The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘open table manifesto’

Go to Part 1

The key element in organizing your open table is figuring out how you want to schedule sessions. For an open table, events tend to break down in two categories.

OPEN CALLS: For an open call, the GM simply announces the date and time of the game. Players then RSVP.

Cloak and DaggerAn easy variant of the open call is the regular session: Maybe you play every Tuesday night, for example.

SPONSORED SESSIONS: Alternatively, specific players (or groups of players) can “sponsor” a session by approaching the GM and requesting it. I generally tell players that they should offer me a range of dates and then I can figure out which one works for me. It’s up to them whether they want the sponsored session to also include an open call to fill any empty seats or if it’s an “exclusive” event just for them.

The reasons for sponsored sessions can arise from either the game world or the metagame. For example, I’ve run sponsored sessions in order to “explore the Temple of Elemental Evil”, “retrieve Varla’s corpse”, or “to go back for the rest of that treasure before anybody else snatches it”. I’ve also run sponsored sessions because Steve was in town, for a bachelor party, because we all happened to be drunk at the time, and because somebody was bored and wanted something to do on a Tuesday night.

COMMUNICATION AND COMMUNITY

Mass e-mails are perhaps the most straightforward method of making open calls and otherwise communicating with your pool of players. But they can also be something of a blunt instrument.

My group experimented with a wiki for awhile, but the participation rate was low and it was ill-suited for event announcements. (I’ll probably experiment with supplemental wiki support for open tables again in the future, but for the moment I’ve lain them aside.)

What I have found effective is a Facebook group. (Why Facebook instead of G+? Primarily because too many people from my player pool aren’t on G+. If yours are, then G+ groups have a lot of advantages.) Everybody can sign up. Everyone can talk to each other. Creating a new event is as easy as pressing a button, and it’s easy to track people’s RSVPs. You can also use the group to host basic information and orientation material.

TABLE CAPS AND WAITING LISTS

My first forays with an open table featured a simple, “We’ll play with whoever shows up!” ethos. As the popularity of the open table grew, however, this quickly became non-viable: I had one session in which I GMed for ten players running something like twenty-two total PCs and hirelings.

Then I imposed table caps.

The system is pretty simple: I cap the number of players at a certain number. These slots are filled on a first-come, first-serve basis. Once the cap is hit, that’s it for that session.

To prevent highly active players from monopolizing the slots at ever session, I also instituted the concept of the Waiting List: If you signed up for a session, but couldn’t play because of the session cap, then you were given preferential placement for the next session.

The Waiting List also helps cope with the problem of last minute cancellations (because you can call up the next person on the waiting list).

The size of your table cap is almost entirely up to you (and possibly the comfortable limits of your playing space). For example, I know that I can run 5 players comfortably, 6 players are usually manageable, and with 7+ players the quality of the session will usually begin to decline. So I set my table cap at 5 and occasionally have a sixth player join (usually the significant other of the fifth player).

CAMPAIGN TIME MANAGEMENT

“YOU CANNOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.” – Gary Gygax, Dungeon Master’s Guide

You’re going to have a lot of different characters doing a lot of different things in the setting, and a couple primary questions will arise:

  • What happens if I go to Dungeon X while Character A (who isn’t playing tonight) is still there?
  • If Character A and Character B go on an adventure together, and then Character A goes on five more adventures, and then Player A and Player B sit down for a session together… what do we do? Character A is weeks ahead of Character B!

Easiest solution: “I don’t care.” Just handwave these things away and don’t worry about it.

But there are reasons why Gygax said what he said. It was an attitude shared by a lot of the early pioneers (including Dave Arneson, M.A.R. Barker, and Bob Bledsaw among others). ClockworksAnd you’ll quickly discover for yourself that without a more concrete handling of the passage of time, there’s a lot of potential activities and consequences and fun things that won’t be possible.

Here’s my basic suggestion: Have campaign time match time in the real world. For each day that passes in the real world, a day also passes in the campaign world. If a player can’t play for a couple of months, that means that their character was just idly passing the time. (Alternatively, you could start developing mechanics for handling the passage of time: What were their upkeep costs? How are their investments doing? Did they succeed at any arcane research? Did they join a Thieves’ Guild? Or, if you’ve got the time and your players are interested, you could engage with players through weekly e-mails to see what their characters have been up to.)

Within the appearance of this simplicity, however, you’ll discover that there are some potential problems. I’ll discuss my own experience with keeping time in my original open table campaign as an example of how you might deal with some of those problems.

IN THE DUNGEON: The early days of the campaign featured a single megadungeon. The solution of using the real passage of time was largely flawless here: The amount of time that passed in any given session was usually shorter than the amount of time that passed between sessions in the real world (and the few exceptions could be easily fudged).

IN THE WILDERNESS: When the campaign expanded into a full-blown hexcrawl, however, we began running into our first serious time management problems. Crossing unexplored wilderness could chew up days or weeks of time in the game world while using up mere minutes of table time.

The first solution I attempted was to have the clock always move forwards: If Expedition A ended 18 days in the future, then when Expedition B started the next day in the real world we’d still be 17 days in the future. The problem with this approach was that it radically pushed campaign time into the future: If you missed just a handful of sessions (which is, of course, common in an open table), you could find that months had passed for your character.

LOCKDOWN: What I ended up doing instead was to adhere to real time for the start of each expedition. Expedition A was played on March 17th in the real world and Expedition B was played on March 18th, then Expedition B started one day later in the campaign world, too.

This meant, of course, that Expedition A was still happening. This meant that any characters in Expedition A were locked down – they couldn’t be played in Expedition B. I would also lock down any locations that had been visited by Expedition A: You couldn’t break continuity by going to the same dungeon as Expedition A because we already knew that hadn’t happened (since we had seen those events play out with Expedition A).

CHARACTER STABLES: With that being said, I didn’t want players to be prevented from playing just because their character was currently locked down. This led to the practice of each player having multiple characters in the campaign world.

Having this stable of characters proved useful in other ways: For example, players could choose the character which was closest in level to the other players on a particular expedition. (Or, alternatively, choose to play a high-level patron whose expertise the entire group could benefit from.)

TRACKING TIME: In order to track all of this information, I simply kept a list of all the player characters currently active in the campaign on my campaign status sheet. If they were in lockdown, I listed that. I also listed any outstanding expeditions (i.e., expeditions from previous sessions whose end date had not yet been passed) and the locations locked down in association with them. In practice, this requires virtually no effort.

END OF SESSION STATUS

The other thing to consider in an open table is the end of session status for player characters. In general, for the open table to work at the end of a session the player characters need to return to their home base (or whatever position they need to be in to participate in open group formation at the beginning of the next session).

To facilitate this for a traditional D&D campaign, I created tools like the Escaping the Dungeon! table.

SEQUEL SESSIONS: I did, however, also offer an alternative: If the evening was coming to a close and the group was in the middle of something important to them, then we could continue that session if (and only if!) everyone at the table could immediately agree on a time within the next 10 days to continue the scenario. (If they couldn’t, tough luck: They’ve got get out and they’ve got to get home.)

The reason for the strict limitation on this is that, in the interim, all of these characters (and the location they’re in) would be locked down. This creates all sorts of complications for the open table. There was one time when I set up a sequel session and several of the players had to cancel on it. Trying to reschedule proved challenging and we ended up bouncing it around for two or three months before I finally wrote it off and released the lockdowns. In the interim, however, all of the momentum in that section of the campaign had been lost: I would have been far better off immediately writing off the sequel session and allowing subsequent expedition to be scheduled to pursue the loose ends which had been left.

CHARACTER CREATION GUIDELINES

A final thing to consider, if you’re planning on using some form of away-from-the-table character generation to resolve the lack of quick character generation in your system of choice, are the character creation guidelines you want to use.

As a tip: If your system of choice features organized play, looking at the character creation guidelines for that can often be useful. Their needs will be similar to your own, although you can often relax many of their strictures.

Go to Part 1

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 the 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 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

Open Table Manifesto

August 15th, 2016

Back in 2011 I wrote an essay titled Opening Your Game Table. It talked about how we can play our favorite games more, share them with more people, and create more of the memorable experiences we love by changing the way we approach roleplaying games. At the time this was a relatively new discovery for me, and Opening Your Game Table was a pretty casual exultation of the possibilities I saw in an open table.

Now, however, I’ve spent the last five years reaping the benefits of various open tables (and also seeing some open tables crash and burn). So I’d like to take the opportunity to share some of the lessons I’ve learned. Some of the material here will be familiar to those who have read the previous essay, but I think you’ll find the new insights of the Open Table Manifesto worth your time.

PLAYING CATCH

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 3 hours every Wednesday evening and Baseball Playerwe’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? And if you actually made that commitment, then the quality of that baseball team would probably be really important and you’d need to be really convinced that someone was going to make a great baseball player before you’d invite them to join you, right? Plus, it’s such a huge commitment of your time that it would be incredibly difficult for you to commit to two different baseball teams, so at a certain point you’d just play baseball with the guys on your team and you’d stop inviting other people to play with you because there would be no room for them.

If that was the only way people could start playing baseball, it’s pretty easy to see that you wouldn’t have a lot of baseball players.

Of course, that’s not how people start playing 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 can put the ball down and you do something else. There’s no commitment, so people will be more open to trying it (and inviting others to do it with them). 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.

THE DEDICATED TABLE

When it comes to roleplaying games, the equivalent to the amateur baseball league is what I’ve come to call a dedicated table. And it’s the way that most people play RPGs today: They have a regular 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.

When you agree to join a campaign like this, you’re making a minimum commitment of 80 hours or more spread out 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.

And that level of commitment can result in truly amazing things. Last year, for example, I ran the Eternal Lies campaign for Trail of Cthulhu: We played for 95 hours split across 22 sessions, and that amount of time allowed us to explore a deep and interesting scenario while creating well-rounded characters who changed and grew over time. I’ve also got a D&D campaign that’s been running as a dedicated table since 2007 and, once again, the commitment of time and focus unlocks creative options that simply would not be possible otherwise. (Just like a baseball team that practices together regularly is going to be more skilled in their collective play than a pick-up team that plays for a single afternoon.)

But that mode of play also comes at a cost. Part of that cost can be personal: Lots of people talk about how they can’t play RPGs any more because they just don’t have the time to commit to them. Another part of that cost comes from the incredible difficulty of inviting new players to join your game (particularly if they’re completely new to roleplaying games because there’s no way to know whether or not they’ll like the game enough to make the significant commitment you’re asking of them).

What’s unfortunate is that many people believe that this is a cost which must be paid in order to play an RPG, and if they can’t pay that cost they conclude that they can’t play RPGs any more.

But there is another option.

THE OPEN TABLE

An open table campaign is structured so that you can pick it up and play it with little or no prep. This makes the game work like playing catch: You can spontaneously play it as a spur of the moment social activity. It also allows you to open your gaming table: Instead of having a regular set of players for each session, the GM can send an open invite to everyone participating (or interested) in the campaign. The same structures that make the game instantly playable also allow you to run it seamlessly for whichever set of players show up for a particular session.

This is awesome.

It’s awesome for you because you never 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?” and you’re good to go. Just hanging out with some friends and you’re trying to figure out what to do? Normally you’d never suggest an RPG because of the prep time involved; but with an open table you can always just pick it up and start playing.

It also makes it incredibly easy to invite new players. Even if they only play the one time, they can have a great experience without causing any disruption to “continuity”. Over the years I’ve heard many people say that they can’t make an open table work because they don’t know enough players. But when you actually have an open table, you’ll be astonished at how quickly you can end up with more players than you know what to do with. For my first open table I started with an e-mail list of 8 or 9 players. Within a couple of months that list had grown to more than 30. Today, I have more than 60 people in my pool of active players. And that’s only possible because the open table makes the recruitment of new players so easy.

This is also why having an open table can be really awesome even if you prefer the focus and intensity of a dedicated campaign: The open table is how you find the high quality, enthusiastic players who make dedicated campaigns possible. That awesome Eternal Lies campaign I ran last year? I first played with severaPlayers at a Tablel key members of that group through my open table. And when I needed a replacement player for my long-running D&D campaign I knew exactly where to find her, because for months she’d been proving herself to be the perfect player for that campaign at my open table.

With an open table I can play with more people. I can play more frequently. I can use it as an incubator for testing out new ideas in a low-risk environment. And it improves all of my gaming, both open and dedicated.

If you love playing roleplaying games, I really believe you owe it to yourself to keep an open table in your back pocket.

It’s also awesome for the hobby and the industry. This type of open format which makes it easy for you to share something you love with other people is how activities become memetically viral. Most recently you can see that with the board game boom: When you get a game you love, you play it with other people. Then those people buy their own copies and share it with more people, who also end up buying copies.

When played as dedicated campaigns, RPGs don’t get that kind of viral spread. But that wasn’t always the case. When D&D was first created the game was designed around an open table. And, in fact, those open table values endured and remained common throughout the hobby’s rapid growth and boom. (Which, frankly, I don’t think was a coincidence.)

That first game structure was the Megadungeon: It took form in Dave Arneson’s Castle Blackmoor. Gygax copied it for Castle Greyhawk. And the vast majority of the earliest Dungeon Masters, following the guidelines laid out in the original D&D manuals, created their own megadungeons.

And the megadungeon campaign inherently leant itself to an open table: The dungeon didn’t care who plunged into its depths each week, and therefore each expedition into the dungeon was free to feature different players and characters. Arneson and Gygax both talked about the fact that a typical campaign would feature fifty or more players, and their campaigns (and the early rulebooks) featured a panoply of options for play which could only flourish in the rich dynamics these large player bases could make possible.

The megadungeon, however, is not the be-all or end-all of open table play. So let’s take a moment to step back and consider what’s needed for successful open tables.

Part 2: What An Open Table Needs

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