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A small circle of friends

As a result of online discussions of roleplaying games, I've had it borne in on me that my approach, which I always took to be the obvious and straightforward way of doing things, has a number of peculiarities when compared with how a lot of people game. This is about one of them.

It appears that a fairly common social pattern among gamers is the "gaming group." This is a set of people small enough so that they can all play together in a session of an rpg, who meet—most often weekly, but sometimes biweekly, monthly, or irregularly—for the purpose of doing so. The meetings continue indefinitely, either as one long campaign, or through a succession of new campaigns. If a new campaign is started, it's because a member of the group offers to run it and is accepted; and depending on the group culture, either the nature of the new campaign is presented in advance and must receive group approval, or the GM throws the players into it and may face dissatisfaction, resistance, or open sabotage if it's not what the players want—and the player may feel entitled to engage in such sabotage. Players hardly ever face expulsion from the group, even if they do actively sabotage a campaign or make it not fun for other players; keeping the group together is a higher priority. New players can be introduced, but it takes some effort for them to fit in; most player groups don't actively seek new members.

I describe this in such detail precisely because it's not at all the way I do things, and when I first heard about it it struck me as eccentric, if not outright weird.

What I've done, pretty much since I first starting out as a dungeon master back in the 1970s, is to come up with an idea for a campaign, and then pick out people who might fit into it and invite them to play. There is no preexisting group of players: the group is created by the individual players accepting my invitation to play, and lasts only as long as that campaign lasts. At one time I offered only one proposal at a time, and took the players who accepted it (I had the good fortune not to get turned down very often). Then I started handing out lists of possible campaigns, and asking people to rank or rate them, so that I could run the ones that were best liked. I got enough responses back the first time that I did this so that I had more potential players than I could manage in a play session; so I identified two clumps with similar tastes and ran two campaigns, and I've continued running multiple campaigns in parallel ever sense. There tends to be significant reshuffling of player groups between campaigns. Individual players tend to come back from cycle to cycle, so I've seen the emergence of a larger player culture, but I do add a new player or two every cycle, and lose established players about as often—but I don't need unanimous approval of the whole body of my players to run a campaign; I just need to find proposals with solid core constituencies.

Naturally, this requires me to change campaigns regularly, and I typically plan to keep a new campaign going for two years. I know that some continuing player groups begin new campaigns at intervals, but others seemingly go on playing the same campaign year after year; that would totally not work for my approach.

I have received the comment from some gamers that this is all very well for me, because I'm in a player-rich environment. And there's likely some truth to that: I've seen comments from gamers who can't find more than a handful of players whose style is compatible with theirs, or more than a handful of gamers of any kind, or in some cases any gamers—or who face schedule clashes or the like that reduce the number they can get together at any one time. But I somewhat doubt that that's all there is to it, because my large number of players isn't entirely a product of luck: I've spent years building it up, including inviting people to play who were fairly new to gaming, or who had given it up as unsatisfactory. (As it happens, these two groups are at least mostly female, and by now my players are 50% female.) And I've also recently heard from at least one gamer who said that he could run games for more people—but chooses not to, because those people aren't his friends, and he only wants to spend his gaming time with friends. So to some degree it's a matter of choice.

After I'd been thinking about this for a while, it struck me that we were dealing with two different models, not just of gaming, but of social interaction in general. A lot of gamers have the model of a group of friends who get together, more or less regularly, and hang out with each other and do stuff—and if you're not in that group, its members don't socialize with you. And this is one pattern for social interaction. But there are other patterns. The one I use is a lot like the classic structure for holding a dinner party, which you can read about in, say, Miss Manners (yes, there are rules for this!): You decide on an occasion, and you invite selected people from your social circle, and see what happens. You don't have to invite everyone from your social circle, and probably you can't, because it's presumed that you know more people than you can entertain all at once; and you don't always invite people who clump together, because part of the point of this sort of entertainment is to bring new people together and see what happens. You also don't invite just a few favorites: each event gets some people from your A list, some from your B list, and maybe one from your C list—some who are outstanding, some who are good reliable participants, and some who are marginal but whom you choose to include for one reason or another. Gaming analogies, I think, are obvious.

And having thought of that comparison, I found myself wondering why that model, which I first started groping toward back in my first D&D campaigns, not only hasn't been spontaneously invented by very many other gamers, but seemingly strikes a number of them as foreign and unworkable. When I mentioned this to chorale, she commented that the "circle of friends" was the way people socialized in junior high school, which is when most people started gaming; are a number of gamers preserving old social habits, maybe? I'm curious about the ethnography of it.

One other comment, and then I'm done: The argument about "I only want to game with friends" strikes me as embodying a mistaken view of friendship. C. S. Lewis says (influenced I think by Aristotle) that the basis of friendship is a shared love for some interest or activity: that the posture of friends is side by side, looking at the same thing. Gaming is such a possible basis for friendship, and I've seen a lot of friendships emerge out of my bringing people together to play rpgs. And the whole "dinner party" model of socializing, I think, is one that creates the possibility for discovering new friends, rather than clinging tightly to the old. It seems odd to me that more people don't want that.

Comments

( 40 comments — Leave a comment )
thorkell
Aug. 27th, 2006 01:24 pm (UTC)
Perhaps some people don't know enough people to be able to seperate them into A, B and C lists.

Your model of doing things never occurred to me.

The way it's been done here in my experience is that a few friends game and if they need more players they either get the excisting group to bring other friends into the mix ("Hey, don't you know more people who game and might be interested in gaming with us?" or they place ads.
whswhs
Aug. 27th, 2006 01:46 pm (UTC)
Yes, that's the model I've seen a lot of people describe. What I'm curious about is why it should be that model, and not the "GM invites people as individuals" model, that occurs to people. Now you've seen a description of a different model; is it an approach you would consider adopting or not, and if not, what are its disadvantages in your eyes?
(no subject) - thorkell - Aug. 27th, 2006 02:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
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2h2o
Aug. 27th, 2006 02:27 pm (UTC)
A lot of gamers have the model of a group of friends who get together, more or less regularly, and hang out with each other and do stuff—and if you're not in that group, its members don't socialize with you.
I've become convinced that this is a big part of the problem with assembling a group. People don't cultivate potential gaming connections while they're in a group - and when that group collapses, they're marooned. Part of the reason is the perceived stigma of being a gamer, and not wanting to risk exposure beyond the safety of the group. Another part might be the centrality of the game to gaming, such that all gaming time goes into the current game.

or the GM throws the players into it and may face dissatisfaction, resistance, or open sabotage if it's not what the players want—and the player may feel entitled to engage in such sabotage
When I've experienced this, "sabotage" has been too strong. Players who aren't having fun stop paying attention, miss sessions, or go off on "funny" tangents. More aggressive attempts at derailing the game are rare, but not necessarily more damaging. A GM who can't entertain his players knows it, and loses any incentive to continue. It's easier for a GM to meet the needs of players he or he has played with before, so fear of this kind of rejection might also influence the common model of gaming groups. You may have a group dynamic that somehow avoids these conflicts, but I don't see any reason why your model would necessarily prevent them. (Selecting the gamers for the game can do only so much.)
2h2o
Aug. 27th, 2006 02:37 pm (UTC)
When I've experienced this, "sabotage" has been too strong.
By which I mean that there may be no intent to ruin the game. The players seem to want the game to be different, not necessarily to kill it off.
whswhs
Aug. 27th, 2006 03:00 pm (UTC)
You may have a group dynamic that somehow avoids these conflicts, but I don't see any reason why your model would necessarily prevent them. (Selecting the gamers for the game can do only so much.)

Note, in the first place, that I said explicitly that one version of the "gaming group" approach also provides help in avoiding conflicts between the wishes of the players and the intent of the GM: the nature of the new campaign is presented in advance and must receive group approval.

In the second place, a key aspect of my current approach is that I don't just select the players for the campaign; I select them on the basis of their own expressed interest in the campaign and their own expressed desire to play in it. And since that interest is based on a description of key features of the campaign, they have consented to those key features before ever sitting down to generate characters. If they really don't want to play in something, they can give it zero points, and then I guarantee that I won't put them into it. So at least this approach prevents the situation of the player saying, "I'm in this campaign, but it's not anything I would want to play if I had been given a choice."

And no, it's not infallible. There are no infallible methods of preventing conflict between human beings. But it's a way of improving the odds.
(no subject) - 2h2o - Aug. 27th, 2006 03:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - universal_gm - Aug. 27th, 2006 04:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - whswhs - Aug. 27th, 2006 05:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - trooper6 - Aug. 27th, 2006 05:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
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jimboboz
Aug. 28th, 2006 12:57 am (UTC)
I found this interesting enough to post a reply on my own journal.

May I repost this post of yours with attribution to GameCircle.org? It expresses well some things I've tried to stimulate discussion on in the past.
whswhs
Aug. 28th, 2006 02:13 am (UTC)
With attribution, certainly. I should be interested to hear about the discussion that results.
(no subject) - jimboboz - Aug. 28th, 2006 05:48 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - whswhs - Aug. 28th, 2006 06:28 am (UTC) - Expand
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glenbarnett
Aug. 28th, 2006 03:48 am (UTC)

I've experienced several different modes of organization. With most people I've gamed with, simply finding more than 3 people with compatible schedules and adjacent gaming interests is most of the exercise.

I'm somewhat involved with an on-campus gaming group. Starting a game there usually involves throwing out (say to the mailing list) some campaign ideas (sometimes one, often two or three) and seeing which ones generate enough interest to pull together a group, often with some additional individual recruiting after that. Numbers then drop by about half when trying to find a suitable time (and that changes each semester, so they can drop again just as things get interesting). Often an additional round of recruiting results once the numbers fall too low.

I've been thinking for a while that one-offs and 3 or 4 session short-story arcs might work better in that environment than full campaigns (which often fail around the 5th or 6th session anyway because the group fails when circumstances change for a couple of the participants).

whswhs
Aug. 28th, 2006 03:36 pm (UTC)
Do you schedule games for once a week, or once a month, or some other interval? I find that it's much easier to do once a month; I have a lot of players who can free up one or two afternoons in a month, but not one every weekend.
(no subject) - glenbarnett - Aug. 29th, 2006 01:53 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - whswhs - Aug. 29th, 2006 04:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Anonymous)
Aug. 30th, 2006 07:06 pm (UTC)
Role-playing ability
Does role-playing ability ever factor into your decisons about who to invite to the latest round of campaigns? Is that even used as a conscious or unconscious factor in inviting people into your network of potential players?

Eric
whswhs
Aug. 30th, 2006 09:31 pm (UTC)
Re: Role-playing ability
Not directly, no, because I've invited in people who either weren't currently roleplaying or were new to it and had no track record. I invite in people who share some of my tastes in books, films, television shows, comics, and the like; who show a certain flexibility of mind; who get on with my current players, or seem to make a good impression on them when they sit in on a session; and who, if possible, have seen a session of one of my campaigns, know what they're getting into, and think it looks like fun. Those are not necessarily predictive of roleplaying ability as such, but they may be predictive of the sort that I look for, and they seem also to be predictive of ability to get along with my current players.
brianrogers
Sep. 3rd, 2006 02:14 pm (UTC)
While you and I have discussed this before on Pyramid (and coincidentally I'm posting some general musings about my 'group of friends' prospectus on my own page) I did want to put an oar in here.

One advantage that you may have is the number of people whom you have introduced to gaming. This not only means that players are introduced to your style of play, but also to this group's organizational concept. This is, on all levels, a good thing - it's good for you because it keeps more of the player pool on the same page, it's good for new players as a way to enter gaming without it becoming a 'total life commitment with my new group of friends', and it's good for the hobby in creating new gamers. I have a similar advantage in my group where the number of people I introduced to gaming is about equal to the number of people who were playing when I met them.

I have for years been focusing on the group of friends model, in part because for many of the players this is the only block of time they have to socialize with the other players. This means that a) as GM I generally become a de facto social secretary and b) they want to play in every game to maintain those connections. This means the prospectus concept is best for making we pick something everyone enjoys rather than picking people to do what they'd most enjoy.

I suspect this is likely to change soon, however, because the player group is growing: people who had been unable to attend for a while are again available; their 'replacements' still want to play; new people have been met who expressed an interest. My current 2 groups of four have become a pool of 12 players within a 2 hour drive circle from me, with a potential 13th on the way. The presence of young children and babysitting issues complicates things, but I do wonder about my next arc being a Dinner Party style.

The other thing that you acknowledge is the lack of long term campaigns. I find that often after 8 to 12 months of a game the players and/or Gm are ready for a break, but all of them want to return to the setting later. That makes groups of friends easier and dinner parties a little more complicated, but I don't think I'll find it unworkable.
whswhs
Sep. 3rd, 2006 06:02 pm (UTC)
There's nothing that says you can't include "continue campaign X" or "resume campaign X" as an option on a prospectus. Back when ebenbrooks and I were co-GMing DC Realtime, we kept it going through two cycles, because it was popular with the players.

But I actively like finite campaigns. In part, because in the nature of things campaigns are going to end, I'd rather plan for their ending up front and try to make it dramatic and satisfying than just trail off. But also, it means that I don't get trapped with a permanent group of players who always expect the same thing.

You're right about the importance of having an influx of new players, and of people I've helped introduce or reintroduce to gaming. But I'd take the point a bit further than that. We regularly see people in bulletin boards and similar places worrying about whether gaming is a dying hobby, whether new people are being recruited into it, and so on. If GMs regularly brought in new people, this would be less of a problem. But all too often, the GM's response seems to be, at least implicitly, "Oh, but I can't personally do that, because I already have my player group and I can't run games for anyone who isn't in it." That's a classic example of NIMBY, if you ask me. And because a lot of those groups are of old friends who've been gaming together since college, military service, or even junior high school, they tend to perpetuate play styles and attitudes that were suited to those age ranges, but that may not be appealing to adults—especially when they function as "boys' clubs"; as long as women are not made welcome in RPGs, half the potential player population is missing.
(no subject) - brianrogers - Sep. 3rd, 2006 07:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
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spectre_eric
Sep. 4th, 2006 03:02 am (UTC)
hmm, RPG Groups are slightly more broad than simple friends groups...

in most cases, they can be evolved from other social circles... school, college, work, and other life groups such as church, club, or bar. ...

Although one can also blind post at FLGS for RPG players..
debela
Jan. 29th, 2007 04:58 pm (UTC)
If it helps, this is the model that most of my GMs use. We're very lucky to have a collection of GMs and a broad base of players, so the campaigns are almost always based on the dinner-party model.

The other model doesn't make sense to me, but then I haven't seen it in motion. The one caveat is that I would, both as a player and someone trying to run a game, be taken aback and appalled at someone showing up to a game and sabotaging it just because it wasn't their cup of tea. That's just rude and awful. If it's not your cup of tea, don't trick the tea - but you don't have to dump paint thinner in it if you don't want to drink it. Why would people do that?
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