I talked about this in the last blog post about the Yard Moose Mountain Mega Shooting Weekend, where I had shooters from all over the country coming to my place for three days of pistol training, about how one night I ran a one off RPG session for 17 of them, and by some miracle it actually turned out good. When this got posted about on Facebook right after, a whole bunch of gamers asked how the hell do you run a game that big and not have it suck, so here’s how we pulled it off.
Apparently, in certain nerdy circles I have a reputation for being a really good GM. So as I was coordinating with pro firearms instructors who were coming to teach at my range, they asked if we could have game night for the nerds in the class. I was like, shit yeah! They reasonably asked, you want to cap it at a manageable number? I said, hell no! Invite them all!
Except counting everybody over the multiple classes, that was potentially as many as 25 people. Which if you’ve played RPGs before, you know is absolutely insane, and the game will probably lumber to a chaotic doom. I’d run big con games before, but nothing anywhere near that. In the words of the great Jeremy Clarkson, this would be ambitious but rubbish.
When I asked the shooters who were coming who was interested in gaming, the answer was most of them. Because the Venn diagram of gun gamers and role playing gamers overlaps a lot more than you’d think, and then some of the non RPGers wanted to try.
So I contacted Alan Bahr, professional game designer extraordinaire, and asked for advice on how to run big games. He asked how big. I said, possibly up to 25, with experience levels ranging from hard core to total newb, oh, and they’re also probably going to be dehydrated, exhausted, and brain damaged from three days of training under the hot sun. He said that was insane, but then offered a ton of good advice anyway. Thanks, Alan!
Much of the following is going to sound like gibberish to non RPGers, but trust me, it makes sense to the nerds.
First I needed to pick a system. I went with Savage Worlds. Why? Once you’ve GMed it enough SW is super easy to run fast. When you know what you’re doing with the card initiative and the benny economy, combats can be quick, cinematic, and flow well. Plus, the rules can be streamlined or crunchy depending on how you want to play. In this case, I wanted super streamlined.
Next, setting. If I went for some fantasy setting that would require some world building framing time I simply didn’t have. I needed to keep it something accessible to almost everyone, so that just by saying a few words, they’ve got the picture. And I’d just watched The Mummy (the Brendan Fraiser one, i.e. the good one) so pulp adventure it was. So all I had to say on game night was Cairo, 1936, think The Mummy and Indiana Jones, and boom, everybody there was on the same page for setting and flavor.
Then I made up 25 pre generated character sheets, all built on the exact same number of XP. I didn’t name them or say anything about their background, I just put in an archetype, like Adventurer, Daredevil, Mercenary, Archeologist, Librarian, Holy Man, etc. I gave each one a single advantage (just one to keep it simple to remember, and writing on the sheet what it did) and distributed skills and attributes according to that archetype.
My plan was to let everybody pick a sheet that had an archetype that appealed to them, then I’d read off the disadvantages so they could pick a single one, so their character could have a flaw to play up. Playing to that flaw earned them more bennies.
Then I had to figure out how to keep from bogging down combat. You can’t deal half a deck of cards in one round and not expect combat to drag all night. So instead I decided to break them into teams. I was prepared for three or four.
Each team would be assigned a Nerd Captain. That would be a person who actually understood the rules of SW, so they could answer questions and tell people what dice to roll while I kept the story flowing. The basic idea was that each team would basically be a regular sized group of PCs. They were allied no matter what, in it to win it together, and the other rival teams could end up as allies or enemies (and we ended up seeing both happen)
By breaking them into teams, then I could do group initiative. Each team got one initiative card. Then I’d set the scene for them, and every member of the team would say what they wanted to do, and then they’d all roll simultaneously. Then I’d go down the line and resolve each action. So it was basically 4 or 5 times faster than it would have been on their own.
Actual plot, basically the Mummy, but mixed with Achtung Cthulhu. Pretty straight forward pulp adventure, get the treasure, fight the monsters, blow up the nazis, don’t let Nylanthrotep sacrifice one of the PCs while reading from the Necronomicon to bring about the apocalypse. Not a lot of room for nuance for this many players this fast.
So game night rolls around, I end up with 17 players and some observers in my living room. Everybody is fried but super enthusiastic. And the only reason any of this worked, the single most important thing, I had great players. It was a bunch of good folks looking to have fun. No cry babies, no rules lawyers. (and this was possibly the most dangerous and well armed RPG night in history)
I explained all of the basic rules in about 10 minutes. I divided them into three teams based upon where they were sitting, explained all this stuff, then the appointed Nerd Captains helped get everybody a character sheet (so they could have a sort of balanced team… mostly). We took a few minutes to pick disadvantages, then they all made up names, personalities, and then they decided what their team represented (the British Museum, the Mallory Institute of Topeka, and the Working For a Mysterious Secret Benefactor Who Is Totally Not Andrew Carnegie)
Very specifically, I didn’t put weapons or equipment on the sheet. Why not? I had a group of hard core gun people. So all I had to do was say if you want it and can reasonably carry it on your body, write it on your sheet, and then you have it. So of course, some people who don’t care just write down “rifle” while the guy who sometimes appears on Forgotten Weapons gives himself an FN BAR Model D in 7mm. And in Savage Worlds, damage is so simple, I just say write down the following, rifle bullets do 2D8, pistol bullets do 2D6. Boom. Done. (and this big and fast, I hand wave range and templates)
Once everybody had picked a name, I went around and gathered those and wrote them down next to their archetype (and since I’d made all those, I knew approximately what their skills were off the top of my head). Armed with a great deal of bad accents, we then played from about 8 PM to about 1:30 AM. It was nuts.
If you are GMing a giant group, you’ve got to be super mentally flexible and adjust on the fly. People are going to do wacky unexpected things. Roll with it. Find a way to make it work, unless it’s going to totally derail everything and leave you floundering for the rest of the night, then find a way to let them do something awesome that almost derails you, but you pull it out at the last second. Oh, you were about to blow up the other team with that hand grenade, but the tunnel wall between you collapses!
Give out bennies like crazy, and encourage the spending of them. If somebody says something hilarious, they get a benny. If somebody has a moment of awesome, benny. And if they want to do something that is absolutely batshit dangerous (like say, roping and riding a Nile crocodile), say sure, but you’ve got to give me a benny to even try that. So that encourages them to do fun RP in order to earn more. If they remember their disadvantage and use it to screw themselves up, bennies.
Try to give everybody a chance to do something awesome. With this many people that’s damned near impossible, but toss out different tasks that only one of them is good at. Give everybody a moment to RP something appropriate for the character they came up with.
In a group like this some personalities are going to be more dynamic than others. Some people are quiet. That’s fine. Everybody is different. Just make sure you don’t forget the quiet ones. Make sure they get to do cool stuff too.
The hard part is when the rival groups butt heads, and it starts to go towards inter-party violence. Now this is fine, even up to them killing each other if its the end of the session. But early in, find a way to derail that path. If one of the level headed players is trying to talk people down in real life, let that person’s character do a persuade or intimidate roll to break it up. Everybody gets some drama and the talky character gets to shine.
One thing that worked well was at the beginning I told everybody that A. because this is a one off game I plan to kill at least 75% of you before the night is over, so there was that expectation going in. And B. If you need to leave early, tell me a few minutes in advance so that I can kill your character in a dramatic manner. And with people being dehydrated/exhausted I had two drop early, which meant that the Adventurer literally named Brendan Fraiser got dramatically torn apart by Nile Crocodiles. And then the Librarian, Conan Doyle, got his head blown off by a cannon shell when Stuka dive bombers shot down their dirigible. That’s way cooler than the players just leaving.
Shockingly enough we made it through several combats, gambling, assassination attempts by the Order of the Jackal, a flaming river boat crash, a cowboy riding a crocodile, “accidental” camel murder, snake throwing, betrayal, ludicrous traps, a swarm of carnivorous tomb beetles, mummies, the evil Black Sun Society (who by some strange coincidence all had the same names as German gun companies), attempted human sacrifice, and the Avatar of Nylanthrotep took a hand grenade to the taint.
The game ended when Professor Rachel Weiss (literally her name) read from the Necronomicon wrong, the army of mummies went into a murderous rage, and everybody set off all their dynamite, burying them all in a cave in, and once again hiding the Lost City of Hamunaptra beneath the sand. This near TPK (94%!) worked out super good, because literally the only survivor of the entire night was the Holy Man, who had earlier declared he was from the Magi. So it was JUST LIKE THE MOVIE only this time Oded Fehr won.
Also, after a day of fumbling draws and reloads I was shocked to discover that I can rapidly snatch literally dozens of poker chips out of the air, almost flawlessly, while they’re being tossed across the room to me while I’m distracted GMing and not really paying attention to catching, but the second anyone calls attention to this I lose my ability to catch. Until I’m not paying attention again, and then I can catch two bennies at a time without looking. Holy shit, if only I could have shot like that all day! 😀
So anyways, that’s how you GM a stupidly huge game. Good luck and remember to have fun.