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#AsktheGM: Running INSANELY Large Tables

In partnership with our local community, #AsktheGM answers questions about tabletop gaming and GMing. Have a question? Let us know! Details at the bottom of the post.

I was tagged by the lovely Pam on a post looking for GMs to participate in Play Without Apology’s new #AsktheGM segment.

Naturally, the educator in me desires to spread my experience out to others looking to study and master the Craft. And the first question fielded is, frankly, something I have come to master with such conceit.

It’s one of few things I take great pride in noting down: running large tables.

I don’t mean your larger-than-average tables of 6-8 (though I’ve mellowed down to that level now). But your even-larger-than-average tables of 10-12; with a record peak that hit at 20 in a single session. I apparently have had some renown (or notoriety? HAHA) in the community for being that GM who cannot refuse players wanting to join a campaign. So it was next to obvious that my tables would end up ballooning to such epic levels of capacity.

So the question stands:

How do I do it?

I’ll attempt to lay down my thoughts in as organized a manner as possible.


The Vision

running large tabletop games
Official logo for The Titanfall Initative.

I had the honor of running a mega-campaign called The Titanfall Initiative. Originally envisioned as something that could be an Adventurers League-take on other gaming systems, I wanted to run a campaign with the following noteworthy elements:

  • Player count is thrown out the window. Anyone and everyone is invited; the campaign would also never close slots for anyone interested to join.
  • Sessions will all be compressed as one-shot events. Every session is essentially a one-shot. This is to accommodate the huge player base; and in turn prevents the classic concerns of RPG tables where scheduling is a nightmare and certain players are unavailable at certain times of the month. Here, a schedule is set and whoever can make it is free to hop in and join.
  • There is an overarching epic storyline that encompasses every one-shot event. Players are not required to be central to the plot – in a way this deviates from the classic take on RPGs where the players are the movers of the world and they are the center of the game. In effect, the power is taken away from the players and the world moves regardless of their presence. It promotes a much more natural world. And players can conveniently drop in and out of sessions and just reconnect when they return at a later time.
  • The grand vision is to bring the entire player base (and new ones!) together in a massive, multi-table, collaborative session. This session spans a single epic plot that the large group has to overcome as a massive unit. This was successfully achieved during the Hold the Line minicon held in partnership with Gamers and GMs Philippines.


The Execution

Given these elements and goals in mind, I set off towards constructing a game that would cater to these specific – and ambitious – requirements. It so happened to coincide with my desire to run a Scion campaign once again; after I received news that it would soon have a new edition to overhaul system and setting.

The question of player count and plotting came next. How does one design a campaign that can cater to a flexible, rotating cast of potentially-infinite number of players?

The answer came to me in a brilliant stroke of inspiration: turn them to a secret service organization.

This was a time when I was still also drunk on The Strange. And the concept of the secret organization with extraordinary individuals serving it appealed to me strongly. I decided to go with a Scion campaign where players take on the role of covert agents working for a secret organization much like the CIA. And where their divine parents serve as the overseers and mission facilitators. Thus the common selling pitch of The Titanfall Initiative was born: Percy Jackson meets Kingsman: The Secret Service.

The set-up allowed me to achieve the first two goals highlighted above: I could accommodate an infinitely-expanding cast of characters. Since everyone in essence, works in a secret organization where there are tens to hundreds of agents in service. At the same time, every session was condensed into a “mission” issued by The Initiative and assigned to the agents, made up of the players in attendance.

My third goal was answered as well, in that the continuous progression of a major story arc was achieved with each and every mission/session that took place. In the 18 months that the game ran, we touched on four major arcs – with characters developing their individual stories that connected with these major arcs; much like the offshoot branches of a growing tree.

It was quite the experience to witness. Seeing solid character developments and intense plots evolving out of a main story.


The Sustenance

With sessions and polls for player attendance announced on a regular basis, the campaign hit it off with a grand start.

We quickly obtained a pool of almost 15-20 players. All of whom were quite active in the first few months. A team of regulars quickly developed, with the core group occasionally joined by others who had incidental free weekends to spare. I found myself quite trained to hold at least 8 players minimum in a weekend game. And as high as 12-14 on an intense, story-packed one.

By The Titanfall Initiative’s dissolution 18 months later, we can proudly say we’ve had almost 60 sessions – and those are just the face-to-face interactions held on weekends or holidays!

In the absence of F2F games, we utilized Discord as our strongest online arm. It proved to be an invaluable roleplay avenue for developing stories that affected the world and the main story arc as a whole.

I say with much conceit that it is from our campaign where the term Lazy RP was heavily popularized. With the initial vision of exploring the stuff that happens in-between missions and sessions. Basically: What are the players up to on their spare time?

It’s a curious scenario that takes things out of the action of physical sessions and humanizes player characters. By letting them explore what they do outside of their supernatural, extraordinary lives, I gave players the freedom to better shape their characters and allow them to invest more on their interactions with others.

We segmented Discord into several main sections:

  • Lazy RP allowed for downtime scenes centered on a specific common area. Here, the players would gather and interact with everyone else in the campaign. In the context of TTI – this chat served as their safe house as Initiative agents.
  • Private RP is similar to Lazy RP scenes. But these were more vignette-based and centered around specific groups of characters exploring more intimate storylines. Or, scenes that players felt should not hog the entirety of the Lazy RP rooms. Think of these as interludes happening in the same space, but are nevertheless separate from everyone else. I found that this helped rein in #FOMO players who wanted to reply to almost every single thing that happened in the game. Realistically: Come on, guys. We can’t be that nosy and expect to not miss out on every single bit of detail happening in the world!
  • Character RP centered around a single character. This was my avenue to develop a character’s personal plotline. It allowed me to provide characters airtime in which they could excel. This ultimately allowed them to create arcs that could be brought into the main campaign; with or without others. This evolved to a point where I would issue out personal missions – oneshot sessions centered heavily on the player. These allowed for 1-2 trusted in-game companions to develop his personal arc. And finally;
  • Session RP was for times where the table at large could not meet face-to-face. We utilized Discord to host online sessions to great success and effect. Through the chat’s channels, we managed to hold “compartmentalized” sessions with scenes divided between players. This allowed filters for what transpired; thereby facilitating a more genuine roleplay experience (I’ll go more into this in later sections).

To the outside observer, it may seem like a bland experience: this set-up of one-shot sessions with seemingly few avenues for player investment.

But trust me when I say that the majority of the players in the campaign were significantly hooked on each plot arc sent their way. The truly dedicated even shaped the main narrative in ways that I could not have possibly prepared for – and everyone knows I’m already the most unprepared and volatile GM they’ll ever meet!


The Large Table Conundrum

I’ve droned on and raved about this long enough, yet I still haven’t touched what I was supposed to be answering!

As the campaign became a matter of always holding for a minimum of 8 players, it became no easy feat to have at least 8 people constantly injecting their narrative into the story. Especially in a setting where they are legendary demigods who, with the right powers, are capable of altering the laws of nature itself! The 18 months that The Titanfall Initiative ran have admittedly been a tremendous learning experience on how to handle huge tables like these.


It’s a matter of Trust

My philosophy as a GM is pretty simple: Trust your players not to fuck you over, and your players should trust you not to fuck them over.

Quid pro quo. Golden Rule. I trust that my players will not leverage the system against me to achieve things that border on broken; therefore ruining the fun for everyone else. In turn they trust me not to do the same thing and make playthings of them in a session; by committing the atrocities that can happen in an RPG session. I.e. Railroading, non-consensual actions, robbing players of agency, etc.

The same can be said in a large table setting.

Trust the players to be responsible handlers of their characters and participate in a session with professionalism. If players are sufficiently hooked into a story, they will not mind the large attendance. They’ll even use that to create an even better experience for everyone.

Large tables become quite notorious for devolving into battles of attrition on all the arenas of contest – physical, mental, social, combat.

Given a problem, it can easily be solved by throwing enough player effort that it just gets bowled over or stampeded on. To that effect, it sometimes degrades further into a GM vs Player dynamic; as the GM is forced to escalate a situation to scale according to the overwhelming force behind the sheer numbers on the players’ side.

Trust plays its hand here once again. At the end of the day, a great story is there to be told. It is not the takedown of a Big Bad Guy, to rub in the GMs face that players have “beat the encounter”.

The GM should trust his players not to be these kinds of contesting hooligans. That they will not treat every encounter as a numbers game; one that can easily overwhelm the GM. In turn the players trust the GM not to hack the encounter to make things too deadly; just because “it fits the player count”.


Learn the Art of Spotlight-Sharing

When you have a large number of players, this means there’s an equally large cast of characters. And with everyone wanting to inject themselves into the story, it becomes less of a surprise that a large-table session can become an ensemble-cast film directed horribly wrong.

My early pitfalls as a GM of these huge games is balancing player airtime and allowing everyone present to have an equal share in the spotlight cake. Admittedly not an easy thing to do, even now at my most experienced state.

When players are really into a session, it often becomes a contest of who gets the most time in the limelight. Sometimes, this happens at the expense of the other players in the table.

running large tabletop games
A photo from the planning session for The Titanfall Initative’s mega-game!

As GM, it becomes important for you to know how to balance out everyone’s airtime and properly cut down on those who are already impinging a lot out of everyone’s patience and attention – whether it is being done intentionally or accidentally. Everyone at the table deserves to have a time to shine. It boils down to the GM Duty to see that that goal is realized by every player – so that they don’t go home to their realities after every game session thinking, “Why did I even bother joining that session when I didn’t even get to do anything except follow another player’s direction and roll dice when it’s needed?”

Every player has a measure of agency to assert and acquire in every story. As players and GMs, we should learn to be mindful of these things and share the limelight accordingly.

It doesn’t even have to be just the GM’s job: even other players can encourage the group to step up to a given situation and let the other characters shine! It’s all a matter of helping each other have a great time. And it is more so needed in larger tables since the GM is just one man in a sea of rabid #FOMO sharks.

(…I may make a lot of borderline-offensive puns, but trust me when I say that it’s my natural personality to make humor out of these things. Nothing serious or offensive is intended by these offhand remarks, LOL.)


Divide and Conquer

As a sort-of-addendum to above, a great tactic I usually employ on large-table games is the old strategic adage of divide and conquer.

By breaking up a large session into chunks of scenes, the large group is appropriately broken down. You essentially split a large-table session into smaller, bite-sized scenes. And every player has greater chance of asserting his advantages and narrative into the plot without impinging on the others.

Let’s say the session is about an infiltration mission into a facility to acquire some incriminating documents about an organization. Given a team of ten agents, they can just as easily storm the gates and take out any and all opposition that stands in their way. Jusko naman, sampu sila. Malamang kahit anong iharap mo sa kanila mamamatay sigurado! (Good Lord, there’s ten of them. For sure anything you as GM face to them will definitely and decisively die!)

There’s no fun in that!

Instead, break the session up into component scenes that ultimately come together to the single goal:

  • Stage a gala cocktail event where the social characters can mingle. Have them learn information through the channels that they know best.
  • Allow the tech guys to hack into the organization remotely. Have them contend with hazards such as system securities, passwords, firewalls, and the like.
  • Delegate an infiltration team who will sneak in while the gala event is ongoing and conduct stealth investigations.

By dividing things up like the one above, you have effectively divided the large tangle of players into more manageable threads. All scenes allow players to showcase their best advantages. Things they can take pride in sharing to other players as the session progresses.

Admittedly this is something that eats up even more at the GM’s precious prep time and actual sanity logistics. Because it effectively requires the GM to split himself into as many little GMs as possible; to run all these scenes in as concurrent a manner as possible. It’s something I’ll lay down at a later section. But it is a talent that requires a significant amount of practice, patience, and improv reactions.


The Pitfalls

While running large table games are a very fun, engaging, and fulfilling experience, it is not without its cons, disadvantages, and demons. One can say that it is the reason why I have toned down my large-scale handling of games. But I consider them as lessons learned. Ones to abide by better, on future endeavors at taking a crack on large-table games.

Most of these items come directly from experience from my GM’ing stint at The Titanfall Initiative. And I have taken these lessons to heart, thus I’d like to share them to all the GMs who desire to take a crack at their own brand of large-table gaming.


Playing with Strangers: CONSENT, RESPECT, PROTECT!

Our resident host Rachel may have made it a cornerstone of her Tuatha de Dannan’s Scion to be a paragon of consent. But I cannot overstress how important this is in any roleplaying table; regardless of size and scale.

Big groups are exceptionally prone to having a lot of problems involving consent and the treatment other players; whether intentionally or accidentally. Often this leads to the breakup of not just large player groups, but even smaller ones! Instances will come where you will have all sorts of players in a large table; each with their own playstyles, agendas, motivations, and behavior towards approaching a game.

From extreme powergamers aiming to break the system, to trolls aiming to break the GM and/or the group. GMs handling large tables have to be mindful of the kinds of players entering the large table. And how they can affect the rest of the table as a whole.

Being blind to the vision of the Large Table Dream can ultimately affect it. Especially, when you as a GM fail to ignore the tell-tale signs of red flags that erupt. I’m talking about when player personalities clash. Or when some players overstep their bounds with others; especially to those whom they do not know personally or well enough.

running large tabletop games
Official banner for Hold the Line the mini-convention held in partnership with Gamers & GMs Philippines.

As GM, you serve as mediator to the entire table.

So you must learn to step in when someone feels like they are not having fun. Or when they feel unsafe/harassed within a large roleplaying group. A large roleplaying game table is, and must still remain, like all other RPG tables, a safe space.

Conversely, as a player, a little empathy goes a long way. Being in a large table with other possible-strangers can be a jarring experience. Especially if you are in the position of outsider-looking-in.

Every player in a large roleplaying table should make every other player feel welcome and involved in the large affairs of the game. Consider also assisting the GM in making sure that your fellow players leave the game with fond memories. Ones that will make them look forward to a second or third (or further!) session.

This leads me to a broader expanse of this topic. (I’m not discounting that this is a trivial-but-rather-specific one; but also something quite serious that every GM must keep a strict policy on!)


Table Chemistry is a Thing

I am what my players would call as a very accommodating GM; to the point that I can be quite the doormat in terms of allowing my players to be as liberal and free as possible in their game. I am that sort of GM who would not want a player burdened down by a game as much as possible. I elect instead to take in those problems into my own hands and see it through a resolution. It’s a bad habit, I know. One I still try to work through to this very day.

That said, it is a huge lesson to learn that large tables have the very dangerous issue of chemistry.

The reason why most GMs prefer smaller-scale tables is the fact that smaller-scale tables tend to develop better chemistry with the players. Some GMs even go as far as actively selecting players that mesh well with each other. It’s not something to be faulted at, as the GM is also a player.

Everyone goes to a tabletop RPG session to have fun. Not to feel stressed and annoyed over individuals whom they cannot sit well with.

Large tables are very prone to these things. Especially when large tables break up into smaller cliques (players who share chemistry with each other) who end up just sticking to their respective islands of interaction. The large table effectively breaks up (in concept) and you no longer get to see the large-scale interactions.

Sometimes the table just naturally segregates into islands of groups. Because some players dislike how certain groups of players move within the session. Other times, some players just can’t be agreeable enough with others; that they get excluded or refused greater interactions entirely.

These are realities that plague almost every gaming table. But a large-table game makes it more apparent given the sheer scale and number of players.

Sometimes you get players who drop out of sessions at long intervals. They may find it difficult to reconnect because of the growing hurdle of missing a lot of narrative details; while seeing players already entrenched in their respective worlds/groups.

As GM, it can be a real problem to bring the player group together. Because chemistry-issues make it hard for some players to work with others. This often results with a passive-aggressive tug-of-war of attention; as groups vie for greater attention and exposure in a game.

What I learned out of it: As GM, I should be more mindful of the group chemistry. And ensure that everyone is on the same page with everything that is happening in the game. Constant feedback and talking to the players become crucial. As is an even greater deal of trust. Players should trust their GM to voice out their concerns with the player group’s difficulties. And the GM should trust his players to be professional and decent individuals in a roleplaying table; that they won’t actively screw others just because they don’t get along.


Rest and Rein in the #FOMO

Managing a large-table game is by no means an easy feat, having to plot out sessions of increasing complexity that can cater to a huge number of players. It can get taxing. And can/will require a lot of imagination and innovation to always put a large number of players engaged and ever on their toes.

But a great campaign is only as good as the GM that handles it. And a GM so heavily taxed in efforts to drive a large-table campaign eventually burns out and has to recharge. There’s no shame in this.

As GM, you are in control of your campaign and your players will always understand. There is no real need to constantly churn out content and attend to your players. A GM deserves as much rest as his players. There’s no point forcing yourself to run a game for a large group of players if your mind and heart aren’t really just into it – that’s just a downward spiral of a recipe to disaster.

When you find yourself waking up on a weekend of a scheduled session asking yourself the question: Why am I even still running this campaign? Step back and recenter before facing your players again.

On the player side of things, while it’s a great testament to an awesome RPG campaign that you are hooked hard; a balance must be struck between being too into the spirit of things and being mindful of your fellow players (and GM) as well.

I confess that my campaign also heavily popularized the #FOMO mindset to my players; being the exp hungry whores that they have become now (crying internally). While not necessarily a bad thing, players should also be mindful of when their thirst starts to tax upon their GM and their fellow players in turn.

running large tabletop games

You are part of a larger campaign with a lot of others who are just as hooked as you, if not more. Learn to step back as well. Give space to those who should shine on certain sessions and try not to jump onto every single detail that you come across in-game.

To that end, there’s the thing about players who always want to be at the top of every situation; making investigation checks or dice rolls on every single thing that the GM has called for. Even if the scene only calls for such actions on specific players only.

Your character is not an omniscient entity in the story – it’s someone who’s very much like yourself, if not better to some degree. Otherwise, why would we even roleplay if they’re not???

Does it make sense that your character is like some seer who sees all, knows all, that you have to roll or check for everything that the others are also doing? There is such a thing as a #FOMO. But too much #FOMO can end up becoming destructive, even in a small-scale table.

What I learned out of it: I came to accept that I run such awesome campaigns that my players continue to come back for more. But that said, there is a need for me to take breaks every now and then; and rein in the inner #FOMOs of my players so that everyone gets equal enjoyment in the game.

Which leads me to…


The (Very Very Touchy) Issue of Fairness and Equality

Being in a large table requires a handling style that borders on legendary. As GM, when you are handling a massive table, it becomes a monumental effort to ensure that at the end of every session, every player goes home feeling that they’ve done something significant that reaffirms their interest to the game.

I will say this upfront that as GM, I feel strongly offended if I am unable to give justice to a player’s attendance in a game.

Whether it’s because that player seemed like he didn’t get a lot of airtime in a session; or if I did not get enough opportunity to develop his personal plotline, because I was too occupied with another’s (while admittedly more interesting) plotline that I took up more time than I should have.

Being a fair GM is a cardinal rule that all GMs should have learned as early as Day 1.

Being in charge of such tremendous power and privilege in a game is something that should not be abused and flung about so offhandedly. Be a fair adjudicator of rules to your players. Ensure that everyone is given equal attention, no matter how many. Sure, it’s harder when there’s ten or more brains to pick and allow an opportunity to shine, but I’ll say this:

Ginusto mo yan. (You wanted this.)

Conversely, as players, everyone has a measure of responsibility to each other (even to their GM) to ensure that a game is progressing fairly and equally for all (the latter requiring a great degree of self-awareness to know when something isn’t equal anymore).

If a game is starting to not become a fun thing or is devolving into a situation where a privileged few only get primetime, while others are relegated to becoming standby or supporting cast; then you know that something needs to be said about the matter. Everyone should have an open mind to listen and re-assess themselves.


In Conclusion…

Running a large-table campaign has been a tremendous honor and privilege. I’ve had the joy of meeting a large number of players who are now my closest friends and colleagues in the local community of tabletop gaming.

It’s always a very fun and fulfilling moment running a game for a large number of players. Collaboratively developing an epic storyline where everyone feels like they made a huge difference in the game and where they played with as much free agency as they can muster as players – there’s no greater reward in seeing them regale their tales to each other and gush about how intensely awesome every session is.

It’s not without its own cons. Which is why I eventually came to the realization that I must change up my approach somewhat; if I am to save my own sanity and still continue enjoying the thing that I do most. I’m quite thankful to have a vast circle of understanding players who are ever-ready to support me on my continuous endeavors to elevate the roleplaying experience for everyone.

My games are still large-scale in nature – something I can take up at another time; as it is a different structure of large-scale gaming this time around. But this time I’ve learned from my prior experience. And I now strive to give an even better experience to all of my devoted players.

After all, being a GM is a constant learning experience.

When he’s not crafting complex works of internet magic as a Web Developer, Dave is enslaved by tens of players to run games for them on weekends and whenever they damn pleased, actually. He runs TGIFs (Thank Gaming It’s FriDave) sessions regularly – oneshot sessions dedicated to introducing new game systems and inducting new players into the hobby – no prior experience needed!

Dave can be found lurking in his sanctum on his personal Discord server or on Facebook. He has also started blogging again after a yay-long time. Just try and reach out to him – it’ll be fun!

The original title of this piece was called “When a GM cannot say no to his players: Running INSANELY-large tables”. It was shared on Dave’s personal Facebook feed last August 2, 2018.

Have a question for #AsktheGM? Tag @PWOACom on Twitter, message us via our Facebook page, or drop us a line at [email protected].

#AsktheGM is a collaboration between Play Without Apology and our local tabletop gaming community and seeks to answer any and all questions about tabletop gaming and GMing.

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