The answer to this one really depends on the people involved. I’ve been in games where there were sometimes more than 8 players present and, in the one I’m thinking of, the GM was a narcoleptic. He was always on the ball though (in spite of dozing off while his PCs discussed things) and the game worked well. I don’t think I could have managed that many people, but he could do it and cat-nap on the side.On the other side of things there’s the infamous 1-on-1 gaming experience. Most of us have done this at one time or another and in almost every gaming circle I’ve encountered the topic seems to be treated with disdain. The 1-on-1 game is often regarded as something that only younger gamers, with no other options, should indulge in. I’ve had some pretty fun 1-on-1 games in my time, though and so I had to ask myself why everyone, even me, can’t help but look down on this practice. I think it is because of the reciprocal nature of the situation. I GM you and give you all the breaks and a boat-load of experience and then you GM me and do the same. There’s no sharing of treasure or arguments over the “group’s” agenda/direction/morals or much in the way of role-playing diversity at all. For this reason, most people who’ve ever heard someone going on about their universe ruling, maximum level, biggest bad-ass on the planet character, are never surprised to find out that it came from a 1-on-1 game. Of course it did. I mean, in that universe, would there really be room for a whole group of people that powerful? Probably not. For me the optimal number of players is 4. I have several reasons for this too. The most important of which I’d say is that it allows me to pull an individual player aside and still leave enough people so that coming to a consensus while I’m gone is unlikely. Consensus with three players isn’t exactly difficult, but it is far more so than with two or one. With three there always seems to be some kind of disconnect. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against consensus per se. I just like to be present while my Players make their decisions, but I also like to give each of them some amount of individual attention at each game. Having a group of four helps me accomplish both goals without neglecting either. Four is also enough that the group can split in two and no one drops out of character. When a Player is completely on their own with their GM, the tendency is to discus the PC in question in the third person rather than in the first person; two authors looking in on the world they’re creating. When there’s another Player present most Players will continue to use the “I” pronoun rather than reverting to “he” or “she”. I think it must be some kind of instinctual peer pressure thing. Playing pretend out loud is somehow more acceptable if you aren’t the only one doing it. Whatever the reason, I prefer it if my Players stay in character as much as possible and they do so more when they are physically near the other Players. Also I am a fan of even numbered groups of players in general. This makes voting their way out of disagreements difficult and so they have to resort to actually trying to convince those who disagree with them. When you have to convince someone, “I just wanna” usually doesn’t cut it anymore. You have to think of reasons why it would be in their interest to side with you. This is when bribery happens, deals are struck, and secrets get divulged. It’s more role-playing and that’s always good. For many players, when they see an obvious way around an argument, such as a three vs two majority, they’ll take it. However, when each side is forced to actually lay out the reasoning behind their points of view, sometimes a third solution will present itself from the sharing of info. Many GMs (and people in general) are fans of the “more the merrier” philosophy. If you’ve got a good game and someone else wants to join, many people just assume that you should let them. I am, however, not one of these people. As a GM I work hard to make sure that my players are invested in the game from start to finish. In many games the primary motivations driving my PCs are issues stemming from decisions they made earlier in the game. This is also a method I use to keep the scale of the game increasing with the power level of the characters; if they are often responsible for causing their own problems, the problems get bigger as they get bigger. Now when you introduce a new character who has no investment in the game and a power level comparable to those of the other PCs, there is nothing stopping them from running amok blowing down everyone else’s houses of cards. It disrupts the game balance that has taken so long to mature. It’s like introducing an invasive species into an environment where they have no natural predators. Everything that has worked toward the current balance for the last 10,000 years will suddenly be thrown out of wack and it could take another 10,000 years to get that balance back. And even then, the balance will be a new balance. The old balance is gone. So adding new players mid stream is just something I don’t do. If this new person is simply going to be fact of life (a player’s newly acquired and insistent significant other for example) I will almost always take the option of starting a new game from scratch rather than adding someone to an existing mix. I mean, if I was in the middle of cooking lamb curry and someone showed up with pepperoni and insisted that we have something with pepperoni in it for dinner, I’d probably put my lamb curry in the refrigerator for another evening before I try making lamb/pepperoni curry just to satisfy this jerk. Besides, pepperoni pizza will probably please people more than a last second experiment in flavor anyway.
How many players is too many?