Dungeon Master Tips — Running D&D for Large Groups
What follows is an article I originally posted at Medium, but Medium just isn’t the best, err, medium for discussing Dungeons & Dragons. I think what follows are good Dungeon Master tips, especially for newer DMs, for running D&D for large groups. I hope the Nerdarchy community finds it useful. A lot of new players have their first experience playing D&D in game shops, or in games they tracked down online via Meetup or other sites. This also goes for players who have recently gotten back into the game after a hiatus. Those games can sometimes be overcrowded, and it’s especially important that DMs are ready to deal with the challenges presented by crowded games so these new and recently-returning players are able to come away having had a fun experience.
Running D&D for large groups
Discussions about optimal group sizes for D&D go back to the earliest editions. The consensus has always been that a DM and 3-5 players is optimal. In Adventurers League play, that consensus minimum is enforced, but the maximum is given a little extra room: “tables must have a minimum of three players, but not more than seven players to be considered a legal table. This number does not include the DM.”
Discussions at forums and in articles abound, and confirm that play starts to become difficult, slow, and chaotic when too many players are involved.
But what if you’re playing one day at your local game shop and a few extra players show up? What if the DM running the game at the next table over got sick and could not show up, and now there are players standing around with nothing to do, looking sad? What if one of your regular players brings a friend… or two? In the interest of inclusivity and cordial relations with game shop proprietors, it is always best to be prepared for an overbooked session, and a few simple tricks can make it easier to manage a crowded table.
One thing that slows the game down is having to repeat the same processes multiple times per session, and initiative always ranks chief among those. Several methods of adjusting initiative can speed the game up, and you can use whichever method, or combination of methods, suits you best. In considering what is best, it is important to realize that some characters are specifically built to take advantage of high initiative scores, and oversimplifying initiative can result in player disappointment at not being able to use some of their characters’ cool abilities. If you have characters like that in your group, be sure to consider ways to still let them benefit from those abilities.
For truly enormous groups, the simplest method for initiative is to have one player roll for the group and oppose that by one roll for the monsters. Both rolls are unmodified d20 rolls, and the higher group goes first. Play proceeds clockwise around the table. This makes it very easy for everyone to know when their turn is coming up, and it also lets players strategize based on who goes before and after them. The next time there is an initiative roll in the same session, the next player rolls for the players’ team, and then play proceeds counterclockwise. This prevents the same players from getting to act more in each combat just by virtue of sitting immediately to the left or right of the DM. If the player rolling the die is playing a halfling, consider allowing the halfling’s Lucky trait apply to this group initiative roll.
A more advanced method of determining initiative is to jot down each character’s initiative modifier at the beginning of the session. In the event a character has an ability or magic item that grants advantage on initiative rolls, give that character a flat +5 bonus to initiative (in the way that passive Perception receives a flat +5 bonus from abilities that grant advantage on Perception checks).
At the outset of a combat encounter, one player rolls initiative. And, again, if the player making the roll is playing a halfling, the roll can benefit from the Lucky trait. You add the roll to the modifiers to determine everyone’s initiative score. This is then opposed by a monster group initiative roll, with a +1 bonus per tier of play. Thus, monsters receive a +1 bonus in first tier games, which escalates to a +4 bonus in tier 4 games. The monster initiative is then inserted into the turn order amidst the player initiatives. If you want, you can break up monsters into subgroups to spice things up, but simpler is usually better when dealing with large groups.
The astute reader will note that these methods can be combined. If you have a cooperative group where everyone is open to it, you can have players sit according to their characters’ initiative scores. You could then use a group roll and proceed clockwise or counterclockwise (based on the seating order). This gives characters with special first-strike abilities that rely on good initiative rolls a good chance to put those to use, and it also allows play to proceed quickly around the table.
Random initiative is a lot of fun and keeps things from getting too predictable or monotonous, so I definitely prefer to use it when I can, but when a table has a lot of players, one of the above initiative procedures is among the first changes I implement. It is not such a drastic change that it is likely to result in a material decrease in fun for the players, and it staves off the slowdowns inherent in establishing random initiative orders and trying to proceed down the turn order with players at disparate parts of the table acting after one another.
Don’t complicate the battlefield
Lots of different spells, effects, obstacles, and terrain types can turn the battlefield into a complicated situation. What’s more, these elements to a battle scene can dramatically slow down play. Anything that creates difficult terrain is likely to extend the duration of a combat by way of making it harder for melee opponents to engage each other. Spells that generate obstacles or obscurations have a similar result, by forcing characters to move more slowly through them or spend time navigating around them. If you planned an encounter with 4-5 characters in mind, but you end up with 6-10 characters, you may want to adjust the encounter in a way that still makes it challenging, but prevents it from becoming too tedious or sluggish. There is nothing wrong with removing some difficult terrain and giving the enemies a little damage bonus to compensate.
A good example of how to handle this comes up with a spell like darkness or fog cloud. These can be effective spells, and may represent the best strategic option for an enemy group that is opposing the player characters, but they also run the risk of making the encounter less fun, especially when dealing with a large group. A direct damage spell, such as shatter or thunderwave can be substituted to make things proceed faster. The damage gets resolved, and the effect is largely over. Some characters may end up with various conditions as a result of different offensive spells, but those are generally easier to deal with than a major obstacle on the battlefield that gets in everyone’s way.
Another method of cluttering the battlefield is by having too many mooks in the battle. This problem is amplified if enemy spellcasters make a habit of conjuring a bunch of creatures to join the fray, resulting in more activity to track every turn. In certain circumstances, it proves more expedient to switch out several lower challenge enemies for one more challenging one. For instance, three or four orcs can be converted up to an ogre. Two or three bears could be replaced by an owlbear. With judicious use of swapping out a few monsters, you can retain the essential flavor of a battle and help keep the game moving. It may not make a huge thematic difference if the party holds the town gates against an invading force of 20 orcs as opposed to a force of 10 orcs and 2 ogres, but it might make the battle more fun if it can be resolved more succinctly.
Offense is faster than defense
In a situation with a large party, if a monster has a chance to use an action or reaction for offensive or defensive purposes, it is better to go on the offensive than to play it safe. While it is a lot of fun to have villains be confounding to the characters, repeatedly thwarting their efforts with a well-timed defensive counter to an attack, or a tactical retreat or escape to build up the satisfaction the players will feel that comes with the ultimate defeat of the villain in a later encounter, you should use this approach sparingly when dealing with a large group.
Some good ways to prepare for this are to have backup spell lists for enemy casters in mind, or at least make a few quick swaps to gear the spells more toward offense and less toward defense or healing. Instead of spells like cure wounds or shield of faith for enemy clerics, try inflict wounds or guiding bolt. Instead of having the enemy grunts armed with shields and swords, give them greataxes. More generally, instead of using tactics to impose disadvantage on the player characters, employ tactics that give the monsters advantage, even if it might mean trading advantage for advantage. Not only will this zip combat along as the damage output on both sides goes up, but nearly any large party will have at least one dedicated healer, and the healers will really get to shine by healing party members every round, helping to save the day. Defense-oriented players can also work to mitigate the advantage the monsters get, instead of continuously giving disadvantage to the monsters.
The above tactical adjustments should in no way be used in every encounter, but in random encounters or encounters that build up to a boss or major encounter, these are appropriate. The primary villains and bosses should continue to employ their full defensive capabilities to provide a fun challenge for the party, but be prepared for such encounters to have to be broken up across multiple sessions.
Simplify actions. Simplify rolls
Most monsters and nonplayer characters have a set of abilities that represents their signature combat tactics and give a good idea of what tactics they will use. Hobgoblins get martial advantage when attacking alongside their compatriots, so that is probably what they will try. Orcs are good at rushing in and attacking with their Aggressive trait, so that is what they are likely to do. Every encounter with a squad of goons doesn’t need to be an exercise in Napoleonic battle tactics; the villains can go with the basics and keep things moving.
If nonplayer characters are assisting the party, they can also take fairly standard actions that are easy to do quickly. If a friendly ranger is guiding the party through the woods when a skirmish breaks out, they can use the Help action to give the party’s rogue advantage on a sneak attack, or give the party’s great weapon fighter a chance to connect with a big hit. A friendly cleric or druid can use cure wounds and healing word spells to support the party. The party can feel that the nonplayer characters are helpful and reliable allies without them stealing the thunder and, more importantly, without you having to roll a lot of dice or devote a lot of time to their turns.
On the subject of rolls, when dealing with large groups, you should seriously consider using average damage for spells and attacks. It is certainly a lot of fun to gather up a bunch of dice and throw them onto the table for the players to see, but the time it takes to do that adds up over the attacks and rounds. This is especially the case for mooks and weapon damage. Ask yourself if it really makes a material difference whether a goblin does 1d6 + 2 damage or 5 damage. Most likely, it does not. In the case of an 8d6 point fireball, where the result will fall between 24 and 32 about two-thirds of the time, is it worth the extra time to roll the dice instead of just going with the average of 28? In some cases, such as in suspenseful moments or in encounters with major villains, the answer is a resounding “yes,” but for a great many encounters, using average damage is worthwhile.
Minimize chaos out of combat
Roleplay, investigation, and other freeform scenes that occur throughout a session can devolve into chaos unless the DM assumes a more proactive role in helping the players navigate the scene. In a recent adventure I ran, we had a party of eight player characters investigating a scene that they had been directed to by an archdruid. The scene was a stone circle in some remote plains. A few stones that had been standing in the circle had been toppled, and there were large bones strewn about the area. There was also a hole going deep into the ground in the center of the stone circle. The scene quickly devolved into the type of scenario any player is familiar with, where players were piping up with ideas to do this or that, having their characters be here and there, interjecting, interrupting, and trying to get involved. That sort of play is generally just fine with three or four players, but once the number of players gets high enough, it becomes unmanageable and impossible for anyone to follow what is going on.Getting back to the scene in question, as the creator of the encounter I knew what had happened and what was available for the player characters to learn. I knew the bones belonged to stone giants. I knew the stone giants had been tricked by mind flayers into coming to the stone circle to dismantle it. I knew the stone circle had been erected thousands of years ago to serve as a ward to seal in an ancient demonic threat, which the giants had inadvertently disturbed and unleashed. Buried deep beneath the circle was a temple of Juiblex. The giants had been attacked and overwhelmed by black puddings after trekking to the circle from their subterranean dwelling in some distant hills. What’s more, ancient glyphs lay on the stones, inscribed in Sylvan, that held the story of the circle’s purpose. I knew the player characters had all the necessary skills to glean all of this information, to prepare themselves for what lay beneath, but they needed help to focus and organize their actions.
I decided to take a more direct and managerial approach than I prefer by going around the table and asking each player what their character was doing. Each player answered, and in doing so, placed their miniature on the map where the activity they were doing was taking place. I asked if people who wanted to try the same thing wanted to help each other, then let the person with the highest bonus in the relevant skill roll with advantage. After two cycles around the table, they were able to piece together the whole story. They learned that the stones were thousands of years old, the giants had their bones sucked clean of even the tiniest scrap of flesh, the “tracks” of whatever killed the giants looked more like rivulets of water had run through the area, and that there was some type of fiend as well as a desecrated area down the hole. This allowed them to deduce that they were dealing with some type of ooze and demons and to make some preparations based on these findings before descending down the hole to do battle.
The same approach described above works for roleplaying scenes, or for montages that take place over a few days or even weeks in-game. In my experience, the better descriptions you can give of a scene or social situation upfront, the more smoothly subsequent attempts to explore, investigate, tinker, or manipulate will go. Players will find it easier to work together, and scenes can be navigated without too much distraction or crosstalk. What’s more, the player characters are less likely to miss out on an important clue. Make sure everyone is on the same page in terms of the parameters of the scenario, and then prompt players to describe their character’s actions, one-by-one.
Ultimately, everyone who plays is there to have fun. We do not play D&D looking for an exercise in tedium or boredom. We play because we want to spend a few hours in a world where fantastical things are real and our characters can do all sorts of cool stuff. With a few adjustments such as those mentioned above, a full table with 6, 8, 10, 12, or even 20 players can be fun, and everyone can get a chance to insert a bit of their character’s personality into the mix.
How can I help as a player?
While the DM bears most of the burden of keeping the game moving when the table is overfull, players can also help, and at least one DM I know (me) greatly appreciates the help. The one thing to keep in mind that should inform all of your choices is that everyone has to compromise a little in a cooperative game. You may not get to do everything you want your character to do, and your own roleplay may have to take a backseat here and there to permit other people to have a turn to shine. Regardless of anything else, you should take care not to monopolize time and remember that everyone is there to play with you, not to watch you play.
In terms of combat, the number one thing to do is try to stay focused and plan your next turn before the action gets to you. In addition, be aware of all the reactions you have at your disposal, and keep a list of things you might want to do before your next turn comes around. If you wait until your turn to start thinking about what you might want to do, then it will slow play down substantially. If 10 players each manage to shave 30 seconds off of each of their turns for a five-round combat, then you are looking at a total savings of 25 minutes. That’s a significant savings for a three or four hour session. If you have questions about the damage type or range of one of your character’s abilities, or if you are not sure whether something is an action or a bonus action, look it up before it gets to your turn. Work out what all the relevant attack and damage bonuses are so you don’t have to do all the calculations when your turn comes around.
The second thing you can do, unless you have a compelling reason to do otherwise, is to look to the above guidelines for DMs and put them into play for yourself as well. Turn to direct damage instead of spells or abilities that complicate the battlefield. If you have a choice between conjure minor elementals or ice storm, go with the ice storm to wipe out some of the fodder and clean up the battlefield. In addition, instead of getting fancy and trying all sorts of tricks that require a series of checks after asking the DM whether you can even attempt X, Y, or Z, stick to what your character is good at. Save the fancy stuff for a quieter session with fewer people, where your flair will be more appreciated.
If you’re playing a fighter, open big with attacks and come out with the Action Surge right away; don’t try to slide under the table, flip it over so that a mug flies off it and splashes ale in an enemy goblin’s eye, and then fling your sword across the room to try to cut the torch so the lights go out. The latter may seem like more fun, but by the time all the questions, negotiating, groans, and die rolls are over and the frazzled DM announces the result, it will have lost its luster. If you’re throwing around a lot of area of effect damage spells, ask the DM if you can use average damage instead of rolling for it. Stick with that for the session and go back to making rolls in the next session. If you’re playing a rogue, go for the sneak attack. If you’re playing a barbarian, rage and dive in with reckless attacks. If you’re a monk, step right up and make extra attacks with your martial arts abilities. Try to simplify the battlefield by removing things for the DM to worry about.
And, as always when it comes to D&D tips and tricks, your mileage may vary. You know your group better than I do! Check in from time to time to ask what worked and what didn’t work for your players. Everyone recognizes that it is not always optimal to have a session with a crowded table, but most players also recognize that sometimes things just shake out that way. They may have some constructive ideas to help expedite things and make the most of every minute of every session. Nothing beats a session that fires on all cylinders, with just the right balance of story, character, tactics, challenge, skill use, and hilarity for the group at the table, and time management is undeniably a component of achieving that.
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