Small Groups

edited January 2009 in Story Games
Man, I am digging small, tight groups this past year or two. One GM, two or three players tops.

The games are intense and very character-driven. Set up becomes much more important; there can't be one character who is kind of whistling off-tune for a few sessions before they settle in.

Sometimes with Burning Wheel, one person watches another through a Fight! and that has been okay. The players have been cool with letting the action go on for a while, though I am tinkering in my head with cutting to a different scene in the middle of the Fight! or Duel of Wits or what-have-you.

I am kind of craving running a solo Dogs game.

My gaming buddies in Ithaca are ferociously busy, myself included. I find we hit a kind of a wall at 5+ players, making the schedules work becomes a problem and even when we do, it is a magical moment that is gone in a haze of business trips, visiting family, etc. But 3 is very doable.

That is about it, nothing profound at all.

I was thinking back on my year of gaming and this was something that I was seeing again and again, me seeking out and setting up really small groups of buddies.

Other comments or thoughts on small groups welcomed, links to sister-threads on playing with large groups would rock.


  • This was my standard set-up for something like three years before last year when I started running D&D for a mixed group of teenagers. A maximum of three players is still the norm when I crack out a Forge game. Not a rule, mind - we'll play with whoever happens to participate, but this is just how it seems to work out.
  • Dogs is great one on one, although I suspect it is a little outside the design parameters.

    I think four participants is the sweet spot for me. It's just enough to allow both some diversity of interaction and a breather once in a while as a player. It's highly system-dependent, though - you really need a GM and at least three for Cold City, and I've played TSOY successfully with two players and seven players.
  • Hmmm. Not really anything more than "Small Groups Rock!" My sweet spot is 3-4 players, 1 GM personally. I've played with 2 before (2 players/1gm), but in the long run it can be tiring. I also like 1GM/3-4 players because if there are scenes with 2-3 players, there's still someone (1-2) people left to take on the roles of NPCs.

    But yeah, after tailoring and focusing my GM style for a "Max 4-5 person game (including GM)", and seeing all the rewarding focus and roleplaying that happens in those smaller groups, it is really hard for me to go back to 1 GM/5-6 player style.

    I ran a brief Tenra Bansho demo for like 8 people in a hotel room last year, but we ended up going with 2 people playing each character, alternating every scene. There were lots of NPCs for players not in the scene to take the role of, so that was awesome, but otherwise, if every player had their own character, there would have been a lot of twiddling of thumbs, waiting one's turn.

  • What to say? Me too. I can be pretty okay with playing in a group of 6 but the way you have to start skimping on the little details and nuances really starts to show and I'd never GM more than 5 players. I think 4 people all in all is my sweet spot. Incorporating peoples impulses and ideas is a lot easier when you've got time to pick them up. Also; with more than five people at the table, waiting time can start climbing way too high if you can't use the "here, have an NPC"-trick.
  • Much depends on the players, too. For 5-6 people, it also helps if the game situation is such that they can have in-character conversations/scenes without disrupting the rest of the game. Of course, if I'm GMing, I often want to stop and listen to them because I enjoy them so much...
  • There might not be much to say because there isn't much here and it is a thin thread.

    Could be.
  • I'll try to thicken it a little.

    I have a pet theory that 3 players is the perfect number for most games.

    2 is too simple: the basic dynamics available are buddy or antagonist

    4 is excessive: it easily simplifies into (less interesting) pairs or (marginal) 3:1, and the potential for fiction-explosions (where everybody runs madly off in separate directions) is higher

    3 is the basic triangle, where alliance, trust, betrayal, and contrast come into their own.
  • Let's thicken the thread a bit, then, with some drift:

    Who here has played small group LARPs, and how are they different (for better and worse) than large LARPs?
    I've played in house LARPs with about fifteen people, and I've played a LARP with as few as ten. The main thing they had different from the (typical for my area) 50 to 200 person LARPs is that one PC matters MUCH more--more engaged, better known by others, more spotlight time from organizers. Further, I find the intimacy to promote "riskier" play that wouldn't be attempted before a large group of strangers. An AP, to show how small groups defeat strangeness:

    In a con LARP--strangers, all--I had to RP a character who'd (most inappropriately) gotten a woman pregnant--she was a mental patient at the hospital at which I was a night guard. So my guy's pre-designed goal was to avoid being busted by another guard who knew--nothing was said of how I should react to the woman. At this point, I'll say it was a Cthulhu game (no, duh) and, basically, they had a scene progression where the woman really only enters the game as the Horrors are starting to take lives and folks are trapped and panicky. What did I do? Fiercely protect her, even to the point of taking myself out of the thick of things (what can I say, she was cute and I was mostly lost in the clues anyhow). By the final, violent, horrific scene--the secret cultist managed to complete the summoning we'd all been trying to stop--she and I were kneeling, hand in hand, in prayer (my guy and I do NOT pray... and yet), and I asked her to marry me and let me be the father I should have tried to be all along, instead of hiding her and lying about her condition (impromptu, not "in plot"). Mind you, we were minutes from death--the Hound of Tindalos was coming out of the corner spaces. We both cried and hugged, as other players around us screamed and died.

    You don't GET that in a mob Vamp LARP or in some weekend boffer fest. MAYBE, once in a blue moon, a long-running, liked character goes through a trauma or dies, and folks are "into it" enough to get a bit weepy. But not like that scene at the con, with a woman I'd know for MAYBE two hours. The immediacy made for intimacy, and the intimacy blurred the lines between reality and fiction enough for a complete suspension of OOC identity--total immersion, they calls it when they want to starts a term debate. ;)

    Can I get that in a con tabletop game? Maybe... but never have. Maybe there's a sweet spot to numbers--few enough to be in spotlight a lot, but not so few that every little action is under everyone's scrutiny; OR so many that 90% of all action takes place in small subgroups. Can I get that at a home tabletop game? Maybe... but I haven't as far as I can recall, excepting with a girlfriend many years ago. I guess "the guys" with whom I play don't "go there" or something.

    And, no, I don't think weepy = good; that's just the most extreme emotional response I've had that was "unexpected" (humor, excitement, tension are all somewhat expected, by the nature of most game designs). I've had one extreme horror response, too, WAY back in the eighties, during an all-nighter Chill game. But that could have been the pot talking. And I've had a TON of high-tension, almost terrified moments in boffer LARPs, but that was usually of the hide-and-seek variety (with a summary death being the result of being found). Wait, check that--I had an awesome scene at a major LARP, burying the (non-present, NPC, plot device) dead in a village wiped out by The Menace. Soulful, sorrowful--some real tears, again. But how many people were there? TWO. Me and a close friend (the Baron of the village, equally devastated by the fictional genocide). He's all, "And this small one--who could kill this little dear, Soren?" and I'm all "*choke* *sniff*"

    I stayed so much in that mode--the horror of such mass mutilation--that I went back to the public tavern and "got drunk" (in RP). And stayed drunk the whole day and into the night. And was so "drunk" that I just sat there, spitting, when an orc came to see who this fool sitting alone at night on the porch was. I let him kill me. I didn't resurrect (mostly because no one found my body in time). No one mourned MY passing with any tears (in my defense, most found out only because I showed up a few hours later in totally different gear, with a new PC).

    Would I get to that point, in TT? I kind of doubt it, unless sacrifice or some such was the game's point of play (e.g. knowing you must die, so choosing when). But total character immersion and "realistic" reactions to what others just blithely listened to as narration, then charged past to get to "the good stuff" of fighting The Menace? Doubt it.

    OK, that was a hell of a ramble, but they always say AP beats theory, so I wanted to use those anecdotes to show a couple of things:
    * Small groups foster more intimacy and trust.
    * LARP enhances that tendency, even when massively populated (as, then, it's rare that all are present in all scenes).

    Meatier thread, now, huh? Or did I plant a tree on the dead horse?
  • I've had my best LARPing experiences on events with 20 and 200 people respectively. There's a clear sub-group thing going on in the latter, as I suspect there is mostly any LARP with over 15-25 people.

    My experience with too small LARPs have been that a small group that knows each other too well risk getting too casual. Kinda the same as gaming with your casual gamer buddies at home... so that point might be moot. I do find it hard to drive play at small LARPs though. I haven't tried any in-doorsy, semi-scripted or artsy or whateever-you-wanna-call-it things, mostly just walked about in the Swedish forests with 50-200 other people (usually the lower number but events are growing, yay!) and those events need people to sustain themselves. If there aren't enough people to ensure that at least some get balls rolling everything will just grind to a halt. Of course, organisers play a huge role in how things turn out but still.

    So, while I want few people at my table, I want a lot of people at the LARP. And, if I can, a group I belong to (size? Well... 5+ maybe? Picking up where my table ideal trails off.). If everything else sucks, you can totally bring your own fun.
  • My standard group is 3 players (+ Me as GM). It has been this way for years. I've run one offs with 4 and it isn't quite as satisfying. The ONLY time I've seen it matter is with The Mountain Witch. We ran 4 and I imagine 3 would have been very lame.
  • I agree that long-running LARPs with major expenses need regular player injections. Bit I think that's orthogonal to the OP of exploring why small groups seem to "click" more. And, as you admit, it's rare that everyone in a 100+ person LARP is aware of all the goings-on and the gripping scenes. Plus, larger LARPs stray much more into (Gamist) sport than into (Narativist) explorations of theme, by their very design (system matters).

    As for small group LARP, I guess we just have more trust and are more supporting of each other than your posse. It's rare that the actual "micro LARP" plots open doors for intimacy--maybe designed against, now that I think of it--but see my AP above again: I "got there" with total strangers, just because of the four hours or so we'd had letting go and staying in the moment.

    I'm a Stanislavsky Method Man, too, so maybe that helps me "get there." And I am FAR more Method in LARP than TT--might be a blind spot in my play, there, actually (gotta see whenever I get a chance to play again... some day).
  • I was gonna start a thread called "Judd is Awesome" but I wasn't sure where to go with it from there.
  • At first I was probably going to argue with the Gamist bit but then it sort of hit me that... yeah, a bunch of people actually "play to win" even at LARPs. We usually have very basic rules over here (Sweden) and some sort of gritty simulationism is probably what's held in highest esteem up here in northern Sweden. A lot of people want credibility and the feeling that maybe it could have been like this. Not so much N or G in the hands of the individual player.

    Gaming with strangers have sometimes been great experiences for me too; as long as there isn't a clash in play style or personal chemistry it probably brings about a sort of sensitivity and awareness that can really heighten a game. (TT and LARP alike)

    I'm not too knowledgable about the whole Stanislaky thing but I have a friend who is all about immersive roleplay and according to her LARP has a big advantage in the fact that you naturally use the body a lot more. I can't really see it as anything else than a truism in that case.

    Yeah, in The Mountain Witch I can really see how it'd go a bit flat with only two players (even though I haven't played it yet).
  • Anders,

    Mountain Witch is absolutely best with a full boat of 6 players, without a doubt.

    Also, for Fan Mail circulation, I like a Producer + 4 players in PTA.

    I like gaming with strangers and have missed doing more con gaming. I cannot wait for Dreamation. I wish I had more days in the week so that I could run an open slot at the university gaming club and just run for different faces every week but that just isn't in the cards. I don't have the time.
  • The catch with solo Dogs is that a) there's no credible way to heal the Watchdog if they get fuxx0rd upx0rd, and b) it seems like towns should be designed specifically for a single Dog. I've tried it before and it wasn't wholly successful, but I think the deal is something to do with having a short but rich "investigation" phase. Use Yojimbo as a model: everyone keeps telling the dude what's going on at every turn. Not sure, though.

  • 3 - 5 players is my sweet spot.
  • Larps:

    I've had a blast in Torch of Freedom, which I think had 66 players. I now understand what Josh is trying to aim for with the larp Kindly Cats has been working on for over a decade. (We've taken years off, had life changes, realized that what we thought we knew several years ago was crap...) It is astonishingly well designed. It needs a spectacular space arrangement, as one of the features of the game is that different social classes can go into different areas. That is, anyone can go to the main areas, but only nobility and their guests can go to the palace, and only the lowest of the low and those under their protection dare walk the warrens. Fortunately, Foambrain's run had a terrific space, and the warrens were a series of creepy ill-lit hallways and better lit rooms in the basement. Oh, I did not want to go there without an escort.

    Marie Celeste is a classic, and I am told it killed the weekend long larp for a long while because it showed that the four hour format was viable -- and it's a lot easier to run. Andrew Zorowitz, who's run it hundreds of times, and who will travel absurd distances to run it, tells me that 11 is the sweet spot. I think it can expand to 14. Andrew's other favorite is Marin County Cocktail Party, which I played in once and helped out as an NPC once. Lots of fun.

    Both of these feel bigger than The Last Seder, which had, I think, 13 players. Maybe 14. This was intense. It was a tales-within-a-tale game, and a complete railroad, and we all knew that going in. A name like that, a hostess named Chris Carpenter, married to Barry Magdalene, with a friend named Judah Issacson, and you know where it's going. This one also served food, and we had a haggadah.

    Another one that felt intense was The Dance and the Dawn, which had, let's see. 7 "lords", 6 "ladies", 4 shadows, and one or two other roles (which could be NPC or PC roles). It's a One True Pairing game, and definitely not to everyone's tastes.

    Then, there was the two hour The Other Other Batman Game, which we all knew would be absurd, and it did not disappoint. I think it was bigger than any of the four hour games I listed above.

    Our own Straightjackets Optional's Jamais Vue has been run for 8, 15, and 24 players by us, and for I'm not sure how many by Foambrain. We can run it from anywhere from 2 to 24, with 15-18 probably being the sweet spot.

    Then, there was the 10-12 hour Across the Sea of Stars. 23 players in the run I was in, tales-within-tale structure. Sense of wonder sf isn't supposed to be possible in a larp, but we had that. I came back from the bathroom to find the entire room hushed, one woman on the floor, and one man holding everyone's attention explaining what drove the woman to take her own life. And the player of this woman lay on the floor for a good 20 minutes at least. And the rest of us just listened to the man talk.

    Hm. If there's a conclusion here, it's that the number of players is only one variable, and not necessarily the most important one for a larp.
  • Right now, three is my preferred number. Though at convention tables I go to four, as I want to pack as many in as possible. (And that's what I think is possible -- for me!)

    The games I run with any regularity are Sorcerer, Sorcerer & Sword, Primetime Adventures, Pendragon.

    Like others, I find that this allows the proper proportion of attention to each player as the clock moves forward.

    I think the number (3 or 4) keeps the fiction input of the Players and myself manageable. We're able to take the info, pay attention to it, use it and build on it. If there were more, some fiction details might start getting lost and not picked up on and incorporated by the other players. But I'm not sure about that.

    I think part of it, too, and I just realized this, is comfort level of all this stuff being NEW to me. After bumping into these new games (after being away from the hobby for years), it took me a while to figure out, you know, how to play them and which ones I wanted to play. There are lots of new levers and moving pieces -- not only in general, but for each game. (Hell, I only think I finally came to understand Pendragon about two years ago!) Keeping the number of players down also allows me to have more brain power to focus on the mechanics and how to apply them.

    Lisa, can I ask which games you play, and which ones you play with 4-5?
  • Posted By: DeBracya bunch of people actually "play to win" even at LARPs
    Um, have a care. Gamism isn't so much about "playing to win" as it is about the social goals of recognition of ability and efficacy, by your peers. (Part of why a lot of us think Forge GNS is a bit broken--the terms are misleading.) And, in that sense, yep a LOT of large LARPs are more about leveling, having the l33t loot, getting more spotlight time because you're needed to overcome an obstacle. Being a "star," more than being a "protagonist."
    Posted By: Lisa PadolHm. If there's a conclusion here, it's that the number of players is only one variable, and not necessarily the most important one for a larp.
    Well, certainly, it is but one variable... but that's the variable we're wrestling with in this thread. Your examples are all cool... but what did the SIZE of the groups bring, what was better or worse as these pre-built games scaled up or down? For a parallel example, Long Live the King wants exactly seven players plus the King. Scaling down by more than one or two players will literally break it (makes it WAY to easy for one role to win) while scaling up is OK, but the roles available become variable and are generally minor (i.e. everyone after the main seven plays one or more lackeys to the principle players). So there's a hard-and-fast, encoded "sweet spot," by nature of the very rules and the goals of the roles. What like that did you see in the games you've played with differing numbers of participants?

    Finally, all you folks saying three is a sweet spot--is that a factor only of attention (as seems to be what's echoed by most of you), or might there be some underlying 'thing' (social, metaphysical, dialectical) that makes a three player game a sort of "attractor" in the number-of-players space? Is Mark W's "basic triangle" somehow a Platonic Ideal into which any other scales must be subdivided, much like any 3D mesh is ultimately subdivided into triangles? Is "two's company, three's a crowd" something fundamental to reality (normative to humans, or fundamental to nature)?

    Aren't there three atomic particles? Aren't there three modes of truth (true, false, indeterminate)? Heck, aren't there three elements to ANY dichotomy (A, ~A, null)?

    Am I getting too wonky, here? Or are we all bubbling closer towards some Truth about base interactions of any elements in any system?
  • I think you're getting kind of wonky.

    But Jung would be all over you about the value of 3 over 2 or 4.
    If that matters to you.

    I've actually thought about Mark's point about keeping the power imbalances alive (two on one isn't as bad as three on one, if the game should go that way). I kind of assume it's true. But I haven't yet had any kind of ganging up for long periods. It might start, but the alliances shift pretty fast. I played in a Sorcerer & Sword game with four players (a one shot, at a game store, that Jesse ran, that was awesome) and the alliances changed like ever four minutes. So while the idea makes sense to me, in my observations, I'm not sure that's it.

    I just want to give everyone their due. And three or four works the best for me. Three is the best for my regular group for scheduling reasons.
  • Posted By: David Artman
    Um, have a care. Gamism isn't so much about "playing to win" as it is about the social goals of recognition of ability and efficacy, by your peers. (Part of why a lot of us think Forge GNS is a bit broken--the terms are misleading.) And, in that sense, yep a LOT of large LARPs are more about leveling, having the l33t loot, getting more spotlight time because you're needed to overcome an obstacle. Being a "star," more than being a "protagonist."
    You're quite right. In don't equate Gamism with playing to win - it just took me by surprise to talk about Gamism at LARPs since I find it hard to fit into my regional LARP culture. So, I skipped a few steps in my reasoning and it came out pretty backwards.


    Regarding the sweet spot... I think attention is a big part of it, and that it's a factor in the social part of it as well. The more people you are, the more effert it might take to get the ball rolling. In the group I've been playing with on fridays since... well, two years now, we've been six people and we've often gotten together early to cook and eat together. It's can be a great thing and tighten the group in it's own way but also take a lot of focus, energy and time. So, when you're done eating and putting stuff away you've got six people that have to tune in to what you're supposed to be doing. I'd imagine that the fewer you are, the quicker you can get everybody on the same page but I might be over-simplifying it a bit much?
  • GM +3 is my favorite group size, always.

    That's all I can contribute. I don't do LARPs.
  • GM + 3-4 is the sweet spot for me. There are exceptions of course, but usually GM + 1-2 is too tiring because you're "on" so much, and GM +5 and up you spend too much time waiting for things to develop.
  • Long ago (i.e., MS/HS days) I had a game group of 4 players (counting myself) and we were always wishing that we had a few more to play "D&D the way it was meant to be." ;op Nowadays, given busy schedules and the desire to do more character driven stories, I prefer smaller game groups. My current main group has 6 members but we never manage to get more than 4 of us in one place at any one time which is a major PITA at times. 3-4 players + GM is my personal sweet spot.
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