The Alexandrian

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In order to be successful, I believe an open table requires (or will greatly benefit from):

  1. Quick Character Creation
  2. Easy Access Systems
  3. Open Group Formation
  4. Default Goal
  5. Default Action
  6. Regenerative / Extensible Content

QUICK CHARACTER CREATION

At the beginning of any given session at an open table, you can have a brand new player sitting at the table. They’ll need a character to play, but the character creation process needs to be expedited: You don’t want the other players growing bored while waiting on the newcomers; nor do you want to spend half of every session generating characters. What you’re looking for, ideally, is a process that takes no more than 15-20 minutes.

SheetCharacter creation in OD&D basically proves perfect for this: Roll ability scores. Pick a race. Pick a class. Buy equipment. Play! (And I eventually reduced this time commitment even more by designing equipment packages that could be quickly selected.)

Unfortunately for the purposes of an open table, most RPGs these days feature far more elaborate character creation procedures.

PREGENS: Pregenerated characters offer a simple alternative (just pick one and start playing!), but as I discuss in On the Importance of Character Creation this solution isn’t without its disadvantages: Creating a character fires up the imagination. It gets new players thinking about all the cool things that they’re going to do with the character. If someone is the type of person who’s going to get excited about playing an RPG, then character creation is going to hook them.

In that same essay I also lay out three principles that are generally true and which particularly apply to an open table:

  1. Character creation must be quick.
  2. Character creation must be fun.
  3. Character creation must be comprehensible.

(The last meaning that the decisions being made must be meaningful to someone even if they haven’t read the rulebook: Choosing whether you want to be a Soldier or a Hacker is something you can do with zero rules mastery. Spending a budget of 100 character points is not.)

LIFEPATHS: Another solution is to use a character creation system that the GM can effectively guide new players through away from the table. (So if a new player signs up for the game, the GM can engage them via e-mail or chat in the days prior to the session so that they’ll have a character ready for them when they show up.) I find that lifepath systems are particularly effective for this: For each step in the lifepath I can randomly generate the events, and then present those (plus the decision the player needs to make) in an e-mail.

This has the advantage of creating a much deeper and richer character, but there are drawbacks. (It’s not as easy to run a pick-up game on-the-fly if nothing else.)

EXPERIENCED PLAYERS: Of course, if you only plan to play with experienced RPG players who can guide themselves through the character creation process before coming to the table, these concerns become far less significant. (But, obviously, the utility of your open table will be limited.)

In the absence of an ideal character creation system for you game, some combination of these alternative methods – lifepaths, a rich selection of pregenerated characters, trusting experienced players to create their characters – can bypass the most significant issues.

CHARACTER CREATION HOUR: You can also set up your sessions so that new players can arrive an hour (or more) before the other players to create their characters. If you can make the scheduling work, this is often a good compromise. The disadvantage is that it tends to rule out weeknight sessions. It can also create confusion around scheduling.

UPKEEP TASKS: It can also be effective to pair the character creation portion of the session to a set of upkeep tasks that are performed for established characters. This can include things like managing hirelings, advancing characters, purchasing new equipment, randomly generating downtime events, checking on the progress of long-term arcane research, playing a mini-game with a character’s corporate investments, and the like.

This technique isn’t meant to mitigate longer character creation processes. (You’re still losing play time if nothing else: You want to get to the action.) But it is effective time management (and opens up an additional design space).

EASY ACCESS SYSTEMS

An open table needs a system that’s easy to access. This does not, it should be noted, necessarily mean a simple system. Rather, an easy access system is one which allows players to start playing quickly.

D&D 3rd Edition, for example, is not a simple system. But it is an easy access system: Once you explain skill checks, combat actions, attack rolls, and damage a new player has everything they need to know in order to start playing.

Eclipse Phase, by contrast, has roughly the same degree of mechanical complexity as D&D 3rd Edition overall, but it is a much harder system for new players to access: You can get a similar spiel of skill checks, combat actions, attack rolls, and damage… but you’ll find that new players will also flounder unless they understand how to interact with digital systems and use the reputation system for obtaining things and favors.

I’ve found it difficult to quantify exactly what makes a system harder to access. But you’ll know it when you see it. Dissociated mechanics certainly play a part in it (often creating common decision points which only make sense for players with a comprehensive understanding of the rules), but this is not the only factor (as the example of Eclipse Phase indicates).

CUTTING TO THE CHASE: If you’ve got new players at a session of your open table, you basically want to be able to start actual play within 30 minutes at most. This includes character creation and the rules explanation.

OPEN GROUP FORMATION

Because different players and/or characters will be participating in every session, the open table requires a premise which supports the constant shuffle of personnel. In general, I’ve found this breaks down into either (a) expeditions or (b) organizations that can assign task-specific teams.

HexThe classic hexcrawl is an example of an expedition: The PCs are all based out of a frontier city and each session essentially becomes an ad hoc expeditionary team that’s going out to explore the wilderness together. Megadungeons work the same way (although in the case of something like Undermountain, the frontier is subterranean and the city is a metropolis).

Task-specific teams can include things like shadowrunning (where various Mr. Johnsons assemble their “chosen” team for each session/mission) and Delta Green agents (who are assigned to each case). One could also imagine, say, a Star Trek open table in which each session consists of an away team mission.

DEFAULT GOAL

The point of open group formation is that it allows us to immediately contextualize why each semi-random assembly of characters has come together. We don’t need to spend much (if any) time at the beginning of each session figuring out how the characters have met each other or why they’re motivated to work together.

This goes hand-in-hand with a default goal: Hexcrawls and megadungeons have a default goal of exploration (usually motivated by treasure). Delta Green agents have a default goal of “solve the case”. And so forth.

For an open table, it is particularly effective for your default goal to be:

  • Holographic – i.e., a group can achieve part of the goal and still feel like they got a complete experience. (For example, you can explore part of the wilderness in a hexcrawl or get some of the treasure in a dungeon and still feel like you’ve accomplished something.)
  • Non-specific – e.g., you can get a bunch of treasure from Dungeon A and then get more treasure from Dungeon B and still be accomplishing your goal of “getting lots of treasure”.
  • Non-interdependent – e.g., you can clear the first half of a dungeon and somebody else can clear the second half; whereas you generally can’t solve the second half of a mystery unless you’ve got clues from the first half.

The reason for this should be fairly clear: Since each individual character/player will only be seeing part of the total play experience, it will be best if each slice of that experience remains meaningful in and of itself.

The alternative method for achieving this is basing your open table around a series of one-shots (each of which is a stand-alone experience). But there are limitations and drawbacks to this approach (mostly relating to an increased prep load and the difficulties of guaranteeing that each one-shot will successfully wrap in a single session).

DEFAULT ACTION

In addition to a default goal, open tables also benefit from having a default action (which, for obvious reasons, is usually directly connected to the goal).

A default action is basically something that a character can do to trigger interesting content even if they have nothing else to do. For example, in a hexcrawl – when all else fails – a character can simply choose a compass direction and start walking. In a dungeon you simply choose an exit from the room you’re in and walk through it. In Technoir you ask any connection for a lead or a job.

Combined with a default goal, the default action allows players to sit down at any session of your open table and immediately know what they want and what they should do to achieve it. When properly designed, it should basically be impossible for the players to ever say, “I don’t know what to do.”

Default actions are useful for sandbox campaigns in general, but are specifically useful for open tables because – like open group formation – they facilitate effortless session starts. During actual play you’ll discover that specific goals and agendas will rapidly begin to accumulate (and entire sessions will be scheduled with the specific aim of achieving them), but with a default action the question of, “What do we do today?” is simplified away and ceases to be any sort of obstacle to play.

REGENERATIVE / EXTENSIBLE CONTENT

A successful open table is, in fact, all about removing these obstacles to play. The goal is to make your open table campaign as easy to pick up and start playing as any board game. Ideally, play can become an impulsive activity.

DiceOne of the obstacles preventing that from happening is the need for a GM to generate new content. If you played the game yesterday, would you be ready to play it again tomorrow? You could create a backlog of material, but at the end of the day you’re still going to have to prepare new material. (This is one of the reasons why an open table based around sequential one-shots is possible, but not necessarily ideal.)

This has the appearance of a Catch-22: Ultimately, for material to exist, somebody has to prep it.

This is true, but the prep load can be heavily mitigated by designing what I refer to as regenerative content.

A fairly common form of regenerative content are procedural content generators. The most common example are probably wandering monster tables: In addition to spontaneously generating content during a session, they can also be used to restock dungeon levels which have been previously been cleared by the PCs. Thus, for example, the megadungeon becomes a regenerative structure: With minimal effort, you can constantly refresh its content. (See Juggling Scenario Hooks in a Sandbox for an example of this at length.)

Hand-in-hand with the need for regenerative content, however, is the ability to quickly and easily expand the content of the campaign for long-term players. (In a megadungeon this is as easy as adding more dungeon levels. In a hexcrawl, you simply continue drawing hexes on the edges of your map.)

Part 3: Organizing Your Open Table

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12 Responses to “Open Table Manifesto – Part 2: What an Open Table Needs”

  1. d47 says:

    This stuff is gold. I have been thinking about your open table idea since I came across your earlier articles. You should seriously publish this as a how to book.

    A couple of thoughts so far.
    Long term goals and missions are possible if you include reporting. Ideally, one or more players would write up the events of their session from the perspective of their characters. At worst, the GM could provide summaries from the perspective of a patron or boss. This could be public or provided on a need to know basis.
    Regarding pre-gens, I would include a set of pool PCs available for new players to play before they make a commitment to generating their own. If a player falls for a pool PC and returns to play, they can take ownership, otherwise the pool PC would be made available to the next new players. Pool PCs would be leveled as necessary by the GM to keep up with the group.
    Regarding geography, it seems like a from here to there journey arc could be awkward unless there are lots of places for new PCs to join up along the way. I really like the idea of having a center of operations like a city or a starship from which new players can easily jump in to the action.

  2. Justin Alexander says:

    Re: Session reporting. What I can report from my experience there is that players can end up being unreliable and it will be an extra burden on the GM. Part of the appeal of an open table (at least for me) is the “pick up and play” mentality of it; and having something that needs to get prepped (in the form of a campaign summary) before the next session can prove to be an impediment to that. YMMV.

    I’d be very interested to hear back on how the pool of PCs works for you. Another idea I’ve been playing with is running a Star Trek or Star Trek-like campaign where each major player is a captain of a starship: When they schedule a session, everyone else can pick up the other crew members in troupe-style.

    Center of operations definitely feels like the way to go. I am currently experimenting with a Numenera open table featuring the Wandering Walk, with the conceit that the PCs are all peregrine pilgrims going up and down the Walk and, thus, encountering each other coming and going for each adventure. But that’s a little hand-wavey and mostly just a conceit for leveraging the Weird Discoveries scenarios.

  3. AB says:

    I have been running an online open table game in 5e for about 16 months now. I have enough regulars that I am starting up a second night, now that my schedule allows it, along with a semi-regular night for people who are new to TTRPGs and are looking to try it out for the first time. 5e works pretty well, since it checks enough boxes for enough people that we can all agree to play it (its simple enough that my players coming over from AD&D (I have a few regulars who hadn’t bought a new RPG book since Unearthed Arcana came out) and has enough options that my Pathfinder people consider it good enough, if not ideal), though I am finding it works a lot better for dungeon crawls than hexcrawls, because of the full hit point healing, which also makes most wandering monsters a waste of time if its the only fight of the day. I have, however, had a lot of success doing point crawls instead, but it takes more prep work.

  4. Justin Alexander says:

    What I found with hexcrawl random encounters is that they work best if they’re heavily contextualized: If all that happens is that some monsters show up and attack you, it’s empty. And it has no long-term strategic consequences because you just aren’t going to squeeze that many encounters into each day.

    (1) Use a morale table to break your hostile habits as a DM. If the creatures you encounter don’t automatically attack, it opens the door to other types of interactions. Where those interactions might take you is almost limitless.

    (2) I found incorporating “tracks” into my encounter tables was very effective. Not only does it create depth to the environment (something created those tracks; they come from somewhere; they go to somewhere), but after a few encounters with tracks you’ll a light bulb go off over the head’s of the players: Wait! Even when we encounter monsters they’ll have already been making tracks. Suddenly even throw-away combat encounters have a default content that allows the players to use that encounter to further explore the game world.

    (3) I also incorporated “lairs” into my encounter tables. These are great, since they’re tactically more interesting than just “wandering band of monsters”. They also have the potential of permanently adding features to your hexcrawl.

    See also Breathing Life Into the Wandering Monster.

  5. AR says:

    Tracks are a good idea! I am adding that in tonight.

    I have been mostly straight up using the B/X moral system and just marking up my 5e MM with the old moral values.

    I have been trying to break myself of the habit from AD&D and RC that they are hexcrawling to clear an area and build a castle (the only reason I ever had players like to do that before). I am actually not totally sure why they are hexcrawling lately, but they seem to be really into it so I am happy to roll with it.

  6. Justin Alexander says:

    I typed “moral table” there, but my brain was thinking “reaction table”. Morale tables are also good.

  7. Alex Schroeder says:

    I’ve used a pool of pregens for my game and it worked fine. I used a random character generator and printed twenty or thirty of them and players pulled a random character and we were ready to roll. Hireling? Often from the same pool. Guest players? Same pool. Got a character with more XP from a previous guest player? Lucky!

  8. John says:

    Your Open Table article blew my gaming group wide open when I read it a few years ago. We’ve been running a very successful Open Table game in Pathfinder for ages, though I do find the mechanical complexity of Pathfinder has become off putting as people have levelled up.

    We have been running it online and that has it’s ups and downs but has meant a pretty large player pool from all across Europe.

    I definitely think that in D’n’D at least the game worked best when the players were at a low to mid tier in power – we’re heading into superhero territory now which is fun but it has made the game somewhat more like a traditional game in that it’s all much more involved and default actions and obstacles are no longer really an issue fora group that can scry and teleport.

    Still it’s been an absolutely enthralling experience and we’ve gotten so much more gaming done and introduced so many more new people to our circle and to gaming with it. Fantastic stuff, really. At this point in my life having something like an OT to run means I get to game, full stop. A friend from the OT is now starting a freak-of-the-week style horror game in Unknown Armies. It has many of the same ideas as this, but I will be curious if anything like a “randomly generated case” is possible in a modern horror game.

  9. robbbbbb says:

    I recently bought in to the Kickstarter for Red Markets, a game about surviving a zombie apocalypse. It emphasizes day-to-day survival, and how limited resources make for hard choices. It has good mechanics around that, and how player characters have to work hard to make a baseline income in a tough situation.

    It reminds me very much of old-school D&D, where the players aren’t out to save the world, but instead trying to make their fortunes. You risk life-and-limb for a payday.

    If you’re looking for a non-fantasy setting for an open table game, this one could very well work for it. And it’s one of the best treatments I’ve seen of a post-zombie apocalypse.

  10. Justin Alexander says:

    I heard a lot of really awesome buzz about Red Markets at Gen Con this year, too. Waiting impatiently for a chance to buy-in and see previews or for the game to be released.

  11. robbbbbb says:

    I’ve got the preview set of Red Markets rules from the Kickstarter, which has elementary setting information and the rules for playing the game. It’s unedited, with no artwork or layout. It’s a rough draft of the final product.

    That said, the rules are very good. There’s an emphasis on economic concepts, which I find interesting. Every PC has excellent motivations tied to his character concept (in terms of dependents) and the game system emphasizes that the PCs are risking their lives for profits. And also that they have limited resources which they must choose to expend wisely.

    As I was reading it I kept flashing back on many of the concepts you discuss in your open table posts: A secure home base. Travels out from there for adventures. The push/pull of what the characters and GMs are interested in. Multiple options for adventure; PCs aren’t just choosing the one idea in front of them. The default action/goal for players to choose if they’re stumped for an idea.

    That said, some of the concepts are updated, too. Instead of hexes for movement, the game uses “legs,” which are abstracted units of distance. There’s a nifty negotiation system for the players and GM to use to figure out how much a job pays. There’s an explicit upkeep system that drains resources from the PCs after every job.

    Email me if you want to know more about it.

  12. Sean says:

    This is a hugely interesting subject to me. In D&D an open table seems straightforward, designing a megadungeon and wilderness, etc.

    However, what about Shadowrun type of games or Top Secret games? These games are centered around missions, but what happens if you don’t complete the mission in one session? One-shots make sense, but I’m really trying to wrap my head around whether its possible to run an open table in a mission-based game. It seems to make sense, say in a heist world, where all the PCs are criminals, and each session is a different gig (heist, kidnapping, sabotage). But then again you run into the time limit problem. I’ve thought about just putting an actual time limit on the mission in terms of real time (ie. I’m setting a three hour timer, if this mission isn’t completed by then, you will have failed. Reinforcements will show up. The target will leave the destination. etc.). Do you have any advice about this?

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