The Alexandrian

Opening Your Game Table

January 13th, 2011

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 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.

(Re-)Running the Megadungeon
Treasure Maps & The Unknown: Goals in the Megadungeon
Keep on the Borderlands: Factions in the Dungeon
The School of Turin: An Open Gaming Table in the Real World
Escaping the Dungeon

22 Responses to “Opening Your Game Table”

  1. Justin Alexander says:


    This post (in conjunction with your megadungeon posts) has caused a paradigm shift in my thinking about RPGs. It’s especially exciting for me because of my limited and irregularity time to game.

    I would like to try this out but lack the time to make a dungeon from scratch. What published products (especially D&D 3E compatible) would you recommend as being (mostly) pre-jaquayed?
    4 days ago, 3:32:09 PM

    Justin Alexander
    Thanks for the link, Alex. Good discussion.
    Saturday, January 15, 2011, 12:49:09 AM

    Alex Schroeder
    Interesting post! It resulted in a small discussion amongst me and my RPG friends on Google Buzz ( I think we’d love 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 our games. But we haven’t found a solution, yet.
    Friday, January 14, 2011, 7:35:34 AM

    Justin Alexander
    @jdh417: The original 1974 rules of D&D.
    Thursday, January 13, 2011, 9:04:05 PM

    What version of game rules are you using? That make a difference in being able to quickly create characters and teach the game.
    Thursday, January 13, 2011, 8:38:55 PM

    Like so many great ideas, it’s a really simple one, it’s just the case of adjusting your mindset to reckognise the potential. Think I may look in to doing this with the Leverage rules in a sort of Mission Impossible type set up. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction!
    Thursday, January 13, 2011, 1:42:42 PM

  2. Carl says:

    Justin, thanks for writing this. With all the things demanding our time, our group has had to adjust how we game and what we play. That’s why we chose this topic for our last episode of our podcast.

    I am in the process of writing what I call a ‘mini-setting’ to address this issue for our group. It’s not a world, but a small area that can handle numerous nights of mission style adventuring. I see Monte Cook’s Ptolus setting as similar, although his city setting is much larger that what I’m doing.

    It follows your boomtown example. It has just enough to keep the PCs equipped, informed and going back for more. The NPCs can offer jobs, pleas, bribes, etc. as adventure hooks. I see this style suitable for my group, because each ‘mission’ is simple, with a clear objective that can be achieved in one or two sessions.

    For those looking for alternate RPGs that lend themselves well to short gaming sessions, I would suggest Gamma World and Savage Worlds. Gamma World is fun, demands little in the way of prep time, character creation is largely random, quick, and easy. Savage Worlds is $10 for the game and can be used for a variety of game settings… steampunk, high fantasy, supers, etc.

    Keep rolling those dice!


  3. Justin Alexander says:

    Thanks, Carl. I really enjoyed your podcast. I think your actual play stuff has probably sold me on the new Gamma World, too.

  4. Blacksteel says:

    So with this approach how do you handle when the party is somewhere in the dungeon when the session ends? The odds seem to be against having that particular group of players gather again in the immediate future. It seems as though anything requiring more than one session to complete would be going somewhat against the philosophy of the open campaign so how do you manage that?

  5. Justin Alexander says:

    In general, I haven’t found this to be a problem: The understanding at the table is that you have to get out of the dungeon before you can go home for the night; and the players are generally strongly motivated to get out of the dungeon in any case.

    The other option is to simply handwave it: “We’re done for the night. So you all leave the dungeon and go back to town.”

    But I’ve also designed a tool for the occasion: Escaping the Dungeon!

  6. Bradford C. Walker says:

    This is so harmonious with the West Marches series of posts at Ars Ludi that I can not avoid connecting the two. I’m trying to run a West Marches style of campaign, and now I know what’s wrong with it- I’m missing a mega-dungeon. Time to get to mapping.

  7. ChicagoWiz says:

    @Justin – great post!

    @Bradford – not necessarily… what you can also use is a dynamic dungeon that most people will ignore once emptied out. I have two such areas that I keep within the “easy” frame of mind so that if I need a game of “catch”, I can quickly repopulate them based on current game state.

    I’m also running a West Marches game, we’re into its third (actual) year now.

  8. Beedo says:

    I just discovered your blog, and am enjoying a lot of your fresh insight on cool old-schoolisms like learning to love the wandering monsters.

    I agree about the episodic charm of megadungeons, but your analogy about playing catch says it much more succinctly. Glad you’re on WordPress (and can be read through a feed reader).

    On the virtue of episodic games

  9. dariel says:

    Great post! I’ve also been trying to wrestle with this problem for some time. I’ve been advocating episodic, loosely related one-shots ever since a friend told me she’d quit gaming because she had never been part of a story that reached a satisfying conclusion. Having at least an informal agreement that the party must get out of the dungeon before session’s end is a great idea – it’s an achievable good ending.

  10. Malimar says:

    I ran my first OGT megadungeon yesterday. It went pretty well. People seemed to like it.

    I do have a question:

    For now, everybody’s starting at level 1. But I foresee the people who happen to be there every week quickly making it to higher levels, while people who just want to play once or twice (the very people the OGT medium is designed to accommodate) will stay at level 1, noticeably weaker than everybody else.

    How (if at all) do you deal with this level disparity?

  11. Justin Alexander says:

    In my experience, level disparities have not proven to be that big a deal in either OD&D or 3E. A few factors that help:

    (1) When death is a real and meaningful danger (particularly at the fragile lower levels), my group quickly came to appreciate having higher level characters along to keep them alive.

    (2) Similarly, adventuring with high level characters is a great way to level up quickly. This will usually result in you quickly catching up. (For example, if you’re a 1st level character adventuring with a group of four 5th level characters, then they’ll each be netting 300 XP for each CR 5 encounter while you’ll be netting 360 XP. If you start at 0 XP and they start at 15,000 XP, then in just 3 encounter you’ll hit 2nd level. When they hit 6th level, you’ll be hitting 4th level.)

    (3) Allow (and encourage) players to run a “stable” of characters. This makes it easy for the players to figure out what mix of characters they’ll all be happy running with in a given evening.

    (4) As a DM I find it can be difficult finding the “sweet spot” for challenging a party with mixed levels. But this difficulty literally vanishes when the players are allowed to control the amount of danger they’re willing to take on (which the traditional megadungeon allows): They’ll go out and take on the risks which seem reasonable and fun for them… and if it isn’t challenging enough, they’ll choose to “push on a little farther”.

    This is really the biggest secret to most of my GMing: Let the players choose what they want to do and how they want to do it and the odds are pretty good that they’ll have a good time doing it.

  12. Malimar says:

    Okay. I was indeed inclined to just trust the auto-balancing nature of the level system, especially as you’ve posted about it before. I just wasn’t sure if it was really so powerful that I didn’t even need to pay attention to level disparity at all.

    On the one hand, I kind of want to maintain that new characters will always start at level 1, and let the auto-balancing system take care of it forever. On the other hand, I’m a little afraid that might discourage players from keeping a stable of characters, if they have to bring each character up from zero.

    For players who don’t want to make their own characters or who don’t have time, I’m also using a common stable of pre-gen characters that anybody can play, who will level up just like any other character. Unless a player likes one so much that they want to claim them permanently for themselves, which I will also allow. All but one character wound up being a pre-gen in that first session. I’m afraid this might discourage people from making their own characters, but the ability to say “I brought pre-gens, you don’t need to make a character unless you want to” is an incredibly powerful tool in reducing the barriers to entry. (I did try to make the pre-gens bizarre and non-optimized enough to encourage players to make their own. Elf barbarian, warforged rogue, mongrelfolk paladin, things like that.)

    I’ve been telling my players: not everywhere they go is necessarily suited for their current level. I’m hoping that after a few sessions, they’ll either figure out what places have the most appropriate monsters (at whatever level of difficulty they choose to define “appropriate”), or they’ll figure out that they Gather Information exists for a reason, and they have the option of asking around in town and some bartender might recall, “of the last party of tough adventurers to head to the Cave of Burning, only one returned, and he was so badly burned as to be unrecognizable”, or “I heard a bunch of adventurers scoffing at the lack of sport in slaughtering masses of centipedes in the cold iron mines”. I imagine it’ll take at least a few sessions for people to really start to get used to this completely non-railroady way of doing things.

  13. Auroch says:

    I am hoping to start a campaign using some mix of L&L and Pathfinder in a group of heavily-worked college students where an open table would be much more convenient. However, I’m a first-time DM and have not been a player many times, and the rest of the prospective table aren’t any better, so I’m nervous about running a campaign without the structure of a published adventure to back me up.

    What advice do you have? Any particular resources I should look up?

  14. Justin Alexander says:

    In general, I recommend starting with a specific scope and then building from there as your comfort level grows.

    The mega-dungeon really is the best place to start. If you can figure out how to lay your hands on a copy of the original Caverns of Thracia, L&L’s monster creation system will make it really easy to convert it to a 3E/PF structure. (Simply take the HD of any pre-3E stat block, plug it in as the creature’s CR.)

    Alternatively, the 3E version of the module is available for sale on RPGNow. The “re-imagining”, IMO, is over-designed. (I’ve grown more and more intolerant of 8 paragraph encounter keys that are written like a short story instead of a game reference.) But it uses the same basic maps and structure.

    Beyond that, most of the advice I can give you can be found in (Re)-Running the Megadungeon.

    That really can be enough to run an entire campaign. (I’ve gotten 20+ sessions out of just Thracia.) As your comfort level grows, though, you can start throwing down some hexes. L&L includes some basic wilderness adventure rules which were tested up in my OD&D open table.

  15. Justin Alexander says:

    Thinking about this a little more.

    Check out B2: Keep on the Borderland and also “Factions in the Dungeon”. This can be a good low-level testing ground and has pretty much limitless regenerative capacity.

    Then just provide some hooks from the cultists in the Caverns of Chaos to the Caverns of Thracia and you can ladder the PCs into the megadungeon.

  16. Hautamaki says:

    I just started a new campaign based on old school D&D rules (re-written from memory and updated with a few tweaks) at the Keep on the Borderlands. The old players were skeptical since they had been (enjoying) playing for months with a highly complex system and very difficult to kill characters that made them all but invincible unless they played completely suicidally. However everyone there had more fun then I think they’ve ever had playing D&D, and the open dungeon format is now going to be our go-to standard.

  17. Yora says:

    Interesting. I just made a snap descision with some friends from a videogame chat to start a Pathfinder game using some virtual tabletop and setting it in the wilderness bases setting I’ve been working on. Very early on I decited to approach this game in basically the same way as described here: The PCs will be characters from a single villages warrior hall, who set out on short adventures maybe three or four sessions in length. Since there is no formal company or unit, characters can be switched out at any time, either when the group returns back to the base, or they might even meet another of their warrior companions who just happens to be out on patrol or scouting in the area.

    Because I know from my last couple of campaigns, that planning ahead for more than four sessions is basically futile and I have no idea what players will want to continue playing for how long.

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  20. d47 says:

    I’ve been thinking about other “open game table” possibilities besides megadungeons. Urban campaigns are certainly a possibility. Another one is a starship where characters are all crew or passengers. How about a “Lost” type situation in which weird stuff finds the characters as much as they find it. Or, maybe the characters all work for some kind of teleporting team. Ready or not, Scotty is going to beam you up at the end of the session.

  21. Oren says:

    Based on your description of megadungeons and open gaming and various tips you have provided (such as the escaping the dungeon table) I decided to run an open game with a PF dungeon I created. It’s amazing. Thank you for the idea.

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