This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!
You posted an article about making games for younger gamers. Can you post an article about making games for older (30+) gamers? I guess the topic would be how to keep old timers still interested. I can always use more ideas. -- smoker, from Wizards message boards
To continue our conversation about gaming with older gamers (from last week's column), we follow smoker’s question (which has been echoed elsewhere on the boards) with how to deal with games that don’t meet every week. Infrequent gaming is all too often a reality for gamers, but it’s especially true as gamers get older. We get married, we have kids, and we find ourselves with obligations with work, church, playing or coaching sports, and can still be trying to go to school part-time, just to scratch the surface. The olden (read as “golden”) days when we used to play three times a week, ten hours a day, skipping class to game in college, staying up for all-nighters… the stuff we used to be able to do when we were kids or students just can’t happen any more. At least, not as easily. Older gamers have more responsibilities that take away from easy gaming opportunities, especially the dreaded “curse of the non-gamer girlfriend (or boyfriend/spouse/partner/significant other).” More time for taking care of your relationships can mean less time at the gaming table, especially since the best days or nights for gaming tend to be on the weekends, coincidentally the best nights for ‘date night’ with that special someone, on top of kids’ soccer and Little League games, birthday parties, sleepovers, and so on.
So how do you deal with overfull schedules when trying to maintain a regular D&D campaign? For some, you can still manage to fit in a weekly game. For others, that’s just not going to happen – but here are a few alternatives.
1. Less often doesn’t have to mean less gaming
Okay, so you don’t game as often, so maximize the time when you do game. Instead of trying to squeeze in a two- or three-hour game on Wednesday night, maybe you play only two Saturdays a month but you make it an all-day affair. In terms of taking time away from the rest of life, the difference between spending three hours and spending eight hours may not be that significant. You cut way down on travel time to wherever the game is held, since you only have to make the trip once. You also cut down on the fuzzy, staggered, wait-until-everyone-gets-here time at the beginning of the game; the game only has to start once, so while delays in people arriving may be inevitable, once it’s done it’s done and you can game on. Maybe better still, you have less problems with “what happened last week again?” because it’s all happening in one day. Players are more able to keep up with what’s happening story-wise in the campaign. It also allows more opportunity for different flavors of game in one session. If you only have a 2 or 3-hour game, one big combat (especially at high levels) could take up your whole gaming session. As satisfying as monster-bashing can be, some players may walk away from the table less than fulfilled with their role-playing experience.
The longer game is not perfect; it is a long block of time that just won’t work for some people. It also requires some sort of ‘dinner break,’ which can cause lots of problems if not tightly controlled with straggling into and out of the break time. It might be best to have sandwich or salad fixings, Chinese delivery, a bucket of chicken, or perhaps a pizza or three ready to order or already on hand (or fancier fare, if your group is of a mind to prepare it, perhaps even themed to connect with the world in which you play or the particular adventure that you’re on). That way, players can take a few minutes to get something substantial to eat, maybe even while waiting for their turn in combat. Players can eat when they’re hungry, which eliminates the need for a full-scale meal break. Even if everyone does want to eat at once, you can order the food or get it cooking, keep on playing, and then when it’s ready to eat you only need to break long enough to actually eat the food without people scattering to the four winds to get this or that. Heck, you could even keep the dice rolling even as you chow down!
2. Alternating games (same group, different games)
We already talked about this in the last column, but a slight tweak on the idea of alternating games is that -- especially when you have people who can’t make it every week -- you may end up with overlapping but distinct groups for the different campaigns; it further helps if you schedule in advance which game is on which week (rather than deciding on the spot each time you get together). So if Curt DMs on the first and third weekend of the month and Steve DMs the second and fourth, you may have some players who only come for Steve’s and some who are only there for Curt’s, while some play in both. This gives the part-timers the chance to keep up with the party and the campaign in one of the games, instead of feeling like they’re always behind in all of them. It also holds together the community of the group, as the part-timers in one group can still hold onto a certain vicarious connection to the people they don’t see as often who are part-timers in the other group because they are both in relationship with the every-time players. It can help everyone feel a part of things even when they can’t come all the time.
Of course, there may be hurt feelings if it feels like more people want to play one game than the other. Also gameplay may get bogged down if people are spending time catching up and hearing war stories from the other campaign when they’re supposed to be focusing on the one actually being played (and let’s not even get started on side conversations about TV, movies, and whatever online RPGs some of the group may be playing together).
3. Virtual party, virtual advancement
When people play irregularly, you have several choices as to what happens to their characters when they’re not there. They can be played as NPCs and actually be there with the rest of the party. They could get left behind by the rest of the party and have to find them and catch up with them in-game to rejoin the party (yes, it’s ‘realistic,’ but it’s madness! Everyone’s there to play the adventure, and you’re going to waste time figuring out how someone caught up to everybody else, which would be another adventure in itself? Not such a good idea.). You could use the ‘virtual party’ rule, wherein when players aren’t present their PCs are assumed to just be ‘around’ the party, ready to pop up whenever the player is present (and on occasion, if the DM is feeling generous and the player has previously said it’s OK, they might be prevailed upon to perform some non-combat-urgent function for the party, like identifying magic items or casting a teleport spell to travel from one city to the next).
In a similar vein, you can use ‘virtual advancement’ to help such a character keep up with the rest of the party. If you’re going to let Bill keep playing in the campaign, but you know he can only play a couple of times a year, it seems pointless to restrict his character to xp earned when he actually plays. The party may gain four levels in between the times he can play, so when the rest of the party is 12th is his PC still supposed to be 4th? Sure, it violates the ancient DMing creed of “make ‘em earn it!” But it is also a pragmatic solution to a real-world logistical problem. We have friends we like to see, and we don’t see them as often as we would like. To maximize the ability to include those friends in our real-world activities (sitting around a table and gaming), we can and should make fantasy-world accommodations (making sure they have a PC who is reasonable commensurate with the rest of the party). An infrequent player’s PC should in no way be the most powerful in the party, but should be kept at a level at least equivalent with the lower-level members of the party, if not the average level. You will also need to periodically update their equipment, since a 15th level character with 5th level equipment is going to have some trouble.
4. Take notes and communicate
To return to the original point, we’re busy grownups (unfortunately) and we can’t always devote as much of our brain matter as we used to gaming. We forget things. We lose track of who such-and-such recurring villain is and why exactly we hate her, or why we even got into this adventure in the first place. It is very helpful to have regular recaps of events that have happened in past sessions. These can be sent out via email or typed up and given to players when they show up or even read aloud. Recaps might be brief, hitting the high points, they might be verbose and detailed, and they might even recount funny stuff said at the table. Recaps can be an every session affair, or maybe at the end of each adventure arc, or whenever the players start scratching their heads and wondering what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.
These kinds of reminders could be written up by the DM, or even better if a player is willing to take notes and put things together. A player might even do the recap from the point of view of her character, rather than a ‘neutral observer’ description. It is best if these can be made available for review, either as paper copies or kept as an archive on someone’s weblog, personal site, or PC where anyone can refer back to them if they need to, or just if they feel like an amusing trip down memory lane.
One reason people don’t play is because they don’t feel like they have time; another reason is because they feel like they’ve fallen behind and can’t keep up, in terms of their awareness of what’s happening in the campaign and with their character’s advancement and connection to the other characters. If they don’t know what’s going, they’re that much less likely to want to face the logistical hassles of getting to the game and then feeling frustrated while they’re there. Keep players and their characters up to date and think about ways to rearrange your gaming time to keep your group connected and you should be playing until you get arthritis in your dice hand!
About the Author
Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.