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Troy’s Crock Pot: Bigger means broader

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Troy’s Crock Pot: Bigger means broader"

#1 Comment By Dionysus On October 19, 2010 @ 7:29 am

Of course, the question comes up – how much more time does it take to run a game with this many people?

#2 Comment By Roxysteve On October 19, 2010 @ 9:09 am

Sorry Troy, I’m not getting what your saying. I don’t have the familiarity with the various versions of D&D to read between the lines here and can’t make out what root cause you are shining your light of reason upon. Or to put it anther way: I’m too thick to get your point.

Could you maybe expand on the whys of the problem you are seeing? Maybe in a second article if it needs that?

I only ask because I ran Traveller for groups that were from six to ten players strong for about nine months without problems once I had instigated grid combat using the Traveller-like Snapshot game to regulate the huge combats we were having by then. Virtual combat with that group was prone to mid-melee stoppage while internal pictures were resynched.

I’m also currently running a Modern-era Call of Cthulhu/Delta Green “pulp-feel” campaign under D20 rules and the casting call is now at 7 (a hard limit set by the venue we play in) with others wanting in, and being relatively new to D20 and hampered a little by the fact that the trad D20 challenge design guidelines don’t really work in a Call of Cthulhu setting I could use all the insight I can get into large group/D20 dynamics.

Not looking to poke holes in your thesis, only to steal it and use it to up the thrillzenspillz in my DG game.


#3 Comment By Airk On October 19, 2010 @ 10:10 am

I’m in the same boat as Roxysteve – I just can’t picture it, and you’re not really explaining _why_ you are finding this to be the case. Logically, while a party of PCs at level X are all level X, if there are more of them, there are more hitpoints, more healing spells, more attack rolls per round adding up to more damage. What you cite is counter to my experiences running various game systems, where, inevitably, even going from 4 players to 6 required rejiggering and boosting of encounters to prevent the PCs from just waltzing through.

Specialization doesn’t account for it either – sure, each character being more specialized means there are blindspots in that ONE CHARACTER, but when you have 8 or 10 characters, the number of blindspots in the party that isn’t covered by other member’s skills should be extremely small.

#4 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On October 19, 2010 @ 10:35 am

Ok, in the words of Inigo Montoya: Let me explain. No, that will take too long. Let me sum up:

Yeah, it’s a rambling post. I’ll try to boil it down.

1. I’m not addressing any table issues with the large group right now. (techniques for streamlining combat in rounds, providing spotlight opportunities — and other big group issues. If you want, I’ll post on what I’ve learned about table issues separately).

2. I am presenting a counter-argument. If fact, it is counter-intuitive. I’m reacting to the traditional means of scaling for larger groups (bigger monsters, more HD, more monsters, etc), which may NOT NECESSARILY be the correct response. Why? Because I’m finding that AT MY TABLE (your mileage may differ) these approaches are creating overpowering situations, that I’m having to adjust on the fly.

3. I’m basing my supposition on my experience in past versions of D&D and projecting them on the two current games. I realize this is a thin-ice argument. But traditional approaches aren’t working, so I’m looking for a reason.

#5 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On October 19, 2010 @ 10:38 am

[1] – I think d20 CAN work for CofC, but it’s probably not the best fit. Why? It’s level based. And isn’t the goal of a CoC game to drive everyone crazy?

I actually think you’ll be OK if you DON’T use traditional minis combat. You’ll be negating some feats if you run combats descriptively, rather than on a grid, but for CofC and a lot of d20 Modern games, a free-form, cinematic approach might be best.

#6 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On October 19, 2010 @ 10:48 am

[2] – Why?
OK, let’s take it from the other side, because the beauty of the d20 mechanic is what’s good for the goose (players) is good for the gander (GM).

I can have a large # of low level monsters, but at a certain point, except for crit rolls, I’m just not going to be effective against a higher level party.

I think it largely works the same in reverse. Just because I’m adding more party members, that doesn’t mean they’re capable of facing monsters that have been scaled up.

I probably should add that resource management is a VERY REAL factor in my games. The PCs are placed in situations where they have to battle to the end. THERE IS NO 15-MIN WORKDAY in my games. As long as there is daylight and monsters to fight, the heroes press on. (Not in a suicidal fashion, but there’s none of this “Well, I blew my fireball, I guess I have to rest until I recharge.”) No, if the party has hp and spells, they carry on.

So, scaled monsters DO have one in-game effect, they are draining party resources (as they should). Is this a big factor? I don’t think so. But maybe it helps clarify.

#7 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On October 19, 2010 @ 10:58 am

[2] – Blind spots. Yeah, the point you are making is what I initially thought, too. Weird, isn’t it. I believed, as you point out, that more PCs would cover the others’ weaknesses.
But it’s not playing out that way at the table.
I don’t see other characters “covering” gaps in the other characters. (In knowledge skills and such, yeah, they do all right). But in combat effectiveness? Nah, there are chinks that scaled monsters can exploit.
It’s not that this is a “problem” so much as my admission that scaling isn’t the answer for me right now.

It’s more like: That an encounter designed for four PC can be effective against twice that number of PCs.

#8 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On October 19, 2010 @ 11:01 am

[3] – A lot. In the “sweet spot,” I’m averaging more than 1 hour per encounter (combat and noncombat), and it’s probably closer to 90 min.
Would I like to trim that down? Yes, I would. Have the players complained? Not yet. So long as they are comfortable with the pacing, we’ll let it ride.

#9 Comment By Roxysteve On October 19, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

[4] – I’m still not getting what you are trying to say. I’ve re-read the article and your “summing up” comment and I think your article actually says things about small party vulnerability in 3 & 4 rather than large party dynamics. The meaning of that in the context of the initial statements in the article is lost on me.

What I’ve taken away from your article:

1) Large parties do not offer a scaling of combat-oomph that is in proportion with their increase in numbers. Very interesting and very provocative idea.

2) TSR figured this out and somehow factored it into their modules (what you think they did is still a mystery though). Even more interesting, mostly because you don’t go further and explain what was done by TSR.

3) Somehow the [combat] vulnerabilities that come with CC specialization are not covered by the increased size of the PC mob. Again, a very interesting observation. I’d enjoy seeing more articles on why this is and what factors are at work to defeat the “strength in numbers” model.

The concluding bullet points are truisms for any size game. I’m clearly missing the implication you are making here in relation specifically to large scale games.

As for running CofC in D20, leveling is no big deal, really if (and this is the **big** D20 secret) you leave the massive damage rule in. If you take it out (like just about every D20 GM I know does) the wheels come off in no time.

In CofC the Massive Damage threshold is only 10 points (for humans: monsters get a MDT of 50). This means that players will die in D20 Call of Cthulhu exactly as fast as they will under the trad BRP rules if they try stupid stuff with the Thynges Thatte Shoulde Notte Bee.

I rarely worry about XP awards either; handing out levels at the end of a given number of sessions or at the conclusion of a particularly difficult scenario works for me and the players. The PCs will be mad or dead or both eventually anyway, so why sweat it?

#10 Comment By evil On October 19, 2010 @ 2:34 pm

I think you’re absolutely right, Troy. It all comes down to that last sentence. Artful finesse is the only way to build key encounters for any game. Just slogging more monsters in or throwing more hit points on top will turn out bland. What I WOULD like to see is some examples of how finesse has been used to create those encounters. As someone who normally plays with a 3-6 player group, it’s difficult to conceive of a 10 player group.

#11 Comment By Bradd On October 19, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

I think I know what Troy is getting at here. Larger teams do a good job of filling out group roles, like legwork and combat offense. However, they are relatively weak when it comes to individual roles, like surprise and combat defense. Opposition strong enough to stand up to their teamwork is also strong enough to totally hammer on their individual weaknesses.

For example, suppose that the enemy gets the jump on your party and concentrates fire on a vulnerable PC. If you’re using the game’s “standard” party and encounter sizes, the PC will probably take a beating but live. However, if you double the numbers on both sides, even though it looks to have the same balance, that surprised PC is totally going to die.

Something similar happens if you increase enemy power instead of numbers. The focused enemy offense is bad news for vulnerable targets. And it’s pretty easy for party offense to become nigh useless against a single tough enemy.

I don’t think the early adventure designers had any special insight here. It’s just that their adventures were calibrated for the big groups, so that when enemies piled on, it was no big deal. (And some designers simply expected PCs to die pretty regularly.) If you played with a smaller group, then it would be miscalibrated in different ways.

#12 Comment By John Arcadian On October 19, 2010 @ 6:50 pm

“So it becomes a matter of artful finesse — rather than raw numbers of opponents — that keeps the game running as it should”

That one line right there is a pot of gold troy. I ran for huge groups at this year’s Con on the Cob. Many of our games had 7 or 8 alternates waiting to get in. The combats I ran were in no way reliant on large numbers, but on enemies made to challenge the PCs in certain ways. I HAD to focus more on what the enemies were doing and make them challenging before they got gangbanged into submission, than on how many there were.

#13 Comment By Airk On October 20, 2010 @ 8:41 am

I think it’s pretty obvious that if you crank the level of the monsters up too high, it doesn’t matter what level the PCs are. It should be clear to anyone that you can’t just blindly say “Well, since this encounter was designed for 4 PCs and has one level 6 monster, so, since I’m running this for 8 PCs, I’ll use one level 12 monster!” But then, that’s not news, and I don’t think that’s a mistake than anyone but the newbiest of DMs is likely to make.

Maybe your PCs are just bad at teamwork? Even in the ‘surprise round’ scenario that Bradd is putting forth, the theory doesn’t work – sure, fine, maybe more monsters can gang up on one person during that surprise round, but they shouldn’t ALL be able to. There’s seems to be a prevalent misconception in a lot of gaming discussions, where people seem to think that all combats start at melee range with people nicely spaced out so everyone can hit whoever they want, while this is essentially never the case in practice, even in a surprise round. And even if that one person -does- catch more than they can handle, they’re probably not going to DIE unless you’re still playing 1st edition D&D, or your monsters really love beating on unconscious PCs (which is something I regard as both unrealistic on the part of the monster and dirty on the part of the GM). So they’re just going to need some of that presumably greater amount of healing. And even if they _do_ die, the party is only down 1/8th of its total capabilities.

I guess if you want to boil the whole article down to the one sentance of “it becomes a matter of artful finesse” then I could just as easily sum it up as “You can’t just blindly double everything and expect it to work.” And… well, that’s not much of a point to spend 800 words on.

So I guess I’m still not getting what you’re trying to say, other than that you are having a weird time of balancing the encounters in your current game, but you can’t explain why, and you can’t give us any examples. And that’s a bit frustrating. The best I can offer, besides the “bad at teamwork” hypothesis is that large groups are more likely than small groups to be unbalanced. If you’ve got 4 characters, it’s pretty likely that they’re going to say “Well, we probably need a fighter and a cleric, at least” so you cover the general bases, but when you scale up to 8, you’re going to get people saying, “well, we’ve already got a cleric, so we’ve got enough healing” even though adding 4 more characters and greater challenges means more healing load than that one cleric can really handle by themselves, so you end up with an ‘unbalanced’ party.

#14 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On October 20, 2010 @ 11:04 am

[5] – First off: I appreciate you sticking with this discussion, even though the article didn’t meet your expectations. Thanks. That’s why there is a healthy back-n-forth in the Stew pot.

In fact, your last example, about having one cleric, goes back to the “chinks in the armor” theory. Conventional thinking would say a party only needs a secondary healer if it has a primary one. But as the cleric specializes, it creates the gap I was trying to explain. Because the secondary healers don’t catch up. But groups are accustomed to thinking that once the ftr, wiz, rog and clr are chosen, then they should spice up the party with the other classes. that’s one example of how that could happen. Thanks for pointing that out.

Another point:

No, if the PCs were bad at teamwork, then there’s no scaling required at all. Also remember, the GM ALWAYS has the advantage. It’s more of an arms race, in which you try and stay just one-step behind, but not overtake the PCs.

The magic of the game is in presenting an encounter that takes PCs to the edge — that moment where they don’t know if they’ll live or die — but there is still a chance for success. And if they find that path, they’ll be OK.

GMing in that context is what I’m aiming for (and probably didn’t explain well enough) — because there is no formula to follow. And as the dynamics of a group change — in this case, leveling up AND adding new members — it’s up to the GM to cope with these new circumstances.

I had hoped to prompt a discussion on means and methods of bolstering encounters without resorting to HD and # bumps. Since the post didn’t generate that discussion, something I’ll take responsibility for as the writer, let’s see if we can guide it back in that direction. I’ll offer these and see if it goes anywhere.

1. Adding magic, especially potions and wondrous items. Sounds simple enough. Potions are good because they get used and the PCs can’t stockpile them. Wondrous items are good because they have specific uses, so even if the PCs win them, they get limited use. (Unlike armor and weapons, which add continual buffs to those who claim those items as prizes).

2. Litter the encounter area with hazards, obstacles and traps. Easy to do in theory. You want to give monsters a home turf advantage. Problem is one of immersion. Who litters their home with traps? Seriously. There is a limit to how many obstacles before you break the suspension of disbelief — even in a dungeon.

3. Minions. 1-hit point wonders give illusion of numbers, and force PCs to expend resources on pushovers. However, this might be seen as a bit of a cheat. (For example, if your PCs don’t like a monster ganging up on a PC when they’re down — a circumstance I would NOT call “dirty”, by the way, because it mirrors predator behavior nature, and it compels other PCs to come to that player’s aid when they go down — then they probably won’t react kindly to straw-men minions, who are causing them to “waste” their best attacks). Obviously, this is one than depends on your style of play and your own group’s likes and dislikes. What works for your group’s fun is the most important thing.

These are three ways to enhance encounters for large groups without relying on increasing monster toughness. I’m interested in hearing about more.

#15 Comment By SavageTheDM On December 24, 2010 @ 8:06 pm

on the topic of unbalanced parties I once played in a party of 9 people and over 5 of them were Defenders this was not vary fun and as for the topic of how to deal with larger groups I like to use the minion combat theme alot for a group of 7 people i like to use about 20 to 30 minions with one normal monster that serves as there leader. Also try to give minions Damage resistance meaning unless you do this high of damage the minion does not die. I like to use this tactic alot just don’t add too high of damage resistance or else the wizard in the party wont kill anything witch demeans there burst attacks. For my party of lv12 players i use about 14 points of damage resistance. You can also double the damage the they do or take some normal monster say a orc bloodrager and give them 1hp and throw 10 of them at the party. I really like to use minions in case you could not tell.