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The Waiting Game

Today’s guest article is by Patrick Regan, a screenwriter living in Los Angeles, who learned how to write for TV by GMing after a college roommate made the mistake of showing him Dungeons and Dragons. He blogs at www.weareindependentfilm.com, podcasts at Cinema Excelsior, and can be generally found on Facebook and Twitter @underwoodfive. This is his second guest article; his first was In Media Res [1]. Thanks, Patrick! — Martin

“Heeeeeeey. I’m gonna be running a little late.”

Show of hands, who’s gotten this text come game day?

Put your hands up, liars. We all get that text. We all send that text.

Sometime after high school, people running late (or outright flaking) becomes a matter of course. We have lives! Jobs, other hobbies, children and families. At the same time, those very commitments mean that gaming time is precious — carved out because we care so much. Most of my games meet monthly these days simply because few people I know can properly commit to a weekly meeting.

This isn’t an article about making sure people arrive on time, though. That is another article I will probably write for a life hacking blog. (Hint: it involves lying!)

This is an article about what to do while you wait.

We Came Here to Play

The easiest approach while waiting is to play something else. We live in a golden age of board games, having finally seen the light that the Europeans knew about for years and years. Board games alone are probably keeping FLGSes afloat as more and more RPGs go over to PDFs, so why not help keep them in business? Especially if you meet there. Pay your rent. Sometimes I offer up a small prize to the winner of the game — a free Fate Point or a single-use magic item.

To my mind, for a board/card game to be suitable for playing the waiting game, it must meet three criteria:

  1. It must be portable. You are probably already lugging notebooks, corebooks, dice, maps, snacks, and elaborate GM costumes (don’t judge me). You do not have room in your bag or on the table for something with an elaborate board. Leave Ticket to Ride and Legendary at home for your next game night.
  2. It must be easy to learn and set-up. You’re likely not going to be playing a game for more than an hour, so spending forty-five minutes teaching people the intricacies of Arkham Horror while you put the board together doesn’t seem like a good use of time, much less Twilight Imperium
  3. It should be easy to end and clean-up for when Tim arrives. Yeah, I know that he said he was going to be here in an hour, but Tim is kind of bad at letting you know when he’s doing anything. Don’t be surprised if Tim just shows up in twenty.

Tim’s kind of a jerk. You should talk to him about that.

With that in mind, here are some of my personal favorite:

Munchkin

Munchkin, by Steve Jackson games, is the grand-daddy of all waiting on someone board games. In fact, it was explicitly designed and marketed as that. In case you’re not familiar with it, Munchkin plays like a gonzo version of Dungeons and Dragons. You kick in doors, fight monsters, collect loot, level up, and screw over your fellow players in a satirical fantasy adventure world in an attempt to get to level 10 first. And if Tim is actually early? Hey, whoever’s got the highest level wins.

The artwork and in-jokes are an enormous part of Munchkin’s appeal, with weapons like “+3 Rock” and enemies such as the fierce “Plutonium Dragon.” There’s even a wide variety of expansions and flavors of Munchkin, from the WoD-style Munchkin Bites to the Star Trek themed Star Munchkin (Featuring a Red Shirt who will often sacrifice himself for no reason).

If you can, I actually recommend you play a different Munchkin than whatever game you’re playing (that is, if you’re playing Shadowrun, play DnD-themed normal Munchkin). Munchkin intentionally skewers genre conventions, and while it’s great to let your players get their laughs out now, you probably don’t want them thinking about how silly it really is that Elves “trance.”

You should also be careful not to let the expansions get out of hand — technically, all Munchkin games are expansions of each other and can turn very quickly into the most absurd version of Rifts ever. Also those cards get crazy hard to transport.

Fluxx

Fluxx is a weird game. Weird, but fun. It starts with two rules:

  1. Every turn you draw one card.
  2. Every turn you have to play one card.

That’s it.

Only it’s not, because there are three kinds of Fluxx cards. Goals (win conditions), objects (items you have that let you meet goals), and rules.

That’s right, the rules change as you play, and believe me, they can get absurd. Draw One Play Five. Draw Five, Play One, Hand limit Three. Fluxx is good if you really don’t want to spend much time explaining rules, because the rules at the beginning are so simple. New players learn with everyone else as the game changes.

Fluxx is not for everyone, though. Its win conditions are pretty binary (when you meet one of the goal cards you win), so it might not be the best choice for a super-competitive group. If Tim actually arrives on time, there’s no way to stop partway through, and making Tim just sit there and wait is pretty rude.

It’s also not great for people who don’t enjoy keeping up with constantly changing rules, whether due to attention issues, a dislike for keeping track of rules, or just general disposition. You know that player who can RP with the best of them, but always passes their rolls to someone else? Yeah, probably not good for him.

Totally Renamed Spy Game

I actually got a copy of the original version of this game for Christmas last year, from when it was called “Before I Kill you Mr. Bond.”

Guess why they changed the name.

In Totally Renamed Spy Game, you play an evil mastermind, building your secret lair and fighting off those pesky secret agents your enemies keep sending in. If you capture a spy, you could kill them for a small point value. Or you could actually be a self-respecting dark overlord and taunt them for increasingly more points. The more you taunt, though, the more it will blow up in your face if Mr. Bond actually escapes. You may not expect him to to talk, but you should actually stick around for the execution.

TRSG is small, portable, and fairly easy to pick up. It’s best suited for theatrical troupes who aren’t afraid to use silly voices on their characters, largely because TRSG is no fun if you don’t go full Blofeld with everything you say.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, the gameplay is great, but if one person is delivering full line readings and one person isn’t, it’s going to make someone uncomfortable and unhappy, I promise.

In the same vein, by the way, is Genji. Only instead of dramatically taunting spies you’re reading romantic love poetry in the Genji court. Po-tah-to, po-ta-to.

Timeline

Timeline was introduced to me by a really close friend of mine. She was flying back from PAX and detoured through LA just so she could see me and brought it a long as a gift. I’ve loved it ever since.

Timeline is great for waiting. It’s TINY (she had it in her purse), easy to learn and endlessly repeatable. The basic schtick is this: everyone gets five cards. On one side is an historical event, the other side the year the event happened. Everyone starts building a timeline around a randomly drawn central card, trying to correctly put all their events on the timeline before everyone else does.

It’s that simple. There’s several different versions on the market with different concentrations (Hollywood, Inventions, etc.), and they’re all really fun.

Timeline is good if you know that Tim really is like ten to fifteen minutes away, because a game goes really fast. Even if Tim does show up early, he’ll be waiting five-ten minutes max, which is perfect if he wants to use the bathroom or grab some Starbucks. It probably won’t stand up to an hour, truthfully.

One caveat: Timeline obviously values a working knowledge of history — someone with a PhD in history could easily smoke everyone, and someone who knows nothing at all is going to get miserable quickly. Tailor your selection to your audience.

Apples to Apples

Or Cards Against Humanity.

You know these. Apples to Apples and its naughtier cousin, Cards Against Humanity, are gaming staples, and odds are wherever you’re physically sitting to play your game, there’s a copy within arm’s reach.

Both games definitely meet my criteria. They’re generally portable, they’re easy to learn, and you can quit any time with a quick score tally. However, there’s a reason I put them on the bottom of my list. I don’t think you should avoid them all together, but I do want you to be aware that there be sharks in these waters.

The first is that they are ubiquitous. Everyone has played them, and most have played a lot of them. No matter how many expansions CAH puts out, I think the gameplay might be starting to get a little stale.

The second is more specific to CAH, and that’s that it can reveal things about your friends you might have been better off not knowing. CAH’s dark humor can be VERY subjective, and it’s the kind of game best played with people you know very well after everyone’s had a drink or two. Starting off with it with people you only know casually might reveal opinions that wreck the rest of the session, if not the group itself.

You might think I’m exaggerating, but I’ve seen it happen.

Actually, while I’m on the subject? Don’t play Diplomacy. Just in general.

No, We Came Here to Play

Now, those are the easy ways to spend time before Tim shows up, but I’m actually going to make an audacious suggestion.

Instead of playing those, play what you came to play. Don’t start the adventure without Tim necessarily (that can be more trouble than it’s worth), but play a part of the game you don’t need Tim to play. Here are two examples, but you should try and come up with more yourself depending on what you’re playing.

Gaiden

Loosely translated, Gaiden means “Side Story” in Japanese. In anime, this can refer to a story of the characters that’s separated out from the main plot. (The Cowboy Bebop Movie for example. It’s a complete story, but isn’t really part of the larger series arc.)

If Tim’s really going to be taking his sweet time (say, an hour), this might be a good time for a Gaiden story. Think of anything that would normally be done very blue booking, or a storyline that Tim has absolutely no interest in, and play it out instead of saying it happens off-screen.

In my experience, this is best done for leveling up, gaining abilities, or justifying purchasing contacts and allies. Most of the time when our heroes grow in power, those extra traits are hand-waved as happening off-screen, even if the world-building has an actual explanation for where the power comes from. Does your Cleric need to make a pilgrimage to a sacred space of her god to be granted the new powers? Does your fighter find and train with a grumpy sword master? What kind of street-doc is giving your street-samurai his new arm? Why does Duke Vidal have allies at City Hall now?

These Gaiden Stories can introduce elements that will last long after their gone and characters that players will want to go back to (Is this Street Doc their go-to guy now? Does the Mage who taught you the esoteric Rote inspire you to join his legacy?). All great, fun stuff, but stuff that doesn’t necessarily require everyone to be there.

The trick with doing this is to time it out right — if Tim arrives and you’ve still got an hour to go before you can finish, you’re just replacing one problem with another.

It’s Our World

More and more I’ve come around to the idea that the players should build the world with the GM, largely based on some of the systems Onyx Path has been putting into their nWoD 2ed as well as monkeying around in Fate.

The aspirational GM idealist in me could talk about players having a stake in the creation of the world and story, but the truth of the matter is that I started out of laziness. I’m a professional writer, and there’s honestly only so much effort I can put into building the world for the players before it starts feeling less like my hobby and more like my job.

If you haven’t tried it yet and your chronicle is still young, this is a good time to start delegating some of that pesky world-building work. Go around the table and have everyone name a supporting NPC that’s important to their character. A trade organization they’re a part of. A place that matters in the party’s history, or an old problem they’ve been worrying about (say, a deep dark secret or a nemesis they’ve angered).

This is a great way to pass some time, as it makes the world you’re about to play in rich and gets everyone else in the right mood and frame of mind without making Tim feel like he’s missed something important. It’s just back-story that you would have explained when it was relevant anyway.

I used this recently to amazing effect in a Changeling game. By the end of it, we had stolen a nearby chalkboard and covered it completely with two “maps of crazy” as my players called it, detailing the entire layout of the Freehold and their enemies.

All this helpful information being said, there is one other option I haven’t covered. You could always talk to each other.

Ugh, I know, right?

Still, my point is that at the end of the day, this isn’t that serious a business. Rather than be angry at the player whose late (unless this is a chronic thing, in which case you should be bringing it up with the player in question), just try and keep having fun. As long as you remember that that’s why you’re there, to have fun with people you like, you’ll do just fine.

4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "The Waiting Game"

#1 Comment By NikMak On September 3, 2015 @ 3:13 am

good article, thanks. Something Im trying to foster (with some success so far) is the promotion of alternate GMs, and you have made me think I think it could maybe work in the context of players being late to the game as well.

As a variant to your ‘Gaiden’ approach; the PCs back story (… / contact / deep dark secret etc.) is run by the player in question as a one shot. I and another player at our game recently tried this. Using ‘five room dungeon’ concept as a frame work worked really well for us. It has also got several other players hinting an interest in GMing a back story session for their PC.

I may try this on a ‘people are turning up late night’ and see how it goes 🙂

#2 Comment By Blackjack On September 3, 2015 @ 2:07 pm

These are all good suggestions for games RPGers would enjoy when they’re not RPGing, but….

I’ve found there’s a risk in temporizing with a side game (or whatever else) while waiting for late players. The kind of player who’s late more than just once in a blue moon will use the side game as his justification for choosing to be late in the future. I’ve seen this happen several times, where a player says something like, “I came at 10pm [two hours late] and you all hadn’t even started the game, so I don’t see why it’s a problem I don’t get there at 8.”

When there’s a problem with a player who’s frequently late, that problem really needs to be addressed head-on. I recommend starting the game promptly at a stated time. This rewards players who arrange their schedules to arrive on time and punishes those who don’t, rather than inconveniencing the rest of the group for one laggard player’s benefit. BTW, “stated time” doesn’t have to be the same as the session starting time. One of the groups I belong to has the rule, “Come at 1, game starts at 1:23.” That allows a bit of leeway for traffic variation as well as time for people to socialize, get comfortable, and unpack their gear after arriving. Those who choose to come late miss out.

#3 Comment By oliver@ojogames On September 3, 2015 @ 2:24 pm

@Blackjack – I like the fact that you mentioned having time up front to settle in. I struggle with that in my own games, as we are all friends in RL and tend to get carried away socializing. Setting two times allows for structure and consistency.

With regard to the article itself, I think there is merit in actually playing the game itself, not an alternate board/card/party game. Why punish the folks who were on time? By all means do what you came to do.

I too am a huge believer in granting the players buy in by spreading the world building power. Don’t fault yourself by saying you are a lazy GM – the fact is that it is the most energy efficient way to get everyone engaged and have something the players are going to enjoy. Putting a ton of work into something that no one appreciates is soul crushing. In my own indie game development project, I have solid mechanics that grant world building powers to players as the game progresses.

#4 Comment By Roxysteve On September 8, 2015 @ 3:43 pm

Sorry to quibble but if you are using cards and nothing else it isn’t a board game.

Also, if you are wanting a card game that is easy to explain and which you don’t have to understand the entire deck, at least in principle, before you can play effectively, *I* say there is no better game than Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards; Duel at Mt Skullzfyre, a game which effectively showcases what magic duels should be like in D&D instead of the Dice Fests they actually are.

Which somehow didn’t make your list.

Other quick games I like: Zombie Dice, Gloom and Ziggity.

Ooh! And Redshirts.