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The Backup Game

Posted By Phil Vecchione On May 20, 2008 @ 2:00 am In GMing Advice | 20 Comments

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?

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.




20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "The Backup Game"

#1 Comment By rekenner On May 20, 2008 @ 2:59 am

If you want something quick, rules-wise, Wushu is AMAZINGLY quick to explain and can be pretty fun.

http://www.bayn.org/wushu/wushu-open.html

It essentially applies the Rule of Narrative Truth. If you or a player says something happens, it does – Unless vetoed by another player or a GM, where typically said person suggestions something even more awesome. The amount of dice you roll is based on how awesome of a description you give. The better, the more dice. It makes for insanely cinematic games. I don’t like it for long things, as it’s waaaaay too rules light for me, but it’s good for quickies.

Now, if you want to go another way, the first P+P game I played with my new group at uni was a weird game called Token Effort. You give players 3 points, one extra if they come up with a good weakness/flaw. The players place these into attributes that the character has, in any way. They could have a 3 point attribute and nothing else or 3 one point attributes. The attributes can be anything. Things like “Physics need not apply” or “/an/ hero” or “ACME Beta Tester” or “Unearthly beautiful” – Whatever the person wants.

The other main play aspect is that everyone gets tokens of some sort to start the game off with – 10 works well. The way you “resolve” conflict is like this. Player A thinks of some way to work one of their attributes into beating the conflict – Trap, enemy, whatever. They then give the GM some of their tokens. They reduce the conflict’s “CR” (for lack of better term) by attribute + bid +/- GM fiat (+ for humor or creativity, – for stretching things a bit weirdly or being boring). Then another player has a chance to jump in, etc.

Now, this might seem stupid, right? The rule that makes this fun – If you make someone laugh, that person has to give you a token. The entire point of this is for everyone to be as funny, stupid, and absurd as they can. Throw in characters from your Main campaign, throw in jokes, throw in Video game jokes, so on. Hell, we fought the Yeti from Ski-Free as part of it.

And, at points, the GM should give back tokens that have been bid to him. Either at will or when the GM is made to laugh. And, should, at some point, just throw tokens into the middle of the board for people to scrabble over.

As an inevitability for a silly game. Token thievery will come about – from other players and the GM. GM choice on if he wants to make tokesn that got stolen from him/others worth less. (I figure, if they were sly enough to do it or the person was stupid enough to leave them open, they deserve to be stolen!)

This might seem a bit odd, but it makes a whole lot more sense after playing it for about 5 minutes. I didn’t really get it at first, but it shortly clicked.

And, as a final addendum, you can make no one the GM and have the place switch spots – Whoever beat the last conflict becomes the GM. The conflict size is limited to the number of tokens the GM has (with a minimum of 3 or so, if the GM is really strapped) This keeps the tokens easily flowing and adds another fun aspect – Thinking about beating the conflict without overspending your tokens.

#2 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On May 20, 2008 @ 6:15 am

Call of Cthulhu has always been my back-up game of choice. It tends to play better as a one-shot and there are tons of adventures available. The rules are pretty easy to grasp as well.

#3 Comment By davethegame On May 20, 2008 @ 8:25 am

We almost never have to have a back-up game, and in the rare case we do, we fall back on my collection of board games or some Rock Band.

However, I’m very interested in hearing more about this Global Frequency game, since it’s one of my favorite Ellis works.

#4 Comment By Martin Ralya On May 20, 2008 @ 8:43 am

My group’s back up games tend to be date nights where we go our separate ways, or board game nights. ;)

I do keep WFRP (the latest edition) + its first three-book campaign on deck, just in case. I’m familiar enough with the rules to run it with little prep, and the campaign is pretty cool. It comes with pregens, of course.

#5 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On May 20, 2008 @ 8:49 am

I tend to still have a D&D game in my back pocket to run, but it will be something short and contained — the Wotc free modules and the Paizo GameMastery ones are good sources for that kind of material. As you say, Pre-Gens are a must.

One game I would like to try those is the Thunderball Rally minigame that appeared in Polyhedron, when it was tacked onto Dungeon during its run. Basically, it’s a d20 variant on those 1970s car-chase moviess, such as Cannonball Run, Gumball Rally and Smokey and the Bandit. It’s a beer’n’pretzel approach to gaming — and you can play either as a group or as individuals driving against one another. But mostly it’s to be played for laughs.

#6 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 20, 2008 @ 8:58 am

Pirates of the Spanish Main. It’s basically Savage Worlds (simple and fast), and you can even use consistent characters, if you use the premise that they’re all part of the crew of a pirate ship. (This is also a handy mechanic for ‘replacement crew’ and red-shirts.)

There are a few ‘one sheets’ published for it, and any GM worth his salt can come up with more on the fly.

Yarr!

#7 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On May 20, 2008 @ 9:06 am

I’ve been curious about Pirates of the Spanish Main. I’m glad to hear a positive review of it. I may have to look into it.

#8 Comment By Chgowiz On May 20, 2008 @ 9:18 am

microlite20 is my favorite and recommended ‘d20 extremely light’ backup game. With little effort, Modern d20, Future d20, Fantasy d20 can easily be adapted and used. I’ve not found an SRD compatible module or pickup adventure that can’t be run in m20.

I also like the old standbys, like Settler’s of Cataan.

#9 Comment By Nephlm On May 20, 2008 @ 10:14 am

I’m not sure I agree with all your premises as the problems you are trying to work around can be worked around in different ways.

http://www.evilhat.com/home/?page_id=103

Spirit of the Century was pretty much built for this problem. The GM looks at the aspects of whoever is playing that night and builds something tailored in 10-15 minutes. It does require taking a session and making characters but then you get to mine those characters for one shot gold for many sessions without much in the way of heavy prep.

http://www.dog-eared-designs.com/games.html

Another game I’ve heard to come to with nothing more than a blank sheet of paper that is capable of making gold is Prime Time Adventures, sadly I haven’t had the chance to personally test it yet.

#10 Comment By Scott Martin On May 20, 2008 @ 10:23 am

The criteria for a backup game sound almost identical to those of a con game. What are the differences to you?

We tend to play boardgames when someone goes missing, though on Friday our canceled session led us to hit Iron Man at the theater instead.

Spirit of the Century seems like an ideal “go to” game– generate characters one night (when everyone’s there, most likely), then run one shot pulp adventures with whatever people show. It works well for con-like settings, though I think people would enjoy getting to play the same characters again. Playing it as a backup game would fulfill that desire.

#11 Comment By sage On May 20, 2008 @ 11:58 am

It does violate one of the rules, but I would have to say My Life With Master is probably my favorite one-shot game. To really enjoy it it works best if the players are all involved in creating the Master and creating their characters, but that process is pretty rules-light and offers a lot fun creativity. The game has a built in conclusion that should be reachable in one four hour session, with the right starting values (I’d recommend Fear 3, Reason 2). Plus, it is a damn fine game, probably the closest to the much-debated ‘games as art’ as I’ve seen.

I was just running a game last night (designed to be about a 4-5 hour game, run across a 3 hour session and a follow-up), and everyone had a great time. The game has a very palpable feel of desperation that makes the games fast. The dice mechanics are easy, and with the right group the game can actually be moving in an odd sort of way.

One suggestion that my players had that would likely work for a pre-gen game would be ‘My Life With Vader’ (or ‘My Life With Palpatine’) having the players take on the role of Sith Apprentices. In fact, the entire Star Wars saga could be framed as Vader playing ‘My Life With Palpatine.’

Some other games that work well for one shot games: Dogs in the Vinyard, Poison’d, Contender. All have simple mechanics that can get a bit tiresome after a while, but make some very memorable sessions.

#12 Comment By longcoat000 On May 20, 2008 @ 1:37 pm

Dream Park (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dream_Park) sounds perfect for one-shots like this, or at least the Dream Park setting. Basically, it’s an amusement park in 2051. You play park visitors, who pay large sums of money to participate in LARPs created and run by gamemasters. Instead of foam swords and miniature beanbags, you have holographic weapons and effects. The games can be any genre, from archtypical D&D to a zombie apocalypse, and setup is a breeze. And as an added bonus, the characters can be recycled from one game to the next fairly easily (“Hey kids, where do you want to go on vacation this year?” “Dream Park! Dream Park!”).

I’d actually recommend having everyone in the group create a character (including the GM, and it really takes about five minutes) when there’s nothing better going on, and save them for the next time a backup is needed. When you need to pull out the backup, whomever has an interesting idea gets to be the GM. Or, if you really want to be wacky, run the characters through the exact same adventure you were planning for the full group. The look on the player’s faces will be priceless.

#13 Comment By Reverend Mike On May 20, 2008 @ 2:21 pm

The next couple weeks of gaming are going to be interesting for my group…last week, we hit lv. 12 in our DM’s ongoing 3.5 campaign…but this next Thursday/Friday, a friend of mine will be starting up his long-awaited d20 modern campaign, which will coincide with my running the group’s first taste of 4e…I guess you could consider both of these back-up games, since our usual DM wants to take a break and fight some monsters for once…and when I start up my 4e campaign, it’ll be interesting to see what gets played…if one campaign or another will take a back seat until someone needs a break or can’t show…or if we’ll alternate games as needed…

In the time before all players show up, we usually just chill and watch movies…thanks to my movie collection that grows almost weekly…

#14 Comment By freyja3120 On May 20, 2008 @ 8:28 pm

We play third edition Dungeons and Dragons, and since I’m the only gm in my group, when I’m not there, they usually play board games like Risk or Monopoly. What I have done, though, is allow them to make up tenth level characters of just about any variety. That way, I always know what level to gear a backup game to. It’s also a fun way for both them and me to try something different. One of their favorite and most talked about adventures of mine was a 90% roleplay adventure I whipped up in the half an hour of notice I was given that someone would be missing.

#15 Comment By Kiashien On May 21, 2008 @ 5:43 pm

My favorite backup game is Shadowrun. We require everyone to have a character, kept on-site. If you play or DM, you gain Karma (their version of experience) regardless.

Anyone can volunteer to be a pinch DM, but they have to be prepared. Usually 2-3 of us are at any given moment.

The rules are kinda odd, but the world is absolutely perfect one-shot material.

#16 Comment By Grogtard On May 21, 2008 @ 5:55 pm

Favorite Backup Games: Savage Worlds and Over the Edge and the occasional Feng Shui.

#17 Comment By Crimson Newb On May 22, 2008 @ 10:52 am

I haven’t had a chance to play it, but I’ve read through Steve Jackson’s TOON, and it seems fast and easy, using only D6s. Also well-suited for one-shot games like cartoon episodes.

#18 Comment By BryanB On May 22, 2008 @ 10:55 am

Spirit of the Century is ideal for a Backup Game. It even has a built in character generation option that allows for characters to be created on-the-fly as the pulp action unfolds. It plays fast. The aspects mechanic is one of the coolest things since pre-sliced bread. Invoking and compelling aspects actually adds roleplaying opportunities to the game in addition to aiding the resolution rolls for the PCs or arch villains. There have been a lot of fan made adaptations to other genres, just in case pulp isn’t your thing. I credit the game for re-sparking my interest in the hobby when I was headed for a burnout.

#19 Comment By age On May 22, 2008 @ 11:17 pm

I have a backup GM. My best mate. When I finish GM’ing our campaign (d6, Fighting Fantasy), he whips out some home brewed adventures based loosely on D&D and bits and pieces of any other system he’s read. Basically one or two session adventures, he calls them “One-Shots” because the characters and scenarios are “disposable” as opposed to campaign built. a good break!

#20 Comment By Frost On January 5, 2009 @ 10:04 pm

Castles & Crusades is my game of choice for backup games. I used it one night and 5 players whipped up characters with one Players Handbook and a few printouts of the free quickstart rules (http://www.trolllord.com/cnc/ccqs.html) and GM screen sheets (http://homepages.nyu.edu/~dp58/ckscreen.pdf) in 15 minutes or so.

The rules are easy and will be familiar to d20 players.


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