Monday, January 23, 2012

Running the Game

Before I get to the more enjoyable tasks of worldbuilding, or the more practical tasks of how to actually run a fantasy roleplaying game--whether D&D or anything else, actually--it's important to take stock of a few things.  Notably; should you actually be running a game at all, and if so, do you have a group.  In other words, what are the most basic things that you need before you can even consider running a fantasy roleplaying game?

This is adapted from a Ray Winninger column on the same subject first published in Dragon Magazine #255 back in the late '90s, and is part of the Ray Winninger "Dungeoncraft" series, which you can find archived at on the links tab above.  But I've got some thoughts of my own to add to the question, and it's a good one to start with before I start heading off on my own direction with my own posts on my own subjects--many of which will be worldbuilding related.  Besides, by "adapted" I mean nothing more than that I took the basic outline of the article and filled it in completely with my own thoughts and text.  With that,

1. Do I have time and other resources to run a game?

If you don't, then don't make the attempt.  In my own personal gaming group, this has killed many a campaign, including, sadly, my latest attempt to run my DARK•HERITAGE game featured on this site.  This has several aspects.  The first, of course, is making sure that your schedule is available to meet every session of the game.  Depending on your group size and dynamic, there may be players who can and do occasionally miss sessions--I know in our group, it's actually very rare that we're full strength; we almost always have at least one and frequently two people out every time we game--but if the gamemaster isn't there, then there's no game at all.  If your life is too busy to commit to spending the time to be at every session, then you're better off passing the torch to someone else. 

Secondly, you need time to prepare.  A player's commitment in terms of time is fairly minimal other than time spent in the actual game session itself.  But a GM must spend quite a bit more time having the game ready to run.  Honestly, this isn't as much time as a lot of people think--Ray Winninger's own method of carefully preparing what you need and only what you need can be a bit of an eye-opener for those who have the tendency to over-prepare; but it's still significant.  Even if you're an expert at improvisational running of the game, you should probably plan on about as much time per week as your session lasts to also spend preparing for it.  And keep in mind that--to a certain extent, at least--how good your sessions will be depends on how much time you put into them ahead of time.

Thirdly, there are other resources besides time that you need to have.  I've played in many games where I don't own the rules, or at least haven't read them.  And naturally, when playing in published adventures, I never read the adventures.  The same can be true (sometimes) for published settings.  I read a statistic from WotC a number of years ago that stuck with me; they estimated that on average, the person running the game spends 4-5 times as much money on gaming material as the players do.  Now granted, D&D is perhaps more prone to that kind of thing than many other games, because it "prefers" minis and a battlemat for combat, and has lots and lots of options, adventures, settings, and other stuff for you to buy (whether you need it or not.)  Some other games have just a single rulebook, and maybe a handful of support documents or expansions.  If you're running, for example, the out of print Wheel of Time roleplaying game, then you need the rulebook and you could have the Prophecies of the Dragon campaign/module, and maybe a Dragon Magazine article or two--and that's all that was ever published for the game.  That said, the game is out of print, and you need to at a minimum have the rulebook.  If your players don't; they can borrow yours.  Make sure you have all the material you need to run the game.  Depending on your style, you might need maps, adventures (if you can get them), computer tools like NPC generators, setting information, or more.  Whatever you need, make sure you have it or can get it before you commit to running the game.

Commitment and perserverance--or rather, lack thereof--has caused many, many campaigns to run aground and founder.

Related to that, just having the rulebooks isn't sufficient; you also need to know the rules well enough to run the game without constantly referring to them.  I'll get to this in another post, but this does not mean that you need to be a walking rules encyclopedia.  But you need to know the rules enough to run a consistent game, so players can count on rulings that they can understand and predict and plan for, and they need to count on a game that doesn't bog down with frequent rule arguments or lookups.  To a certain extent, you can bluff your way through this, and you should look for players who are willing to accept GM rulings as the last word, but it also helps to have as thorough a grounding in the rules as you can.  No matter what else happens, you're going to get a lot of questions from your players that are rules related.

2. Do I have sufficient restraint to run the game?

In other words, would you really rather be playing?  Luckily, I've only rarely been plagued in my gaming career with this problem in my gamemasters, and it's also not really been an issue that I've had a tendency for.  But, and we'll talk about this in great detail in another article sometime down the line, although you are more invested in the game than any of your players, you need to remember that the game is really for them.  If you are running NPCs as if they were PCs, trying to force the players to follow your plan, or otherwise taking the focus and options away from the players that they should reasonably expect to have, then you are likely going to run a frustrating game.  The game's really about them.  You're more of a facilitator than a leader.  The PCs are the stars, and the players should always feel in control of the PCs actions.

3. Do I have a gaming group to run the game for?

If you do, congratulations.  This step is done.  Assuming, of course, that they are willing to allow you to run for them, and they are willing to give the game you want to run a try.  Sometimes players can be remarkably fickle or stubborn and opinionated.  I should know; I certainly am!  In my gaming group, for example, we tend to settle on Dungeons & Dragons so frequently not necessarily because it's our favorite, but because it is a kind of "least common denominator"--enough of us like it enough that we can all agree on it, while other games tend to be more polarizing.  One guy in the group, for instance, really doesn't grok science fiction at the table.  Don't know why.  Neither does he.  He likes science fiction.  He likes gaming.  But they just don't go together for him.  This is, of course, unfortunate for the other guy in the group who's favorite game is Shadowrun, but there you have it.  Three of us really love Call of Cthulhu (including, curiously, the no-sci-fi guy) and would step up to play it pretty much at any time.  The other three or four have played it on occasion, but have significant reservations about the theme, tone, and the whole premise of the game, and are--at best--very skeptical about it.  Sadly, our experiment to give it a try didn't really work as well as we'd hoped; we may struggle to get the non-Cthulhu half of the group convinced to ever try it again.  So, just because you have a gaming group, it's not necessarily a given that they want to play the game that you offer.  For some gaming groups, they may not have any choice.  They may not have a lot of options of people who are willing to run a game--any game--and if they want to play, they have to run the game that's offered.  For my group, we have the opposite situation; at least five of us consider ourselves to be GMs at least as much as we do players, and we pretty much always have game concepts in the backs of our minds that we'd be willing to run, assuming that our schedules allow.  So for us, consensus on what we're playing is a group effort.  Hence our "settling" so frequently on D&D.

So--if you don't have a group, or if you do but they're not buying what you're selling and you want another group on the side because you're just that interested in running the game--how do you find one?  The time-honored, and frankly still quite effective way to get a group is to post an ad in a gaming store.  I'm later going to have a post dedicated to exactly what I think a gaming ad should contain, and what it shouldn't, but for now, I'll just say that a brief posting describing what game you want to run, and what you're looking for in terms of scheduling commitment is a good way to round up some players.  I've also had pretty good luck finding people through the internet.  Places like ENWorld have a "gamers-seeking-gamers" classified ads type section.  However, it's certainly no guarantee that people near you are looking at that. has gotten lots of groups together.  Going to local cons or gaming events is another way to meet folks, and if you hit it off, you can invite them to game with you.

I personally think it's important to "interview" potential gamers in a non-threatening setting.  Several of the guys now in my group meet with me at a local Chili's before we started gaming, and we talked about the hobby, what we like (and don't like) and a bit about us as people, just to make sure that we were going to hit it off fairly well before we committed to trying to game together.  While I don't have any personal horror stories to tell, I've certainly heard plenty from folks who met with a new potential group of gamers and had all kinds of bizarre things happen.  One guy I know had a guy and his girlfriend put on fake vampire teeth and attempt to bite another player.  Take it from me; as much as you want to run the game, getting the wrong people in your group is much worse than not having anyone to game with.  Take your time, and find the folks who are going to be a good fit for you.  One good rule of thumb?  If you could stand hanging out with them in a situation other than gaming, then you're probably on the right track.  Because I'm a transplant to the area in which I now live, I had to find my gaming group this way, and we've become pretty good friends; the kinds of guys who like hanging out on the weekends because we like each other.  That's how it should be; gaming is a social activity after all.

How many people should you have for your group?  While certainly an interesting game could probably be run with as few as just one good player, in general, you're going to want more than that.  I think the ideal gaming group size is 3-5 players and the GM.  This is actually a member or two smaller than my current group, but I don't want to tell any of them they can't play, and like I said, we're almost always short at least one or two anyway.  Fewer than three players usually makes the game very difficult to run, but more than about five, and you really are going to struggle to keep all of the characters (and players) equally involved.  This is a game that is character driven, and if the characters become faceless and disposible, then you're migrating back into an old-fashioned D&D paradigm again, which as I've said, is not the point of this series of articles.  If you want your game to even kinda-sorta resemble the type of ensemble cast TV shows or books that you like (and I certainly do, and it will be a feature of this column that I'll be attempting to show how to do that) then you really can't have a cast of protagonists that is much larger than that either.  3-4 is the perfect number, with maybe one more so you can still keep going if someone isn't available.  Any more than that, and it's too much to successfully juggle and get the right kind of experience out of it.

4. How often should we play?

This is best answered by the group.  If I were single, I'd probably say once a week is ideal--and heck, I'd like to run two concurrent games in the same setting.  But I'm not, and running anything twice a week; or even once a week, is not going to happen anytime soon.  However, there's a lot to be said for regularity.  One of the things that has killed a lot of campaigns with my current group is lack of regularity and predictability about the schedule.  While we're all really busy, and couldn't possibly support a once a week schedule, when we're trying to schedule each session individually, it's not unusual for it to drag out to once a month or once every six weeks between sessions.  What's worked best is to plan on once every other week on Friday nights, and a consistent location, and only deviate from that as exceptions require.  Having it be assumed that we're on, that we're at Kevin or Matt's house (or whatever) leads to consistent gaming.  When there's a flurry of emails a week or two after our last session asking when we're going to play again, and where, then it tends to drag.  This goes back to commitment and perserverance again.  Sure, it's a game, and everyone understands that sometimes things happen that are more important than gaming.  If you  miss your kid's baptism or graduation or something, or your wife's birthday or anniversary, because, sorry, it fell on gaming night, then you've got problems.  But if you can't count on every other Friday night (or whatever) being game night, then chances are you've got problems too.  Gaming isn't just a game, it's also a social activity that requires a group.  It's impolite and thoughtless--at best--to not take the other guys in your group into consideration, and make an honest effort to commit to doing this with them.  They're doing the same for you, and if you fall through, then there's no game.  It's not the end of the world if there's no game, but at the same time, you can't very well be surprised if you find that the guys end up playing with someone else if they feel they can't count on you.  If nothing else, it's poor friendship.

5. What do I need to run the game?

Of course, that depends on what you're going to run.  I'm going to suggest that what you need is fairly minimal, and you should already--mostly--have it.  Here's my list, as well as some discussion on other options.

Must haves:
  • Regular internet access.  This is pretty ubiquitous in the West these days, but it's crucial, I think.  There's a lot of stuff available online that will greatly increase the ease with which you can prepare a quality game.  And, for that matter, with internet access, you can subsitute for a lot of other material.  In my case, for example, using online SRDs means you don't even need a rulebook, really.  I also really like using this to find artwork and other support stuff that I can show my players to increase their enjoyment of the game.
  • Email.  Being able to email my players between sessions about gaming related things--including scheduling and more--has also gotten pretty crucial.  This is especially true if you have a group cobbled together from meetups or ads posted at a gaming store, or something like that, who may not otherwise know each other (or you) all that well, and may not live in necessarily very close proximity.
  • The rules.  This might be, as I mentioned earlier, as simple as having access to the online SRD or a pdf of the rules for some rulesets.  More likely, it means access to a book or books.  Depending on the system you're using, this could be a lot or not much.  My current favorite ruleset for DARK•HERITAGE has me using three books regularly, d0 Modern, d20 Past and Urban Arcana, although it also has me supporting that with numerous monster books and other occasional d20 books as well.  You could probably consider The Monsternomicon (both volumes) to be core books for me to run the game, and Green Ronin's Book of Fiends to be a close second.  But, I could also run games with just a single, slim rulebook or pdf.  I've run games using The Window and it's completely self-contained.  While it's not strictly necessary to own every single rule in play, it's usually a nice idea, which is another reason to limit them, if you're using a system that has a runaway supplement publishing schedule.
  • Dice.  Probably needless to say, but I'll say it anyway.
Nice to haves:
  • "Official" character sheets.  Because I use a d20 Past ruleset, I can get really pretty handy pdfs that are customized for d20 Past and that I can use pretty much exactly as is.  I like to have them.  I don't, however, need them.  For most of my gaming career, I played using just lined notebook paper for character sheets.  Trust me, it works just fine.  But an actual character sheet is handy, and preferred.
  • A GM screen.  This is more to have a platform for me to have charts and tables that I might use right in front of my face than it is for anything else.  It's also nice to be able to roll behind a screen, though, and spread out notes and other papers that I may not want players seeing.  And it's nice to have a platform on which I can paperclip pictures or whatever that are relevant to what's going on, so the players can look at them.  It's not necessary, but it sure is nice.
Don't needs:
  • Laptops.  While they can be handy at times, I've also found that I think setting up laptops or tablet PCs at the table can be at least as distracting as they are helpful.  I actually prefer not to use one.  And if your players tell you that they actually need one (as opposed to liking it because they're computer savvy and just like having computers around to support every aspect of their life) then you should seriously consider a less complex system of rules.
  • Adventures.  In a non-D&D environment, there often aren't any adventures to be had anyway, but even so, I do not find that having published adventures is a good thing.  I actually think it's more work to run published adventures than it is to run my own, because I need to spend a lot more time ensuring that I know and understand the adventure, whereas my own stuff is both much more flexible and since I came up with it, I know it really well.  Without a lot of GM modification, it's also more difficult to "ground" the PCs in a published adventure.  Homebrewed adventures are better in every way.  That's not to say that owning adventures isn't a good idea.  Adventures are full of locations, plots, NPCs, and other elements that are often pure gold when it comes to the imaginativeness of their authors.  I buy, read, and pilfer elements all the time out of published adventures.  I just very rarely ever run a published adventure.

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