Making the Most of Things: Gaming with Small Groups

While many of us bemoan the fact of small gaming groups and long for a packed table with crumpled up bags of chips and discarded cans littering the floor, let’s face facts. Many of us don’t have that luxury. Well, we may, but a lot of our friends are, let us say, distracted with other responsibilities, games, and social events. And, yes, even we may want to curl up in front of the television and chill out listening to some tunes and playing a video game after a long day–we’re only human, but we need to be more than that. We need to be hyenas. We need to scavenge and fight for every scrap of fun we can get out of small groups. Imagine, we’re on the Savannah if food is plentiful, we will gorge, and leave bits of fat and bones for the vultures. If it’s not, we break open the bones with our powerful jaws and slurp out the marrow.  Small groups have advantages larger groups cannot offer. Rather than bemoan our awful fate, let’s put a positive spin on things, shall we?

1. Smaller game groups give more spotlight time to each character and, thus, each player.

2. Is ideal for horror games.

3. Okay, the last one is a gimme. Everyone already knows that, but have you ever paused to consider how it’s really good for other genres as well? Most movies–with the exception of the misfit rogues types–operate  well within small groups. Crime games. Supers games. Secret agents games. Even a  lot of sword and sorcery fits into this as well. Look up Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser, if you think I’m fooling.

4. You can get more intimate with the characters. No, not in that way! Get your mind out of the gutter. You can explore the hidden bits of characters and turn over stones not normally done in a larger group.

5. Smaller groups can get more done in a session with proper planning and focus. I’ve seen it done. It’s easier for two people to come to a consensus than five (or seven)–and if they don’t, they’ll…

6. Splitting up is no big deal when you just have a few players. More ground can get covered and it’s taking no more time away than if they were in the same party–as opposed if you had half-dozen people splitting  up and scrambling about.

Now, many of you will counter with the fact that a smaller party will get decimated faster or you have to cut the physical challenges down radically. I say to thee, “Pfshaw!”

You have to do no such thing. Regardless of the system, make the characters a bit more powerful or start off a bit more advanced than when running a larger group and you’ll be just fine. I’ve been running some RunePunk and the guys are able to take on some good, robust challenges without a hitch. I’ve got some other ideas  that I’ll save for another day.

Until next time, I bid you, dear reader, adieu!


10 Notes on, Making the Most of Things: Gaming with Small Groups

  1. I’ve played in a fair number of 2 player games that have worked out very well. The table full of people rarely works out as we plan. Your points are well taken. Rolling with the people that show up is far for fun that griping about those that didn’t.

  2. For the past 5-6 years almost all of my games have been me and 1-3 players. I’ve run a lot of 1 on 1 games. Which is one of the reasons I think I have such a difficult time learning to like 4e. It seems so much harder (more work for me) to run a 1 on 1 game with that system. That’s probably why I stick with 2e or Pathfinder/3.x. I know the rules really well and they are easier to run 1 on 1, for me at least.
    It’s been so long since I’ve ran a large group I’m not sure how I would handle it. I’m not even sure I’d want to anymore. I like the more “intimate” game play that comes with having no more than 4 players. It give them more of an opportunity to work as a team or explore their own paths without taking time away from the other players.

  3. I have always played with 4 players. But I think moving to smaller groups might be the only way for me to get some RPG game action. It seems near impossible these days to get all 5 of us in the same room at the same time more often then every 2-3 month. Could actually be really awesome all things considered.

  4. Our group usually tops out at three players, and in every instance it’s a blast. The games are much more focused on the characters and story. In fact this Friday I’ll be running my wife through some single player Mouse Guard which we’re both looking forward to (even more so as it’s been ages since I gamed).

  5. I’ve GM’d for large groups (consistently around 8) but it was in my heady younger days when gaming came easy and it wasn’t uncommon for me to run three games a week. Nowadays, I play in one game a week with a total of three players/one GM and GM another game with four players/one GM. These for me are the perfect numbers. It allows for that game intimacy Sean talks about here, but for the most part we avoid the “oh crap we don’t have someone with the skills to handle this situation”. I actually don’t like to game with less than three players, as normally when that happens we’re down a player, and that becomes the biggest risk in small player situations – ongoing campaigns are easily interrupted with just a single absence. But the world is full of awesome board games and even one-off RPGs (like Fiasco) so there’s plenty of gaming caulk to fill in those intermittent gaps.

  6. The group I’ve been running for the past year or so has consistently been 3 players. The advantages are that every player is able to get the spotlight in a given session if desired, there’s plenty of time for character development, and you can easily run subplots centered around one specific PC. As for drawbacks, most encounters have to be scaled back slightly for the more combat heavy sessions (published adventures especially are usually ideal for at least 4 players), but that’s not a huge deal. Occasionally an issue will come up where the group doesn’t have X skillset to solve a problem, but that’s easily solved with an allied NPC. The biggest problem is reliability. If one player can’t make it, it means we don’t game at all. That said, I typically favor smaller groups. The larger groups I’ve been in tend to focus on a group of 2 or 3 “main characters” with the rest of the group supporting them anyways, and as a GM especially I’d rather be able to make sure everyone gets equal time.

  7. I’m a big fan of smaller groups, for pretty much all of the reasons listed. There’s another one that gets to me a lot in the big group I play in: noise. Just putting eight people in a room creates quite a bit of ambient noise. Since its rare that more than three of those people are actively engaged in the current action, cross-chatter is inevitable, upping the noise factor. To be heard, the DM often raises his voice. It gets overwhelming fast. A smaller group has less ambient noise, and usually almost no cross-chatter.

  8. Good comments, all!

    The ambient noise issue is not one I’ve consciously considered, nor the cross-chatter, but both are valid points.

  9. #5 bit me on the butt one session. Just over half the group showed up, and our rule was “more than half, we play”. They ran through so much material that I had to start improvising stuff just to get to the end of the session. I’m much happier with improv now, but at the time it sucked. After that, I kept at least a session ahead on the preparations…

  10. It takes awhile to learn to let go and make things up on the fly.

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