Optimal Size of a RPG party
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August 31st, 2013, 02:13
Well, this thread is already pretty old and I guess it's hard to come up with some really new arguments. But I'd just like to share my point of view on this topic.
The amount of players in a party is stricly connected to the other mechanics of the game.
What does the combat look like?
I think you can break it down to one dependence:
If you spend a lot of time per character you should have a small party size.
In case of a turn based combat I'd say that if you have free movement and positioning 8 are definitely too much. In Jagged Alliance 2 I normally moved out with 3 to 4 people. In very rare cases I might take a fifth person with me. With 2 Characters you were not able to move out, cover with interruptions to both sides at once, 3 was the absolute minimum if you wanted to do anything and I guess that's true for most turn based games with positioning. On the other hand there is Xcom. In Xcom there is also positioning but units are more expendable. You also do not have as many tactical possibilities in the old Xcom as you do in jagged alliance (like strafing, crouching and so on). So the time spent per unit is less and the amount of units gets higher. But in Xcom I am already feeling annoyed with the high troop count, especially if you sent 2 in another direction and have to bring them back in a fight. The Xcom EU reduced the amount of units in a fight, but each character has more stuff to do. Xenonauts also has a troop size of 8 which then is also annoying quickly.
More complex Combat System -> Less party members (down to critical mass of 3 or 4)
What does the skill system look like?
Same as before:
The more complex skill-system you have the less party members you should have
until you reach a critical mass of course.
If you have a system like in Eye of the Beholder, when each class just consists of a class, defining the weapons and armor to use and the casts it can use in addition to a few attributes and HP it's not really hurting much if you have more party members. On the other hand there are games like NWN2 just to use another D&D game. In NWN2 you can basically spend hours if not days to plan ahead your character to just take the right skills each level up to be able to unlock the right mastery classes each time to then be able to take the right skills again for the next unlock. As mitigation measure NWN2 only let you control the main characters skills, the other character's skills increased automatically. Then there are games which have a deep skill system which is very easy to manage and which seems very logical. Examples would be Drakensang where you have a couple of attributes, a couple of skills and a couple of active combat moves and spells. And Avernum where basically all characters have access to all abilities and you have to specialize your characters yourself. In both games you have 4 characters to control.
When you start such a game and get/create your party members the very first thing I'd do is to make a plan: Identify the elemental roles in the group and assign them. The most basic thing is the holy trinity of course (Tank, Healer, Damage Dealer), but in most games you have also lockpicking for example and so you might add a thief for lockpicking and maybe social interactions.
This stays cool as long as you don't have everything. If you just add another fighter to add more damage this character becomes uninteresting and should be cut out. Each character should have an interesting pool of skills to chose from at each level up.
If the party is big, players just wont feel as invested into the character as if you had a smaller group, even feel annoyed at a level up to spend some additional points at the character he isn't interested in.
More Complex Skill System -> Less party members (down to critical mass of 3 if holy trinity exists)
How do you get your characters and how do you manage them?
If you are creating all characters from scratch yourself you might probably reduce the amount of characters to not piss of the player right at the beginning, depending on the depth of the skill system. The player should be aware right at the beginning about which characters he needs. Everybody knows that he needs a warrior, a healer and probably someone who does damage and picks locks. But what the hell should he do with the other like 4 characters he needs to create? Which skills really have an effect in the game and are important? Where are the symbioses? The player should not need to play the game for 5 hours to realize that he needs to start over in order to build a better team with his new knowledge. If you have a low amount of characters you can streamline it much more and introduce the player to all mechanics.
In addition you also might find characters, like in Baldurs Gate, or Dragon Age. In Dragon Age you also had a big pool of characters you can choose from. And the ones not used will just be put into the base and you only need to bother with them (and their level ups) when you actually want to take them back into the team.
So keep the party size small at game start -> Easier entry into the game
How does the game manage additional NPCs and Party members?
Directly related to the party size at game start is of course the question on how additional Characters are handled. In the old Realms of Arkania games you always had 6 permanent members and one NPC slot for a guy you couldn't control. In Dragon Age your party was always very flexible as you could work with a base where you could pile additional party members. Eye of the Beholder had a very interesting approach: In this game you had 4 members you created at startup and a total number of 6 party members. During the games you found a lot of additional members. And you decided yourself which ones you kept and who had to go and which were the 4 important ones which you wanted to take over to the next game. So in the end you might not even have anyone from the original party left. The worst example was the Ishar Series where you had 5 slots but had to drop an own party member to make space for a temporary party member and in the end you were one member short.
If you have a base where you can leave additional party member later it doesn't really play much of a role how many party members you have.
You could also plan in a dedicated NPC Slot as Realms of Arkania did.
Or you might let players leave party members permanently. In this case the group size should rather be bigger than smaller.
What do Interactions between members look like?
Now assuming you have a lot of Characters in your party you found during the game you will probably have given them interesting background stories. Maybe even interactions with other characters you found, like in Dragon Age. The more attention to detail you want to give to the character, the less characters you will probably create total. If you have a home base where you can drop them, it will probably never be a problem. But if they join you and you don't know if it might give a conflict with another group member you might want to have a bigger party size.
Jagged Alliance would be one example, where morale goes down if you have two members in the same group which do not like each other. But in JA2 you can just mix together other teams.
A different example would be Expeditions Conquistador, where each character has traits. And like in Dragon Age they get and lose morale depending on your decision. A brave member might increase moral of you go into combat, which might drop the moral of a peaceful character.
Guido Henkel wants to make such a system an important element in his Deathfire game. Just that he uses over 30 traits instead which might cause conflicts within the group.
If you have scripted group events it might be better to have less characters so that you see more from them and it's less effort to implement them. If you have a more flexible system like Expeditions Conquistador or what is planned for Deathfire you might want to have a bigger party group in order to create more of these conflict situations but of course that is also dependent on the game length, which is the next point.
How long will the game be?
Depending on the length of the game you can implement more complex systems and bigger parties.
It does not make much sense to have a party size of 6 or 8 in a game which just has a length of 15 to 20 hours. Same goes for the skill system. Shadowrun is a great example about how not to do it. It had basically a great skill system and great combat mechanics (if they were balanced) but the game is too short to fully use them. If the game is rather short and the skill system not extremely simple the party size should not exceed 4.
So overall I'd agree to what most posters said before me.
The magical number is between 4 and 6
. I cannot think of many scenarios where a group of more party members makes sense. The same goes with party sizes of less than 4, which severely limits tactical possibilities. A party of 3 might work if you focus on other parts of the game like the interaction of 3 pre defined party members and their involvement in the story. But assuming you are creating most of the party yourself and combat plays a bigger role in the game, this is probably not an option.
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