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The 4 Ways to Choose Your Next Game (Nov. 2005)

Treasure Tables is in reruns [1] from November 1st through December 9th. I’m writing a novel as part of National Novel Writing Month [2], and there’s no way I can write posts here while retaining my (questionable) sanity. In the meantime, enjoy this post from our archives.
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When your group is ready to start a new game, there are a numbers of ways to handle deciding what to play. By far the most common approach I’ve seen is this one: The GM says, “I’m going to run this game,” and the rest of the group says, “Okay” (or sometimes, “No thanks, we’re going to go play World of Warcraft”).

There are some obvious downsides to this approach, though — so let’s look at the 4 ways to choose your next game (and there really are only 4 ways!), and then ask an open question: How does your group tackle this?

This list assumes that you’re not in the market for a new group — in other words, you want to start up a new game with your regular group. (Things are a bit different if you want to GM, but don’t have any players. In that situation, joining another group and waiting for your chance to GM, or picking a game and looking for folks who want to play it, are the two best approaches.)

1. I’m going to run this.

Pro: Because GMing requires a pretty large investment of time and effort, the GM who simply picks a game she’s interested in is automatically going to be pretty stoked about running it.

Con: Even the best-run game won’t stay fun for very long if the players aren’t also invested in it. If the GM just chooses a game, 99% of the time at least one player won’t be all that into it — which is a bad way to start things off. (I’ve found that many players are reluctant to express strong preferences about what they want to play, partly because this approach — the GM choosing the game — is so common.)

2. What do you want to play?

Pro: The whole group decides, as a group, what they’re most interested in. This can result in good buy-in from everyone, rather than each person having dramatically different levels of interest (which can ultimately kill a game).

Con: This method can take forever, and I’ve found that not everyone wants this much control over the games they play. (I’ve got an anecdote about my experience with this approach, which I’ll save for the end of the post.)

3. Pick one of these games.

Pro: Giving your players a list of games to choose from is a pretty good middle ground: It’s more structured than the second approach (throwing the field wide open), and less rigid than the first one (picking one game and leaving it at that).

Con: Unfortunately, this method often shares the downsides of both of the first two approaches. Sometimes, it’s also used to provide the illusion of choice: The GM has a game in mind, but doesn’t want to look dictatorial. If you have a strong interest, voice it rather than trying to obscure it.

4. Let’s play what we always play.

Pro: If your group has been playing one game for years, starting up a new campaign using those rules is just fine. As long as everyone is happy with the game, there’s really no downside.

Con: It’s good to try new things, and while there’s nothing wrong with playing one game a lot more often than anything else, it can lead to stagnation in your group. (A recent post, Martin’s Maxims for GMs [3], goes into more detail about this issue.)

(Technically, there’s a fifth approach as well: Throw darts. You grab a game off the shelf at random, and you play that. I can’t see this working well except with very specific groups, or for extremely short games (a session or two of experimentation). For that reason, I left it off the list.)

This post is very topical for me right now, because my group is trying to choose not one but two new games (to play on alternating weeks). We started out with approach #2, which has now morphed into approach #3. Method #1 was never on the table, because we’ve all had a lot of experience with groups that don’t have player buy-in, and since we’re in the mood for something different, method #4 also wasn’t an option.

We’ve pretty much got things sorted out, although it has taken a long time (method #2), and I think we’re on track to start up two new games with a high level of group investment in both of them.

When I first moved to Utah, though, we tried a different approach: the weighted list. This is a version of method #2 — everyone writes down X choices, and ranks them from, say, 1 to 5. It’s a geeky way to solve a geeky problem, and although it took a couple of hours we actually arrived at a surprising result (Birthright) that everyone was happy with.

At which point, naturally, one of our players said, “Wait — we’re playing every Saturday? I can’t play every Saturday. I can do twice a month, tops, and it won’t be the same days every month.” Things pretty much fell apart at that point, and a year later the weighted list is still an in-joke with my group — and a perfect example of method #2’s tendency to take forever.

Personally, methods #2 and #3 are my favorites — although I’ve tried all four at one point or another. I need to be heavily invested in the games that I run or I lose interest, and I like my players to be as excited about them as I am.

How about you? What’s your favorite way to choose a new game? Have you found any tricks for speeding up the process, or making the whole group happier with the results?
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Normally there’d be a discussion going on in the comments below, but due to time constraints I’ve turned off all comments during reruns — sorry about that! You can read the comments on the first-run version of this post [4], and if you need a GMing discussion fix, why not head on over to our GMing forums [5]?