Running a drop-in tabletop RPG with a plot-- your tips and tricks?
July 2, 2014 8:02 PM   Subscribe

I'm running my first campaign, and because I have a large stable of potential players all with limited availability, the first decision I made was that it would work as a drop-in game. I want to be able to run it with as few as two players at a time. I'm trying to adjust the game's structure accordingly, with a caveat.

At the same time, I don't want to do a series of one-offs or isolated dungeon runs, but to have the party traveling as part of a large group, working towards a larger goal, with individual PCs taking the spotlight when their players are present and fading into the crowd otherwise. I know it's ambitious. Halp?

I've chosen Fate Core for the system, the setting is homebrewed high fantasy (starting in a coastal city), and the players will play high-level characters from the start.

Ideas I've run into or come up with so far are:

-Focusing on group conflicts and group goals
-Maintaining an email list with session summaries
-Generating, with players, a list of things their individual PC might be doing while not in play
-Having them all belong to one organization which organizes the missions, or
-Having them all belong to separate organizations that send them on outside errands
-Using a cosmic trapdoor or other deus ex machina to explain the rotating cast, for fun's sake
-Having the same PCs involved each session, but run by different players
-Running the player's PCs myself when they are absent (not partial to this)

I'm hoping to add to the list and/or choose between items, and I would appreciate AskMe's input.
posted by dee lee to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (8 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe you could actually keep it in the city, that way anyone who's not there is presumably at home or grocery shopping or at work or jury duty or any number of places. This means that you could do a lot of really intense world-building around that specific place and your players could have individual goals within the city like "take down the government" or "steal the fated gem from the museum" or something. These could even conflict so you could have one player's goal be something like "rally the city's gnome population to rebel against the government and install me as their king" and have someone else's be "rid the city of pestilential gnomes", just make sure that they keep their own goal a secret so when a group is playing at the same time they can work together but not reveal what their actual goal is and maybe try to undermine other players without telling them. You could also then go really into depth with stuff like individual shops or hotels that are hotbeds of various activity and use the opportunity to create a really complex, vibrant fictional city.

That said, if that seems like not a great idea or too much work, I'd go with having a few set characters and having the players rotate. I think it could be fun to show up and not know exactly who you're going to be that day.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:17 PM on July 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

My first thought was "Obviously they are all members of the same mercenary group," like The Black Company. It's sort of a combination of several of your ideas - there can be one long-term, overarching, epic "group" plot that's revealed in bits and pieces every week to different participants (necessitating fun meta-game communication between players), and it would make sense that not every mercenary is involved in or the hero of every mission.
posted by muddgirl at 8:30 PM on July 2, 2014

-Using a cosmic trapdoor or other deus ex machina to explain the rotating cast, for fun's sake

I would do this one. Something that would explain why they come and go, and why their characters don't know what happened last week. Maybe start the game by having all the characters be prisoners on a seperate plane of existence who escaped and every now and then their jailers drag them back, dramatically, at the beginning of sessions when they won't be there? Something like that. Bonus: you don't have to explain what happened in the adventurewhile they were gone, you can just plop them back in and
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:53 PM on July 2, 2014

I definitely think you should make the swapping out of PCs/players a feature, not a bug. That is, make the change in the party makeup not only part of the story, but the main thrust of the story. I'm thinking of comics like Global Frequency or Secret Avengers, where the task the group is trying to tackle is tailored to that group. Or, in the story of the game, the PCs are brought together because only they have the requisite skill set to tackle a particular task. They're part of an organization that has members that are on call at a moment's notice to come together to fight a threat or achieve a goal.
This definitely wouldn't work with an adventure that continues from session to session. The overarching plot would really be about this organization they're a part of, why it exists and how they became a part of it. While each adventure wouldn't lead directly into the next in terms of working towards the larger goal, each adventure would reveal a little bit more about the nature of the larger threat they're facing. Then, given the right planning, you could have everyone show up for one massive last climax adventure where they take on the big bad in your campaign. It's chaos, people die, allegiances change, characters are redeemed, and someone we thought was dead makes a miraculous appearance at the last minute.
(I really wish I had the time or patience to make this now).
posted by runcibleshaw at 8:59 PM on July 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would add that Fate Core really makes it easy to bind people's stories together using aspects. Make sure that Aspects aren't overly specific for other individual PCs.

Also you really should read this The West Marches It's really applicable, a description of a sandbox game where the players scheduled the game night, and different people could form parties.
posted by gryftir at 11:16 PM on July 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Give them plot points for every session they don't attend, so if you've missed three games you get three points to trade in for some cool story element. Maybe make up some cards with 'treasure', 'rival', 'business', 'clever scheme that is about to come to fruition' and so for your three points you can draw three cards.

Work out what the plot points will actually be with the players (or if your players are good they'll make them up for you, or you can do them in the session a la 13th age.

That way people coming back in can come in with ready to run plot elements.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:23 AM on July 3, 2014

I would really like to echo gryftir's recommendation for you to read the blog post about The West Marches. It gave me a lot of great ideas, and seems to match what you are looking for pretty closely.
posted by seasparrow at 7:36 AM on July 3, 2014

This is not terribly dissimilar to what campaign LARPs have to do, so I'd recommend looking up strategies for running those kinds of games (although I presume you're on a smaller scale).

There's an old practice called "blue-booking", where absent players can write what their characters were doing in the meantime. This doesn't have to be a novella; a few emailed sentences or paragraphs will do. You can use these stories to provide "footprints" for the present players to follow or branch off of.

Depending on how large is "a large player pool", you can generate two or three floating plot twists for each character which tie back into the main story, but which are not especially time-dependent. This also works for general improvisation. Don't think about what should happen when, think about outcomes that drive the story forward, and then figure out in the moment, with the players you have, how to get there. If they need a bit of information, have several ways for them to get it.

I ran a 50-person Mage game online for a while (I know, insane), and one of the things I did was to figure out what's happening where the players aren't. Think of events that happen independent of the players. I focused on the city my people were in, but you could just as easily use the inner workings of a massive organization, the chaotic eddies of their illusory plane, whatever represents the ocean in which they're swimming. As powerful as they are, lots of things will happen that don't involve them. You're going to lose close focus on individual characters with this arrangement, but what you can gain is a living environment in which your present players have to choose what to respond to and what to set in motion for others to follow up on.

In a weird way, this kind of game can actually be very freeing for the DM, because more players means more direct external influence, which means you can focus on world-building. As you fill in the gaps, you can be absolutely sure that someone is going to want to kick over whatever anthill you describe, so you don't have to worry as much about whether they'll take the bait, so to speak, because of how many people you're dealing with. Someone's going to, for some absurd reason you haven't even considered, and that's going to open up another conceptual neighborhood for you to play with. It's really fun.
posted by Errant at 9:09 PM on July 3, 2014

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