One of the most challenging things about playing a tabletop RPG, Dungeons and Dragons being the most well know of them, is not learning all the rules. This is not to say that the rules are easily learned and completely intuitive, it is a lot to take in and some seem absolutely counter-intuitive. Character levels and spell levels for example, but before I fall down that rabbit hole, let me get back on track.
The really difficult part is getting everyone at the table at the same time. It wasn’t as daunting a problem when we were in high school or even college, our schedules were already determined for us, and we had a lot more energy.
As adults, it’s a decidedly more complicated. We all have a myriad of responsibilities that demand our time and “blowing them off” is not an option. Even when you have a regularly scheduled game, it’s not uncommon to be short one or more people.
Recently, I began running a Numenera game with four players. (If you want to know more about Numenera, just Google Monte Cook Games. That will tell you everything you need to know.) Our zero session went well, everybody created their characters, we established an over all direction for the game and I ran a short adventure which ended in the midst of a mission, setting up the next session.
Due to the reasons I mentioned above, the next session was delayed. We rescheduled, as you do. One of the other regular games that three out of four of the players are in was cancelled that week so I quickly suggested we continue the Numerera game. Only two out of the four could make it.
Games, to paraphrase a line for Annie Hall, are like sharks. If they do not move forward, they will die. So I ran with half the original table.
How was it? It was amazing! I’ve always had a preference for smaller tables, both as a game master and a player. Larger groups are often loud and chaotic. Some people thrive in that environment but I am not one of them.
Only having two players allowed me to give more focus to the individuals. It was both more relaxed and dynamic in that everybody got to contribute and because there were only two PCs, it moved a lot quicker.
At a larger table everybody wants to chime in, which is in no way a bad thing. This is a collaborative hobby, so players should be encouraged to share their thoughts. The unfortunate byproduct of this is what might be referred to as the “But teacher, you forgot to give us homework!” syndrome, where someone has just remembered some detail that will, they think, either makes the plan untenable or they just had a brand new “better” idea.
This is predicated on an adversarial relationship between player and the game master. A good GM will take the plan the PCs put forward and work with it. Of course if on its face, unlikely to succeed, the GM should point that out.
With a smaller table, it became more collaborative, we all worked with each other to tell this story. In fact, one of the players got a temporary skill in philosophy as a result of an attack by the aptly named “Chance Moth.” This skill helped in the rescue of a child, the goal of the session.
I had not planned in any way, shape or form that abstract thinking would be the key to this adventure but it was. Could this have happened at larger table? Of course it could have. Would it? No way of knowing but the more intimate nature of a small table allows these less obvious story turns to happen.
We had another two player sessions, with the same two players, and it was another fun game. One of the characters learned more about their background, simply by asking, “does this seem familiar to me?” Again, with the luxury of time, we were able to explore that question.
Now these sorts of things can happen at the largest of tables. But they are less likely to happen unless everyone can let the focus shift. It’s not always easy to be as invested in another character’s development, but if there’s a small group, it’s easier to get behind. One, because you have closer relationships with the other characters, and two, most probably, it will be your turn next.
So if only two players show up for your weekly game, take the opportunity to explore things that those characters wish to in a way that might not be feasible at the full table. You’ll find that less is definitely more.