Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Campaign Troubles - Sorting Out the Train Wreck

Keeping a game going can be tricky. You settle into a routine where you're meeting on a regular schedule, things are going well, and then you miss one session, then a little bit later you have to cancel again, and then the holidays hit and a month goes by and suddenly the game is not a priority anymore.

We had a pretty steady twice-a-month thing for the first half of 2013 and then in the second half we had all of 3 sessions. Yep, Mr. DM Advice's main campaign slowed down to a bimonthly schedule. I did run some other games in there and started up a new and unrelated campaign, but the Big One almost died.

There were a lot of reasons for this.

  • One, the summer seemed to mean everyone took a turn not being available. It happens. 
  • In the fall I had to switch from our traditional Friday nights to Saturdays because I have two kids tied into Friday night football stuff. 
  • I also went from a rolling schedule where we decided the next session date at the end of the current session to a set schedule of 2nd and 4th weekends. That was partly because game night kept tripping over kid schedules, partly because it was impossible to plan any other game if this one took all of our open time and partly because it was tough to plan anything more than a week or two in advance. The lessening of flexibility really cut down on rescheduling options when someone had a conflict and pretty much guaranteed a 4-week gap if we had to cancel a session.
Besides my schedule challenges our current group consists of five players: we have one guy who's almost always available, another who has very few conflicts, two who have a few - more on that in a minute, and Lady Blacksteel, who is on pretty much the same schedule as me when it comes to availability, though not always.

Early on I set a cancellation policy. D&D 4th edition assumes a 5-man party, and unlike a game such as ICONS or Marvel Heroic the numbers do matter. I build my adventures assuming a 5-man party. As long as we have at least 4 players, I will run. If w have 3 or fewer then we call it and either do something else or just regroup the next time. Early on in the game we had 6 players so this worked well - at 6 the players have an advantage, at 5 they are even, and at 4 things will be more challenging but still possible. At 3 the system starts to get swingy and it gets to be really difficult to handwave why 2 or 3 characters disappeared in the middle of the dungeon. I really did not want to have to cut down encounters to accommodate 3 characters either and the XP gets off significantly if it continues. 

This all worked well when we had 6 players as we rarely missed a session. Once we lost our 6th though, things got a little sticky. Two of my players are part of the same organization, and quite a bit of the time if one has to miss, so does the other for the same organizational activity or event. This absolutely destroyed our previously neat little system as now we typically went from "5 and fine" to "3 and a cancel" and it was only occasionally that we had a party of 4. Combine this with my limiting the game to two weekends a month (instead of "when can we play next" and we lost a lot of sessions. Moving game time to Saturdays also meant that if before they were able to delay their participation until Saturday to keep Friday open, well, that was out the window now too. Previously the only reason a game was cancelled (usually) was if the DM had a conflict. Now we had all of my conflicts AND a pair of players also impacting the schedule. 

Now I don't hold this against them - that's been a thing for them for a long time and that's just how it is. It did reveal a serious weakness though, and I think the best way to shore it up is to pick up another player. We did use the Apprentices as fill-ins a few times and while that worked this is supposed to be the "grown-ups" game and it's hard to throttle back when we drop the kids in on short notice. 

Other than adding another regular player the only workaround I see is to relax my "4 to roll" rule. If I build the encounters around a 4-man party then having all 5 gives them an up, 4 is even, and 3 goes back to challenging but not suicidal.

Also, I think going back to Fridays will help too.

So with the problems identified and some possible fixes in the works, it was time to see if anyone still wanted to play.

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