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Party Game Style

As a “mature gamer” (which means I’m old enough to remember when “bringing my notebook to a game” involved something spiral-bound) I often find it difficult to maintain a regular schedule with a gaming group. Cancellations¬†are frequent and, in some cases, last-minute. This can be quite a problem if a particular character is essential to the current session’s plot (typically a “no-no,” but let’s face it, it happens) or has abilities that the rest of the group needs in order to be effective. There’s also the instability of character’s ‘porting in and out’ between sessions.

Some of these issues can be handled various ways, from keeping each adventure self-contained to a single session or only playing when everyone can make it. Still, these solutions sometimes fall short; a single session adventure doesn’t solve the attendance problem and, even when everyone makes it, your session can still be wasted if the player of the lead investigator PC just had a rough day at work and got into an argument with her husband before the game. Now she just wants to bust heads, not put clues together.

One solution that came to me while running a Con game is the “party game” method. When running a con game or party game, the players usually have limited input on character design; they just choose from what’s available. Such games also tend to prioritize characters; if the game is designed for 6 players and you only have 4, the game tells you which two characters to leave out.

Using this method, each campaign has a set of PCs attached to it. The GM decides who the important PCs are (set at the “critical mass” for holding a session) and which are accessory PCs. Although part of a larger campaign, each session is self-contained. When the players arrive at any given session, they choose which characters they want to play. The critical mass PCs must be handed out; accessory PCs are handed out as needed.

Obviously, this technique works better with a “beer and pretzel” crowd, but it also allows a frustrated GM to run a coherent campaign around the real-life disruptions that causes players to miss sessions.

On the flip side, “party game” style campaigns flies in the face of almost 40 years of traditional RPGs. Players are used to creating their own characters and being emotionally invested in how they develop.

Here are some considerations:

Character Generation

If your group is a “beer and pretzels” crowd, this isn’t a problem. You simply determine critical mass (the minimum number of players you’re willing to GM an evening for) and generate characters suited to your campaign. If your players want more control, let them generate the characters as a group.

Character Selection

Again, with a “beer and pretzels” crowd you throw the sheets on the table each session and let everyone choose a character to play. For more emotionally-invested players you might always designate specific characters to them, only putting such PCs in the “grab pool” when the player misses the session.

Character Advancement

There are a number of ways to handle XP expenditures. The simplest way is for the GM to do it herself. Alternatively, the GM could let the player that played the character that session advance the character. She could also let the XP sit until the next session, whereupon the player selecting the character gets to spend the XP (care should be taken here not to allow the player to make an unanticipated expenditure that would ruin the current session).

Critical Mass

“Critical Mass” is the minimum set of characters needed to play the adventure; based upon the GM’s campaign it could be 1 or 15, although in my experience it’s usually between 2 and 4. If you have truly invested players, you may wish to add them to the critical mass (e.g. we only play if we have at least 3 players and one of them is Mandy). It’s possible to use critical mass as a “hybrid” system. Maybe you have a core three players that always play the same characters, while the other players take what’s available when they arrive.

Final Thoughts

While I’ve never tried this technique for a regular campaign, I do playtests often enough that my players are used to having a “beer and pretzels” mentality coming into each session. We have switched characters around on occasion and it’s worked pretty well. I’d be very curious to hear if any of you GMs out there have tried the “party game style” technique for regular campaigns and, if so, how well it’s worked for you.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Party Game Style"

#1 Comment By Orikes On October 19, 2011 @ 1:41 am

The issue of inconsistency in a game group is something I’ve been pondering for a while. It’s very frustrating to work on a concept for a campaign, but then have it fall flat because the players are either absent or just not into it for the night.

I’m not sure this idea would work for my group, but it’s an interesting concept. Even if the characters are considered communal, I’d be worried about players feeling like another player ‘owned’ a particular character. Players do put their stamp on characters, even if it’s just a pre-made for a one shot.

#2 Comment By Justin Alexander On October 19, 2011 @ 5:08 am

You’re describing a variant of troupe-style play. This was popularized with Ars Magica back in the ’90s, so if you poke around the AM community you’ll find lots of useful advice.

Another way of dealing with these scheduling issues is to adopt an open game table. An open table campaign is specifically designed to make any session easy for any group of PCs. It not only solves scheduling, it makes it a lot easier to invite new players to join your group or try out the game without making a big commitment.

If you love gaming, you owe it to yourself to have an open table in your back pocket.


#3 Comment By black campbell On October 19, 2011 @ 7:44 am

I’ve been fortunate this hasn’t been mich of an issue with my current group. We hav eone guy that works on the film industry who we know will have months when he’s away, so I build him secondary characters that can drop out as needed.

#4 Comment By Volcarthe On October 19, 2011 @ 9:38 am

Funny enough, I created a “campaign” that did exactly this a few years back.

I made up 8 characters of differing styles and abilities and then to start, everyone random-rolled the character they’d get with the caveat that you couldn’t ever play the same one twice in a row.

Part of this was so no character was “theirs” and we could play with whomever came that week, and part of it was kind of a teaching tool to shake people out of their comfort zone and get them more aware of more of the rules.

Overall it worked as a throw-together for a D&D game.
If you want something more modular that isn’t fantasy, the (Classic) Spycraft plays like Mission Impossible.

#5 Comment By Sporkchop On October 19, 2011 @ 9:49 am

Our group uses a sort of hybrid between the system you describe and more traditional player-PC structure. We have a minimum critical mass of players required to run a game and anyone who is absent has their character rolled as a sort of glorified NPC by either one of our regulars, or a guest sitting in for a game.

I feel like this system works better for us than the one you describe, mostly because our game sessions have a hard stop time. We play from 6:30-10pm on weeknights and so frequently have to pause mid-adventure (ie. when it is really not convenient to have a character wander off.)

#6 Comment By black campbell On October 19, 2011 @ 11:49 am

[2] – Interesting notion of having the characters be random to the players. I think you could do a good job with that with the “Leverage” system that MWP put out — just have a basic set of stats and allow the player to customize on the fly.

#7 Pingback By Interesting Idea For Pick Up Games « The Black Campbell On October 19, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

[…] (this is my usual MO), play a board game or pick up game instead. One of the threads over at Gnome Stew¬†had the idea of running a game or series of gmaes con-style — one shots that don’t […]

#8 Comment By BishopOfBattle On October 19, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

I’ve used something similar for this when running “side sessions” for players exploring their character’s stories. That character comes to the game playing themselves, but the other players pick up pre-generated characters that fill out other essential roles in the story. At the end of the game, they still get experience for their main characters when we go back to playing the regular story arc.

I’ve also considered a subset of spin off sessions for when only a few players can attend and we decide not to advance the story. My plan is to give one of the players a diary or journal of one of their great-great-great…grandfathers. Sessions where not everyone can make it, we could run a side session wherein the player “reads” a chapter of the journal and plays the game in flashback.

Every player gets a pre-generated character that fits into the story for that flashback and plays them however they see fit. They can even switch characters between sessions or play new characters as some die or leave the story. The trick would be to eventually tie that side story into the main plot in some fashion, likely as an end revelation.

#9 Comment By Roxysteve On October 19, 2011 @ 2:40 pm

As I’ve said before, for con games I tend to build characters with “points left in the pool” or some other feature like the Savage Worlds “Defining Interests” which are left for the players to allocate to give their con PC some individual tuning. If using a more complex character build system like D20 I sometimes offer a limited choice of upgrades in order that the tuning not take more than a few minutes. I also encourage players to not sweat it and to wait and tune the PCs in-game. This has been a popular move in my experience.

As for the way the PCs fit into the adventure I aim for four key and different challenge types in an adventure, and build two or more possible solution approaches into each of the characters.

Clumsy phrasing, but the idea is that should four PCs start a four hour con scenario and one wander off 15 minutes in for a bathroom break that evolves into a three hour absence because he “missed lunch”, the other players are not hung out to dry because between them they have enough stuff to make up for the missing PC.

Sort of PC RAID-5.

Of course, this can only be done if the GM has total control of every aspect of the game beforehand, but it pays a perhaps unsuspected premium in that when several different combinations of players can come at a problem using their on-paper stats, a more fluid off-paper group dynamic seems to come into play, encouraging role-playing solutions rather than attempts to figure out the DC.

Well, that’s been my experience anyway. Mileages will undoubtedly vary.

#10 Comment By TheJollyLlama875 On October 19, 2011 @ 9:43 pm

My group has been doing this with Curse of the Crimson Throne, and it works excellently.

#11 Comment By MonsterMike On October 20, 2011 @ 8:21 am

As an older gamer, I face similar issues and frustrations. The responsibilities that come with a growing family and full time job mean that “Tuesday nights are holy and untouchable” may not be practical anymore. Here’s what I see as a workable solution to the problem:

1. Have a regular gaming night and time.
2. Have a gaming group that is a little larger than you need to make a table (say 6-8, rather than 4-5).
3. Have each member take a turn at being GM. They run a one-shot or a mini-campaign (3-5 sessions).
4. Have a schedule to plan who’s running what using what system and who’s going to be playing ahead of time.
5. Use a facebook group or google+ group or something similar to keep in touch between sessions. The schedule lives here where everyone can access it and update it as things change.
6. Members look at who is running what, make up their character ahead of time, post their character on the group (so everyone can coordinate on balancing out the party).

This is a very different feel than a group of players playing the same characters in the same campaign over the course of years. But it has its advantages: You get to try out different systems, different character classes, and different stories. You don’t have one person getting burned out on being GM all the time. You aren’t “stuck” in a campaign you hate forever. And any given gaming night, a few of the members can’t show up, but you still have a full table and a successful game.

#12 Comment By GiacomoArt On October 27, 2011 @ 1:07 pm

My newest campaign is an attempt to address this sort of thing, and I’m using an “open gaming table” style, rather than a “party gaming” style. I’m also doing it online via a virtual gaming table environment, so that opens the table to anyone in the world with a reasonably current computer and an internet connection.

The one hitch is that I need small groups to use the virtual tabletop like want to, so I can’t just open the flood gates. I’m prioritizing invitations based on each players total investment in the game, measured in hours and extracuricular activities.

It’s too early in the campaign to say how well that will work, but I’m hopeful.