By Walt Ciechanowski
Accommodating Real Life
Hello, everyone! Today's column will be brief, since I'm a bit overwhelmed at the moment. I decided to collect a few things that have been bouncing around in my head for a while and jot them down.
I'm an older GM (in my thirties). Back in the eighties, I used to play RPGs almost every day. Sitting down to a 6-8 hour session was the norm. We were all fanatical about our games. I went through many summers with pasty white skin because I never saw the sun. Today, I count myself lucky to be in one weekly game and one irregular game (we play whenever we can fit it in).
Game Mastering is not a full-time job (if anyone is hiring, please let me know!). We older GMs tend to have jobs, school, families, and other responsibilities that occupy our time and thoughts. Sometimes we can barely scrape our notes together in time for the regular session. We are also usually fighting time, as our players tend to be older with responsibilities of their own. We're lucky to put in a three-hour session without someone nodding off, and session cancellations are commonplace.
These are some tips I've gathered over the years (in no particular order) that I hope you'll find useful:
The days of players hanging on your every word and plotting their next moves between sessions are over. Get used to it now. Anticipate frequent player absences or session cancellations. Virtually all of your players have other responsibilities and roleplaying is going to get bumped down on their list of priorities. That doesn't mean they don't care about your campaign. You should be consoled by the fact that they made time for it at all. Don't get bent out of shape by last minute cancellations.
Similarly, the social aspect of gaming tends to dominate sessions as we get older. Many of us don't get to see each other away from the gaming table so don't be surprised if your 6:00 game doesn't get going until 6:30 or 7:00. Expect it. Many players are also coming straight from work and won't appreciate you impatiently waiting for them to finish that dinner they bought on the way over. Give them time. Your casual, two and a half hour session will be more fondly remembered than the four hour one where you acted like an iron-fisted dictator.
I can't emphasize this enough. You need to keep your game as simplified as possible. Most game systems I play regularly have one core rulebook (or, in the case of d20, two). The rules in this core book are often the most effectively play-tested and balanced. Limit your players to creating characters from these core rules; it will save many headaches later. Only add options from other sources (read "splatbooks") if they are absolutely necessary for your campaign and don't add extra layers of complication. Feel free to use support material for adversaries. This will be to your advantage, as players are less likely to drop $25-35 on a source book that they are barred from using, thus keeping that material from becoming common knowledge.
Also, pick a rules system that is easy for everyone to use. This does not mean that you need to pick the simplest system you own, but you should use a system that won't require putting the game on hold during a session so someone can flip through the book. If your group is used to using a particular system, it is probably best to stick with it rather than waste time trying to teach everyone a new set of rules.
3. Stick with simple plots.
Don't write epic sagas or complex mysteries unless you want to spend a lot of time reeducating the players every session. I've found that a strong one or two session story runs a lot better than a multiple session storyline. Capitalize on the few hours in which you have the players' full attention. Make your cliffhangers (if any) memorable scenes at a point in the story where the players can easily pick it back up next session.
4. Create a reasonable schedule.
Time is precious, especially for players with families and jobs with long hours. A weekly six-hour session is not going to fly. You may have to settle for a three-hour session. You may even have to settle for a twice-monthly or monthly session. Players with busy schedules are less likely to cancel if there are longer breaks between sessions. You may find that you get better play out of a group that only meets for five hours every three weeks than if you tried to squeeze in three hours every week.
5. Don't let 'em sweat too much.
Many older players have a lot of stress in their lives. They may have issues at home and the workplace that are wearing them down. They come to the game for a few hours of escapist fantasy and they certainly don't want to spend them getting even more frustrated.
Guide your players through it when they look like they're spinning their wheels. Ask them leading questions if they're stumped for answers. Suggest skill rolls they didn't think of using. Open each session with a short recap of the salient points from the previous session. At the same time, don't railroad them. Allow your players enough time to reason things out on their own. If they start getting snippy, it's probably time to throw them a bone.
6. Don't panic if you don't have time to prepare for a session.
Your players will understand that you have a life, too. Sometimes (many times) that life is going to prevent you from preparing adventures. Remember Rule #1. The group has gathered for primarily social reasons. Pop in a DVD or break out a board game. Even if you feel you have to cancel, the players will appreciate the free time to do other things. Trust me, no one is going to be sitting home bored because you cancelled a session.
Keeping the plots simple will also help you. Look for shortcuts. Often, a favorite television show could provide you with a basic plot that will cover a session. Use some of those disadvantages or roleplaying guides on player character sheets to occupy a session.
7. Have a good sense of humor.
With all of the stresses in a player's life, she will appreciate a little diversion. Don't lay on the bleak atmosphere too thickly. If your Call of Cthulhu adventure degenerates into a comedy session, let it ride. Use actors and situations that are well known to the players. This will also allow the players to visualize NPCs without you wasting time on a description. This may also bring in funny references from television or the movies based on that actor (even if the mannerisms are supposed to be different). Imagine your players' reaction when they finally come face to face with a master criminal and you tell them that he looks like Ed O'Neill! The players will have a much better time laughing through your session than scratching their heads over some obscure clue for two hours.
The object of any game is to have fun. This is especially important for older gamers who don't have as much time as they used to devote to the hobby. If you accept your situation and reasonably accommodate your players you will save a lot of headaches and aggravation in the future.