It was open table.
Open table means players can sign up for all, some, or just one session of a series you run. To a GM who has spent decades running multi-year campaigns with a stable roster, this seemed crazy. What about storylines? What about relationship building? What about cumbersome orienting of new players? Initially, I ran just two-shots to compensate; tighter games to minimize problems. But over time I’ve moved to longer games, even mysteries with developing plots. Players have changed, come in late, dropped out, and the games have survived. And thrived.
WORLD OF CANCELLATIONS
Before The Gauntlet I painfully ran some campaigns online. I’d set up sessions, get commitments, and then the game would flake out at the last minute. I had people not show up and not communicate. I had one player push another out, bring a new one in, and then had both quit because their schedule was too tight. And the next day found out they’d actually dropped to join a podcast, but didn't want to tell me. When campaigns did go we’d often have massive gaps between sessions and reset constantly. It was a wildlands without structure or satisfaction.
The Gauntlet’s approach–calendar, commitment, and open table–makes online gaming less a wilderness. It begins with our dedicated online event calendar. We previously used public online scheduling tools, but they flaked out, cost too much, or lacked features. So Jason commissioned a dedicated tool; a chunk of the Patreon money goes towards that. GMs post sessions on the calendar and then announce them on our Gauntlet Hangouts G+ Community and our Slack. They post events between two weeks and two months out. For the first week, Patreon members at the $7 level get special access to sign up. After that, anyone can–you don’t have to be a Patreon supporter or even a member of the community. You just have to register at the calendar. Even if a game’s full, it’s worth joining a waitlist. In about half of my games, someone moves up from the waitlist to play. Open table also means you sign up for whichever sessions in a series you want.
That open table terrified me, but made me a better GM—more flexible and responsive to the players. I come in expecting PC lineup changes. That means I plan agilely, think big, and don’t sweat swerves. I’ve learned to consider what players actually need at the table. I cut arcane detail and trim system mechanics where I can, but I also consider what kinds of lore and backstory players engage with. Play should build from a short briefing and the session conversation itself. I want to support incoming players, not make them feel like they’re not in on the joke.
Structurally, open table means I can usually count on my games going off. In two and a half years and 220+ sessions, I’ve only had two sessions dropped due to lack of players. I’ve had more sessions (3) lost due to my own being sick. Two of my favorite sessions--World Wide Wrestling and Urban Shadows—had just two players. If players drop with enough notice, I can usually recruit others. It’s also meant that I’ve run for a ton of different players.
If you run open table, you have to develop new tools for a frequently changing group. Keep your intro tight, remember to restate safety tools, watch for information overload, and establish structure early. If you have a player only there for a session or two, lean into their hooks. Put veterans who play collaboratively into scenes with newbies early. For example, in WWW the GM builds a card for the session, the order of matches for the show. I want to make a one-shot player’s exposure awesome. So I put them in big matches, play up their character, and pair them with dynamite players. I also make sure to have a “model” match first so they see play before they enter the ring.
Open table has positive effects on the player side. You get the same benefit the GM does—a chance to play with a larger, more diverse group over time. But importantly, you can try things out—if it doesn’t work, no harm, no foul. GMs understand cancellations. You don’t have to explain—just give the most notice and heads-up you can. Open table means that if something’s too much for you, you can leave.
As a player, you can enhance the open table experience. If you enter a campaign in progress, be open and listen. If the GM has background materials, take a look at those. You're not expected to learn the lore or watch previous session videos, but it’s good practice to check out existing characters and system cheat sheets. Poll the table about the best way to make your character concept work with the existing story. Be mindful, but active. You’re here to play, too—don’t feel like coming in late doesn’t give you a place in the fiction.
On the reverse, if you’re a returning player, help new players. Figure out ways to connect their ideas and characters to things already on the table. If rules have to be taught, pick one person—usually the GM—to do those explanations. It’s super frustrating for a new player when multiple voices compete to explain a system. On a related note, trim your own player lore. Don’t info dump new players and never make them feel bad for not knowing a story element. Be classy.
Last year on the Gauntlet we had a lot of talk about the challenges surrounding longer open table games. One GM asked if they could require that players sign up for all sessions or commit to reading character creation & rules material ahead of time. But we don’t do that. In my event descriptions, I say players are “encouraged to sign up for all sessions.” Sometimes I’ll even say strongly encouraged. Usually I’ll share character spreadsheets and rules summaries the week before a game. But I come in expecting a changing roster and players who haven’t read the material. It’s a nice bonus when that isn’t true.
In that conversation about longer campaigns, several said it didn’t work with open table. When folks had said Fate games wouldn’t fly on the Gauntlet, I ran a month of them. So I wanted to prove them wrong about long games. So in 2018 I’ve run three longer open table campaigns, called Gauntlet Quarterly. And I’ve seen others experiment with the form as well.
When I first considered doing 11-13 sessions, I decided I’d need two things. First, I'd take an episodic approach to sessions. For the most part, each would be a self-contained story. Blades in the Dark does this well—usually a session revolves around a single job. World Wide Wrestling absolutely does this—each game is a wrestling show. You couldn’t split it across sessions without losing momentum. Mutant: Year Zero also leans this way with a fresh threat generated each session and a split between zone-crawl and in-camp sessions, though in my long play, that broke down a little and we had a couple of two-parters that required character juggling.
Second, I wanted a unifying campaign element. In the case of MYZ, that’s the Ark. Players make decisions about how their home camp evolves and carry out projects to develop it. In Blades, the "crew" has its own playbook and gains experience. In WWW, it's the wrestling promotion itself. WWW: International Incident introduces “tags” and “troubles” to describe the organization. The player with the highest audience at the start of the show rolls a move to affect those. It also has continuity from an ongoing roster past non-player and player wrestlers. If I had enjoyed Star Trek Adventures more, I might have run it with the ship serving as a central feature. Other games I've considered--Scum and Villainy, Cryptomancer, Changeling the Lost, Green Law of Varkith, Sigmata, and Rotted Capes—have rules for ongoing and tracked setting elements that provide continuity.
I came in convinced that a longer game needed that. In my head, I imagined wonky fantasy campaigns where the party changed every week, regardless of where they were—on the road or in the dungeon. I’d played in those campaigns, wracked with highly variable attendance. We had a term for PCs popping in and out, “Blue Flashing.” In practice it made you feel detached from other PCs and heightened the artificiality of the experience. For Gauntlet Quarterly, I wanted a through line for the players to avoid those problems.
I think my approach does that, but I’m less sure now I need the crutch. Players come in hungry to find their place. Most play actively, involve themselves, and look to connect their story. I’d steered away from games with tight relationship systems, like Masks: A New Generation. But I think that would actually work, I’d need to develop easy fictional framing (like a larger organization to explain the shifting roster). I’d also want quick & dirty tools to set up relationships—ways for returning players to connect with new ones and pay off connections with PCs who aren’t necessarily coming back. But I don’t need to restrict my game choices for long campaigns. I know now players will work with me to build that narrative.
My take on longer games isn’t the only one on the Gauntlet. Other GMs have looked at open table and figured out how to build continuity. Jason’s Mercy Falls series is a great example—a game broken into chunks with different characters and even different time periods. Go listen to those podcasts. You can hear synergies that don’t require deep lore. I came into the second Mercy Falls series with no idea about the first series and it clicked. Another approach has been The Gaunt Marches on Gauntlet. This has multiple GMs running in a shared fantasy setting. Or look at the one-GM shared universe Rich Rogers has done with Gauntlet City Limits and Star Wars Saturdays. Those games exist in their own universes. References across games act as Easter Eggs rather than required information. But there’s an organic, emergent history there.
Finally, for the last quarter of 2019 I’m trying a modified approach. I’m presenting my Hearts of Wulin sessions as a book or movie trilogy. In the first month, we do movie one. These sessions should comprise a complete story. In month two, we move forward in time and build lightly on ideas and details established in month one. Players can return with characters or introduce new ones. Like with any good trilogy, I hope to make each month connect but also stand on its own. I'm hoping this structure adds depth to play and makes each month feel complete.
What do you think? If you've played with or run for the Gauntlet, what's been your experience—positive or negative—with the structure?
For the full backlog of Age of Ravens posts on Blogger see here.