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Friday, 13 April 2012

Party sizes: A Player's Perspective

Dallas Kasaboski
Originally featured on the D4sign D&D design blog.

So, I've been thinking about this topic a little bit, and I realized I had more than a little to say on the matter. In this post, I will outline my thoughts on how the size of a party can affect the experience and offer some tips for players and DMs alike for running parties of varying sizes.

D&D is a fascinating game for many reasons, but the one thing which makes it so fun, for me, is the interaction of people in entirely new and unexpected ways. The way a group of players interact is just as important, if not more so, than the way the characters mesh together. One factor which can seriously affect this experience is the size of the party and here's how, as outlined in different party sizes.

2 players - I've never played in a party this small, if you can call it a party. I would think this would be better for a short encounter, to try out something new, or possibly in some kind of buddy cop adventure or mystery. While it worked for Rush Hour, I think the only way this would work is if the adventure heavily focused on the story, and not on the combat. While I'm sure you and your friend have built amazing characters which complement each other wonderfully, 2 players is a little reckless, and at the very least, might get old fast, as there won't be a lot of variation. And, obviously, the 2 players would have to be the best of friends, or pretend that they were, or else you would have the story and the choices being pulled in 2 different directions. If anyone has played with only one other member of their party, please let me know what you think.

3 players - probably my favourite and possibly the best. If you have 3 people and there are no general alliances made one way or the other, meaning no one person's opinion is favoured more than the others, I think having 3 players is the best way to have an exciting, driven, D&D experience. I say driven because I think certain problems arise when you have more than 3 players, namely the inability to make a decision. With 3 people, various opinions and choices can be presented, deliberated over, and finally a single decision can be made. There aren't enough people to cause dissension or to raise too many ideas. And if one person isn't happy with a decision, well, their choice was only just beaten out and they'll roll with it (pun intended). Of course, you have to make sure that the original assumption holds, that two of the players don't just gang up and lead the party at the expense of the enjoyment of the third. Combat is great with 3 players as well. Probably not optimal, but having 3 people means you'll have 2 to watch your back, and should feature a variety of skill, strategy, and roles. Plus, we've seen the 3 player party before, and how well it works. For some examples, consider the games Trine, or Crimson Alliance, which rely on the Wizard, Warrior, and Rogue/Assassin/Ranger triumvirate. Also, it worked pretty well for Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn!

4 players - This is the classic D&D experience. 4 players seems to be the standard for playing this game, and for good reason. Having 4 players allows the ability for all 4 roles to be fulfilled (leader, controller, defender, and striker) and yields a wide array of powers, skills, and approaches to situations. It is so familiar, you wouldn't even think twice. I've played in this arrangement quite often and it is pretty awesome. There are enough people that you aren't so afraid of combat/dying, and the number adds a mix of unpredictability which is missing from a 3 person party. While I enjoy the familiarity of having only 3 people, the way a game just works, and the way you can almost just know exactly what everyone is thinking/wants to do, 4 players allows for the same type of companionship, with a little extra flavour thrown in. It's rare that you would have 3/4 players teaming up in decisions against another, and even if you did, I bet that composition would change depending on what's happening.

5 players - Now we're getting into dangerous territory. I don't know about you, but I like to think about my strategy quite a bit when playing D&D. In combat, I try to compose a symphony with my other players and work together to make the most efficient, and most exciting, experience possible. With 5 players, it can be difficult to know what everyone will do. While you don't want your party to be predictable, you at least enjoy having the familiarity that comes from knowing your fellow players and their characters. Having 5 players gives you almost too many options, and while that might seem like an odd thing to complain about, I'm only complaining about it when it slows the game down or causes problems with making decisions. I'll get into this in my next paragraph, because 5 players isn't so bad, but you have to do your best to be careful.

6 players or more - Be careful of what? Well, let's talk about making decisions. If you're playing D&D for more than combat, and chances are you will be, making decisions is a critical part. Do we go left or right? Do we kill this mage who was holding people captive or do we turn him in? Steal the loot? Take a short rest? Choices are rampant, and important, and the more people you have playing, the more difficult/impossible it can be to reach a consensus. And, unlike a smaller size, if a decision is made that doesn't settle with the entire party, you now have at least 2 people who are upset. Sometimes, it's not a big deal. Oh, I wanted to get my encounter powers back, but whatever. But, sometimes, it can be detrimental. Hey, I would never have allowed you to kill that mage; we should have turned him in! Players have to be careful, and not make choices which would upset the other players, and that not only slows things down as you consider every choice you make, but it can be frustrating. Smaller parties have an ease, an ebb and flow, and it's easier to make thing happen. Take this example:

Smaller party - You want to take a short rest? No? Well, I do, and we probably should. Okay, we do that. (Maybe one slayer player wants to keep going, isn't that upset, at least not for too long about delaying the inevitable awesomeness)

Larger party - You guys want to take a short rest? (Wait for opinion) Well, I think we should, it would be best for me. (Deliberation, talk, etc., decision made, not everyone is happy, maybe)

Playing along is part of the game, and the above example is not trying to say that a larger party is terrible, just you have to be careful and patient. In my opinion, the only way a large party could work is if you have multiple DMs, maybe one to run the story, and one to run the monsters/NPCs. Or, maybe have the groups split up between dungeons for combat...but that would be like having a bunch of smaller parties. I've played a couple of campaigns with 5 or more players, one campaign featured 4 players having 2 characters each, and man, that was tough. Every choice had to be voiced, deliberated over, and made, and rarely did a choice go smoothly. We almost had shouting matches and one decision, albeit a critical one, took an hour to make. An entire hour! Most people cannot handle that much deliberation in real life, let alone in a game where they want to hit things with swords every so often.

The last concern with larger parties is miscommunication. There is so much going on, it can be hard to keep and get everyone's attention. Once, while sneaking up on a dragon, a plan had been made with most of the players which would allow the fatalist defender of the party to take the vanguard, he most able to get out of a hold and survive, and also least likely to care if he died. However, not everyone heard or understood the plan, and in the end, a character other than the defender died. It caused some tension in the room as people argued over the plan and the deviation from it. And, while the party size wasn't the leading cause of this mishap, it contributed to it, and has to be taken seriously.

So, there are my thoughts, such as they are, on party size and how it can generally affect the game. I am wondering what other players think, and would also love to hear feedback or a response from any DMs out there who might have some thoughts on how party size can affect their side of the table.

In the end, you have to play nicely with your party, and how large your party is affects how you can best do that.

-Thanks for reading!

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