The Lich

The Lich

a small phylactery containing role-playing ideas and spirit

Number of Players from the Player’s Perspective

So how many players is “too many”?

There’s a lot of literature out there for gamemasters on how to deal with player count, which is important because player count can influence all manner of system measures, from monster and reward scaling to niche protection. Usually, the GM is who sets player count for the table, either because of personal comfort levels and limits or as a side benefit of also being the designated group “wrangler,” the person who strong-arms friends or LGS folk into trying that newly purchased $50 book. I’ve read detailed anecdotes on what it is like running games for all number of players, published to help other GMs find their magic number, but what about the examination of player count from the players’ side of the table?

Here are my experiences and thresholds as a player:

1-player tables:

  • The most awkward arrangement. Lots of spotlight, but lots of expectations and only one person to banter with or rely on to carry the moments in which you need to think — except that one person is the GM.  Too stressful for me to find fun.
  • Anecdotally, this seems a popular arrangement for couples who live in isolated winter landscapes.

2-player tables:

  • I’ve played at this setting twice, both out of necessity for lack of players. Relies heavily on personal dynamic between the three people present, and a little on GM ingenuity.
  • More pressure to play a toolkit character over a deeply specialised one. Difficult if your partner is a wallflower.
  • To fill out the party, my GM in Toronto routinely introduced a rotating cast of NPCs who could usually be called upon to help when they didn’t have personal issues to deal with. Lifted directly from Suikoden, this list ballooned to nearly twenty persons, all interesting, which really helped keep the game fresh despite only having one other party member to bounce off of.

3-player tables:

  • The easiest to schedule post-college, pre-retirement!
  • My comfort zone begins here. You have two different party perspectives here to add to your own and more freedom to specialise rather than toolkit. The spotlight passes more smoothly here, and you don’t have to fight for it yet like what happens in higher player-count tables. Easier to share with one wallflower player so long as two of you are the type to push your own agendas and propel the party.
  • Great for exploring the nuances of character development and your place in a team.
  • One person can be late, but there is no room for absences.

4-player tables:

  • Similar to the 3-player tables, but more able to accommodate more than one quiet player.
  • The most important feature of the 4-player table is that it becomes possible to continue playing even if one person is absent. This is not the case with the last three tables.

5-player tables:

  • I personally find this to be too many already. Your GM has to be a wizard to mitigate the problems that begin at this stage.
  • Niche-protection begins to erode at this level, so a greater focus on personal narrative to differentiate becomes necessary, except there is less room for that also. As a player who sits at more socially-oriented tables, I find that party banter and the GM’s desire to move forward the plot more are often at odds here as well. It becomes more difficult to engage with other people’s characters, or at least everyone’s characters, and easier to get lost if you have a table of very strong personalities or people who want to be noticed.
  • Conflicting play-style issues will begin to emerge here as well. More difficult on shy players.

6-player tables:

  • I drown here, and have only met a single GM capable of handling it; his sessions also ran for 16 hours apiece, so time allotment was a factor there as well. On a timetable where you only have 4-6 hours? It is likely I will bow out of a game if it bloats to this density.
  • Less party cohesion, more problems of conflicting play-styles. Shy players might spend a whole session saying nothing in character.
  •  To drag the spotlight to myself, I find that I sacrifice character nuance and integrity. There is more “defaulting” going on for me here in that I fall back on familiar character habits rather than accurate character habits, or end up altering the character to suit what will get me noticed when I need to in order to contribute at all. Everything here feels procedural rather than narrative, and it is a challenge to have fun with a character as a character. Perhaps if I thought about it as a board game, but there are board games for that kind of play.

Infinity and beyond:

  • Please roll on the Insanity chart.
  • Thank you for the invitation, but I must decline.

A recent observation of mine that I feel needs to be appended to a discussion on player count is that a single player is capable of occupying more than one space. Maybe you’ve encountered them: players with such great presence that they can fill a room… or smother others. This additional space can manifest in-game as the character who always butts into the conversation or steals the spotlight from others, but it can also manifest on the table as the person always talking about work or, for a seminal example, that player who is always quoting the rules and questioning the GM. Yes, rules lawyers count as those players who take up more than one slot at the table. Sometimes, GMs do too.

In most cases, these are the players whom I believe make 1-player and 2-player tables even possible, and can make a 3-player table interesting. However, they are difficult to play with (or sometimes run for) at higher player counts because they force the problems of pacing, play-style, and narrower spotlight on all the other players. They make the table a little less viable for your shy players or those who are still working out their characters, trying their best to stay true to that character. (This is usually me.)

I often notice that my personal thresholds for player count do not match the GMs’, perhaps because we were trained early in hobby literature to view 6 as the “complete table,” an ideal to work toward. For example, many discussions on player count come with suggestions to split the table after 6-players as the default magic number. The anecdotes pop up in conversation also: published adventure balance supposedly skews after 6-players, it’s more difficult to have all the necessary skills covered with less than 6-players, you might accidentally kill the party with that dragon unless there are 6-players, and so on.

It’s easy to be influenced, especially if your game is D&D. But perhaps before just arbitrarily adhering to a traditional number or being afraid of admitting difficulty in handling the “full 6,” when we take our turns to occupy the GM-seat, we should maybe ask our players also — “so, how many is too many?”

One Response to Number of Players from the Player’s Perspective

  1. Personally, I like the 3-player table the best for a variety of reasons:
    1. If one of the players occupies more than his or her own space, it’s functionally still a table of four that the GM has to manage, so it’s still reasonable.
    2. Scheduling is way easier than any table of a higher player count, which means that there’s a possibility of having more sessions in a shorter amount of time and on the fly — it’s valuable in our situation now where a game is only 4 – 6 hours long.
    3. Related to 1: I feel there’s more room to expand as a player, and generally experiment on what your characters do. Since the responsibilities of the party are divided among less people (unless we have the supporter NPC, but even still), I find that the character has more goals to accomplish and more roles to fill for the survival of the party. So in that sense and as long as everyone pulls weight, I feel more integral to the story without being too stressed.
    4. It’s easier to keep together as a party when you are three people.

    A table of four is still easy for me, though, and I still feel most of the benefits of the 3-player set-up (the most notable difficulty is that suddenly, schedules are hard). It’s when we get to five that I start feeling the size of the table, though still manageable as long as the players coordinate some things during player creation — I think in a table of five, it’s important to set the expectation that your niche will be encroached upon. At six I begin to become stressed at contemplating how the table can become cohesive.

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