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RPG» Forums » General Discussion » General Role-Playing

Subject: Two Years of Open Table rss

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Danny Stevens
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I started role playing with D&D in 1974. Several potions of extreme healing later and I still role play and game master a lot. However in 2015 I was feeling the pinch of an increasing RPG drought. It was getting hard to find players and keep campaigns growing. I'd been thinking for ages about the idea of RPG gate way games and growing the community and playing online etc. but it wasn't helping much.

Then I read Opening Your Game Table at The Alexandrian, which in 2016 was reworked as The Open Table Manifesto.

That got me rolling.

Professionally I am a software engineer and specialise in agile development and lean manufacturing. I grabbed those skills and threw together a very minimal plan, from memory something like this:

* Make a sandbox D&D 5e campaign.
* Play at the local game store.
* Each adventure starts and ends at some central location and cannot last beyond 1 session.
* Go.

With little more than that I created a map of 10 by 10 hexes of "Polemar", plonked some towns, monsters and treasure, vague idea of a background and invited my daughter and her friend Tara to play a session to give it a trial run. See Polemar open table adventure 1

Next arrange to play publicly outside the shop in the shopping mall, great way to get passers by. For Session 3 we had a fold out table and some plastic chairs at a shopping mall in front of the XenGamez shop in Kenmore, Queensland, Oz.

So this worked pretty well. We began to accumulate players, most of them complete new comers to RPG. We even got an ABC Radio interview in March 2017.

Hurdle #1 Off session games

It was exciting having this drop in and play thing. I was already getting to play more RPG per month than I had in decades. So for my favourite players I started using the RPG setting to let them play at other times and to run for groups at work all in parallel.

This nearly broke the open table concept I was going for, because it started creating massive time pressure and expectations, and increasing the levels of necessary prep and paper work to track things.

It took a while to figure out how to deal with this but early on I started shutting back to just playing in the main sessions. This was good because it brought everything back to near zero prep and time management but was bad because it just wasn't as rich an experience.

If you have thoughts on this please add them in the comments. The more ideas and perspectives the better.

Hurdle #2 Too Many Players

So my game began to be popular and still casual, whoever turns up gets to play. By the end of March 2017 it was obvious that 1 DM and 9 players was a bit much. So I talked to my friend Andras, who, like me is a very experienced DM and asked him if he would run a table with a different region and the same world. He wasn't keen on the work load of creating a campaign so I drew up "Trivale" to the west of Polemar. Andras decided that was enough for him to be able to run with, he would just pull a bunch of 1 page dungeons to start and superficially reskin them into the setting.

So we had our first multi DM session.

It became obvious that multi DM was the way to go and by May we convinced Nick, who had never played any RPG before, to become a DM too, with the region of Dras to the south of Polemar.

So now the design was:

* Make a sandbox D&D 5e campaign.
* Play at the local game store.
* Each adventure starts and ends at some central location and cannot last beyond 1 session.
* Multiple DMs would have regions in the same campaign and players can roam between DMs by just showing up at one table or another as space permitted.

Hurdle #3 People

We ran in to some difficulties soon after this as we began to accumulate more players. People difficulties with players that were too young or players that had cognitive and learning difficulties.

It had always been my intent to be as broadly inclusive as possible. However we began to experience parents dropping their 8 year olds off as a child minding thing while they went shopping. Although the adults have blue cards (Australian Police Check, verifying we were "ok to look after children") this was disruptive and we didn't want to be a child minding service. After some brief consulting we set a firm limit: age 16+.

The cognitive and learning difficulties was harder to work with. It can be a strain dealing with people with autism, extreme dyslexia and so on. I went to consult with a psychologist about strategies to keep everything going along. He taught me to tell when people were having trouble because of their abilities, and when they were using it as a smokescreen to be dicks. The DMs, who seem to have become also the community leaders, worked on curbing some of the excesses, helping those with poor social skills by giving them clear signals to notice they are stepping over boundaries or walking over the other players.

This has not been a panacea. We had one player with autism that we found we were not skilled enough to handle, and in the end had to ask him to leave. I'm still sad on this one. The effect of some of the more belligerent players has also been to shoo away some of the better but more socially timid players. More thinking about this required.

Hurdle #4 House rules, Splat Books, Arcana...Oh My!

We all tweak our games. No system mechanic is perfect. And there is a desire to bring more things in, like Volo's Guide to Monsters or new backgrounds from Unearthed Arcana and so on. And lo and behold this started happening. However this starts dragging the whole game environment toward dedicated games. We began to get a patchwork base on which DM you played with. The munchkins among us began playing the cracks to get even more super characters. It started to become that insurmountable complexity and community "in group" that keeps newbies out.

Based on the KISS principle I decided that the Open Table Games could only use the core rules, PHB and DMG. On top of that a system for throttling XP gain and smoothing DM variation on such awards that we had been using from the start.

* Make a sandbox D&D 5e campaign.
* Play at the local game store.
* Each adventure starts and ends at some central location and cannot last beyond 1 session.
* Multiple DMs would have regions in the same campaign and players can roam between DMs by just showing up at one table or another as space permitted.
* Fixed, minimal set of rules and character options to be used (Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide)

Hurdle #5 No public presence!

Growing numbers and raucous behaviour by some members meant that the shopping center admin decided we could no longer play in the mall space. I negotiated with the library upstairs and quickly got us set up in their meeting rooms where we have been since July 2017 to the present.

The meeting rooms are nice and we have the option to open up a second meeting room if our numbers continue to grow. However it meant we lost our very visible presence in the mall.

As a consequence our recruitment of new players has slowed considerably. We are thinking new ways to get ourselves known without too great an expense but this is a work in progress.

Hurdle #6 Table Cliques

Its sort of inevitable that some DMs will be more popular than others and players will have their favourites. However this meant that we got uneven clumping of players at tables and some players would get locked out of experiencing some DM play.

It also became a problem for new DMs to get some players to give them a go.

On top of that we have some difficulty mixing the newbies with more experienced players since the more experienced players want to play their 5th to 7th level characters and we start newbies at 1st level to get used to the concept and feel out the rules.

We have a hodge podge of ways of dealing with these, limiting tables to 4 players until all DM tables are full for example. None of these are ideal and we are still experimenting here.

Hurdle #7 House rules, Splat Books, Arcana...Oh My!

Yep, same thing again. Players really, really want this. However, I pointed out that in fact they could have it all by setting up their own games outside of the club sessions.

The veteran game masters, Andras and Myself already did this with Call of Cthulhu, Stars without Number, Traveller, Paranoia and so on. Max had already been running The Lost Mines of Phandelver on Friday nights, and now Nick has decided to run his own campaign at a different venue. In Nick's case, because of time constraints, it meant he would be unable to attend the Kenmore sessions but some of his players might be attending both.

We need some better structures in place to facilitate the external games, connect to other groups about town, and keep everyone connected together.

And so we are a step closer to my aim. The open table provides a place where new people get introduced to the hobby. Others get a lot of chances to play. Veterans can connect their external games to a pool of players. New game masters arise and eventually set up their own external games. Dedicated games tend to eventually die out but now those GMs and players always have the Kenmore Roleplaying Society Open Table to return to and refresh.

* Make a sandbox D&D 5e campaign.
* Play at the local game store. (oh well, and the game store closed last year!)
* Each adventure starts and ends at some central location and cannot last beyond 1 session.
* Multiple DMs would have regions in the same campaign and players can roam between DMs by just showing up at one table or another as space permitted.
* Fixed, minimal set of rules and character options to be used (Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide)
* External campaigns encouraged and facilitated, any game system, setting or rules desired. Players can come and go, sometimes just playing open table with us, sometimes exclusively the external games, sometimes both.
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Mark Wilson
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Wow. I always enjoy reading your and Nick's session reports but I guess I didn't realize the work that went into making the open table experience happen consistently. Cheers on two years, though, and I hope it continues to grow and stabilize.
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Danny Stevens
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Cheers Mark. The aim is to make it look easy, and to make it as low maintenance as possible.

My players get a bit annoyed at times because I generally wont talk about the campaign with them outside of the sessions. Its something I would do if I was running a dedicated game like my Call of Cthulhu adventures, but its too easy for the OT stuff to grow as a time and energy consumer. Have to keep a lid on it.
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Landon Winkler
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We tried something similar, bringing a bunch of new people on board to Pathfinder, but ran into a different problem where everyone split off into separate standing campaigns. I say "problem" because the open table stopped firing, but I think everyone ended up pretty happy with it.

Thanks for sharing your experience!
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Danny Stevens
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Yeah that is something we have been cognisant of. "bleed-off". Once everyone is in dedicated tables of veterans the intake of new people slows to a trickle, and the private campaigns begin to suffer normal attrition.

We are also experiencing the problem of managing wide class level ranges at the table. The highest character we have so far is now 9th level. Even so things get a bit awkward if there is a 5 level spread or wider, particularly if the low level characters are in the minority.

Most of the veterans now run at least two characters, one that is about five levels lower than the other. Particularly when new players play at a table some veterans will join with their lower level characters or even make new 1st levels to play with.

The biggest appeal for our veterans who are playing in the KRPS tables at the same time as in private ones seems to be the continuous opportunity to play.
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Hmm Thanks. I just passed two years of open table adventure league (AL) in Sept 2018. Our game stores had similar problems. So I will add my xp to your hurdles.
Hurdle 1 Off session games. I going change this to “5 sentence in front of group” Or DM has no prep. We call it 5 sentences because the first time it happen, the dm was 5 sentences ahead of the group as we were gaming. We made great fun of the editing mistakes in the module, but I would not it call a great game night. I have done this two ways. Someone throws me a module 10 minutes before time, in this case depending on how well the module is written this can be a great game. Second, Roger please do a repeat, in this case I have already ran the module once but was not expecting to run that night. Most of these sessions are good but sometimes my heart is not in it, due having prepped another module.
Hurdle 2 Too Many Players. Lucky on normal game days we generally have an experience dm willing to drop out of a game to run a low level (Tier 1 in AL). But occasionally we don’t. Rarely, I have downgraded to tier 1 but I don’t like doing so because it hurts the players who have invested in the game and have above tier 1 pc. Also in AL we have a 7 player table limit. Occasionally some dms break this rule.
Hurdle 3 People. Blue card interesting. We occasionally baby sit but not often enough since we are not in mall. Autism and other disorder players. I dm regularly for 2 people. I had no extra training but give them a little bit more tolerant than normal people. One I treat just a horny sixteen year old with little social graces. The other as a sugar rushed 14 year old who wants to hog the table. The regulars and I will call them on their behavior when it gets over the line or trying.
During the last day at con I was supporting, I had to banish an autism player. Just say he was violating the sexual harassment rules since Friday, and none of my gamers told me till late Saturday.
Hurdle 4. CORE OR THE DOOR BABY. That was my motto back in third edition D&D. I totally approve of limiting the options to the PHB and DMG.
Hurdle 5 We play at a local game store. We also have Facebook page where we announce games. The city has a gaming bar 19+ to enter. The bar does mainly homebrew.
Hurdle 6 Table Cliques. We have this too. I even get players scared to play at my table due to Skully and his 40+ names. Yes I am know as killer dm. (oops). In Adventure League all PCs have to start out at first level but you can buy raise dead scrolls for your PC. I do suggest you just start a rotating list of dms and new table, every dm has do duty on the newbie table. This not an excellence idea.
Hurdle 7. CORE OR THE DOOR! I also have not problems losing dms and players to private play. I just wish they say something instead just quit showing up.
Hurdle 8 No shows from DM. I have drinking problem. When I fall off the wagon, I am a no show. Other dms have stepped up and ran that night. One even ran start off from the room the play stop at in the book. Other dms have decided to go to movies, or watch the big game without telling anyone. How do you deal with no shows.
Hurdle 9 No shows from the players. This not much of a problem. But it does tick me off when someone eithers begs for a game, or say they be there but does not show. Occasionally I had enough no shows that my table did not make and I when home an hour after game time. How do you deal with no shows.
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William Hostman
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My FLGS has 4-6 weekly tables of D&D, split across 2 nights, of which, maybe 2 are AL.

My own games, I have 2 at the store.

Used to be D&D, but with the Giants season, I was very meh, and reran older season material (Season 1).

Then, they did ravenloft and made changes to DM rewards, plus many of the local GMs were breaking D&D AL rules.

Officially, D&D AL does not happen on a schedule at the store.

And me? I'm running WEG SW 1E (since it's in reprint) and L5R 5E (which has resulted in at least one corebook sold besides mine.)

Due to the nature of the town, there are fresh infusions every fall.

Due to my own "System Wanderlust", 6 campaign years of D&D 5E in a 3.5 year period is enough to last me; the additional options in later books got too much for me, and high level just is too hard for me to run.

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Danny Stevens
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jasperrdm wrote:
“5 sentence in front of group” Or DM has no prep.


Yes this is a hurdle that is perhaps less in our open table format but still something to consider.

Our approach has been to ensure that the DMs have ongoing settings that they add to. This means they "know their own stuff" and can generally ad-lib reasonably well, and because players become familiar with the settings they start hooking themselves on to adventures without GM prompting. We share support tools to a degree to help with that (random tables, story dice, mud maps, pregen "pieces" and so on). Its probably something we can reinforce.

We also allow players who want to try DMing to take over a small town or village in an existing region if they want. We have done this twice so far to some reasonable success. The new DM has the benefit of being familiar with the context, having played in it, while being free to decide on details for their local piece.
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Danny Stevens
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jasperrdm wrote:
Hurdle 8 No shows from DM. I have drinking problem. When I fall off the wagon, I am a no show. Other dms have stepped up and ran that night. One even ran start off from the room the play stop at in the book. Other dms have decided to go to movies, or watch the big game without telling anyone. How do you deal with no shows.

Currently our DM pool has shrunk to 2 regular veterans and 2 learners who prefer to play at the open table sessions than DM. We recently dropped down from 3 of each. While the numbers remain small "no shows" are a difficulty, especially if I am a no show because someone has to get the key for the facility.

One failure was when I forgot to pick up the key but then one of the members offered their house and in a couple of hours of frantic organising we changed venue for that session and it went off fairly well.

Certainly the aim is to have a large enough pool of DMs with material on hand that DMs can be almost as casual about attending as players.

I would be interested in any experiences people have had in trying to prompt players to become DMs.
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Danny Stevens
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jasperrdm wrote:
Hurdle 9 No shows from the players. This not much of a problem. But it does tick me off when someone eithers begs for a game, or say they be there but does not show. Occasionally I had enough no shows that my table did not make and I when home an hour after game time. How do you deal with no shows.

Definitely not a problem at our sessions. Players show or they don't. There are no pre-planed adventures, instead the GMs just lay out some hooks in front of the players that happen to be there. The players may even decide they are interested in something else in the world. Dms just roll with it and its not that hard.

Occasionally a DM feels they need to offer a single adventure because they are tired or feel unprepared for anything else. They just let everyone know before people join tables, so the players can self select for the fixed adventure by joining that table.
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