A hallmark of modern life is we are all being pulled in different directions at once. We have a constantly increasing number of things competing for our time and brain-space: work (and off-hours work, and looking for work, and overtime, and on-call work, and and and…), managing our households, trying to keep up on world events, reading, friendships, family, social media and an ever-growing list of others. For many of us, I fear, gaming comes near the end of the list. When so many other things compete for our time, and when there are pretty stopgaps that almost hit the same sweet spot, it can be difficult to maintain commitments to RPG gaming.

And yet maintaining that commitment is something I try to do. I’ve said before how special I think RPGs are; they are a unique artform, and a unique entertainment. And RPGs require a lot more commitment than some hobbies to work. Astronomy can work on any given night with favorable weather; if not everyone shows up for your Mythbusters premiere party, the event can still go on; boardgames don’t require a particular group of players to be present. Even MMORPG raids seem, in my experience, to be more flexible than most tabletop RPG sessions.

Increasingly, we’re seeing RPGs designed for less of a time commitment. I think that’s a good thing; it is simply a fact that a lot of us can’t commit as much time anymore to RPGs.

However, I also think we shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of commitment to playing groups. We need, at times, to resist societal pressure to be torn in a million directions; we need to be willing to commit to some things. We gamers, with our leisurely, ‘silly’ pastime, get a tremendous amount of social pressure to do things that are somehow ‘productive’. That’s a bad trend — bad because it eventually leads to all of us being ground to dust under the wheel of productivity, and (in the nearer term) because it deprives us of the opportunity to play these amazingly fun games.

Photo of a blacksmith's forgeKeeping a commitment can be hard; making rules for oneself can help make it easier, or at least clearer. In my various groups, we’ve forged a few common agreements that seem to have worked well over the years. I thought it might be useful to list some of these rules that that I’ve found to work. These aren’t necessarily all explicit rules, but we’re working on that (and more on this topic later).

First, I’ll give some of the rules for my monthly group:

  • Unless we say otherwise, we will be there.

    This is, I think, extremely important — maybe the single most important rule. If it’s unclear whether or not others will be there, it causes you to start performing mental arithmetic: do I go and risk wasting my time, or do I stay home and just work on my taxes? It’s all too easy for this to turn into “Well, probably no one else is going to be there, so I might as well not go myself”. Once people start thinking that way, the group is (I think) pretty close to doomed. Especially once people start assuming that others won’t be there unless they say so, it encourages everyone to CYA by not even showing up. It’s a vicious circle that can quickly corrode a group to nothing.

    I’ve been in groups where this is basically what happened. With one group, I had to drive more than an hour one way to get to the session; after a couple instances of a session that barely happened because not-quite-too-many people canceled, I started weighing my onerous drive against the small amount of enjoyment I was getting from the group. And the group as a whole folded not soon after; other people were performing the same arithmetic.

    If, instead, you know with a high degree of certainty that your fellow players will be there, on time, ready and raring to go, it creates a positive feedback loop. It increases your own determination to show up and have fun. Guaranteeing that you are ready and present for the session, and assuming that everyone else will be there: that is, I think, the essence of commitment.

  • Cancellations need to happen at least 24 hours in advance, barring actual emergencies.

    If someone cancels with only (say) six hours’ notice, it messes with the heads of those of us who’re committed to being there tonight, and likely throws a monkey wrench into our schedules with not enough time to address it. Not all of us have access to email (or text, or {insert communication method here}) 24 hours a day, so cancellations need to happen with enough advance notice for us to all respond appropriately. If not, we should all be able to assume that you will be there.

  • If one person cancels, we will continue. If two or more people cancel, we will cancel the whole session and reschedule.

    It’s possible to keep continuity if a small number of players are missing, but if it gets to be too large a number, the game ends up losing a lot. I like to make the specific numbers explicit so that everyone knows what to expect, and so that if (for example) two people need to cancel, we all understand in advance what the consequences will be.

  • We try our utmost to schedule the next session while we’re all in the room for this session.

    Online communication makes it possible for people to respond in their own time; but by the same coin, it means that someone might not respond clearly, or until it’s too late. We’ve all had the experience of trying to wrangle a scheduling discussion via email, and realized how unreliable and ultimately fruitless it can be.

  • We have standard start and end times, and a standard day of the month to meet on.

    We adhere to this standard probably about half the time — a pretty good record, I think. This allows us to build gaming into our daily routines and habits, which increases the chance that we’ll remember it, and the possibility that any given session will happen. At the same time, we also recognize that the standard is flexible. Better that the timing should flex, than break.

  • We always play the same game.

    We know what dice to bring, what character sheet to bring, what records to keep track of, what’s generally going on. Partially because the GM (I) have a lot of stuff to track for the game, I ask the players to remember their own character sheets. Of course, that doesn’t mean everyone always has everything — seems like someone always forgets something. But the basic expectations are clear and mostly adhered to.

Rules for my weekly group are basically the same, with a few key differences:

  • We try hard to schedule not just when we’re playing next, but what we’re playing next, while we’re all in the room together.

    A lot of us have cool new games we’d like to run, or to try. We therefore tend to play a lot of different games, and we have a lot of different games on the back burner, meaning that it’s not always clear what exactly we’re going to play the next time we meet. We realize that it’s important for the GM to know in advance what they’re running, and we now have a fairly good stable of one-shot-ready games for when no one feels prepared enough to run anything.

  • GMs keep track of character sheets.

    With the number of games we play, it becomes more practical for the GMs to keep character sheets rather than players. Players might not bring the right sheets, since the chances that the plan might change at the last minute are non-zero. Keeping sheets with games also gives us more flexibility, meaning we can play whatever game we have materials at hand for.

For the most part, the rules work pretty well. With both groups, there have been clarifications in recent years about the whole ‘coming unless we say we’re not’ thing. And other rules have evolved — usually when small crises required it. But what we have now seems to work pretty well.

Being in Minnesota, it’s occasionally been difficult to get these rules to be explicit rather than implicit. Rules that everyone only seems to agree on are not actually very useful; it’s all too easy for misunderstandings to crop up when we are in a “But I thought you meant next Saturday!” mode. And if no one is willing to state objections to de facto rules openly, the social contract can easily start to fall apart. Yet getting past that Minnesota indirectness can be a tooth-gritting experience. It’s taken a lot of intentional work to get the rules as explicit as they are.

But the work that we’ve done has, I think, served us well. I have two different groups that have been meeting for more than five years, which is (knock on wood) quite an accomplishment in gaming circles, especially these days. It’s not an easy feat; it requires purpose of mind, direct but polite communication, and above all commitment.

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