RPGs as Sports: League vs Pickup Games

Many pages have been written about the woes of RPG attendance.  Some people attend without fail, and others are super flaky and don’t show up without notice.

Gaming groups occasionally try to make self-conscious “social contracts” but usually conflicts over this are just a passive-aggressive fun fest.  RPG groups seem to have difficult times setting boundaries.  “But they’re just here for fun…  Who are we to tell them they have to show up?”  However, this causes problems for GMs, who are often trying to plan intricate plots around the players, and for players that want to invest more in the game.

Well, sports have that problem too.  And they have developed concepts to help formalize it.  Consider classifying your games as one of the following:

Pickup Game: Where people just want to play some ball and make it happen with whoever’s willing.  Casual games, for fun.  Anyone is welcome, attendance is not mandatory week to week.  If only a couple folks are there, then we’ll find something else to do.  It would be polite to tell folks if you’re not coming, so they don’t wait on you, but if you can’t come it’s no big deal.  This also signals the GM – they need to run one shots, or plan campaigns that accommodate lots of in and out.  If you don’t show up too much, then don’t be surprised if you show up and there’s no game or they moved it without telling you.

League Play: You have committed to a team of the rec league/intramural variety.  You recognize that there’s a team that needs a certain number of people to make.  Maybe you’re a regular or maybe you miss from time to time, but this signals a certain level of expected commitment. Like with a bowling team – if you don’t show up at least half the time, they are probably going to say “Hey man, we need to fill that seat with someone who’ll be here more regularly.”  RSVPing is mandatory.  This works well for the middle of the road kind of campaign – sometimes intense, sometimes light, it’s best if everyone’s there but there’s enough slack that the GM can work through  you being out.

Semi-Pro/Pro: Your happy ass is going to be there unless you’re injured, and even then you should be there on the sidelines to support your team.  Absences should be rare and well excused.  This helps support very serious or complex games, and the GM can “count on” players being there when crafting encounters/plots.  There’s no need to RSVP because if you don’t show up and no one gets a call, they’re going to call the cops and hospitals on the assumption there’s something very badly wrong.

Consider that, by discussing and declaring if a campaign will be pickup, league, or pro, you set excellent expectations among the players and with the GM.

I ran a Pro campaign once.  I said, “I want to run a deep in character campaign with a complex plot.  You have to commit to regular attendance.  More than one absence in a month means you get written out, period.”  I had five busy professionals play in that campaign, and it ran for five years.  We only had one person turn over and that’s because they moved out of town.  I ran a pickup game another night for the gamers in our circle who couldn’t or didn’t want to do that.

My current gaming group is League play.  Sometimes people can’t show up and that’s OK, but if someone really can’t show up time and time again then they need to bow out.

Sometimes, you don’t have enough people willing to commit to a higher commitment for a team to “make”.  And it’s important to know that up front – running a game that is pretending to be League but is really Pickup just ends up disappointing everyone.  Players that do show up regularly get disappointed that it’s “board game night again” because only two people showed.  The GM looks at their politics-heavy plot that’s not working out and sigh regretfully.  The local city league soccer teams have some teams that pretend they can make, but then just crumble and make everyone unhappy because they don’t really have enough regulars (and if you think playing a man down in a RPG is a hassle, play a soccer game a man down, you’ll be feeling that in the morning).  If you can’t get a team to make, just play pickup.

Using this terminology can help you all be honest with each other about your desires and what the group is going to do, and helps set expectations – “Oh, I should treat this like I treat my company’s softball team!  I guess I won’t just not show up and not tell anyone.”

6 responses to “RPGs as Sports: League vs Pickup Games

  1. Pingback: Present and Accounted for~ « Casting Shadows

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention RPGs as Sports: League vs Pickup Games | Geek Related -- Topsy.com

  3. I like your analogy to sports, but at the same time, I’m close friends with my gaming pals. One of my players is AWOL and has been for months, but he’s also got enough issues that I’d feel uncomfortable being more explicit about them on this blog. I understand that and that’s why his place is always open at the table.

    Other than that, my group is pretty close to League play.

  4. Great analogy!
    I love the concept that gamers/role players are reaching the point where their communities can be taken in the same seriousness as sports organizations. Not saying that we’re there yet – but it would be lovely to see it happen.

    • Totally, and it sounds a lot more respectable to say “I have to go, my team needs me for the gaming league I’m in” as opposed to “my little friends are waiting for me to play with them” 🙂

  5. Nice analogy, I think the biggest difference is “Commitment”

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