I’ve talked a lot about losing players and weaving new players in, but the challenge I see a lot of GMs dealing with is one step further back up the chain: where do all these players come from, anyway?
The Internet, mixed bag that it is, has made me painfully aware of how many gamers I know are physically isolated when it comes to finding local tabletop groups. Sometimes it’s the where (not every city, even major ones, has much of a gaming life), sometimes it’s the when (try working third shift and having a life), and sometimes it’s the what (seriously, D&D again?) – for whatever reason, many gamers simply can’t find a satisfying group.
It’s one thing if a player can’t find themselves a game to join – so many of us form groups around people we already know, so you’re either already in one, or you’re a stranger hoping a group just had a rash of childbirth and is short enough players to bring in a pinch hitter.
While that does happen, it’s pretty long odds when you need your fix. Being willing to GM makes it much easier to form a group, since everyone else can just show up and play – you’re expected to have the books and the buy-in, and they have more ability to walk away if it’s not their thing without worrying about ruining it for everyone else.
But that doesn’t help you much if you can’t find players able to play when you can, and up for playing what you want to run. So where do you start?
The stock answer is “the Internet!” – which is a little like telling someone who’s never fished before to start in “the ocean.” Yes, they probably know where that is, and yes, there are fish there, but you could stand on a beach all day and go home very hungry without some further instruction.
But let’s define our bodies of water first and then we’ll get into rod and tackle.
It’s a familiar phenomenon that meeting new people these days is not as automatic as most of us were tricked into believing it used to be. Without all the automatic obligatory social gatherings, you’re generally stuck with classmates (if you’re still in school), coworkers, and the friends you already knew from class or work previously. That makes it awfully easy for your tiny pond to dry up in a hurry as you all collectively get older and your circumstances and interests change.
Conventions and gamedays are a great way to break out of that. They often offer a safe space, even (if not especially) for the social awkward among us to be ourselves, and that comfort and native acceptance can make it much easier to mingle and connect. While those connections may live a country or continent away, it gives you more people you know who also like to game and can be tapped for online outings.
Gamedays tend to be smaller and more local – they may be the next town over or a bit of a drive, but they’re generally infinitely more affordable than full conventions, and being closer means more of a chance you might meet someone you can see more regularly in person.
Open gaming sites like ENWorld, Myth-Weavers and Roll20 are more or less the Tinder of online gaming, with random pick-up groups being very hit-or-miss and most recruitment being so passive it can take forever to get a passable group to begin with. If you’re looking for the “here fishie fishie” option with more realistic results, you’ve found it.
That said, the most surefire method for finding enough players to game with is to keep trying – and keep good records. If you run or player in games at conventions or gamedays, get contact info of any player who doesn’t annoy you up the wall. Even an unremarkable player can be the difference in having enough of a crew to launch a campaign, and they may turn out to be a far better match in a different game or with more investment that comes with most con games.
Keep in touch. Bombing into someone’s mentions or timeline two years after that one midnight pickup game at GenCon is not the best way to get a ‘yes’ to a game invite (although don’t rule it out if you get desperate). Add each other on social media, ping them when the same convention/gameday rolls around again to see if they’ll be there, etc.
Network – that way even if your schedules or interests never line up, they might still let you know about other friends and gamers who might be interested. Don’t rule anybody out initially unless you’ve played with them and/or know there’s a definitely personality mismatch. Now is not the time to be picky – don’t hold out for the pitch-perfect group.
Next is how to make the game itself work and stick. Offer up one-shots at first rather than leaping into a full campaign. Get your potential players together around the real or virtual table and see how it flies in a low-stakes environment. If you spot personalities that won’t work together, it’s easy to make adjustments before you pitch a long-term game.
Three players who are reliable and get along make for a much better game (and much better chance there’ll be a game for more than a few sessions) than a larger group with more friction.
Back to our ocean analogy. Yes, there are a lot of fish in the sea, but there’s also a lot of sea, which makes the fishing pretty chancy. What you want to do is cast a wide enough net to catch something, and then toss those fish into a smaller pond where you can better pick through the ones you want to keep for a particular day. Next time around, the pond is still full of the same fish, and you can cast your line again with different bait and still have a good chance of catching something.
Don’t hunt your white whales, watch out for trilby sharks, and remember that three tuna can feed a family a lot better than one marlin.
And if that metaphor doesn’t float your boat, I don’t know what will.