Monday, July 11, 2011

Prodigal Son: The Campaign Trail

Part Twelve:

    As I am building up to run another game, this time introducing my fellow Dork’s wife to the hobby, I’m putting some thought into the immediate needs of the game, but also in what I might want to do in the near future.  The realities of adult life, which I’ve gone on about in previous postings, make the hobby of tabletop roleplaying something of a challenge.

    So, I’m in the same pickle I’ve been in with gaming for a decade or so.  How do I manage to gather people together on a regular basis?  This comes down to several questions, and I’m sure I’m not thinking of half the important ones.  Obviously, what night of the week?  I prefer to game at night.  It’s like going to the movies for me.  Not that I don’t go during the day on occasion, but I simply prefer night visits.  When it comes to games, I don’t mind a board game or a video game during the day, but there’s something about that post-dinner time that feels better.  Perhaps it goes back to telling stories around a camp fire?  I don’t know.  But, what night of the week?  My personal choice is Sunday.  I’ve always found Sunday night to be one of the best for running a game.  Less people have to work Sunday nights, too, which helps.  But there’s a certain nameless factor that has always worked for me.  And, if I’m going to be running a game, I prefer not to do so after a day of work.  It’s just one of those things.  It’s hard to concentrate and bring my A-game while I’m trying to decompress from a stressful day on the job.  Not to mention, I haven’t had time for last minute adjustments or re-reading my notes for the night’s game.

    Then you’ve got a group to assemble.  Not every game is for every gamer, and not every gamer is for ever group (and vice versa).  Personalities that would be fantastic for a game like Paranoia or Ghostbusters might be dreadful for Everyway or Empire of the Petal Thrown.  Someone who is scatter-brained and likes pranks or tomfoolery can work great in the right kind of game.  But they can be a distraction, and a downright detraction in another.  Someone who is very serious and rules conscious could be an excellent addition to a game of Ars Magica or Earthdawn.  But that same person might squirm in their seats or chafe under the free-formed mechanics of Everyway or Fudge. So having an idea of what game you might be running and who your group of players will be is a good idea.

    Right now, I’ve got four serious possible players, but I don’t have a solid idea of how, or if, they might gel.  Nor do I really know what game might be best for the group, or some variation of it.  I have some ideas of things I’d like to run, but nothing set in stone.  And, I don’t know if said players would be able to get together on the same night, regularly or not.  And how regular should a game be?  I know of people who have done once a month (usually longer sessions).  But I frankly don’t like playing any less than every other week if it’s an ongoing game.  Even that’s pushing it, because if you miss a week, that can throw things off quite a bit.  But, it’s hard for people to commit to a regular night every week.  I’m not sure what the balance is.  I guess it depends on the group.  My thoughts right now come down to a few options.

    First, there’s simply trying to get together for a regular game night.  Perhaps every couple of weeks.  This would involve various games, from board games to video games, and perhaps the odd one-shot roleplaying game, probably something of the ‘beer and pretzel’ variety.  So called beer and pretzel games are the sort you don’t need to put a lot of thought or planning into, are mostly done just for a laugh, and completed in an evening.  Paranoia is probably the single greatest example of this sort of game.  Macho Women with Guns, Ghostbusters, and Tales from the Crypts are some others.

    A second option would be a more traditional attempt to get players together either every week, or every other for the exclusive purpose of roleplaying.  This is most conducive to ongoing games, or to longer but still finite games, or mini-campaigns.  For a weekly game, I’d want a core group of no less than three and no more than six players who can be relatively sure of attendance.  And on those occasions when too many players, or the wrong ones are missing, the group can fall back on a board game, beer and pretzel game, or even something like watching a movie.  Making this an every other week game wouldn’t change things too much, except that missing a session could put as much as a month between games, which makes continuity more difficult.  And from experience, this always seems to happen at the most inopportune time, like on a cliffhanger or in the middle of something important.

    A third option I’ve been thinking about lately is a bit odd for me, but might actually work.  That is, running a game every week, but with a revolving crew of players.  This would only work for certain games or style of games.  The most obvious choice for me is Ars Magica, a game designed around having a large cast of characters, many of whom don’t take part in every scenario.  So long as I could maintain 3 or 4 players every week, with as many as 10 or 12 people actually ‘playing’ the game, it could work.  I’ve seen it done.  In fact, one of the best games I was ever in was an Ars Magica game that had about 12 or 13 players at its height, though there were rarely more than 6 players on any given night.  And with a game like Ars Magica, having ‘guest’ players is easy as pie.  Ars Magica is not the only game that might work, simply the most obvious.

    Of course, one of the most important things to do, or to worry about is keeping players wanting to show up.  People are less likely to have things “come up” if they’re really enjoying themselves and looking forward to the game.  I know when I’ve been in a really good game, I’ve skipped out on other obligations in order to go to the game.  But when I’ve been less interested, I’ve skipped sessions at the drop of a hat.  So, I think the trick is to get the players invested in the game, to get them fully engaged.  This can certainly be a challenge, but I think a worthy one.  I’ve tried, to varying degrees of success, several tricks over the years.  Again, using Ars Magica as an example, the ‘lab notebook’ always served as a way for me to stay involved in the game, even during the weeks between sessions.  I’d get out of a game on Sunday night, then spend part of my study hall each day for the rest of the week writing about what my magi was doing while not out adventuring.  I created whole subplots in my lab notebook, about various experiments and activities in and around the covenant that went on between myself and the gamemaster, occasionally coming into play during a regular game session.  I’ve tried to use journals in other games, but have found players extremely resistant to it.  Perhaps seeing it as some kind of homework, as opposed to a fun way to continue the game beyond the few hours of actual tabletop play.  A friend of mine ran a game where a player used to do a painting of something important from one session to bring in for the next.  Another player used to make authentic food.  I’ve heard of people composing songs, poetry, and even writing short stories.  I had suggested for one game (Fading Suns), that people bring in designs for ships, weapons, or creatures with brief explanations.  The ones I really liked would make it into the game.

    There are countless ways to encourage player engagement, and I am always curious to hear more.  I don’t think you can have too much.  And some games are better designed for it than others, it seems.  The Pool (and the variation, The Puddle) for example, is a game where successful rolls actually allow the player to guide the story for a while.  To what degree could vary by game, but this can really make things interesting for both players and gamemasters, especially GMs more used to having a strict grip on the story.  But this gives the players not just a say in what their character do or say, but in the very progression of the story and shaping of the world.

    I recently acquired a science fiction game called Diaspora which uses the Fate system (which uses some elements Fudge).  In it, you not only make characters together but create the very setting you’ll be playing in.  Each player (you might not even know who the GM will be at this point), creates a star system within a ‘cluster.’  Then the group figures out how they’re all connected, not just physically by ‘slipstream’ routes, but by economics and culture as well.  Players taking an active part in creating the playing field their characters will be inhabiting.  I would think that would be pretty engaging and encourage them to become more invested in the game, their characters, and the future of the story and setting.  It’s an interesting idea, and I’m very interested in giving it a try.  It doesn’t hurt that Diaspora is in a nice semi-generic, Golden Age, mostly hard science fiction setting, along the lines of Asimov or Niven.

    Instead of simply accruing experience points for stat boosting, I think taking an active role in creating better stories would be fantastic for players and GM.  As a gamemaster, I’ve always worked best with plenty of active feedback.  The worst games are the ones where people simply show up, go through some dice rolling exercises, then leave.  Did they enjoy it?  Did any of the work I put in really mean anything?  What reason do I have to put hours of work into the next session?  Games like that tend to not last very long.  What’s the point?

    So, in building a group of players for this return to gaming, I have many questions, and many challenges.  But, I know from the past that the hobby can be most rewarding.  I formed great friendships and great memories around those many tables, rolling dice, dreaming big, and telling great stories.  And I had a lot of fun.


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