If you are an experienced DM, or an RPG player now looking to step up and run a game, you know there are a lot of factors to consider when designing your game. A LOT of factors. Some are minor, some are monumental.
Where to start ? Maybe the temptation is the story, the plot and setting. Or the structure of your story : is it plot-based or episodic ? Or to decide on enemies. Or modifications to the rules. What books to allow, which ones to omit. Same too with base- and Prestige-classes.
I bet there’s a lot of questions floating around in your head. I know I faced a lot of unknowns, and wasn’t sure where to start.
Looking back on my experience building a game, I would begin by looking at the number of Players. For me, this is the place to start everything – I feel this is one of two very fundamental determining factors for one’s game.
This becomes a two-part question… How many players do you expect to have on a given game night; and how many players will you have in total ? Take a minute to ballpark some numbers. In a future post we’ll get into important considerations about these players. Right now, let’s look at the size of the group.
Of these eager participants, who will be there most nights ? If you have seven friends who want to roll up a character and play your game, will you have seven every time you play ? Or will the attendance on a given night generally average three…four…six players of the seven ?
This detail is important because it establishes a basic direction for the style of play. How many people you have in your game, both nightly and in total, is going to affect the balance and focus of your game between Hack-and-Slash, and detailed Role-Playing. Consider the following Very Scientific Chart :
I have heard it said that for V.3.5 D&D, for example, the optimum number of players in a DM’s game is Four (4), and that the XP and Challenge Rating systems are built on this premise.
In D&D and other RPG’s, this is what I have experienced (as the chart above suggests) :
- When the number of players is low, it is much easier for a DM to focus on the individual actions of the characters in a role-playing sense. Conversely, when there are only one or two players, combat is less desirable because its outcome for the Party is quite uncertain.
- As the number of players in a game increases, it becomes more difficult for the DM to manage the characters’ individual actions. There are just more players wanting the DM’s attention to address their character’s activities. Now the focused, turn-based combat system orders a mob of six players into a tidy queue of characters set in sequence by their Initiative rolls. With more characters present in a fight to help each other, it is much less likely you’ll face an unexpected Party-Wipe.
As the lone player in the early days of E.G.’s second D&D v.3.5 campaign, I had the undivided attention of the DM. My character was deciding his actions almost in ongoing real-time, facing and solving everything that came his way, and deeply developing his personality as a character.
On the other hand, when this Level 1 Elf Rogue of mine found himself in combat against two lowly Kobolds in a back alley, the chance of my character dying was a frightening possibility every round. Without allies and teammates, there were no “outs” if the dice went sideways for me or the DM. Even the DM dreaded this possibility.
I compare this to my friend D.W.’s long-running D&D v.2.0 campaign. On a given night he might have six players or more. As we played, the Table became the floor of a stock exchange – a confused melee of interjections and manipulations by players with their characters. Requests for information from the DM about surroundings or availability of merchants, characters negotiating prices on items, players asking for rule interpretations…you literally had to attract the DM’s attention, get him to focus on you, and state your needs or actions quickly and concisely. Then insist on getting an answer before he turned to the next needy player.
D.W. ran a good game but he became so swamped by all the players’ needs, that as a player I found there was no way to develop my Dwarf Fighter’s personality or use his skills or abilities in a creative fashion. Only within the organized structure of combat were all players afforded a turn to be heard and take action. Combat is great for involving players but it is seldom good for developing characters’ personality or, obviously, for finding a way out of a situation that doesn’t involve a fight.
So here is the first determining factor in your game – how many players will be joining your game, and how many will be playing on any given game night ?
If this number is low, you may find both story- and character-development that much easier. Everyone gets a chance to ask questions, get directly involved, have that critical one-on-one time with you, the DM.
If you expect a high turnout on average, you may find your game tending to focus on Hack-and-Slash fights, more often than not. It could get chaotic with a lot of players trying to Role-Play their characters’ personalities and wants and needs (perhaps at the expense of others), and usually what brings the game back under the DM’s control is the set structure of a fight.
With the focus on and balance between RP-ing and combat considered, next we’ll think about the Players’ needs.