Growing up sucks.
There’s a time, an idyllic time, for many of us, when “I’m going to go game with some friends” requires exactly as much forethought and planning as “I think I’ll have a Coke.” But as we get older, get jobs, have children and get married (possibly not in that order) and our fellow gamers do as well, trying to get everyone around the table again can be something of a challenge.
It’s like boxing an octopus – there’s just too much to keep track of all at once, it’s always changing, and the limbs themselves hardly seem to know what they’re doing or where they’re going. It’s enough to make your head spin.
So what’s a group to do?
Naturally, if one solution worked for everybody, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of solutions, and there’s nothing to say you can’t try more than a few of them together. So, in no particular order:
The GM’s Guide to Adulting
(or “Professional Cat-herding for Beginners”)
1) Get a Shared Online Calendar. Whether Google is your thing or not, find an online calendaring program you can share with the whole group in real time. If you can give them access to edit events, all the better. It’ll allow you all to keep informed, up to the minute, of when game is happening and who can make it. It’ll also open up the option of an irregular schedule, if meeting every week or every other week on the same day proves problematic. Fit in time whenever you can. Without a calendar you can all view all the time, trying to navigate any irregular schedule would be a nightmare.
The calendar also keeps you all up to date with absences, cancellations and the like. Get everyone in the habit of using the calendar as the primary point of contact when something changes, and you can hopefully save a good bit of stress that normally comes with frantic texts and emails an hour before the normal start time.
2) Experiment with Online Gaming. If you’ve never done tabletop live over the internet, then you may be limiting your list of potential players a lot more than you realize. It won’t always help when you can’t get everyone together at the same time, but it will let you include players you may have been discounting because they’re several states or countries away, which can help you fill some needed slots at the virtual table.
Like with any new technology, expect problems and ask your players to be patient. Even with something as simple as Skype or Facetime, you’re going to have to change a lot about how you interact to make sure everyone is still on the same page, so prepare for a period of adjustment. If you use game maps or miniatures normally, I’d recommend a more advanced app like MapTools or Klooge Werks so that you don’t lose those elements. Take it slow, allow extra time for tech issues, but with a little faith, you and your players will have opened up a whole new world of tabletop opportunities.
3) Create an Open Narrative. If you have a situation where you can always get a quorum of players, but it’s rarely the same ones every week, opt for a game that allows for the gaps. If your game is episodic, like the jobs in a Shadowrun or Leverage campaign, the missing players’ characters may be able to sit out a week and come back in seamlessly the next session.
It does mean trying to fit the nuggets of your plot into a single session so that no one’s coming in or missing out halfway into the run, but if you can get your players to handle setup and planning one session and the actual mission the next, then a player missing one session or the other still has easy ‘break’ points to sneak in or out without disrupting things too badly. Done right, it gives your players an opportunity not only to work around their schedules guilt-free, but to enjoy telling each other the stories of how the last session went.
With this model, I do recommend setting up a wiki or other online site to keep some quick plot summaries for the group, so that those who miss a session can catch themselves up before coming back in. There is no shortage of free options for exactly that, so go with whichever you find easiest to keep updated.
4) Revitalize Play-by-Post Formats. Play-by-post, be it forum or email, is an oft-bemoaned format by a lot of GMs and players, and for good reason. It often stalls out or drags on, and it’s typically weak around any amount of high action or combat. But, if play-by-post is your only option left for a group that simply can’t regularly meet at the same time, there is a way to help counteract the format’s weaker elements and keep things moving.
The first thing to do isn’t too revolutionary: set a posting period for how often you expect everyone to post (once a day, twice a week, whatever fits). Set it from the start, and be a bit of a hard-ass about it near the beginning until people get in the habit. After that, just having the schedule is often enough. Without it, the game can easily stall out on the delays of a single player.
Second, get together periodically for the big combats of the campaign. Treat it like a one-shot – let everyone know a few weeks in advance when you want to meet for a “live” one-off session to rush through the action portions that are so often awkward in text. You can burn through in a few hours what could take weeks or months in PbP, and your players will appreciate it. The change-up of format should also keep things fresh and prevent the kind of stagnation that so often plagues PbP games.
With all that in mind, you should have a lot more in your arsenal to help cope with the fact that it’s a lot harder to coordinate the schedules of a group of adults than it was when we were all younger. Coping with getting older, that’s a whole other problem.
And for that, I recommend more gaming.