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Managing Player Attendance with an On-Call List

by Mike on 21 August 2017

The hardest part about running a Dungeons & Dragons game is finding players and keeping them coming back to your table week after week. We love to pontificate the importance of preparation, building stories, focusing on characters, and all of the rest; but just getting people to show up to a game is tough.

There's a sweet spot for the optimal number of players for a great Dungeons & Dragons game fun. Your results may vary but I've found that four to six players is just about perfect. Any more than six players and it becomes hard to pay attention to any single player long enough to let their character shine in the world. Any less and the creative synergy of the group just isn't as strong.

Some DMs find it difficult to get enough players and others find themselves with too many. We've talked in other articles about how we might find new players when we might not have enough and we offer a few more suggestions at the end of this article. The bulk of this article, however, talks about a technique that I've used to keep a regular weekly game of six regular players and two on-call players going on for ten years.

The Six Regular Players

To keep a game strong, we can focus on a core group of six regular players who come to the game as often as possible and two alternate players who can fill in when an opening comes up.

These core six should be people who commit to attending as often as they can. We know that people get busy and real life things get in the way. That's fine. Our assumption, though, is that, with these six regular players, at least four of them will show up at any given session.

We also can ask these players to commit to letting us know if they can't make a session as soon as they know. To help with this we can send an email or text message to all of the members confirming their attendance to each game, even if we know the game is regular. This helps remind them that they have a game this week and gives them the chance to step out if they need to.

And if they need to step out, this is where the on-call players come in.

The Two On-Call Players

There are lots of players who love to play D&D but cannot commit to a regular weekly game. They might be interested, however, in sitting in from time to time when a seat is free. At any given point, its worth having two of these "on call" players on our list so if any of the regulars can't make it, we can send a note to the first on-call player and see if they can. If they cannot, we can go to the second on-call player.

When contacting our on-call players we can either rotate between them so each of them gets a chance to play or find some other way to choose who we contact first.

Contacting only one of them at a time is important though. If we send an invite to both, we risk that both might be able and eager to attend but then we have too many again. Waiving one off can hurt feelings. Taking the extra time to email or contact one at a time and waiting for a confirmation or denial is worth it.

On-call players can come from one of two places. Either they are players who cannot commit to a regular game but like to play from time to time or they are players who want to join in as a regular member but understand that you already have six regular members. The latter are particularly useful because, if any of your regular players has to step out for a long period of time, they can jump in as a new regular member.

Being an on-call player has advantages to the player as well. It's not a second-class role. It gives them flexibility. Unlike the regular player, they aren't generally committed to coming so they're free to decline when an invitation rolls out. Some players prefer this freedom.

Keeping the Cycle Going

Lives change continually so our group of six players will change regularly as well. People will drop out. New people will come in. Some people who dropped out will come back. Each time someone drops out, we can go to our on-call list and see if one of the on-call people wants to join as a regular member or not. Hopefully at least one of the on-call players wants to jump in as a full time player. Otherwise its back to the hunt for a new player but at least the on-call players can fill in from time to time when able.

Sometimes a full-time player needs to step out but can still stick around as an on-call player. This happens often as our lives change. Sometimes whatever happened in their life changes again and they switch back to a regular. That's all part of the cycle.

Finding New Players

As people move on and on-call players become regulars, we want to continually keep up our group of six plus two. Maybe we even want more on-call players if we can get them. As long as people don't mind not getting called all the time we can keep as long an on-call list as we can. We can even run alternate games once in a while with just the on-call people to keep them at the table.

We also, though, need to keep finding new players. This is a big problem outside of the scope of this article but we'll offer a few quick suggestions and one big suggestion. First, the big one:

Run One-Shot Games

One-shot games are a fantastic way to feel out players and let them feel out you and the rest of the group. Not every player works well with every DM and vice versa. Its best to have a single game at a different time and maybe at a different place just to try things out and see how it works. However we meet new players we can use one-shot games to ensure a good fit on both sides.

This way we're not inviting someone sight unseen into a long campaign only to find out its a poor fit. At that point we have to have the conversation to ask them leave if its not working out and that's no fun for anyone. One-shot games avoid that problem. If you're not sure after a one-shot game, maybe run another one-shot game. Generally, if you're not sure after a couple of games, you're probably best looking for another player elsewhere.

So one-shots are a great way for DMs and players to see if they work well together. But how do we actually find those players? There's no perfect answer but here are a few suggestions that came up in numerous discussions on the net:

If you're a DM having a hard time running a game, try Roll 20 and play online. They're always looking for DMs from what I understand. Roll 20 has kept many groups gaming together well after the players have moved apart.

A Continual Process

Finding players, keeping them coming to your table, and keepig the cycle going as players leave is the hardest part of this hobby. It is a process that will require continual work. It's worth it, though. There are fewer better moments in life than getting together with friends to share in a few laughs and have some creative fun.

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This work includes material taken from by Michael E. Shea available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.

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