Roleplaying games (RPGs) can run with any number of players. I’ve heard of games with only one player and one game master (GM); I’ve also been in a game that had twelve players. Three to five (or maybe three to six) seems to be the most popular range for an ongoing run, from what I’ve heard and observed.
How Does Number Affect Your Game?
The number of players in your group can have a large effect on the game you play. Here I’ll tell you about just a few of the ways it’ll affect the game; I’m sure you’ve found a few others yourselves.
If it’s a high-combat game, you probably don’t want a huge number of players. Very few game systems have quick, streamlined combat rules. So if you have twelve players and all of the characters are present, combat will take forever and it will be very slow. Players may be tempted to fall asleep between rounds, or read the paper, and that’ll certainly ruin any mood you’ve worked to establish. If you do happen to be using a system that’s capable of running huge combats quickly–hey, then run with as many people as you want!
If you want a highly personal game (one in which you play with characters’ background plots rather than just throwing all the characters into group plots), run with fewer players as well. It’s harder to find the rationale to get lots of characters involved in personal plots. Also, the more players you have the more your players are likely to feel that they shouldn’t engage in personal conversations and scenes in game, because they’re keeping everyone else from having fun. Personal scenes usually don’t work all that well with all characters present, so more people will end up bored if you have too many players. Also, some people will feel weird roleplaying personal plots in front of a large audience.
High-epic-level games may work well with larger numbers of people, because they make it easy to pull lots of characters into whatever is going on; it may be harder to establish the grand scope and mood with only one or two characters. This is probably the best sort of run for a large gaming group.
If you know that your players tend to be flaky, and that only half of them are likely to show up on any given night, then you might want to run with more people. On the other hand, flaky players can cause continuity problems as characters come and go in the middle of plots. (That’s a whole other problem, though.) And if you run your game too well, you may find yourself with too many players as they mysteriously become more reliable!
If you’re an inexperienced GM you’ll probably want to start with a smaller number of people. When you have a large number of characters it can be tough to keep track of everything going on, make sure everyone gets their time in the spotlight, and so on. You’re better off adding people later when you feel more confident than having to tell people to leave the game because you can’t handle the number; they might not be so understanding about it.
Every GM has a different comfort zone for how many players they GM for. If you don’t know what yours is then try running several short games; invite a different number of players each time. You might find that you just don’t like gaming for only two people, or that six is too many. Keep in mind when making your final decision that longer games have more to keep track of.
Personally I prefer to play in a group of one to five players (and to GM for a group of one to four), but that’s because I love personal plots and dislike slow, hours-long combats. Everyone is different.
How Do You Pick Your Players?
For many groups this is a non-issue: you play with the group of friends you hang out with (most of this section won’t be very useful to you!). Others however, for whatever reason, need to pick players. Either they have too many friends and need to pick a subset, or they’re playing with people they don’t know very well.
Start with number. After reading the section above (and maybe playing a few short games), figure out a good number of players. If you have a range you’re looking for, say three to five, start out asking three people, because you never know when someone’s going to say “sure, and do you have room for my friend here?” You can always ask more people after the first round of replies comes through if you don’t have enough; it’s harder to pare down if you somehow end up with too many.
Try to pick players who are interested in playing a similar kind of game (and a similar game to one you’d like to run). This may necessitate settling on everyone’s second choice game, as they may not all go for the same game as top choice. At least try to end up in a genre everyone’s comfortable with.
Pick players who have at least vaguely similar playing styles. You’ll probably run into trouble if one of your players prefers to settle everything through combat and hates personal plots, and the rest of them want to play deeply personal and angstful plots.
Don’t pick players who hate each other or who tend to get into conflict with each other over everything. You don’t want the game to keep halting for their arguments.
You can work on some of these issues by asking potential players about the sort of gaming they enjoy. Make sure to ask them what they don’t enjoy, too–if they say they enjoy hack-and-slash, it may just mean they haven’t tried anything else yet.
When in doubt, run one of those short games geared toward a certain play-style or genre, and watch how people react. See whether they enjoy it. Run a whole series of short games until you have a pretty good handle on which players have styles that will mesh, and which ones aren’t going to irritate you to death. Then put together your longer game.
Pickiness, and Not Getting to Pick Your Players
The longer you’ve been gaming the pickier you’re likely to get. This is because after you’ve gamed for ten years, you’ll notice all the subtle differences in play-styles that you wouldn’t have noticed or cared about at first. There’s nothing that says you need to find only players who mesh with you perfectly, however; sometimes a little variation can make a game more interesting for all involved. And with a little work on the GM’s and players’ parts, most small differences can be smoothed over.
So don’t despair if you don’t get to pick your players, or if someone who says they like personal plots turns out to have misinterpreted what you meant by “personal.” Just do your best to keep everyone involved, make sure everyone gets his turn in the spotlight, and pick a game that will keep everyone at least mildly entertained. If your players can’t agree on a genre or style, there’s nothing saying you can’t run alternating games, or run short games of a different style to counterpoint a longer campaign.