RPG Evolution: Oh No, Everyone's Here!

Our group is balanced to have six players so that when one or two can’t play, we still have enough to move forward. But sometimes everyone shows up, and that can be overwhelming.


Portrait courtesy of ePic Character Generator and Bob Ash.​

The Gang’s All Here​

My Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons group consists of the following player characters: a tiefling sorceress and her clone brother, a tiefling hexblade; a gnome artificer; a human rogue; and an elven druid and ranger. The hexblade does most of the tanking with support from the rogue, while the artificer and druid (and, in dire need, the ranger) manage healing. Mostly, the party keeps monsters off the sorceress until she can start slinging fireballs.

The steadiest players are the sorceress, hexblade, artificer, and druid. The ranger and rogue show up on occasion as their time permits. Those two extra players deal significant damage (at a distance and up close, respectively) and can strongly swing things in the party’s favorite if they win initiative … which the rogue often does.

We play over Zoom for about three hours each week, but regularly cancel due to not having enough players or my own schedule not accommodating our game time. Each session is self-contained, a game show-style contest with occasional role-playing interludes “off camera” in between.

The session in question involved a Breakout-style combat with rows of descending blocks and a giant flying stone head, guarded by smaller stone heads, behind those blocks. The idea was to shoot through the seams of the blocks, which gave cover to whoever was on the other side.

That’s not how it played out.

"You're still here?"​

As the blocks began to descend, two things became apparent: for one, the ranger had an oathbow and once she swore the main bad guy as her enemy, the arrows ignored cover. The bad guy’s main defense was totally circumvented. For another, the hexblade dimension doored the rogue over to the monster, bypassing all the blocks and guardians to deliver a very stabby assassin right in the enemy’s face.

The other heroes busily blasted away at the descending blocks. The sorceress got off two fireballs to open a hole in the defenses while the druid and artificer worked to protect her.

The combination of the ranger’s punishing strikes that ignored cover and the hexblade/rogue combination eliminated the main monster in three rounds. And just like that the players defeated the main bad guy.

I had a decision to make.

"It's Over."​

There were a few considerations at play.

Our heroes have been in punishing situations before where they barely survived. They needed a win. The game before, the three players who showed up (sorceress, druid, artificer) came through by the skin of their teeth, but they really enjoyed that game.

In this session, two of our players weren’t feeling well and wouldn’t be able to play for very long.

And the party did everything right. The head monster’s death caused the blocks from above to fall in one final strike for those who were still underneath them, but all told the game was short (just an hour in total).

I decided to call it a win and end that session.

"Go Home!"​

Each of these sessions is an experiment in terrain and tactics. Some sessions play to their strengths while others capitalize on their weaknesses. A similar battle involving Space Invader-style monsters descending from above was much harder because there were only three characters present; with the additional characters, this game was a lot easier.

And that’s okay. The players were having a rough day, the characters rightfully outsmarted my (admittedly dumb) monsters, and they circumvented the obstacles using the powers at their disposal. The players greatly enjoyed the win and had a laugh at how quickly they overcame the obstacles.

That said, I didn’t end the session without careful consideration. Because we play weekly, we always have another chance at a longer session. If we didn’t get together as often I might have come up with more content to play.

Conversely, as busy adults with households that are often sick or stressed, I’m grateful when we can get together at all. Sometimes that time together is necessarily short, and that’s okay.

But mostly it was about putting my ego aside as a DM. The heroes did everything right, I was experimenting with a different set of monster tactics, and they “solved the puzzle” quickly and efficiently. That deserved a reward in feeling like a hero. There will be other opportunities for long, drawn-out battles … and sure enough the next session was just that.

Your Turn: What happens when you get more players than you planned for?

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


I had a regular game and a friend we used to play with years ago wanted to jump in for a night. I allowed it and he brought a fighter build in which just added combat power. I added another fight to the events where the party could slay a horde of minions before getting to the dungeon. I did not change the rest of the dungeon since the party would be down some resources and I thought it would make up for the extra PC. I also thought they could use the easier time getting through everything and I could just boost the final bad gut if I needed to.

Another time we tried to make a quick game for a bunch of scouts on the cabin campout in January. Most of them are 11-12 at the time and by the time they left the tavern, there was only 3 left to go on the adventure. They somehow Thunderdomed the group of 7 down to 3. But they were the three that seemed to actually try to play and not just be silly, so it kind of worked out.


Insulting other members
"Oh no! The party won a combat!"

Uh!? What even is this "article"?

The PCs winning bruises your ego? What?! Have you ever DMed a game before?

For the last few years, I've just been creating encounters based on the game world the PCs are exploring without tinkering too much based on the party. Depending on the composition of the party that shows up - ours is a West Marches style of game and we might have between 3 to 7 PCs of various levels at any given session - a challenge might be trivial or the party might be in over their heads or it might be a nice, even, Goldilocks encounter. Key to all this is the DM telegraphing danger severity so the party can make an informed decision of how to handle things. As DM, I'm rooting for the PCs but I'm not pulling any punches either. I play the baddies according to their goals and motivations. Being forced to retreat is not a complete loss either as the party will very likely have learned something via the encounter that could help them strategize the next time they venture to that same location.


Well, that was fun
Staff member
"Oh no! The party won a combat!"

Uh!? What even is this "article"?

The PCs winning bruises your ego? What?! Have you ever DMed a game before?
While I'm sure sneering at people on the internet makes you feel big and clever, that was obnoxious and entirely unnecessary. Don't post again in this thread again.


The High Aldwin
Your Turn: What happens when you get more players than you planned for?
Umm... I adjust the adventure and run the game??? It's sort of what a DM does, isn't it? :)

Anyway, sometimes this means things go easier, but as long as everyone is having fun that is fine by me. I love it when players come up with stuff which I never expected!

If it is new people, I ask them just to sit and watch, sometimes I let them roll for the bad guys, etc. I won't allow a "new show" to have a PC unless I was aware of it before hand and now what they are bringing to the table. Once they get to sit in on a session, I'll ask them for their thoughts and see if they want to actually join the group or if this was just a once-in-a-while thing.

Otherwise, I plan for everyone to show. If people don't, it is easier to pull back on encounters to adjust the power-level if necessary.

But mostly it was about putting my ego aside as a DM.
Sorry, but IMO the DM should never have an ego. This isn't you against the players. I get you want to present what you hope will be a challenging encounter, and if it isn't because the players did everything right, etc., you learn from it and try to do better next time. If nothing else, you hopefully learn to celebrate their success as well as when you lament their failure. It's just a game.


Not your screen monkey (he/him)
The DM in one of our alternate Thursday night games balances encounters based on the number of players who show up. I do a bit of the same. So it's helpful to know before the session starts who's going to make it so we have a little time.

For a situation in which there are a few hard core regulars and a couple of players who are sometimes there, consider balancing the encounter based on both potential turnouts - 1) the regulars, 2) the full group. Then run the one that matches the turnout. For me, it tends to be a question of having a few more enemy tokens out on the Roll20 map on the GM layer that I can add to the encounter for the larger group. And/or maybe more hit points for major enemies.

But mostly it was about putting my ego aside as a DM.
And, yeah, as DM, I don't sweat the ego thing. I'm the Washington Generals to the players' Harlem Globetrotters. I'm there to give them a spirited game but I'm expecting them to beat me.


Magic Wordsmith
I have reasonably strict limits on minimum and maximum players per session which the players work out between themselves. As a result, having fewer or greater players than expected can't happen. Even so, I don't usually design encounters with a particular number of characters in mind, often relying on the dice to say how many of what creature is encountered and when. Sometimes that means the number of PCs relative to the monsters is low, effecting a change of tactics from the players. Or it's high and the difficult drops accordingly. Often it hits the medium to hard difficulty as the adventuring day intends.


We're all busy. When we reserve time to play, I am hesitant to end early. It is not uncommon for people to have sacrificed other options in order to be with us and play - and calling the session short can be less than generous to them as a reward for their faith in the game.

To that end, I have a number of 'extension' tricks I can play if I run out of material that is well prepared for a game.

Bust down the door options: The PCs have enemies all over the place. I am always ready to bring them into the game to complicate matters when the PCs need a bit more content, change of pace, or are feeling indecisive about what to do next. If RPI see that I may need one of these options, I start forshadowing it. Perhaps a PC realizes someone is trying to scry on them. Maybe someone uses a sending spell on a PC in an attempt to get them to reveal their location. Maybe the PCs catch sight of a scout following them. Then, when I need it, the bad guys can jump into the situation. Maybe they're there to steal the dragon treasure while the PCs are injured from the dragon fight. Maybe they're trying to steal something from a PC. Maybe they just want to fight. There are a lot of variations on this theme.

RP Moments: These can be good times to have a big role playing moment for PCs. This can be between PCs, or between a PC and an NPC. You see these on Critical Role a lot - but they also work in your games. Conversations between a PC and their mentor, or their God, or their sponsor, or their friend ... give them something to talk about and let it go.

Puzzle Treasure: One of my favorite tools is a treasure item that is also a puzzle. I usually do not alter my world once I place something in it, and do not add things to it on the spur of the moment - but these are the exception to that rule. I will drop a puzzle box that is a combination to something interesting in a treasure heep. The most significant example is something akin to the Hellraiser Puzzle Box (the Lament Configuration) that can be shaped into a cube or 5 other shapes. However, the puzzle rearranges itself, so each time you use it you have to figure it out all over again. The other shapes, when created, open a portal to 5 different locations that a lich used for bases. One is in Hell, another in the Astral, another in the Elemental Plane (I have one Elemental Plane rather than a series of planes), one is in a Ravenloft domain in the Shadowfell, and the last is in his home town, his incredibly trapped tower in a MASSIVE Drow City in my (Dyson Sphere style) Underdark. When PCs find this cube, they can try to find a way to a particular location using it, but might end up in one of the others. This gives me a 'dungeon on the go' that they can enter at any time. I could run several campaigns (1 to 20) based upon what can be accessed from the puzzle box. It has existed for over 30 years in my setting (although it has evolved), so I have a lot of material for it ... I can update that stuff to 5E on the fly.

However, despite best attempts - sometimes it just isn't going to happen due to illness or exhaustion of the group. So there have been times when I called it really short, just as the OP did - but those times are rare.


Its been ages since I've had a "too many" group - back in 3E when I was DMing at the local game store's hangout. I never did anything special and just rolled on with the adventure. If the party had a lot of members, it just meant they could budge their way through more encounters before having to stop and rest. I was never one for getting into an arms race with the PCs power level - I had an experience with a tabletop wargame that broke me of that - so if the PCs got an easy win on something I just shrugged and moved on; if the PCs were happy with the win, that was good enough for me. Eventually their hubris or good luck would end, and they'd eventually face something that challenged them. It rarely took long - overconfidate PCs have a penchant to run headlong into things they really ought to be more careful about, and it provides ... life lessons.

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