As part of my review for Call of Cthulhu, 7th edition, I ran a game of it last week after finishing a first reading of the books. As I often do whenever I want to play a new game, I used Meetup to gather players in my area (Alexandria, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C.). Meetup allows an event organizer to set a cap on the number of players you can have for an event. I chose to leave this off; although Call of Cthulhu is popular, it’s no Dungeons & Dragons, so I figured I’d probably get four or five players and be fine.
Less than 24 hours later, I had ten players signed up and ready to go.
Panicking, I turned off the option for new RSVPs. Ten players?! That’s a stretch for any roleplaying game, but for a horror game like Call of Cthulhu, it seemed like a nearly insurmountable hurdle. What the hell was I going to do? I didn’t want to kick out enthusiastic players because of a mistake I made, nor did I want to add confusion and frustration by trying to schedule a separate session. So, I put my head down, got to work on an adventure suitable for ten players (my original plan to run “Amidst the Ancient Trees” from the back of the Keeper’s Rulebook seemed like it wasn’t going to cut it), and prepared for the session.
Somehow, amazingly, it went really well. Everyone had a great time. In my normal “after action review” of the game, where I ask every player to tell me what they liked and didn’t like, the discussion was spirited and full of enthusiasm. I came to realize that not only did I pull off running an RPG for a large group of people, I actually enjoyed it more than a more normal-sized group! How did it go so well? Well, firstly, credit where it’s due: my group of players were awesome! But in addition to that, there were a few techniques I developed that turned out to be very helpful:
1. Split up the party. It’s Tabletop RPG 101 to never let the group splinter apart. But when that group is massive, splitting is not only a viable tactic, it’s virtually necessary to keep things manageable. Right from the very start, I decided I wanted to cut the group into three smaller parties. I felt three was a good number; small enough to manage and quick enough to cut back and forth to each group without anyone getting too stir-crazy. How did I do that? That’s tip number two…
2. Let the group set the agenda. For my adventure, the investigators had to travel to Innsmouth. Before character creation even began, I gave every player a piece of paper with six different reasons they could be traveling there. I had them each make their own decision without any input from the rest of the group. Then, I took the papers, grouped everyone who had chosen the same option, and instructed the players that during character creation they were to come up with reasons why they were together on the same mission. I had two groups of four and a group of two. So instead of one big adventure, I had three smaller, inter-connected adventures. I think this was key to having a fun game with a big group.
3. Design the adventure as a sandbox. This may seem counter-intuitive: for a larger group, wouldn’t you want a more tightly-constructed adventure so you could herd them all down the same path and manage them easier? The problem with that plan, though, is you’re ignoring your biggest asset: the massive amount of players you have! To have a successful session, you want to turn that disadvantage into an advantage. Use the chaos and craziness of a large group to your favor. Use it to help fuel the adventure. For my little excursion into Innsmouth, I had separate plotlines outlined and ready to go for all six different missions. As the adventure unfolded, I took any ideas the players threw out there and weaved them back into the story…if not that group’s story, then for use in another group’s story.
4. Get a little meta. I found that a necessary evil to keep things from completely descending into chaos was to show my hand to the players just a little bit. After they all chose their missions and finished making their investigators, I set the first scene, then said “Alright, where does each group want to go? You can’t travel alone because that would be too difficult on me, so wherever you go, take a buddy!” I don’t normally like to be that transparent with my technique, but I couldn’t juggle ten players and a “living” world at the same time.
5. Go for the obvious. In a group so large, trying to dazzle and confound them with my storytelling skills would have been a fruitless endeavor. I instead went with a simple story…specifically, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” One of my favorite Lovecraft stories, I ruthlessly cribbed the entire plotline of that short story and made it the main plot of my adventure. All six paths eventually converged to a night-time invasion of Innsmouth by Deep Ones, and the adventure was set to turn from mystery solving to survival horror at a set time. The group themselves provided all the curveballs necessary to transcend the story into something unique and memorable.
Though I embraced Call of Cthulhu to help make this happen, I think these five simple tips can apply to any role-playing session with a group of 7 or more players. Got any other tips? Stories to share about mass GMing? Let me know in the comments below!