Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Agile-Style Gaming - One Year Later

Captain Jack's ship the "Tinasi Fire"
I posted this almost a year ago about adapting tabletop gaming to a new model: Instead of announcing that I am going to run Game X on Date Y I ask who can make it on Date Y and then, based on the available player pool, run Game X, Y, or Z. It's a fairly common expectation to try and build a game around a set group of players, and it's a pretty common reason for games to get cancelled when one (or more) of those players can't show up. This approach is an attempt to get around it.

Now you may say "press on!" and in the past I have done so, but if the party is 3 levels deep into the lich-king's dungeon and the cleric can't make it there is usually some resistance to forging ahead. This is not just a D&D thing either - if Tech Sergeant Chen was taking the lead in escaping the work pits of Saladar-9 it doesn't make much sense for him to completely vanish from the adventure when his player can't make it. So there are plot-reasons, campaign coherency reasons, and game mechanical reasons for wanting a consistent group of players for an ongoing game.

I ended up running two different 5E games this way: I was running one for Paladin Steve, Variable Dave, and Apprentice Blaster. Dave couldn't make it for a while but we wanted to keep digging in to 5th edition, and Steve's oldest is ready to try out D&D. So we started another 5E campaign, this one set in the Realms, and it's going really well. It's now the "D&D game we play when Dave can't make it" campaign.

I've tried this approach for the past year and let me tell you - If we don't have the mix for the "main" game we will still have the mix for *some* game and that means we're playing that week instead of not playing. We may have to wait an extra week or three to see how it goes for Tech Sergeant Chen but it between we're going to find out how Smuggler Captain Jak Daniels, his First Mate Gim Beem, and Jedi Knight Jon-E Wahkker do against the Fearsome Bounty Hunter Rum Chata in the days of the Old Republic instead.

Captain Jack's droid - "Old Number Seven"

So as a solution to the "no game this week" problem it works. As a solution to the inconsistent party problem it works. That said there are issues that arise:

  • A good game draws attention. "Hey I like Star Wars too, I want to play that too" says the player who is not part of the list for that particular game. Do I bring him in and muddy the player/game matrix? Or do I start a new one and create a new entry in the matrix?
  • One player who is part of 3 of your 6 games is out for a month. Then a second player is out for most of that same time and wipes out two more of your six games. 
    • For one thing, this cuts out a huge swath of your options. This approach is resistant to damage, not immune
    • Additionally this creates a situation where it may make sense to start a new campaign with the available players, but realistically how likely is this particular configuration of available/not available likely to occur again? So you start a new game that gets played a couple of times then never happens again. I'm thinking it's better to make it a branch-off of an existing campaign so it can be routed back into an existing game when the time comes.
  • The last-minute cancel: You know Jim-Bob can't make it this week so you plan on playing Game Y. Then suddenly Jason cancels and now the matrix says Game Z but you haven't touched that one in a few months. 
It's tricky being a GM sometimes.

Jon-E Wahker's Green, Blue, Red, Gold, Purple, and White!

The main advice I can offer here is this: Resist the temptation to let every player join every game. If you do that you're circumventing the whole reason for taking this approach. If somebody can't make it you have a game tailored to just the people that can. Don't screw that up!

Also: Don't run multiple campaigns for the exact same group of players. I ended up doing that last year and all it does is create conflict. I have a D&D game and a Deadlands game that is based on the same group of 3 players. It's dumb - don't do it!

The Final Challenge: You're going to run a lot more games as in "campaigns" but you're going to spend less time on each one over the course of a year. How much "more" and "less" depends on how often your players miss. You do have to pick a "main" game - "if everyone can make it then this is what we play" and then things branch from there. Decide the others as the schedule issues come up. If you get into an interesting run and then that particular group never seems to get together again go ahead and schedule a special run to wrap it up! If a group wants to drop one game and play something else instead let them!

It's mostly working for me so I'm going to keep doing it. More to come as things develop.

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