The Gnome Stew suggestion pot has 2 questions about a tricky situation that comes up every so often. Parties and gaming groups that have grown too big. This is something I just finished dealing with in my current gaming group, so I thought I would tackle the issue. The first comment was from Zaraphina:
I’m a fairly new DM with a problem. I have a HUGE PARTY. I’m not exaggerating. My whole party is about 13 people, with 7-10 showing up regularly. It’s sort of my fault. I wanted to have a big enough group so that even if half the people were gone i could still run. I kinda expected that by now the party size would have gotten smaller (due to scheduling conflicts, etc.) but it hasn’t. The game is going fairly well, everyone is excited to come back every week. So I’m not looking to downsize, (plus it’d be rude as I personally asked them to come), but am looking of r some tips on how to manage such a large party.
Ok. That is an interesting take. A group with 10 people showing up on a regular basis would be VERY hard to deal with. I’d be looking to get the group down to 5 or maybe 6 people at most. I’d also be wringing myself senseless with guilt over asking people to leave, so I get where Zaraphina is coming from. That being said, let’s look at a few ideas to keep the party size and make the game playable.
1. New Game System – This is some very basic thinking, but some game systems are made to deal with larger groups in a better way. If you are playing something fairly rules complex with a large group, then the game is going to get slowed down and you’ll be doing a lot more work. We are talking exponentially more work than most game systems are designed for. The more rules light the system you are using, the easier it will be on you for GMing. What I am about to write next will make Patrick smile with glee. Try out Fudge . At Con On The Cob a Fudge game was run with at least 13 people there. It was of course a very big group and it took a while for everyone to get a turn, but the rules-lightness helped out a whole lot.
Another one to look at is QAGS  (Quick Ass Gaming System). I haven’t had the chance to play this myself, but have heard a lot of great things about it. I think with either of these game systems you could handle a large group relatively easily and still get a play feel you want. The reason I mention these two is that they are very free form. I can easily see someone taking their Cleric’s or Street Samurai’s character sheet and quickly making the same character in Fudge or QAGS. There are a LOT more out there though. This might be a good place to look for some. 
2. Split The Group – At one point I had so many players wanting to get into the game that I was running that I decided to run the game twice. Once on a weeknight when some people could attend, and again on a weekend day. I ran the exact same scenario, but used two groups. This was a 2nd ed. D&D game and I was running out of a published adventure. It worked very well. Everyone got to play and have a good time. The group didn’t split optimally (some people changed characters in order to have a party balance), but it worked out in the end. I did make some modifications to the adventure between sessions. The second one always ran better because of the test-play with the first group.
3. Play to the Epicness of the Party Size – Ok, so you don’t want to split the group and you don’t want to change the game system. Understandable. Make a change to the type of game you are playing then. If you have a group of 10 regular players, then understand that you are dealing with a large group in-game and make the adventures reflect that. A group of 10 regular characters, even low level ones, are going to be taking on much larger and fiercer opponents. It is time to throw out some dragons, giant robots, megacorp death squads, or Cthulhu himself. If you aren’t playing a combat-centric game, then make the social situations much more world altering. One phrase that I hear bandied about is that 1 PC is worth 10 real people. 10 PCs is equivalent of an Army company.
If you are going to do things to make the game more epic, I have 2 suggestions. The first is to make sure that each player feels more epic. With 10 people, you are zipping the spotlight around a LOT. Make sure it does get to shine on everyone and that everyone has something awesome to do. Encourage group interaction as much as possible so that everyone feels engaged. Getting someone to be assistant Game Master is also a good thing to do.
The second suggestion is to work up an in-game organizational structure within the group. Determine which players are going to take leader roles and ask them, privately, if they are ok with that. I like to determine things like this randomly, but some people aren’t suited to being leaders. Once you know who is going to become an in-game leader, have an in-game reason for them to be leader, but make them earn it. Maybe a King gives them a title and deputizes the rest of the party under them. Maybe the party gets a ship, but only if the leaders are in charge. Just make sure that all the other players get some upgrade when the leaders get their leader upgrade. Large size parties are hard to deal with, but jealousy is a game ender.
4. Change The Nature Of The Play – I once had a Vampire game where the group was too large for the story being played and was on the verge of being split. So in order to get the type of game we wanted we changed the way we played. I met with or called people individually or in groups that were connected in-game. When needed, we met for a big game and it played almost like a larp. People plotted and worked on their own plans in private, but had times when everyone got together. This might work for your group, but depending on what your game is, it might not. Sit back and take a long look at what it is people are enjoying most and what the biggest issues with the group size are. Maybe you stop using a table.  Maybe you rearrange the gaming room so that it accommodates your group better. Maybe you implement an game-show buzzer system for imitative.
5. Use Technology – While I dread seeing iphones around my gaming table , there are a lot of places where a large group could benefit from even a simple chat program on a lot of wirelessly linked mobile devices. Making your maps all digital and using a program like maptool  and a cheap digital projector  can help some of the confusion of a large group. Even getting a magnetic whiteboard and a bunch of magnets to determine the initiative order can help. While I’m on Google Wave, I haven’t tried it out to be familiar enough with it’s capabilities. I have however heard it touted as a new platform for running games. Anyone have suggestions for good software programs?
Great_Idea posted a similar question, but his situation was a bit different. His group ballooned with friends of friends and then became smaller, but with different people. Now he is playing with people whose play styles don’t mesh.
I have been GMing a group for about a year and a half now. It started out with me playing with my close friends, who are all very good, very fun players to play with. Over time, my friends brought in their friends, which I encouraged, and over time, they brought in their friends. We had an unwieldy huge party for a while (It was not unusual for twelve players to show up), and we tried to split it into two smaller groups, but nobody but me was willing to commit the time and energy to GM regularly.
Eventually, my original core players started leaving the group. Some of them didn’t like the size that the group had ballooned to, because it made everything take forever, and reduced everyone’s spotlight time to practically zero. Some of them didn’t like the playstyle of the newer players, who were combat-hungry minmaxers while the original players had played light, humorous, but roleplaying-heavy characters.
At this point, the party is down to a manageable size, but I’m no longer playing with my friends. I’m now playing with people I don’t really know, and I don’t really enjoy their playstyle very much. They are not people I would spend time with outside the context of the game, and I feel a little cheated that I am having to adjust my style to suit their wants, when I started out with a group that shared my interests exactly.
I just finished a fairly long campaign (with only one of the original players), and I’m currently taking a break while some of my players run short adventures and mini-campaigns. I had kind of hoped that this might encourage one or another of the players to take on a major campaign of his own, and maybe take the new crop of players with him, allowing me to go back to my incompatible older group. This is looking less and less likely as they fail to prepare for their sessions, and their adventures are generally treated as inferior to my “official” ones.
Anyway, I’m preparing for my next campaign now, and I’m just not enjoying the prospect of returning to the other side of the screen with these players. I want to play with my friends, and with players who are interested in something other than killing monsters and taking their stuff. Is there any good not-hurting-anybody way to get my favorite players back (without adding another high-preparation, time consuming weekly session), or am I stuck catering to the players who still show up?
I definitely hear where you are coming from with this. Running with people who you don’t mesh with is hard, especially when it wasn’t what you signed up for in the first place. I’m adding a 6th point to this Johnny’s Five. It is based solely on how I would handle the situation.
6. Stop The Game, Take Time, Then Restructure How You Want – This is as extreme a measure as you get, but it is one that sometimes has to be taken. If running for too many people is getting to be too cumbersome you can always step back for a short break and decide if you want to come back to the game or not. When you come back to GMing, you can always say you need to limit the party size in order to not burn out. Make it known that you’ve got a max party size and will only let new players in if old players leave or don’t show up on a regular basis. It means you have to be a little forceful, but sometimes that has to happen.
If you have certain players that you mesh better with, then invite them first. I’ve approached specific friends for a game before other friends because I knew they would mesh with what I was trying to run better. Being the Game Master is still playing in the game. It shouldn’t be something you dread. It means you have to say no to some people, but that is better than running yourself ragged and coming to hate Game Mastering and eventually gaming itself. If someone says it isn’t fair that you aren’t GMing for them or that you didn’t invite them, kindly respond that they could start a game up themselves. It’s a tricky situation.
So, what is the biggest group that you’ve played in or run for? What is your optimal group size? How do you handle large groups in your game? Any software suggestions for handling large groups?