Ask Angry Megablitz Three: Building Groups and Campaigns

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All right! Sorry this is pretty damned late, but sudden travel happened. And then my WordPress scheduler crapped out. Apologies over. Now on with the show.

This week, it’s time for another Ask Angry Blitz! Three questions that have been sitting in the till for a while, from incredibly patient readers, now answered for your edification. They all have a little something to do with building groups and planning campaigns for them.

Hyjacked asks:

What’s your policy on party size? I know it’s pretty commonly accepted that four or maybe five is optimal, but what if you have more people that want to play? Is it possible to have a bigger party and still make people feel like they’re not being overshadowed by other players? If so, how do you do it?

Okay, this is a nice, simple question to start off this Ask Angry marathon. Around the table, I prefer four to five. And, when I say that, I mean a real life table. I find that’s a good number to keep the game flowing, to allow everyone a chance to get involved, and to provide a buffer against absences. That last part is something few people think about, but it is the MAJOR disadvantage of small groups. If you have a group of three or two, and one person is absent, it’s a much bigger issue than if you have a group of six and someone has to miss the game. Six is my absolute maximum. And I’ll get to why in a second.

When it comes to online games, though, I prefer smaller groups. Personally, I prefer zero. Because running online games sucks compared to real life games. I hate running online games. But I WILL do it occasionally. Generally, I find three to four is an idea size for an online group. The absence thing is less of an issue for online groups because it’s much easier for people to get together online than it is in real life. So that is ONE point in favor of running sucky online games. The problem is that the weaknesses of large groups become greatly amplified online. And those problems are the things I said I would get to in a second.

And that second is now.

The problem with larger groups is NOT the issue of players feeling overshadowed or not getting enough “stage time.” See, GMs talk about that bulls$&% all the time. They talk about it with power gamers (won’t the other players FEEL overshadowed by the good player), they talk about it in terms of wizards vs. warriors (warriors always FEEL overshadowed by wizards), they talk about it in terms of differing skill sets (everyone will feel overshadowed by the bard in social interactions), and they talk about it in terms of too large groups (everyone will feel overshadowed by everyone else). Yeah, there ARE players who really do piss and moan about this. But, in my experience, they are rare. And usually, the players pissing and moaning about being overshadowed are the ones who are most likely to DO the overshadowing. That is to say, it’s usually indicative of a very selfish attitude. D&D is a team game. And most groups understand that and share successes and failures. As long as the game is mixed in terms of the different types of engagements, for the most part, players will find their own team dynamics and things tend to work out okay.

There ARE problems with larger groups though. The absolute biggest problem is just that every action takes time to resolve. The more players, the more time it takes to resolve absolutely everything. Especially when it comes to actions scenes where everyone gets a turn. In combat and exploration, large groups tend to drag and drag and drag. In combat, that’s because everyone gets a turn in combat. In exploration, it’s because a good GM tends to poll the room (Alice, what are you doing? Bob, what are you doing while Alice opens the sarcophagus? Carol, while Bob examines the hieroglyphs, what are you doing?) and then resolve the actions after everyone has stated a task. Large groups take a long time to poll and it takes a lot more cognitive load to keep track of everything.

Which, by the way, is another problem. Cognitive load. It takes a lot of thinking for a GM and all of the players to keep track of everyone else at the table and who they are and what they are doing. It can be very hard to run a game well for a large group just because of the time and the cognitive load. But even that isn’t the whole issue.

The biggest problem with large groups – in my utterly correct opinion – is the pizza problem. The larger the group, the more difficult it is to get them to agree on pizza toppings. Seriously, have you ever tried to get seven people to agree on toppings for three pizzas? There is a mathematical term for this kind of problem: f$&%ing impossible.

The more people you have at the table, the more people who want input in all of the group decisions. Do we accept the quest? Do we accept the price the king is offering? What do we do with the goblin captive? Do we go left or right? How do we divide the loot? Tabletop RPGs already suffer a lot of “death by committee” by their nature. Every extra person at the table doubles the problem. Group decision making takes up larger and larger chunks of the game time for every player you add. And depending on how difficult some of the players choose to be in the name of “role-playing their characters,” this can be an absolute drag.

The end result is this: the more players you add to the table, the more time will be spent NOT gaming. The more time will be spent waiting for turns, resolving actions, waiting for decisions, and listening to the group arguing over what to do. The more time will be spent just trying to keep track of all the moving parts.

That said, there are ways to compensate for large groups. First of all, the key is to simplify the game. For large groups, I tend to run more linear games that focus on straightforward obstacles. Doing any more of that means watching decisions die in committee. Some people will tell you I’m a horrible person for doing that because of railroading and freedom and bulls$&% like that. Those people are willing to run s$&% games that bore their players on principle. Good for them. Me? I don’t think stubborn stupidity is a principle worth f$&%ing up a game for.

Second of all, chose simpler games. Choose games with smaller numbers of easy to parse options and quick action resolution. Imagine waiting for eight people, six of whom are some kind of spellcaster, to choose actions in one round of combat in D&D. And then resolving each of those actions. Imagine even trying to keep six people moving through the kludge dice-pool-based sludge of Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPGs. Nope. For large groups, stick with simple games like Savage Worlds or Dungeon World. Faster, simpler games are best for large groups.

Third of all, you have got to keep the game moving. And you have to keep it moving FAST. Don’t let anyone hem and haw for too long. Expect immediate, simple decisions and rush players. Yeah, it’ll put a lot of pressure on them, but they will appreciate it once they get used to it because they actually get to, you know, game. And, by the same token, curb out-of-turn chatter. Do not let a seven-player crew discuss combat strategy during a battle. Everyone except the active player has to shut the f$&% up.

Long story short, I don’t recommend large groups. You’re almost always better off running two smaller for less time each than one large group. Instead of four hours for eight people, try to run two three hour sessions for four people each. But if you’re determined to do it, pick simple games, keep the players focused, and limit group decisions as much as you can.

Trebor Sux asks:

Angry, I am just starting a new semester at my college, and a lot of my players from over the summer are at a co-op. That’s fine, I have new players who want to join, but the thing is that some of the players from over the summer are still playing. I don’t want to start the new players at higher levels, because they’re fairly new and I don’t want them to overload with abilities. At the same time, I don’t want to tell the older players that they have to start over at level one (they’re level 4 currently). Do you have any advice for making the challenges and obstacles such that the higher level ones don’t feel like they’re baby-sitting?

Speaking of building new groups…

Yeah, I put these two questions together on purpose because they both have to do with group makeup. Incidentally, I hope your semester went well and the one after that. Because this has been sitting in my queue for a while. Sorry about that.

Here’s the deal: games like D&D and Pathfinder don’t handle a lot of disparity between PC levels very well at all. 5th Edition TRIES to claim it does, but it really doesn’t. Especially when the difference is between 1st level and 4th level. See, 1st and 2nd level in all editions of D&D and Pathfinder – and ESPECIALLY in D&D 5E – those first two levels play VERY differently from the rest of the game. And the power increases over the next few levels (3rd, 4th, 5th) are pretty substantial. Designing a challenge partway in between the two (1st and 4th level) is going to be very tricky. Anything that won’t outright slaughter 1st level characters will be trivial to 4th level characters. Anything not trivial to 4th level characters will be extremely dangerous to 1st level characters. The game just can’t handle it well. And anyone who claims otherwise is full of s$&%. Even if they are the publishers of the game.

My advice is don’t mix levels. And don’t give new players higher-level characters to handle. Your experienced players should be willing to just suck it up. That said, depending on your time and the players involved, you might be able to build interesting options AROUND not mixing levels. Or you could avoid the issue.

If you’re swimming in free time and don’t have any problems running two groups for a while, you could run the new players through their own game and fast-track their advancement so they rapidly catch up to the older players (who coincidentally level up a little more slowly). Once the levels are close enough, you can bring the two parties together. And, of course, you can build a story around what each group is doing in the campaign. Without any idea of what’s going on in your current campaign, I can’t make good suggestions. But the new group could be pursuing side stories that affect the main campaign in some way.

If that’s not possible, something you might do instead is to have each of the older players create an apprentice or squire character for their main character. Work it into the story that they have agents, minions, apprentices, or something. Let them run those apprentice characters to team up with the newbies. In fact, if the older players can handle interaction scenes as two characters, the old characters could be teachers or mentors training both the new player characters and their own apprentice characters. You could create an interesting setup wherein you give the old players (as their old characters) assignments and missions and ask them to brief the new players AND their own apprentice characters. You could even let the old players spend resources equipping or training the new group (both old and new) as a sort of minigame. That way, their characters pass the torch to the new characters in some sort of X-Men the New Class type of setup or whatever.

If you’re really good at managing split parties, you could actually run for the old group and the new players. Give them missions that allow them to split their resources and run them in tandem, flipping back and forth between the two groups. Think of the end of the Return of the Jedi with one team on the Forest Moon of Vulcan and the other team in the space battle trying to destroy the Tardis Space Station. Sure, those scenarios can get contrived. But, if you award the new players double XP until they catch up, they can learn the ropes and get to know their characters through four or five such split missions.

But I really, truly think the easiest thing to do is just start fresh. Anyway, I hope you can take this advice and send it via time machine to yourself when it would actually be useful.

Paul Hutton asks:

I’ve just read your article ‘How to Motivate a Bunch of Lying Liars‘ about providing motivations for both players and characters when setting up an adventure. Do you ever offer a number of hooks with different motivations (on the understanding that only one can be selected, say due to time constraints)? For example, maybe you’re between caravans for a couple of days. Do you investigate the graveyard hauntings (investigation, greater good) OR search for the lost tomb of the old king (discovery, loot).

There was more to this question, but it was basically Paul just waffling on trying to answer his own question. I cut that out. I don’t understand why someone would ask ME a question and try to answer it themselves. If they could answer the question, they wouldn’t have to ask me. Would they?

Yes. Yes, I do this. But not quite in the way you suggest. And don’t worry, I’ll cover why your speculations were wrong even though I cut them out.

First of all, though, let’s get something straight: any adventure you run should have something for all of your players. Never, ever ask your players to choose who gets to enjoy an adventure. If you know you have players who enjoy discovery, combat, interaction, and difficult moral choices, your adventures should offer some of that every time. Simply put, it isn’t fair to ask the players to vote on who has to lose out on the stuff they enjoy. That said, most players enjoy several different types of engagement and, if you get a good bead on your players, you have a lot of options to work with. For more information, check out my Gaming for Fun articles: Part 1 & Part 2. It’s about understanding why players play games and how to build games for them.

Now, once you get the idea of making the players choose between player motivations out of your head, choosing between character motivations and adventure hooks is pretty cool. Especially if you make it a feature of the campaign. For example, I ran a campaign a few years ago wherein a city was run by warring guilds and the players were stuck in the middle. So, as each adventure ended, a few contacts from a few different factions would show up with new jobs and asked the players to pick which job the characters would take on next. The understanding was they had to choose one and they all had to work on the same job. That was just part of the metagame.

What made those decisions particularly interesting was that, in addition to the type of adventure and the possible rewards, the party was also choosing which factions to get in good with. I kept track of which factions they worked with and how often they succeeded or failed on missions for particular factions and that would shape their interactions with the factions accordingly. The players also had their own goals and different factions could help them in different ways.

Obviously, if the decision itself has an impact on the game, that makes it cooler. Otherwise, you’re just asking the players to choose between one piece of content and another. That said, if the rewards for different missions vary and different characters have different reasons for wanting to take on different missions, that provides some character driven decision making.

As I discussed above, though, now you’re making the entire adventure a group decision before the adventure even gets started. And, if there is any difference between what the PCs will get out of various missions, you’re asking some players to sacrifice their PCs’ goals for other PCs. Now, that isn’t BAD per se. Group decisions and character development are central to an RPG. But some groups handle it better than others. And some groups can’t handle it at all. You can get the petulant player whose character will NEVER agree to any mission that doesn’t have something in it for them, so the greedy rogue will never get talked into doing a greater good mission. You can also get the idealistic player who will ALWAYS refuse missions that go against some basic principle or code, like the noble paladin who will never work for shady people for any reason.

To forestall that kind of crap, you might have to be ready to step in and enforce the metagame. In my case, my players were able to make compromises and reach group decisions. All I had to do was make sure they understood that the nature of the game would never allow them to complete two missions at once or split the party. After they understand that was a rule of the game I was running, they would choose one mission at a time and handle it.

You might have to do more to keep decisions moving. You might encourage the players to come up with a system, like a majority rules vote or taking turns picking the mission. That second one could work very well with a job-board, adventuring-guild setup assuming short missions that take a session or two at most to resolve.

The group is a part of a guild of adventurers, say. And there is a job board with a bunch of jobs available. The party picks one job at a time. They can vote or rotate who gets to pick the job. Whatever. They take the job, complete it, and come back and pick another job. You can make this setup more interesting and give it a bit of life by rotating the available jobs. Some jobs will sit open on the board for many, many sessions. Others will expire because they are urgent or because other adventurers take them. New jobs will also appear periodically. After the party completes an adventure, they return to the job board to pick a new job. Some old jobs are still there, some were taken by others, some have expired, and new jobs have appeared. Once the players understand how this works, you can use that understanding to drive more complex decisions. A “greater good” type job appears, for example, and is listed as urgent. If the group doesn’t take it, it WILL expire. The group paladin might argue very strongly for that time sensitive job. Likewise, a lucrative one-time opportunity will be very attractive for the greedy PC. If the party has a system in place for choosing jobs, you can use those sorts of urgent jobs to drive character development. Allow the paladin, for example, to trade favors with the rogue in return for his job choice that week. In that case, make it clear that the players can agree to break the system they agreed upon if they choose to. It depends on what your players can handle.

However you do it, one thing I STRONGLY recommend is not try to write all of the adventures ahead of time. Always ask the players to choose the next job with enough lead time for you to start writing the adventure. That might even mean asking them to choose the NEXT job before they finish the CURRENT job so that you have enough lead time. Or using e-mail or social media groups to make the decision outside the game. Otherwise, you end up creating a lot of crap that may never see the light of day.

Of course, the key is that the “choosing adventures” style of play should add something to the game without sabotaging it. If your players CAN’T be trusted to reach these sorts of compromises, it’s just going to wreck things. And if all you are doing is asking your players which of the two neat adventure ideas they will never, ever see, you’re just rubbing their faces in it. The choice should DO something. It should allow for character development or give the campaign a unique structure or be a part of the game itself. Otherwise, f$&% it. Just run one adventure at a time like everybody else.

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18 thoughts on “Ask Angry Megablitz Three: Building Groups and Campaigns

  1. My personal solution to the second question about split party levels is to give the new players a 1st level character, but with the hp and other relevant stats of a 4th level character. Throughout the first session(s) you teach them about their 2-3rd level abilities such as divine smite, wild shape or whatever. This way they don’t have to worry about dying but they aren’t overwhelmed by the amount of class abilities that they have.

    • I was just thinking about this recently when a new player joined our group at 8th level.

      It occurred to me that the main reason against mixed-level parties is the dying horribly, so I considered just giving them the HP of a higher-level character.
      I suppose you could extend this to include other numerical bonuses, such as proficiency and ability score increases (unless they want feats, those might have to wait).

      In every other respect they would be considered 1st level, importantly including xp progression, which allows them to catch up quickly by taking on high-level challenges (possibly at double xp if you want them to catch up even faster).

      It would be interesting to hear Angry’s stance on this idea.

  2. Keeping group argument and decision making in check is a major part of my longest running campaign. Five players can be a veritable nightmare when they are bad mannered enough. Unfortunately they show up quite regularly. 😉

  3. On large groups: That’s what party callers / leaders are for. Your preference is your preference, but there is a simple way handle it. Although it’s far less commonly used nowadays.

    On disparate levels in a low level 5e D&D party: you’re full of s$&%

    There’s no systematic problem with mixing level 1s and 4s in D&D 5e. The lower levels need to stay out of the line of fire, and don’t contribute as much to the group. But that’s fine. And the math of the system covers this. It accounts for the lower contribution to the encounter difficulty the party can handle, and the amount they can handle in an adventuring day. And the (intentional) XP curve at levels 1-6 means that lower level characters catch up rapidly. By the time level 4 characters reach level 5, a level 1 character is level 4. It’s self correcting. (This isn’t specific to 5e. Most editions of D&D have this built in. 5e just does it very well.)

    There is a problem in the specific scenario you were asked about, which is brand new players won’t spend enough time at levels 1 & 2 to properly learn their characters. But a mixed level group of semi-experienced players who don’t need a longer time to get used to their character’s abilities, it is not a problem at all. You answered question right, but for the wrong reasons.

    • In this situation you’re asking players who play fighters to hang back and not get into combat and you’re asking wizards to watch their first level spells fail against enemies because their hit points are too high, or the spell just doesn’t do enough to feel cool. You’re asking brand new players to D&D to stand around and feel almost useless while the big boys do the REAL heroing. That’s a stupid idea. Yeah, the rules account for damage and balance in mixed parties but that doesn’t make it a good idea.

      • QFT. 5e is ropey enough without adding mixed levels in! pop quiz – someone wants to play a Monk in this instance. What can a 1st-level Monk contribute to the game without dying horribly every fight? Hey, look, weapon proficiency could be handy. And that’s it. I quite like the HP and Prof bonus of 4th level with the features of 1st idea, but even then – it’s a kludge. Personally, I’d be inclined to hex the crap out of the 4th-level guys and the intro adventure for the new players is ‘help these dudes regain their strength because heroes’.

        But straight mix them? No. Never. Bad plan.

      • @Viewtifulrexx
        I agree, it’s not the best thing for brand new players. But it’s not a problem inherent to the level system, which rapidly self-corrects. In fact, the ‘low level’ player will spend significantly less time than normal at those lower levels, so it’s actually beneficial to an experienced player: They get power-leveled through those low levels quickly.

        It’s specifically a problem with new players not getting a chance to learn the system in that situation. And although I dispute your point about being useless, I agree the combination of lower effective contribution and rapid leveling isn’t the best for newer players.

    • I have been running adventures league games and many home adventures as part of my home campaign since D&D fifth edition was released. First and second level characters do not do well in a group of a third and fourth level characters. The damage monsters put it out at those higher challenge ratings is almost always enough to drop a first level character in one hit. Telling a new player who chooses to uses a great weapon as their fighting style to hang in the back because the ogre will probably kill your character in one hit is really not fun. I have played in groups with level gaps like this and ran games for groups with a level mix of level four characters and level one. The adventures league modules are especially painful to run with a mix of levels due to the damage out put and hit points of monsters and npc’s designed to challenge a third and fourth level party.

      • As long as they are cautious, 1st level characters can easily survive in a group of 3rd to 4th level characters. Yes, they won’t be as effective a member of the party until they catch up. But they will catch up rapidly, since they’re being power-leveled.

  4. Pingback: What I Did Wrong At D&D: June 22nd, 2016 – Mad Matt Comics

  5. 1. What do you think about letting players run more than one character? Maybe you only have 2 friends to play with. Do you think it would work out if they each ran two characters, to make a 4-person adventuring party?

    2. I play 3.5 D&D, so I don’t know if this exists in 5e anymore, but what do you do if a player takes the Leadership feat, and acquires a cohort? Do you run the cohort? Does the player run both their own character and the cohort? Do you handle it some other way?

    • I’d like to offer my two cents about the second part. If a player decides to take the Leadership feat, then that player should control the way that feat works. Imagine that a player chooses two-weapon fighting for his character. On his turn, the player says, “Blogdar attacks the troll with one or both of his swords.” Then the DM says, “Blogdar would definitely attack with only one sword in this situation, so roll for your only attack.” That would just be weird. A player should be able to control how the benefits of the chosen feat work, which includes a cohort (and possibly followers) that are benefits of the Leadership feat. The DM has the ability to override the way a player wants to use the cohort, just as he/she does with any feat. If somebody tries to use two polearms with the two-weapon fighting feat, the DM is going to nix it. Similarly, if a player tries to use the cohort as a dodge (say, like using a rogue to do some nefarious deeds as a cohort of a paladin), then the DM can nix that as well.

  6. Given that 1st and 2nd level should last only a session each, it should be pretty easy to A: Reduce the number of combat encounters, and B: Design the combat encounters such that the two halves of the party have their own appropriate challenges. The above mentioned ‘split the party into two battles’ works well, but you’ve also got ‘There’s an ogre at the front door, but 3 goblins snuck in through the window’, ‘We’ve got to defend this spot from the mooks while someone goes after the caster’, and the always popular ‘Mirror image party where everyone has a level appropriate corresponding archetype character to fight’

    The reason this works is that you only need to run 3-4 tough fights to get the players to par level (here, 3rd). The rest can be things where the 4th levelers shine (and the 1st need to stand back), or the 4th levelers don’t get involved (pit traps, or held back politically). The advantage to running a few (short) combats without the experienced players involved is that they can serve as advisers to the new players.

  7. I ran a one-shot adventure for a games day years ago with a dozen players. The pacing left a great deal to be desired, despite conscious efforts to keep things rolling along quickly. I found that six players was about the most that I could handle efficiently.

    As for mixing levels, well, I’m old school–that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. (For reference, I’ve never played or DMed anything past 2ed AD&D.) I’ve never had a party with characters more than five levels apart, so I won’t say any mix of levels would be OK. A couple-three levels’ difference isn’t a big deal, though.

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