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


Community Supporter
Thanks for the clarification! That makes a lot more sense given the context.

But still seeing more players show up than planned did you adjust your boss encounter to handle it? You could have easily (I would think) made things harder to accommodate everyone being there.

I am not a fan of adjusting things once the scene is set, but if the party had not yet reached the boss, I feel free to adjust things in whatever fashion I think to make it more or less challenging, depending on my needs.
Having six players alone wasn't the issue alone, it was the combination of who showed up. We very rarely get the hexblade and rogue together in the same game. They had leveled up since we played last, and I hadn't experienced their powers combined. Also, they frankly didn't trust each other for the longest time (for RP reasons), and they never worked together like this before -- their teamwork was a major turning point in their relationship. It was kind of awesome that it happened.

But to your point, managing hit points behind the scenes (as you'll recall, the "I add an extra sporebear" from my last article) was as much of a gut feeling as it is keeping the game fun. The party's tactics were excellent (they aren't always!) and the hexblade delivering the rogue right to the main bad guy was fantastic teamwork. Punishing that teamwork by ensuring their attack failed to take out the monster when it legitimately should have would (in my opinion) rob them of their on-the-spot planning.

In short, the bad guy felt like he deserved to lose, and I felt the players earned that quick win. It's just that we have to deal with the real life consequences of things ending early.

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Magic Wordsmith
We have about four hours to play, and the sessions are generally made to be addressed/resolved in that time. Starting something new would mean ending mid-way, potentially with players dropping out later if they can't make the next session. I try to stop at natural stopping points since players drop in and out, so that's a consideration as well to not continue if they "finished" that session.
Our group (which has 3 DMs) handles this two different ways:

1. In two of the three games, the game runs for 4 hours and we stop as close to end time as possible. Often that's a cliffhanger (e.g. fight about to start), but sometimes it's not. If a player can't make the next session and we're in a dungeon or the like, that character just fades to the background. They are "there," but not really.

2. In one of the games, the conceit is that after about 3.5 hours of play time, we turn around and head back to town. There's potentially a random encounter on the way back, but we have ways to mitigate those chances if needs be. Once in town, we go through a phase where we split loot, award XP, level up, and set goals for the next session. If that means we end about 15 minutes early, that's okay.

Episodic games can be very hard to plan out to end on time. Ask anyone who wanted to run a one-shot and underestimated how long it would take to get through the prepared content! (Now they are stuck with no ending or have to run additional sessions.) As such, I recommend more of an open world or at least an open adventure location rather than episodic games, particularly if player attendance is a challenge. You go in with the army you have and you play until session's end.

Von Ether

You made the right call for your group, especially since two of the players were under the weather. I had a group where I had 9 in a rotating fashion, until everyone was really getting into the storyline. Then suddenly we had 9 players at the table every night. I was doing low level D&D, so that wasn't so bad, but I did make that a short campaign and had no shame wrapping it up sooner than later.

Thomas Shey

I can't say I recall ever having a problem with too many players, but then, I'd find a campaign where one or more players regularly missed almost impossible to run in my usual styles.

the last group I was in (as the DM) had 7 players, and other than the very beginning and end of the college semesters, they all showed up every time. So my adventures tended to be the 'lots of enemies' type so that everyone had something to do....

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