Blog for Stephanie Bryant, a writer with too many hobbies and not enough time.

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June 2013

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How Many Players in an RPG

Recently on a forum I frequent, there was a question about how many players is “too many” in an RPG. The context was a player who was hinting he’d like to get in on that sweet, sweet D&D action, into a 5-player game.

First, There will *always* be guys who are interested in your game. There are always more players than there are DMs– it’s the way of the world. It’s like dating, and you are the pretty girl at the dance.

I’ve run games with 2 players, and games with 13. I think 15 is the most I’ve ever run by myself, and it was a con game with a lot of yelling.

LARP (Live Action Role Playing) games have a minimum of probably 8. The maximum is less a maximum number of players, but a maximum GM/NPC-to-player ratio. I am not confident, but I think for a LARP, that ratio is 1:12. I don’t run LARPs (yet)– they’re a lot of work and require a lot of volunteers.

I cannot stress enough how important table size is in D&D.

In the past 3 years of organizing public games at Avatar, I have learned that the table size matters. A LOT. It matters so much, I keep a couple of DM-less adventures in our D&D box in the back room for if I ever have 10 people show up to game and don’t know what to do with them.

In Organized Play for D&D, like Living Forgotten Realms and Encounters, 4 is the minimum table size, because in D&D, it is extremely hard to balance the adventure for a party of just 3 heroes. Thus, there’s a “magic number” (it’s not magic, except in the curse sense) of 7-8 in table top gaming. 7 is too many for 1 table, but not enough to split into two and have one of the players DM (you subtract the DM from the remaining number of players, and now you have a table of 3).

If you have 9 players, plus you as the DM, you could split into 2 tables with 4 players each. If nobody at the other table has ever DMed before, that’s when you hand a module to the best candidate for DMing, and say “congratulations– today is the last day you can say that.” If you consistently get a big group, consider running your adventures in “battle interactive” mode, where you have multiple tables going through the same dungeon together.

There is one other thing that splitting tables does for your RPG group and community, and it’s something that most home GMs never think about, but should.

When you split your tables and say “hey, Bob. Can you run some kind of quick adventure for these guys? I’ve got a side quest you can put them through,” you are giving Bob an opportunity to do something awesome. You’re letting Bob become the DM. Not only is that awesome for Bob, who can now become an awesome DM and move on to bigger and badder things. But you’ve just done something that no pretty girl at the dance ever does. You have increased the number of available pretty girls in your community. You’ve started training a new DM.

But what about Bob’s XP, you might say? What if Bob totally ruins my PCs’ characters?!? What about Monty Haulism?

First, give Bob some limits. “And for this adventure, they can get up to X amount of gold and 1 potion….”


If Bob completely ruins a PC, by forcing them to do things that they would never do, or generally being a dick, don’t worry about it. Rewind those events at the start of the next session as a dream, or they’re fixed by a benevolent patron, or whatever, and pick someone else to guest DM next time.

Of course you don’t worry about XP because, like all sane DMs, everyone in your group levels up all at the same time (yes, even if they miss the game). Right? If you’re not doing this, I highly recommend it. It flattens out a lot of the competitiveness among players. It removes the “school teacher” role from the DM– if someone can’t make it to the game, their punishment is that they missed a night of gaming. Really, isn’t that punishment enough?


Before the Ink Dries

Everything has changed, and yet… nothing has. So many secrets…. I vowed not to keep secrets from my unit, so when Tristram asked me about the arcane spell I cast earlier, I hesitated only a moment before explaining the source of the power. I’m still not sure myself how it came about, only that I’ve felt… blessed, ever since we buried the priestess of Phayrd. It was the right thing to do, and I don’t believe this will be a permanent thing. Just a… thank you, perhaps, from her lingering spirit.

I withheld the test from Emilien, due to Ordune’s reluctance. Inviting him into the Harriers can wait for another time, I suppose. I need every man and woman in my unit to believe in and trust each other, even if pride keeps them from being best friends.

I think Firiel might well be my best friend.

And she’s a blood-drinking dhampyr.

Dear gods, Firiel. What am I going to do with you?

That revelation was something of a shock, I must admit. I certainly didn’t expect her to confess to… what? What do you call it when you learn your companion, the person who has slept in the same room for you for weeks, is a legendary creature, with an unliving, endless hunger for human blood? Well, perhaps not human– I have not asked if animal blood will suffice. I do not know– she might not, either.

Tomorrow, we will test the limits of her thirst, and see if blood is all she needs to sustain her, or if she must also consume food normally. What this change will do to our supplies, I do not know, but I must know. I am grateful that her vials are small– I mistook one for an ink pot, after all!

90% of being an officer is supplying your men. I have known that since I was a cadet under Captain Ethonn. My first real command was a supply mission, as odd as it turned out to be. But… this. I have never had to supply blood to a soldier before.

Tobacco. Liquor. Women (and sometimes men). Clothing. Grain. Bread. Meat. Leathers. Armor. Weapons. Ammunition. Disguises. Rope. Tackle. Soap. Water. But never blood before. An army, even an army of five, marches on its stomach. I had thought I knew the needs of my unit. I had thought by simply asking them, I would receive answers. And now I learn that one of my most trusted has kept a need this deep and dark a secret?

What are the others keeping from me?

I can’t second-guess them, though. We all have our secrets, and despite not keeping mine from them, I respect their right to have privacy from me. Even if– when– it might endanger our entire unit. That is a risk we take in being who we are. I did not ask for this command because they are safe, or follow the rules, or are open and honest with everyone. We’re scoundrels and liars. No. We’re the scoundrels and liars that even the scoundrels and liars feared. I didn’t want anyone on this team who wouldn’t slit the throat of someone they’d taken weeks to get close enough to assassinate.

There’s a price to having those kinds of tools in your hands.

Do I sleep easily tonight, knowing that her hunger might overwhelm her?

Yes. I do. I sleep as easily in the same room with her as I bathe when Ordune is standing nearby.

I trust her. She is mine.

None of my Harriers would ever act to harm any other Harrier. Their trust cannot be doubted. Ever. It is why I wanted to bring Emilien in– I believe with my whole heart that he is one of ours. And it is why I chose not to do so when Ordune was so reluctant– if he is not also Ordune’s, then he is not yet a Harrier.

And yet just as surely, I belong to them. I’m the sight on their bow and the quiver supplying their arrows. I am the hand that guides, but little more. I have plans, indeed, but when one of them balks, I change course, adapt to their wishes. I owe them that. I want… I need the Regency to be brought down, but there are many ways to do it, and I am not wed to this path. I have simply chosen the course of action that I believe has the best chance.

May the gods help us and have mercy on us.

Cat: In which you play a cat. Or, sometimes, a dog.

In my Sunday RPG group yesterday, we played Cat (Revised92647 and Expanded), by John Wick. It’s a fun, lightweight RPG in which you play a Cat.

It has pretty much everything you could ask for in an RPG, in 48 pages:

  • A simple dice-pool mechanic that anyone who can count to 6 can use.
  • A built-in conflict (cats are the protectors of the world, against the invisible Boggins, which represent various negative emotions, like envy and depression)
  • A magic system that isn’t too burdensome.
  • A set of text-based traits (cat reputations) that can be applied to your actions for a bonus.
  • Benny dice (bonus dice you can bank up in various ways)
  • A non-realworld setting where you can break the laws of physics.

What it needs:

  • Clearer instructions for creating boggins and other enemies on the fly, or statted templates.
  • A cheat sheet for players and GMs.

I drew a rough map of the town and had everyone add their characters’ homes to it and describe how they know each other, and some of their backstories.

In our game yesterday, we had:

  • Fuzzball, a cat from a wealthy family
  • Professor F, a British-accented cat who lives with an elderly woman next to the school
  • Sweetie, a kind of distractable cat who lives in a lighthouse
  • Chocolate, a chocolate labrador service dog (and his human, Bobby).

What I’d planned, roughly, was that there is a very dangerous boggin in town, and Sweetie has seen it in the dreamland and needs to kill it. Meanwhile, Fuzzball’s housekeeper recently left the house with a green-eyed boggin (envy). What I ended up with was about an hour trying to get these cats and a dog to all end up in the same place at the same time (PLEASE, people! RPG characters have to be pro-active! Yes, it’s meta-gaming, but for crying out loud!) and once there, they decided to work together to find Fuzzball’s housekeeper and fight her boggin, at least.

The PCs went to “Susan’s” house and found that she had gone to “visit Michael” and that she’d taken some flowers from her garden. I asked Professor F where she might have gone, and she suggested the hospital. After a moment’s thought, she said “no, wait– the cemetary,” because the hospital wasn’t on the map.

I drew a hospital on the map.

They ended up at the hospital. Because Chocolate was a service dog, everyone at the hospital knew him already and was happy to see him. His human went to visit a friend there, so the cats and dog were all at the hospital to fight boggins. Eventually, they found the biggest boggin in the hospital, a “heavy” (depression) that was weighing down a doctor and had even planted spider-like eggs all over her.

They fought valiantly, eventually killing the boggin! By then, it was 4 and time to wrap up. Sweetie determined this was in fact the boggin he’d dreamed about. Our heroic cats went home to dinner, but of course, poor Susan’s boggin is still around…. perhaps to be faced in a future adventure!

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