Thieves’ Tools is Larcenous Designs’ series on advice for role players and GameMasters! This post describes some strategies for dealing with short sessions and large groups of new players in a setting like a school or club.
One of the things I do to keep myself on my toes, creatively speaking, is run a weekly role playing game for a Gamers’ Club at the high school where I teach. Each campaign lasts for one school year, usually starts with around 10 players and ends with around seven, and runs for approximately 30-35 sessions, each lasting about two hours.
Every year, the mix of players changes, but it is generally the case that about half the players have never experienced a tabletop RPG before, and only a few of them will know each other or be friends outside the game (at least at first). There are usually quite a few different play styles and interests represented, and some of the players may have completely opposite ideas of what would make the game fun for them.
If you’re like me, and used to playing for four-plus hours at a time with at most six players, two-hour sessions with such a large party sounds like it would be rather challenging, at least if you want to make it engaging for all of them.
To be fair, it can be quite difficult—but it’s not impossible, and learning to make it work has definitely made me a better GameMaster. While your mileage may vary, here are some of the most important tricks I’ve picked up over the years, and which may apply to any sort of gaming group, club or otherwise:
1) Learn what your players want out of the game.
This can be as simple as paying attention to what they say about their character, or what they do in the first few moments of the game, but it can also be good to talk about out-loud so that the players have the opportunity to set group expectations in a transparent way. If half the group is there to dungeon crawl, but the others want mystery and social intrigue, then you have to either reconcile those things or adjust their expectations. If you do have widely-varied interests, here are some things you could try:
A. With large parties, it can work quite well to just let people know in advance when a session is going to be combat-heavy or role play-heavy; if the fighters resolve a battle while the social players are absent (and their PCs hang back), then the next game session could feature the social players negotiating their way to a resolution with the enemy commander, and the fighter PCs just stand guard.
B. While I would avoid completely splitting the party into separate encounters, you can have people acting at the same time in slightly different ways; perhaps the warriors engage in battle, but the roguish characters are making stealth rolls and sneaking around the edge of the battle to reach an objective that would end the fight.
C. If a player is absent on a day that would have been perfect for their character, you can either interrupt that scene with another that fits the PCs present (even a flashback!), or you can use the opportunity to push them to find a creative solution that doesn’t rely on their favorite skills. In a club game, this can be a great opportunity to foster active role playing in students who are new to the game.
2) Establish ground rules for both in-game and out-of-game behavior.
While a group of adult friends who have gamed together for years might find this unnecessary, I suggest being very, very clear with younger players what the standards of behavior are. Especially in a school or club environment, even if everyone adheres to the fairly obvious real-world rules (no bullying, be respectful of your fellow players, keeping language and behavior appropriate to the setting, etc), some players are going to default to competitive or silly in-game actions for their characters simply because they don’t know what else to do, or are uncomfortable trying to really role play a fictional person in front of almost-strangers. I tend to tell my students the following before character creation, hopefully letting them make characters that will fit within these restrictions, which then means they won’t have to break character to make them work later:
A. The characters already know each other and are willing to work together to achieve their goals, even if they aren’t best friends. Intra-party conflict must be dealt with reasonably, and should not destroy anyone’s fun.
B. Mercenary behavior or moral ambiguity may be tolerated on a case by case basis, but no outright evil characters or actions will be permitted.
C. Trying to derail the game or someone else’s fun will not be tolerated; not caring about a quest is fine, but if the group has already decided to go on that quest, one person won’t be allowed to sabotage it out of spite (though, in that case, the GM should at least try to add in a factor that helps the odd-one-out player enjoy themselves).
3) Plan for the long game, but be prepared for on-the-fly adjustments.
To put it another way: Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Plan Meticulously. This is true in any game, but even more so when GMing for unpredictable combinations of players. Will they undertake the task you thought was obvious, or will they spend the entire session interrogating the one NPC you didn’t think was important enough to name? Be ready to adjust things as you go, especially since--if you pay attention to what they think is most interesting; see point 1, above--you can probably still find ways to keep the story engaging for them, even if you never get to use that one cool encounter you prepared! Some ways to handle this might include:
A. If you love planning ahead, try planning two major possible options and then presenting the players with them as obvious choices to make--fighting or negotiating, going to the ruined temple or investigating the dark forest, and so on. They could still do something else entirely, but when presented with options, players are much more likely to pick one than to strike out randomly.
B. If you are comfortable with just planning out the setting and the major powers in it, you might just make a list of forces at work or important NPCs and problems that are likely to occur, and use it to select or randomize what happens when the PCs don’t keep following a thread, or when you run out of planned content. I do this a lot, mostly using adventure frameworks like I explain in the GMA Adventure Guides and ALONe.
C. And, of course, total randomization works! I am a fan of mixing this with option B above, but some GMs may be happy to play with no written prep, just a selection of randomizers they can use during play. Naturally, I’m inclined to use my own GameMaster’s Apprentice decks, but there are a ton of free options out there!
4) Think carefully about how best to resolve combat, or any other time-consuming encounter.
Depending on the game system, a traditional round-by-round combat encounter can easily occupy an entire gaming-club-length session, or more than one. That doesn’t mean you can’t have combat, but if you want the game to remain fun and manageable, and you have 7-10 players who don’t know the rules very well, you may want to make some adjustments. I often run modified battles, or ones constructed around set-pieces that players can complete without needing to whittle down all the hit points--and these ideas can also apply to any encounter that would take too long to run action-by-action, not just physical combat.
A. When I want to follow the normal rules for battle, I tend to throw a number of glass cannon enemies at the players; that way, each player attack does a significant amount of damage, but so does each enemy attack. Avoid high-health tanks unless they are the main focus of the battle.
B. Use enemies who will reasonably flee or surrender when the tide of battle turns, or who will be taken out/left behind/stopped by a specific action the players could choose to take, like fleeing through a gate and barring it behind them.
C. After a few rounds of combat, “accelerate time” to either a point where the players are about to win, or one where they are about to lose, depending on the way things are likely to go. You can tell the players to lose a certain amount of health, or maybe make saving throws to see how injured they’ve become in the time-skip.
D. Ramp up the cinematics and run combat as vignettes: instead of using the normal battle rules, essentially go around the table and give each player a challenge to overcome. Perhaps one sees a friend being overwhelmed; how do they help? Then, that friend faces off against a foe charging up a magical attack; how do they interfere? Let them respond with role playing, or with special abilities and attacks, and then move on to the next person after adjudicating the success or failure of the player’s attempt. Depending on if enough of the vignettes are successes or failures, move on to describing how the battle actually ends.
While there are a lot of other strategies I’ve tried in the past, those four strike me as the most important in making sure my club games run smoothly and actually get somewhere by the end of the year!
If you have any thoughts, questions, or other bits of valuable advice, please drop them in the comments!