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The Douchey DM » Advice, Table Politics » Sidebars



As many readers may know, I’ve moved my fantasy game from DnD4e to Hero 6th to GURPS 4th. Our first session was last weekend. The session seem to go well — though I don’t know how well the characters are built, as we had no combats (the game ended with a cliffhanger as a very scary bad guy walked in on the party while they’re exploring the basement of an abandoned tinker shop).

Even though we were missing two people, we had nine players. Because this was a mostly investigative session, and since there were so many players, they ended up splitting up to investigate different leads.

As a result, this session was virtually all sidebars. There were a few times when the entire party came together to compare notes, but for the majority of the 7-1/2 hour session I was dealing with two or three players at a time.

The Problem With Sidebars

The biggest problem with this situation is that when I’m running a sidebar with three players, there are six players just sitting there, doing nothing.

Even if I’m really good at balancing the player-to-GM time, it’s still a losing proposition:

If I have three groups of three players each, and I devote 20 minutes to each group, that means every group is sitting around for 40 minutes of every hour doing nothing.

Near the end of the night, I was doing one sidebar with the two rogues who happened to have stumbled upon a major clue in the main story line. It was a long sidebar, and it could have resulted in the only fight all night. Because of this, I threw up an obstacle they couldn’t get past. They would have to get at least one other party member to get past it.

In case that wasn’t a big enough hint, I said, “the party needs to get back together.”

While I only got a few comments about player downtime during sidebars, I was very cognizant of how much time people were spending doing nothing.

When Meta-Gaming is Good

For a brief moment, I thought about letting the two rogues into the basement and have them ambushed and overwhelmed. That would have encouraged the players to stay together in the future.

The reason I didn’t do it, had to do with encouraging role-playing.

From the very beginning, I knew why the two rogue players didn’t share the information with the rest of the party. I don’t even have to ask — both of them were doing exactly what their characters would have done.

But I don’t want to punish players for good role-playing. I also don’t want the majority of the table sitting around for hours doing nothing.

This hasn’t been a problem before, but if it looks like it’s going to be a trend, I’ll talk to everyone about it.

I love it when the players get into their characters. And I think it’s awesome when the players’ portrayals of their characters cause their own stumbling blocks in the story. But I think there’s a point when you have to step back, look at the table and realize *everyone* is there to have fun.



Written by

Stu Venable is the producer of Happy Jacks RPG Podcast and writer and editor of He is founder and director of the Poxy Boggards and a member of Celtic Squall. He holds a degree in Journalism and Public Relations from California State University, Long Beach. He is a husband and a father. He hates puppies.

Filed under: Advice, Table Politics · Tags: ,

6 Responses to "Sidebars"

  1. tentagilNo Gravatar says:

    So math in public here, you had nine and were missing two, that’s eleven people in your gaming group. That’s insane. For me the sweet spot has always been five plus or minus one. Any less and the party tend to get steamrolled, to much more and you get the problems you listed. Combat in most systems takes forever and just general gaming gets dominated by sidebars.

  2. Dod XystrasNo Gravatar says:

    Stu, don’t get me wrong… I love you,.. but for the love of God man!! Learn to say NO!! 9 PCs is madness, you’ll never EVER be able to run a session, where there aren’t players sitting around, exempt from the action for long periods. Next game you set up, do yourself a favour and limit yourself to 5 PCs max. Love the Podcast, all power to you and the happy jackers!!

  3. rabaliasNo Gravatar says:

    I cannot express how strongly I agree with your point about meta-gaming. It’s a fact that culturally, roleplayers have a tendency to value staying in character above most other things. But it’s usually a good idea to try and pick a character who will be fun for everyone, not just you; and it’s a good idea to pick from the range of character-consistent options available to you (there are always options) the one which will be fun for everyone, not the one which will suck the life out of the game. Too many players don’t seem to realise this, IMO.

  4. rabaliasNo Gravatar says:

    PS totally agree that 9 players is crazy… I think 6 is too many, and 5 is pushing it.

  5. John DNo Gravatar says:

    I think it should be mentioned that one great quality in a player is the ability to involve other players (and sometimes NPC’s) in all of their schemes. It keeps the group together, offers more opportunities for PC interaction, creates character friendships and rivalries, and allows everyone to have fun.

    Sure it is good to stay in character, but it is far better to look around the table, see who hasn’t acted in awhile and bring them into the scene. As a player I’ll gladly meta-game to ensure everyone is having fun (especially in a large group).

    If you want to be a solo act who lives in the sidebars… go play WoW.

  6. Josh TreleavenNo Gravatar says:

    If you have a group with 9 to 11 players, you’re already in uncharted territory. Your DM style is going to have to be different from what’s recommended in all the books.

    One thing I’d suggest is, maybe it’s not such a bad thing when some players have “nothing to do”. Can they interact with each other? Can they work on backstories? Can they create new characters? Can they manage their equipment and/or lists of treasure? Can they play 3-Dragon Ante? Can they just talk about TV and movies among themselves?

    It’s true that these things break immersion, but so does waiting your turn.

    I once had a group that got up to 8 players, and I just split it into two nights of the week.

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