Thursday, June 16, 2016

Table For One, Party of Twelve: Large, Small, and Single-Player RPGs

When we think about tabletop roleplaying games, we often conjure up images of a group of friends sitting around a table. Or kicking it on couches, if you're like me.

I have not gamed on Air Force One, with the President GMing. Otherwise, my games often look like this.
Either way, RPGs are an inherently social activity. So much of the discussion surrounding them touches on group communication dynamics, social contracts, and spotlight management1,which is as it should be; if your group dynamics are out of whack, your game will follow. But differently-sized groups will have different dynamics, and that topic is a little underexplored. If they talk about it at all, most RPGs tend to assume 3-4 players and one GM, defined as the "sweet spot," and leave it at that.

In reality, things can work out differently. Maybe you've got a friend who wants to play, is there room in the game? Maybe you have a lot of friends who want to play - is that still going to be ok?  What if you only have a couple folks who can make it. What if you've only got one? Is that ok? What's that going to do to the RPG dynamic?

Lots of unanswered questions.

The way I see it2, groups make games. Change the group, change the game. That's not a bad thing, nor is it a good thing, but it is a real thing and it can have a real effect. Some game concepts are less suited to one group size, and some play styles are advantaged differently. So let's take a look!

The Aforementioned "Sweet Spot"

So let's start out talking about the standard assumption. The roots of our hobby go back to the Roguelike Dungeon Crawls of early D&D3, and a lot of the baseline starts there. And in this case, we can see a pretty clear link: a "standard" D&D party consists of a Fighter, a Rogue, a Wizard and a Cleric. If you don't have one of those roles covered (beefcake, traps, arcane and divine magic, respectively,) you're going to have a rough time in that kind of game. 

And here we have the default assumption of four players with a GM. It can go up or down a little, but this is our baseline, a group of 4-6 people. Most RPGs are built with this in mind, and for good reason; there's a lot to advantage a group this size. 

Pros:

  • Manageable group size - people are unlikely to get lost, or feel overwhelmed
  • Enough people to foster inter-party discussion
  • Spotlight rotation only needs to balance between 3-5 players; there's more pie to go around

Cons:

  • Not quite enough people for real-time side conversations to break out
  • Sometimes you bring in people that are a poor fit to hit this threshold
  • Sometimes you exclude people who are a good fit to hit this threshold
In general, this is our baseline, the standard everything else gets compared to. It's used a lot, and despite its origins, it's quite versatile. 

Large Games

But what if you've got friends who want to game with you? What if you also want to game with them? Many games find themselves in this category quite by accident - my inaugural game for my university's RPG group wound up with a hefty ten players4 - because, you know, we get excited. That can be a good thing!

But I cannot recommend GMing for that many players unless you've got a specific game plan.

It can be a bit daunting.

For these purposes, I'm considering a "Large Game" to be anything with six or more players, as by that point, the mid-group dynamics just aren't there anymore.

Pros:

  • Inclusivity - you don't have to tell your homies there's no room at the tavern
  • Characters can probably cover just about any circumstance thrown at them
  • Enough players to run breakout scenes when the spotlight's elsewhere

Cons:

  • Spotlight management becomes increasingly difficult, players can feel marginalized
  • Telling a story with too many protagonists is a daunting task; can feel disjointed
  • Boredom and distraction is a constant risk.
If you find yourself with ten players, I heartily recommend looking into splitting into two smaller games. Having said that, large games can absolutely work - and they can even be stronger for their size - but there are some changes you'll want to look at.

Firstly is time. If you have three players, and you are perfect at mathematical spotlight balancing, then each of them gets 33% of the spotlight. Cool. Six players gets you 17%, seven means 14% and so on. And this can be ok if your group is good at interacting with scenes as a group, and keeping everybody involved - but it's work for everybody to do so. The players have a lot of responsibility to make that work.

Combat, or other structured activities, can become a real drag. Let's say that in the system you're using, combat turns take about three minutes. With a seven-person party, this can mean it take 20 minutes or more before your turn comes back around, and that's not accounting for anything the GM's doing. My personal guideline is that I want a lighter weight of system when running a larger game.

Interest just cannot survive that much down time. And in my experience, someone else's turn in a higher weight system usually feels like down time to players.

Additionally, if your gaming space can provide enough physical room for separate conversations to occur, this can turn a weakness into a strength. My favorite trick is to give information - usually in handouts, or at character creation - to different players, giving their characters different pieces of a puzzle they all want to see. They break off, put their pieces together, and often come up with theories about what it all means, where things are going, etc.

As a GM, I pay close attention to this stuff. That can be solid gold content.

Now, if you're thinking this sounds awfully close to a LARP, you'd be entirely correct. There simply isn't enough GM to go around with larger groups, and without the players' assistance, interest has a tendency to wane.

"One Car Games"

Named by one of my favorite GMs, who defines this as the entire game being able to fit in a car to go pick up dinner. Given that she drove a small 2-door at the time, this is a hard cap. Two or three players, one GM, and a tight focus. 

Pros:

  • A tight, concise experience. There's plenty of spotlight to go around
  • An unfolding narrative that can focus on a few leads without stretching too thing
  • Much easier to maintain focus

Cons:

  • Exclusivity - you may find yourself turning people away
  • Increasingly vulnerable to absentee players
  • Shy players might feel like they're not holding up their end of the bargain
Especially for groups that like a more intense storytelling experience, this can be even sweeter than the so-called sweet spot. If exploring crunchier rules is desired, the reduced time between turns can make that much more feasible. There's more time for in-depth character exploration, without the nagging sensation that you're hogging the spotlight too much, and being unfair to your fellow players.

It's got a lot to recommend it!

It also means that you might have to make some tough choices, and hurt feelings can absolutely be a casualty of this process. In games like D&D or Shadowrun, you might not have enough players to cover all your bases - this can lead to prominent NPCs coming along for the ride, which is frankly not every GM's strength. 

The reduced number of players has many effects - not the least of which being an increased workload for the GM - but it becomes even more pronounced in our next category.

Single-Player Games

So, I've probably logged more hours GMing this type of game than any other; not a small number over the years. They can be incredibly rewarding, highly demanding, and allow for massive amounts of detail, exactly where the player wants it.
You post-apocalyptic snowflake, you.

Pros:

  • No spotlight to split
  • You can tailor system, plot, genre, etc. uncompromisingly
  • Facilitates in-depth exploration

Cons:

  • Exhausting to run - the GM rarely gets to catch their breath
  • Highly exclusive
  • Limits available perspective
This allows a method actor to really, really dig into their character. A tactically-focused player might want to control several characters in combat, alleviating many of the issues of large battles and complicated rules. Someone who's really into political intrigue can just buckle down and chase it, without worrying that they're ruining the game for anyone else.

And of course, you get to be the hero. There's a reason why so much fiction has a sole protagonist; it's much easier to tell a story through one character's eyes.

Single player games have produced some of the most intense. memorable experiences in my gaming career. They also once stressed me out to the point where I was having serious anxiety issues. Like I said above, they can be intellectually and emotionally draining to prepare and run.

They're clearly not for everyone. But they can be incredibly vivid experiences.

In Conclusion: Talk About It

Group size has some noticeable effects on roleplaying games. The strengths and weaknesses above are by no means rules - you can have amazing games of all types throughout the spectrum; I certainly have - but it's worth thinking about the impact this'll have on your game. 

Talk about it as a group, and figure out what you're going to prioritize. If you want everybody to be able to play, go with something that plays to the strengths of a big group. If you've got a specific thing you want to do, maybe consider doing a smaller game with a subset of the group; especially if some folks are excited, and other's aren't.  And if you've got the time and opportunity, a single-player game offers a unique and distinct perspective that's worth experiencing.

Communication about what you want to do - before you get started - can go a long way towards a happy, healthy gaming environment. 

Which, you know, that's something I want at least. 

Cheers!
~Killstring

***

1 - For those unfamiliar, Spotlight is a term often used to describe where the focus is in an RPG. Think of it like the spotlight on a stage, or the camera's focus on screen - it's a way to talk about where the focus of the story is, and where it's been. Spotlight Management refers to the juggling act that is making sure that gets spread around all the players, so nobody's left out. 

It's hard! But it's a big part of the job (for both players and GMs.)

2 - There's a lot of great scholarly work done on group communication dynamics; most of it looks at business applications, but a lot of the observations are applicable any time you have a group of people coming together for a structured activity - like RPGs.  

If you're interested, there's some great work that's been done on the topic, though it can be a bit of a dry read. But if you're up for it, check out Symbolic Convergence Theory (its focus on "Shared Fantasy" is pretty applicable to gaming groups) and Structuration Theory if you want to think about how structure determines group behavior.

I love Structuration Theory. And I had a hell of a time wrapping my head around it in graduate school, so no worries if you want to pass.

3 - To be certain, this isn't the only thing that people have done with D&D, even back then. But it was what the early game was designed to do - later editions have done their own thing in different ways, and that's cool. But the roots are what we'd call a roguelike today, and that shows in many ways. :)

4 - And it worked out ok! I wouldn't recommend it, but we had a lot of shy first-timers, and everybody was supportive of the group dynamic. It eventually whittled itself down to a much more sane 6-player party. Still large! But much more manageable.