the same method the PCs did a little while back….

A treasure horde should contain treasure, not items

The items should be used in the protection of the horde, either by the owner or the owner’s lackeys.