Sometimes you don’t get a quorum. It’s no one’s fault: people get sick or have other real-world obligations (sigh). Still, it’s tough for both players and game masters (GM’s) alike to show up and realize a session isn’t going to run.
One way around this is to prepare a back-up game for times when you only have 2-3 players. These can be a type of “hip pocket game” as described in Scott Martin’s excellent article: Hip Pocket Games. This article will offer a few suggestions for preparing a back-up game, guided by my own experiences. While some of the suggestions will reference on-line play, the basic principles should be the same for face-to-face games as well. Here are some general guidelines:
KNOW YOUR PLAYERS
Consider your players carefully when deciding on a back-up game. In fact, if it is feasible, ask them what they’d like. Some groups may prefer a side campaign in your regular game’s genre, or even a side trek with their current characters. Others may want to try something completely different for back-up game sessions. There’s no one right answer for every group. Just make sure you aren’t preparing a game that no one will want to play. You may not please everyone, but at least you won’t be wasting your prep time.
For example, our regular genre is standard fantasy, and our back-up is Star Wars. Three of my players had played Star Wars with me before, so I knew I had buy-in from at least half of the group. While I love that galaxy far, far away, forcing an unwanted genre on them wouldn’t be helpful.
PICK A SIMPLE SYSTEM
If you plan on running something different, consider picking as simple a system as possible. You don’t want to spend a lot of time having to explain the rules before jumping into play. One option is to just use a variation of your current system. There may even be a version of it that is ready to play. Another is to play a “universal” system all the time, and then all you are changing is the setting, not the rules. You could also do worse than a dirt-simple system like RISUS or a stripped-down version of FUDGE. If you use a simple system, you don’t have to relearn the rules every session. If you are not crazy about their dice pools, you can easily port the concepts from games like this to a different dice mechanic.
For our back-up game, we use a “2d6 + skill level” roll. The dice mechanic is cadged from another system, and often requires a bit more adjudication on my part than a more complex system. However the trade-off is that I can run it at the drop of a hat without wading through a giant rulebook.
You need them. If you and your players spend most of a session on character generation, it defeats the purpose of a having a back-up game. Consider preloading your pregens into your Virtual Tabletop (VTT). That makes it much easier for your players to choose a character, maybe tweak it a little, and then get right into play. You might also preload your maps, tokens, and even session notes into your VTT to make it easier on yourself as well. A side benefit of this is that you can use this “canned session” with other groups of players as well. I did this with a one-shot Star Trek session a couple years ago and got double play time for my prep.
If your players really hate pregens, you can ask them to make a character for the backup game and email it to you. This can help generate interest in your back-up plans, but be aware that not every player will have the time to do this. You will probably still need to create a few pregens of your own.
KEEP THE STORY SIMPLE
As with the rules, keep your scenarios simple. Think of the back-up game as an episode of a TV show rather than an epic trilogy. A few NPC’s, three to five encounters, and a clear goal for the players are all you need. A leaner game-plan also makes it easier for them to have a satisfying final encounter and meet at least some story goal.
For example, in our Star Wars game, the plot was “Locate the Rebel contact person in town, then help her bust her pilot out of the Imperial jail so everyone could get off-planet.” While that is not enough depth for an entire campaign, it is more than enough for a single session. One player even commented that the simpler plot was a nice break from our more involved fantasy campaign.
PRINT IT OUT
You’d be surprised how tough it can be to find computer files when you need them. Print out your session notes, rules reminders, etc… and keep them in your GM binder or folder. I’ve had a lot of great gaming sessions by having things ready to go.
A back-up game is not your only option when dealing with missing players. You might still run your regular game with their characters in the background or remaining in town. You might just run a shorter session so the other players don’t fall too far behind. Your group’s preferences should help guide you in your decision.
However, a back-up game (especially in a different genre) can be a welcome break for everyone. It also helps hone GM skills by forcing us to operate a little out of our comfort zone. A back-up game can be a great way to test out new rules or even develop scenarios that can be reused for convention games. Who knows, your backup game may even evolve into the main campaign someday.
Have you ever used the back-up game option? What did you learn from it that you’d like to share below?
My go-to back-up game is Call of Cthulhu, for several reasons. First, it usually provides a very different experience to what the current campaign offers. Second, because it’s a one-nighter, the players don’t mind using pregens or worrying about their ultimate fate. Given that standard CoC investigators typically come from mundane backgrounds, it’s easy for the players to get into character and grok their abilities. Third, the system is very easy to use and the SAN mechanic is simple and genius for sustaining the mood. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I have an entire library of CoC scenarios on my gaming shelf!
Thanks for the perspective Walt. It also sounds like you are VERY familiar with all the mechanics, which is important too. Don’t want to run a backup that one will fumble with.
I love the ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’ games for this reason. Monster of the Week is easy to run and the character generation can be done quickly and easily so it doesn’t seem like a distraction from the game itself.
One issue my group has found is that we often end up with more Back-Up games than prime games. So, in some ways, the back-up games become prime games. We’re lucky that we have three solid GMs to take turns (and other players that are capable, but don’t do it as often), but it does feel like we rotate which game we’re playing far too often.
Thanks Angela. I’ll look into “powered by Apocalypse” (is that Apocalypse world? If so, we are using a version of it).
You make a good point about rotating backup games. Guess it is a question whether a campaign is better, or a series of one-shots given people’s sporadic schedules these days.
Being an adult isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Yeah, “powered by the Apocalypse” are the games that use the Apocalypse World engine, like Dungeon World, Monster of the Week, Night Witches, etc.
We often alternate, switching games on alternate weeks, which gives you a built in backup for GM prep crunches and similar problems. But when you have missing players, a backup game is great–nothing else compares.
Your list of good backup game components is a good match for Phil’s.
These days, Psi*Run or A Penny for My Thoughts seem like perfect backup games–in part, because of their simple system and character creation. But Star Wars is hard to beat for immediate motivation and appeal!
Thanks Scott for the info on “powered by Apocalypse.” Wonder if that is an OGL license or something else.
Thanks also for the link to Phil’s article. I didn’t realize it was there and hope I didn’t duplicate anything. I was writing without knowledge of it.
And you’re right, I’ve never NOT filled a Star Wars table, online or at cons.
‘Powered by the Apocalypse’ is an unofficial term, I think. The licensing on Apocalypse World has to be open in some way, though, for all the products actually being made and sold that use the core concept. Dungeon World is popular, Monster of the Week is one of my favorites, and I kickstarted two games coming out this year that use the core concepts of the system. 🙂
Thanks Angela, I use a stripped down version (basically just their dice mechanic) for my Star Wars game. Was curious what the legalities would be if I wrote it up more formally for a generic “Space Fantasy” version.
I can usually slap together either a side adventure for minor characters (our current campaign is troupe play; the players all have 2-3 characters to allow for different kinds of missions) or I whip out the tried and true espionage genre: a kidnap rescue, a breakin for a McGuffin, or a protection detail mission. I used to use James Bond RPG for that, but not would probably go with Cortex (light rules, easy to make but well-defined characters) or the stripped down FATE of Atomic Robo. (Characters in 5 minutes or less!)
If that doesn’t work, that’s what board games are for.