Save My Game
No Time to Play
By Jason Nelson-Brown

This column provides advice for DMs whose campaigns are in trouble. Do your players constantly bicker or complain about issues both inside and outside of the main campaign action? Do your best ideas fall flat? Have you set up a situation that you now wish you hadn't? Worry no more, because Jason Nelson-Brown has the answers to save your game!

Problem: No Time to Play

Problem: "I don't have time to game." Answer: "yes you do." There are two major ways to illustrate this:

  1. Look at what you are doing currently in your life. Now take out Job, kids, wife, exercise and home maintenance. How much time is left? You do some kind of leisure activities. If you want to you could game instead. Instead of TV one night you could game. The choice is now yours.
  2. If you are doing no leisure activities (a prospect I do not believe btw), you need to make gaming a priority. If your girlfriend made you give up all your friends so you would be each other's only friend, that would be dysfunctional. A girlfriend making you abandon your hobbies is also dysfunctional. My coworker was taking his kids to tons of activities, and of course he and his wife were burning out. They were grouchy and miserable. So they took the time for themselves. He would do stuff in his workshop and his wife would visit with her relatives. The kids were happier doing the things they wanted. The kids were definitely happier with happy parents. And what is the point of life if you just make yourself miserable living it? If you are a gamer, you need to game. Make it a priority.

-- stembolt, from Wizards message boards

The problem is that gaming requires a set time that is dedicated every week. So, yeah, you can't have an accumulated time of 4 hours every week to do the game but it is either one here or there or 4 hours on different days of different weeks. Also, everyone can't get that same time on the same day in their schedules. That's the sword that goes through the dragon. If people are doing other leisure activities and can dedicate a time for gaming that another group meets at, that's one thing. However, not everyone fits that mold and making a blanket statement that all people should game or they're being lazy is a little off base.

-- WizO_Cat from the Wizards message boards

The above posts were part of a long-running discussion on the Wizards message boards among multiple posters, the discussion spawned by earlier Save My Game columns about 'mature' gamers and the pressures on them that draw them away from the gaming table. The essential question at issue here is whether those pressures are real, legitimate, and important issues that trump our favorite hobby, or simply an excuse to account for what is essentially poor time management, misplaced priorities, or lack of insight into our own choices.

The interesting thing is that both sides of the discussion are right.

Stembolt and those of like mind have it right, that we often don't realize how much time we really have because we are poor stewards of it, and because we therefore waste a great deal of the time we have, we end up feeling harried and rushed and develop the illusion that we have to cut things out to fit in the things we want to do -- a false choice, because the time is already there, if we but allocate our resources more wisely.

Also, just because gaming is a leisure activity and of a lower absolute priority than family or work commitments, we sell its value short and treat it as if it were of no value whatsoever. In fact, in the face of real demands and limits on our resources, it is all the more important to maintain time and activities which allow us to relax and decompress from the stress and demands of our more exigent 'real life' commitments.

On the other hand, people have different demands and different value systems and priorities, and depending on how those priorities stack up, the 'gaming vs. something else' choice may come up more often, and more often in favor of 'something else'. Each thing you add to the 'something else' side of the ledger -- kids, spouse, church, extended family, friends, exercise, travel, job, school, and on down the list, including other forms of leisure -- creates one more competitor for your time with D&D and one more chance for D&D to get aced out by something else.

Dragon-Slaying Swords

What really makes competing interests a problem for D&D, though, is what WizO_Cat calls "the sword that slays the dragon" -- the fact that it is not just your personal schedule that matters. If all that were necessary to keep your gaming life in order was that you keep your own schedule better organized and prioritized, finding time to game would be easy. In fact, I think this is one of the main reasons why MMORPGs have become so popular -- they provide the basic tropes of an RPG, but they operate on your time, at your convenience. Any time you have a little block of time (or even a larger block that you put together by organizing your schedule to set time aside), you can game. You don't have to worry about anyone else. Now you might team up with some other players, planning to be online at the same time so you can tackle a tough quest, but you can game on your time, on your terms.

Real-life, in-person D&D isn't like that. It requires you and everyone else in your gaming group to perform the same level of assessment, prioritization, and reallocation of time/life resources and to coordinate that activity so that everyone is on the same page at the same time. Something that scrambles one or two people's schedules (a friend comes in from out of town, someone gets sick, had to work late, burned out and tired from a rough week at work, kids have a sleepover, celebrating Uncle Ted's birthday, big paper due next week, have to finish the flooring before company comes over tomorrow) can be enough to derail the game for everyone else. Then what do you do? You individually have arranged your schedule to game, but now there's no game.

The solution might be to find new friends who are more reliable. This is a point where the economic model of D&D as an activity breaks down, because D&D is not a discrete and interchangeable commodity. D&D is a social activity with friends, a context for relationship, shared experience, and group storytelling. You can't just say, "Well, Friday 7:00-11:00 is my D&D time, but since my group isn't meeting, I'll go play D&D somewhere else." You could go ahead and play with two people in a campaign designed for five (or however large your group is), but most players and DMs in my experience have a certain sense of quorum they like to meet before agreeing to game. We're all busy and have other things that need doing, and if we feel like the game will not be as fun with a skeleton crew, we'd rather bag it and come back next time with the full group (we hope).

Got Life?

Coming at the problem from another angle, it is not just your D&D schedule but also your other life commitments that intrude, because many things cannot be flexibly scheduled. If you have choir rehearsal on Wednesday night, you can't just change the night because you would rather game. You can either game Wednesday or sing Wednesday, not both. If your wife prefers to go out for date nights on Fridays rather than Saturdays because, as choir director, she has to be at church extra early on Sundays, then Friday becomes a less desirable night for gaming than Saturday. You may still choose to game on Fridays because that's when your group traditionally meets, but you may need to find some common ground with her desires, such as canceling the game once a month to make sure you get some Friday date time.

Another reason to consider changing the day of the game depends on the flexibility of the other people in the group. If several of them already have a Saturday game, maybe they would rather change to Sunday -- but I have church and a regular slate of post-church activities on Sunday, so that doesn't work for me. I may be out of luck. I could change the game day unilaterally and tell those who couldn't make the change to beat it, or force them to choose between my game and someone else's, but either way there is a rupture -- it's not about one player's choices and schedule adjustments.

Ultimately, if there is no fit between the set elements of one player's schedule (assuming they are things that person is not willing to forgo in order to game) and the schedules of everyone else in the game, then the game is off for that player. In order of priorities, it is important to pursue a range of interests and find time to relax, but relaxation may have to come from other leisure interests besides D&D if working out a D&D solution is too problematic. It may be a temporary thing -- a really busy time at work or school or even with leisure (some people take three weeks off in March to watch the NCAA basketball tournament every weekend instead of gaming, or in May to catch every possible movie at the Seattle International Film Festival) -- so you wait it out and get back to gaming when you can.

A conflict might be permanent. If in communicating with your spouse or significant other you find your high-priority time commitments make other opportunities scarce, you may have to choose between your Seattle Mariners 20-game package and your weekly D&D game. Splitting the difference might work -- go to the baseball game sometimes, the D&D game other times -- or it might not. Getting to play D&D only once a month might be at the point of 'why bother?' for you, and it can be a problem for the DM and other players. Your schedule might change to the point where you just can't make it work with the people you used to game with.

Honest Priorities

Think about how much you want to game, how long of a break you want to take, or whether you need to find a new group that can match your schedule. Heck, this is why many gaming parents teach their kids D&D, so they can combine doing things with the kids with getting to play. But if your kids aren't interested (or if only one is and the others aren't), do you play with just the two of you? What do you do with the others in the meantime, and what do you do with them as a dedicated activity in the way that gaming with your one aspiring gamer is?

There are no easy answers and no simple methods for organizing your life. D&D makes things more complicated because it is a social, team game. What you can do and when you can do it has to match up with a bunch of other people. It's also something we love to do. That's why we're reading an advice column on a D&D website.

Don't confuse commitments with cop-outs or excuses with reasons. If you'd rather be doing something else than playing D&D, go for it. But don't pack your hobbies in the attic without taking a good hard look at what you have, what you do, and what you want.

About the Author

Jason Nelson-Brown lives in Seattle with his wife Kelle, daughters Meshia and Indigo, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is an active and committed born-again Christian who began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing intermittently in two others.


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