Recently I have been running sessions for multiple groups of players ranging in size from intimate, one player and one dungeon master, to small group, three to six players and one dungeon master, to a large group of fourteen players to one dungeon master. Each different group has different needs and play styles and some dungeon masters are better with certain kinds of groups.
For the one on one we are playing a prewritten adventure with the player having four characters she is controlling. Each character is someone the player has played before either in longer games with other players or campaigns that never went anywhere and wanted to run them through this adventure. Roleplaying within the party is lighter because she would spend a lot of time talking to herself as opposed to other players. In another instance I played as four characters in a campaign my roommate ran in school. It was great, my characters were able to learn more about the world and the way it worked, interact with nobles, anger dark powers, and help the dungeon master come up with obstacles to overcome. With this approach time can be spent on plot lines directly involving the backgrounds of the characters, it is easier to see direct ramifications of the party’s actions, and adventures more catered to the players wishes. One main advantage for playing a one on one game is you only need two people to play, sometimes scheduling larger groups can be a nightmare.
With a small group of three to six players each player gets more time to shine with their characters and we can mix out adventure styles. For groups this size the dungeon master can integrate more personalized backgrounds for the players. recently we had a few sessions with three players and one dungeon master, less had to be planned on my part as the dungeon master because the adventures were more focused directly on the actions of the players. One session took place in a bar where the party was relaxing after a few stressful missions and meeting other heroes in town. They delved into their individual backstories in correlation to how much their character had drank and were able to forge stronger bonds between the members of the group. The second session they played as a three person group they went on an actual mission leading them past a keep on a cliff and an auction and backstory came into play to knock them off the rails. We are able to do longer roleplaying sessions focusing on much larger topics with the smaller sized group and get away from the big combats. I end up preparing less for these small sessions, knowing the players will converse and carry their interactions further than a few statistics on a page will. Other groups will vary depending on if they want more roleplaying or more combat based adventures.
For groups in the four to six range I try to find a balance between the social and combat interactions as well as involving backgrounds. There are times even with six players that people get lost in the fray, the more aggressive players taking the spotlight. Noise can also become an issue, if people are having side conversations it can become hard to hear what is going on. Four to six has become the standard for many of the game designers when coming out with adventures and modules. This size also allows for a prepared party to cover many of the bases in the adventuring party, the standard mage, thief, warrior, priest mold that has been a classic for role playing games for generations.
For the larger groups with seven to ten players it is harder to keep things in order. It is harder to keep everyone in the picture and involved when everyone wants and deserves to talk with the same bartender or dragon and people are having side conversations in character that might need to be heard by the dungeon master for later conflicts. With the larger groups I end up running more combat encounters or puzzle encounters to keep them moving and within a numbered order to make sure everyone get their chance to do something every session. There is nothing worse then a player feeling like they are not included because they are shy or everyone else has a more forceful personality. In most cases with the larger group it is harder for everyone to hear each other at the table, it tends to get noisy with eleven people all at in close proximity. There have also been moments where one round of combat took forty-five minutes. The next rounds went much quicker. Lower level adventures also work better for larger groups, once characters have more attacks and larger spells game play can slow down in almost any version of the game. Again, most pre-published adventures are structured for parties of four to six players so drastic adjustments need to be taken to ensure the party does not wipe the floor with the monsters every encounter or become under powered to monsters meant for tougher opponents.
10+ PLAYERS!! Recently I have been running many with as many as fourteen players. With ten it is important to keep the party on task, with fourteen, buckle up. There tends to be much more debating on what should be done, be it going left or right down a hallway, should we open this door, or should we trust the NPC we just met. I have found a few things helpful, maximum hit points on monsters, non-combat allies for keeping things on track, task-based missions, and skill challenges. Monsters with maximum hit points helps make sure each monster is around as long as possible. This sadly makes spells like color spray or sleep less likely to work in 5e. Throwing higher level monsters only works within the mid-tier of the game, low levels are more likely to lead to character death and player unhappiness. Adding more low-level monsters has led to success as well, many easier to kill monsters will delay the party from getting to the bigger monsters by a few rounds. The most helpful thing I have started doing is keeping the party in initiative by seat, that way they always know who will act before and after them in combat. When I had the fourteen players show up at the game store we gave the new players premade characters and walked them through the basics. Everyone was at a festival for the recent victory over a big foe when monsters attacked. The party, around the table took turns attacking my monsters, which in the case of the hydra, did not last long against fourteen attacks in a row, even with maximum hit points. If I wanted it to be a bigger challenge I should have doubled the monsters per encounter, I will try that next time. The other crazy part of large groups are the overlaps, there can be numerous rangers or druids in a party, or three rogues, or multiple wizards or my favorite, the four bards. The game can take drastic turns when each player has magic, or abilities to detect certain kinds of enemies with class skills, negating surprise for encounters. We had an instance where multiple uses of divination magic were used by multiple characters to divine what was on the other side of a door. Silly things can happen with this many players as well.
Your experiences might differ at the table, if any of this is helpful at all enjoy. If you have any questions or need advice my email is firstname.lastname@example.org