Herding Cats: Scheduling

While using Facebook chat to natter at my friends, I asked, what should I blog about? They all yelled about a variety of gaming things, from Forgotten Realms to 4.0 to gaming with strangers and most of them all mentioned scheduling being a gruelling and time honoured GM-breaking tradition. What GM hasn't suffered the woes of no-shows, late players, and the dreaded two month schedule talk that never leads to a game and just results in an entire concept being thrown out the window in frustration?
Yeah. Sometimes it's like this.

I don't have a solution. Scheduling can make or break a game. There are several approaches you can take to getting the wily folks we call players to line up and get ready to roll some dice, but honestly, I still haven't figured out the best methodology. Here are the tips and tricks, I have learned though.

GMs make the best and worst players
So... ahem, not to toot our own horn, but I find most often the people who bail last minute or don't seem to understand the amount of work you put into making the game and therefore treat it with a level of frivolity that drives you nuts are people who haven't ever GM'd, or have limited experience running a game. They just don't get it. And they won't, really, until they've been through the same things, and begin to understand that hard edge in your eye when someone says "Oh, I forgot." So I try to have mostly fellow game masters at my tables, as I find they're the most reliable. Double edged sword, as GMs can struggle letting go of the wheel, so to speak, but always worth it in my experience.

Set a regular schedule and live by it
Seriously. Use a google calendar or facebook events and make people rsvp so it shows up on their damn smart phone. Sure, call the game if several people can't make it, and be willing to negotiate it, but if you have a regular game every two weeks, people tend to know it's in their schedule and won't book on days around it. And if they're the kind of players who don't want a regularly scheduled game, then just let them drop in when they can. If a date needs to be changed, because of scheduling conflicts, use a poll and have people select which dates out of a variety provided works for you. Then change the event date to match and ensure everyone gets a notification. Remember, we're dealing with cats here. Not people.

Utilize Online Groups
For almost all my games... actually, for all of my games, I use an online group of one kind or another. As most of you know, I am one of the organizers of TAG, and therefore, for public games (not a concern for most, I know), I use meetup.com. It has weekly reminders of what's happening, and automatically emails people for me, so all I really have to do is make the event myself. The other thing I use is Facebook. And I know, not everyone's on facebook... so to be honest, I tell them to join under whatever fake name they want just so they can see the event details. On my online groups on Facebook, I make a group, I add photos, scheduling details, NPC information, poems, the soundtrack to the game, everything I can to make the game more interactive. I ask regular polls about what people want to see in the future. Essentially: I treat my players like a fan base and make the group interesting to check regularly. All the online groups will have a "Create an Event" function that will show up on calendars and all I said above. Use it. Seriously.

Schedule your next game at your current game
So if you're one of those people who just schedule whenever (bad idea I say) then a really great way to make sure everyone's on the same page is to call a vote for dates at the end of the session you're playing. So you slay the dragon, get mind-fucked by Cthulhu, or get turned on by a vampire, whatever it is that ends that session, you then look around at your players and go "Okay. So when do we play next?" Everyone should take out their phone, or whatever they do, and then you spend the next 15 - 30 minutes hashing out when the next date is. Do not let people leave until you have secured a date. Stick to that date. If someone's absent, they lose a chance to vote and are informed of the next date. Do not bend like a green tree. Stand tall like an oak.

Drop In Vs Long Campaigns
One of the biggest issues I hear about is having a regular cast of characters and then someone doesn't show up and BAM! the story line is fucked. Solutions vary for this. I have several:

1) Drop In Games <3
I run a lot of drop in campaigns. I generally have a cast of 8 - 16 people, cap the game at 6/7 players, and let people rsvp in their own time. The first six who say yes get to show up, the rest rsvp for the other events up coming. Each character has a mini-storyline, but much like television, such as Firefly, Buffy, Agents of SHIELD, I go with an episodic feel to each game. It's one whole storyline, with hints at a meta plot, such as the Serenity movie, or any season of Buffy. This allows for people to come and go as they please, have a character, and still get involved in the storyline.

2) Multi-plot
This is another thing I do when I have an unreliable cast, and now-a-days, what I always do because it's more fun. I think. Anyways, this is where you provide a sub-plot for each character, and two or three plots going on in game. This means, Veronica has her personal story with secrets and intrigue, there's a bad guy or two in the session to deal with, and then you have this other big plot that is the main story and goal. If Veronica isn't at the game, it's not going to stop the other characters from pursuing personal goals or from pursuing other story lines.

3) Free flow Stories
The last thing I would recommend if you don't want all those plot lines flying around in the air and want to just focus on the world and that big over-arcing story line that you've put your heart into, is to not make the storyline player dependent. This means, no one character is responsible for the hook driving you all forward. Every character should have a reason to go on and continue the quest, with or without Veronica. This is part of Good Story Telling. This is a topic I'll get to another day. But each character, between the player and the GM, should have a reason for continuing. This, in my opinion, should be mostly player generated, because why make a character who doesn't want to adventure? I'll move on from that though. Key point is, have your story matter to everyone, not just a few people. Find out what makes the players and their characters tick, and get that involved. Be ready to improv every session, and have multiple ideas prepped, never just one.

The More The Merrier
Get a large group of gamers in your circle. Have more than one circle. I have... five? Maybe six? gaming circles that I play in. I live in a city with options and so my situation may be different than yours. But the internet is at your fingertips. Get a larger group of people so that you can game with more than just your core group and start gathering a reliable and interesting group to you slowly and surely. Plus, then you can have 7 people in a game and if one doesn't show up, it isn't the end of the world. I find having a plethora of options means scheduling is sometimes harder, because SO MANY GAMES, but also it means I'm not put out if one game falls through. I have other stuff going on, and hey, if a person doesn't show up, it's cool, because there are still five or six others. Shiny.

Make Missing a Game Matter
Sure, experience isn't fun to lose. But really, I have a pretty firm policy on how many games you can miss before I don't invite you back. And yeah, it's the classic 3 Strikes policy. If I invite you to three different events, and you bail three times, then we're done. I stop inviting them, and when they ask, I politely explain that it looked like they weren't ever able to attend and so I found a player who had time. There's nothing wrong with calling your friends on shenanigans. Not showing up all the time is rude, and saying "That's not cool." and explaining yourself honestly may or may not help, but it shouldn't hurt to try. Find an inventive way to reward people for being on time, and a neat way for penalizing those who are late.

Deciding that Lateness Doesn't Matter
This is a huge step for most GMs. You and your friends have been gaming for years. At some point, everyone treats time a little more casually cause you know each other better and you're all friends and lateness is a petty thing to get upset about, right? I mean, they're your friend. Not just some guy you game with. At some point, you need to just accept that for the first half hour of game, people will trail in, and people are gonna be chatty. Roll with it and you'll have more fun. Let them chat, get their jaw flaps out, and show up when they need to. They might need to eat, too, so let that happen. Hell, get something to eat yourself so you don't feel like you're always waiting. Either way, you're gonna have to let it go at some point, because, hey, at least they showed up!

Well. That's it, kids. These are things I've done over the years to ensure a successful gaming life full of hilarity and dice rolls. My best advice falls into the online groups and calendars land. People need reminders. They need physical representations of those thoughts.

At the end of the day, if people don't think the game is important, than it isn't to them and there's nothing that can be done about that. The best you can do is shrug it off, examine your own gaming style and see if there's something you're missing that would make the game better or more exciting to get people to make it a commitment. Some people are just gonna roll like a rolling stone and never wanna show up unless they feel like it. Some people are going to want to game religiously. Find your stride, take a stand on scheduling, and stand firm, young padawan. You too can corral the kittens.