Dungeons and Dragons is a game where you confront ancient evils, slay dragons, and hunt for legendary treasures. But if your group is like most groups, the most difficult challenge you face is maintaining a consistent game. Yes, scheduling is often the big bad evil guy of the campaign.
There are a few techniques you can use to help you schedule your game and keep your momentum moving forward. By setting expectations about how often your group will play, you form scheduling habits. You can try out different group sizes to find a formula that works best for you and your table. Make sure you have a solid scheduling system that is easy for your group to use and requires minimal effort. Lastly, as the dungeon master, you need to have enough material ready to run games at the agreed upon cadence. Otherwise, you’ll be the one stopping the group’s momentum dead in its tracks.
Newton’s First Law of Motion inspired the quote “a body in motion, stays in motion”. That sentiment is directly applicable to running a D&D group. The key to maintaining a D&D group is all about momentum. You use your game sessions to keep your group’s narrative moving forward. That forward momentum builds excitement for future sessions. This excitement makes its easier to schedule the next game. This creates a cyclical effect of momentum building on past momentum.
The best way to get started is by setting expectations early on. I recommend talking about the frequency of the game during session zero. Set the expectations that the players will commit to the proposed schedule. Of course, you as the dungeon master need to commit to the schedule as well (see below for further context). These conversations can be difficult between friends and family. But, I guarantee if you start off with a laissez faire attitude about when game sessions take place, your players will follow suite. Their commitment to the game will be low.
Create a Gaming Habit
Create the culture of consistent gaming by making it a habit. When you run regularly scheduled games your players know what to expect. Then, everyone forms a habit around showing up to game. If your group agrees: “Every Tuesday is game night”, then everyone knows to keep Tuesday free. Otherwise, they aren’t going to play. Your groups track record won’t be perfect. Life does happen. People get sick, work gets busy, or other events come up. But you need to stick to your schedule as much as possible. Otherwise, your group will fall by the wayside. It will become another casualty of incomplete campaigns that dot the history of tabletop RPGs.
If you have one or two players that are flakes, you have a couple of options. One of the easiest ways to counteract flakes is by managing your group size. You need to be unapologetically firm in protecting your gaming nights.
D&D Group Size
There are two common approaches for creating a consistent gaming group. They are direct opposites of one another: the small gaming group and the large gaming group.
Small Gaming Group
First, you can chose to have a small gaming group. For our purposes, we’ll say a small group is 1-4 players, plus a dungeon master. A small group of dedicated players is invaluable. You only have to focus on a few player characters. This means, you can tailor your game to focus on their characters. If you have a small group, your players will have more time in the spot light. The will have more interaction time during a session. Lastly, they have more influence over the group’s direction within the game. From an administrative standpoint, a smaller group means fewer schedules to work with.
Small Group Drawbacks
There are a few downsides of a smaller gaming group. The biggest downside is when the scheduling doesn’t line up, you are going to cancel sessions. In a small group it is critical they know the expectations of group is to actually play games on a regular basis. When selecting a small group, you may have to omit people from the group. People that you consider good candidates, but don’t fit with your group. For some, saying “no” to their friends or family is hard. As the dungeon master, you get to chose the players in your game. You should apply some careful consideration on who you let in and who you omit. If you have a lot of friends that want to play, you can try the large group style, or suggest someone else run a second game.
A small group will have fewer resources available to them, and fewer minds to solve problems within the game. As a dungeon master, you’ll need to take care when planning combats for small groups. The smaller the group the riskier combat is for them. For some groups, these issues can be real problems. In my experience, its more of a learning curve than anything else for the dungeon master. If you have a small experienced group, I don’t find those issues to be significant.
Large Gaming Group
Following the definition of a small gaming group, a large group is one with 5+ players and 1 or more dungeon masters. A large group lets you schedule games regardless of whether everyone can attend or not. You will need to devise a way to handle PCs when the player is absent from the table. For example, they drift into the background. Some people don’t like this, claiming it breaks their immersion. But to me, if the choice is between suspending belief or not playing at all with a large group, then it isn’t really a choice. You’ll still want to set that expectation ahead of time on how often the group will play and what happens with characters for absent players. But, to me this is the biggest benefit of a large group. If you chose to go really big, you can entertain a “West Marches” style game. This lets the players choose where they go and explore next. But offers a good reason for why some characters aren’t present for every adventure. They stay in town for that adventure.
A large group can explore character options. They will have a wider knowledge base and experience to draw on for roleplaying, problem solving, exploration, and combat. A larger group lets you as a DM, use more challenging monsters, or larger groups of monsters. A large group’s action economy will prevent most situations from going south for them.
Large Group Drawbacks
Large groups have their own drawbacks. First, people will get less time in the spot light. If you have a roleplay heavy group, that might disappoint them. They will spend more time listening than acting. Combats will also be slower with large groups. Players will get fewer turns, and they will be farther spaced out than for a small group. Additionally, attention spans can wander. So, you may find yourself explaining the current battle state many times to different players on their next turn. Lack of attention during combat is a whole a different problem that you can clear up. But, I’m still saying its more likely to happen with a large group.
Larger groups can also lead to more conflicts within a gaming group. There are more minds that need to agree on different courses of action within the game. This can lead to contention between PCs (or players at the table). These debates can be a good source of intrigue within your game. Assuming all parties handle them appropriately. But if people start to take it personally, its your job as dungeon master to reel everyone back in.
Earthmote’s Preferred Method
For my games, I prefer the small group method. I like having a small group of players I can focus on. They get to do cool stuff, and have more time to interact with one another and that makes me happy. I also know that my style of DM’ing works better with a smaller group of players. Being a dungeon master takes a lot of energy. For me, trying to wrangle a large group intrasession would be exhausting. At this point in my life, a lot of my friends and family have full time jobs, and commitments outside of work. So I prefer to keep the group small, this helps us find scheduled times to play together.
You have a lot of factors to consider, so make sure you give it some thought. My final piece of advice would be: the quality of your players matters a lot more than your quantity of your players.
When it comes to scheduling, you want to make it as simple and easy as possible. The less friction there is to get people to commit to a game time, the better off you’ll be. Do not make people think too hard about when the next game session is. They will be less likely to commit to any given time. In my experience, I have found two easy ways to schedule your games:
- Use a static scheduled time
- Use a scheduling tool
At your session zero, if you can get your group to commit to a static time, this will be the easiest. A static time is an agreed upon time when your game will always take place. For example, if you say 7:00 on a Tuesday night is D&D night, then everyone knows that is when the game happens.
A static schedule will not work for all groups. Some people have fluctuating commitments. Or their job requires working on rotating shifts (e.g. nurses or retail workers). If that’s the case for your group, then I recommend using a scheduling tool. There are many different tool out there to help you find a game time. You can ask your group to fill out their preferred times/days for the coming weeks and then select the best option. This is a the method that I use for my games. We use doodle and survey the coming two weeks to see if there is a time for us to play. I identify when everyone is available. Then, I send out an email notifying them of the day. We always use a static starting time so they know when the game will start.
Preparing Game Material
Once you’ve set your game expectations, managed your group size, and nailed down the scheduling there is one last thing that you need to do to maintain your D&D group. You need to prepare for the forthcoming sessions. That sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many dungeon masters struggle to have content ready for their game.
The problem with failing to make content is one of momentum. When you as the dungeon master don’t have any content, you have to cancel the game session. When you cancel the game session, you have killed your groups momentum. The enthusiasm drains when contact with your world becomes less frequent. Before long, your table may go stagnant. Yes, you can do a fully improvised game, but those are not sustainable for most dungeon masters in the long run. Ultimately, you need game material to work off of.
Manage Your Preparation Time
The act of preparing your game material is a different set of articles. But for now, there are a few techniques to make sure your lack of preparation is not the reason your game sessions fail to happen. First, give yourself enough time between game sessions to do your preparation work. If you don’t have enough time in a week to prepare for a weekly game, then don’t run a weekly game. Only you know what your calendar looks like. So you have to be responsible for knowing if you can commit to running a game within the set interval (e.g. weekly). People’s availability shifts over time. If you feel the need to adjust the frequency of your game, take that conversation with your players. Most people are more than happy to be accommodating if you are running an exciting table.
Second, make sure that your preparation fits with the rest of your life. Let’s say you want to run a weekly game, but don’t have much time to commit to adventure design or worldbuilding. Then you should probably run adventure modules. If you are a parent to young kids, your preparation will be different than a single person in their twenties. We’ll talk more about preparation styles in future articles. But, keep in mind a few guiding questions when thinking about your preparation work:
- How much time do I have to commit to preparation in a week?
- What do I want to accomplish with my preparation time?
- What is essential to run my next game session?
Running a great game of dungeons and dragons requires a group that shows up consistently. Frequent sessions help your group’s story build momentum and enthusiasm to keep playing. As a dungeon master, there are a few tricks in your bag that you have to systematically maintain a gaming group. Set expectations early that you want committed players. Make sure they are willing to follow an agreed upon schedule. Tailor your group size to minimize the risk of session cancellations. Use a scheduling system that is easy, and reduces the friction of getting your player’s commitment to the next session. And lastly, as a dungeon master, make sure you have enough material to run your next game. If you control these different aspects, you’ll have a frequent gaming group ready to tell awesome stories together.
Art Credit: Ede László
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