This year was a first for me. I ran a game, in a gaming store, without knowing any of the players before I started. In fact, for the first few weeks I had only one player.
The opportunity to run this game came out of Troll Con East. This was a convention put on by Troll Lord Games at All Things Fun, a gaming store in Berlin, NJ. Steve and Tim from Troll Lord came down and ran Castles and Crusades. At the end of the con I volunteered to run a Castles and Crusades game at the store.
I have never run a pick up game at a store before. I have always had at least one known player before starting a game. I spent some time thinking about what I wanted from the game, and what would work in the conditions I had to work with.
I have always wanted to run a game in the City State of the Invincible Overlord. Not just a game that used the City State as a home base, or visited every once and a while, but a game that never left. A game in a game store where I might have players dropping in and out all the time works really well in an urban setting, it is very easy to introduce new characters and to explain why some characters are not the that week.
I wanted to run a sandbox game. My games have always trended towards the sandbox style anyway. I have never been a "master plotter" DM, I have always know what the NPCs would do if the players did nothing and then gone from there. A sandbox game also works well in a game store setting where you may not have consistent players. It does not depend on having central PCs who are tightly woven into the plot. There is the current state of the city and NPCs, and the players can alter that state by their actions, but even if I have a whole new group the next session we can plow ahead.
I wanted there to be a story with objectives. In order to make this work with the constraints of an in-store game, I had to find a way to keep it modular, yet connected. I decided to use what I call "The Bioware Method". Almost all Bioware games work the same way, there is a central hub and three or four quest lines that the player can choose from. The player can bounce back and forth between these quest lines and does not have to complete them in any specific order. Sometimes actions taken in one quest line can effect another. Once all the quest lines are completed, the story advances in a big way and another set of quests opens up. This is a tried and true formula for Bioware, they have been at it since computers had a turbo button.
I thought the Bioware Method would work well in a game store setting. It still left the characters completely free to operate in the sandbox. They could put aside the quests whenever they wanted to explore. It also allowed for players dropping in and out to work on different goals within the same overall story.
Armed with these main ideas I created my campaign. I did not have to do any real world building, since I was working with the CSIO. I created a group that promulgated fake prophecies, sat on them for a few centuries, and then "filled" them to manipulate people. The characters worked for this group, working to make several different parts of the same prophecy come true. They were also free to explore the City State at will as a sandbox.
There were a few challenges in getting the game going. For the first several weeks only one player showed up. He stuck in there, and I made an entourage of NPCs for him to adventure with. Several of these NPC proved to be popular with the players and they continued to adventure with them even once they had a full group. Another challenge was that D&D Encounters was running at the same time, the next table over. We managed to turn this into an opportunity though, and exploited it. Through boisterous role-playing, and crazy character voices we poached players from D&D for our own group. We did get some concerned looks from time to time though.
Several other factors, beyond my control, contributed to the game being a success:
Castles & Crusades. This is an ideal system for this kind of game. You can teach anyone to play it in minutes. Almost everyone who has ever played a RPG before essentially already knows how to play it. Any material from any edition of D&D can be adapted for use, pretty much on the fly. Yes, even 4th edition stuff.
All Things Fun. Without a doubt the most supportive game store I have ever been involved with. While they sold C&C products there, they probably did not make a whole bunch of money off us being there (unless you include Dr. Pepper), yet they still promoted our game with tweets and pictures of us playing. If you are in South Jersey, go to their store and spend money.
My Group. I have had the pleasure of playing with many great players over the years. Some were good at roleplaying, some were tactically clever, some really added to the world, but this group stood out. I don't know that I have ever had a group where there were so many players that were just plain good at the game before. I am not talking about their RP skills or their ability to tactically destroy my monsters, I am talking about their ability to play The Old Game. To take the weird things I threw at them and use them to achieve their goals, to play the different factions present in the sandbox against each other for their own gain. I am not talking about building a powerful character to defeat the mathematical challenges of the game, I am talking about raw skill at playing the game. They observed the random weird things I threw at them and figured out how to leverage them, they used things that I didn't even know the use for to achieve goals they had set for themselves, and they always gamed a way to keep low probability dice rolls to a minimum. The played The Old Game, Gary's Game, and they kicked it's ass.
My Stonehell group is also a great group, but in a completely different way. They each have their own skill sets, a great mapper that is always catching where the secret door has to be, a daredevil willing to risk every crazy statue and fountain, a tireless tactician, a master of long term strategy (a real hp per day guy), and most important, someone who knows recognizes the have reached the best solution they are likely to get and tells them to get moving. They combine for an awesome group, this C&C group was the first time I ever encountered a group where everyone had the same style, and was so good at it.
OK I am done raving about how lucky a DM I am to have my two groups. I thoroughly enjoyed running an in-store game, hopefully some of you will find the things I related here helpful in your own game.
Oh, one of my players was Drance, you can catch his blog at Once More Unto the Breach
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