Tales from the Gazebo – Progressive Games: Planning, Part 1

Progressive Games: Planning, Part 1
By Cape Rust

Prior planning prevents piss poor performance in a progressive game! I keep mentioning game planning because it really is that important and in many ways the progressive game requires even more planning. The good and bad news about Prog planning is that it is definitely a change of pace for everyone involved. If you go into the Prog planning process with your normal mindset, there is a good chance you’ll do just fine, but if you are willing to adjust fire just a bit, your chances of running a truly memorable game increase greatly. Three keys to this planning process are extensive collaboration, character/player focus and flexibility.

I keep harping on collaboration and the Prog game is no different. In fact I think for this type of game it becomes more of a vital component for success. Laying out the foundation rules for a game like this with the entire group is important. We all know about house rules and it should be no surprise to anyone that every GM runs things just a bit differently. Because of the unique nature of the Prog game and the fact that many different people will be running the game, the fundamentals become even more important. If some of the baseline concepts and rules are not discussed and agreed upon then the whole progressive concept can easily fall apart by the second or third GM. If you are not willing to discuss the fundamentals then you’d be better off just scrapping the Prog game concept and letting each GM run their own game.

I will highlight a few of the unique planning challenges that arise during collaboration. As with all things, this list is not all-encompassing, but that is why they are called highlights.

First and foremost is the establishment of a common set of house rules. (Does the tie go to the runner? Do you have to meet or exceed a target’s armor class? Do rolls off of the table count?) These rules might seem like no brainers, but even within gaming groups they can vary from GM to GM. Because several GMs are going to be running this game it becomes much more important that these seemingly tiny details be worked out and agreed upon by all of the people who will be running portions of the game. As the game progresses and the setting changes the players and the characters end up being to only constant factors.

If there isn’t a strong foundation below these house rules that is “built” by everyone involved then the transition between GMs becomes more stressful and players and GMs might deal with this stress by making destructive or harmful decisions at the table. Sometimes as gamers we are a bit like small children, we get into a routine of how a game is played and what rules are focused on or ignored at our group’s table. Changes in those gaming group norms can cause us to throw temper tantrums that can quickly ruin an otherwise fun and interesting game. The agreement on these fundamental rules creates a thread of consistency that will benefit everyone involved in the game as things progress.

Collaboration shouldn’t just occur in regards to rules; character creation is another area where it has to happen. Remember these are characters that everyone in the group will be playing under several different GMs. I have seen a trend in Prog games that do not use character collaboration; when everyone has no input into how characters are created, the next GM in line tends to pull some kind of stunt that forces the players to make new characters because the new GM wasn’t happy with the way it was done the first time. Remember that part of the concept of a Prog game is to try to keep the storyline going, even if you take it in a completely different direction when you get your chance to GM.

Another aspect of collaboration that becomes really important at this point is discussing how long each person will run the game and who will run the next game. I think it is best to set a time frame for each person running each game, this way the current GM will have an idea of how many game sessions they will need to plan for. As a general rule I have found three or four months to be a good amount of time if you are gaming weekly, or between 12 and 20 sessions if you are not on a regular gaming schedule. All of this is dependent on your group dynamics but no matter how long you give GMs, figure it out from the beginning. Write the dates down or keep a tally of the sessions, this allows the current GM to pace their game. Like a good novel each GM will have rising and falling action in their portion of the game and knowing where they are on the timeline will let them regulate this. No GM that is worth the screen in front of them wants to end their portion of the game quietly. They should want to end on a bang or at least a cliffhanger, not just another trip to the market.

I mentioned that from the start a group should figure out how the next GM will be determined. There are hundreds of ways this can be determined. I have seen the order established upfront, rolled for, or even a lottery. If the GM order is established early each GM will have an idea of when and at what possible level the characters might be by the time their turn comes up. This helps with the planning process but can cause problems because there is no way of knowing exactly how far along the players will actually be. This method is a good way to stack the deck and play to some GM’s abilities to run games at different levels.

Let’s say you have a group of GMs who cover the entire spectrum of skill levels. If you are going to start the Prog game at a low level then when you establish the GM order upfront you would want the most inexperienced GM running the lower level games. This method allows GMs who are dying to run a high level game to get that chance, and to know that it is coming! If you roll for the order than it is truly random and while this increases the planning stress it can be loads of fun. This method is interesting as it restricts the amount of planning the follow up GM can do because they don’t know when they’ll get the chance to run their game and the dynamics of the game – players and characters could have changed so much that any prior planning they have done could have been an exercise in futility.  Then there is the lottery method where everyone throws their name into a hat and the next GM is drawn from the hat (Hunger Games Yeaaaaa!). This retains the random feel of the dice roll and brings several of the same advantages and disadvantages.

It should be evident that planning for a progressive game is fun but different from a normal game. The progressive game can be really difficult for GMs who like complete control of the entire gaming process. The planning adjustments that the Prog game causes are well worth the effort; the Prog game is a great way to mix things up without having to expend hard earned dollars on a new system or having to re-learn a whole new rules set. Next week I will try to cover character/player focus and flexibility. But knowing me that might take two weeks.

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