The subtitle of this post was almost "how to run the most low-stress and schedule-resilient campaign ever."
Open-table gaming: A game where anyone can just show up to play. Whether it's two or eight players (or whatever limit you set), the show will go on. The game doesn't need any particular PC to be there for a story reason; the focus is on site-based adventuring and looting for gold and glory (and XP, of course).
The concept of open-table gaming has been going through a new revival, lately.
It started back in 2007 when the blogger Ben Robbins posted a fantastic series about how to run a West Marches style D&D game, a form of open-table gaming.
"West Marches" became a phrase that many DMs whispered with starry eyes, dreaming about how they'd run one, some day.
The thing is, I don't know many people who actually did run a West Marches game. I think the idea seemed very grand and unusual when Ben Robbins first wrote about it, and the gaming world viewed it as a beautiful-but-rare novelty.
More recently, Ben Milton over on the Questing Beast YouTube channel did a super insightful video about how open-table gaming was actually the typical way most people played D&D during its early days.
Questing Beast put forth the idea that open-table games were not only common, but preferred. The game's own creators actually ran their sessions this way!
It was a big perspective shift to consider that the very creators of D&D, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, didn't run their games using the story-based campaign structure that is so common in this day and age.
In their games, a "story" and campaign developed over time through the actions of several dozen characters running amok in a shared game world.
But that wasn't even the point; playing was the point.
Players came and went, yet the world persisted. The stories grew organically. Players shared discoveries with each other, sought the same treasures, and delved ever deeper into the same megadungeons.
And now, a flashback to when I was a scrawny and awkward middle-schooler.
Every Saturday, my friends and I would descend upon the local gaming store with our dice, character sheets, and few bucks to pitch in for pizza.
It was always a slightly different crowd (one of us invariably had a schedule conflict), but that didn't stop us. Sometimes there were ten of us, sometimes four. All of our characters were different levels. Most of us were fighter-types.
Our illustrious Dungeon Master, James Mishler, (who I learned, many years later, was playing in Gary Gygax's weekly game during this time), would whisk us off into the deadly underworld beneath the City State of the Invincible Overlord.
There, we'd set off every trap while racing to get to the conspicuously placed treasure first. We'd climb over each others' bodies for the glory of dealing the killing blow to a horrid subterranean denizen. And, once in a while, we'd somehow operate as a functional team and get across a 30-foot deep, spiked pit trap (two of us died before we got it together: our gnome illusionist, and his much-better-liked rat familiar).
At the end of every session, we'd retreat back up to the hovel we had pooled our coins to buy in the City State of the Invincible Overlord, nurse our wounds, and prepare for another delve next week.
When something happened that another player missed because of a soccer tournament or farm duties (this was southern Wisconsin), we'd meet up at school and breathlessly recount the story of the orcs who ambushed us, the new tunnels we found in the dungeon, and the magic sword we heard was just a few passages deeper!
Cut back to today.
I had been in "campaign-mode" for as long as I could remember. This was the way you were supposed to run D&D, right?
I was gathering a group of friends to start playing through Curse of Strahd, a giant campaign arc thick with story beats. I was very careful about whom to invite, because we were all going to be spending a lot of time together (I'm not sure some of the newer players really understood what a huge commitment this was going to be).
Each person made a character of a non-competing class, taking extra care to have "group balance." Then, they all wove their backstories together into a compelling tale of why they were adventuring together.
We spent the next year rescheduling half our sessions because a story-critical PC had a conflict on Thursday night.
It occurred to me in hindsight that something about the way I played D&D had changed. I couldn't quite remember what, or why.
But I soon learned I wasn't alone in this odd feeling. Many other gamers had transitioned from open tables to story-centric campaigns over time and through the editions, and most modern material was written to support the story-style of play.
The West Marches article and Questing Beast video made big ripple effects in the gaming community because they reminded us (or introduced us) to the open-table way of playing that allowed for an immense amount of freedom and destroyed scheduling and commitment issues.
The beauty of this method is how freeing it is to the Dungeon Master. No longer a schedule-juggler or storyline-weaver, the DM fades into the background and becomes part of the game world as it naturally develops around the characters.
I'm finally getting a taste of this style of play again. Recently, I started running an open-table Shadowdark RPG game at my local game store.
The prep work I do is so simple; we're running a medium-sized dungeon, and it's a low-prep adventure (admittedly, I wrote it, so I'm really familiar with it. But it's designed to be easy to run — check it out in Cursed Scroll Zine 1).
Once the characters loot it for all it's worth, they'll move on to a new adventuring site that has a few sessions of staying power.
The first week the group met, four people showed up. The second week, six. The third week (which was a national holiday), two showed up.
And we happily played all three times! The characters went down into the dungeon, got into proper shenanigans, and had stories to take home to discuss in the game store's Discord.
The interconnectivity between a growing group of players adds an incredible energy to the game. Getting to run a game for different friends who then jump onto Discord to chatter about what happened this week is so much fun and gets everyone excited for the next session. It makes the game world feel bigger, more real, more engrossing.
Last week, we had one character death (RIP, Creeg the wizard!), who is now the subject of the oft-quoted, "Hey, Creeg! ...Oh." joke between the players.
The following week, when one of the new characters pried the cursed dagger that had killed Creeg from his cold, dead hands, and claimed its power for his own, I grinned an evil Dungeon Master grin and thought: It feels good to be back.