Handling Large Parties - Part 3 - The Solutions

For my last two posts I have been discussion the issues involved with having a large player base. In Part 1, I discussed the maths behind having more players, and pointed out how exponentially time slips away when you have more players sticking around the table. In Part 2, I discussed the issues involved with having multiple conflicting player types at the table, and how those issues are exacerbated when large groups of players are involved.

For the final post in the series, Part 3, I will be discussing the four solutions that I eventually decided upon being feasible, and I will go into the Pros and Cons of each, and finally will reveal the solution that me and my players came to.

This, in fact, brings me to my first and biggest point.

Talk to Your Players

Whilst writing this series, and struggling with the issues, I decided that I would arrange a general meeting of my entire RPG group, spanning several campaigns. Most of the players had all played together in at least one of my campaigns, so everyone, bar the new blood, knew each other from an in-game perspective, as well as an out-of-game perspective.
It was a Round Table Discussion, but unlike you've ever seen before...
At this meeting, which I tried to make as informal, yet organised as possible, I expressed each of the following ideas/solutions, and then the group took it in turns to talk about each solution and why they liked/disliked each one. We then voted, myself included, and we came to a mutually agreeable solution. Not everyone was insanely happy with the solution we did come to, but at least everyone understood it, or was given the chance to understand it.

Anyway, onto the solutions.

The Solutions Themselves

Solution #1: The GMPC

Normally mention of a GMPC is cause for pitchforks to be grabbed and a lynch mob to be rallied - but this system is slightly different, and was actually originally given to me as a comment for [[Part 1]] of this series by another roleplayer in the community. The idea is that the GM informs one or more players in the campaign about several campaign secrets, and fills them in on lots of information, enough so that they can essentially run specific scenes throughout a session (or more, if needs be).
GMPC: In the party, yet knowing what's coming next...
Basically, they are a mini-GM, but they also have a character in the game that takes a back seat, but is there to guide the players. I like to think of this role as the First Mate to the GM as Captain of a ship. The GMPC acts as an intermediary between GM and players, and has the ability to run some of the players through a situation with little to no supervision form the GM.

This system allows the group to divide up during play (as groups of any size invariably and should do) and run a combat encounter, or a social encounter, whilst the GM is handling the main action. That way, those players involved in the side action aren't sat there bored out of their brains whilst the main action unfolds, and the GM doesn't have to break the entire session into 'turns'.

This system, though, does require an incredibly amount of communication and trust between GM and GMPC/s. The GMPC/s have to be subservient to the GM, otherwise continuity and cohesion issues will arise, and will result in a break down of the game. Furthermore, the GMPC/s have to be given enough authority and freedom that they themselves aren't hard done by (and they still have fun) and also so that those players who are running under them don't feel like they're getting a 'lesser' form of the game.

Solution #2: Run Multiple Games

Now, this one is kind of straight forward, and will be instantly dismissed by most groups (as it was with mine), but I felt it was important enough to mention, and as such will mention it here as well. It is always possible to divide a group into two different groups, and run two different games.
Two herds of cats can't be any harder to wrangle than one, surely?!
However, this system is wrought with problems off the bat. If the GM doesn't have time for two, there is no way it can happen. Even if the GM does, it will invariably mean that both campaigns are less involved than one would ever be, and that neither are filled with the same level of planning as one big game is.

Further, if you have a tight-knit group, and you divide it into two, then there can be some social awkwardness. Do people choose to play a campaign based on what it is, or who is in it? Do people still have time to hang out in the real world as much, or have as much to talk about when they're not sharing weekly forays into a fantasy world? (You wouldn't think these would be issues, but they are.)

But, then again, this system can work wonders for a group that can handle it. The GM gets to experiment with different games, and has the option of trialling something with one group, and rehashing it for another. The groups get a chance to trade interesting stories about their adventures, and compare campaigns. And so on.

Solution #3: The Players as Rivals

The third solution and the fourth are based on a similar premise that I will get out of the way now: both involve a single campaign with multiple groups running in it at the same time.
Gary Oak, you've destroyed the validity of the word "Rival"...
This option supposes that there are two rivalling groups that are contending for the same great prize, but are fundamentally unable to defeat each other. They cannot harm each other, only compete. This could be that they're all members of the same company, just different divisions (like L.A.P.D. vs F.B.I.) or they are being watched by some governing body that would be very unhappy were they to kill each other. Yet, there is still competition. Whoever solves an issue first gets the rewards, and then gets the fame/money/whatever.

This system requires a lot of out-of-game communication, as well as a lot of trust between GM and players, and players and other players. We don't want players to take the actions of rival characters to heart, and we don't want anyone feeling like one group is being favoured by the GM.

And yet, this could lead to a situation of friends talking on the weekend about how they've been going and bragging to each other in a rival-like way. It could breed a beautiful campaign. Or it could breed resentment.

Furthermore, it invariably means either each group plays only one in every two session, or the GM runs a second session a week... This might not work for some schedules.

Solution #4: The West Marches

If you're unfamiliar with The West Marches, please head on over to ars ludi and read through at least the first page describing it (there are 5 posts in total, and they're all good, but only the first is pertinent to understanding).
West Marches is approximately this awesome...
In brief, the idea is to have a pool of players, and to run two sessions per week. Players decide which session they're in, and can only choose one per week. Then, each week, each player is playing with a previously organised collection of players from the player pool.

This has the benefit of keeping up the social connections between all the players, as well as enforcing contact and "story swapping" between sessions. Players benefit from sharing information, and can do so with much greater ease. 

However, there is a much greater risk of segregation in this system. Bullying is possible (without people even realising it) and players who are naturally more inclined to one play style will consistently play with others of their same style, until such a time when dedicated factions have almost formed in the group. This can result in hurt feelings, etc, etc. It, again, requires the GM to put more time into the game due to more sessions.

But, then again, West Marches is so damn cool!

The Solution We Chose

In the end, after much debate and discussion and serious thought, me and my group came to the consensus that Solution #1 benefited us the most. We're a pretty close group, and there are many within I would trust to act in the GMPC roll. Further, we all have pretty hectic schedules, and we only reliably have one day a week to play, so the other options would be a stretch.
Yeap, Gandalf won.
However, in the end, the biggest deciding factor for me was that we're all friends, and playing RPGs together has made our group so close-knit and amazing that dividing ourselves up would be a massive blow. Sure, we'd still all be friends, but we wouldn't laugh and cry together as the blows fall.

WFRP, for us, will be a hard act to follow. But we certainly wont be following it by splitting up. Only by sticking together will we recreate the same sort of magic that lived in that campaign, and I really look forward to spreading that to our new players.

Sure, we've grown massive, and we threaten to continue to grow, but some of my players are ready for the next step into becoming GMs, and I feel that Solution #1 gives us the chance to both play together and to nurture new GM talents.

I hope my insights and solutions will be able to help you in a similar issue, or just to help you think about your own group in a new way.

Keep having fun, and we'll be getting back to our regular programming soon.