Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Running games for large groups of people

Participating (and especially running) games for large groups of people can be a difficult enterprise, but it can sometimes be quite rewarding. I recently participated as a player in two different large gaming get togethers. The first of these was to restart a gritty/old-school/fantasy/low-magic/wilderness/sandbox savage worlds campaign. The second was to continue a fairly long-running D&D 2e campaign with an overlapping group of people that's much more magical, goofier, and pulpier in tone. I really enjoy both. Although neither of these games have involved huge numbers of people at any period in time, many have flitted in and out of the games. The games respectively involved 8 and 9 participants in our most recent sessions.

In the gritty/old-school/fantasy/low-magic/wilderness/sandbox game, we didn't actually play - we simply introduced our characters (which took a little bit), checked out some of the old maps and rehashed some of the old plot threads, and devolved into heroclix and magic tables. Wow. I guess I'm a geek.

Anyway, you could feel the enthusiasm for the game building. Pat, the GM and main writer on this site, was leery of GMing so many people, but man, people wanted to play. That said, we have players of all different experience levels with the campaign, savage worlds, and rpg'ing itself. It'll be a challenge for sure.

My D&D game a couple days later game me some insight into the nature of the challenge. It went off pretty well. Lots of fun around the table, but there were some expected problems. First, it was a little slow. I was the "caller" for the group to speed things along, but with 8 players, that's just what happens anyway. Second, there were some very inexperienced players (including one who was a pure rookie), and DM conversations with them naturally slowed down the game. Third, we were focusing on picking up the pace so much toward the back half of the game, that some of the visuals and details faded into the background as we focused on systematically checking out all the rooms of the dungeon and ploughing through the mechanics of combat.

So, what are the lessons of all this?

(1) In combat, the DM should press people for fast and hard responses about what they're doing, or else they do nothing.  It is combat, after all.  More leeway should be given to beginners.

(2) Newbies should have a buddy to make sure they know what they can do and don't hold up play in the middle of a fast paced sequence.

(3) A caller out of combat is good.  But the players need to breathe when they're out of combat and make collective decisions about some things (e.g. not which way to turn at a dungeon intersection, but definitely how to storm the keep or whether to turn back home).  Still, it's worth it to set a clock for these sorts of conversations (maybe at 10 minutes or so?).

(4) The newbies matter most.  Some of the newbies thrive on character stuff.  For example, we had one newbie talking in character like bob dylan for 3 hours.  The newbies also get a real kick out of the descriptive stuff, both hearing stuff from the DM about the environment and making up for themselves how their magic missiles look ("how do your magic missiles look, newbie dude?" "Uh... hmmm... like glowing bright blue arrows emerging from the outstretched palms of my hands that arc instead of going in a straight line." "cool!").

But it's worth noting that some newbies just fade in a big group like this, especially outside of combat.  I'm not really sure what the solution is for this. Except for maybe introducing these people to gaming in a smaller setting.

(5) Don't skimp on the descriptions and the character moments. This is probably the first thing to go in a big group, but it should probably be the last for the kinds of games I'm most interested in. If I want a more tactical game, I'll play heroclix or something. But if I'm playing Prometheor of the Righteous Flame in Savage Worlds, I want to imagine his self-righteous paladin ways, his flaming sword, and his placid smile as shit hits the fan. And I want to do it while he's having a disagreement with Adabraxes Stormcrow, the White Wolf of the North, his shapechanging friend who's a barbarian psychic detective. It's weird, but it's one of the biggest reasons why I play these games.

(6) If you're going to shoot for any ideal, shoot for the Justice League (says the comic book fan). At least with the classic lineup, there was some niche protection, but some nice areas of overlap. The villains and scenarios could be interesting in themselves, but the real joy was to see the team interaction - both in terms of powers/tactics and personality - in these wacky scenarios. Somehow, the spotlight still needs to remain on the characters... as a team. Not the DM. Not the players. The characters. Without that, any ensemble lineup will fall apart. And that's what this is really all about - how to make an ensemble game hum.

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