Finally – you’ve found a good group of friends to play D&D with! You have a willing and able DM! Everything’s great for a month or two….maybe three….and then it starts: “Sorry team, I can’t make it this week.” And then, “Folks, I’ve got a lot going on right now, I need to take a break for a while, can you find a sub?” — Often it’s a player, and it may not be catastrophic…but then it’s two players. Then it’s the DM.
The campaign dies. You never even made it to 10th Level. You’ll never know what the end of the story is, unless maybe you read the adventure book yourself. This isn’t unusual – research by Wizards of the Coast shows that 90% of D&D games stop by Level 10. And this isn’t because people get tired of the game – it’s because of scheduling issues. Adults are busy. D&D, as entertainment, is competing with literally everything else. Even if we love it – there’s just so many other things going on. A recent poll on /r/DnD – unscientific to be sure – showed that around 60% of D&D groups fall apart due to scheduling issues (with DM Burnout being #2 at 15%). It’s really hard to keep a group together long enough to go from Level 1 to Level 20. It’s really hard to keep a group together for the years necessary to get to those epic-tier storylines. It is at odds of many of the hyped WotC releases, which are meant to be epic adventure paths. But this is a recent phenomenon, that’s not how it used to be…and it’s not how it has to be now either.
You can slay the scheduling dragon by reframing how you play the game – by reframing what kind of game you play.
The way D&D was played, in the early days, was not long, epic storyline adventures. It was dungeon crawling – Megadungeon crawling. Every DM built their own Megadungeon. And the players were a rotating cast – it was what we call now an “Open Table. ” The game was much like what the computer game Diablo is – an ever deepening dungeon full of danger and treasure, with a town above solely for selling, buying and restocking. This was D&D. With the release of the Wilderness Survival Guide, D&D moved into the open world and Hexcrawls became the new dungeons.
Soon after came the Campaign settings – Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance. These allowed players to enter fully developed worlds, full of ruins, cities, factions and lore. True epic tales began to be told – and most of the products released were smaller, stand-alone adventures for people to play in those worlds. This was the way the game was played – adventurers were sort of wandering heroes, bringing order to the chaos of the wild lands. Higher levels meant building keeps and castles, having followers and defending them against draconic armies – or worse.
So knowing all this – know that you don’t have to play those big adventure books from beginning to end. You don’t need to keep a group of five people together for years, meeting regularly, to have a stable D&D game. You can have a stable D&D game by embracing instability. Don’t think of your game as a novel – think of it as a season of Star Trek. You build an ensemble cast of characters (players) that do not need to be there every week. You can run games for whomever can show up that week, and they all might tie together in the background – if you want!
This shift in perspective on what the game is helped me restart my DMing career and got me regularly playing D&D – a game I loved – with less prep and less burnout. Everything became more fun for me as DM, and I never had to cancel a session again because someone didn’t show up. I now run a game where I recruit about 10-15 players and have seats for up to 6 on any given game night. Let’s talk about how that works.
First, understand the Open Table philosophy, as espoused by Justin Alexander. He goes in depth on multiple ways to run an Open Table, with tons of advice along the way to make it a success. This will help you with the structure of your game night.
Next, you’ll have to decide what kind of Open Table you want to run – maybe you’re interested in this Megadungeon thing – you don’t have to build one if you don’t want to! Lots of great Megadungeons are out there now, like the acclaimed Barrowmaze or maybe the deadly old school Rappan Athuk. Or maybe you want to do something a little different and run a City Campaign – which is like a Megadungeon but everything takes place in a city instead. If that piques your interest, you might want to look at Ptolus. All these products will provide hours and hours (years!) of gaming sessions. Most of your prep will be just reading ahead, and keeping ahead of the players, familiarizing yourself with how the books are organized so you can quickly pivot if needed.
If a Megadungeon doesn’t excite you, if you’re the kind of DM that wants to run a wild and unexplored land – a Hexcrawl or a West Marches style game (or a modified West Marches) might be for you. If you have plenty of prep time, stocking the hexcrawl will be a ton of fun for you. If you have some enthusiastic players and a flexible schedule – the West Marches style of game where the players contact you with a game date and an exploration plan (so you can prep) might work really well. Myself, I took the concept of a “safe home base” from the West Marches style, and the “stock hexes” concept from a Hexcrawl and went from there, building my own map and throwing lots of stand-alone adventures into each hex. The game has grown organically from there, with storylines and meta-plots emerging from play.
But honestly, I don’t even recommend that – it took a lot of prep work up front for me that I didn’t need to do, and my setting is – in all honestly – inferior to published Campaign Settings. And that’s my last tip – grab an established setting and you’ll have all the lore and backstory for an epic land of adventure. You could go with Forgotten Realms, which literally has decades of published lore and adventures. You could go with Golarion, the Pathfinder setting, which has just about any type of locale you could possibly want, and tons of published adventures and adventure paths. You could immerse into Midgard from Kobold Press, which is one of the highest quality 3rd party settings I’ve ever seen, and has tons of support in the way of adventures, lairs, lore and more. These are all fantastic choices for starting a game that won’t ever end.
So to sum up, what are the weapons you need to slay the scheduling dragon?
- Open Table play, where no single player is required for any given session
- A campaign concept of episodic play, where metaplot is layered on top
- Products to support your chosen style of play to keep prep manageable
- City Setting
- Campaign Settings
And that’s it! Playing the game in a little different way can have you doing all the things you dreamed about – playing past Level 10, saving the world, avoiding burnout, and never having to cancel a session again. Give it a try! Let us know what you think and if you have any questions about our game – we are happy to answer.