Monday, May 17, 2010

Music Monday: Power Octet?

Ever since I hit it with my axe stated airing I was wondering: how long one does one encounter last at their table? Zak answered it the other day:

"On the other hand, a combat round is about a half-hour real-time of moving and deciding and rolling (twice that when Frankie is playing)"

Yup, just as I've suspected. Even if you are an octopus DM, it's simply impossible to have fast combat when playing with a lot of people. It made me think about my experiences with various group sizes. I came up with this analogy. It's stupid, but illustrates the problem well.

Gaming groups are like music groups.

Yeah, you saw it coming, didn't you? However, if you have any music playing xp, then you know it's true.

If you're in a band, it means you have to go to band practice regularly, same with a stable gaming group. Needles to say, everyone should be excited and stoked about sitting in a small, stinking practice room, otherwise the "band" won't last long. The Golden Rule of Everything also holds. You don't want dicks in your band, just like you don't want them at your gaming table.

If we take this analogy further, we'll arrive at the notion of the DM as a producer. He is the guy who should pull the strings and set up the playing environment in such way, as to get the best out of each person in the room.

Just like there are many types of producers, there are many types of DM's. Some like to partake in the creative process, give hints, or even play instruments. Others step back as soon as the shit starts rolling. They let the musicians do whatever they want, while they take care of the technical/logistic side of things (we call it sandboxing).

However, weather we are talking about a bunch of musicians or just some friends sitting at a gaming table, in the end it all boils down the dynamics of the group/band. Every single person should know their place and let others do their own thing, while still having fun and expressing themselves in their own voice.

So here's how I think the dynamics of a gaming group might change depending on the number of people involved. Please note, I don't count the DM.


Going solo might be the hardest of all possible configurations. The spotlight is on only one person and either she has balls of steel and cool ideas, or everything crumbles into oblivion.

What's more important, this type of gaming seems more intimate than the others. Both, the person running the game and the participant, should trust each other and feel comfortable with what they're doing. Especially since the player is forced to act, for if he doesn't participate no one else will propel the game.


On one hand this configuration is easier than the previous one, since the DM doesn't have to hire any "session musicians" to help out the players. It also takes the responsibility of being the only player.

On the other hand, DMing for two people doesn't differ much from running a game for one person. Most of the problems are still very similar and game balance is still an important issue, especially when running it old school.

However, one thing that may become present in a duo game (and is completely absent from a solo game) is the ego factor. For example, an experienced player my push a newcomer from the spotlight. Still, from my recent experiences I can say, that a pair of good friends at the table can be a recipe for a very successful game.

Power Trio

This is probably my go to line up. Both musically and in D&D. It offers versatility and enough space for everyone to make themselves comfortable. One person can play many roles without limiting the choices for others. The one thing I noticed is that there seems to be the least problems with ego in this configuration. Even if someone gets out of control, the two remaining players team up to put him back into his place.

Quartet, Quintet

Pretty much the same as a power trio. The only problem specific to such a line up occurs, when two, or more players occupying the same slot in the group start competing. The problem is that it's hard to provide two traps next to each other in order to keep two thieves entertained etc. Such situation has to be simply talked over, many solutions are at hand.

Sextet, Septet, Octet...

The problem is that the more people are at the table, the more likely is there to be an ego conflict. The DM has to divide his attention between all the PC's equally and this may often lead to people actively "marking" their willfulness to act by shouting, waving, hurling dice etc. It's very amusing, how mentally stable individuals can transform in a group.

The other problem is that fights (and here we go back to the Zak's quote) become super slow. The strategic element usually is exaggerated and people tend to get bored while waiting for their turn to roll. Additionally game balance is once again compromised (and I don't mean it in a 3ed sense). The problem is that a party made up of seven first level characters has huge "firepower", but can't take much damage. And rerolling characters for 4 people can really kill the whole session.

The bright side is that the case of several people sharing a class isn't a problem anymore. Why? Because almost everybody in the party has a double!

Big group gaming isn't for me apparently. And yet, there are people who can pull it off. I salute you.

I have heard rumors that in the old days before the empire, there used to be parties of 12 people? Seriously? What was the largest group you've ever played in?


  1. I was in a GURPS campaign that had up to 13 players at a time. Don't know how the GM managed, frankly. There was not a ton of combat, and what there was was in GURPS so it did not take many hits to kill things. We were all in college at the time and could play out marathon 8 hour sessions, so I can't say how long the combats actually took. The GM had to be pretty brutal of moving on when someone hadn't decided what to do on their turn. My sense is that with the "ancient" campaigns of a dozen or more players, they were not necessarily all at the same table, and there were often multiple DMs.

  2. to be fair, in that post I was describing a mass combat--so I was counting not only the party but a half dozen other opponents doing stuff.

    More typical fights go faster. maybe a round every 15 minutes.

  3. That's still suuuper slow by my standards. In my S&W game, a combat encounter lasts usually no longer than 5-10 minutes (unless there is a lot hireling and the PC's are outnumbered, than it stretches to about half an hour).

  4. For me combat is the easy part of the game when you have a lot of players at the table. However,10-14 people (possibly with henchmen, charmed victims, familiars,pets and hirelings) can be a real bear when exploring a dungeon environment.

    A fight can take 5 minutes, a half hour or even 2 whole sessions depending on the rules and the situation at hand.

    Traveling down a few hundred feet of corridor with a couple of doors along the way can take an amazingly long time with a lot of players.