Dungeons and Dragons - Player Caps in Crowded Games vs What To Do When Very Few Show Up

I really should make this part of the Dungeon Master Tips posts I have been writing of late. However I felt that since this topic was a big one that this post deserves to be by itself and given the appropriate amount of attention.

Overcrowding and Player Caps

When playing Dungeons and Dragons sometimes it will happen that a game becomes overcrowded. eg. 12 players plus the DM is super overcrowded.

Speaking for myself I think the largest group I ever DMed was 10 people + myself. So that was very overcrowded in my opinion... which implies that not all DMs agree on what is the ideal number of players.

Some DMs like large groups, some prefer smaller groups. 4 to 6 players + DM is considered to be a normal group size.

11 or more players = Super Overcrowded.
9 to 10 players = Very Overcrowded.
7 to 8 players = Overcrowded. (I am personally comfortable running a group this size, because I have extensive past experience doing so.)
  • For the above three categories, the DM will need to keep a tight rein on the players in order to encourage them to stay focus on the game and not get distracted by pop culture discussions. Too many off-topic discussions is a cue for the DM to throw a kobold, fireball or ambush at the party.
  • Larger numbers of people require a DM to be more charismatic and really flex their storytelling skills. It is a good time to crack out the voice acting skills and really do a good job of it so that players are not talking amongst themselves, playing on their cellphone and ignoring the game, etc.
  • Set up a routine for players communicating with the DM so they don't all try to talk at once. I prefer a roundtable situation where I usually start on the left and go around the table to the right deal with any actions that the party is doing, in order. If they have no action they can simply "Pass".
  • Make sure no players are being left out. If they are not doing something, give them something to do by dropping a clue, a hint, a draft for a secret door, etc.
  • Make sure everyone can hear you and paying attention. This means louder players who talk too much (eg. while the DM is talking) might need to learn how to be quieter so that everyone can hear what is happening. 
  • Use maps and figurines to the attention of your players. While using figurines and miniatures might be more optional with smaller groups, with larger groups things can get confusing and you really rather NEED the miniatures to keep things organized.
  • More enemies. If using a module you will need to scale encounters to make them more challenging for larger groups. This can be done by increasing HD, increasing the number of baddies, or both. Be careful you don't throw anything too big at them.
  • You will note that many of the tips above are things the DM should be doing anyway, but larger groups will stretch the limits of how well DMs can do such skills and keep everyone happy. Some players will find large groups discouraging or "not fun enough" because they have less individual time to shine.
  • Depending on your skills as a DM (and the availability of chairs) you may decide to set a player cap. I recently added a player cap of 9 to my Monday Night Campaign - mostly because 9 people is quite a squeeze around the table we are using. In the future I might even lower the cap depending on the issues of seating, but I decided I wanted to challenge myself as a DM by embracing larger groups.
  • Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson (the creators of Dungeons and Dragons) in the early years of developing the game had a group of 20 players and co-DMed the large numbers by placing them in two separate groups, and then used a large map of Castle Greyhawk on the basement wall. When a particular room was done they would go to the map and mark off an X to indicate that room had already been done. Plus there were many different levels of the dungeon (17 levels I believe?) so the chances were extra reduced. This way each DM didn't have to worry about players doing the same room twice, and the two separate groups could explore the huge dungeon simultaneously without accidentally bumping into each other. (Below are two maps from Castle Greyhawk.)

4 to 6 players = Considered Ideal by many DMs.
  • Normal DMing tips apply, but many of the tips listed above would still be handy.
  • If the DM is not doing a good job with only 4 players they really need to brush up on their DMing skills.
  • Some DMs may feel that 6 players is actually too much for them to handle. I would argue they need to work on their skills and need to practice DMing larger groups until they get used to it. This is a process that should be g r a d u a l l y.
2 to 3 players = Poor Turnout, but team usually gets more done faster.
  • This is actually quite ideal for someone who is new to DMing and doesn't necessarily know what they are doing. Smaller groups are quieter, easier to keep the group focused, etc.
  • Smaller enemy sizes. Because the group is smaller you need to scale the size of the enemy groups.
  • Having a smaller group allows you give players a lot of individual attention. This is a good opportunity to have them really roleplay their characters and the smaller group dynamic means they should be less shy about doing so.
  • If you are disappointed by a low turnout of players, don't let your players see it. Instead see this as an opportunity to finally do that *thing* the party didn't finish doing or exploring and have been curious about, a chance to run a short side quest, to do character development, to introduce the PCs to a new NPC henchman or hireling, etc.
  • Be prepared to get a lot more done than you are expecting. Hopefully you make a habit of being well prepared.
  • It never hurts to have multiple ideas (or rumours) for possible side quests for PCs to explore. I like using rumour mill charts where I can roll dice and then the PC learns a new rumour from the baker, the butcher, or the undertaker...
1 player + DM = No Group Dynamic

Essentially is the DM running a solo adventure for the player. There are published modules designed for that and I have experimented and ran solo adventures for players in the past - usually as a way of teaching new players how to play.

Solo play forces the player to think on their own and solve problems themselves, as opposed to the group dynamic of solving problems as a team. Thus when designing a solo adventure I recommend putting in specific challenges are designed for their character. More problem solving for wizards, more traps/climbing for thieves, and more combat/physical challenges for warriors. For clerics you need to design the adventure to have a few undead (for Turn Undead), a NPC to heal, and a baddie to kill - and you should use the narrative in away that works with the cleric's chosen god. A good cleric will want to be doing good deeds. A druid will want to be saving the forest or creatures of the forest.

If you are not sure how to design an adventure for a solo player you can also try using a module instead and after running a few modules you will have a better idea of how best to do it.

Examples of Solo Modules
  • Lathan's Gold (Any)
  • Ghost of Lion Castle (Any)
  • Thunderdelve Mountain (Dwarf Solo Adventure)
  • Mystery of the Snow Pearls (Elf Solo Adventure)
  • Midnight on Dagger Alley (Wizard Solo Adventure)
  • Blizzard Pass (Thief Solo Adventure, invisible ink, can be run by the player or by a DM)
  • Maze of the Riddling Minotaur (Thief Solo Adventure, also with invisible ink)
Old issues of Dungeon Magazine also regularly had solo adventures in them.

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