Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Extremely Expert DM Advice #3 - Keeping a Game Alive

Greyhawk Vacation!

Alright so you have a game and some players. Maybe you've even had a session or two - success! It can be a real challenge to keep that going though. Now if you're in a dorm and have a bunch of friends on campus maybe not, but if you're mainly working with the full-time job and family and other hobbies crowd then schedules get complicated and subject to change - how do you fight through that and keep your game alive?

There may be a lot of other advice out there on the web but the thing that has worked for me is to schedule your game and then stick to it. Yes, it's that simple, but it's difficult to execute in some situations and for some people. Regardless, I'm convinced it's the primary key to success for keeping a game going long term.

When I started the 3E group I ran a few sessions and ended up with about 6 players at the time. We talked and settled on an every-other-Saturday at 6pm schedule and stuck to it for about 8 years. I ended up with a solid pool of about 8-9 players, at least 5 of which could be counted on to show up on any given week, and occasionally the whole crew would make it for a particularly epic session.
I didn't even know they made these
The DM is the core of this - if you don't show, then no one else can either. So spend those cancellations wisely and sparingly. If you want it to live you have to make a commitment and that's what I did. I kept that game going through a divorce, the aftermath, being a single dad, dating, a layoff, and all kinds of difficult circumstances. Yes it takes some time and yes it means you give up some other things that you could be doing at that time and yes you may have to tell non-gamer people that you're busy with something  but that's what it takes - make it a priority and jump on board! Sure, every once in a while you'll get sick enough that you can't run. Sometimes you'll have a work thing, or a girlfriend thing, or a kid thing or a holiday thing - it comes up but it doesn't come up that often and if you have a standing schedule for your game then you can try to schedule the planned stuff around it. If you stick to it, your players will start to make it a priority as well and start adjusting their schedules around it too.

Players, even if they do adjust their schedules, will miss sometimes too. People get sick or have things come up. That's OK, just play on with the rest of the party. Their attendance is appreciated but not required. You may want to consider your minimum party size to run in case you have multiple non-attendees and know in advance - you may not have enough to feasibly run your game. For our current D&D campaign I have 6 regular players, the encounters are built for 5 (yes it's 4E), and we've decided only to run when we can get 4 players together, so if I have 3 "can't-make-its" then we call it off for that week, again assuming that it comes up before the game starts.

Remember Marc? It's like that sometimes.

How do you handle it in-game when players miss? Honestly I don't spend more than 5 minutes worrying about it. With D&D it's pretty easy to come up with a simple justification of why a character shows up or takes off.

"Looks like the Elf Ranger had to get some fresh air or commune with nature or something"

"The archaeologist is going to spend some more time digging though these ruins while the rest of you check out what's on the other side of the river."

"What happened to the Drow?"
"She didn't say"

Other helpful note: We never end in the middle of a fight. I say "never" because I think I've done it twice in the last 10 years and each time reminded me why I don't do it. One of the reasons is that it's much easier to add and remove characters when they're not in combat. It's also better for their health, because if there is a fight on and the player can't make it, my usual handling of it is that so-and-so falls unconscious. This takes them out of the fight but not out of danger, so if things go badly for the party, well, it could be bad for everyone. Adding characters to a fight? "so-an-so charges through the door" - no one gets too concerned about where the reinforcements came from when they're in the middle of combat.

So after all of this scheduling consistency and regular attendance is only part of "keeping it going". There is another hurdle out there, more for some than for others, but it does exist: Gamer ADD. Maybe those mechanics that looked cool a few months ago turn out to be tedious or confusing in play. Maybe the setting just isn't doing it for you. Maybe the current game is fine but that new game over there just looks so much cooler ...

That's not MY stuff - I didn't like Cyborg Commando

These are the early stages of Gamer ADD and few things annoy players more than a DM who keeps switching games. I've been that guy, I know other DM's who have been that guy - don't be that guy! This is why picking the right game is so important - because you need to stick with it once you get started. Level based games like D&D are especially troublesome when this happens, because part of the enjoyment is tied to character progression, and switching games typically means a lot of new characters and not a lot of leveling up. Now if you genuinely feel like you've picked the wrong game then it's probably worth making a change. Just don't do it 3 or 4 times over the course of a year or it won't matter for much longer.

So, to wrap up:
  • Set a schedule
  • Stick to it
  • Don't switch games

You may be fighting stuff like this too

Now that we have that down, I'll tell you how I now violate the first two regularly.

Once you have a group established and have things rolling for a year or two you can be more flexible with the scheduling. After we took a break at the beginning of 2010 I started up with a group cut down to 4 players. I set a time and we followed the plan I outlined above setting the schedule for every-other-Friday night  and it worked. Along the way we picked up two more and we also started seeing more schedule conflicts. We have high school football stuff on Friday nights in the fall, so I talked to the group and we switched to Saturdays. One guy has another game on alternate Saturdays so he can't always make those nights. We switched back to Fridays once football was over, but one guy can't always make it on Fridays. So now what we do is that when we do play we look at calendars and schedules at either the beginning or the end of the game and we try to set the next session at that time. Sometimes we can't so we work it out over email during the week. 

Now this works because we a) have only 6 players involved b) everyone has a pretty regular schedule of work and family stuff and c) we only need 4 to run. One of the benefits of this has been that we hit stretches where we run more often than twice a month - sometimes hitting 3 weekends in a row. There have been a few larger gaps too but those have been less common than the bonus sessions. It works for us. The group is pretty committed to playing regularly and everyone seems to like it.

I would not do this with a new group. I would do exactly what I described above and stick to that for at least a year before I tried getting flexible. I also would not do this with a larger group as it gets more and more complicated to juggle those schedules. If you have a smaller group and playing the game is a priority for them it might work for you.

1 comment:

Matthew Gusler said...

Agree agree agree.

Gaming for grownups is only as hard as any other function in our lives. Our regular games have been reduced to the third Saturday of every month but those games are always 10-14 hours of utter joy. It's like a holiday that comes 12 times a year!