It’s game night. You’ve spent hours upon hours crafting your magnificent story. It is intricate, spun with many webs of intrigue, desire, and deceit. The player’s are going to hang on your every word, and they’ll need too. Every detail is important. It’s tough being this clever…
That’s when you get the text. Georgie can’t make it. Work, or life, or the birth of their first child, or whatever lame excuse. Everything is derailed. Sure, you can play something like Fiasco!! or a board game, but this seems like it happens every week. How do you tell a story if someone is you always have to recap past episodes? How do you explain why the character isn’t there?
There are going to be groups that are like this and that is okay. Maybe they’re all adults with a lot of adult things going on. Maybe they’re just more casual than you’d like so game night isn’t their first priority. There is nothing wrong with either of those. Work with what you got. Not everyone is going to make it all the time. You can work around this
First, there are game systems that tackle this really well. The obvious are the one shots. Games like Fiasco!!, mentioned above, or Microscope are great for a role playing experience that you don’t have to worry about continuing. It’s one and done. They can be a lot of fun, especially with story focused groups, but you do miss the allure of a long running campaign.
If you’re looking for something with a more continual story, you can still make this work with systems like D&D. If you just plan for a rotating cast of players from the get go, you can work with that to provide a story experience everyone will enjoy, including yourself. The easiest way is to shift the way you think about story. Instead of thinking about what is happening, think about where.
The brilliant mind that is Ben Robbins came up with a campaign style called The West Marches. You should really click that link, because it’ll explain everything better than I’m about to. If you’re afraid of links, or just want the short version, keep going.
The West Marches operates under a simple precept. The starting town is the last great bastion of civilization on the frontier. To the East are civilized lands and adventures doesn’t happen there. To the west is uncharted wilderness full of dangers that the standard peasant ain’t trying to deal with. That’s the way you wanna go. You’re goal in this campaign is to go explore it.
What you’re looking at when you begin is a big hex map with only a very small portion of it filled in. Players get to discover more of it as they go. It’s a total sandbox. Generally, the further you get from town, the more dangerous things get. The GM has filled out this hex map before hand with dungeons, points of interest, lairs, etc. Add random encounter tables for each new terrain location, and you have a delightfully evolving game.
It’s greatest strength, however, is that it was designed to accommodate an ever shifting player base. Communication between sessions happens online, be it chat, forum, or e-mail. It’s up to the players to schedule the next session as opposed to having it on a set night. If someone can’t be there, it’s not a problem. By default, at the end of every session, everyone’s character is assumed to have gone back to town. If someone isn’t at a game, their character just doesn’t leave the town that day. They have laundry, or they need to wash their hair. Whatever.
Another use of the communications between sessions is so that players can decide what they are going to do next. Are they going back to that strange tower that they didn’t get to go through last time? Are they going to push farther south into the mountains where there is treasured rumored to be hidden? Great. Once they figure that out, it gives you, the GM, an idea of what to prepare for. This is a pretty important step, as it’s hard to create an entire sandbox up front. Figure out whats close to the city and the players will let you know where you need to go from there.
At first glance, this style of play doesn’t seem very story driven. Again, you’re thinking of what is happening instead of where. These barren wilds: were they always just untamed wilderness? Maybe an ancient culture used to live there in ages past. Perhaps certain monsters have made it their home. Write a history for it. That dungeon is now the ruin of an old castle or the cave a dragon used to live in.
Once you have that history written, let the player’s discover it. Why do the goblins dress like the elves do? Who built this tower? Each section of the map can also hold clues as to what exists further out. A lone drider in the woods might signify an entrance to the underdark near by. All of this tells a story, just not in a linear fashion.
Seriously, you should go click that link.
Outside of a West Marches style game, you can turn to sword and sorcery for inspiration. Think short stories or episodic fiction instead of a novel. Modiphious’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of worked really well for this for me. Start each adventure with a set up. Tell the players definitively what they are doing. “You can your new found friends have heard tell of a Merchant’s house that is ill guarded. You find yourselves this eve staring at a window on it’s second story, a single candle light flickering within it.”
Yes, this takes away player agency a little bit. This makes it work really well for a casual game, however. Conan is all about jumping in when the action starts and skipping the rest. It has a great pulp feel and let’s you play out an adventure in a few hours. After an intense short story, the players are expected to go party and rest. No one needs to worry about it too much. Eventually, they’ll get bored or need more money again, and that is where the next sessions starts…
If Sword and Sorcery isn’t your thing, don’t worry. You can use that short story approach for other games. We’re probably just not going to be friends, though, and that is fine. You don’t have to like good things, I guess.
There are also games that just naturally support this type of player base. My favorite is called Mutant: Year Zero. It incorporates a West Marches style sandbox play mechanic right into it’s core engine. You basically get to play a crappy version of an X-men in a post apocalyptic waste land, trading bullets for food. Trust me, it’s even better than it sounds. It is such a thrill finding out what is in the next map grid over. I love this game.
If you have any questions on any of this, or need more advice, drop me a line at CrumblingKeep@gmail.com. Don’t let missing players stop you. Just tell a different sort of story.
I’m planning on starting a West Marches style game in the near future as part of Crumbling Keep’s paid game series. It’s set on the grim dark world of Samsarras. You were aboard a ship set to explore new lands. A storm washed it ashore, broken beyond repair. You and your companions now have to explore this new land for survival, building up your new colony. It’s not just yourself you have to worry about. There were 200 other people on that ship. They’re relying on you to find food, water, and everything else they need to start a new life. The jungle is deadly, however, and only gets worse the farther in you push.
If you interested, drop me a line at CrumblingKeep@gmail.com. I’ll keep you updated.
(Note: If you have problems with Sword and Sorcery for it’s often times racist or sexist beginnings, that is super valid. We can totally still be friends. I’m into it. Frankly, I want to see a Sword and Sorcery story where the men are every bit as objectified as the women, but that is a whole other story.)