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:
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.
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.
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” 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.
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.