GURPS · How We Play

Thoughts on Setting up a Regular Game

basic1_lgSo as I mentioned last time, I’ve been getting together a new face-to-face group.  Hooray!  I thought I’d reflect a little on that process, just for fun.

My sense is that for most people,  the biggest obstacle to great gaming is the first one: getting a group together in the first place.  Indeed, for busy adults, this obstacle can be virtually insurmountable.   Sometimes it’s hard just to find fellow gamers, let alone tabletop RPG gamers… let alone tabletop RPG gamers interested in playing GURPS….

When you factor in the additional difficulty of finding a time when multiple busy adults can all be in the same room… well, it’s no wonder so many people settle for playing multi-million dollar computer RPGs, despite their obvious inferiority to tabletop GURPS in all respects!  🙂

Anyway, my recent efforts at bringing together a new group, and finding a time to play, have reminded me of a few things.  I thought I’d share them..

1 ) Priority One: start the game.

In a way I mean this just as  note-to-self: Never, ever, ever let additional campaign prep get in the way of actually starting the game. I’ve fallen into that trap in the past, but I managed to avoid it this time, which makes me happy.  Finding and then scheduling people is the biggest hurdle; once you’ve already jumped it, then press ahead to victory!  Now, now!  Don’t miss that window!

2)  This is just a test

When you’re dealing with a new group and a new campaign and a new game time, there are obviously any number of problems that might arise, so it’s best not to assume that you’re starting a long-running campaign.  Instead, it seems better to be explicit about the fact that the first few sessions are going to be a test – testing the vibe of the group, testing the logistics (whether everyone can, in practice, show up at game time), testing the campaign (Does this mode of play suit us, or do we need to make adjustments?  Is this the sort of genre we want to play in?  Etc).  And of these three – (1) the group, (2) the logistics, (3) the campaign – I think the first two are by far the most important to test in the first few sessions (despite the fact most of the discussion out there is about number three).

Again, In the past I’ve fouled this up by starting with very high ambitions (“Here is the massively complicated campaign I want to run for the next five years!  Let’s start this Tuesday!  What do you mean you can’t it make the following week?“).  This time, I’ve tried to be very explicit about how provisional everything is at the start.  We’re just testing the group and the game time, and to a lesser extent the campaign type.  Maybe the test will work, and we’ll continue; maybe we won’t.

3) Keep it simple

If you want to start asap (point 1), and your main aim is to test out the vibe of the group, and the scheduling logistics (point 2), then I think it follows that you ought to keep things as simple as humanly possible.   Starting with something that’s easy to understand, easy to set up, and easy to run just makes succeeding at point 1 and point 2 so much easier.

This sounds obviousbut maybe it sounds a bit less trivial if I point out that it means that this is not the time to work out what kind of campaign would most perfectly suit the group (a tempting idea!).  No: now is the time to plan a few provisional sessions, in a simple-and-enjoyable-but-perhaps-not-everyone’s-first-preference type of campaign, so as to test out whether the basics are really in place.

4) Make it a weekly game, right from day one.

This is the hardest one, and I know many people will disagree with it. As follows:

Q. WHAT?!?  Ok Collaborative Guy, you’ve just told us that everyone is so busy, it’s so hard to find time, etc etc, and thus scheduling is the biggest hurdle of all.  If that’s true, then how can you possibly justify recommending trying for a game that meets every week, right from the outset?  This is madness!!

A: Madness it may be, but if you’re not gaming with mad people, you’re doing something drastically wrong.

More seriously, when everyone involved is very, very busy, it’s extremely tempting to try to schedule every session on an ad-hoc basis, in order to work around people’s other commitments.  I used to do this, but eventually it became apparent to me that it’s a terrible plan.  There’s just so much scheduling work involved, for each and every session – and that scheduling work never gets any easier, because you have to start afresh each time.  You end up gaming once a month at most…  then you skip an extra five weeks… then seven… and eventually the game just peters out.

Why is that?  I think it’s a conceptual problem: by scheduling every session on an ad-hoc basis, you’re acting as if the goal is to make the game fit around everyone’s regular schedules – but that’s not the goal.  In fact, the only goal worth shooting for here is to make the game part of everyone’s regular schedules.  That might seem merely a question of semantics, but to me it seems like a pretty important distinction.  The busier people are, the more they have to restrict themselves to doing only the things that are on their schedules.  It follows that the only way to make the game happen, in the longer term, is to make sure it’s on those schedules.  Since most people’s schedules are weekly, this means that (in many cases, at least), you need to make it a weekly game.

Obviously this is in some way a dispiriting conclusion: if you need to make it a weekly game in order for it to really fly, then you’ve committed yourself to erecting what is obviously a  hugely high barrier to entry for most people.  Is this a mistake on my part?  Maybe so.  But it seems to me worth shooting for, right from the start, in the interests of the possible long-term viability of the group.  After all, points 1-3 are all about making things easier, lowering expectations, eliminating barriers to entry, and so on – the hope is that now all those things can pay off, allowing you to raise the bar where it really counts.  That’s my theory, anyway!

In passing: that’s a logistical justification for weekly games, but there’s also a more aesthetic justification for them.  Roleplaying is a form of serial fiction, and serial fiction of all kinds really, really needs regular installments in order to maintain its momentum and continuity.  To see what I mean here, think about our main contemporary form of serial fiction: television.  Imagine how much difficulty you’d have staying invested in a TV show that only played one episode a month!  It’s simply very hard to maintain your commitment to the fiction over such a long down-time.  The same is true for roleplaying, I think.  A game that ends up meeting once every 3 weeks, or monthly, is starting out with a huge disadvantage in terms of player and GM engagement.   A weekly game, on the other hand, occupies a regular slot in people’s schedules, and in their mental space – which is surely necessary for any real serial fiction to have a powerful effect.  

Those four points – start ASAP, make it provisional, keep it simple, and try to play weekly – have been my principles while setting up this new game.  Will they prove to have been good principles?  I’ve got no idea!  Possibly not.  But we’ll see, over the next month or so….  I’ll keep you posted!

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Setting up a Regular Game

  1. Congratulations on starting a new campaign. I look forward to seeing how it works out. I think you are right to make it a weekly game. That way there is something happen regularly. I would come up with some thoughts about what to do when a particular player misses. It can be something as simple as having a NPC that can mirror the missing PCs role (if I have a handy NPC, I will use that but I have been known to take a missing Player’s character, change the name, physical appearance and maybe changes disadvantages, but basically keep the advantages and skills the same so the party does not suffer the lose of a key skill or ability when the time comes). One way I have used in the past was it was time for the PC to pull guard duty are the base camp and guard the mule, while one of the former guards, take their turn on point with the adventurers. I always have at least one “Mirror image” NPC to take a PC’s roll, that way if a couple (or more) player characters are out, the adventure can continue. Naturally the NPCs gain any loot or treasure earned while played, and generally the missing PCs are able to buy, trade or otherwise obtain any magical items, but they have to role-play it, and sometimes the henchmen have a bad reaction to the approach and they can be extremely stubborn…

    Anyway, always have a plan and be ready to improvise, adapt and overcome. Have fun and enjoy, because that is ultimately the whole point.

    Oh, and by the way, I have been following your blog for a couple of months or so, you do a great job. Thank you for taking the time, energy and making the effort to put up such good GURPS content, but in quality and quantity. I hope you keep up the good work.

    A final thought that helps me: Campaign sessions posts a day or two after a game session really helps recall the details a few months or a year afterwards (real time), because remembering hasty named NPCs is harder the longer from the event it becomes. I for one, would love to read such updates, just saying. 😉



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