The GM Awakens: Dealing With a Full Table

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This series follows the trials, tribulations, successes, and failures of a fairly inexperienced GM who has recently picked up the hobby after a long time away. It aims to assist new GM’s by examining what worked, didn’t work, and what failed miserably as he spins up new campaigns, modules, encounters, and adventures for his friends and family in Fantasy Flight Games’ Edge of the Empire/Age of Rebellion/Force and Destiny system.

One thing I enjoy doing as I continue to grow as a GM, is to follow the forums and Facebook groups that discuss the Star Wars RPG lines.  So I try to keep apprised of things people discuss, ask, and figure out.  One discussion on a forum recently perked my interest because it’s something I deal with each time I play the game.   That is the concept of having many players at the table, instead of a few.   When you have a very large player pool, it becomes a unique set of challenges and things you have to keep track of as a GM.  So here I’ll discuss some things to look for, and some ways to handle a large group of players at a single RPG session.  At least things I do during my sessions.

For purposes of this discussion, let’s call a large group 6+ players.  I have eight players in one of the two campaigns I run.  I have six in the other.   I’ve found 5 is a great sweet spot, lending to a lot of diverse players but not so many things start getting tricky.  I wouldn’t run away from a large group but you need to consider the following if you’re getting into that situation.

For my situation, my largest group is a game I run at work over lunch hours.  A GM who was running a large game left the company and the group discussed disbanding, as no one else in the group had any RPG books or was a GM.  One of the players also plays in my home game and he kept mentioning to the group how much he loved the new SWRPG dice system, and talked them into giving it a shot.  So many were interested, but I figured a few might quit once they tried it.  Instead, they all took to the system and wanted to proceed further.  So I inherited a table for eight.

In the last many months running a regular campaign that large, I have run into a few pitfalls, tips, tricks and things one might wish to consider when fielding a large table game for any RPG.

Limit NPC Slots

When you have 8 people, even if you have zero bad guys in an encounter, it’s a long encounter.  So when introducing threats to the party, you have a balancing act to follow.  You need to field enough bad guys so everyone has something to do, but not so many that it bogs down the encounter for a half hour.  So I use a rule… I never have more than three initiative slots for NPCs, even if I have more than three NPCs.  Sometimes I may narratively move other NPCs around the map but I don’t give them a slot.  I need to give enough NPCs for the group to shoot at, but some won’t get their own actions in combat.  I only give the three most important NPCs slots, and those can change round to round.  I always let my Rival/Nemesis go, but minion slots can be expendable.  Honestly, I try to have large minion groups if I can, giving everyone enough to fire at, but limiting slots.  For example, many of the adventure books for the Star Wars RPG lines say things like, “One group of three minions for each PC.”  Well with eight PCs that is crazy.  I may do that but limit slots but more often I will create one group of six for every two PCs or something similar.  Still the same number of guys to shoot at, but they take less initiative slots.

Focus Encounters on All Characters

This is a general rule for most GMs but it becomes critical with a large table.  You always try and create encounters where players will feel valuable.  But when you have many PCs this is harder to do because of the larger variety of characters you need to build for.  I realized this was an issue when I discovered I was making encounters for the overall group.  Early on I always had one or two PCs that didn’t feel they could do “their thing,” but the encounter was fun for the overall group.  With a group of over six players, I found myself thinking of the group as a whole and what the group is geared towards, but not the individuals, which guaranteed I would always miss a couple in any given situation.  So I started making encounters that I knew the group would like, but then went through and made sure to add things for the characters not built for the particular encounter, ensuring everyone would have things to do.

“Go Around the Table”

Initiative rounds is one thing, but roleplaying moments are another.  In a big group, you can guarantee you have a variety of player types.  If your table is like mine, you’ll have two or three players that talk often, two or three that are average, and at least two that hide out as wallflowers.  Whenever the team is just going through RP moments, you’ll likely have the same few players doing all the talking.  In a big group, this leaves half your table inactive if you aren’t careful.  So, I try to remember to make the rounds.  When the same few people speak up for the group, most others are quiet because they’ll go along with the ones that do the speaking.  So at that point I go around to the players who have not spoken up and at least offer them a chance to RP.  I’ll ask each around the table, “OK… they’re doing that, what are you doing?”  That guarantees that your table full of a lot of players all participate regardless of how outgoing they are.  This is even more important with a large group.

Create Opportunities for Downtime

One thing I find is getting lost is any roleplaying “downtime.”  Shopping, healing, searching out equipment, etc. are things that can be “downtime.” With so many players, if I have a couple players that want to go shopping, hunt for a dealer, etc. I find that either two things happen: either the two players don’t mention things because they don’t want six other players to do something they don’t want to do, or the other six players agree to go along because they don’t want to disrupt what a couple players desire.  So I try, every few sessions, to build in time in some sort of shopping district or something.  This way, players can go their separate ways but do what they want.  Maybe two players can gamble while others shop.  Maybe some can hit a bar while others try to find the contact the players need.

These are just a few things I’ve found as challenges with a large group.  Has anyone else run a game for a big group with over six players?  Were there any tricks you used to navigate through or things you wish you’d done?

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Scott Alden

Scott Alden

Scott is a full-time IT Manager living in Lawrence, KS. (Rock Chalk, Jayhawk! Just outside Kansas City for those who don't know.) Scott is a veteran of several role playing, table top miniatures, video, and board games, starting with the Atari 2600 when he was 6, and the classic red box Dungeons and Dragons game when he was 12. After a long hiatus away from the hobby, Scott has recently picked up gaming once again, and is running two different campaigns in Fantasy Flight Games' Edge of the Empire/Age of Rebellion/Force and Destiny lines. He is an avid X-Wing miniatures player, as well as Armada, Imperial Assault, Space Hulk, and Rebellion. (His family is obviously a Star Wars family, right?) Scott is married to his high school sweetheart, and has 2 children in middle school, both Black Belts in Krav Maga martial arts.
Scott Alden

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