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Let Players Manage Themselves, Part 1
Save My Game
by Stephen Radney-MacFarland

So far in this column, I’ve talked a great deal about table management, information management, and campaign management. Each of these is important to the game, and there might be an infinite number of tricks and tactics to explore with the goal of making a better, smother, and more enjoyable game experience. But there is another, more elusive type of management that often becomes a pitfall in the path to a long and enjoyable campaign: managing your players.

Like many tasks in Dungeons & Dragons, this type of management has traditionally been the bailiwick the Dungeon Master. But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it shouldn’t be. After all, you have a lot on your plate. Even going with the 1-hour preparation advice in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (page 18, if you haven’t had a chance to read that golden bit of advice yet), that’s 1 hour above and beyond that of the rest of the players. And that doesn’t account for straightening the house, appeasing the significant other, and gathering the minis, toys, props, and tools that will be required during the game. To then add to your list of chores the task of making sure everyone has double checked their social calendars and can show up this week, remind everyone what happened the last session, and make sure folks have their characters up to date just doesn’t seem fair. I mean you’re the Dungeon Master, not a parent.

My mantra in Save My Game is that if you’re always proactive, your game will never really need saving. This is true even with most aspects of player management. The best way to manage them is to make sure they have the tools to manage themselves.

In general, I find there are four main concerns when it comes to managing players. They are:

  • Player attendance (and how to deal with absence)
  • Player materials
  • Player information and planning
  • Player relationships

This month, we’ll take a look at the first two, and leave the others for next time.

Could You Just Show Up, Already!

Many gaming groups suffer a Mark. If you’ve never seen the movie The Gamers, Mark is the player who constantly misses a session because of one reason or another, and when he does show up, it might only be for a brief cameo, and then he’s out the door again. Why do we suffer these inconsiderate losers? Usually because they are our friends, sometimes because they are charming, but always because we other players let them get away with it. Let’s face it: Many gamers tend to be non-confrontational, and even when it annoys them that Mark’s always absent, late, or attends intermittently, they’re unlikely to say much about it . . . at least to his face. Worse still, they’ll think it is your job as DM to handle the problem.

Don’t let that happen.

First off, understand that every so often even your most devoted player will miss a session or two. Heck, count on it. The worst thing to do in this situation is cancel the game. Only cancel when the conflict is yours, or you are missing a critical mass of players. Nothing kills a game quickly like a stream of cancelled games.

Much like the theater, the show must go on. And it can go on; you just need to figure out what to do with the missing player’s character.

My favorite trick is to create a house rule that designates a proxy player for each character (I talked about this trick a little last month). Each player designates another player that is always in charge of running his or her character during missed sessions. This method is pure gold for a number of reasons. First, it doesn’t saddle the DM with playing missing characters. Second, it helps the story flow. There can be no worse killer of verisimilitude like the outright disappearance of one of the story’s main characters. Lastly, it puts pressure on the Marks of the world to show up. The proxy player will be very understanding of the occasional absence from the game, but if that proxy is playing two characters for weeks straight, you can bet your life she’s going to call Mark and get him to show up to games or get him to realize he doesn’t have time for a regular game.

There are other ways to handle missing characters, but most of them are fraught with some form of peril or the other. Docking treasure or XP creates a level or treasure disparity that can be disruptive to group dynamics and is too punitive for my tastes. I’ve already outlines why I don’t think the DM should play the character, and having the character fade into the background is a disappointing, albeit sometimes necessary trick you should reserve for a last resort. On the other hand, the proxy player is a prime example of a simple trick that gives players responsibility over the game. This will improve the experience for everyone, and free up your time and brain power for creating a great story and fun encounters.

Give Your Players a Room of Their Own

Or at least a space in a file folder. Like a D&D locker room (though hopefully without the stench), a storage and prep space should help speed the start time for your game.

In my home campaign, I use a variety of cards and game aids. I have magic item cards, initiative cards, power cards, quest cards, and various other roleplaying aids. Between sessions, they all live in a file folder with individual pockets, one for each player. At the end of each game session, each player puts their cards in their section of the file folder, and after the game the file folder gets put away in a special place. Between games I rarely touch the folder, and when I do I am careful to put everything back exactly how I found it. By giving my players a small but personal space for their character accessories, I’ve sidestepped the problems of players forgetting (or losing) those little bits, and found that play begins quicker, as that common area limits the amount of time the players look through backpacks and folders for their characters and associated components.

Of course, I would also beseech the players out there to stay organized when your DM doesn’t have a space for you to store these things. In one of the lunch games I play in here at work, I do the same thing, but just for me. On my desk, in a special place, is a folder that has my characters, my power cards, and my notes. After every game, I make my updates and put it back. I’m not overly compulsive about it. I’m just careful and consistent . . . at least about this one thing.

Being organized and giving your players tools to stay organized is one of the best ways to limit the sputters that can slow down game starts and game play.

Next month we’ll take a look at player information and planning along with player relationships. But for right now, it’s time to take a look in the mailbag again!

Wherefore Art Thou, DM?

I'm a player, not a DM, but I'm trying to get a gaming group together. We have plenty of folks who want to play, but we're having problems with our DM. When I originally talked to him about DMing the game, he seemed excited and enthusiastic. But whenever I try to talk to him about actually sitting down for our first session, he avoids the subject in any way possible, and he ignores any e-mails or other electronic messages I send him on the subject. Any ideas for how I can get him in the game, or should we just see who else is willing to step up and DM?
—Ready-to-Role Scott

I would just sit down and ask him point blank, “Hey man, do you want to do this or should we find another DM?” If he says yes, but stalls again, you might want to set a deadline to start the game. He might be procrastinating because he honestly wants to DM a game but is having a hard time finding the time to prepare and thinks if he can puts it off for just one more week he can fit it into his schedule.

You could also suggest alternating DMs. See if you can’t start with someone else behind the screen (maybe even you) and let your friend jump in when he’s ready to run. That’s never a bad idea for any group. Real life can be a harsh taskmaster, and having a back-up DM in the group who can step in during busy points of your primary DM’s life can mean the difference between a gaming group continuing or disintegrating from neglect.

Like all aspects of managing a play group, be proactive. Solutions come quickly with a glass of candor chased with a shot of empathy. Find out the root issue of the problem, be understanding and judicious in creating a solution, and good gaming among friends should follow.

Look! A Monkey!

I love Dungeons & Dragons. It's a great game, and I introduced my entire group to it. They're great friends of mine, but sometimes, even in the middle of a game, I lose interest. Everyone around the table will be extremely excited, talking about things in the last combat, or throwing out witty remarks and inside jokes. I just sometimes find myself having trouble staying focused. This is pretty bad since I'm our main and most experienced DM.

As the DM, what can I do to not grow bored during my own session?
—Dozing-Off Justin

It sounds like you are suffering from either DM fatigue or this is occurring during the “talky” part of the games, where you are not an active part of the game. If it’s DM fatigue, you might be running your sessions for too long, you might be running it too often, or maybe you’re not taking enough breaks. Breaks are very important. While being a DM is fun, it’s also work, and giving the brain a good rest or the body a stretch every hour or two will do wonders to improve your attention and energy. When my energy is low, I DM standing up. I use this trick a lot at conventions, as I find that it increases my energy, focus, and adds urgency to the game.

If it’s not your energy or mental focus, it may be that you’re drifting off during the times when the players are chatting among themselves and not actually playing the game. These could be parts of the game where you seemingly have nothing to do, but I submit that these are the points of the game that you should be infusing action into your game. Remember: You are playing too, and if you’re not having fun, eventually you’re going to stop playing. When you are getting bored or drifting off, just ask yourself this question: What can I do to infuse the most fun into the game right now. Once you have the answer, do it!

Setting Soup

I created a setting that I like very much. The problem is that my players don't like some elements or concepts I designed. Each player has his own idea for the campaign. One of them wants me to find more inspiration from Iron Kingdoms, the other wants me to include Dragonmarks and some elements from the Eberron setting. To make matters worse, the player who loves Iron Kingdoms doesn’t like Eberron, so he doesn’t want the Eberron inspired bits in the campaign. So what to do? How do I balance between the players’ wishes and mine? I want to say, “This is my campaign, stick to it!” But it is their game too. So what to do?
—Pulling-My-Hair-Out Patrick

If you’ve been reading Save My Game for a while, you know I am a big fan of catering the action and the game to the likes and desires of the players. I am always adjusting my game and story to interesting story bits my players come up with, or emotional kicks they show during the game. That said, you’re right. You’re the DM, and it is your game, and the game absolutely has to be engaging and fun for you too. For many DMs, this means coming up with your own world and world-building concepts. For others, this means playing in someone else’s sandbox. It sounds like you are the former type of DM, and if that’s true, you should run your own setting and tell the players that’s what you are doing. From there, go out of your way to craft a game with the story and action those characters would like to see. Find the common ground between their campaign likes, and use it to infuse your game with action, story, and themes your players will love.

Also feel free to invite them to run a side game or two in their beloved setting, and maybe your entire group can learn first hand why they find their setting of choice so appealing. Worst-case scenario—you’ll have too many games to play!

About the Author

Born on a stormy Christmas day, in our nation’s capital, during the Nixon administration, the stars were definitely wrong when Stephen Radney-MacFarland came screaming into the world. Spending most of his impressionable years as a vagabond and ne’re-do-well, Stephen eventually settled in the Northwest to waste his life on roleplaying games.

Once that RPGA guy, Stephen is now a developer in RPG R&D where he doesn’t create the traps… he just makes them deadlier. He also teaches a class on roleplaying design for the Art Institute of Seattle, molding the minds of young and upcoming designers. Be afraid. Be very afraid.