The group of players gathered for my Steffenhold campaign is growing in number — pushing into the “large group” category.
Mindful of the table challenges in managing eight or more players (longer combat rounds being the most significant one), I’ve been taking a restrained approach to encounter building.
Restrained? you might ask. Yes, restrained.
Given that my Steffenhold campaign is a 3.5/Pathfinder hybrid, and thus designed for a party of four, you’d think as GM I could be freer with what I throw down. Scale up those encounters with abandon, right?
Experience has taught me, however, that more doesn’t necessarily mean stronger. And you can forgive me for thinking that the formula of <1 GM + 4 PCs = Ideal group> is fundamentally flawed.
Shall I go on?
I come from an era when adventuring parties were expected to be larger.
As I write this I’m looking at a copy of X1: “The Isle of Dread” and reading the Notes for the Dungeon Master section. It reads: “This module has been designed for a party of six to ten characters. Each character should be between the 3rd and 6th level of experience …”
Large groups have always been the norm.
It’s true, the D&D Expert rules is a different game system than 3.5. But there are more similarities than differences in their components.
Feel free to disagree in the comments section below, but here’s my theory: As the newer game systems, such as third and fourth edition D&D, offer more and more means to specialize PC mechanics, the more vulnerable parties comprised of them become.
Yes, vulnerable. As PCs specialize their characters — either through feats or, in 4E, the selection of powers — the farther from the generalized norm of a balanced player group they stray. In essence, specialized PCs cease being their base classes, they become subclasses of fighter, wizard, thief and cleric. In some ways, it’s the nightmare of second edition all over again.
Now specialization makes PCs more compelling to play, especially from a roleplaying aspect — there’s no argument there. But from the GM’s point of view, the contrasts between a PCs strengths and weaknesses becomes more stark (and easier to exploit in a mechanical sense). For every killer special ability, there’s a blind spot in a character’s build.
Which brings us to the problem at hand: more players does not equal a substantially more powerful party.
My Steffenhold campaign currently is operating in 3.5’s sweet spot (Levels 5 to 12). Lots of good stuff going on in there — and for a GM — a lot of room to operate. Excellent monster and trap options, and the PCs have both hit points and healing to spare.
But the characters are exhibiting a growing differential from the baseline. I’m seeing the chinks in their armor — so to speak.
More to the point, I’m anticipating that adding monsters of greater power (or just more monsters, period) to the equation can be overpowering. It would be nice to think of eight PCs as two four-player groups capable of handling twice as much. But the game isn’t working out like that.
In fact, I’ll offer this opinion for you to chew on: This is something I think those 1970s pioneering rpg folks from Lake Geneva and the Twin Cities discovered as truth early on. That’s why they configured modules for a full room of players.
You can call it a failure of the system, if you wish. I think there are other dynamics as play, though. Regardless of the number of characters at the table, they are all relatively at the same level.
Hit points and save numbers are the hard math of the game system. And the GM has all the tools required to eliminate opponent hp and overcome saves.
That means the game is hardwired to play in the vicinity of a given level, the number of players gathered around the dining table notwithstanding.
Where does leave us?
I think being mindful of this means directing play down two paths:
- For players, it is incumbent upon them to seek even greater means of cooperation. Basically, it alleviates shortcomings in their builds. For an example, when players learn how to manipulate the initiative order so the characters can coordinate with one another, they can be more effective.
- The GM should plan encounters in terms other than monster HD or CR. Be broader, not bigger in your presentation. Obstacles and spell effects can augment monsters and encounter without throwing too much at the PCs. And if you add more monsters, keep the different monster types manageable — somewhere between three to five is optimal.
So it becomes a matter of artful finesse — rather than raw numbers of opponents — that keeps the game running as it should: presenting challenges that are fun but achievable.