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How to Run D&D for Large Groups

How to run D&D for large groups featured image is from Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage. This article contains affiliate links to put gold in our coffers.

Running a game of Dungeons & Dragons for a big group of players is understandably hard. It’s common knowledge that the best party size for D&D tends to be four to six players—and for good reason: The bigger a group gets, the higher the risk of boring your players with long, grindy sessions. 

With four or five players, a good DM can make a combat or roleplay encounter go by pretty quickly. When you’re running a game of D&D for seven, eight, or even nine players, the difficulty of doing so increases exponentially. Running D&D for a group of ten or more players is especially challenging. No matter which way you slice it, there’s just more people doing more things, which naturally takes more time and effort.

But this is a problem somewhat unique to Dungeons & Dragons. Some board games, for example, can have eight or more people playing simultaneously. Those games might be slow—but they’re not boring. Just because you’re running for a group of eight players instead of four doesn’t mean that your D&D party is too big. It just might mean that your approach is too small instead.

When you’re DMing for a large group, then, the trick is to welcome slowness—even while you’re attacking boredom head-on. That means allowing your players to do as many things as possible in parallel, by making sure that everyone always has something they can do. That means:

I. Encourage Teamwork

Dungeons & Dragons combat is famous for being a collaborative game that is nonetheless played individually. While some parties—especially experienced ones—may break this mold, most players’ combat decision-making doesn’t go far beyond, “What’s the coolest-looking spell on my character sheet, and the nearest clump of monsters I can throw it at?”

In smaller groups, this works fine: a good DM can keep player turns limited to a minute or less, which means that most players won’t have to wait longer than six-to-ten minutes for their own turn to come back up. In larger groups, though, even a good DM will struggle to keep rounds shorter than ten-to-twenty minutes—with particularly complex combats going even longer. That’s a long time to be sitting idle!

The solution, then, is team-based initiative. Here’s how it works.

First, at the beginning of the session, we place players into teams of two (or three, if you’ve got an odd number of players). If you’re playing in-person, you can base this off of who’s sitting next to who. 

Instead of rolling two sets of initiative, a team of players rolls initiative together. Instead of applying two sets of Dexterity modifiers, each team applies the average of their two modifiers (plus any additional benefits—such as the Alert feat—that either player brings to the pair.) Then, in combat, that team acts simultaneously, moving around, making attacks, and/or casting spells at the same time.

Teams are allowed to (quietly) coordinate and strategize in preparation for their turn—and in fact even encouraged to! They’re also encouraged to ask for input from other teams if they’re unsure of what to do.

As a result, you’ve effectively:

  • Cut the number of player turns in half,
  • Normalized teamwork and collaboration, and
  • Given players something to do (strategizing with their teammate) when it’s not their turn.

II. Create “Off-Time” Work

Players like having something to do. It’s inevitable, however, that at least some scenes—such as puzzles, combat encounters, or conversations with NPCs—will leave at least some players sitting idle.

The solution: Make sure that every player always has something to do, even when they’re not the focus of the scene. We can do this by allowing players to choose player jobs.

In descending order of importance, these jobs might be:

  • Quartermaster. Keep track of and distribute any treasure, gold, magic items, and other loot the party obtains.
  • Tactician. Track initiative, record the amount of damage that each monster has taken, and highlight priority targets in battle.
  • Scribe. Record in-game events, as well as upcoming events that the party expects to occur and quests that the party plans to pursue.
  • Archivist. Record in-game information and lore that the party might need to call upon later.
  • Cartographer. Record important places that the party has previously been to, as well as places that the party plans to visit in the future.
  • Coordinator. Coordinate important decisions and help to settle inter-party disputes.
  • Patron. Request that the Dungeon Master award Inspiration whenever another player does something particularly heroic, entertaining, creative, or in-character.
  • Socialite. Record information about non-player characters that the party has previously encountered and those that they might encounter in the future.
  • Parliamentarian. Make sure that everyone at the table has a chance to contribute, and spotlight players who haven’t gotten a chance to shine.

By introducing these jobs, you accomplish more than just giving bored players something to do. Suddenly, players feel comfortable interjecting during scenes or turns that don’t involve them (e.g., because they have a pertinent piece of helpful information, or want to clarify some details). This opens the floodgates to party-wide coordination, which has the added benefit of encouraging all players to contribute to the conversation—rather than just the loudest voices. (If you want to keep a quiet player involved, invite them to be the Tactician or Archivist—their skills will be in high demand!)

Plus, because players suddenly have a reason to listen to other players’ scenes, they learn to take an active interest in other characters. D&D is a team game after all—and there’s no better way to teach that than to help the players observe that directly.

III. Minimize Idle Time

Ideally, when running for a large party, you want to avoid splitting the party whenever possible. Unfortunately, in a game like D&D, that’s not always feasible. It’s not uncommon that you might wind up with two separate scenes running in parallel: four players exploring location X, while five other players investigate location Y.

In this situation, it’s critical to remember that inactive characters do not necessarily mean idle players. A player whose character is (for the moment) off-screen might still be hard at work planning and forecasting possible courses of action. That’s why you want to prioritize scene-switching as much as possible: cutting away from the action as soon as one scene reaches a cliffhanger.

Imagine that a party has separated into two groups of characters. Group A is investigating a treasure chest, while Group B is exploring a dark cavern. If Group A rolls to check for traps, the DM should immediately switch over to Group B—before they even hear what Group A has rolled. Then, while Group B’s scene continues, Group A’s minds will be spinning with the possibilities—what will happen if they succeed? if they fail? if there’s a magical trap? if there’s a monster inside?

Suspense is the enemy of an idle mind, and the more we nurture that tension and allow it to breathe, the more engaged Group A will remain while Group B’s scene unfolds. You want to set up the dramatic question—and then refuse to answer it, at least for a time.

Of course, tension held over a long period of time inevitably becomes grating and monotonous. A savvy DM switches scenes as frequently as reasonably possible—perhaps once every two-to-five minutes—and seeks to encourage strong cliffhangers each time.

IV. Keep Inactive Players Entertained

What do you call a D&D session where one person DMs, a few people play, and everyone else sits back and watches—without complaining?

A movie.

Outside of D&D, we passively consume media all the time. You don’t need to be holding a sword and shield to feel genuinely engaged with the siege of King’s Landing, the attack on the Death Star, or the Council of Elrond.

Why? Because, as consumers, we’re engaged by what we see on the screen. We’re mentally stimulated by it. We’re, in a word, entertained.

Dungeons & Dragons, admittedly, lacks a lot of the things that make movies and television entertaining. We don’t have cool special effects or stunning cinematography. We can have good background music, but nothing as tailored as Duel of the Fates. The other player characters themselves aren’t nearly as interesting or well-developed as Tyrion, Hans Solo, or even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

What D&D does have, though, in spades, are NPCs.

The most memorable campaigns tend to be those with a strong philosophy of character-first design—i.e., those that care about creating a memorable cast of non-player characters first and a memorable “story” or engaging “gameplay” second. To be memorable, an NPC doesn’t have to be likable—just look at Darth Vader—but they do have to be interesting. Stimulating. Entertaining, even.

Don’t be afraid to get fully into character. Change your posture. Gesticulate wildly. Change the pitch and volume of your voice. But beyond that—and far more importantly—make each character fun to observe.

Let your players fall in love with the kindhearted simpleton. Let them get frustrated with the absent-minded professor. Let them love to hate the French jerk. Make your NCPs likable, hateable, or anything in-between.

Just don’t let them be boring.

V. Understand the Action Economy

The official 5th Edition’s combat encounter-building system obscures a fundamental fact: D&D combat balance is really, really weird.

I won’t go into depth on it here (though you can read more about the math behind it on my Substack). Suffice it to say that a party of eight players is far more than just twice as powerful as a party of four. D&D’s encounter-building system, sadly, just isn’t able to account for this. As a result, large parties are well-known for punching through high-level encounters as if they were tissue paper.

Instead of using the official encounter-building system, then, I recommend using my (free) reworked system, Challenge Ratings 2.0. It’s calibrated to be as accurate as reasonably possible, and to actually account for the fact that doubling the size of your party more than doubles their combat strength.

It’s worth noting, however, that there are three basic ways to build an encounter: a solo boss, a small squad, or a large horde. Two of these three approaches become far more complicated when you’re running combat for a large group.

First—solo boss monsters become even more difficult to balance. Even against a party of ordinary size, it’s extremely difficult (if not impossible) to find a balance between “sufficient hit points to survive past the first round” and “insufficient damage to KO a character every single round.” Those challenges become far more complicated for large groups. If you must run a solo boss monster, try quadrupling its hit points and dividing its damage by four. (If you can, give it lots of multiattacks, or even a large area-of-effect ability, just to make sure that all players feel threatened.)

Second—large hordes remain fairly easy to balance, but incredibly time-consuming to play. Between making attack and damage rolls, tracking hit points, and even strategizing or prioritizing, dicing up a combat round into fifteen or twenty little pieces can slow things down to a crawl. To speed things up, consider consolidating individual monsters into larger “swarms” (I prefer eight monsters for each swarm), with each swarm having three-fourths the total hit points and damage output that the individual monsters have alone. Alternatively, you could just use the Dungeon Master’s Guide rules for mobs of creatures (see p. 250), and even take the averages for damage dice instead of rolling.

The only type of combat encounter that comes out relatively unscathed is the combat with a small squad of monsters—three to five at most. In general, these should be your bread and butter: challenging enough to be dangerous, weak enough to be fun, and few enough to be quick.

VI. In Conclusion

Of course, these are not the only tips that can help you run for a large group. You’ll want to keep combat a fast and cinematic experience. You’ll want to apply the usual tips—like keeping the initiative visible or asking players to roll their damage dice with their attack rolls. You’ll want to spotlight quiet players, paying a close eye to the social dynamics around the table and inviting wallflowers to speak up over the exuberant loudmouths.

D&D is not an impossible game to play with large groups of people. In fact, it can be surprisingly rewarding! Humans are naturally social animals—putting eight to ten people together in a room can make for an electrified and exciting (if not slightly chaotic) atmosphere. Creating your own Avengers-style ensemble cast can produce an unforgettable experience.

And after all, isn’t that what we’re all here for?

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