May 30, 2022 5 min read 12 Comments
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 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.
September 14, 2022
I’ve always been intrigued by the West Marches and would love to run it. For your players that are used to more narrative arc style play with super hero characters (aka 5e), which did they prefer? I feel like those that have become disenchanted with 5e and the bloated combat, PCs essentially having no fear of death with plot armor and 3 death saves, and exploration really being a lost pillar are DM grognards like myself, not players. I ordered Shadowdark and I’m really excited to run it when it arrives. Appreciate all the hard work you’ve done at the Arcane Library. Keep it up!
July 18, 2022
This is a great style of play. I played in a West Marches campaign at my local FLGS and now I am helping the same FLGS DM a West Marches campaign. I struggled with my 7 year 5e campaign with scheduling and on more than occasion just trying to schedule 7-8 players made me want to stop DMing. My new campaign I just started using Castles and Crusades I plan to use a more West Marches style game. I ran my first session and I got 3 players from my group together to get started. It was great. This style will alleviate a lot of frustration for me and I am looking forward to it.
On another note, I learned about your content from the video you did with Pickled Dragon. The art for Shadowdark is freaking awesome! I can’t wait for the physical book to release.
June 03, 2022
@Antonio – This is a great question! I worried about this too, but when you put a group of players together who are after loot and you have a dungeon with a good spread of combats, NPCs, and environmental challenges, the natural gameplay of D&D really starts to shine. In fact, I’m going to write up a few live play reports from my more recent sessions to illustrate how that’s all been developing out.
One of the keys, though, is having healthy encounter variety. A lot of the fun has been between sorting out secrets and shenanigans about how things in the dungeon work (a cursed dagger that killed a PC was the subject of practically a full session of experimentation just on its own) and interacting with NPC factions. If you don’t have a lot of both of those in a dungeon, things could certainly get stale and too combat-focused.
@John – Thank you so much! I had a total blast on that episode. Ben and Jorphdan are both lovely and fascinating to talk to!
@Travis – Good call, I’ll scope that out! Cool that the writer made a speed run of CoS, I love that. :D
June 02, 2022
I have always been intrigued by this style of play but have never tried it. I think what i feer is that the rooms and enemies might feel generic or disjointed and just like a random hack n slash sesion of kicking the door and getting loot. How do you make sure your encounters have character and draw the players in? Does drama just happen between players or do you have do weave some drama and tension into the dungeon itself. I feel like low prep means not overcomplicating yourself with lore, maybe using some random tables to populate and just letting the players find whats there, but does drama need some sort of bigger prep work?
June 02, 2022
I seem to recall the shift from episodic adventures (Village of Hommlet, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, Barrier Peaks, etc.) to story-based adventures with the Dragon-Lance modules. It was one of the first (first) modules where you were expected to play the entire series with the same PC. It was a huge step from just sprinkling these adventures in your world or the World of Greyhawk.
Also wanted to give a huge shout-out to Kelsey rocking the Questing Beast YouTube episode!
May 31, 2022
Hey I know you’ve got games you’ve written to run but since you mentioned Curse of Strahd I wanted to make sure you’ve heard of One Night Strahd. It’s an amazing speed playthrough of some of the CoS highlights. It has some unique and clever game mechanics you may also find interesting. (A little more convoluted than your one page encounters but once you get the format they are easy to navigate). It’s got notes for convention play so if you’re looking for that Strahd fix at your open table…
May 31, 2022
@Matt – I totally get this! I think an open table is actually a prime place to begin pulling players from if you do want to do a more story-driven campaign (because those still exist and still have lots of positive things going for them, too).
Shadowdark RPG could work very well with Rappan Athuk! It’s designed to be a dungeon-crawling system, so that’s the perfect environment for it. I know Rappan Athuk comes in a variety of systems, so the Swords & Wizardry-compatible version might be a bit easier to smudge into Shadowdark stats — but they could both be just fine.
To that point, I think an excellent megadungeon for this kind of play would also be Stonehell! One of the easiest-to-run mega dungeons out there. It really has a lot of fantastic elements to it.
May 31, 2022
I’m currently planning an open table game on Roll20. It can be very hard to find a group there and from what I understand online groups suffer from all the same problems you describe with your in-person groups.
I’m going to start off with a megadungeon that seems very open-table friendly but I’d eventually like to run games with at least a little bit more story and lore. Maybe I can find a solid group with the open table, or maybe I can find a way to run a deeper campaign in an open-table format.
Bottom line though, if your campaign folds due to scheduling conflicts, you don’t have a campaign at all. An open table seems like a good way to address the problem.
Is Shadowdark OSR compatible enough to run something like Rappan Athuk with it? I need to give it a good read.
May 31, 2022
@John I totally hear ya! It can be risky to just let anyone jump into a game. So far I’ve had really positive outcomes running dozens of open games at cons (Gary Con being the primary location, which is full of good people), and many at my FLGS.
I think coming in with the mentality that you’re not going to suffer rude or uncooperative players helps make things pretty clear when you have to bring down the ban-hammer. I’ve only had to stop the game and ask someone if they were cool continuing or if they needed to take their leave one time, and that was enough to get them to reign it in.
May 31, 2022
In response to John, I took a chance on starting my own Discord server for friends I knew in person, as well as people I enjoyed playing with in online games. I kept the invites pretty open, and over the last few months, people have either left on their own, or found themselves enjoying the company. From this group I’ve been able to spawn multiple in-person and online sessions and campaigns. While the core group remains the same, we have seen a steady trickle of new members and the cycle continues. At the very least I have a decently ample pool of friends to draw from for whatever type of game I’m planning.
May 31, 2022
Thanks for this.
I did a convention once decades ago. It was “meh” due to the people that came. Jaded. Geeking, kinda know it alls. Judgemental. Ungrateful not just for my time but for the great bounty of fun around them. How do you become comfortable bringing in new humans into what is for me a cherished time? Time not easy to come by.
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September 18, 2022
@Matt – Most of my groups right now are playing Shadowdark, so that has helped since the game is a bit more intentionally structured around episodic/exploration-driven play. But all of those groups still like story to varying degrees, and so we still have lots of story threads and overarching “plots” happening in the game. The difference is that now, the players have a totally hands-off choice in which of those threads to pull, rather than sitting down with the mentality of “we’re playing Curse of Strahd tonight.” It’s been a lot of fun to see them gravitate naturally toward making their own stories based off all the adventuring options out there. I might even do a live session recap or two to share some of the ways that has all been developing!