Thursday, May 22, 2008

"I can't find any players!"

I'd say that I hate whiners but for the fact that I like whining.

Still, it's amazing how many people across the internet complain that they only would be role-playing if they had some people to role-play with.

What are they doing about it?

Jack shit, apparently.

If you are a referee and you want to start running a game, it is easy. If you're a player, it's more difficult. I can't help straggling players find a group. I just know how to get other people to gather around my creative vision.

The easy steps to starting a game group:

1. Decide what game you will play, and when you will be playing.
Don't be wishy-washy. You will get nowhere if you are thinking about getting an RPG group together and then deciding what to play and when. It won't work. If you're going to run a game, you need to make these decisions up front, before searching for players. The referee is the most important member of the group. If a player doesn't show up, the game can go on. If the referee doesn't show up, the players are SOL.

The game to be played should be decided by the referee. He's the guy that has to come up with all the ideas and create adventures after all. The referee knows what he likes, what he feels comfortable running, and what he can sustain creatively for a period of time.

When deciding when to play, remember that running a game is a serious time commitment. If you're doing this as a lark or know that you'll be blowing off gaming at every opportunity to do something else, just don't bother. Don't waste other people's time that way. Regularity is the best way to keep people coming back time after time. If players know that a game is happening every Sunday, they know not to make other plans on Sunday. If the game doesn't happen every Sunday (if, for example, you're traveling to Helsinki every other weekend...) people are going to stop thinking of Sunday as "game day" and then good luck keeping a regular group together on an erratic schedule. Choose a time and be prepared to game at that time, every time. Emergencies will happen, but if they happen all the time then I suspect they aren't really emergencies at all.

Decide how many players you want before starting to look for them.

2. Contact gamers that you know, and ask your non-gamer friends if they'd like to play.
This should be easy enough. A lot of gamers know other gamers already. A lot of gamers even have friends. Present the game + time you've decided to them.

Some of them might say "Well, I'd love to play, but I'm free on this day, not that one." Well, if several people say the same thing, and that other day is good for you, consider changing it.

Some of them might say, "Well, I'd play if you ran this other game instead." Tell them you're sorry, and that they're welcome to the table if they change their mind. Don't bend on that one. At all. If you want to run OD&D, then don't be talked out of it by people who probably don't even really know what it's like. If you want to run FATAL, well, you're weird, but you're not going to get to do that if you listen to players whine about the games they'd like to play. Of course when you stay firm in your decision to run the game you want to, these same people will still be the ones complaining on the internet that they don't understand why they can't find a game.

OK. About the "asking your friends." Ask them. ALL of them. Even people you don't know all that well. Co-workers. Classmates. One of the lamest things I see on the internet is that they only game with friends, and none of their current friends game, so that's that. GET NEW FRIENDS. It's a funny definition of friend that keeps you from doing things you enjoy because they don't enjoy it too. But when asking the acquaintances, don't act ashamed of gaming by doing things like cornering "certain" people away from everyone else, or things like that. Don't feel the need to ask a lot of leading questions ("So, how bout them Lord of the Rings movies, eh?") or things like that. Gamers get all self-conscious about their gaming when in the presence of non-gamers. Why? People don't act like they're doing something silly when they ask people to join them for Friday night poker, do they? Or to come over and watch the game? No, they don't! So just ask. Chances are, you're not going to get very many bites from this. But you shouldn't get any funny reactions if you don't act like it's something unusual to ask. And if someone is rude, such as asking if you're too old to be playing games like that, then that should tell you what you need to know about them. You're not doing anything wrong. That person is just a fuckin' asshole.

And if someone says "I might be able to show up now and again," don't count on him at all.

So maybe you've got some people that want to play. Maybe you don't. Maybe you just moved to a new area and don't know anyone, much less gamers. Not a problem. In fact, it may be preferable. It's always good to meet new people that have something in common with you.

3. Make a flyer.
It's time to start advertising for players. Flyers need to have a few vital pieces of information on them: The game to be played, when and where, contact information, and most importantly, a flashy picture. Here's the flyer I used to find an AD&D 1E group here in Vaasa in 2006:

Now, at the time I didn't realize the importance of listing the time to be played on the flyer. This resulted in a lot of wasted time dealing with people that wanted to play but were only available at times I had classes, and an infuriating amount of time coordinating with the load of people that end up did playing before we figured out a good meeting time.

I put this together in photoshop, but it doesn't require high-tech know-how. Just cut and paste something together. Use some image from the internet that fits the atmosphere you want your game to have. The image must stand out! Make little tear-away tabs with your contact information; that's what all that little writing is at the bottom of this flyer. (don't forget to cut the tabs before placing the flyer, too!) Now run down to your local copy shop and get 20 copies run off or whatever.

4. Getting the flyer out there
Now you've got the flyer. Where to put them?


Do you have a local game store? Put a flyer there, of course. Comic book shops might be a good place for the fantasy-inclined. General hobby shops, especially those that carry Warhammer stuff, even if they have no other gaming material, are excellent for finding people. In my experience book stores often have bulletin boards, and that's always a good bet. Libraries! Here in Vaasa all of the grocery stores have bulletin boards so I just canvassed the town and made sure as many stores as possible had my flyer up. If there's a bulletin board in your area, get a flyer up on it.

Note that while some places may be better for snagging gamer-types (bookstores and comics stores), you're not looking specifically for gamers. You're looking for people who might be interested in playing in your game. That's going to be rough if you're trying to play a very complicated game (half the people I recruited for a HERO game using a flyer never came back after the first session... why go through all that trouble to create a character if you're not going to actually play the game? :D), but what are you going to do?

Unless you live in a tiny village with nobody in it, you're going to get responses. I currently live in a crappy-ass small town of about 55,000 people, and I didn't speak the native languages AT ALL (as opposed to speaking them VERY LITTLE now) when I first flyered, and I got plenty of responses.

This works.

5. Screening potential players.
Once people start contacting you, you'll want to start arranging 1 on 1 meetings. Go out for a drink, or something. Kind of like a date. In fact, the goal is the same as a date, but perhaps with less at stake. You're attempting to see if this person is compatible with your ideas for a fun time. Gathering a group of complete strangers together and expecting everything to go smoothly is rather optimistic. Be sure to do this somewhere other than your home. Neutral territory is always good for meeting new people, especially when the entire point is to figure out if you want to be around them at all.

No, this isn't perfect, and no, you won't screen out all the complete freaks. In fact, your house may be full of weird people if everything works out. Role-players tend to be a creative, idiosyncratic bunch of people. Putting aside your personal prejudices would be recommended. You're not looking for people that you want to be "friends" with - that's nice if it happens, but what you're looking for here are people that you can game with, and this screening is just a way to make a basic effort to find out if these people are fuckin' idiots. What you're basically looking for is a person that can be respectful around strangers. Who cares what religion they are, as long as they aren't going to go all Biblical (or blasphemous) at the game table. If someone doesn't bathe (yeah, you know, that stereotype), best to find out before gathering your players. Come up with a few conversational queues that will bring up a few sensitive things. If someone is homophobic or racist or sexist, you want to find that out before exposing a group of strangers (who may include women, gays, or ethnic minorities) to them - that's the best way to kill a group before it gets started.

Also talk about your gaming goals - a completely reasonable, pleasant, respectful person could still be a complete disaster and drain on your game if he's showing up with one thing in mind and you're presenting quite a different thing in your game. Do talk about what games you've played, what problems you've had at the game table in the past and how you've resolved them. See what experiences like that this other person has had. Find out how committed they're willing to be about the game and what potential responsibilities they would have that could pop up from time to time on game day.

This step is a fair bit of work and a pain in the ass, but you'll be seeing a lot of this person, and if you're shy about meeting and talking to them, I wonder what kind of game master you're going to be. It's a job that really doesn't work with shy people with no people skills. Hell, I'm about as anti-social and odd as they come, and I can get this done. It's not an issue.

(yeah, I know I'm playing to gamer stereotypes with that rather condescending attitude, but these people are out there. Doesn't mean you have to be one of them, or include them. That's why you're screening in the first place.)

Do not have a strict idea of who you want to be answering your ads. You might get the unemployed, the underage, and the disabled. You might get people that have never role-played before and have no real idea what it is. Be patient with them all, and don't immediately dismiss people without actually talking to them.

A note about some things. I'm in my 30s, and my group here has always included teenagers. I remember when I was a teenager and me and a friend found this group of way-older guys that let us play with them. We did some D&D, but that's also where we got introduced to Justifiers and Bureau 13. Holy cow they scared the shit out of us with Bureau 13. :D And now it's my turn to groom the next generation of gamers. (scary, isn't it?) I'm not saying that babysitting little kids is your job, but a lot of these kids are the bookwormy types that are quite capable of contributing in a game environment. Their outbursts are going to seem childish (let me tell you about the one player who actually said "LOL" when he thought something was funny, instead of, you know, actually laughing), but it's my experience that adults do the same thing in the same way, but using more dated expressions. It's the same damn thing. Not saying you must include any damn person that wants to sign up (and certainly if you're the type to enjoy a beer or fifteen at the gaming table, kids shouldn't be there... no sense in getting in trouble with the law over a game) but don't dismiss out of hand.

I guarantee that with enough responses, you're going to get a completely unsuitable freak or two, but you'll also have a good pool of promising players to work with. And because you were up-front about game-day on your flyer, it's even a pool that can show up to game with you.

If the number of appropriate people are equal to or less than the maximum size you've decided for your group, then great! You can go to the next step! If you have attracted more interested people than you want to have in your group, you're going to have to make decisions of who to not invite to the game. Do contact the people that you do not select, very important, don't just ignore them or not let them know. If it's someone you'd be interested in gaming with if not for group capacity issues, do let them know and do be ready to contact them if there's a chair becomes free at your table. Reasonable people will understand, unreasonable people you don't want around anyway, and if you connect up to a larger gamer community around you, you can get a bit of a good reputation if you have a "waiting list" of people wanting to get into your game.

6. Start Playing
This is all a fair amount of work, but then so is conducting a role-playing campaign. If you want to play and there's no obvious pool of players, you are going to have to make an effort. Everything in this world requires effort, but few things pay off in the end like making that effort for something you do for no reason other than enjoying it. The important thing to do is never cancel the game if you can help it. There will be weeks when people don't show up, or too few people to continue the regular game. Have a a small variety of card and board games (gamer related rather than mass-market stuff if you can find it) just to help establish that "This day is game day" to establish attendance habits from the people that can be there every week. Those people are the core of your group and you do not give them a reason to think they better always have other plans ready in case the game is canceled again.

Make the game area as pleasant as possible. Be a good host. Clean the place up. Bake fresh bread or rolls for the group - it's a simple and inexpensive thing to do but if you're group is filled with younger people or single guys, home-cooked anything will impress them to no end. When I had 9 people showing up every week, I'd make the bread while we gamed. Perhaps a tad disruptive to the game, but fun and bond-forming all the same, especially when asking some of the players to make GM rolls because my hands were covered in flour or dough.

Yeah, I'm assuming the game location will be at your house because that's how it's always worked - the game is played at the home of the person organizing and running the game. Even if you're playing elsewhere, the referee is still the group leader and he should act as a host wherever the game is played.

Now go game!


  1. Their outbursts are going to seem childish (let me tell you about the one player who actually said "LOL" when he thought something was funny, instead of, you know, actually laughing)

    Good Christ, my friend is a professor at a university and told me a few of his students did the same thing, but I didn't believe him. Now it's had independent confirmation!

    Did he say it as an acronym, as in L.O.L., or did he say it like a word ("lol")? I feel like a new day in anthropology is dawning - we are observing the first generation of kids who grew up with the internet reaching adulthood.

    Great blog, by the way. You write such bloody long entries, but they're always worth the read - and it's not often you'll hear that said about a blog.

  2. Thanks. I always thought the stuff worth reading the most on the internet was the stuff, well, worth reading so I try to provide that. I hate it when people say stuff like "sorry this is so long," like having stuff to say is some terrible thing.

    Of course it will get out of control, the blog queued up for Saturday, I think, is fairly rambling. :p

    As for the player... he said it as a word, "lol."

  3. Lots of good and agreeable advice here. Keeping other games handy for those times that it is impractical to run the main game is particularly important. I like to use Munchkin, Settlers of Catan and Zombies for this purpose. My current gaming schedule is pretty erratic, so I don't have a weekly game day. maybe it is time to reintroduce the concept.

    I would say that fornightly and monthly games are also fine for the very busy, as are prescribed breaks away from the game, which give you time to rejuvinate and whets the appetite of your group (as long as you don't leave it too long). I can't say I have ever made much differentiation between 'gamers' and 'friends', though.

    Love your flier, by the way, very evocative of AD&D.

  4. Another thing to consider before accepting players of an impressionable age into your game is to think about the game content. I'd wager a guess that most parents wouldn't want their kids being involved in a game that involves the tropes of certain sub-genres; for instance, they might have a problem with sword & sorcery standards like common slavery, uncaring gods, temple prostitutes, illicit drugs that give bonuses to their users or even gory descriptions of bloody combats. Shoot, some parents wouldn't want their kids gaming at all! Then again, short of getting a ridiculous signed release from the kid's parents, what are you supposed to do?

    I used to game with adults when I was in my early teens, too, but I think given the paranoia surrounding children today I would rather avoid any potential drama and not have minors in my games, even if I am going with a bland medieval fantasy setting rather than a good ol' S&S romp. It's a shame, really, because I'd like to see more kids introduced to a more Gygaxian sort of game rather than what all the kids are playing nowadays.

  5. I had one adventure that was an urban "split the group up 8 different ways in 8 different missions" (9 players around that time) game...

    ... I had 8 missions, with no idea who was going to take which mission, as they got to decide who went on which mission.

    Now there was a 15 year old and 16 year old in the group...

    The one woman player in the group, her character ends up with the "hook up with the thieves guildmaster and delay him from executing a dashing heist"... and I'd already decided that this guildmaster was a complete perv and blah blah... I didn't think it was a problem, the girl seemed really shy, so I'd just do something outrageous and then cut scene... well, it turns out this girl wasn't shy at all, just not so great with English, and I'm the one that had to turn shy as things heated up for fear that I'd be role-playing a threesome in detail in front of 8 other people if I didn't back off. (actually, that wouldn't have happened... I never told any of the players this, and this guy became a recurring villain as he was avenging his humiliation after this adventure, but when writing the adventure I noted he was impotent, just so there was no way in hell that actual sex would happen in detail in front of everyone. :P)

    The 15 year old ends up with the mission where the Duke or whoever wants someone to slip a potion into his son's drink... his son, the Captain of the Guard and heir to the stewardship of the city, is gay you see... and the Duke is concerned that there will never be an heir, so he had his alchemists come up with a Potion of Sexuality Reversal. The thing is, the son knew what his dad was up to, and I had the son take a liking to this elven mage (with a decent charisma) that was hanging around him. This kid's face was SOOOOOOOO red throughout the adventure, heeheehee! Anyway, it ends up with the Captain of the guard and the character in a "fancy tavern," the captain excuses himself, and the PC slips the potion into the captain's drink. The Captain returns, and oops drops the leg of lamb on his lap... "Could you fetch me a napkin, bright eyes?" So the PC does... everyone on the table saw what was coming but him... so when he returns with the napkin, the Captain suggests a toast, they both drink... everyone at the table starts laughing. Obviously, the Captain had switched the drinks. What's funny is this was a more adventurous/questing campaign than a explore-and-loot game so they were often on missions, and really didn't do romantic side-plots. So in the game, it didn't matter one single bit either way and wouldn't come up in the game again, but boy was this guy upset that his character was now gay.

    So yeah, I don't do anything different because there are teenagers present. (but I don't think the 15 year old would have been in my game in the first place if one of the other players didn't already know him and vouch for him) Funny thing is, in my last game there was a 19 year old that had to keep the gaming secret from his family. That's silly.

  6. Jim,

    Thank you for this post. A great inspiration. I've been wondering how to find new players in a new town and this was what I needed-- a systematic approach.

    In particular, I know a fair number of people, but I never thought of them as gamers. It's funny, though. These same people aren't card players, but they still come over for Poker Nights.

    Now I'm going to use your techniques with my network to find people who want to try a new way of being social.

    I'll let you know how it goes.

    BTW, my wife is from Nykarleby. We return to Finland twice a year. If I were local, I'd look you up for a regular game. Feel free to get in touch if you come to Barcelona.


  7. Thank you a whole bunch for this post. I actually find myself in this particular situation (no players, stopped gaming with friends... I'm a textbook example!) and this post was a fresh source of ideas to get my roleplaying back on track.

    Will make sure I spread the word, terribly entertaining place you have here.


    PS: Next on my purchase list... Fantasy Fucking Vietnam!

  8. Oh man, awesome stuff. So much applies to me. I wish I had read that years ago...

    From the early 80's until the late 90's I had steady groups for AD&D, Cthulhu, and Champions. They were almost always people I knew, and three quarters of them were usually people who had not gamed before. I avoided cons, and only went to game shops to pick up some figs or paints - not to talk to the cretins hanging out therin (I had very negative experiences hanging out at a West Los Angeles game shop as a kid). I ran out of people to run for by the year 2000, and thought "that is it...I guess my DM'ing days are over..."

    So early this year I decided I wanted to try again. I have had the same gameworld I created as a kid, and it has over 120 years of character continuity in it. To me it was like a living part of me that needed life in it. But where to start? I still had one old school gamer of mine (a girl too, always a plus to have a girl at games), but where to find people? I avoided cons and the back rooms of hobby shops like the plague.

    I got lucky on Lots of freaks there, but I managed to find a group of mature, smart, funny people. I really don't know what I did to deserve the luck. We have had some great little games so far. And they wanted to play at least twice a month. My old groups...well, I was lucky to get a game in once a month.

    I considered cons and "gameday" events...but just too many damn kids, and I like to run a "soft R" game. Thank God I didn't have to delve into those scenes for players.

    You are right. Lots of time and energy goes into putting these games together, and I need to remember that even though I feel kinda blessed to have found such excellent players. And I only had to meet one of them ahead of time.

    Wise words my friend,and I'll be sure to check out your other blogs. By the way...were did that great picture of a gritty female adventurer for your flyer come from? It for sure gives off a classic feel. I'd love to have a copy of it if I ever do need to do a flyer.

  9. >>By the way...were did that great picture of a gritty female adventurer for your flyer come from? It for sure gives off a classic feel. I'd love to have a copy of it if I ever do need to do a flyer.

    I commissioned it from Dan Berger five years ago for a project that I gave up on. It'll be appearing in Insect Shrine (I created a location around that picture!).

    He has it on his site here.

  10. You da man, Jim!

    The one time I did do a flyer around 1995, I could have used a decent pic! I don't think I had a graphic at all. I had shitty luck and got no players through it. I put up flyers at UCLA here in LA, and at a local community college. I heard from 3 people! One was a flighty hippy chick who had all these meeting all my other players at a public place before she decided if she would play. I said "Nope." A dude who played during the basic D&D era called me, and we talked about old school gaming for an hour. Then he said he didn't want to play game anymore, just wanted to come watch, and maybe bring his 14 yr. old daughter. I said "Nope." Finally, a south central LA Homegirl called asking if "role-playing" meant free acting classes. She wanted to make it out of da'hood and into Hollywood. I should have exploited that somehow, but instead said, you guessed it, "NOPE."

    I think I might have done better with your flyer. I mean, thousands of people must have seen those flyers I put up, and all I heard from were those three buzzkills. Luckily, I got some decent players through friends not long after that.

  11. Good stuff! I've never had much luck with flyers in game stores, but I've not tried for more than a decade, perhaps it'd be better now?

    A couple of years back I wrote getting a game group and keeping it. If we mix the two articles together we get the ideal, perhaps.

  12. I have a young player who writes "user name" rather than "player name" on his character sheet.

    BTW I reckon a lot of players would walk on being told "Your PC is now gay" (or being made to roll for sexual orientation). I think I might, depending on the GM and whether I liked and trusted him/her. Same goes with being forced into a perverted sexual situation.

  13. As Brunomac says, is great - I GM at a club I found there. Club gaming means I don't get to pre-screen the players, but I still kick out the occasional obnoxious one alright, and most of them are great.

  14. Having just whine-blogged about not knowing how to get a group together (or just feeling doomed-from-the-start), I am humbled.

    Love your blog man.

  15. Another excellent post, very helpful!

    One thing I really like to do for those sessions where we are too short-handed to play the regular adventure (or while we're waiting for people who we know are going to be late) is Arena Of Death. Slap down some kind of terrain, and have the players pit their characters against each other. You let off steam, you get some practice with all-out combat, players get a better handle on the party's strengths & weaknesses. Also great chance to help people understand any fiddly rules bits about doing actions in various terrains or other complicating factors. Perfect place to find out "Oh that spell does THAT?!?!" rather than in a critical point of the real game. You can do teams or whatever, doesn't matter, it's not "real" just a fun exercise. Obviously don't include any villains, but definitely do get those henchmen & allies in there if you like. Fun & team-building.