I’m not just a GM, I’m also a player, with my husband as my longest-term GM. In fact, for most people that play with him, he’s their longest-term GM, too. He keeps a group of seven regular players, most of which have been with him more than five years. His last campaign lasted almost four years, and he expects his current one to be similarly long lived. He’s been continuously GMing for about 14 years, with only short breaks for the birth of each of our kids. From what I can tell, this is not the norm (the longevity, not the taking breaks for new parenthood).
So for me, the question was obvious – how does he do it? How does he get this really invested group of players, and why doesn’t the group implode or drift apart like so many gaming groups do?
The answer played out over the course of a rib eye steak lunch (Mmmm…Saltgrass). At first he demurred, saying that he didn’t know anything about running long-term games in general, he only knew how to do his sort of game. Other people probably make it work differently.
So, with that caveat, here are my notes.
Ultimately, the game is about fun. Anything that gets in the way of that fun should be pruned out, and every opportunity to make it more fun should be added in. This focus is more important than the rules and the rolls and the world building and the props and every other part of the game that gets analyzed and marketed and sold. Now different people have different ideas of what fun is, so you have to pay attention to your players. But each session should have times when the players are laughing out loud or yelling with excitement or on the edge of their seat with anticipation. And you always should be looking for ways to put in elements that get them to that point. If there’s an NPC, is it a fun and memorable NPC or just something to move the plot along? If you’re planning a combat, is there anything you can do to make it more surprising or intense or interesting or funny? If you’re crafting the treasure, did you plan anything that will make them squeal? If you notice that some aspect of the mechanics are causing frustration or boredom, can you do anything to change or avoid it?
Choose players carefully
The most important rule in his mind is to be careful about who you play with. You’re better off playing with one or two players and being patient about getting more players than having a large group that doesn’t work. You can grow from a solid foundation, but it’s much harder to unbreak a dysfunctional group.
Play with people you want to spend time with. Tabletop RPGs are very much social games, and if you’re in a long-term campaign, you’re going to spend an awful lot of time with them. You should only game regularly with people you would be willing to hang out with anyway. They don’t have to be your friend yet, but be honest with yourself – is this someone you’d want to invite over for dinner or to watch a movie with or to do sports with or whatever else you like to do? If you can’t say that you’d ever spend time with them outside of role playing, then you probably won’t enjoy spending time with them in an RPG setting, either. And they probably won’t like you, and you’ll both grit your teeth, and it will be a miserable experience all around. Don’t be so desperate for someone to play with that you’ll accept a jerk. Because if you keep the jerk, they’re not only going to poison the game for you, they’re eventually going to drive away your best players.
Make sure they want to play what you want to run. Just because someone is a friend of yours doesn’t mean they want to play what you want to run. If someone likes a very dramatic, immersive role playing and you plan to focus on tactical combat, they’re not going to enjoy playing your game. It doesn’t mean they don’t like you, and it’s not anyone’s fault; it just means that your hobbies don’t perfectly align. If you want them involved in the game, they might be a great candidate for a guest NPC or an assistant GM that acts as your sounding board, but not as a regular player.
Build a mixed group. Avoid having a clique. If the group literally does everything together and are each others’ only social outlet, then any tensions outside of the game will carry over to the game. It’s better to have a mix of people you’ve gotten to know from different parts of your life. Similarly, all male groups can have weird social dynamics, and a smurf group (one girl, lots of guys) is often at least as bad. Try to get a balance of genders. And if you can’t do that, have a firm hand on the atmosphere to make sure it doesn’t get poisonous (for the record, he currently has four female players and three male. I’ve never felt uncomfortable because of my gender or ethnicity or for any other reason at his game, and that’s probably why he has four women in his group.)
Welcome new and prospective gamers. More strongly put, every player he’s had that wasn’t a serious gamer when they started has been a pleasure to GM. The serious gamers can be fun, committed, and knowledgeable, but they are also more likely to be the jerks at the table. The newbie player can take a bit more time to get acclimated, but since they’re new, they have no preconceived notions of what a tabletop RPG can be like, so it’s easy to establish your intended atmosphere and unspoken customs as simply the way things are.
Be the bad guy. Sometimes, you make a mistake in adding a player. Perhaps someone seemed fine at first, but over time they’ve started bullying another player. Or they’re always late to the sessions or cancel at the last minute. Or they rules lawyer you to death in and out of the session. Or they’re the significant other/sibling/friend of another player, and you assumed it would work out fine because you like the other player, but it didn’t. Or they just rub everyone the wrong way. Addressing it is awkward and uncomfortable. If the problem player is being a bully, address the behavior in the session so that everyone gets the a clear message about what’s acceptable. Otherwise, try to be diplomatic about it and by all means discuss it in private when you’ve had a chance to think through your words, but be willing to be the bad guy and bring up the problem behavior.
If it’s something they can work to improve (like the rules lawyering or being late), then have a private talk with them about expectations. Make sure you give specific, concrete things they need to do to stay in the game, and then tell them how much you appreciate their understanding and effort if they make the change. If they don’t, or if it’s not something they can change, then tell the person you don’t want them in the group.
If you want to run a long-term gaming group, you have to be ready to make a commitment in terms of preparation, organization, and consistency.
- Meet often enough that your players keep track of the plot – for his group, that’s a four-hour session every two weeks. YMMV.
- Have a regularly scheduled day and time so that players can put it on their calendar and plan around it.
- Choose a gaming system, and then stick to it. Don’t keep changing it every month or two just because something new and shiny comes along. If the system you’re playing upgrades, give yourself enough time to really learn the rules and think through the conversion issues before switching.
- Have a plan for how you’re going to run the campaign – either using an adventure path or stringing together modules or creating a campaign from scratch. You can veer from the plan, but at any point, you should be able to see a while into the future of the campaign.
- Verify at least a few days before the session that everyone can make it. For him, he sends out a group text on Monday for the games on Friday and requires everyone to respond. If at least two people can’t make it, we cancel, and we often hold a board game night for those that are left.
- Have all the material for the game ready to go each session, and get set up before the players arrive. You don’t need to over-prepare, but the players should not show up ready to go and then have to wait for you to get your act together.
Your players should know what you’re offering and what you’re not. If you want them to make a commitment to your game and stick to it, they should have a clear understanding of what sort of a game you plan on running, what kind of GM you are, and what the atmosphere of your table is like. Are you going to have a game where everybody speaks in-character by default? Do you want to run a combat-heavy adventure with minis and grid-based battles? Do you like to socialize as much as play? Are you interested in intrigue? Will you require a lot of writing? Will you run a low-magic, realistic game where careful resource management is the difference between death and survival? Does everyone pig out on bad-for-you snack food? Do you like to be light on mechanics and heavy on narrative? Do you want to have an open sandbox where players explore the world or do you have an intricately plotted plan? Know what you want to do and communicate it. And if you’re not sure what you want to do and plan to spend a couple sessions figuring it out, make sure you communicate your plan to experiment, assess and possibly change things after the beginning.
Give all your players a chance to play a session or two with you before they have to make up their mind. Make it clear to them that the first couple sessions are a trial run for both of you, not a commitment. Even if they’ve been your friend for a while, that doesn’t mean they’ll want the same sort game that you run, so give them a chance to experience it, and give yourself a chance to see how they interact with you and the other players. And give them the chance to bow out with no hard feelings if they find it’s not their thing.
My husband has what he calls the “Schrodinger’s Plot.” He may have plans that go ten levels into the future, but nothing is finalized until it’s declared in the session. So if he creates a throw-away NPC that the players love, he finds a way to make it into a recurring or important NPC. If he creates something he thinks is really cool, but the players mostly ignore it, he throws it away and pretends it wasn’t important. If he uses a published adventure path, but thinks that parts of it are boring or that the NPCs don’t have realistic motivations or the location of the combat is not sufficiently epic, he changes it.
Know your strengths as a GM
No one is good at everything, and not everyone can carry off every type of game. For him, he’s bad at acting and terrible at accents (Seriously. It doesn’t matter what accent he tries, it all sounds like a bad Mexican accent.) He’s not especially good at world building either, although he has a good eye for it. But he’s really great at plotting, character motivations, prose, and strategy/tactics. So he chose a game system that would have a very tactical combat system, uses published settings, runs plot-heavy adventures, but hosts a fairly relaxed tabletop where people often talk out of character and describe what their characters are doing with only sometimes jumping into character.
Be willing to walk away
This was his last bit of advice, and one of the more interesting things he said (in my humble opinion). At first I was confused – how can you be committed and be willing to walk away?
He said that if tomorrow, all his players turned around and said they didn’t want to keep playing, he’d be a little sad he couldn’t see how things turned out, but not too sad. He’d play golf or something instead. And he’d still be friends with them. This is something he does, but it’s not who he is, so he can afford to be uncompromising in his vision of what the game should be like.
Knowing he can walk away from it allows him to set clear limits on what is acceptable behavior or what sort of game he will run, which is what allows him to have a really fun atmosphere running exactly the game he wants to run.