Classic Dungeons and Dragons and Old School Gaming

D&D etc.

"Heir to a crumbling summit: to a sea of nettles: to an empire of rust: to rituals' footprints ankle-deep in stone."

-Mervyn Peake

"...and that, my liege, is how we know the Earth to be banana shaped."

-Sir Bedevere in Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Monday, August 28, 2023

Open Table Gaming

Since February I have been running a monthly open table game at the local gamer pub. I run a simple house ruled version of BX dnd.  Because it is a drop in open game the group always leaves the dungeon at the end of a session. There is a core group of 6-8ish people and then I had a few sessions with 10-12 people. The first time that happened was a challenge -it is a very different experience to run a group that large. At my last session there were 17 people! 

I have been reflecting on these experiences and I would like to note here some things I have learned about running a large group:

1. Make character generation very simple. 

I don't use pregens because I feel like making up your own weird little pretend person is an important part of the hobby and I don't want to rob my players of that, especially the newbies. In my open table game making a character is just rolling 3d6 in order, d6 for HP, picking an alignment and class (3 choices each: law, neutral, or chaos and fighter, thief or magic-user) and that's pretty much it. Equipment is just a package based on their class and highest stat. Oh, low WIS and INT scores means you have to roll for a paranoia or dumb thing you believe, and everyone rolls on a d6 chart to determine their Drive, the reason they are seeking out dungeon adventure. (In debt, a missing family member, etc) Its very basic. It's surprising to me how much the non-experienced role-players latch onto that bit, they like having a motivation, thinking about it, talking about it and sometimes justifying actions with it. 

I set out intending to be open to other classes, the options were: fighter, thief, magic-user, or make something up! For me, this is the perfect balance of few choices to prevent analysis paralysis while being open to alternate character ideas if the player is willing to invest a bit of creativity. Most people, though, stick to the options given. I have one guy who has basically made a cleric. He didn't ask if he could be a cleric, he just made a lawful fighter and made up the name of a god. He name drops his god at least once every session, it's pretty great.

There are at least one or two new people most every session so getting these folks up and running with a character takes a bit of time at the beginning of the session. This gives the regulars time to chit chat, discuss what they did in the last game or sort out buying new equipment or doing other downtime actions. I wrote up a selection of downtime actions thinking this could be a formal thing for all players who do multiple sessions, but it has ended up being not-so formal. A few people do things in downtime but most folks don't worry about it. 

2. Stay organized.

I made a 16 page pamphlet with the basic rules and character generation. I tuck a blank character sheet into each one. I give this to each new player to keep. I ask for the players to leave their character sheets with me between sessions. Sometimes they take a picture. I don't require this, if they want to keep their character I let them, but this has prevented a situation where someone shows up to play without their character. I also have a one page roster with basic info about the player and the character that I pass around the table at the beginning of each session: player name. Character name, class, level, AC, HP... I use this during the game to track things like marching order, who has a torch lit, XP, etc.

3. Think constantly about Player attention and decisions.

Normally I wouldn't put limits on character action. If one or two PCs want to go off on their own and do their own thing I let them, but I have learned how difficult this is with a large group. In this open table game I have resorted to asking a player not to do it on occasion. There has been a time or two I wish I had done more to nudge PCs to stick together. It is difficult enough to make sure everyone is getting a chance to play even when they stay together that having someone go off on side quests is just too much of a distraction. If a PC or a small group of PCs wants to head off in roughly the direction that the main group is heading, effectively scouting, I allow that as it still keeps everyone engaged in what is happening because they want to know what their own characters are about to encounter. If someone does get separated from the group I have learned to ask the player to be patient. 

The two main currencies in an rpg are attention and decisions. As the DM it's my job to generally hold the Players attention and present them with decisions. I started off sitting at the end of a long table because that felt like the right place to be as a DM, but I gathered that it was difficult for the players at the far end to hear what was happening or get in on the action so i have now taken to sitting in the middle of the table. Hmm maybe I should experiment with different table arrangement, set them up in something more like a circle or a U? I might try that if I get another large group.

I make it a standard practice to ask a player what their character is doing by giving them a few specific options while keeping it open: "do you want to push open the door, continue down the hall, or something else?" This keeps things focused while still allowing for creative problem solving.

4. Keep things moving and include everyone.

I do side initiative. Combat can get chaotic. I like that, it feels appropriate to me. Generally I go around the table and give each PC an action, but sometimes people will form smaller groups within a battle and instead I will address the actions of those smaller groups in turn. I have learned not to let a player slow the game, if they don't know what to do neither does there character! I'll say that and go to the next person. This doesn't happen often.

I understand why back in the day they had the concept of the "caller": one player who had the job of telling the DM what the whole group was doing. I haven't quite resorted to that but typically I will ask the person in front what they are doing and let the rest of the group simply follow along until they are at a location with multiple options or objects to interact with.

Sometimes both in and out of combat if I feel a player or two haven't gotten to do anything I will specifically ask them what they are doing. I will also sometimes ask for a d6 roll from everyone and give the highest rollers the opportunity to act. They are the ones who speak the NPCs language, or notice the NPC doing something sneaky or hear a noise or what have you. This is a simple way to randomize who has the spotlight and can give someone who hasn't gotten to make a unique or decisive action the opportunity to do so.

5. Limit the sandbox.

I like the idea of sandbox games, allowing the PCs free reign to decide what they are going to do in a session. In an open table though, with a large group and new players in each session I have to give them structure. Sometimes I will give the group two or three options for where they could go at the beginning of the session and sometimes I will just start off with a hook and get them in to the adventure. 

The Drive that I have each character randomly determine does a lot to help players focus on the adventure. 

6. Control the number of Players?

I haven't done this, and I would prefer to avoid it if possible. I really like that anybody can show up and jump in. This is kind of the whole point to this game that I'm running. But, with more than 10 players at the table the amount of gaming that each individual gets to do is reduced. I understand that invitations and RSVPs would allow me to control the number of players. If there is a call to play and players are expected to RSVP and there is a cap to the number of players at the table then it wouldn't feel right to let people in to the game on the day of. What I might do is offer an extra session per month that would be for regular players. This game I would ask for an RSVP.

I have to say running a large table is a fun challenge and something I encourage every DM with some experience to try. An open table is an interesting challenge as well. Even with a cadre of regulars I don't know who is going to show up for a session or how many strangers I am going to be running a game for. I set out to find/create a group of old school gamers and so far it's going great. I know that in some ways it might be easier to use an established rule set and use pregens or ask folks to come with a character ready but I wanted to minimize the barriers to entry. More than once players have chatted up folks at the bar just before the game started and invited them to join in. Those folks were able to go out for the night and jump into a game of dnd without planning for it or knowing that was how they were going to spend the evening and I think that's pretty cool.

I cooked up the plan to run this open table with the pub owner. Her Facebook posts advertising the game are pretty key to bringing players in I think. The bartenders there have pointed people my direction as well. I have also posted to gamer groups and recruited players and I've made a few zines and posters to advertise, maybe I'll do a write up about that next.

If you are an old school gamer in or around Bremerton Wa, or would like to be then come down to Ashley's Pub on the second Wednesday of each month! We start around 6:00.