Dealing with Attrition

Life report/play report:

I’m continuing to run Rise of Tiamat for Wednesday night Encounters at my local shop. I’ve made the interesting decision of picking up war gaming while a child is on the way. I’m now playing Infinity Tuesday nights at the same shop. It’s fun. We’ve planned an escalation that should end about the time baby is due, and then all of our gaming will be hosted by us. My friend and gamepatriot over at http://blog.danddencounters.com/ has proposed pioneering the world of Fantasy Grounds and attempting to place so many support calls that we have a say in its future. So far the overwhelming response has been “why don’t we just use Roll20?” If either of those happen, I’ll write something about it. I may also blog about the Infinity escalation campaign – is that interesting to any of you, Gentle Readers?

On to dealing with attrition…

Attrition is an ever present problem for roleplaying games. I have only ever seen three campaigns to the end, everything else went to attrition in some form or another. We seem to have reached the attrition point for Wednesday night Encounters.

There are a couple things happening there. First, we’re running two different games. One is Rise of Tiamat, the continuation of last season’s story found in Hoard of the Dragon Queen. The other is Princes of the Apocalypse. I think we anticipated more interest in Rise of Tiamat than actually happened, but we’ve had enough players that we generally have two large tables of the low tier game and two small tables of the high tier game, which I think is generally a good thing. Lately, however, we’ve either been forced down to one table of RoT or have had barely enough to justify two. I’m having a harder time getting a good idea of how participation in PotA is because I’m not at those tables and because that has the potential to be three tables given all DMs in attendance.

Since it’s what I’m dealing with, I want to talk about merging tables. Adventurers League requires tables of at least 3 players, so as soon as we hit six we can run two. There have been a couple times that I couldn’t be there, but most of the time CM and I are both there. Our whole shop generally doesn’t do a great job of checking in before the game to say if they are/not coming so we’re often stuck at start time waiting to see if anyone else shows up. Sometimes people need to move and it’s annoying but that’s not the interesting part. What’s interesting is how do you bring people in to a storyline they haven’t been in? This applies at home as well, because you may have a new friend join in the middle of a campaign, or you may be forced to recruit new friends in the middle of the campaign due to our subject of attrition.

So have they always been there, standing stoically in the background? Did the party just meet them? You can usually figure this out at home. Sometimes it happens at an awkward time, but you can modify what you had planned to fit them in. But the format for Encounters is so strange, it has to be awkward when it happens. The last time CM and I had to merge tables, I just pushed my players back in time some. It wasn’t a big deal because they managed not to repeat any combats, and they only repeated one NPC encounter. We were able to run two tables again, and mine left the dungeon we had been in. Now what happens if we’re at less than six next week? My players are in an entirely different part of Faerun now, on pursuit of a totally different goal. It’s quite a bit of pushing back time to ask them to kill the same dragon again at this point. We could push one table forward and then back again, either way some players know the future, but that seems less fair somehow. One thing that’s peculiar to RoT but could be a boon, is there are a few floating encounters that are supposed to be fit in between chapters. It may be easiest to ask both tables to suspend their knowledge of time and run one of those if this comes up again next week.

With the Encounters format, there’s not a lot that can be done about making the aftermath of attrition smoother. It’s just a flaw with the format. So the next question is – how do we stop the problem from happening?

There are a few likely reasons for attrition:

1) Burn-out (Interest, or energy)

2) Life happening

3) Being waylaid and devoured on their way to the game

Since there’s nothing we can do about 2 or 3, we’ll focus on 1, which is really two things.

Why do players get burned out? Why do DMs get burned out? Whether they’re tired or no longer having fun, there’s a balance between what they’re getting out of showing up every week and what it costs them to show up every week, that affects it. Essentially, they aren’t having enough fun. The DMs job should always be to make sure everyone is having fun. And you have to include yourself, or else you’re going to get burned out. Right now I think we may be looking at player burn-out. In other words, I have no one to blame but myself. I could blame the module, but this one is actually better than the last one. I’ve heard the newer one I haven’t seen is again better, so that’s all good. Also, I know my players pretty well, I think we’re running in to life happening more than anything, but I’m going to assume I need to take action to keep the players coming. In reflecting on this I think my flaw is probably pacing. I have a tendency to wait for late players to show up, and I maybe am generally not moving fast enough. I keep things going, we haven’t stalled out anywhere, but I wouldn’t mind getting through more on a given night, and I think neither would my players. Another thing I can do is provide more rewards. I’m very limited in what I can do with the module, but I would like to reward players more frequently. I think I’ll have to give out Inspiration more readily. I should bring up having printed Inspiration cards again too. I’d really like to give them items, but I’m stuck in the position of we’re not supposed to give out items that aren’t specified in the module, but this particular one consistently includes “and some magic items of your choice” in the treasure hoard. There seems to just be inadequate support from AL for Rise of Tiamat, but I may need to reinvestigate this issue.

What do you think, Gentle Reader? How do you keep your players engaged, considering the constraints of a pre-written module being used in organized play?

Adventurers League: A New Series

I’ve been playing Adventurer’s League since it got started with 5e. Mostly D&D Encounters, but I’ve played a few Expeditions as well. So that’s most of my gaming time lately, but I’ve been keeping this blog to homebrew stuff, so I haven’t been saying much about it. I have now decided, however, that I can spend some time writing about it because I have volunteered to DM at our local comic book shop next season. I think where I can do something useful is by providing experiences from our shop and sharing tips that I think will be useful for us. We’re definitely not the most organized AL group, but I might be able to provide something useful to some folks.

So here’s the first problem we’ve had that I would like to take a crack at addressing:

When the players and DMs get to the shop, they kind of just wander to the first table available. Since Encounters are decidedly not episodic they frequently stop at awkward and varying places, even if the groups start in the same place in the story. This results in players shuffling tables and half of the party is suddenly in a different place than they were last week, they don’t know if they successfully dispatched the evil mastermind their new allies have never met, and the barbarian doesn’t know whether or not she has the axe she dropped. This is a slight exaggeration, but I think it illustrates the point well.

What I expect to be a simple way to minimize the occurrence of what I write in my notes as “TIME WARP!” is to make it more table-centric. If we label each table at he beginning of the night with where it will be continuing from, in some detail, I think people will sit at the table which is continuing where they left off more frequently if they know where to sit from the start. I think part of what’s happening now is if players arrive before DMs, they don’t know where to go, and once they’re situated they don’t want to move to match up correctly. But if we communicate to as many people in advance with something like “Table 1 – Episode 6, just arriving at the castle. DM: A. Table 2 – Episode 6, Floor 2 of the Castle. DM: B. Table 3 – Episode 7, beginning. DM: C.” it won’t matter what order everyone arrives in, and anything funny that happened at the very end can continue naturally, instead of getting skipped and going unresolved.

The problem with admitting that Encounters isn’t episodic and treating it as such is if that actually stabilizes into consistent parties, one could fall pretty far behind by the end of a long campaign like HotDQ. I don’t know if that’s really a problem per se, but it would be nice if everyone was more or less on the same page.

What are your thoughts, gentle reader? Is anyone else having this problem? Not think it’s a problem? Have a solution? I’m looking forward to talking to the other DM volunteers about this.

Gaudium et Utilis: On Adventurer’s League, and Organized Play in General.

This is a short post that I’m writing now instead of prepping for today because I read something unfortunately early this morning that I’ve been spending a lot of cycles on.

What happened was a question was posed on one of the Adventurer’s League Facebook groups, the question was answered, someone didn’t like the rule, and then the thread spiraled out of control. By the end a player who was not getting the point had driven one of the regional organizers to I’m-ready-to-step-down-from-this-position levels of frustration.

I have a decent amount of experience with organized play in general, and some experience with the new Adventurer’s League. The problem in this particular case was that the player was not understanding the point of organized play at all, but just in general, if you think AL’s rules are overbearing, maybe organized play isn’t for you. AL is very light on rules, and it’s very generous with what options are available to both DMs and players. The AL Player’s Guide is 21 fluffy pages. The Living Greyhawk Campaign Sourcebook was 78 rather dense pages. Pretty much all the AL rules do is try to level the playing field enough that nobody feels like their character is objectively inferior to anyone else’s, and establish the house rules so everyone gets to experience the campaign the same way. If you can’t live with that, maybe you should find a different medium for play.

Nobody out there is saying you can’t or shouldn’t buy the adventure books and run the D&D Encounters games at home with your own home rules. If that sounds like fun to you, definitely do it, but don’t feel like you have the right to bring your home brew characters into AL games at conventions just because it’s the same plot line. This is one of those “your right to swing your fist ends at the other person’s nose” situations. You can come up with your own rules, that’s the point of the game, but it’s just rude to show up at someone else’s table and insist on using your own rules when everyone else has already agreed on different ones.

Who I Am as a DM

I have actually done a lot in the world of gaming lately that I haven’t had a chance to post about yet. I have a handwritten draft of one about my experiences with the new Adventurer’s League, and I’ve been generating a lot of content lately for a Malazan  Book of the Fallen themed D&D 5th Edition game.

It is for that game that I am writing this post. When I did my first 5e game, one of my players was a long time friend of mine with whom I have collaborated on a Malazan themed game before. Last time we settled on Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying, and we managed one session and it just didn’t take off for all the reasons I’ve discussed games not taking off. After that 5e game we all went out for dinner and talked about 5e and gaming in general, and initially discussed playing something using Google Hangouts on weeknights with other friends we don’t get to see anymore. Malazan may or may not have come up. Fast forward some time, that friend comes to me with a party, some close to him, most close to me, interested in playing. All new people to me. I start the conversation with basics, and it comes that he and I are the only ones interested in DMing. So this is starting to look familiar, and we agree to revisit the Malazan idea. We will be alternating as DMs and hosts and are working together on the custom rules and some of the adventures.

So that’s all great, and I do intend to share some of our Malazan rules we’re working on when they’re better fleshed out, but where I am now is preparing to DM for a group of people I don’t know, and it occurred to me that they may want to know what I’m like as a DM so they have an idea of what to expect.

So this is for you, soldiers. (You’re gonna be soldiers. You’ll see soon, primer is coming along nicely.)

I went ahead and filled out my RPG Person Profile, and that may give you some idea, so take a look there to start.

My goal, as a DM, is for you to have fun. I’m generating something that I think is cool, yes, so it is tailored to me, but I am going to try my best to use it so that you have fun. To that end I try not to say ‘no,’ I try to keep things moving, and I try to make sure you feel heroic. The more of my design something is the more gritty it tends to lean, but I don’t feel like gritty is actually opposed to heroic, and we are using 5e as the base so you’re going to be looking at more you-punch-it-and-it-explodes heroics, but you aren’t going to be killing dragons and swimming in treasure. This is a war, so there are going to be humans dying all around you, and most of them are lucky if they got to eat that morning.

I have a history of liking a lot of freedom in my games. As I’ve grown as a DM I’ve turned away from that somewhat because there’s a point where a sandbox isn’t fun anymore because you can’t tell where the story is. Where I have held on to that is I try to let my players find solutions creatively, and I don’t necessarily have a single path laid out. I actually try not to prepare much beyond a one page outline and the necessary stat blocks to not make you sit there while I flip through books. I might indulge myself with the occasional text block because it makes it feel like D&D for me.

I like my adventures to be very self-contained and as modular as possible. When you’re working with a long story like we will things do need to go in order, but I want to end on end points, and start at starting points. I don’t like ending in the middle of the dungeon. To take a phrase from German longsword study, I like to run adventures in complete sentences.

I really like to both invent and try out new and different systems. Mechanics don’t concern me that much beyond the tone they set for the game, but simultaneously I see a definite value in a good system. It should be streamlined and it should make sense in the context of what you’re trying to do. Small, light, and easy is nice, but it is possible to have lots of charts and still have a “streamlined” feel. Similarly, it’s possible to have a very light system and still have it feel clunky if everyone is always confused about how the rules dictate a situation should be resolved. I mostly don’t want the rules to get in the way of the fun. I’m most likely to tweak magic rules because I think it should be weird, and alien, impossible to predict, hard to wield, and most of all, rare. If it’s common, easy, and repetitive, it’s technology, not magic, and it’s not this big huge thing anymore. In addition, I especially detest the “Vancian” magic system most of the d20 games used because I don’t like looking at my list of prepared spells for the day and thinking “this isn’t magical at all.” To that end, don’t expect me to actually reference the combat rules that often, unless one of you is concerned with a particular detail. You do come first, after all.

Finally, I always am open to feedback and I will endeavour to really consider it. I encourage discussion of any given session after it’s over. I always think I can grow as a DM.

Looking forward to playing with you all.

2 dungeon 2 gaming

A couple short things in this post.

First – the One Page Dungeon Contest 2014 is taking submissions until April 30th. So that’s cool. Right now I’m planning to participate, but Spring is always a rough time for me so we’ll see if I get a chance. I do encourage you, gentle reader, to flex your dungeon muscles and try it out. It’s a good exercise.

Second – The latest evolution of my project to game more is gaming by correspondence. I’m currently initiating an alpha test of custom rules for doing that.  There’s a thread I started on reddit requesting feedback here. More feedback is definitely still welcome there, or you can comment here if you prefer/are not a redditor. To fit a game as slow paced as correspondence demands, I have brushed the dust off an old 2e campaign of mine, Malleus Maleficarum. (The correspondence rules are also available transcribed into the wiki there. They should be identical. If not, please let me know!) I’m not going to post a lot of the content for that yet, because the test isn’t quite off the ground yet, and I’m keeping this a closed alpha. It’s my current intent to expand the test after my first scenario is complete, and try to run a couple in tandem. You are, of course, also welcome to try my rules out on your own if you are so inclined.  Once I get this first scenario going I’m looking forward to sharing some materials with you. I feel like materials will be important to making this feel less ephemeral to players who are used to being at a table together.

Change on the Horizon

There are different ways to not have time for gaming. Some of what I’ve talked about so far as been about saving time on the back end – so that your prep time, as a DM, is shorter. That’s a pretty common problem. It’s not really the problem I have anymore, though. This is another thing I’ve only recently realized. I mentioned in my introductory post that I started gaming in high school. Lots of time for both prep and play. They’re different because they require, for me, a different type of time. To play you need large blocks of free time, such as days off, which, as a high school student with no other hobbies and jobs that very rarely affected my weekends, were plentiful. What you need to prep, is, again, for me, lots of short periods of time. Trying to do a lot of prep in a long block of time will just end with me thinking and writing in circles, I like to have some simmer time on what I’ve written. So I work best a little bit at a time, spread over several days. The other thing that prep requires is bandwidth. I’ve started using “bandwidth” alongside time to do things and every time I explain what I mean the person likes it. I’m sure you’ve said you don’t have the time for something when you technically do, you just can’t be made to deal with it because if you don’t spend those 20 minutes on something more zen you’ll snap. That’s bandwidth, just because you technically don’t have every hour of your day blocked out doesn’t mean you have the bandwidth to think about it. Prep requires both, and long time and short time and bandwidth will be more or less plentiful at different times. So in high school I had all in plenty (if you’re now in high school – I know it doesn’t feel like it. It didn’t for me either.) When I got to college and had more things to juggle, I didn’t feel like I had a lot of prep time, and that was largely a bandwidth problem, but it was also harder to find those small blocks of time, I really did have most of my waking hours blocked out during the week, but I didn’t have too many issues with large time blocks. I worked more weekends, and I had more hobbies that could eat weekends, but there was still a lot. That was when I really needed ways to make the prep time shorter.

Now, it’s prep time that really isn’t a problem anymore. I’ve had it stuck that prep time is a problem, so I continue to try to shorten my prep time, despite not needing to. I will continue to document ways to shorten prep time, because it will be useful to plenty of others, but for my own purposes I don’t really need to do that anymore. Thus the change on the horizon, I may finish the Greyhawk plot I’ve been writing first, but I intend to do some worldbuilding next. I was talking about gaming with a dear friend for a couple hours over the weekend and I told him what I’ve been working on, and railed a bit on how the peerage in Greyhawk doesn’t make sense (a Duke is not the highest authority in a sovereign state, and an Archbaron is not a thing.) He asked if I like pre-generated settings, and I told him no, I generally prefer historical games, but I decided to use Greyhawk because that’s what the 3.5 books for D&D use, so I thought it would be easier for the new players I want to incorporate, and I thought it would save me time. That’s when I admitted that I don’t actually need the time savings. My friend also challenged my theory that using a home brewed setting, or even a more complicated one like I tend to, would be much of an extra hurdle for new players. That’s a more complicated thing to approach, though, and I will need to spend some time casting my players. That’s one way to try to keep things fun and player driven, courtesy of the aforementioned friend. Spend some time thinking about what characters your players will probably have, and how they’ll probably run them.

I’ve had more interesting conversations lately, and one compelling reddit post, but I don’t want to go on about too many different things in one post. Some things to look for in the future, though:

Risus. A major part of why I don’t have time is by the time I finished school I had picked up a rather time consuming hobby – reenactment. My wife and I do 16th century Highland, and with our local Renaissance Faire taking up the entirety of spring we’re going to be busy real soon. You may not find it surprising that a lot of reenactors are also gamers, and the topic of an after hours game comes up a lot, but never happens. My wife is in the process of planning a time-travel game using Risus. If you don’t know what Risus is, here: http://www222.pair.com/sjohn/risus.htm It’s an extremely simple, and versatile set of mechanics for any setting. Lightweight systems can be a great way to cut your prep time, and to make play itself faster, and the learning curve smaller.

Worldbuilding. Like I mentioned above, I have the time, so after I finish outlining this campaign, I’ll do some worldbuilding to shift from Greyhawk to something homebrewed. Since I don’t need to keep the setting secret, I’ll do some posts sharing what I’m making, as well as technique, and time management type things.

Remote gaming. I’ve been making the distinction between my maybe-Greyhawk-maybe-not game meant for new people, and the historical games I like to run. Something that I admitted during that conversation with my friend over the weekend is my proudest campaign I have had on hold because I want to keep playing with the same people, but I don’t see that happening anymore. Simultaneously, I know some experienced gamers who live outside of hey-lets-get-together range who would love to play, and one of whom I’ve talked to about using Google Hangouts and Roll20 to do a remote game. So I will need to dust off some notes, and talk to some people, and possibly make a system change, but there may be a small, occasional remote game coming for some of you. You may even know who you are.

Finally, another poll!:

Yet Another Gaming Blog

And so it begins. I am contributing to the plethora of gaming blogs out there. I do, however, have a particular theme in mind, and hopefully this will attract an audience of similarly challenged individuals.

I’ll begin with a little bit about me. I started playing DnD in high school. We played every day. We played in the library during lunch, and I hosted a longer game on Fridays after school. We played all night games, all weekend games. Eventually, we were all graduated. The eldest of us went off their own way, the younger two generations stuck together. We kept gaming. The youngest of us graduated and we scattered, off to college. We still played, a little less often, though. We’d have long weekend gaming marathons. Eventually we finished our two year epic campaign over spring break at my apartment, then the compulsion of being so far into a game was gone. We all got busier. We played once in a while, and our games mostly petered out after a few sessions. More people sort of vanished. We graduated, we moved, got jobs, changed jobs, moved again, made new friends, bought a house, got married. I now think I’ve played once in the last year, hopping in to a single session in a campaign that began without me and may now have ended without me. I now know far too many people who would love to game, spread hours away from each other, with different schedules, and hardly any free time anyway.

So what I’m getting at is gaming can get difficult when you have a lot of other stuff going on. I’ve been getting into a few gaming blogs – I’m sure I’ll cite particular posts later on – and picking up ideas to make writing and running a campaign easier with how hard it is to game. So I want to give back. I currently have a plan to try out a couple ideas, and run a short campaign. I’ve started talking to a group of friends who I’ve found easier to get together with in the past. I want to document my attempts to game now that I’m far away from home, married, with a full time job, and too many hobbies. And hopefully I’ll help others without the time or bandwidth to game like they used to reinvent what gaming is to finally get back to that favourite pastime of yesteryear.