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.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

2017 was an interesting year - the year I ran more different games and less of any one game. It was also a year I filled in a lot of boardgame "gaps" that I had been feeling for a long time. It was also the year 40K was reborn and became even more our Number One miniatures game.

  • I ran a few sessions of Mutants and Masterminds and then it just fizzled as my players were unable to gather at the same time and other games moved into the space this created.
  • I ran a few sessions of our very leisurely d6 Star Wars campaign earlier in the year.
  • I ran one session of Runequest. Hey, "one" is better than "zero"!
  • I was determined to get in more experience with the FFG Star Wars game and for a while I did - I ran 4-5 sessions of it this year and feel cautiously optimistic about it.  
  • I have been trying to get back to having a regular Savage Worlds game on the schedule and I briefly achieved this while running a few sessions of our Deadlands campaign but then it too sputtered to a stop as Player Schedule Incompatibility Syndrome reared it's head again.
  • I ran 4-5 sessions of 5th edition D&D using "Keep on the Borderlands" to kick off our experiment with the current big thing in RPGs.
  • I ended up running 4-5 more in a  second, separate 5E campaign using "Storm King's Thunder" for more of the typical schedule issues. 
The single biggest issue (and I know I'm not alone here) is schedules: I have college kids with their work and school schedules, I have adults with work and family schedules, and it's a real challenge to get those to sync up regularly. It gets an order of magnitude more difficult when trying to keep the same group of players together for a particular campaign! Now about a year ago I outlined my approach to managing this and that's pretty much what we have done and it works - with some considerations I will describe in a future post. 

In spite of the challenges I am still getting to run a lot so some things are going well. 

Looking back to last year's kick-off post, well ...
  • I was noting that 5E had not replaced Pathfinder and seemed unlikely to do so - weeeell...
  • One goal was to rejuvenate or kill the Pathfinder campaign I was running. I did accomplish this at least. 
  • I was trying to make a Supers game a regular ongoing thing. That briefly appeared to be working, then it fizzled. My players all seem interested but it never really seems to be the top priority. I may have to resign myself to it just being that way here and keeping some things ready as a fill-in option.
  • I also resolved to do more Star Wars - I did!
  • I didn't run any more DCC, Shadowrun, or Gamma World but I did manage to squeeze in more Savage Worlds and a session of Runequest so partial success there. 

Enough rear-view mirror - what does 2018 look like?

Well 5th is here to stay for us for now. I expect to finish SKT and probably move on to Tomb of Annihilation in that campaign. I expect to finish the Keep and move on to the next thing in that campaign. I halfway expect us to end up with a third campaign in it as well - why not? 

We're regrouping on the FFG Star Wars and I expect we will at least finish Beyond the Rim early this year. After that I am not sure. I'd like to do some more with it but it will depend on the players. I expect the d6 game to continue.

The third main game will be Savage Worlds but right now it looks like it will be in the form of Rifts. Rifts! I'm set to run a kick-off session this Saturday so we will see how that goes. Assuming we have fun with it I could see it becoming the "other" game we play on a somewhat regular schedule. If it fades out then Deadlands will likely make a comeback. 

Anyway it's shaping up to be a good year - I have a clear course, a decent plan, some backup plans, and interested players!