This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!
Problem: Too Many Players?
Perhaps this is a unique problem, but we actually have a pretty large gaming group. Most days we'll have at least six players, but there've been games where we've had up to twelve. I love everyone I play with, but this can be awfully time-consuming, with even the smaller skirmishes taking a crazy-go-nuts amount of time. Any suggestions?
-- Mar, from AskWizards.com
I wish. The most players I've ever DMed at once is 12, and that was quite a handful in terms of crowd control. The key in combat situations is to have a specific order of action so everyone knows when their turn is coming. They know who goes before them and after them, and when their turn comes up, they have no excuse to not be ready. Sure, the tactical situation can be altered by the actions of the person going right before you, but you need to pay attention, be ready, and have a backup plan in mind in case your original idea is mooted by someone else's action. Maybe they kill the monster you were going to attack, or rescue the person you were going to help.
D&D does have a ready tool to use for this -- the initiative system. Placing the initiative order in plain sight on a wipe-away board, written right on the battle mat if you use one, or with some commercially available DMing aids with magnetized nametags that can be moved around when the order is reshuffled by delaying and readying in combat.
This is all well and good in concept, but it means nothing if the players aren't paying attention or if they start wandering off into side conversations that, besides preventing them from paying attention, drown out the people whose turn it is or distract others who are trying to listen and follow what is going on. What is required is a sense of discipline and courtesy at the gaming table. I'm not saying you have to lower the cones of silence over everyone except the 'active' player, but …
Enlist an assistant DM.
With that many players, maybe there's one who's also a decent DM and who'd be willing to join you at the head of the table for the evening. If so, have a quick (5-10 minute) confab to bring that person up to speed on the situation. Then, when the fight breaks out, you manage one portion of the battle and your assistant handles another. With just a bit of tweaking from your original plan, you should be able to lay out the terrain and the foes in a way that breaks the fight naturally into two sectors. You'll be able to have two players taking their turns simultaneously instead of just one at a time. In effect, you're running this as two separate fights -- separate initiatives, separate turns, separate everything. There will be some overlap, especially with area effect spells and fast-moving PCs. When that happens, it happens -- don't worry about whether it was turn 5 on the left and only turn 4 on the right. It may get a little chaotic, but that's half the fun. Relax and enjoy it.
Don't second-guess your assistant. Put him over a group of monsters and players and let him be in charge. If he needs your OK for everything he does, you won't gain anything.
Set a time limit for turns in combat and stick to it.
However long that time limit is, that's how long a player has to act. When their time is up, move on to the next player. The first person either forfeits their turn entirely or drops to the end of the initiative order.
This rule is not so much about the doing but the deciding what to do. Some actions take longer than others to resolve, especially at higher levels. We get that. The point is that players must decide within a minute or less what they're going to do and then start doing it. They need to have their thoughts and their stuff together so that, when it's time to act, they can handle it without wasting time looking up what that super-special action does. Have players devise some sort of time-saving system for their character. If they can't memorize the effects of their usual actions, have them bookmark the pages of their rulebooks, or print them out and attach them to their character sheet, or make note cards, or create embedded links in an electronic character sheet. Whatever the method, keep your stuff organized so that you can decide quickly and act quickly.
In a way, you (the DM) create the expectation of how your game will run. If you create an atmosphere where it's OK to hem and haw and decide and then change your mind, and then pause to look up what you were going to do, and then change it again … well, how can you blame players for the same thing? They may fuss and moan at the beginning, but when combats start taking minutes instead of hours, they will be happy to see the change.
Restrict immediate actions, swift actions (including quickened spells), action points, and anything else that lets a person act when it's not their turn or take extra actions on their turn.
These rules are really handy, and it's fun to leap into action at a moment's notice, but it can make your turn seem as if it takes forever. It can even spill over and intrude on other people's turns. Your actions are interrupting someone else's turn, be it another player or the DM, and that makes it feel like you're hogging the spotlight. It also breaks up the flow of communication between the DM and other players and makes their turns take longer. The 'lost time' isn't just the specific amount of time spent resolving your extra action, but also the time it takes for the other players to 'reconnect' with their own intentions after your disruption. These rules are great in smaller games, but their disruptive effect increases exponentially in a large group, where multiple players may go back and forth and back and forth with such actions.
Restrict or ban cohorts, followers, and called or summoned creatures.
Sure, these are an integral part of the game, but when your group has so many players already, adding extra NPCs is gilding the lily. Even temporarily summoned creatures can be a big time sink, taking extra time to resolve. It's the long-running, extra characters, however, the ones who are always around, that really gum up the works when you are already pushing the limit of too many people.
Are these draconian measures? Maybe. When you bring up the issue, don't be a jerk about it. Just pointing out the problem and asking people to be on good behavior may resolve, or at least improve, the situation. Recognize this as a real issue (you seem to). The game works more easily with fewer players, but it can be fun with a big group, too. It just requires more of an effort from everyone to pay attention, stay focused, and be respectful of everyone else at the table.
Have a question for the Save My Game column? Head over to the message boards: What's a DM to Do or What's a Player to Do. Be sure to include "Save My Game" as part of your message's title. Or, send us a question directly, to Ask Wizards.
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, and son Allen. He just finished his doctorate in education and is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981.