Recently my gaming group has gone through a bit of a gaming drought. We have had a number of cancellations occur over the past few weeks, where a single person could not make it to the session. Sometimes that person was the GM, and other times it was one of the players. With the type of games we run, and our general GMing style, our group does not like to play without all the members present. When these cancellations have occurred, the other remaining members of the group are left without an RPG to play. We would still get together, to play some card games, like Lunch Money or Ninja Burger, but we were not playing any RPG’s. So we started to think what could we do to guarantee that we would always have an RPG to play, even if the main session got canceled. So we came up with the idea of backup games.
The Anatomy of The Backup Game
So this is not rocket science. If we can’t play the main game for the night, why not play another RPG? Well sometimes that is easier said than done. In order to pull off a good backup game, we came up with some criteria that the game and the GM running it would have to meet. These criteria would insure that we would have a game ready to go at a moments notice. The criteria we came up with were:
- The GM Is Responsible For The Rules: If the group is not familiar with the game system, then the GM would be responsible for translating the actions of the players into the proper mechanics. No one-hour discourse on how the game mechanics works. Just start playing and the GM will handle all the rules.
- The Session Has To Be Self-Contained: This is not the kickoff to a campaign. These games would require that they start and end in the four hours we play. There would not be any carry over into other sessions, since we would not know when the next time we played would be.
- Pre-Gen Characters: No making up characters on the night of the game. The GM is responsible for bringing characters to the game for all the players. The players pick their characters and the game begins.
- Variable Number Of Players: Since the game is backup game, there is no guarantee how many people will be available to play that night. Some of the players do not come out for a backup game, so we may have 1 to 3 players on a given night. The material has to be flexible and scalable.
- Prepared Material: A GM of a backup game will need to have their notes at the ready, so that if they get the call, hours before the scheduled session, they are ready to play.
They are not overly demanding, but there were some constraints that would require a commitment from the GM’s who wanted to run a backup game. The group agreed that these were fair guidelines, and that several of us expressed an interest in running a backup game, me included.
Not All Settings Are Created Equal
In talking about ideas for what games people might want to run, we started to see that some games would be better suited as backup games than others. Not that a skilled GM could not get a single session out of any game, but that some settings and some mechanics would lend themselves to this one-shot structure better than others. Games that would suit this kind of play would have some general traits:
- Fast Rules System: With four hours to play and the potential that the only person who would know the rules would be the GM, the more streamlined the mechanics were for the game, the better it would be. An overly complicated set of rules, that were not the GM’s primary game, would lead to a lot of rule checking or hand-waiving, which may impact the quality of the session.
- Easy Session Prep: Games that had easy session prep, or had tools that assisted session prep, would be better than games where there is a lot of work to get NPC’s stats together, etc.
- Abundance Of Published Material: A game with a lot of published material would be easier to prep, since there would be source books, maps, supplements, even scenarios to pull from.
- Setting Or Genre That Suited One-Shot Play: Some settings are perfect for one-shots, and others will not work as well in a single session. Games that had a mission-based setting would make for easier one-shot sessions than more episodic games.
In looking over my own current game collection there were a few games that were not going to work:
- Iron Heroes: Very crunchy rules and heavy session prep (creating NPC’s, combat zones, etc.)
- Burning Empires: This game is much more suited for longer play. While a single session could be played out in 4 hours, the game is really designed to follow a campaign arc.
Then there were a few games that looked pretty good:
- XCrawl: Its essentially D&D, and prep could be tricky, but there is a lot of good published material for it. Also the game suits one-shot play over the long campaign.
- Mutants & Masterminds: The rules are lighter than d20, and there is an abundance of published material with NPC’s and scenarios available. Plus the comic book genera suits one-shot adventures.
- My home-brewed Global Frequency  game (based on Conspiracy X)– The Global Frequency comic books were all one shots, so that is a perfect trope. The Conspiracy X rules are very light and fast, and NPC creation is about as simple as it gets.
In the end, I choose my Global Frequency Game. Having recently read all 12 Issues and downloaded and watched the unreleased TV pilot, I was sure that Global Frequency would not only make a good backup game, but really it would not compete for being a full campaign game. It will actually run better in one-shots, staying true to the format of the comic book.
I ran my first session, two weeks ago, and it went off great. I am preparing another mission and tucking it away for the next canceled session.
Does your group keep any Backup games on hand, and what systems do you think would be good for Backup games?