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The Planeswalker Journal

Tips to DMing Large Parties, Part 1

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In my long career as a GM, I have had a number of people praise me as both a good and fair GM, as well as one who handles large parties (5+ players) with ease. Since parties of size present some unique challenges for GMs of all skill levels, I figured it would make sense to include some of my general tips and thoughts on making these situations as painless as possible for you, the GM.

General Roleplaying
Roleplaying encounters should be much easier in large groups. In these scenarios it should be easier to find at least one player to hook into conversation with any NPCs that are pivotal to your story. In parallel, expect players to have more ideas about other (sometimes unwritten) NPCs that they would like to talk to, or places to explore. More players means more ideas floating around the table on ways to overcome challenges as well as things to do. If necessary have a list of random NPC names, businesses, and locations so you don't have to make stuff up on the fly. Particularly observant GMs can be sure to latch onto player conversations to create seeds and hooks for future adventures, as well as stir up roleplay within the party itself that does not necessarily involve any NPCs. These kinds of situations can be particularly rewarding because they allow you as the GM a chance to breathe and prepare whatever is next in the story, while the players become more attached to the characters and the campaign from the roleplaying experience.

Treasure and Wealth By Level
Hands-down the hardest part of running a large group is balancing out the wealth. By nature of most D20 systems, even mid-level characters can be severely disadvantaged if they are too far behind in wealth simply because of the way many combat encounters are balanced. There are a number of different ways to tackle this issue, so I will discuss some of them here.

  1. Keep the party slightly behind in WBL: If you assign treasure and wealth as standard for encounters based on the CR of the encounter, very gradually the players will fall behind on their individual character wealth and equipment. This will maintain balance for a good few levels (particularly at low levels) because the additional PCs present more options and opportunities for the party to impact any individual challenge. Caveat to long-running campaigns! After a few levels of this you will need some kind of wealth bump for the party so they are not severely behind wealth. In a D&D- or PF-style D20 leveling system, try to plan for this bump around levels 7, 11, 15, 17, and 19. Those levels are generally where combat encounters of an equivalent CR can be seriously difficult without the proper equipment, particularly in parties where the four iconic character roles are not adequately filled.
  2. Allow adequate downtime to acquire wealth through non-active means: An alternative to the above is to allow characters ways to earn money outside of adventures proper. This can be through downtime income such as Pathfinder has laid down some rough mechanics for, businesses that the PCs run, jobs they hold down outside of adventures, whatever. This works particularly well with parties of long-lived races like dwarves and elves because you can say that a few decades pass and the players make money without automatically kicking in a bunch of aging penalties. Depending on the campaign this can feel very deux ex machina, so be wary of using this as a default method to balance out treasure.
  3. Create treasure/economy bubbles: You know how various parts of the economy have bubbles? Thing X is really easy to find for a while, but then the "bubble" "pops" and that same thing becomes crazy expensive and hard to find almost overnight. If your campaign is detailed enough to actually dig into the economy or infrastructure of the nation(s), this can provide some realism to your world and pull your players in while creating a kind of sine function for their character wealth; this should roughly equate to an abundance of treasure around particular levels as outlined above. During the "valleys", players should either encounter enemies that drop no loot or limited loot, or are in areas where they are unable to improve their equipment for some reason (lack of community wealth, lack of magical shops or skilled craftsmen, etc).

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