Plot Grenades. Immanuel Moments. “Hiyo, Tom here!” Most readers won’t exactly understand the meaning of any of these, but for a small group of people each one elicits its own strong reaction. That group is my gaming group, who I’ve been playing with in one incarnation or another for 16 years. Over that period of time we’ve developed our own lore, traditions, and yes, a thick haze of inside jokes.
In some ways, a gaming group is no different than any other group of friends who share a hobby. You could develop inside jokes, stories, and catchphrases about board games, or hiking, or motorcycles. The thing that’s different, though, is that role-playing games come with an immediate emotional engagement. That’s exactly why people’s preferences are so specific, and why people are so defensive about them.
If we assume you’ve done everything right, found a group of likeminded players and opened the lines of communication to help hone your shared experience, then you’re in a good place to have your fellow players become close friends through the experiences you share. But the reason this is an article is because I strongly believe that gaming with friends is an elevated experience, and that your core gaming experience should be with people who are your friends. So let’s talk about gaming with friends, and about the things that can make a ‘gaming group’ an entity stronger than any one session or campaign.
Trust at the Table
Trust is central to any gaming group persisting. It could be trusting the group to be a supportive environment for some deep roleplay. It could be as simple as trusting that if the group needs to skip a week you’ll all come back the week after. No matter what’s at stake, any long-lasting group needs to have norms that help make it easy for everyone to keep coming back month after month.
Attendance is a simple one, but it’s also the torpedo that sinks the ship in many cases. This ultimately flies in both directions; on one hand, people need to show up when they say they will. On the other, the group as a whole needs to be tolerant of real life as it comes up. What it (and every other group trust dynamic) comes down to is communication. Our group does not and has never had consistent attendance, and given that we’re entirely remote and entirely online, consistent attendance is a big ask. So what we do instead is get a sense of everyone’s conflicts, plan around them, and have backups in place if someone important doesn’t show up. Depending on your group it might not be reasonable to expect everyone to be there every time, but it is reasonable to want to know whether you can expect someone.
Beyond showing up, there’s a degree of trust that forms as a group gravitates towards a specific style of play. While some of this is low-level, content expectations that in some groups are mediated by safety tools, a lot of it is more abstract. How does your GM (or GMs) expect you to approach obstacles? How player-facing is the game? What is the policy on taking notes? Are you drinking during the game? There aren’t right or wrong answers to these questions, but you will discover quickly which ones demand a consistent answer.
There’s nothing that ‘needs’ to be done about high-level expectations in an extant group; they develop over time and will continue to evolve as the group’s members and membership change. In a new group, though, these expectations are what you need to pay attention to, because they are what will keep the group together. If someone is there for a reason other than playing games the way the group plays them, they’re either going to be flexible or disruptive. And it’s important to remember that there’s no value judgment in finding that someone’s play style isn’t compatible with yours or your group’s. That said, being aware of these expectations and figuring out how to articulate them will be what keeps the group that wants to keep playing together, together.
Let’s talk about the fun stuff, then. You’ve played long enough and communicated well enough that you now have a group of 4-6 (or more) like-minded nerds. Whether you play in many shorter games or few long ones (maybe even just one very long one), the group is going to evolve over time and how they play will evolve over time. It is both instructive and also a lot of fun to track your group as you move from game to game or adventure to adventure. This could be as simple as a campaign log. A campaign log can vary in complexity but for most groups it will need the name of each campaign, game system used to play it, timeframe over which it was played, names of the players (and their corresponding character), and a brief summary. Usually writing these log entries only takes 5-10 minutes, and even in groups which really hop between games you’re still only writing one every few months. In addition to tracking history, it can be a fun way to look back at the end of a campaign and see how you ended up compared to how you started.
This same basic idea can be distilled down into session logs or adventure logs. Either after every session or after every major adventure, write a synopsis of what happened, being sure to include what each character was doing and how things ended up resolving. Most importantly, don’t forget to date each entry! This approach is best for groups who have at least one person who really enjoys writing, and even then it can be a lot depending on how long the summaries are. 250-500 words is a length that is enjoyable for most people, but that’s also short for the events of a four hour session. The 1500-2000 word format used for Adventure Logs on this site is great for telling a relatively detailed story and offering some commentary, but it’s a lot of work; even I wouldn’t want to write more than one a month.
If you aren’t interested in writing or summarizing, there are other options. For those of us either online or rich in audio equipment, you can record sessions. For an online group, this usually just requires some streaming software; OBS is free and easy to setup. For an in-person group, it’s a bit tougher. We’ve tried to record in-person sessions before, but the combination of background noise, equipment issues, and poor acoustics have made these recordings very difficult to listen to. If your group wants to settle in around a mic and can manage not to fiddle with their dice for an entire session (and to be clear, I can’t nor can most other people I play with), this can be an appealing option. It’s important to note that these are intended to be archival recordings. You aren’t turning your game into an Actual Play, and you don’t really want to either. Still, if a player wanted to revisit a particularly gripping session or the GM can’t remember what happened last time (not calling myself out here at all, no sir), then the recordings may be invaluable. And even better, nobody had to write anything.
If your preferred writing length is closer to 250 characters than 250 words, then a Quote Log might work best for you. Actually, quote logs are fun for most groups; if you want a preview of the madness check out the Out-of-Context DnD Tumblr page. Of course, your group are going to deliver one-liners that are at least as good as the ones submitted to that site, and probably better because you’ll know the ridiculous context! Just write the quote and who said it; you could date them but as long as you keep the document in order that’s not necessarily required. Our group has loved the quote log tradition; our log is currently 56 pages long and growing.
Tradition! Not to be a tabletop Tevye, but group traditions are where the game runneth over and your friendship strengthens the game as well as vice versa. These can be little things which serve as reminders that the gaming table is a place for fun; in one of the groups I played in there was a time-out bowl for dice who weren’t rolling well. In my high school gaming group each session had a requisite meal break where we all piled into the host’s Toyota Land Cruiser and got out of the basement for a spell. However you want to do it, make sure that it’s fun! Have a connection to the real world and a reminder that you are all there to enjoy yourselves. This might not work for groups who are “serious business” when it comes to their gaming but honestly, anyone who falls into that category probably has a better idea of what they’d like than I do.
Then there are the big traditions, the events. The shifts in the normal cadence of how your games work. When I was in college, the first incarnation of my gaming group did a couple big one-shots, often running well into the night. I remember one World of Darkness one-shot, and there was also an ‘evil character’ D&D one-shot. Then we got into the more special, arguably more silly one-shots. We played Paranoia and instantly knew we wanted to play it again. We invented ridiculous game exercises, like introducing line-roll characters into games that were never meant to have them, and a one-shot called “Setting in a Hat” where everyone picked their role (Player or GM) from a hat, and then picked either their character or game premise from a different hat. That’s how I ended up playing a magical fraternity one-shot as an exorcism student named Ziggy van Peebles who had immense magical powers but zero ability to control them. My character was nothing, though, compared to Mumbles, who had every stat set as low as it could go and as many disadvantages as possible in order to buy self-cloning at a nearly infinite level.
Of course, big traditions can go a lot further than one-shots and fun sessions. Our group, because we played entirely online, decided we wanted to meet in person once a year. This was the genesis of Beach Weekend. It started as a gaming weekend, but has morphed into something entirely different, involving old friends, game silliness, and a lot of beer. Now, events may not necessarily catch your fancy, but I’d ask you think about it. Go as a group to your local con. Have a game day out at a new location. Maybe just have a ‘week off’ event where you all go get dinner. If you’re anything like me, these people you join once, twice, four times a month to play pretend, whoop at dice and tell stories with are in fact your friends. And it’s worth recognizing that in between adventures.
The gaming group doesn’t have to be any different than a poker night or a cycling club, but for most gamers it will be. Your fellow gamers get to see who you are in a very different light than most people, and depending on the game it could be a lot more vulnerable than you think. Even if you’re not baring your soul every session, your characters tell the people around you who you are in ways that bluffing on pocket twos don’t. For a good gaming group to last, they need to trust each other and trust in how everyone at the table wants to play. Once that’s out of the way, it’s time to recognize, catalogue, and yes, celebrate the connections you create. You might not have the same gaming group for 16 years, but it takes a lot less time than that to build a rewarding conduit to the hobby as well as a solid group of friends.
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Header photo by Christian Bondoc, taken during our gaming group beach excursion in 2014. May good traditions never die.