Rythlondar and gaming group size in the early days of D&D

I was poking around on the Basic Fantasy forums when I came across a post by merias about how folks played OD&D, with a link to the Rythlondar Chronicles (originally uncovered and shared on Risus Monkey).

I’m always interested in hearing about how gamers were playing RPGs before I got my start (in 1987), and one topic that’s always fascinated me is player count. From what I’ve read, it was common for D&D sessions in the 1970s to have what would generally be considered a large number of players these days.

That’s neatly illustrated by the Rythlondar Chronicle, which documents the house rules, players, guidelines, and expeditions undertaken as part of a D&D campaign in Michigan in 1976. It started out with two GMs, John Van De Graaf and Len Scensny, who shared their campaign notes — the Chronicle — with Risus Monkey.

What merias pointed out is on page 9, EXPEDITION RECORDS.

That page (which is much easier to read in the PDF!) lists 12 expeditions, along with the player count and the PC death toll for each session. (I’ve included the fatality percentage in parentheses.)

  1. 12 players, 5 PC deaths (42%)
  2. 12 players, 3 PC deaths (25%)
  3. 10 players, 2 PC deaths (20%)
  4. 14 players, 6 PC deaths (43%)
  5. 7 players, 2 PC deaths (29%)
  6. 7 players, 0 PC deaths (0%)
  7. 12 players, 1 PC deaths (8%)
  8. 7 players, 1 PC deaths (14%)
  9. 15 players, 3 PC deaths (20%)
  10. 14 players, 5 PC deaths (36%)
  11. 8 players, 3 PC deaths (38%)
  12. 14 players, 0 PC deaths (0%)

Just look at those numbers: In Rythlondar, seven players was a slow night. The average player count was 11. (Those death counts are something, too — an average of 2.58 dead PCs per session, or 23%. On any given night, there was only about a 17% chance that no PCs would croak.)

I recognize that play style and game system make a big difference in the feasibility of gaming with a big group. OD&D (paid link) seems like an excellent fit for this; I can see why it would work with a lot of players. Practices like having a caller make a lot of sense in a large-group context, too.

I start getting twitchy at five players, and six feels unwieldy to me. I can’t imagine running a game for 11 players, let alone 15. But you know what? I’d like to give it a shot.

11 thoughts on “Rythlondar and gaming group size in the early days of D&D”

  1. A friend of mine once ran a game with over 30 players, back in the early 80s. It went surprisingly well. He was a wreck though after a 6 hour game.

  2. I ran the boss encounter of a multi-table event with 25 players. I had to cheat and rule that low initiatives meant characters were stuck in transdimensional magical goo or something. I’m not proud of it, but it was the middle of the night and coffee wasn’t working anymore ;)

    1. Martin Ralya

      Multiple tables sounds more challenging than one big one! I’ve played in a multi-table con event, and they had two GMs working together.

  3. Nathan Irving

    I like 5, and 6 goes really well. 7 just never ever works for me, though.

    1. Martin Ralya

      Most of my time playing with 7 (plus GM) has been at cons. The environment and the structure of the events seems to help a lot in those situations.

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  5. Len Scensny

    Something not noted in the chronicle – for the first several months of the campaign, we did not do resurrectuion. If you were dead, you were really most sincerely dead. My character at the end of the game was the fifth in the line.

    1. Martin Ralya

      THE Len Scensny! I love the internet.

      That’s fascinating to hear, Len. It makes the deadliness of the campaign seem all the more so.

      Is there anywhere online where you’ve shared more about this campaign, or about your gaming experiences in general? I’d love to read more, and I bet I’m not the only one.

      1. Len Scensny

        Sorry about late reply, have not been back to your site. Both John and I have laced some oomments though the multiple threads generated in Rhesus Monkey. I’m happy to answer new questions and expect John will too. He is still busy designing games, and will be at the wash DC congress of gamers con September 24 and 25 as well as euro quest outside Baltimore in October. I’ll be monitoring this thread more rigorously from now on.

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