Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Some Notes on Running Games - Getting It Started and Keeping It Going

I thought I would share some practical thoughts on actually running games as opposed to my usual session recaps and theoretical campaign plans. One of the things I've found is that just like playing a game will reveal many things about it that will not surface from a mere reading of the rules, the best way to get better at running games is to actually run them.   I've been doing that, so here are some things I've learned. First, establishing and keeping a group together:

  • Commit to the game. Pick a game you like, find some players, and run it. The best scenario is to find something you are dying to run and something they are dying to play. Short of that at least pick a genre you are interested in. If all you can find are D&D players and you are only marginally interested in D&D then tweak it a little bit. Give them some mysteries or some intrigue and see who bites. Enthusiasm is an important part of sustaining a campaign on both sides of the screen. If you don't have it at the beginning then the game probably won't last long enough to develop it. One thing that kills a group fast is a DM that can't make up his mind and needs to switch campaigns every month or two - unless you offered to run a series of one shots - most people in my experience take a longer term view in most games (especially level based games) and want to see their characters grow over time. If they can't do that then they may go look for a group that can. I used to be this guy - I would pick up a new game, run it for a few months or less, then come up with something new that I wanted to run. It drove my players crazy, so I got over it. Now my players know that once we start something I am going to run it for as long as everyone is interested. 
  • Have a set regular time for the game. People can't plan their schedules around it if they don't know when it's going to happen. This is mostly true with adult gamers but even playing with kids at home I can tell you that the game tends to get trumped by other family stuff when we don't set time aside in advance. Schedules get very complicated with families, jobs, school and life in general. Even if people can't make it all the time, having a set night at least lets them try. It helps a lot to have a spouse that is on board with this too, if there's one in the picture.
  • Make it a priority: We play on Friday nights. That means that sometimes we don't do other things on Friday nights. Since I'm the DM and we play at my house it's doubly important for me to set an example, so I don't cancel every time I see a chance to do something else. I have canceled a few times  but I try to do it well in advance. Players can cancel and the game can go on, but if the DM cancels then it's off for the night. Other people are making it a priority to get together too (and giving up their own Friday night options) so keep that in mind and respect that. The last-minute DM cancellation is a surefire way to make your players hate you. Do it repeatedly and your game will die. I figure I cannot really do it more than once or twice a year so I cash in those cards very carefully.
  • Don't be afraid to change up your player mix.  If someone is not getting it, not getting along, can't make it on time, or can't focus on the game then boot them. Sometimes less is more. On the flip side sometimes a group can go stale or get in a rut where adding a new player rejuvenates the whole group. Even better, add someone who is a total newbie to RPG's and watch the impact on your jaded old hands. Mix up age levels too - sure, teenagers can be annoying but they can also get into the game like nobody else and come up with something awesome that you would never expect. I like laid back players most of the time but throwing a new and energetic player in can really inject something new into the game. I've seen and done both. It's not fun to let someone go but sometimes it's the only way to keep it fun for the other 4-5 people in the game - needs of the many and all that. Adding someone is also a risk but if it works out  it can really liven things up. If not, well, make sure they know up front it's a tryout.
Some of this probably seems like old news to some of you and to others it might sound like a lot of work. To a degree it is, but hey, we like doing this right? This is our hobby, our fun-time, right? So making a little effort to ensure that you regularly get time to do it seems like a fair trade to me. It was easy to find games when I had friends living in a dorm and we didn't have to worry about finding time to do them. Now it's a lot trickier so it's worth a little planning if that's the difference between Game and No Game.

Now even under good circumstances it's possible for a DM to burn out. It used to happen to me when I spent the early 2000's running for an 8-person group. That's a lot of people to try and keep happy and it's very difficult to keep that many players engaged in each session for all or even most of a session. I was mostly running 3E D&D as well so there's a lot of mechanical overhead too, it's not a rules-light game at all. Looking back I should have tried either splitting the group into two groups (difficult both personality-wise and scheduling-wise) or I should have gone to a lighter rules system like Savage Worlds.

But what if you do start to burn out? When you start looking at that scheduled game night and trying to think of reasons to cancel, that's a warning sign that it's time to do something else.
  • See if anyone else wants to DM a side adventure in the same system, maybe for a month or two of sessions.This can  recharge some batteries in a good way.
  • Put an end date on the campaign and let everyone know. This may give you a creative burst as you try to come up with a suitable way to close out this chapter of things.
  • Change the rules - if you've been playing Mutants and Masterminds maybe it's time to change over to Champions.   This mainly applies when rules frustration is the source of the burnout, but it can work miracles if that's the problem. the trick is getting the players on board with it. 
Change is good. After playing and running D&D 1E & 2E for 20 years I was not that excited about playing Against the Giants and saving Cormyr all over again.  3rd Edition was a huge change when it came out and I had a ton of fun running it. After 9 years of that I was worn down and not too enthused about running more of it. I started up a new Savage Worlds game with a new and smaller group of players and it was a revelation - I could not get enough of it. After a few months of that I was in the mood for some crunchy monster-squashing and started reading those 4E books I had hated so much upon a first read and realized that I liked it. I talked a few friends into trying it out and now I had a whole new set of rules to devour, a new world to develop, and lots of new ideas percolating through the old brain. Having a family that will play is a good thing too as it gives you a better chance to run multiple games if you have that same itch that I do.

The point of that last paragraph is that consistency and stability are incredibly important to getting a group established, but once you have that it's important to guard against too much of it and burning out as a result. It's a bit of a balancing act and most of us will fail at it somewhere along the line. Try not to burn too many bridges when you do and you should be able to bring some of those players back when you're ready to go again.


dragolite said...

Very good advice. I know for one I need to stop letting the "new shiny" distract me. My gaming group has forced me to name a number of sessions that we will play to keep me from dwindling or burning out. Plus, it is a different system. Going to be starting up a Star Wars Saga game. And, I was worried that I would never get into it. Yet, recently found I like it!
Thanks again for the list. I will be putting a link up to your blog soon from my own.
Keep the good stuff coming.

Blacksteel said...

Thanks Dragolite - this is all stuff that's worked for me while running a regular game.

If you're trying to get a new campaign started after being tagged as easily distracted, consider beginning it as a "Limited Campaign" where you agree to run one longish adventure or a "movie's worth" of sessions. Take a look at my Old Star Wars Campaign entry for an example.

Taketoshi said...

I can definitely attest to making and keeping a schedule. My game has only missed two sessions in over a year because we discussed times right at the start, realized they wouldn't always be perfect, and stuck to them anyway.

Folks miss, but we ALWAYS have at least four players--the only games we've missed have been due to last-minute bails by the folks whose house we use as a meeting location (which disrupts other folks who attend, for convoluted reasons).

Blacksteel said...

Hey Tak, thanks for the confirmations. There may be other ways to go but this is what has worked the best for me.

Taketoshi said...

More than anything else, none of my flex-scheduled games ever developed a real TEMPO, which is so essential to any kind of dramatic development in a long-term game. Too much time is spent recapping, or trying to re-establish a mood, or any one of a thousand other activities that distract from actually doing something new in the campaign.

I always start my sessions off with a quick "someone tell me where we were at the end of last session!" because it gets everyone's heads in the game fast, but I hate covering the same ground twice.