4 People or Less, Please

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Story Now play is much more difficult with 5 or more people at the table. Often, the game plain doesn't work at all.



Blogger Brand Robins says:  

Any specific games we're looking at here?

Because I don't find this to be true of IAWA, but I do find it true of Dogs. OTOH, I haven't yet played Spione, so I can't say.

In general I'd rather speak to specific games than "Story Now" in general, because at that point the cluster of techniques and agendas being discussed becomes vague enough that it becomes more a matter of imposing meaning than examining actual interactions.

Blogger Sage says:  

Says the guy with a Story Now game that has 5 pregenerated characters. (6, if you count the sky pirate.)

Blogger John Harper says:  

See how bold statements foster discussion? People just can't wait to point out how wrong you are. Works every time.

And yes, I mean all Story Now games. Especially IAWA, Brand.

Everyone who disagrees is stupid, including the person who wrote Lady Blackbird.

Let me say the same thing a different way: every single Story Now (facilitating) game is better with 4 people or less.

(omg does he really believe that?)

Blogger Andrew Smith says:  

In the past couple of years I've mostly run one-shot games, and most of those were SOTC and DRYH. My experience, especially with DRYH, is that it was more satisfying with fewer players. I found that an ideal number was three. It enabled character interaction and plenty of spotlight time for each character. I also found that when I ran it with six, I wasn't able to facilitate satisfying stories for even half of the players.

This is unlikely to be the case for a game lasting several sessions. With more time, more players could be accommodated. I suggest that the difference would not be qualitative (it works or it doesn't) but that the tradeoff is a necessary willingness on the part of the players to facilitate the spotlight for other characters.

Blogger Matthew says:  

I'd agree generally. My main "Story Now" group has been kept at 3+ GM for a long time now even though there are several people I've met locally that I would love to play more often with and it would be easier to make that happen were they to join my main Sunday group.

Lots of Story Now-types are very proactive. Proactive players often require increased "screen time."

The inverse statement is an interesting test. "'X' Story Now game is pretty good with four players, but it really sings with five."

For me, there may not be an "X."

Blogger George Austin says:  

I think you're on to something here. Shock definitely needs a smaller group, full stop. Microscope can handle more people, but scenes can get crowded and it takes a while to get around the table.

In a Wicked Age isn't too bad with 5 or 6 (I forget how many we had), but more people means it's more likely there'll be conflicts with three or more sides, and the text isn't as helpful as one would like.

I've definitely felt out of the loop in a larger Dogs game before.

My quibble is that without some forethought put into organization and/or a great deal of system mastery, your statement probably holds true for most role-playing and story games.

Blogger John Harper says:  

Matthew: I like your X question.

For me, the X would be Poison'd. I think it's better with 5 (4 players + GM). But it's the only one I can think of.

(See? I don't really believe it after all.)

George: i can think of several Step On Up and Right To Dream facilitating games that work really well with larger groups. Paranoia, D&D (a 4 or 5 PC party is great), Agon, Savage Worlds (WWII especially), Great OrK Gods.

But for Story Now play, only one larger-group game comes to mind for me (Poison'd). 3+GM seems perfect for the rest.

Blogger Matt Wilson says:  

I think I prefer a group of no more than 4 people for many, many things besides gaming. Like even just hanging out. Or if I started a band, it would have 4 people in it.

That's probably particular to my personal difficulty with attention span and multi-tasking. Things feel too slow for me, story-now or otherwise.

This could be a coincidence, but I also have trouble if I drink more than 4 pints of Guinness.

Blogger Jonathan Walton says:  

Mouse Guard is hands down better with 5 players. Here's why.

If you have 4 players, then for complex challenges, the group will just split 2 and 2, often the same 2 and 2 pairs that they have split into before, to compensate for certain strengths and weaknesses.

On the other hand, with 5... now the group has to decide which group has 3 and which group has 2. Uh oh, hard choices!

I think the tendency that you're noticing, though, partially has to do with turn-taking and the pacing of play. Am I right? Things begin to slow down or become more complex to pace if you start moving into higher numbers of players, yeah?

Blogger John Harper says:  

I can't agree with you there, Jonathan. MG is better with 4 players. The party split thing is a very minor technical issue. And GM + 3 would still be my preference for that game, too.*

Pacing and turn-taking are part of it, yeah. Also spotlight time, intimacy, and "non-party" play styles.

*that said, Broken Rainbow is still fun. :)

Blogger Jonathan Walton says:  

Well, clearly you're just wrong, then :)

Anonymous Anonymous says:  

Hey John,

Do you think that has more to do with:

a) GM based games where the GM is trying to produce good conflicts for X number of PCs


b) Good fiction tends to fall back to a small handful of protagonists, and larger groups mean some people have to take the spotlight and others have to support?


something else?

Blogger John Harper says:  

Hey Chris,

For me, Story Now play gets watered down and unfocussed as the number of people at the table goes up. I'm not sure why, really.

I've just noticed that I enjoy smaller groups more, so that's what I'm looking for.

Blogger Josh Roby says:  

It's a combinations threshold.

With four players, you have 14 combinations of players (A, B, C, D, AB, AC, AD, BC, BD, ABC, ABD, ACD, BCD, ABCD). That's the upper limit on the number of relationships between players. And 14 is manageable.

With five players, it balloons to 31 combinations of players (A, B, C, D E, AB, AC, AD, AE, BC, BD, BE, CD, CE, DE, ABC, ABD, ABE, ACD, ACE, ADE, BCD, BCE, BDE, CDE, ABCD, ACDE, ABDE, ABCE, BCDE, ABCDE). That's more than twice as many interplayer dynamics to keep track of, and for a lot of folks, that's too many to track with enough attention to actually care. Stories collapse.

Watch a television show and pay attention to which relationships get screen time in any given episode; you'll find that there's only ever two or three that are in the 'spotlight'. Any more, and the audience wouldn't be able to follow easily.

Theoretically speaking, a game that tells us that some relationships are irrelevant to our interest (Data and Worf — uninteresting; ignore) might solve that problem.

Blogger Jamie says:  

Let's see.

The *great* games I was in in the past few months:
Chalk Outlines 1+4
In A Wicked Age 1+3
Lady Blackbird 1+5
Geiger Counter 5

And the anywhere-from-good-to-sucky games:
Pathfinder 1+6
Something I ran that doesn't have a name 1+3
Mouse Guard 1+a lot, I forget
Universalis 4
Universalis 3
Fiasco 4

The data seems to point to 5 to 6 as the hotness. That one game of IAWA is an outlier.

I think the Law of Social Proof as at work, at least with me & my players. If only 2 or 3 people show up, well, that must not be a very good game, nobody wants to play. If it's a full house and we're all into it, this must be a great game. Then at 7+ the "when's it going to be my turn" starts to screw you. This law hits me in my hindbrain. I cannot resist.

Blogger Jomi says:  

# Factors to consider #

Personality: extroverts/introverts. A larger group favors that extroverts dominate the conversation. They will enjoy more the larger number of social interactions (and more audience). Introverts will express themselves more in smaller groups (1-3). Four seems to be a sweet spot. Three is nice as well (but staunch extroverts might long for more).

Tone: Generally, horror works better with less players. Also, with less players, it is more likely that stories become more personal.

Delivering charge on the GM: if the GM is going to talk a lot, the game becomes more intense for the players with less people.

Rules-heavy vs rules-light: Heavy on the rules means slower turns. With a large number of players, boredom might become unbearable.

# Conclusions (YMMV)#

Three-four players works nicely and can be considered a safe range. Three is perfect for making everyone involved. Four allows for dividing into two teams and is a middleground of sorts for introverts and extroverts. Two can be very intense for horror games, but might be boring for some people. With five or more, extroverts will probably have a good time, but for the rest, it might work or it might not. Six is already a crowded house, and it will be difficult that everyone has a chance to shine.

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