I had an update to my “What I’ve Learned from GMing at ACNW” as I was going to revisit it 4 and a half years later, but then I thought, “Hey, it’s time to get some new content moving,” as there’s more to life than writing Portal Doctor and English Composition, right?
Lesson One: Don’t take on more players than you can handle.
Even if you break it down evenly as a matter of time, four hours (a usual con slot) (240 minutes) and six players (divide by) is only 40 minutes a player on average. That’s a heck of a lot of time in gaming “headspace,” but that’s also three hours and twenty minutes of reduced attention. If you’re looking at four players, that gets up to sixty minutes, but you’re not going to be giving everyone even attention.
Too many players in a con game means the ones that shout the loudest (or act most intensely) get the attention. The squeaky wheel gets greased. In a longer term campaign you can usually count this as problem behaviour and attend to it appropriately, but the first axis of “too many players” simply amounts to players not having enough to do while you’re working with someone else.1
I wouldn’t beat yourself up about this, but it’s important to make sure everyone’s active at some level. While I know you don’t always want them to go off and have scenes with each other that may get ahead of your timing and outside the scope of normal events (up to the point they’re making blueberry battle scones and planning on wearing old bathrobes to the fields of war) there are a lot of techniques you can use to keep them focused that don’t require you having to keep throwing puzzles at them to solve. Give them NPC roles.2 Find plausible ways to get their characters back into the room. Allow them to pull an InSpectres-style “confessional” to change things up. There are a lot of good options, depending on your game.3
And in a con game, not every player is going to be “in-game” at the same level. It’s late at night, or early in the morning, some people have decided to observe no matter what opportunities you’ve given them to be involved… there’s a lot of things that aren’t under your control.
There’s a note that too few characters can be a problem. I tried to run through a game with two players that needed four, and I very much was wrong to do so. [I should have immediately said, “Let’s find out if you can join another game.”] You can craft a game to an intimate audience, sure, but it needs to be designed that way, and it needs the full buy-in of the players as well as the system. I can imagine doing that kind of game on the schedule (besides the games run after-hours in my hotel room) but some ideas don’t scale down well enough. For example, my LARPs usually require about 13-14 people minimum to get the right combination of conflicts happening. (I plan LARPs on a large scale.)
This doesn’t include NPCs. (That rule of thumb might just be to get rid of them – you don’t need ’em. The game’s about the PCs, right?) They only need to be in the scene if they’re moving the game forward. How do they do that? You should know the three main things: their motivation, their information, and their connection to the PCs. Everything else is bonus that may or may not get used.
1 See part two, “Leaving the room.”
2 Locally, I learned a heck of a lot from watching Tim White handle this in a couple of games we were in together. It taught me a lot of techniques I wouldn’t spring on another GM, but I’d absolutely ask players to do for me.
3 There are lots of articles written on this – I’m not going to be able to cover them all.