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In my current D&D 4e game we have extremely high player churn. Any given night we may have between 2 and 5 players (out of 10 to 12) leave and or join (leaving often takes the form of simply not showing up). This causes a fair amount of difficulty re-introducing all the regular players and characters, and catching new players up on the story, group ideals, and play style. Are there any good ways to manage this perpetual change?

I'm not looking to change the style (though thank you for your advice), I'm looking to for game table ideas to help smooth the transition of bringing new players on.

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6 Answers 6

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Ideas which do NOT change the campaign style:

Write up a half-page recap of the story so far. Hand out copies at the beginning of every game. Read it aloud. Only write down the stuff important to this adventure, the way that tv serials explain the vitals in the show's first 30 seconds. The hand-out can also list, in bullet-point fashion, norms of play and other important information. You can email this to players before the game, but no one will read it.

Recap only when it comes up. Alternatively, instead of recapping at the beginning of play, you can just play as if everyone is in the loop, and then have brief expository asides when a player runs into something that she should know, but doesn't.

Have a pre-game warm-up. Invite the new players over a bit early. You can catch them up without wasting the time of the people who are clued-in. Make sure they have characters, know the back-story, understand the play style, etc. A brand new player could attend a warm-up session that's totally outside the normal game structure--a one-shot to get to know them, test them out for compatibility, get them used to your funky house rules, and so on.


Because I hate to lose these wonderful ideas... Ideas that entail changing the style, which C. Ross has said he doesn't want in his edited question:

Run a Western Marches-style game. Let the players who show up determine what the night's entertainment is ("we should go explore the Barrows of Delight!").

Run delves. Like the popular D&D Encounters phenomenon, your games can be nothing more than some barely-connected combat encounters. I suspect you want the story to play a more important role, though.

Make your games more episodic in style. Make each night of play a self-contained little adventure that doesn't count on too much back-story. Sure, the back-story is there but not knowing it won't break the adventure.

Use group-owned, pre-generated characters. If the characters belong to the group, you can assign them at the beginning of play. This will help with story continuity. Bob can't make it, but the warlord is still there.

Run one-shots. If you're willing to give up epic play, run single-night games. They can all be set in your campaign world, all hinge around the same plot or themes, or they can be totally disconnected.

Run one-shots of different games. Really, there are a lot of great games out there designed around getting a full-on gaming experience out of four hours of play. A lot of them are weird little indie games, but they're hella fun. If your player group is churning, and it feels like slot after slot of convention play, why not treat it as such? Break out In a Wicked Age one night and carry: a game about war the next night.

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I would use an open city area where all the players have a reason to be, and generate short adventures that they could do together. Each player would be responsible for having their own arc, and have their own motives for achieving it. The Thieve's World series of books has short stories that use all the same characters in a persistent, responsive world. If one group of players has released the Dread Beast from confinement, the next adventure will deal with the next set of characters dealing with the Dread Beast rampaging through the market on Festival Day. As a referee, you need to provide an environment where the characters are going to be challenged and the players, when they are unpredictable, have to take a hand in their character's destiney.

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The glib answer is to structure your game such that in between sessions there's an indeterminate downtime, and every session is a single self-contained adventure. This is how Living Forgotten Realms (and its antecedents) handles this issue.

Perhaps the PCs are all members of the Super Adventure Club, and every week whoever happens to be available gets to go on a new adventure? Or, you know, some non-stupid version of that. Continuity of NPCs and locales and such is something that PCs can pick up and learn as they go.

Depending on how long your sessions are and the system you use, this might be unworkable. For D&D 4e, you'll want a minimum of four hours of playtime between extended rests (and "between extended rests" is pretty much the minimal unit of adventures, in D&D 4e). In other systems, the minimum amount of time needed might be much smaller. OTOH, some systems and settings really don't lend themselves to these kinds of short adventures/stories -- in a high-churn situation like this, I'd avoid Unknown Armies or Mage: the Awakening.

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A Western Marches style campaign may be just what you are looking for.

http://arsludi.lamemage.com/index.php/78/grand-experiments-west-marches/

It provides methods to establish a sandbox for your players to run around in. I've tried it for variable groups and it works great. Each night is a self contained adventure. Once you have a reasonable sized starting area sketched out with some random encounter tables you are ready to go.

I started mine with 4 distinct areas and 3 small dungeons. There was adventure whichever way the party decided to go. As time goes on, you'll fill in more and more of the map, always staying a step or two ahead of where the players have gone before. You can, of course refill explored areas as well.

One tip that it took me a while to acknowledge. Be ready to supply the players with some hooks in town if they want them. My group found that exploring the whole world led to analysis paralysis and then needed a few hints as to how to limit their search.

Good luck!

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My favorite ever beginning of a session for a long running campaign which had revolving characters is:

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away....

The opening crawl of Star Wars did many things right, that can be used effectively to start any campaign session.

  • Establish in a headline style what came before. Rebels have struck a hidden base, got a victory, stolen some plans. This is pretty succinct stuff that easily reminds you of what has happened and lays the ground work for what comes next.
  • It is atmospheric. It screams mood. You have a great idea of what this is all about.
  • It sets the stage for the adventure at hand. The Princess has the plans and we better get them to headquarters or the death star is going to fry us all.

Based on the campaign and the needs of the group this opening crawl can take lots of forms. A bardic song, the text crawl, a crier in the city square, flashbacks from each player of their favorite moment. But all can server the general purpose of setting what happened before and moving forward.

I also think the ritualistic nature of this exercise will help get people in a ready, set, game frame of mind and can reduce ramp-up time.

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I'm running a game in much the same situation, with 9 players total and usually 4-7 present for any given session.

In-character, I'm using a basically West Marches structure, except with a regular weekly time.

Out-of-character, we have a campaign website on Obsidian Portal where there are always discussions running in the campaign forum about what people are doing and/or planning. I also offer minor bribes to players who help with updating the campaign wiki or write character diaries. All of this provides plenty of material that absent players can read between sessions to find out what happened in the game while they were away.

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