When I first started playing roleplaying games, way back in elementary school, I used to play RPGs all the time. As I got older, of course, gaming became a bit scarcer. There were times when I didn’t have anyone to play with at all. But even when I did, it became tougher to coordinate schedules; tougher to find the free time even in my own schedule.
For the past few years I’ve been lucky enough to have a regular gaming group. But regular for us has usually meant averaging about two sessions a month. And it’s not just that I was in a completely different ballpark from the days when we would play every lunch hour… it’s that I was playing a completely different sport.
And I figured that was just the way things had to be. As we get older, after all, time becomes more precious.
But over the past year or so, I’ve realized that while I’ll probably never get back to that “every lunch hour” ballpark, it actually is possible to start playing the same sport again.
THE WAY WE PLAY
The ballpark/sport analogy is actually rather apt because what I’ve realized is that my schedule wasn’t the only thing that’s changed over the years. I’ve fundamentally changed the way I play roleplaying games. And while I did it for all the right reasons, I’m pretty sure now that I threw the baby out with the bathwater.
To understand what I mean, let me cast your thoughts back to that time when I used to game all the time: Lunch hour (or any other snatch of free time) would roll around and we’d pull out our D&D manuals and our character sheets. One of us would volunteer to DM and that guy would grab whatever dungeon he was currently working on (or he had just read through) and we would start playing. Eventually lunch hour would come to an end and we’d pack up our things. And the next time we played, we’d either continue exploring that same dungeon or we’d start exploring some other dungeon (possibly with a completely different DM). Maybe we’d use the same characters; maybe we’d have rolled up a new character or feel in the mood to play somebody else from our stable. Whatever worked, we did it.
Compare and contrast with the way my regular gaming group plays: At the beginning of each month, I send out an e-mail listing the best days that I’m free this month for gaming. I wait for everybody to reply back. Hopefully a couple of those days will be free for all of us, but if they don’t then I’ll go to the second best dates and start wrangling. Eventually we’ll have a couple of days scheduled. But if a conflict comes up, then we’ll need to cancel that session.
Other groups may have a larger tolerance for handling one or two missing PCs, but I don’t think I’m in error when I say that this is the way most people play RPGs now.
The important difference here is not our modern, adult, crowded schedules: It’s the fact that our games have become rigid affairs. The default mode of play is to gather a group of 5 or 6 people who plan to all get together on a regular or semi-regular basis for 10 or 20 or more 4-8 hour sessions.
The sheer level of commitment created by the now standard form of play is, in my opinion, huge.
For example, Expedition to Castle Ravenloft describes itself as “a mini-campaign lasting around fifteen to twenty sessions, or roughly five months of real time (assuming you play weekly)”.
This is not atypical. When you agree to join a typical campaign, you’re making a minimum commitment of 80 hours or more spread over months or years of your life. Dropping out or missing frequent sessions is usually considered bad form, since losing a player (and, therefore, their character) can be incredibly disruptive to the tightly woven continuity of the modern campaign.
This is the root of the “I can’t play because it’s too hard to find time for a roleplaying game” problem that many gamers face today. But there’s also another side to this problem: It becomes incredibly difficult to ask new players to join your game because of the huge commitment of time and focus you’re asking from them.
And this is particularly true if you’re talking about players who are completely new to roleplaying games because there’s really no way to judge whether they’ll like the game enough to want to commit a significant portion of their lives to it for the next year or more.
Let me put this another way. Imagine that you had never heard of baseball before and someone said, “Hey, wanna join a baseball team?”
“What’s that involve?” you ask.
“Well, we practice for 3 hours every Wednesday evening and we’ll have a game every Saturday afternoon for the next 7 months.”
You’d have to be really, really curious about baseball in order to take that guy up on his offer, right?
But, of course, that’s not how people get involved in baseball. Most people start playing baseball when somebody says, “Hey, wanna play catch?” And playing catch is easy. You pick up a ball and you throw it. And if you get bored, you put the ball down and you do something else. Some people, of course, will never pick that ball up again. But lots of people will find they like throwing the ball around, and some of those people will eventually find themselves agreeing to spend 300 hours every year participating in amateur baseball leagues.
Where’s the equivalent of “let’s play catch” in roleplaying games?
Well, it turns out I had the secret of it way back in elementary school. And then I forgot about it. I became myopically focused on how awesome a baseball league could be, and forgot that sometimes just throwing a ball back and forth can be fun, too. (And a lot easier to pull off.)
I rediscovered how to play catch in the Caverns of Thracia.
The Caverns of Thracia are an old school megadungeon designed by Paul Jacquays. I’ve recounted some of the sessions I’ve run within its hallowed halls. I’ve also used it as the primary example of how to jaquay your dungeons. But it’s also taught me how the classic megadungeon campaign structure can be used to open up your game table and triple or quadruple your gaming.
The basic megadungeon campaign structure is pretty simple:
1. There’s a huge dungeon. So big that it can’t be cleared out in one or two or even a dozen gaming sessions. In fact, it’s so huge that the parts you’ve already cleared out will probably start repopulating with new monsters before you finish exploring the rest of it.
2. There’s a nearby “gold rush” town where PCs can form adventuring parties to explore the megadungeon.
3. At the end of each session, everybody heads back to town. At the start of the next session, a new adventuring party forms and heads back to the dungeon.
The last point is the the crucial one here: The megadungeon campaign structure fundamentally lends itself to variable playing groups. Who showed up for this week’s game? Which characters do they want to play? That’s your adventuring party for the week. Go!
This structure means that you don’t have to worry about wrangling schedules. Feel like playing on Thursday? Send out an e-mail saying, “We’re playing on Thursday. Who wants to come?”
It’s also incredibly easy to invite new players to join the game. Even if they only play the one time, they can have a great time without causing any disruption to “continuity”. In fact, if you can couple the megadungeon campaign structure to a fast-and-simple character creation system, it can be as easy to play a pick-up roleplaying game as it is pull a boardgame off the shelf.
Since putting a megadungeon back into my gaming repertory, I’ve radically increased the amount of roleplaying I’m doing. In fact, I can play now pretty much whenever I want to: I’ve got a mailing list of 30 players that I can send my invites out to, and from that list I’m almost guaranteed to get at least 3 or 4 people on any given night.
In the past year, I’ve also been able to play with a half dozen players completely new to roleplaying games and another half dozen players who hadn’t played in half a decade or more. (This is a large part of the reason why I have 30+ players on my mailing list now.)
With that being said, open table campaign structures are not the be-all and end-all of gaming. (Any more than catch is the be-all and end-all of playing baseball.) I’m still running my regular campaign, which has now reached its 60th session. And there’s a ton of depth, detail, and complexity in that dedicated campaign which is impossible to achieve in the loose style of the open table.
But, on the other hand, when I needed a replacement player for my regular campaign, I had developed a “stable” of players at my open table that made it easy to find a replacement.
The megadungeon, of course, is not the only form of play which can support this kind of open table. But it can be surprisingly hard, actually, to find the right mix of “I can GM this any time” and “the players can disengage at any time without making it difficult to pick things up again with a completely different group of players next week”. For example, for the past several months I’ve been trying to figure out how to build an open table campaign structure for Shadowrun… and pretty much failing. (A series of one-shots can work in a pinch, but they require a lot more prep work on the part of the GM and require a very precise sense of exactly how much gaming you can get done in a single evening.)
Another open table technique from my “golden age” of gaming was the use of multiple DMs all supporting the same stable of characters. In those elementary school games I used to be able to play the same cleric in Matt’s campaign, then take it over to Nick’s campaign, run it through Steve’s campaign, and then bring it back to Matt’s campaign without any problem. Haven’t really tried that lately, but I can’t see any reason why it can’t work now.