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The Online Edition: Ensemble Play

Online gaming makes it easier than ever to join a game. However, real life still gets in the way. Overtime, school assignments, sickness, and family responsibilities all conspire against us sometimes. Maintaining an ongoing, epic campaign can be quite a challenge. Now, it is a rewarding challenge, and one I would never disparage. But it is a challenge.

This article will discuss an alternative format: ensemble play. It’s certainly not the only alternative, but it may be something to consider if you are having trouble getting enough players for a traditional campaign. We’ll look at the advantages and concerns involved. First, let’s define our terms.

In ensemble play, there is no set group of players. Players participate when they can, and your player database will be larger than the actual number of people who come to a session. Sites such as Meetup, Facebook, geek boards, and even your virtual tabletop (VTT) can help you find players and help them sign up for your sessions. Ensemble play does NOT mean that you can’t have some regular players with recurring characters. I love my players and would never give my regulars the boot. Ensemble play merely means that you are flexible in allowing others to sit in to have a full session. Pregenerated characters will help those folks who are sitting in get into play much more quickly.

In ensemble play, most adventures can be completed within a single session. Like old school TV shows, each story is self-contained. Every session should end with the characters accomplishing something, meeting some small goal. This makes it much easier for new players to sit in on a session without having to assimilate into a complicated campaign.

Some formats are well suited for ensemble play. Star Trek is the perfect example. While you may have regular crewpeople (your “every weekers”), you can easily round out the landing party with the guest specialists. Visit a new planet with a new problem each session and you’re set. Star Wars would work as well. Simply station the players aboard a large Rebel ship, and send them out on short missions every session. In a fantasy format, you could situate them aboard a sailing ship to visit a new port or island every session. Matt Neagley has a great article discussing this here. In a horror or modern genre, simply start the team at the site of their investigation. The X-Files is a good example of this, as is, well, Scooby Doo. No one cared where the Mystery Machine went between cartoons.

Ensemble play helps assure that you will have a full table (real or virtual) most sessions. With a large player base, you are not as limited by everyone’s schedules. It gives you the opportunity to play with a wide variety of people, and is a good way to help grow the hobby. You can easily try different genres and games if you like. No need to wait until the next convention to try that idea that is driving you crazy.

It may also be easier for session planning. You don’t need a long story arc or a detailed world. You just need a series of “singleton” adventures, and any travel is assumed to occur between sessions. You can even reuse some of your adventures with different groups of players if needed or if you’d like to fine-tune an adventure. A simpler system may work best for ensemble play. That way you don’t have to worry too much about the rules system or helping players understand them. Simpler systems are also much easier to prep.

For online games, the ensemble format will require a bit more pregame work from the GM. You’ll have to manage how people sign up for your game. Also, you’ll need to spend a little more time making sure they can find your VTT and audio service. At the beginning of the session, you’ll also have to spend some time making sure they know how to use the VTT and deal with any technical issues. You may also wish to discuss any “table rules” at the beginning of sessions as well.

On a social level, you’ll never know how new players will work. It’s a little like a blind date, and that can be fine or go horribly wrong. Also, it may be difficult to build up group camaraderie. To prevent some of these issues, you should be very upfront when recruiting players. I make a point of stressing that we run a cooperative game, and that it is mostly rated “PG.” You can do whatever you like in your games, but do yourself and potential players a favor and let them know beforehand.

Another concern is that it can be tough to write single session stories. You’ll need to have some kind of conclusion, even if it means skipping some intermediate scenes. (You can always recycle them for next time). You won’t be able to build a big epic storyline as easily or perhaps at all. This may make some players less invested in the game, and won’t be to everyone’s taste. Also, you can have characters level up, but you’ll need to do more bookkeeping. You may want to have players keep track of how many sessions they have attended or how many experience points they have accrued on their own.

Ensemble play may be an option if you are having trouble getting a consistent group. You might also run some ensemble sessions as a way to “audition” players for a more regular campaign. Given busy adult schedules, it is an option worth considering. Who knows, your ensemble game may morph into something more regular when players keep wanting to come back session after session.

What advantages or disadvantages did I miss? Have you had any experiences (good, bad, or ugly) with ensemble play that you’d like share? Let us know below.

3 Comments (Open | Close)

3 Comments To "The Online Edition: Ensemble Play"

#1 Comment By Scott Martin On May 16, 2016 @ 12:11 pm

The part that would worry me about a large but erratic group is the week where the stars align, and suddenly all 10 players can make the game. How do you tend to manage signups? The three recurring players go on the “space reserved” sheet, and the next 3 people to sign up make a full table, turn others away?

I enjoy episodic games as a GM, but tend to prefer coherent short stories to longer but varied participation games. Sometimes it can’t be helped–and for module like play, or the right setup like your Star Trek, every week a new planet setting–the rotating cast might do a good job of making it feel like a fuller ship or world.

#2 Comment By Roxysteve On May 16, 2016 @ 1:18 pm

Assuming I understand what you are proposing:

The downside as I see it is that stories must be completed in a single session for the idea to work perfectly, and I’ve found that a campaign of sessions that start and end inside three and a half hours cannot sustain player interest. There simply isn’t enough time to build in any level of complexity unless a “continuing plot arc” device is used, which will eventually fall afoul of the continuity-shattering nature of the per-session player roster in this sort of campaign.

And that will, over time, drive players away from the game.

It would work better for younger, less PG-experienced gamers, I think.

#3 Comment By Edward Blake On May 17, 2016 @ 1:38 am

That was exactly the gaming solution we used as teenagers. We were a bunch of friends, alternating in DMing, runnung episodic adventures and letting other frinds hop-in even in mid-session. On the long run (and growing up) i had to let go of this kind of game…i couldn’t enjoy the game anymore simply put. A middle way should be figured out: maybe a three-four sessions story arc, with the same charachters, a fixed number of them (say, four).?