RPGs as Sports: Tryouts

In my continuing series on learning from sports as a useful metaphor for our RPG groups, we’ll talk about running tryouts.

This is something many groups have already started to do.  When I was young, there weren’t formal tryouts, but in the last decade or so most of the time I’ve joined a new group they’ve had some kind of procedure for it.

So You Want To Join The Team?

Running tryouts might be a good idea when forming a gaming group, or especially when adding people to an established group.  Everyone’s there to enjoy themselves, and group dynamics are such that if you add someone who people really dislike or whose playstyle doesn’t jive with everyone else’s, then you risk losing your established players in the bargain – or just having everyone enjoy the game less.  Gamers tend to not be able to create strong social boundaries, and I’ve seen many cases where someone joins a group and really royally messes it up for everyone, and the passive-aggressive defenses they can muster don’t help.  Some players just leave, others come a lot less, others come but seethe inside and cause trouble.  “Being nice” to one person (by issuing an unconditional invite to someone the group doesn’t know) shouldn’t come at the expense of being nice and considerate to your existing teammates.  Rule #1 is the team comes first.

Some gaming groups formed out of a group of friends already in which case there’s no need for it up front.  But when you move, or when someone you don’t know says “I hear you play D&D, I want to join” – either you just say no, or you just say yes and have a lot of potential unpleasantness to deal with, or you hold a tryout.

Setting Team Expectations

The group needs to discuss to set the terms of the tryouts according to their group culture.  Is it “the GM makes the call who to invite to one of his campaigns, and that’s it?”  (Maybe with a “is everyone cool with that” to get feedback…) This works well for some groups, especially if the GM is also the game’s host.  Is it “group consensus” of some sort – “everyone gets a veto,” or “majority rules?”  Majority rules is usually a bad idea; unanimity is better for an established group.  If you have the problem that you don’t really trust the people in your group to make a sound decision (e.g. one guy is jealous of anyone else who shines too much) then you have an issue you need to take care of before inflicting it on a visitor.

Is the tryout for one session, or several, or a short campaign?  Or is it a “90 day trial period”?   The team should be agreed on how this is going to work ahead of time, and some discussion on what a yes or no should consist of.  “We should only vote no if we really hate them,” or “Let’s be really picky, only vote yes if you really actively like them…”  In any event, once someone’s in, they’re in.  They are a teammate unless you really have a drastic need to eject them.  It’s not fair to have the “new guys” always tiptoeing around the “established players.”

Also make sure everyone understands that a tryout is just like a job interview – both sides need to make a good impression. Don’t just focus on “putting the new guy through his paces” – if he doesn’t like your group, he’ll reject you. It’s the usual “don’t change who you are, but put your best foot forward” thing. Make sure they feel welcome, brief them on what they need to know (where and when the game is, social rules of the house, etc.  Beware in that some established groups can be very off-putting to new people – lots of shared context, in-jokes, etc. make it intimidating. And whoever the new person is, it’s quite likely they’re less of a freak than at least one of your established group. So pre-discuss with your group how to act.

Setting New Player Expectations

First thing is to make sure they understand it’s a tryout and the terms of it. “Hey, we’d love to have you but want to make sure you gel with the group. Come play with us next Tuesday as a tryout, after that if everyone’s cool with it you’re in.” Or “We have three people trying out for our open seat, you’re first in so after your time it’ll be a couple weeks; we’ll let you know the week of the 5th.” Or maybe you’re not doing tryouts, you say “hey anyone’s welcome” – but if you say that, don’t call them up after and say “sorry they didn’t like you, you’re not coming back.” Or “come join us for this campaign, but for later campaigns it’s up to that GM to invite you…” Set clear expectations with them.

They should be on time, show normal “guest in someone’s house” graces, etc. Let them know about expected custom – if you’re a bunch of slacker pigs they probably should know that; if you expect no cursing, shoes off at the door, not a minute late, and bring pizza money they should know that.

Practice With Them Before Playing With Them

A lot of it is more about personality/group fit than anything RPG specific, so even a board game night will show if they get along with people or not.

As for trying out in game, I think it’s done better in a one shot than as a guest shot in an ongoing campaign – if the campaign is too in depth then they’re lost. In my current gaming group, my first session was the climactic session of their entire several year long previous campaign; the GM handed me a hundred page sheaf of docs on world background – quite offputting and hard to do well. Or at the start of a new campaign. If it’s in the middle it’s somewhat inevitable that they play a NPC for the first time – it’s understood this is a tryout, and it’s disruptive to introduce a new PC that might not be there next time (unless it’s a casual or high death game).

Make sure and think about saying the meta-stuff you don’t always say at a game. Expectations about attendance (e.g. it’s expected you call if you can’t come), kinds of preparation expected, gaming style (e.g. we adhere to the book rules without exception), and that.

Play the Game!

Everyone should relax and have fun!  It was all our first time once (usually more than once).  Everyone should try their best and go in with the attitude that it’ll work out and that the new player will add a new dimension to the game.

In one long term game I ran, a player brought in a woman from work who was interested in playing.  She had never gamed before, and you certainly would not peg her as “the type” – hot high maintenance career type with a yippy dog and disposable boyfriends, likes to go out drinking, etc.  But she turned out to be a great player and in fact was a large apart of what transformed that campaign into an unforgettable experience.

So think about tryouts and how you want to do them – and if you have been doing them, have they been a fair experience, or should you make them more like a sports team tryout, where everyone understands the format and results?

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6 responses to “RPGs as Sports: Tryouts

  1. Oh hey I got one guy complaining about the “job interview” analogy above. Read that section carefully – I’m coming from the point of view of tech company hiring, not grilling you for retail. The point is that the established group has to make themselves attractive to the prospect, too, you can’t just pretend you’re the best thing ever and any new guy should consider themselves super lucky to be invited and hazed by you. You need new games as much as they need a group, so act nice. I know some people have been butthurt by hostile interviewing – that’s not what I’m talking about.

  2. I can think of a couple of sticky situations over the years that might have been avoided if we had a tryout first. Actually, I think if the new player in my group had joined as a tryout, he would be skating on very thin ice (he didn’t tell us till a couple of weeks in that he would be missing about 2/3 of the time – he’s good fun, but we were not impressed)

    • Yeah – when we were just high schoolers hanging around and playing games, it wasn’t necessary, but now that busy professionals are making time in their real lives to get together and game, it’s just not considerate to them to waste their time with stuff like that.

      It goes back to my different-kinds-of-leagues analogy. Pickup games with the locals in the corner park – of course there’s not tryouts. (There may be hazing by poorly behaved alphas, but not tryouts). League play and especially pro, you bet your ass there are…

  3. Three years ago, I started gathering a group of quality players for my most recent group (and we are still going strong!), I had about 3 good players going into it, but I wanted something more like 5. I started with an open model, but had far too many players that didn;t meld with the group taking up our time and our open seats were turning over on a fairly regular basis. In an attempt to alleviate this, I started running ‘interviews’ for players before bringing them to the table (meeting them at a neutral location like a coffee shop or a restaurant), just as you mentioned. Shortly thereafter, when some of those who got through to the group were rejected (both before and after causing strife in the group), we instituted the post-interview trial session (second interview if you will) and the group had to unanimously decide to offer a prospect a full-time seat by secret ballot (think the ritual of the black die, ala KoDT). This allowed anyone who felt they would have an issue with a prospective player after interacting with them for a session or two to veto their membership. We consciously decided that the social health of the group took precedence over any need to fill a vacant seat, and I must say it has worked very well for us. We are a group of 30ish gamers with the desire to find enough time in our busy schedules to actually play and we cannot afford to waste that precious time or risk the cohesiveness of the group. It has worked very well for us and will be a staple of my gamign from now on. If you are interested, you can see our policy .

    • Hey man, really sorry, your comment got caught in my spam filter for some reason and I just saw it. (Oh, I bet it was the link, the spam filter is nervous about links.) Sounds like you might have experience with my newest post about cutting folks from a team too!

    • I’ll also say that as part of a similar group of 30ish professionals, yeah, life is too short to spend precious gaming time with people that are making you not enjoy it. That’s for high school. Heck, as a single dad for a while I was having to pay for babysitting so I could go do my one hobby, RP once every two weeks. Then when someone was dicking around they were costing me $5 and change an hour. Forget that, in most cities there’s a lot of gamers around and you may as well hang out with ones that all get along well.

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