When I got home from DDXP last January, the desire to have a gaming group again had been fanned from a wee spark into a roaring flame. I immediately set about the task of inviting people and getting things set up, and before we knew it, we were playing our first game together. As I’ve mentioned in this column before, I am not really accustomed to being at the helm of a gaming group. In past years, I just showed up at the designated place and time every week and consumed cookies and caffeine until something magical happened and I woke up at home with a tummyache the next morning. I knew that being the Dungeon Master was going to be different, but I really didn’t know how.
Now, just a shade under six months from where we started, I’m taking a step back to see how things are.
When the group first started, we decided to play D&D every other week, and play various board and card games on the alternate week. We’d had a lot of people itching to play board games where I worked for some time, and I liked the idea of having more time to plan between sessions while I was still getting my dungeon-legs.
Now, after half a year, I find it interesting that the board game half of our game nights seems to be the star attraction (frequently, even to me!). Several of our players have brought friends or significant-other units, and I find myself with a very happy – and very full – dining room. Everyone still likes D&D, but I do think our campaign suffers from the lack of weekly play. There are other cards stacked against D&D as well. If more than 2 people are gone, we typically will default to board game night — which has resulted in 4-5 missed D&D nights. We also only play for a relatively short period (6-11pm, since it’s a weeknight), and we usually need until about 7:30 or 8pm to unwind, socialize, and get the game going. I don’t see this as a bad thing, except that it cuts into gaming time. All of our players have worked at the same place within the last year or so, several of us have either left or been laid off, and this is the only time we get to see each other and hang out now.
I’m not going to lie. This bothered me for a little bit. I wanted to put gaming first and I wanted everything to run super smooth and to have the Best Gaming Group Ever. Then Katherine, one our our players, utilized a particular talent she has in making people make sense. We need that social time. It’s a large part of why we have this group in the first place. It’s why you can go to a convention and have fun playing with a group of strangers, but you don’t have the same rapport and emotional connection like you do with a regular group. Do we need to make sure somebody sounds the Horn of Gaming to get the ball rolling sometimes? Sure. But do I still feel good at the end of the night even if we didn’t get a whole lot done? You better believe it.
Our group has grown by a few members since we started. I had heard from several Smart People that anything above 6 players for D&D was too much, but we let a few more in anyway (mostly at my behest). The brains were correct: we frequently don’t get anything done — but we also don’t get a lot done when we only have 4-5 people either. As long as we have fun, I don’t really care. As for board game night…. I think we’re about to crest a dozen. We usually split into two games and each gets half the table. Sometimes it’s hard to hear, but it’s awesome.
As I mentioned before, all of us worked together or were (b)romantically involved with someone who worked with us. One unfortunate reality that goes along with this is that today’s business world/the economy/mole people etc. have not been particularly kind to said employer and they’ve been laying people off. People like, for instance, me. I was fortunate enough to land another job quickly and locally, but I worry about my friends who are still there. Especially the ones that I’m worried might have to move away, because then I don’t get to see them and/or kill undead with them anymore. My last group breaking up was not a pleasant experience for me, and it also involved some of my favorite people moving away where I don’t get to see them much anymore. We’re not to that point yet, and with the amount of players we have right now my guess is we could soldier on. But I really, REALLY don’t want to.
My Role In All This Play
I’ve talked a lot about the group itself, but not my role in it. Like I said, I’m not used to this, and I’m still not yet. I think I sort of act as a leader for us even today, but it pretty much consists of providing a place to play, making sure everybody knows where and when to come and working out the occasional (thus far almost negligible) issues the players might have. I’ve had a few DM’s that go on a power trip, so even talking about me being all leader-y makes me a little self-conscious even though I’m pretty sure that’s not me. I decided to take the initiative on things just because I knew somebody had to in order to make gaming happen. I’ve seen a couple groups fail because they never could get together or figure out what to do, and I think it happened in part because nobody stepped up. It certainly doesn’t have to be me, but I’m glad to try to nudge us in a gamerly direction, and to do the occasional organizational stuff. There’s not much, but it’s needed.
Speaking of organizational stuff — it didn’t always go right: I did all the pizza ordering for awhile and tried to have it ready by the time everyone got there, but getting everyone’s orders right frequently didn’t happen and we wound up with either too little or too much pizza. It wasn’t a tremendous deal but it was getting unnecessarily expensive. Lately we’ve been going with a “bring your own food” policy that seems to be working well.
I was kind of hoping to have the pre-game DM jitters gone by this point, but they’re still very much there before every session (and inversely as strong as how much preparation I’ve done, which really ought to be a lesson to me one of these weeks). I do think my confidence has improved somewhat. Some of the more… shall we say, experimental sessions we’ve had did have a few grains of method behind their madness. For instance, one side effect of having done a “zero-prep” session is that I know I can make something happen even if I don’t have anything to go on. Granted, it wasn’t very good, but now I feel much more comfortable if I actually do have things prepared and the terror of someone exploding my carefully-laid railplot is insignificant by comparison.
I had a player recently tell me he wasn’t having much fun during D&D, but he still loved playing boardgames and wanted to know if he could just do that half. I sat and read his text message for a moment, bracing myself for feelings of shame and inadequacy, waiting for the defensive response to bubble up into my brain. I was really surprised when it didn’t happen. I simply told him I was really glad he told me, and I’d SO much rather he told me and just did the stuff he enjoyed rather than sitting and being miserable every other week. I’ve been in a group where we were all too chicken to tell the DM we were unhappy and wanted to quit. It was awful, and it wasted everyone’s time. This was not. There were zero hard feelings and it was one of the better examples of communication among rational adult gamers I’ve ever seen. It did, however, make me want to get feedback from him to see what I could improve (regardless of whether he decides to play again later). If I was going to guess at my own flaws: I’ve stayed on the rails too much a few times, went way too far off the rails a couple times, I seem to be allergic to giving out treasure, and I don’t prepare enough. It might be time to poll my players to see what they think.
The uncertain future aside, I’d say we’re doing well and having fun. I don’t really know where this puts us on Chatty’s stages of RPG group development (any given session is a crapshoot between Storming and Norming), but our split format probably throws a few monkey wrenches into things. I’ve personally thought about lobbying to have board game night go three weeks in a row and only have one board game a night. Then again, I’ve also thought about doing the inverse. I feel like we’re having trouble doing a long campaign, and might do better with one or two session D&D adventures (or maybe even trying some “smaller” games like Leverage or Mouse Guard). I’d also like to try running some adventures I didn’t come up with. I think they might be a little easier for human brains to process, and I might learn how to make mine a bit more comprehensible along the way. Once again, probably time to speak to the group to see where we want to steer this thing. I really don’t think anybody cares, as long as we have fun.
So, basically, almost nothing turned out like I expected. Even so, sending out that batch of invites was one of the best things I’ve done in recent memory. I hope we can keep this going for a good long while.