Here's a summary of lessons learned by members of Seattle Gamers Assemble! (SGA) after several years of running weekly game events. You can see a partial overview of some of the games we've played on the SGA Gaming Night Archive. This is directed at other groups who want to set up a similar weekly event where people get to play one-off or short series, trying different games every week.
In this section, we assume that you already have some sort of a community to start from: a local mailing list, a gaming circle, a game club, a Meetup group, etc. If not, you may want to read Forming a Gaming Community first.
WHERE AND WHEN
Some important considerations about the logistics of the games.
First off, you should know that you have to make your weekly event a convenient no-brainer to find. If people have to spend time figuring out:
- the location and time,
- how to get there,
- what's the closest bus route,
- is there any food nearby,
- can you bring food and drinks inside,
- is there a cover charge,
- whether there is parking in the area,
— etc., you will lose some of them — perhaps too many to keep your event alive.
If you have a game at a set time on a set day, it's easier for people to remember and plan for it. Ideally, a game every week really becomes part of everyone's mental landscape. You may not be able to hold a game so often; if you have to plan a lower frequency (every other week, twice a month, monthly, quarterly, etc.), be ready for more coordination work, more reminders, and more promotion. It's all trade-offs!
We at SGA try to have a game every week; we've found this to be most effective. That means that some dedicated people are always ready with a back-up game if there is a cancellation (more on this later).
Even better, try to have games scheduled and announced at least a week in advance. It's much easier to get people to attend your game if they have some time to think about it and plan around the game. It's most difficult to get attendees when you're left asking at the last minute: "Does anyone have a game for tonight?"
Again, consistence is preferable. When we first started our Monday night short-shots, we used to meet at a local store; but after it closed we wandered between various gaming stores, wherever we could find free space. One thought was that this would help various gaming stores by spreading the business. Eventually, we came to the conclusion that there were more disadvantages than benefits:
- We couldn't be sure to get space every week.
- We spent a lot of effort coordinating both with our members ("Where is the game this week?") and with the store owners.
- If there were last minute changes, it made it hard to find people to warn them.
- The spaces available were not always optimal (too small, too hot, too cold, too noisy, competing with other groups for space, etc.)
- Bus routes were not always convenient.
So we decided we needed to hold the game at the same location every time. We considered the options available at the time and decided we should abandon the idea of a free space; we opted for room rental at a LAN gaming store that had a meeeting room in the back and was located next to a gaming store in a central location. When they closed, we found a home at a local gaming club, Metro Seattle Gamers (MSG), that was at the time primarily focusing on board games and wargames but had a club house. (More on MSG under Forming a Gaming Community.)
If you're reading this, you're probably online and Web-savvy (unless one of your friends took the time to print this for you.) So the tool you definitely should use to make your life easier is an online calendar to post your game schedule and send reminders. Whatever your platform for group discussion is (mailing list, forum, blog, etc.), chances are it offers a calendar feature. If you haven't looked into it yet, here are some of your (free) avenues:
Make sure the calendar you pick offers the following features:
- Set recurring events: So you can program your weekly, monthly, etc. game.
- Edit even recurring events on a one-time basis: So you can add details for a specific game.
- Send automatic reminders to the group: So you can nudge potential players a few days before the game.
- Some access protection: So only your group can change, add or delete events to the calendar.
If one person in your group can take charge of updating calendar items, you may find the system works better. While we functioned for a long time with different arrangements, right now we have one person who makes sure that all anounced games are on the calendar, auto-reminders for time and place are up-to-date, and any changes are added. That way, we no longer get reminders for events that have been cancelled or rescheduled, etc. Getting obsolete reminders just confuses everybody and makes your event appear less reliable.
Having a weekly event is a grand idea, but what games are you going to play?
Indie, Oldie, Oddball
When we first started these events, the focus was on indie games. While this was a fine idea and we have had many great indie games through the years, there were times when we just didn't have enough people to run and play only indie games, or when the general mood was simply for something else.
Nowadays, we're open to anything anyone wants to run. In practice, the games that have really got people fired up are the "Indies, Oldies, and Oddballs": small-press games, out-of-print games, home brews, forgotten favourites, new releases, weird mixes, etc.
Moreover, having a variety of game styles attracted people that might not have been there if the events had been dedicated to a single style. We got a lot of cross-pollination this way. It's more welcoming, and it makes new GMs less self-conscious or hesitant to offer to run their oddball game.
The "right" range will vary with groups, of course, but one of the keys is to get people interested. The game you've always wanted to try, the one you just bought, the two that make such an odd combination — these can fire up your group's imagination.
A Game in your Back Pocket
Make sure you have some games to play every week (or every event if you use a different frequency.) If people aren't sure that there will be something this week, if they think it's shaky, iffy, and they could be wasting their time by showing up, they'll be less likely to make the effort.
What this means is that you'll often need a Plan B when life gets in the way and this week's GM can't make it. Have a few games ready, games that can be played on short notice. Several times our evenings have been rescued by pulling out a no-prep game such as Universalis, Once Upon A Time, etc., or by playing board games.
Or you can have an episodic game where the GM keeps an episode ready for the next lull; in our group, GMs have popped games of Call of Cthluhu, Low Life, Castle Falkenstein, etc. when we had a cancellation. Board games are also a convenient backup solution.
That way, people who take the chance of showing up know thay won't be left hanging, and they should have a fun evening. It makes them more confident and encourages those who are still "on the fence" to show up.
If your group is interested in trying new things and you have someone to collect feedback in an organized fashion, you may have a lot of fun organizing playtesting events.
There are lots of small press game designers looking for playtesters, all the time. Of course, not all of them will be a good fit for your particular group so you have to cherrypick. Good places to hear about designers looking for playtesters:
- The Forge's playtesting section, of course
- RPG.net, particularly in "The Art of Game Design"
- Story Games forum
- The RPG Site's Game Design and Theory section
- Various designers' blogs.
Once you have a group established, you can approach game designers and offer to playtest their new games. It really helps to have a track record; game designers have enough to do with their own projects and are not interested in helping you create your new gaming club.
Will your playtest comments matter? Although some game designers and publishers (particularly among the larger, older, more hide-bound publishers) may only want to be able to say they playtested their game, many of today's designers are in fact eager to get real playtest. They may not address all of your comments exactly as you had hoped, but your input will indeed help them improve their product.
Getting people to come to the games.
This is absolutely crucial: be welcoming to new folks. You'd think we didn't need to even mention this, but we all get wrapped up in our games and we forget that other people may not know what's going on, may not be familiar with the game system, the setting, the club's organization, the people involved, etc. If you want you weekly event to be successful, remember that your mission is to make gaming more fun — for yourself and for everyone else.
That means encouraging new players to show up when they pipe up on your mailing list, encouraging new GMs to take turns in the rotation, and yes, giving them priority. If you have a "regular" and a newcomer who both want to run a game next week — go with the newcomer. It's essential to have as much variety and openness as you can foster.
Yes, occasionally that means that there may be people who come in who you will not like. It's just like any social activity; you'll have to deal with "people issues". Disruptive people need not be tolerated beyond normal social boundaries, but it is important to give a feeling of openness and friendliness.
However your group keeps in touch, you almost certainly use a mailing list, blog, forum, or Web-based group. This is one of your best tools to get attention for upcoming games.
GMs, this is for you: promote your game for at least a week beforehand. This doesn't mean cutting other people's threads; but start getting people interested so they'll include your game in their schedule. Use teasers to generate excitement.
- First, send a short, one-paragraph pitch of your game. Think of what your game's description would be in a movie guide. For good examples of the pitch, see It Came From The Desert (2003), Something Wicked This Way Comes (2004), Spellslinger (2005), Capes! (2006), and Space Race 1907 (2007).
- Then consider running one or more trailers: a short scene from the game as you envision it, often in screenplay style. For examples of trailers, see Rain of Bullets (2004), The Cold Heart of Distant Stars (2005), Mystery Men (2006), and Roanoke: Grindhouse Edition (2007).
- Teasers can also be all sorts of bits of information sent to pique players' curiosity: newscasts, character bios, posters, etc.. Some GMs will go all out and send a teaser a day for a week. For an example, see the ones from Crisis on the Island of Forgotten Toys! (2006), as reprinted on the RPG.net Actual Play thread.
Yes, pre-generated characters (pre-gens) can be a promotion tool as well as making life easier at the game.
At SGA, our gaming nights usually run from 6:30 PM to 10 PM (18h30 to 22h00) and are on a drop-in basis (though we do try to RSVP as much as feasible); often, most players are new or unfamiliar to the systems. That means we need to either use pre-gens or systems with very quick character creation. Although this can be a turn-off for some gamers who like to customize their character, this can be turned to an advantage with a little work on the GM's part.
- Custom-created characters: Some GM create PCs "to taste" to suit individual players' requests. This offers an opportunity to have a bit of Q&A with potential players before the actual game, customize your adventure, and get people to feel they have a stake in their character and in the game.
- Sampler: Alternately, you can create an array of characters that would work together and you feel will illustrate the coolness factor of your game. Post those pre-gens ahead of time, and promote your game by explaining why the characters (and your game) are cool.
- Countdown: You can announce the roster in advance and count down the remaining spots as each character gets claimed by a player before the game. It's not quite an auction but it helps remind people that the spaces at the gaming table are going fast, it keeps feeding info about your game during the build-up time, in short: it's promo. You can combine this with the other approaches, of course.
We already discussed the usefulness of an online calendar; let's look at some of the other online tools you have available to help support your game(s) and generate interest. Many of these tools are for post-game promotion; in other words, showing everyone who wasn't there what they missed and why they should show up next time!
- Actual Play threads on forums like RPG.net, The Forge, The RPG Site, and Story Games. These are great to get the various participants to give their feedback without dilution in the regular chatter of our gaming club; it also allows you to get feedback from other interested people, even the game's designer. It's a good spot to keep your game's info so you can refer to it several months later when you suddenly want to run a new episode!
- Photo Reports can be posted on blogs, or hosted sites (e.g., PhotoBucket, ImageShack) and make a terrific promo. Here is an example from our January 2007 game, Against the Lord of Blood!
- Videos, either game footage or slide shows of the game, can be posted on YouTube or Google Video.
- Game Blogs. Blogs are somewhat less egalitarian than an Actual Play thread (because there's a main author and subordinated comments for each entry), but they can fulfill much the same function. Examples of places where one can set up a free blog include LiveJournal, Blogger, WordPress, Yahoo! 360, MySpace, etc.
- Wikis, such as this RPG.net wiki or PBwiki. Wikis are somewhat less about having a conversation between participants, and more about sharing or preserving information, regardless of author. Very good for collaborating on writing, for keeping character sheets, recaps, house rules, etc., and for making the information available to the gaming community.
- Google Documents and Spreadsheets. These tools are very useful to share information and allow editing among several people but not the whole world. They're collaboration tools, not broadcast tools.
This takes us back to the club-level promotion, rather than the individual game level. If you have someone in your club who has graphic skills, consider putting together a poster to advertise your weekly event.
- What: Put an attractive, eye-catching image but do not clutter the poster with an overabundance of visual elements. Include a clear title and your game club's name. In smaller print, you can have a short description of your club events, just enough detail to get people interested. And, of course, include the club's contact information (URL is best.) Do not include information that is subject to change without warning, such as the location for the games. That's what your Website or forum is for. And for Heaven's sake, proofread the poster before finalizing! Typos in promotional materials are at best a turn-off and at worst a cause of problems (e.g., wrong contact info.)
- How: We like to do ours on 11" x 17" "tabloid" format (A3 would be closest among international or ISO 216 formats), with tearaway tabs giving our name and URL. Tearaway tabs are printed on two rows length-wise on 8.5"x11" letter paper (use A4 for international format). Remember to bring thumb tacks and tape when you go a-postering. See a tutorial prepared by Demongg for our club's posters by clicking on the image.
- Where: At the very least, hit all the gaming stores, comic book stores, LAN gaming spots, book stores specializing in science-fiction and fantasy, etc. We also try to hit coffee shops, Internet cafes, etc. that are located nearby. Ask the owner or manager politely whether they wouldn't mind you hanging the poster; be prepared to explain why it would be a good idea for them to have your poster around (e.g., building a more vital gaming community, promoting more different games, etc.) Other good places to post include college and university campuses, and high schools if you can get permission.
Eventually, if things are going well, you get to the point where you regularly have more people who want to join the the weekly game than there are spots available. We're about at that point right now. You face the decision of having to games the same night, which means they're mutually exclusive and even competing; or scheduling a second game in a different slot, with all the challenges it entails.
There is also the risk of expansion and contraction -- attendance typically decreases during certain periods, such as during the Holidays, summer vacations, and when there are a lot of other activities competing with your regular event. It may be easier to stick to one game a week rather than over extend your club's capabilities.
And if you take the plunge, if you decide to schedule a second regular event, your task is about 60% to 90% of the work you had setting up the first regular event: you have some momentum, but you have to deal with the same issues of scheduling, location, attendance, planning, follow-up, advertisement, etc.
Good luck, and have fun with the whole project!
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