Woe Unto the DM: Scheduling, Tardiness and Other Annoyances

This week we tackle a couple of tricky issues with online roleplaying:

Dear Ask the DM,

I usually gather my players from the Internet (I’d try getting people in my town, but I don’t think anyone would sign on to play).  Trying to schedule and play the games themselves is tricky. We were able to schedule a general time, but ran into problems with people constantly showing up only once or twice or late, as well as it taking 7+ hours to do basic things. I found that in the 35 hours we played we had just two encounters with minor villains. The “tank” of the group decided to be a thief and never go into combat, and the rest of the players mostly tried roaming around the area without confronting the baddie.

I would have tried to force the issue but at week five, I never had a consistent group of people who wanted in regularly. As for scheduling, I initially thought I’d have players schedule 30 minute blocks of time with me DMing so they can interact with the world.  However, I worry that this could impact the sense of fellowship you gain between players.

I know sometimes it is a question of plot vs people’s fun, but there should be a happy middle somewhere I think. Do you have any advice for how to run games a little shorter and for how to make the scheduling work?

Take Care!
Fortune’s Fool

All of your concerns are fairly common ones, not only online, but in-person as well.  The online format is, however, a difficult one, and compounds a lot of issues for a number of reasons.  Let’s look at the two main problems you’re facing:

1. Scheduling Conflicts and Player Dedication
2. Anticipated Gameplay

Scheduling
Scheduling is always a mess, whether it’s roleplaying or just trying to grab a beer with some friends.  People are annoying whiney babies when it comes to their time.  They like to spend their time the way they see fit, and don’t like anyone telling them how to do it.  It all boils down to control.  Every person in the world has control issues, and scheduling with your friends is a really easy way to exert control.  Also, people have lives and other responsibilities.  But mostly they just like to whine. 

As a DM we need to know when to be dickheads, and when to be a real person.  Scheduling is one of those things that I’m always pretty firm on.  Before a campaign gets started I look at everyone’s schedule, find a day that works for us all, and then decide as a group whether we want to play once a week, or every other week.  Then I tell everyone that they sure as shit better be there unless they’re in the hospital or in the grave.

If anyone is ever unsure about the committment I tell them the game probably isn’t for them.  I don’t go into a campaign saying, “Oh, well we can see how it goes, if you can’t show up every now and then, I can probably make it work.”  I don’t give them the option. Once they commit, I’ll back down a bit, but I never tell them that.

If you lay down the law from the beginning and set your expectations, most people will be a lot more likely to remain consistent.  And when players become inconsistent, don’t be afraid to kill off their PC.  I’ve kicked out my fair share of players.

One of the things that makes scheduling online even more difficult is the lack of face-to-face.  You bring up an important point about fellowship in roleplaying.   Even online people assume roleplaying is going to be a team activity.  If they don’t have the team, they have little motivation to play.  If they have a team, but not consistently, they stop caring about their teammates, and become more likely to flake out as well.

Anticipated Gameplay
I have talked a lot about the balance between DM power and flexibility.  I think the most succinct way to illustrate the relationship between DM and Player is this:

If the DM is a God, than the Players are Goddesses.

The DM likes to think he’s the shit and in control of everything, and the Players are happy to go along with it most of the time, but in reality, the Players wield most of the control.  When the Players are unhappy, everyone is unhappy.  When the DM is unhappy, he just turns into a dick and makes everyone angry.

As DMs we love writing stories and creating worlds, because we possess the souls of artists.  But just like real artists, we are also a bunch of sensitive turds that think our creations shouldn’t be fucked with.  This is NOT how to be a good DM.  As DMs we need to set aside our creative attachments and allow them to evolve and take on new existences.  (As a side note, being a good DM is also great practice for getting over your creative attachments).

What it all comes down to is this: If your tank wants to go steal things instead of kill things, let him.  If your players decide they want to be a travelling band instead of mercenaries for hire, let them.  Roleplaying is about co-creating a world.  DMs need to learn flexibility, or they need to find a new group of players.  Trying to steer players the way you want them to go is the best way to lose them.  If you are dead-set on a particular story, warn your players in advance that you want to make sure they follow it closely.

These issues highlight another point you’ve brought up: the scarcity of Roleplayers.  Sometimes we just don’t have options.  Maybe we can’t find the ideal players for our campaign, or we can’t find enough players.  But that doesn’t mean we have to scrap our campaign.  It just means we need to alter things to suit the current situation.  If you wrote a campaign for 4 players and can only come up with 2 truly dedicated players, then do a rewrite instead of getting frustrated when people don’t show up.  If your players seem really interested in thieving and exploring, slant your campaign more in that direction.

Many of these problems would be lessened if you had face-to-face, in-person gaming sessions.  I know you’ve expressed your worries about finding players in your town, but in most cases, I think you would be surprised.  You may very well live in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere with no Roleplayers, but chances are that’s not true.  You can almost always find players within driving distance.  And even better than this (in my opinion), is introducing new players to the game.  I love playing with RPG virgins, and they’re easier to recruit than you think.  All it takes is a friendly attitude and couple of beers.

Wishing you luck,
The Dungeon Master

Please submit more questions! 

If you wish to submit a question to the Dungeon Master, please e-mail them to dungeonmastermind@gmail.com, or you can Tweet me a question @AskthedDM. And make sure to review the disclaimer.

You can also see me in action in One Die Short.

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