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Doomsday Approacheth: Choosing the Next Game

My gaming group is coming up on the end of one of our two ongoing campaigns, and I’ve started getting the first tingles of dread. My group has more trouble picking games than a blind cat-herder would have trying to tend to his clowder of kitties.

If it goes the way it’s always gone in the past, this process will take several hours, frustrate all four of us to one extent or another and have a decent chance of not making everyone happy.

Does that sound like your group? If so, let’s pool our resources and try and come up with a better approach.

I know that there are really only four ways to choose your next game [1], and that the quirks in our process might be unique to my group. We use a version of method #2 from that post: an honest-to-god weighted list, with runoff voting and everything.

And you know what? It’s a giant pain in the ass. I love these guys, but I don’t love this process. It can be fun, in a way, but after a couple hours it starts to wear me down (and I don’t think I’m the only one).

If you’re up for it, I’d like to ask for your help in making it go quickly and smoothly this time around — not just for us, for but every GM whose group has trouble with this sometimes-peculiar aspect of our hobby.

Here are some basics that are particular to my group:

I don’t want to get much more specific than that, because this post isn’t just about my group. (If you need more data, though, let me know.)

Here are a few ideas that have come up so far:

What do you think?

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#1 Comment By MountZionRyan On May 4, 2007 @ 5:53 am

Our group rotates GMs every 18 weeks or so. Ultimately, as in it’s in the social contract, the GM picks and the rest have fun, dammit!

In reality the upcoming GMs usually talk about what they are planning during breaks or before or after the night’s gameplay. As a GM you get a sense of whther or not the players are interested, and as a player you know what to expect. Since we rotate often and have one-shots whenever a quorom isn’t present, even if a player isn’t completely satisfied with a game, they can have fun and ride it out.

Did I mention we’re all pretty mature, emotionally stable, guys with a similar vision on what we want from our group? Obviously this is a huge factor.

My suggestion,:
Roll 2d6, highest wins the GMs chair. Ties reroll until someone wins. The GM throws out three ideas he wants to run and the players vote. Play that game for a month, then reevalutae. If even one player is having no fun, rinse and repeat.

#2 Comment By Cliff Nickerson (kaelbane) On May 4, 2007 @ 6:15 am

Do you mean rules system? When you end a campaign, you switch rules systems? Or just genre?

#3 Comment By Jeff Rients On May 4, 2007 @ 6:15 am

In my experience “Let’s just do some one-shots” quickly deflates the energy in a game group. And it only multiplies your basic problem: “What one-shot do we play next?” will become the words you hate to hear. I think you would be better served by a Run Club with a proviso that after everyone gets a turn the group may opt to turn one of the one-shots into a campaign.

In your position I would carefully consider the tastes of the other players and prepare a formal pitch for a new campaign, with a one sheet summary to hand out to all. But then I’m the kind of GM who feels perfectly comfortable trying to force his will on the game group.

#4 Comment By xcorvis On May 4, 2007 @ 6:36 am

What games have you played in the past? Is there a trend? Can you identify the kinds of games that each player is leaning towards? If you can examine this information, you might be able to narrow down the choices before you even begin.

#5 Comment By bento On May 4, 2007 @ 6:54 am

Why not have each GM develop one “great” idea and pitch it to the group?

Everyone votes and the winner gets played. If there’s a tie, both winners get to run a short one or two session adventure. At the end of the second adventure, another vote is taken and the winner of that vote gets to continue running his game.

#6 Comment By Shawn On May 4, 2007 @ 6:59 am

Play Paranoia. Happiness is mandatory.

#7 Comment By VV_GM On May 4, 2007 @ 7:19 am

Happiness is not mandatory. Happiness is achieved through the benevolent work of friend computer. Those who do not wish to be happy do not want what is best for all, as determined by friend computer. Thus, for it is the will of friend computer and what is best for all, we must eliminate such people, umm . . ., end the unhappiness of such people.

Heretic . . . 😉

#8 Comment By robustyoungsoul On May 4, 2007 @ 7:30 am

I like MountZionRyan’s suggestion. Rotating GMs is definitely the way to go, and let the GM pick what they want to run.

Also, we’ve had great buy in for Burning Empires at our group after similar arguments, especially since the actual creation of the world you’ll be playing in is part of the first session. Everybody gets input.

#9 Comment By drow On May 4, 2007 @ 7:42 am

my group usually decides on a GM first, then its up to the GM to decide how to decide on a game. usually, i end up GMing. usually, i’ve already developed a campaign, or i haven’t and it all comes together on the fly. for my most recent campaign, i’d written elevator pitches for three different options, and let the players choose via IRV.

#10 Comment By Martin On May 4, 2007 @ 7:44 am

This is great! I’ll start with the feedback and then tackle the questions.

MountZionRyan: I could see the roll-off being fun, and it’s about right for my frustration level with this process.

Jeff Rients: Our pitches last time around were pretty well thought out, but they definitely weren’t formal. For example, I read the game I was most interested in cover to cover, consolidated the parts I was most geeked about in my head and then answered lots of questions.

The next logical step would be a one-sheet — I like it.

bento: That’s pretty much what we did last time, except that a couple of us pitched more than one idea. The “pick your best, and only pitch that one” approach sounds good.

Shawn: I love Paranoia, but I don’t think I could do it justice. 😉

(Cliff Nickerson) Do you mean rules system? When you end a campaign, you switch rules systems? Or just genre?

The field is completely open — we’re not a one-system group. Last time around, at least five different systems were considered.

(xcorvis) What games have you played in the past? Is there a trend? Can you identify the kinds of games that each player is leaning towards?

We’ve played D&D, d20 Modern and Trinity, with occasional dabbling in other systems. Oddly enough, we have one player who really doesn’t like d20, and between our last vote and now, I’ve gotten pretty burned out on it. I expect that trend to change.

We often split over games that are more character-driven vs. games where any party could be dropped into the campaign.

In terms of leanings, I don’t think much will have changed since the last time we voted on what to play. I won’t know for sure until we start talking about it, though.

#11 Comment By Martin On May 4, 2007 @ 8:33 am

(robustyoungsoul) Also, we’ve had great buy in for Burning Empires at our group after similar arguments, especially since the actual creation of the world you’ll be playing in is part of the first session.

I’ve been deliberately keeping the specific games out of the discussion so far, but you pegged this one: I really, really want to run BE. It’s good to hear that the initial session generated good buy-in for your group — that makes the “first session is the pitch” option all the more attractive.

drow: Maybe we’re just too democratic. 😉 We give everyone an equal voice, even though it doesn’t seem to work all that well. I’ve been considering just saying this: “I want to run X, and if I can’t, I’m happy to play anything that someone else wants to run.” And then sticking to that, obviously — if My Little Pony: FairyQuestTopia is what we play, I’d go for it with gusto.

#12 Comment By Telas On May 4, 2007 @ 8:49 am

Is that New York or New England style kitten clowder?

Just kicking some ideas around, especially since it sounds like everyone’s ready for a change… How about a gradual process?

Next session: Each member takes up to 5 minutes to say what they do and don’t like in gaming. They have advance warning to brainstorm, make a list, etc. This is where we establish the “market” for the pitches. “Gee, I never knew everyone was a big Firefly fan.”

Session 2: Each potential GM (not including the continuing GM and the player) proposes up to two games with elevator-plus pitches of five minutes each. During the next week, they’re available online or by phone to discuss/answer questions as needed.

Session 3: Each member of the group can blackball one option either during the week or during this session. Once the blackballed options are thrown out, discussion and voting happens. Idea mergers or changes can occur on the fly, if the GMs are so inclined.

Admittedly, this is three sessions, but it lets the players take their time and bubble the ideas over. Sessions 2 and 3 can be merged together, but it might make for a loooong night.

Good luck, this is tougher than getting disparate characters prepared for a big assault. (“Charlie Bronson’s always got rope.”)

#13 Comment By drow On May 4, 2007 @ 9:23 am

martin: maybe. 🙂 democracy is easier with my group. one member doesn’t want to GM at all, another will never be allowed to GM again, and a third is a great GM but can’t make the time commitment. that leaves only two candidates, and both of us are pretty laid back about which side of the table we’re on.

if spending hours hashing out the next game is a common problem, it might be worthwhile handling it out of band via email, or switching to a lightning round format. each person who wants to GM has two minutes to make one elevator pitch and answer questions. voting via IRV follows immediately thereafter, done.

#14 Comment By Nakalas On May 4, 2007 @ 9:34 am

I think you should try looking at the problem completely from the player perspective. I think the system and the GM should be the last things you consider. What do you guys like doing when you play?

You mentioned that you have played both character driven games and more plot driven games. What did you guys enjoy most from each type of game?

I think you should all write down some of your favorite role-playing moments as players. You could then examine these moments and compile a list of specific things that you all think are cool.

After you have your ultimate player compatibility list you can then look at the various systems out there to see which system will easily allow you to do the most things on your list.

This way you figure out your exact role-playing desires first before even thinking about any specific systems. You also don’t worry about who will be running the game at this point.

You decide on the game master last. After you have all agreed that you would love to play in the game, you decide who will actually run it. You can use your past experiences together to help you pick the person that would do best with the new game.

This person might feel cheated at first because they don’t get to play in this potential awesome game. However, if the game is going to be as great as you think it is they are going to have a great time running it as well. Besides, you could always create a stipulation that they get to be a player the next time you do this process.

“Ok guys, we have all decided that we want to play in a game where we want to be secret agents with robotic dogs. We also decided that we want combat to be insane and quick. We all think that motorcycles are cool so we agreed that our secret agents would all have bikes and they would play a big part in the story. Looking at the various systems out there, and taking into consideration Phil’s hatred of saving throws we have decided on X. Now, Martin ran a great X game 2 years ago, so do we think he would be best to run this game or does someone else want to run with this idea?”

I think this system would work best because it would allow you to really examine what you are looking for without getting bogged down with systems or figuring out who is going to GM the game until the end. You have the game come to you instead of the other way around.

#15 Comment By Frank Filz On May 4, 2007 @ 9:55 am

My big suggestion for improvement of this process: Ditch the idea that your group of players must always play in the next game. I think this is something our hobby really needs to break itself from.

If you get loose from this idea, it will be a lot less heartache. GM’s who have an itch to run something can announce what they want to run. And recruit players for that new game, with a good base of existing players to recruit from, but also openness to going to the larger community to recruit additional players (who may be far more excited about the GM’s passion than some or even all of the current players).

On the flip side, players can cajole GMs into running things if they strongly want to do so and feel that a particular GM will be a good fit for what they want to play in.

I think it would also be good to. through this process, create a larger pool of players. The clubs I was involved in in high school and college were great for this kind of thing, but for “out in the wild adults,” localized e-mail groups (Yahoo or otherwise) can make a great resource. It might be worth starting smaller that “whole city” Yahoo groups so that a larger percentage of the folks know each other.

In the past few years, I have a few times tried the “what will we play next” game. Always, I have had far more luck pitching my new game to the current stable of players AND to the various Portland (Oregon) gaming Yahoo groups.

Going this way will allow players to be far more honest about their continuing availability and interests.


#16 Comment By Abulia On May 4, 2007 @ 10:05 am

I’m one member in Martin’s said group. Personally, I think he’s overstating things by quite a margin.

For example, he implies that the output of our last session — our current two games — somehow failed. I don’t think that’s the case at all. Everyone seems pretty happy with where we fell.

While I don’t particularly enjoy the weighted voting part, I *do* enjoy the discussion of the various games. Perhaps I’m just wired differently.

The only thing I dread about game selection is getting saddled with another d20 game. I’m having a hard time remaining interested in the D&D game for a number of reasons (some of my own fault/design).

Our largest issue is that we want to keep everyone happy so middle-of-the-road “neutral” games tend to get selected. It’s unlikely we’ll play Star Trek even though 3 out of the 4 are psyched for it but 1 is adamantly against it.

One this is for sure: someone will be disappointed.

#17 Comment By drow On May 4, 2007 @ 10:47 am

overstating things seems to be a common necessity on blogs. otherwise, posts tend towards “eh, there’s this thing, and it’s more or less okay after all, i guess.” not a great way to start up a discussion. 🙂

#18 Comment By Frank Filz On May 4, 2007 @ 11:02 am

Our largest issue is that we want to keep everyone happy so middle-of-the-road “neutral” games tend to get selected. It’s unlikely we’ll play Star Trek even though 3 out of the 4 are psyched for it but 1 is adamantly against it.

See, that’s so sad to me. Why not play Star Trek. Sure, the one who is opposed will have to find a different game for a while, and perhaps you’ll need to recruit another player.

But when that game ends, you can go back to the whole group and see what people are interested in next. And perhaps the one who doesn’t play Star Trek can hook the group he ends up playing with into your group.


#19 Comment By longcoat000 On May 4, 2007 @ 12:11 pm

I first read this, got really excited about giving some feedback, then saw that three or five people came up with ideas much better than mime.

My two cents and blatant idea theft / consolidation:

1) Figure out what people hate (such as your one member’s irrational (or quite possibly rational) hartred of Star Trek or d20.

2) Each GM willing to run something comes up with one (or more) world / campaign pitches (I was lucky in that one of our GMs would say, “I’ve got stuff for a Star Trek game, Dr. Who, Modern-Day, ancient Rome, or paleolithic cavemen. What do you want to play?”). Your pitch is a basic one-page description with the world concept or hook, available character options, that sort of thing. Don’t pitch anything that is loathed by one or more players (seems like common sense, but there’s sometimes people in the group who don’t give a damn about what other people like or don’t like and mostly care about themselves).

3) The group votes on the campaign they want to play. The GM who’s running the show tells the players what system he’s using, and you’re off to the races.

Note that it’s the GM, not the players, who decides on the system being used. The players have already bought into the story with their vote, so the mechaics are up to the guy who’s going to be doing the heavy rules lifting. From my example, everyone in the group knew that the GM would be using Palladium rules, but we didn’t really care what rules he used, because we knew that he’d run a very cool game regardless of the random number generation method used to kill things and take their treasure.

#20 Comment By Martin On May 4, 2007 @ 12:34 pm

Wow — lots more to address!

Telas: I see the appeal of the gradual process. The only hitch that comes to mind is that with our schedules over the past few months, we haven’t gamed nearly as much as we’d like. I’m not sure that continuing that trend will help, even if the end result is worthwhile.

drow: Handling it by email might make sense for other groups, but we have trouble scheduling movies via email. 😉

The lightning round could work for us. Time limit, pressure and a statement in advance to not worry too much about the outcome — we can always change games again, after all — seem like key ingredients. Good suggestion.

Nakalas: Expanding the “let’s talk about what we like” segment might be really useful for us. As Abulia said, that part of the process can be fun — and I like your blueprint.

Frank: I wish we had a larger pool of players — recruiting is another topic that makes me start looking around for a good length of rope. Our last player took an entire month deciding whether or not to join the group, and settled on flaking out in the end.

I’m slowly arriving at the conclusion that either a) it’s a Utah thing, or b) we’re somehow repulsive in a way that’s completely invisible to us. 😉

We’re solidly in the category of “When we game, it’s with this group” — the social aspect of playing with these guys is the most important thing for us.

Abulia: I don’t think our last game-picking session failed in terms of the games we wound up with (the most important part), but it could have been faster and less of a pain in the ass.

I also think I could be happier with where we wound up, and as far as I know you feel the same way.

As for your point about neutral choices, I couldn’t agree more — I think we need to accept that one person may be disappointed, and work around that somehow.

Frank again: I’m to the point where if I was the lone standout opposing a system everyone else was stoked about, I’d probably just roll with it and see what happened. Especially if it shortened the process. 😉

longcoat000: I like the idea of starting with a hate list — “these games/themes are off the table.”

The only catch for us regarding mechanics is that we have one player for whom mechanics are a primary concern. “That sounds awesome…but what are the rules like?” came up more than once the last time we did this. And while it’s a lot closer to the bottom of the list for me — I’m with you in that a good GM, good players and a good campaign trump a good system in every case — it’s definitely a valid concern, and I respect its importance to him.

#21 Comment By John Arcadian On May 4, 2007 @ 12:46 pm

In cases like this we usually let the Game Master decide what game he wants to run, but we have a pretty open group. If a player isn’t a fan of the play style, there is an extended network of people who might be playing a different game that they like better. Still for the core group if we come to an impasse like this, it is usually a few weeks off while we prep, or a bunch of one shots of new systems to see how we like them. Often we don’t end up picking them up because they are too unique, but we at least get to see how they run and if we like them. By the time we are tired of one shots of stuff, someone has a good game idea that they want people to play, and we sift out the people who don’t want to play. Usually people do want to play in whatever the current Game Master is running, but every so often someone opts for being out of game till it ends.

#22 Comment By VV_GM On May 4, 2007 @ 1:00 pm

Although I see Frank’s point with his advice, it just isn’t practical for those of us in areas that just don’t have a good gamer population to recruit from. I wish I could stagger different players amongst different games and have a network of different groups to hook up with! If that were the case I would definitely take the approach that he describes.

For my group what works is the assignment of a GM for a quarter of the year. The GM can run anything that he or she pleases, and we all agree to give it a fair shot. If the group is having a good time then the GM assignment might be extended another 3 months until either the GM wants a break or the group wants a change. I think it works well for us because the GM isn’t restricted to run only what the group finds acceptable, and at the same time the players know that they can voice their opinion for a change after giving the system a fair chance.

#23 Comment By longcoat000 On May 4, 2007 @ 1:22 pm

RE: Mechanics – Why not just build a list of systems that people are willing to play? If it’s a new ruleset that a GM wants to try, then put the one-sentence description in his presentation (you roll a d20 + mods and try to beat a target, 3d6 + mods vs. your existing skill level, a number of dice equal to your skill vs. a target #, etc.), or an approximation of the rules if your group has a broad enough experience with different games (it’s like D&D/1E/2E/3.xE, Cyberpunk, Shadowrun, CoC, WoD, GURPS, Burning Wheel, Deadlands, etc.).

Another way of figuring out which game to play is to decide on a GMing order, then when it comes time to decide on a new game, the next GM in line pitches the campaigns that he’s willing to run and lets the rest of the group pick. Saves some time deciding who will be running, but everyone who wants one eventually gets a turn. This would also make “new rule pitch” games (“I’m thinking about pitching something and using these rules, so I want to test them out and see how you guys like them.”) run a bit smoother, because a GM will know when their “turn” is coming up and can plan their work on the pitch-game accordingly.

#24 Comment By Crazy Jerome On May 4, 2007 @ 2:13 pm

As General Eisenhower was fond of saying, when the problem seems unsolvable, enlarge the scope of the problem. You are beating your head against the walls, because of where you put the walls. So move one of the walls! Naturally, the tricky part is figuring out which wall(s) to move. 🙂

My suggestion, off the cuff considering I don’t know your group at all, is don’t pick the next game. At least not yet. Instead, sit down and have everyone make a list of things they would really like or not like in the next campaign. No talking while you do it. Set a time limit. Consolidate everyone’s want and don’t wants into two master lists. Go through the list and reconcile any obvious contradictions–such as one guy wants a horror game and other guys doesn’t. (Those elements get taken off both lists, and put on a third, “controversial” list. You mainly need this for later reference, in case you forget why you are running SciFi when two guys wanted horror.) Get the lists whittled down to the point where you can write up the thesis of the campaign in a paragraph:

“This game will be about furry sentients and their robot servants racing across the galaxy to a confrontation with their psychic overlords. ‘Technology’ will be Buck Rogers levels, with a fair dose of ‘magic science’ thrown in. Game action will center on space combat, skill use, and intrigue. No pointy ears allowed.”

*Now* you try to find a game system and a GM from your group willing to run this thing. If it looks like an unholy mess, you might have to edit it a bit. Just make sure that every player gets at least one of his wants in the final product.

#25 Comment By Abulia On May 4, 2007 @ 2:48 pm

See, that’s so sad to me. Why not play Star Trek. Sure, the one who is opposed will have to find a different game for a while, and perhaps you’ll need to recruit another player.

Frank, thanks for the suggestion but that’s just a sure way (in my mind) to piss off a friend and lose said player/friend. (I know that’s not what you stated, but the outcome is similar.) If he doesn’t want to play Star Trek I’d rather find a game we can all enjoy rather than showing him the door.

Also, we have no great pool of players to draw from; the four of us are it. We don’t have 6 players on the sidelines ready to jump in at a moment’s notice. Hence, we have to try to keep everyone happy.

I’m at the point in my gaming life where I’m pretty much done playing in games that I’m not interested in. I have shelves bowing with games that I want to try or things I know I’d enjoy (Trek, FS, etc). Furry sentients and their robot servants in a homemade campaign stuck together with a ruleset? Eh, not so interested. 😉 With D&D as our alternate game I’m less inclined to “take one for the team” on the new game.

#26 Comment By Rick The Wonder Algae On May 5, 2007 @ 4:29 pm

1: I like the rotating atendees idea but it takes a different culture and the right people to not wind up with hurt feelings. Also, don’t forget that sometimes gamers coming in “packages” so that showing the guy that hates Trek the door might well take two other gamers with him if they’re his wife and best friend, even if they DO want to play Trek (in this case who they want to play with is a higher priority than what)

2: I like Crazy Jerome’s idea but I think this will lead to two things problems. One, you’re almost certain to come up with something with cohesion problems. Two, It can be a lot of work to design a setting based on specs from scratch especially since they were all on SOMEONE’S want list so you have to make a reasonable effort to do them justice. It’s a good idea, I just forsee the execution being sticky.

3: How about running a rotating series of one-offs designed to be playable as longer term games if they catch on? After each game, hidden yes/no votes occur. The first unanimous one-shot become your new campaign.

#27 Comment By Crazy Jerome On May 8, 2007 @ 9:04 am

Abulia, you did get that was just an example, right. I picked something really lame in the hopes of making that clear. 🙂

“One, you’re almost certain to come up with something with cohesion problems. Two, It can be a lot of work to design a setting based on specs from scratch especially since they were all on SOMEONE’S want list so you have to make a reasonable effort to do them justice. It’s a good idea, I just forsee the execution being sticky.”

It’s possible. OTOH, sometimes things just gel. I’ve done it with 8 people, which is a lot harder than with 4. (Admittedly, we were 8 people with tastes apparently more similar than with Martin’s group.) You can’t skip that second step, where you hammer everything out. No one will get everything they want, but everyone will get something they want. Also, if you want to make using an existing rule set one of the criteria, include it!

Besides, it’s a useful exercise in its own right, even if you don’t end up using it. Think of it as brainstorming to find the two or three things that you want to vote on. They sound stuck. What’s the worst that can happen? They’ll waste half an hour.

I didn’t just come up with this out of my hat. Our group used it for a brainstorming exercise a couple of times, developed out of brainstorming principles. We had no intention of playing that game. It’s just that after we brainstormed and fiddled with it for a few minutes, putting together the kind of game we though we’d enjoy, someone said: “Why don’t we just play that!”

#28 Comment By Martin On May 8, 2007 @ 9:20 am

Thank you for the continuing suggestions! All the comments so far have turned this post into a useful resource for groups that have problems picking games.

The more I read, the more I’m leaning towards the approach where everyone with a game to pitch runs a session of that game. It includes a lot of elements from suggestions here, and it sounds like a good fit for our group.

Consolidating likes/dislikes before doing anything — pitch sessions included — is a strong possibility. I can see a list like that helping a lot when it comes time to make our decision, reagrdless of how we go about making the actual decision.