There is no disputing that tabletop role-playing games, and Dungeons & Dragons in particular, are more popular than ever before. While still a niche hobby, that niche has grown considerably large, and the perception of it has shifted as well.
The moment when I realized how great a step forward the role-playing game hobby has taken occurred not too long ago. My gaming group musters at a coffee shop, hauling our books, dice, pencils and accouterments to a private room in the back. From 4-10 p.m., our group of middle-aged nerds leave jobs, families and other responsibilities aside to step into a fantastical world of make-believe. During one of our gatherings, I went to get a cup of coffee and the teen-aged girl barista asked me if I was with the group in the back, and if we were playing Dungeons & Dragons. I said yep, I’m the Dungeon Master.
A item on my list of potential topics, a comment from Nerdarchist Ryan on a recent Saturday live chat, and something one of my players said to me the other day have coalesced into this week’s examination of different ways to approach your tabletop gaming hobby. A core concept shared by roleplaying games is that characters progress through an advancement system based on experiences. Different systems have different terminology for the mechanics, but essentially it involves accumulating a resource used to reach thresholds of advancement. In Dungeons & Dragons – the game I’m most familiar with – this is represented by experience points. Continue reading Experience schmexperience! Trials and triumphs of a full-time nerd in a part-time world
After 30 years of playing tabletop roleplaying games, mostly as a Gamemaster (let’s go with that as a good generic term for any game), and having read through hundreds of rulebooks, sourcebooks, manuals and guides along with countless forums and hundreds (thousands?) of hours of YouTube videos, I’m at the point where I’ve realized there is a thread that runs through all of the games. The Dungeons and the Dragons; in galaxies far, far away a long time ago; amidst mutants and other strangeness; across the Megaverse; winding down the adventure paths; and any other RPG-related references you can think of.
Are you ready to hear it?
When you’re at the gaming table in the middle of your session, take a look around. Are the players laughing or crying? Reminding each other about that NPC with the unusual helmet they ran into a few sessions ago? Getting angry at the monsters they realize are the very same creatures from their backstory who razed their village? Expressing genuine emotions not because the player is having an experience per se, but because their character is having a profound moment of some kind?
Congratulations – you’re following the only rule that matters: players at the table are having fun.
As a GM, following this rule is the single most important reason players are going to return to the table to take part. They will come back whenever you organize game day, not because they want to level up, get cool treasure or show off their awesome character build. That’s not to say those things aren’t enjoyable, satisfying or rewarding. What binds all of those things and more together, however, is having a good time on the road getting there.
I’ll use Dungeons & Dragons as an example to elaborate, and you don’t need to go any further than the first paragraph of the Introduction on page 5 of the 5th edition Player’s Handbook.
The Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game is about storytelling in worlds of sword and sorcery. It shares elements with childhood games of make-believe. Like those games, D&D is driven by imagination. It’s about picturing the towering castle beneath the stormy night sky and imagining how a fantasy adventurer might react to the challenges that scene presents.
That’s it. The remainder of the book is completely optional. The mechanics of D&D, or whatever game system you fancy, exist simply to give you a concrete reason to get together with friends for play time. Remember that, from when you were a child? “Do you want to come over to my house and play?” That was all there was to it. Tabletop roleplaying games give you a basic framework to recapture the ambiguous notion of directionless fun time.
Inspired by the rules
The more fastidiously you cleave to the minutiae of rules, the greater the risk you run of straying from fun purely for fun’s sake. Your brain unwittingly thinks within the confines of a system of rules, shifting away from the explosion of imagination yearning to come forth. Think of it this way: instead of looking to the rules to dictate what you can’t do, let the rules inspire what you can do.
I’ll give you an example. In the last session of my home game, the characters were investigating a series of mysterious disappearances. They were exploring a dwarven outpost suffused with all sorts of bizarre effects that caused madness and wild magic surges. Eventually, they discovered the source. The monk character’s player, who had witnessed all of his friends go through bouts of madness, theorized that it was caused by the strange things they’d individually seen. The player asked me if he could blindfold himself, and focus his ki to guide his senses, so he wouldn’t have to look at the madness-inducing alien creatures. Without hesitation I said of course he could do that. There’s no rule for something like that, no special monk ability that describes how to use your ki points in that manner. But it sounded cool to me, and the player had a lot of fun.
Essentially, the shift in perspective lies in allowing the players to participate in creating the world their characters live in. Whenever they roll dice or ask questions about their capabilities or surroundings, in essence they’re helping to bring the world of the game environment to more vibrant life. The characters are walking through the city and pass by a tall tower. One of them thinks it would be fun to try and climb to the top, and asks if they can scale the tower wall. They’re not asking if their character is skilled enough to scale the tower – they’re asking if the tower is the sort that can be climbed. See the difference? It’s subtle. Let’s say the character has invested resources into improving their ability to climb things. In light of this, of course they could climb a tower. But can they climb this tower? They roll some dice, succeed, and manage to scramble up the side. In the same way, the monk wasn’t asking if he could use his ki to sense his surroundings. He was asking if the shared spiritual energy of all living things was connected enough for his ki to focus on connecting with the others in the room.
De-prioritizing rules doesn’t only work for players though. It is an extremely useful tool for GMs as well. Following closely to the rules in the 5th edition D&D Dungeonmaster’s Guide, a DM could spend quite a bit of time mathematically constructing balanced adventures. A certain number of encounters within a certain time frame, with exactly the right number and type of creatures to fit a formula, theoretically resulting in appropriate challenges for the party makeup. Many GMs follow these guidelines and others like them across various games, and they obviously work based on the hugely popular tabletop RPG culture. And that’s great.
Making it up as you go
As an alternative to that, try making things up as you go along. You can even put the work off onto the players without them ever realizing what’s going on. When you’re prepping for your next session, instead of parsing out every 5 ft. square of space in the dungeon, make a short list. On that list, put a creature to be mooks, a tougher creature to captain the mooks, and a creature to act as the boss. The boss could be a single powerful creature or a group, as along as they’re more dangerous than the mooks and captain. Also on the list, add a few hazards like traps or puzzles. Write down two or three vague scenarios.
From there, just play it by ear. Sit down at the table, describe where the characters are, ask them what they’re going to do and go from there. See what happens. Let the players talk amongst themselves while you listen. I guarantee, one of them will say something that will trigger an idea in your mind from your list. Before you know it, they’re on an adventure. You didn’t write one out. They don’t know you didn’t write one out. Nevertheless, they discovered someone in trouble, or an intriguing location, and they’re off. The players are now creating the story they want their characters to engage with, and all you have to do is narrate the results of their actions.
When things slow down and the players seem antsy, go to the list and have them encounter some mooks. Let them describe what they do next, and then throw a puzzle their way. At the risk of spoiling my secrets for any of my players who might read this, try out this technique. Give your players a cryptic clue, like describing a pile of oddly-shaped rocks and a bizarre pattern of dots scratched into the wall. Give them a few minutes to talk about it and try different things. Maybe they arrange the rocks in a similar pattern, or try to connect the dots. Trust me – they’ll come up with some unusual ideas. Once they try something that sounds cool to you, what do you know, that was the solution and the magical secret door opens, leading further into the unknown.
At a certain point, after you’ve gone through most of your list, let them encounter the boss creature(s). If the characters are trouncing the boss, throw them a curve ball. Reinforcements arrive, or part of the chamber collapses and separates party members. Give the boss a special attack that’s only accessible when they’re near death. By that same token, if the boss is much more difficult than you anticipated, fudge it. When there’s only one character left standing and hope seems lost, let them make the killing blow.
Taking notes (mental or physical – your choice) on the highs and lows of the session, your next list will be even better. Your hooks will be directly inspired by the things your players found most interesting. Your workload as GM is reduced because you’re not agonizing over mathematically constructing the perfect adventure for your players. There’s no need to anticipate your players’ actions and reactions either (which is great because if you consider a million possibilities, players with invariably do the 1,000,001st thing).
The best part is that the storytelling is shared equally. Players are contributing their imagination to the tale as much as the GM. A common pitfall for GMs is binding themselves to their own narrative, but now you’re letting the narrative emerge after the fact. The story isn’t being told until the session is over, and as for what happens next, who knows? Dice were rolled, monsters were vanquished and heroic deeds were performed. You got together with friends to tell a story and have fun, and really, that’s the only rule that matters, isn’t it?
Well, there is one other rule I should mention … stay nerdy.
Without a GM to run the tabletop RPG, whether it’s Dungeons & Dragons or whatever game your group is playing, the party’s continuing adventures will be put on hold. But what if one or more of the players can’t make it to your next session? Or perhaps your group attendance changes all the time, with a different configuration of your core group showing up intermittently to go on quests. The demands of daily life don’t have to deter the rest of the group from meeting for a gaming session. In fact, you can use these situations to your advantage to instill varying degrees of drama and play styles for your campaign.
Classic D&D adventuring style
The simplest method for running your game with an irregular party makeup takes a page from the earliest days of D&D’s playbook. Shifting the focus away from a grand narrative, the characters instead are adventurers for adventure’s sake. While it is no doubt engaging for characters to have vested interests in the reasons and outcomes for their quests, there’s something to be said for starting a session with the characters at the dungeon entrance and the question put forth from the GM: “What do you do?”
Early D&D modules like “In Search of the Unknown” gave DM’s brief backgrounds on whatever dungeon was contained therein, and the PCs motivations for being there, which were nearly always the same – there’s treasure inside! The notion of connected quests that carried parties from 1st to 20th level wasn’t an assumed part of the game. Instead, the DM created dungeons (or used published modules), players showed up with their characters and delved into the depths. Certainly it behooved a group to include a balanced mix of characters to tackle all the various tricks, traps, puzzles and monsters, but if three players showed up all with fighter characters to test their mettle, then that’s how the session went.
Even playing this way, over time players and DMs developed character arcs and longer plots in their imaginations, and elements in later adventures hearkened back to earlier exploits. The difference with this style is that the party is not necessarily considered the stars of an epic tale. Players certainly became attached to their characters, but it wasn’t going to derail a long narrative if (when) those characters died. The characters existed for the sole purpose of surviving dungeons.
If your group is just starting up, consider taking your game in this direction. Take a dungeon, set the characters at the entrance and go from there. While Wizards of the Coast has strayed away from the model of publishing adventures in this manner, there’s nothing wrong with using their long campaign adventures, cutting out all the narrative elements and just using the dungeons. For example, the Oozing Temple in Out of the Abyss can easily make for a one-shot adventure. Handwaving the lost in the Underdark set-up, simply tell your players they were exploring some underground tunnels, a cave-in cuts off the passage they were in but opens up a new tunnel.
The upcoming release of Tales from the Yawning Portal, as I understand it, looks to capture the spirit of this sort of adventure with a series of independent dungeons. My guess is they’ll be presented in a progressively more difficult order, so a campaign of sorts takes place as adventurers tackle each dungeon in succession.
Similarly, there is a great product from Kobold Press called “The Book of Lairs” filled with small dungeons featuring signature monsters that can be run the same way. I’ve used several of them with my own group, which is run in sandbox style, and with some personalization they’ve been extremely useful.
Take a note from TV
Episodic series with ensemble casts are terrific examples of how to run RPGs with an intermittent group of core characters. In this approach, the players who show up for a session are basically the stars of that adventure. I’m far from the first person to cite the fantastic “Firefly” program as an example of this style of play. (A particularly great example, too, considering my group is playing in the Spelljammer setting.) Essentially, take any program with a larger cast and think about how different episodes focus on different configurations of the characters. Even primetime sitcoms fluctuate which characters are featured in each episode.
The absent PCs simply aren’t part of the session when the players aren’t there. Perhaps they are off taking care of personal business or on another adventure of their own. Even in a campaign with a long narrative, this doesn’t need to negatively affect the plot. On the contrary, it can serve to strengthen it by giving the PCs who are present a more powerful connection to that session’s particular circumstances. The GM can weave elements specific to the present characters into the adventure, making the scenario more meaningful for them and giving players the sense their characters are important parts of the story. Conversely, adding details pertinent to the absent players can strengthen the bonds between both party members, who can add their own dramatic elements to the narrative by becoming a part of their companions’ personal tales even when they weren’t present themselves.
After enough sessions, there’s great potential for unexpected arcs to emerge that can culminate in a “season finale” session when all of your players can attend. Along the way, the characters have accumulated hints and details from their individual levels of involvement that can come to light and create excitement for the whole group. Players in one session might have uncovered clues that help solve a mystery other players are still in the dark about, for instance.
Monster hunters extraordinaire
As a GM that loves all the incredible monsters, creatures and critters, a style of game where the players are contract monster hunters is a ton of fun. This is also a great option for groups that tend to have short sessions and that enjoy combat more than exploration or social encounters.
Instead of a narrative reason or even a large dungeon to explore, the characters are all professional monster hunters working for a guild. The most basic way to run a game like this is to choose a monster, explain that the characters have tracked it down, and let them fight it. Whichever players showed up to the session are the hunters who took the contract.
Characters in this sort of game are simpler to create, as well. In a game focused so heavily on combat, the need for more diverse skill sets is reduced. Along these same lines, it gives all of the characters an equal chance to shine, if they’re all created primarily to be combatants.
If you need to make the encounter longer, the character might have to navigate the monster’s territory a bit first. This can provide some opportunities for skill use beyond combat capabilities. They might have to do some tracking, avoid some hazards along the way and plan for a stealthy approach to ambush the monster. Perhaps the GM can allow some skill checks for things like Arcana, History, Nature or Religion to dole out some hints about the subject of their hunt.
Another benefit to this sort of group is that it’s very easy to trade GM duties on a regular basis, or even not have a traditional GM at all! Your group could go round robin, with a different player choosing which monster the group hunts each session, with that player taking point on the encounter set-up and any quirks to the particular hunt. They can handle running the monster, and their character can either be absent from the contract or they can participate as well – assuming everyone agrees and there’s no favoritism towards their character in the fight.
Adventuring from a home base
This aspect of a game group can be applied to any sort of play style to help explain character absences. In a West Marches-style game, for example, characters are based in a singular town that is explicitly safe from outside dangers. There is never any adventure in the town, and the quests take place in ever-expanding regions beyond the town that the characters explore. If a player isn’t present at a session, their character simply stays in town that day.
Likewise, in my Spelljammer game, the party has their own ship that accommodates a fairly large crew of 22. They don’t have a full complement by a damn site, but at this point there are enough PCs and NPC crewpeople to allow lots of variety for “away teams” for their adventures. Depending on the players who show up, the group decides who they’ll take with them when they leave the ship, and the rest of the character remain on board. One of my players whose character is an artificer gunsmith has only been to a single session, and yet his character has grown into a vital crew member, acting as the ship’s engineer. Whenever the ship takes damage – a frequent occurrence – he works on repairs or assists whoever the party hires to patch it up. An NPC wizard ally is the default helmsman. Their first official hire (the impound lot attendant who helped them basically steal their ship back) has evolved into a reliable brawler and cargo manager. Another player who comes to most sessions has become the ship’s navigator, so it makes sense that he stays on board sometimes to make sure the beloved ship continues to run smoothly.
Perhaps the characters are all part of a special task force for a noble or secretive group, and specific strike teams are assembled for whatever the session’s mission might be. This is an excellent way to explain missing PCs as well – their skills weren’t needed for the quest. If they show up the next session, mid-adventure, they could have been dispatched by the party’s employer or patron to help ensure the group’s success.
But what about … ?
A group with intermittent attendance can lead to some issues, but these don’t need to throw a monkey wrench into your sessions.
The most obvious situation is a disparity in PC level. If you’ve got players who show up every time, players who show up most of the time and players who barely ever show up, there’s a good chance the characters will all be different levels. The simplest way to address this situation is “so what?” There’s no reason different level characters can’t adventure together. The Dungeon Master’s Guide has a wealth of information on tailoring content based on mathematically determining the optimal encounters for any party makeup, if you like to get down and dirty with technical details like that. Or you can just allow the lower-level characters to accompany their higher-level allies into what for them is more dangerous situations. Sure, they’ll have to play it a bit safer, but (especially with D&D 5E’s bounded accuracy) lower-level PCs can certainly contribute to the party’s success.
Another way to address level disparity is through milestone leveling instead of the standard experience point thresholds, which is my preferred method. Going this route means you can easily adjust the challenges faced by the party without a lot of mechanical trouble. If they encounter a monster that turns out to be much more difficult than you anticipated (looking at you, gibbering mouther) the GM can reduce the creature’s power without worrying about breaking any experience point standards. After a few sessions, or when the GM feels it is appropriate, the characters can all gain a level. I like to hold off on leveling until I notice my players have explored whatever new options they received from the last time they leveled up. That way, they can get a good feel for how the character works and make more thoughtful choices when new options are presented. Plus, it makes it more exciting since they never really know when they’ll gain a level.
If your group has built trust between the GM and players, and amongst the players themselves, absent PCs can be played by one of the other players, or the GM can control them sort of like an NPC ally. In my group, I have a decent grasp on what the characters are like, their personalities and how they approach situations, and absent players trust me to run their characters appropriately when they can’t make it to a session. Granted, those characters tend to fade into the background a bit since I want the present players to feel like they have more control of their circumstances, but it’s a fun exercise to get to know the characters better by having them act in ways I think their players would.
Likewise, present players can run characters for absentees. This requires a level of trust as well, perhaps to a greater degree, so absent players don’t feel like their characters will become cannon fodder, human shields or guinea pigs for the rest of the party. Absent players can give some notes to whomever is going to run their character that help guide their actions. For example, our party cleric tends to rely on debuff spells primarily, with emergency healing when needed. He is not a front-line combatant and strongly believes discretion is the better part of valor. Those few simple notes give everyone a good idea how the character would act and react in any given situation.
If your last session ended mid-adventure, and your next session picks up with different players in attendance, there are ways around that, too. The most convenient way is hand-waving the situation and picking up where you left off with the character either there or not. Granted, it breaks immersion, but that feeling fades quickly enough once you start playing.
If the player was absent last time, but present now, the party could discover their character as a prisoner of whatever foe they’re facing, joining the party after a rescue. Or their absence last time could be explained as a personal task that resulted in crossing paths with the party now. In a fantasy or science fiction setting, there’s any number of extraordinary ways for people to arrive or disappear anywhere: teleportation mishaps, weird radiation pulses, wormholes, planar rifts and so on.
For players who were present last time but missing now, basically the same options apply but in reverse. Hand-waving them away is again the blunt-force option. The character could have been taken prisoner, perhaps during a rest when they were the only one on watch. Or you can employ strange circumstances that cause them to disappear, potentially leading the story in unusual directions no one had conceived.
Another option for groups is to take a break from the core campaign and try something else. Maybe one of the other players has an idea for a campaign they’d like to start, with new characters. The group could try out a one-shot adventure with different characters, or even an entirely new game. Use the opportunity to play test homebrew content and see how it works. If the group doesn’t want the absent player to miss out on the narrative, explore a side story to your campaign’s main arc instead.
At the end of the day, dealing with changing player groups is far from an insurmountable task. In many ways, having an intermittently changing group of players provides opportunities for new styles of play, new stories to tell, new directions for characters to explore or possibly whole new games to enjoy. Instead of canceling a session completely because one or more players can’t make it, get together whenever you can and see what happens. You might discover there’s more to your gaming table than you imagined.
Next week, we’ll take a break from the usual column focus and instead I’ll delve into a terrific project I’m involved with along with other Nerdarchy writers – a collaborative adventure we’re creating together to present for free in honor of International Tabletop Day 2017. The experience so far has been terrific, and we’re all super excited about not only giving people a great adventure to play but also running it at our own tables. Keep your eyes out for continued information about the adventure, stop back here in two weeks for more tips on keeping your gaming habit alive and, of course, stay nerdy!