At previous Pastors & Dragons retreats, I’ve had groups of up to 12 people at the table. Running a game for a crowd is difficult to do. Many people have found the sweet spot of 5e D&D to be about 4-5 players. When the table gets crowded with 6, 7, 8 (or 12!) people, a lot of folks have found that the fun begins to get lost. So how do we keep the fun with a large group?
Keeping large group D&D fun is hard for a couple reasons. The first is that the role-playing and exploration phases of the game are difficult to keep everyone engaged. The players that are naturally more outspoken can easily dominate the spotlight. It takes a lot of work to keep everyone engaged, as there is usually just one DM adjudicating all the action. This is a hard nut to crack. The DM really needs to lean into the role of inviting forward players who tend to sit back, and reminding the more outspoken players to step back. They also need to create situations that necessitate group conversations and watch out for too much 1-on-1 PC-to-NPC interaction.
The second reason that this is hard, and the one that is driving this blog post, is that combat with a large group can turn into a real slog. There’s a lot of out-of-spotlight time for players during combat, as other players are taking their turns, making their decisions about their actions, trying to assess for the best possible action to take. Battlefields are a lot more complex, and this just makes everything even more difficult to adjudicate. For this, the tool of Speed Factor Initiative is one of the best ways I have found to keep things interesting, moving, and fun.
Speed Factor initiative is one of the optional rules in the DMG. It was also a tool that was created and used in some of the earliest versions of the game. Those early versions of D&D were built for huge groups compared to what we normally see today, parties of a dozen or more. Those early ways of handling large groups piqued my interest in Speed Factor Initiative, and then the Angry GM’s blog post about Speed Factor initiative, pushed me over the edge and encouraged me to try it for myself.
To use this at my tables, I’ve created a player-facing version of my Speed Factor Initiative rules. Each player gets one. You can download a copy of my Speed Factor Initiative tool as a doc or pdf and print some out for use at your own table.
I give them the opportunity to plan their actions in an action declaration phase. Then I have everyone roll initiative. Their d20 gets placed on the sheet over the corresponding number and the initiative countdown starts the action resolution phase. “30, 29, 28, 27, 26, 25, 24, 23…” As their number comes up they resolve their actions in quick fashion. In practice I’ve found that this method of initiative works and makes combat much more engaging, much less of a slog, and a bit quicker for large groups. It’s specifically a large group technique, and grows in effectiveness the larger the group is.
The action declaration phase is more engaging because it lets everyone at the table “play” as they plan actions, discuss, set up combos, whatever. There’s no waiting while other people come up with what they want to do. Everyone is engaged in the fun. Set a timer to make this phase feel tense and keep things moving.
The action resolution phase is engaging as well, because you’re counting down through initiative and people are waiting for their number to be called. There’s tension and surprise. You’re not sure whose turn will come up next, and since all the decisions about which action to take have already been made, it goes much faster.
There’s a couple hangups with this method. The first is that people have to understand that they are effectively locked in to the actions they declared, with the option to dip out of that action and take the Dodge action instead if what they planned goes awry. This means that when their turn comes up their declared action might not be the best possible action they could take anymore. Tough cookies. You have to do what you declared, that’s the only way this speeds up play and keeps it fun for everyone. If you start letting people change their minds, you might as well just use standard initiative. The second is that in my experience this works best for in-person play. Group discussions just don’t work as well online, and that’s a large part of what makes this fun.