This guest article was written by Oliver J. Oviedo of OJO Games, and its topic — sustainability — is one that isn’t often addressed in advice for GMs. Thanks, Oliver! — Martin
I have had the luxury of having consistent gaming sessions over the last 19 years. Through changes in jobs, schools, relationships and the arrival of kids, I have been able to keep up consistent gaming in my life. Granted, there have breaks here and there, but on average I have gamed 2-4 times per month during this time. I have learned that if you want a regular gaming night in your life, you need to make it sustainable. Here are seven of my best strategies for sustaining a long-term gaming lifestyle:
1 — Schedule it on a weeknight. A regular session on a weekend is tough when you are an adult. I have a wife and three kids, am pursuing a science degree and working part time as a researcher. Oh, and I am developing a few games and trying to build a website too. Gone are the days of heading to my buddy’s house to play AD&D all weekend. The good news is that most folks are not doing anything too exciting on a Tuesday night. Three solid hours of gaming is highly productive when you stay focused. I have gotten TONS of awesome gaming in between 5:30 and 8:30 on a school night, and you can too.
2 — Get your family involved. Stability within a gaming group is essential to long-term sustainability. Most of us have at least a few family members we enjoy spending time with. For that reason, I have always made an effort to include and mentor family (including significant others) in my gaming. I have had husband-wife duos in my groups, and even a mother-son duo. I have had siblings and in-laws. Stable relatives make stable gamers. And there is no better way to gain the understanding and support of your family than giving them a taste of gaming.
3 — Network locally. Get to know the gamers who live in your area and make an effort to play something, anything, with them. Not all of them will be to your taste, but odds are that some will. Having contacts in your back pocket will be invaluable if you need to fill in an empty seat at the table, or if you want to start up a new group or get invited into someone else’s group. In addition to increasing your pool of potential players, conversing with new people will expose you to different ideas, perspectives and games.
4 — Invest in the next generation. This means playing with kids, and teaching raw noobs the ropes. Un-jaded by game mechanics and system preferences, newcomers offer a fresh look at tabletop RPG. They will revitalize you. Kids are natural role-players, becoming immersed and invested in the story with amazing facility. My Storytime Chimera project was spawned from my practice of making bed-time stories interactive (as all nerdy parents should do). It strives to create an RPG simple enough for a child to understand, yet robust enough to handle anything a grown up might want to do. Check it out if you have children or newcomers you want to play with. There is a free download of the demo manuscript for anyone who signs up. It includes full color cover, black & white interior art, layout and sample adventure.
5 — Mentor new GMs. Establish a group with the understanding that everyone will be taking turns GMing. Mentor the new GMs. This not only reduces GM burnout, it fosters understanding all around. I have found that the best players are also GMs, and the best GMs are also players. It is bad for any gaming group to have individuals who flat-out refuse to play, or flat out refuse to GM. The reason this is SO VITAL is game mastering requires the development of specific narrative and improvisational skills. This requires practice, and simply cannot be learned by reading an RPG book. It is an art as well as a science. There is a strong oral tradition aspect to becoming a GM. The findings and knowledge of each seasoned GM are invaluable —- pass them on. Without mentoring new GMs, this hobby dies. Period.
6 — Egalitarian world building. Nothing is worse than spending hours and hours preparing a campaign only to have it go unappreciated. Many of us have drawers full of notes that will never see the light of day. We didn’t become GMs to toil in obscurity, did we? The simplest, most energy efficient solution to this problem is to grant the players some world building power. It creates instant buy-in and ownership, and takes a lot of work (and futility) off of your plate. If your goal is to run a game that your players will fall in love with, doesn’t it make sense to find out what they care about? This approach is intrinsic to my Fantasy Chimera game, which presents a developed mechanic for awarding World Building Points to players. Check out the website for a system neutral protocol for collaborative world building.
7 — Find a lab partner. As much as I advocate mentoring kids and non-gamers, you need to nurture yourself as well if you want to grow personally as a GM. For that reason, I council you to identify a person in your local gaming community who you consider to be at or above your level of mastery, and who is also interested in honing his or her craft. Twice a month, I get together with my buddy Paul at a local restaurant, and we play an intense game called Sorcerer (www.adept-press.com). We discuss the role of Narrative in the human mind, and analyze what constitutes vital, compelling storytelling. All this over margaritas and enchiladas, and we leave the kids at home. This is OUR gaming lab. You should have one of your own too.
You might be asking yourself at this point, “This sounds like a lot of work! Why the heck is a regular game night so important anyway?”. Well, to quote a recent Gnome Stew article by John Fredricks, Three Tough Situations, “Gamemastering is built on hope.” I could’t agree more. As a GM, you hope to get to play a game, hope to try out some new mechanic, hope to enjoy a good time with you friends and so on. Fostering sustainable gaming practices is a proactive way to turn these hopes into reality. Having a regular gaming outlet in your life provides a unique opportunity to connect to others via imagination and dialogue. It is the perfect way to share stories and ideas and to create a tradition of togetherness around the table top. This is why it is worth the effort.
What sustainable gaming practices have you found to be effective?
Excellent article Oliver. If I may add an eighth idea to this: Consider using the online medium as the delivery method for your games. If there aren’t enough local players with compatible schedules, seeking to use one of the online mediums (Ex: roll20.net) will open up your games to distant old friends that you gamed with 20 years ago or to gaming with newer friends that you made online in a discussion forum or on a video game. In this day and age, anyone with a little tech savvy and the internet might be a potential player for that game you’ve been wanting to run.
Excellent point Bryan – I have had some limited experience with online options, and have actually tried roll20. It is definitely a good option to have on hand.
Several of these are very good bits of advice, particularly the scheduling on a weeknight. I’ve had a solidly reliable game group for almost 20 years. People have changed over time, but weekly gaming has survived, with a few months here and there, moving from one state to another, a divorce and subsequent, requisite loss of half the group, people leaving town, or just falling away.
But weeknight games, even when inconvenient for some (we had two players that commuted the 45 minutes from Santa Fe to Albuquerque), have proven a key point to keeping a group together. The other, I find, is consistency. Keep the schedule as consistent as you can — same place and time and day. Be flexible — we shift game night from time to time due to family or work schedules, but we try to always have one night a week. If the schedule falls to less than every other week, I’ve found groups tend to fall apart.
The other point I would suggest is be FRIENDS. Gaming might be what brings you together, but doing other things — dinner nights, movie nights, etc. — builds a strong group. When you only have the Mines of Killngstuff as your glue, it’s not going to be a strong group. Getting together to see your friends and game…that works much better.
Recruiting family is another good idea. Both of my spouses have gamed. My kid is used to seeing Dad and his friends rolling dice and talking a lot. She’s intrigued. In a few years, maybe she’ll be at the table doing the same.
Networking online and through groups like Meetup is handy. I’ve gotten a few people that way, but I think that might vary in efficacy dependng on where you are. Albuquerque, for instance, is highly cliquish. There’s lots of gaming, but people tend to get recruited into a group and that’s the last they wander looking for players or games. The town is also physically pretty expansive; if you’re on opposite sides of the town, it can take longer to get from the West to East than it can to get to Santa Fe, 75 miles away, due to traffic.
Thank you for your comments, Campbell. I too am in New Mexico, but live up north of Santa Fe. I might be nice to meet sometime, and I don’t have any gaming connections in Albuquerque. However I am heading up to the NewMexiCon in about 30 minutes, so that might change!
I think you have excellent points, about being friends with your gaming buddies and also keeping the scheduling consistent. In my group, we always allow 30 minutes or so before a session just to hang out and catch up.
I strongly encourage you to support your daughter’s interest in gaming. You might take a look at Storytime Chimera (http://ojogames.com/storytime-chimera/) and see if it would make a good game for the two of you. I have played with kids as young as four and had a great time.
Shoot me an email if you plan to come up North one of these days: firstname.lastname@example.org
Who gets home by 5:30pm? Try 7:30-8pm and you are closer to target. And since I get up at 6:45am gaming in what is left of the night isn’t an option. 8oD
Good idea with the Lab.
If you are basically devoting yourself to work from 6:45 until 8pm, there some work-life balance stuff that needs to be addressed before you can worry about something as unimportant as “gaming”. =/
I think most of us ‘working stiffs’ can usually manage 7pm-10pm.
Well, if I’m to put a roof over the heads of my family and get food on the table regularly in New York I, like most of the rest of my peers, must commute.
And because I find sitting on a forty mile long parking lot less than optimal, like thousands of other commuters I use the Long Island Rail Road, the last word in reliability. I’m sorry, that should have read “least word”.
When the tax-payers say I can work from home, then I can address these issues you point out. I’ll be retired or dead before that happens of course.
Not as easy to walk away and get another job at my age as for most hanging out here (I pre-date RPGs by a considerable amount; my ears are still ringing from the Big Bang), and believe me that were it not for the family I wouldn’t be living the Vida Loco in New York (where everyone is so busy saying how great it is no-one has the time to actually make it happen).
Our group usually meets by 6:30 for dinner, and is at it from 7-9:30 or 10pm. Normally, I’m up the next day by 7:30am.