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The Rambling Gnomes: How to Start a Side Game in the Shadow of an Epic Campaign

We got an email from Gnome Stew reader Cody Jones of gameonpodcast.com [1] with this stumper of a question — one we hadn’t heard before.

Several of us responded, so we decided to start a new series called “The Rambling Gnomes” for Q&A posts where a bunch of us gnomes nibbled on the same question.

Here’s Cody’s email:

I have a question for you fine gnomes. I currently am blessed to play in a very-long running D&D game. I originally joined this game through the DM’s son in 1997 when I was 14 and have been playing ever since. All of my gaming friends play in it, and it is very much the central hub of our gaming group. The DM is a local minister and has been playing D&D since the beginning, and we even still play with the 1st Edition rules (not my favorite, but hey). He created his sprawling, homebrewed world of Protolon all of those many years ago, and that world is still played in despite moves, military assignments, and even a house fire – all through the last 30+ years. It is *the* weekly game for our group. Sounds great, right?

It’s almost too great, if that makes sense. A few of us have tried to run other games on the side (Rifts, Hollow Earth Expedition, etc.), but it’s just not as successful. Admittedly, I’ve always wanted that Friday night game where people come to my house every week and we play D&D in a game of my own. It’s been quite hard for anyone to get a game going since some folks either can’t commit to more than one night of gaming or Saturdays don’t work well for them. Friday night is the optimal night, and Protolon won’t move or be postponed – it is that much of a staple. I don’t blame the main game, but it definitely has the gaming monopoly with the group. If anything, I’m very jealous (in the best way possible).

So, how would you suggest getting a steady, weekly (or even bi-weekly) game going with this scenario? Thanks for your consideration. I loved your work on Treasure Tables and I’m really enjoying Gnome Stew.

In the order they replied, here’s what the gnomes had to say. Walt started us off:

Unfortunately, I don’t see much of a solution here beyond “maintain the status quo.”

Cody has stumbled onto something magical; a fun, long-running campaign that has kept the interest of a tight group of players for a long time, using a system that most of us old-schoolers cut our teeth on. His Friday game is as much a social event as it is a game, and everyone seems happy with it. There is really no need to compete with that, providing that Cody isn’t looking to leave it (and his words lead me to believe that he does not).

Most gamers, especially older gamers, simply can’t make time for more than one weekly session. In fact, among the gamers in my circle, it’s more common to rotate weeks for two games rather than accommodate two sessions a week. If forced to choose, gamers will obviously gravitate to the one that they’re most invested in (Protolon, in this case).

That said, I completely understand the desire to try different games and be able to host/run a game. My suggestion is to not compete with Protolon. Accept that it is the ongoing Friday game and concentrate on running short, irregular games around it when others can find the time. Maybe Cody’s friends can’t participate in a weekly Hollow Earth Expedition campaign, but they might be up for a four-session miniseries or a marathon Saturday game. Concentrate on running a good adventure, rather than developing an entire game. Even better, Cody could poll potential players as to what they’d like to try. He might find that four of his friends are really jonezing for some Shadowrunny goodness, and three nights of a good magical cyberpunk adventure might be just the ticket.

Telas responded:

I smell jealousy.

That said, it could be my own musk that I’m smelling. I’m thinking that an alternate weekday game might fit in, or even an alternate Sunday afternoon/evening game, depending on the target audience. If the game is good enough, it will attract its own crowd. Start small, with a 3-4 hour game so folks can get home on time, and you don’t draw the fire of significant others.

The downside of the scenario as presented is that it’s got to be stifling for aspiring GMs. On the upside, those aspiring souls may have a ready source of advice in the Reverend GM.

(Unsolicited aside: A minister running a game, especially a good game, is a Very Cool Thing. Let’s get past those silly stereotypes from the 80s.)

Scott picked up the thread:

My solution resembles Walt’s pretty closely. The only other things I can think of are:

1) Ask the current GM if he’d like a break, a chance to be a player for a while. If he feels obligated to run the game, asking might give him a chance to rest for a while and let you try GMing a short run of something else. That way you don’t have to worry about competing for that one night a week, and you’ll have the support of the current GM.

2) The much easier said than done– look around and see if there are other gamers who would love to play, who are not in an established group. Offer to run something for them– take advantage of player finders, meetups, etc. Since they’re not comitted on Fridays, your Saturday game might be perfect for them– and they’ll have Friday as date night, etc.

I don’t see a way– or a good reason– to wrest the group from Protolon. I suspect that successful alternatives will be rotating, much shorter games– people are getting their long term, in depth play itch scratched by Protolon. If Protolon dies naturally, you might step into its place– but there’s no good way to hurry that along.

If you advertise a new group, I suggest that you include a goal to differentiate it. I know that the “try experimental and indie games” goal for my second group helps keep them very distinct from the type of play I enjoy with my primary group.

And I wrapped us up:

I’d try two things. The first would be to pitch something dramatically different from 1e D&D system-wise, and dramatically different from Protolon in tone and feel. At least in my group, no matter how awesome the games we’re playing are, we’re always thinking about what we might try next — we like variety. I bet there are some folks in the Protolon group who would dig some variety as well.

The second thing would be to write off Friday and Saturday nights and go for Sunday afternoon or evening, or try a weeknight. With work the next morning, shorter sessions would be in order. Walt wrote a series of posts on how to run short sessions, starting with Short Sessions: How to Cope [2]; I’d start there.

You might also consider offering a non-steady game on a steady night, if that makes sense. So rathee than a second potentially never-ending ongoing campaign (like Protolon), “your” game night is for one-shots, mini-campaigns, giving other GMs a chance to run something, experiments and oddball games. I don’t know if this will scratch your itch, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

That’s our take — how about you? What can Cody do to solve this problem?

Want the gnomes to answer a question or give you advice on a specific GMing topic? Dive into the Suggestion Pot [3] or shoot us an email [4].

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "The Rambling Gnomes: How to Start a Side Game in the Shadow of an Epic Campaign"

#1 Comment By Cody Jones On August 27, 2008 @ 6:58 am

Thanks for the great comments, guys. No, I have no intention to ever dethrone Protolon or attempt to take its place – I’m just very jealous (in a good way) of its success. I’m starting to see how blessed I am to have such a long-running game to go on a weekly basis. Myself and the other budding GMs have lately fallen into the shorter miniseries of games mainly out of necessity, since we can’t schedule weekly games on a consistent basis.

That being said, I’m going to make my next miniseries short on purpose, which is something I’ve never done. I guess I’ve always had that mental block that any good campaign worth talking about has to be a long and sprawling magnum opus that spans across the years indefinitely.

I look forward to the comments and advice on this one.

#2 Comment By Rafe On August 27, 2008 @ 7:02 am

I think you guys covered the gamut of options. My personal preferences are for him to approach the DM and see if he wants to take a break and go bi-weekly for a few months; or to find new players for that specific game and keep the Protolon game unaffected. The second option might not give him quite what he wants if keeping the same players is a goal.

#3 Comment By Cody Jones On August 27, 2008 @ 7:08 am

Our DM’s not much for taking breaks (the first Friday of each month is an open board gaming night, so that’s break enough for him), plus I wouldn’t want to actually replace Protolon on a Friday as to not upset the folks who can only make one Protolon session a month due to work, school, etc.

#4 Comment By Newj On August 27, 2008 @ 10:46 am

If you want to do a short game session you may want to consider a Weekday game (assume the other players can make it). I have a Wednesday night game group that works well because we usually have our weekends filled with other stuffs. Every now and then we get together for a weekend game, but the main focus for that group is the 4-5 hours of gaming on Wednesday.

#5 Comment By grieve On August 27, 2008 @ 4:23 pm

I just have to say, that they nine gnomes image used to lead this article would make a great T-Shirt (hint hint).

#6 Comment By Martin Ralya On August 27, 2008 @ 4:59 pm

@Grieve: Heh — that was a random stock photo grab and about a minute’s work in Photoshop (to clumsily draw the hats). I’m glad you like it, but I don’t think legally I could turn it into a T-shirt. 😉

#7 Comment By MountZionRyan On August 28, 2008 @ 7:40 am

Good games do not have to be sprawling, multi-generational epics.Our group usually doesn’t have anything that lasts more than 12 four-hour sessions. Or if we do, it gets broken down into 12 session story arcs.
I think Martin has the key here. Go for something totally different. How about a zombie spaghetti western (Deadlands: Reloaded), or exploring the ‘Verse (Firefly RPG). Entice players to a weekday alt game by pitching something that they can get into. Do you all like The Matrix? How about a Feng Shui game set in a matrix-clone. You mentioned Hollow Earth, sell it as League of Extraordinary Gentlemen meets Indiana Jones (what gamer/geek could resist that?)

The miniseries idea is spot on. Run something short and focused to a) keep you from being overwhelmed and b)leave the players wanting more. Heck if you run HEX, leave them with a cliff hanger!