RPG-ology #4: The Big Game

This is RPG-ology #4: The Big Game, for March 2018.

I’m going to begin by apologizing to the Christian Gamers Guild President, Reverend Rodney Barnes. It seems we often find ourselves arguing opposite ends of a question. Years ago (maybe decades) we both participated in the Magic Symposium in The Way, the Truth, and the Dice, and his contribution, Magic as Part of Creation, suggested handling the issue in exactly the way that my contribution, Magic: Essential to Faith, Essential to Fantasy, said was the wrong way. Now a year ago he wrote The Numbers Game, in which he suggested keeping a strict limit on the number of players in your game, and it seems that I am writing to contradict him once again.

Let me say that this is not really my intention, and I do understand his point. When I run Multiverser games, even at conventions, I try to keep the game to four players at a time, and if it stretches beyond six I usually try to get someone at the table to work with me as a second referee to run some of the players. But E. R. Jones and I had the experience of being two of maybe half a dozen known Advanced Dungeons & Dragons™ Dungeon Masters in our small county, and when we ran the game the rule was always that anyone who wants to play is welcome at the table as long as someone already there will vouch for him. I sometimes ran thirty players in my living room/dining room; he sometimes ran fifty in cafeterias and snack shops.

So I’m writing to tell you how to do it, or at least how I did it, and what I know of how he did it, having watched him from the player’s seat.

The short version is this: make the players work with you to organize the game.

For my games I developed a “leadership system” which took into account charisma, level, previous experience, and several other character-based factors to determine which character in the group would be the natural leader, the one others would tend to follow. I required that that character be in a position near enough the front of the group that he could make the decisions regarding where they were going to go. (Mr. Jones similarly established one player as the party leader by having a non-player character hire one of the player characters for a job, and then letting that player character hire and organize the party as he wanted it.) I allowed them to select which character was going to be the mapper, but that it could not be the party leader; he was also required to be near the front, and no one was permitted to look at the map unless his character was near that of the mapper.

Most of the time, I talked with these two players. I told the mapper what he saw so he could map it, and answered his questions about that; I asked the leader what the party was going to do, and told him what happened from that. It was assumed that most of the time everyone followed what the party leader decided. If he said turn left, they all went left; if he said retreat, they all retreated; if he said attack, they all attacked.

That, of course, was the complicated part. However, I had in front of me a piece of paper on which were all the names of the characters in their relative positions. (We never used miniatures, although once in a while we would use dice and objects on the table such as cups to model a scene so people would have a clearer image of it.) I thus could decide which characters were in, or could move to, positions permitting them to attack. I would then call those characters, in the order most convenient to me, and ask them what they were doing—being mindful, of course, that if the guy in front decides he’s going to stand in the doorway and shoot an arrow, that limits what the guy behind him can do.

That’s simple, but it’s also limited. For a party of thirty players plus non-player characters (always have non-player characters in a party; they’re your tools for manipulating player decisions and obtaining solid information on their plans) that’s not always adequate. I thus pressured groups to create what I called teams and squads: I made clear to the player running the party leader which characters were also the natural leaders, and recommended that he appoint them as lieutenants over specific parts of his party. That way he could say, “Noar is going to take his people to the right to flank the enemy while Dimitri moves left with his archers to pick off targets and I lead my group up the middle.” Now I have three “leaders” telling me what their groups are doing instead of thirty people trying to go in different directions simultaneously. I also encouraged the use of “battle plans” or “formations,” and I would have a copy of each of these. The party leader only had to say “we’re going to go to defended archery position,” and I knew that meant that these characters were moving so that there would be a row of alternating missile weapons and pole arms, the polearms holding at bay melee attackers while the missile specialists turned them into pin cushions. Or the order could be “Battle plan three,” which would mean that Noar was going to move into cover to the left side of the road while the party leader kept a small group on the road potentially as bait, and if the approaching group attacked the party leader’s group, Noar could blindside them. The characters learned these maneuvers, practiced them on days when they were not adventuring, understood who they were to follow, and a group of thirty players became an organized unit not unlike a football squad.

Of course, it didn’t always work that way, and sometimes it seemed to be devolving into chaos. That’s one of the reasons for the Turns rule. It is a simple rule. Any time during the game, any one of the players can call “Turns” loudly enough for everyone to hear, and we get silence, and I ask that player what it is that he wants to communicate to me, or what his character is doing. I then go through all the characters in whatever sequence makes sense to me under the conditions, and give every player the chance to tell me what every character is doing. It includes permitting characters to talk to each other if the situation permits that, letting individual characters take specific actions such as thieves trying to disappear into the shadows to position themselves for backstabs or cavaliers breaking ranks to charge identified enemies. Players might just say they are following what the leader says, and we continue. Sure, the Turns rule interrupts the flow of the game to some degree, but that in itself becomes the limit: that people don’t use it unless they think it’s important that they do so, because they know once they make the call it will be at least a few minutes to get through everyone.

We also made sure everyone had access to note paper.  Notes could always be passed to the referee if a player wanted his character to so something the other characters might not notice or understand.  That sometimes included thieves picking pockets, but on one occasion a player passed me a note indicating that his character tripped on one of the bodies they were walking over and bumped into the character next to him.  Since the character who tripped happened to be a thief, the other character checked his belongings quite thoroughly to see that he hadn’t been robbed, and it became an issue in the party that wasn’t resolved until months later when the thief explained and apologized.

That’s basically how it was done. Ed ran his games on his feet, walking from table to table when he needed to know what individual characters were doing, but otherwise his system was much the same as mine (undoubtedly in part because I was the party leader when I played in his game).

I should also be clear that I didn’t start with thirty players. I started with three and worked up to perhaps a dozen, and then a few years later I started again with six and over the course of a year worked up to thirty. Our youngest players were required to know how to read, write, and do arithmetic adequately to keep their own character papers and track their hit points—which generally meant second graders. Our oldest players were in their forties, but for one who was approaching sixty. The game worked as long as everyone understood the system, and it was easy enough to get them to understand the system—I simply ignored anyone who didn’t play by the rules.

So for a game like that, I don’t think there is a maximum group size as long as the room can hold everyone and you can still communicate with each other. You just have to keep to the structure.

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