Surviving Large Groups

Posted August 13, 2009 by sporktrooper
Categories: D&D, For DMs

I’m sure most of you have seen it: a gaming group that gets too large, a behemoth of a party that makes combat feel like you’re playing Starcraft.  It happens, but there are ways to keep the adventure from teetering over the edge.  My weekend gaming group has 7 players, my “family game” has 10.  It’s unwieldy, but I don’t have the heart to refuse someone on those grounds alone.  So, my players and I have worked out some ways to ease the pain.


Methods and Devices

Having a large group brings any rough spots in a gaming system to the spotlight.  There are a few tricks I’ve developed or scavenged from other DMs that can alleviate some of the frustration.

  1. Initiative Cards – I cannot recommend these enough.  Whether you use index cards or elaborately decorated printouts, being able to flip through the initiative roster turn by turn makes it a lot easier to keep things straight.  With a large enough group, any initiative list becomes a frustrating episode of “whose turn was it again?”
  2. Status Effect Indicators – There are many ways to do this.  I started off by making cards that I would hand out, with “dazed” or “bloodied” and so on written on them.  However, the cards quickly went missing or were stuffed under character sheets.  I’ve heard of people making origami-esque indicators to keep that from happening, but with the size of my group the table has enough clutter as is.
    My solution was to use magnetic tokens that attach to the bottom of our minis to indicate status.  I’ve color-coded them to keep things straight, but they do get a little pricey.  The advantage to this is that I can now make my own tokens for monsters instead of buying from WOTC or other miniatures retailers, so in the end it balances out quite nicely.
  3. Many Many Dice – If every player has their own set of dice, things become much less hectic.  This is true of any sized group, as players tend to get attached to their dice, but it becomes a logistical nightmare trying to find out who had the d4 last, when there’s only 1d4 on the table!
  4. A gamemat – After playing AD&D and 3E for years, this is almost heresy for me to suggest.  It’s nearly a requirement for 4E as is, but in a large group you absolutely must have a gamemat.  My recommendation is the Chessex Battlemat.  It is durable, portable, and feels wonderful against bare skin (just kidding).  I was lucky enough to find one at the Friendly Local Geek Shop for a decent price, but they can be ordered online at the link above. 
    For thrifty gamers, my previous solution was a posterboard with one-inch squares drawn by hand (we have a very patient group member who graciously took the task upon himself).  Laminated, this becomes pretty handy, but there are a few problems: marker echo and curling being the two big ones.
  5. A Laptop – Again, this is almost heresy.  For the longest time, I was a member of the “no electronics at the table” camp.  However, if it weren’t for my laptop I’d be a wreck by now.  I don’t use anything truly outrageous like Campaign Cartographer or Maptools (although I’m looking at this one for a future project involving a projector), but there are a few handy applications that make my life easier.
    1. OneNote – This Office 2003/2007 application is my favorite thing since sliced pepper jack.  It is a digital notebook that allows nearly infinite nesting of section markers and sub-notebooks.  It automatically saves whatever you type, it supports every type of media I can think of (images, video, audio recordings, input from Excel (although it butchers it)), and it adds a nice screencap feature that allows you to screenshot one specific section of the screen very easily.  That last one combined with the D&D Compendium saves me so much aggravation.
    2. D&D Compendium – This requires a DDI subscription, which I go back and forth between glee and rage over, but it is incredibly useful.  When it works properly (there are a few database errors and missing entries) it saves much time when you just need to know the exact wording of a power or ritual, or the abilities a monster has.  It is also a good way to get access to monsters you might be missing if you skip a book or three.
    3. Excel – The encounter builder from WOTC leaves much to be desired, so I wrote up a simple Excel spreadsheet to help balance encounters.  If I can find a non-evil file hosting location I’ll link to it, but really it’s just a fancy calculator.

Well this article is getting a bit long-winded, looks like we have a two-parter on our hands.  Come back next week for some tips on how to deal with a large group from the player perspective.  I’ll give you a hint: lots of Mt. Dew (it’s in the fridge, no you cannot cast magic missile at the darkness).

Got any suggestions for making large (or even small) groups more efficient?  Post them in the comments.


Newbies In Our Midst

Posted August 6, 2009 by sporktrooper
Categories: D&D, For DMs

New (and I mean truly new) players can be the most challenging and rewarding addition to a group.  Your biggest hurdles will be teaching the most basic rules – once the framework is established, the learning curve becomes so much simpler.  Some of us take for granted the pivotal d20 roll, or even knowing which die is the d20!  My suggestion is to start simply, and try not to just drop the newbie right into the party.  This doesn’t mean you should start a battle with just one minion for them to toy with, but go one step further: start them off with a skill roll.  In 4E this is the simplest thing to do but contains all the rules of combat without any of the stress (unless you’re climbing a rock face at 200 feet and it’s raining, of course).

The first building block (understanding the core d20 mechanic) is the most critical.  Once you can say to the player, “this is just like that Endurance check you had to make to get over your hangover,” you can start making things more complex.  At this point, you as the DM can stop focusing on that player so much.  I suggest the buddy system from here on out, it’s much easier (on the group and on the new member) if they have only one person quoting rules to them, instead of the entire table.  Too many times have I seen a new player sitting there with a blank expression while 5 people try to explain the same rule at the same time.  Keep it one-on-one.  The newbie will learn to trust their “mentor,” and the mentor will feel like they’ve done a good deed.

New players will often come up with things that will make your head spin.  As an example, we have Gertie the Goblin Sorceress.  Gertie is played by a woman in her 60s whose last experience with traditional gaming was when my Half-Orc Magic User died (she killed him, accidentally.  That’s a story for another day).  Gertie was introduced to the game world in a humble kitchenette which happened to be inside an old unused sewer.  Eventually, she wound up with the party and during combat decided she was going to run back into her kitchen and get some salt to use on the oozes that were attacking.  Your average player might consider that, but they’d question its effectiveness and just go with a normal combat ability.  Not so with this player.  Later in the same battle, a sewer monster shot a poisoned barb at her.  It missed, but she decided she was going to find it and shoot it back at the thing.  Of course, she crit.  Trying to keep the players excited about the game, I roll with it.  I decided that the barb would act in the same way that it would have if the creature were using it, but it would be immune to the poison itself.  The attack still did a good amount of damage, but that isn’t the real victory here.  The real victory is the grin on her face, and the laughter from the other players when I described what happened. 

After all, the most important thing is to have fun.

A Brief Introduction, and the Purpose of This Mess

Posted July 31, 2009 by sporktrooper
Categories: D&D, Personal

Tags: , ,

Whether they are accustomed to third edition or are new to traditional gaming altogether, D&D 4E provides a fair number of challenges to gamemaster and player alike.  Many of the old habits (rolling for stats and hit points) are gone, and even without impressions left from older editions there are still many things to learn and unlearn.  Fourth Edition has been around for a few years now, so I am a bit behind when it comes to writing about it, but I reserve my right as a gaming nerd to flap my jaw (or keyboard) and act like I know what I’m talking about.  If the information presented here is useful to you, wonderful!  Otherwise, this is a great outlet for me and I find that just writing about the game helps me gain a better understanding of it.

Before I get carried away with the charm of plastic polyhedrons, I would like to introduce myself.  I’m a 23 year old IT Guy (professional term) who has been playing D&D for 18 years.  My first character was a Half-Orc Magic User.  Since moving on to becoming a DM, I run between one and two sessions a week.  In addition to D&D 4E I have hosted the following:

  • Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition (as well as 3.5)
  • Werewolf: The Forsaken
  • Vampire: The Requiem
  • Mage: The Awakening (yes, I like White Wolf games, give me a break)
  • Shadowrun
  • Traveller (the little black book version, not GURPS)
  • Battletech (just recently started with this, having a blast)

To clarify, I am not trying to toot my own horn, just giving a pedigree of sorts.   I just hope that it will help you trust my babble, and maybe understand where I’m coming from.