#4 : At the Table and Beyond
How does Twenty Sided Store design a game play environment, cultivate a fellowship, and build player bonds amongst a growing community of players that come and go?
Initially I thought this would be extremely easy to write about. I now understand why there are so many questions from organizers and store owners on the subject. So far I have notes for three separate articles in which I plan to expand on some of the subject I touch upon here.
Trial and Error
The best way I can describe how we got to where we are now is through trial and error. At the end of each season players fill out a feedback questionnaire. This gives me some insight as to what is working and what isn’t. In the past four years I have seen players come and go. With each new season and wave of players, a shift in the way we do things comes about, however there are several factors that consistently weigh in:
- our base customer demographics (working adults 25-35),
- maintaining consistency with our other regularly scheduled events, and
- our personal standards for the overall branding of the gaming experience at our store.
Where do I Start
Most people come to Twenty Sided Store looking to play D&D because they want to learn-to-play, would like to play in a regularly scheduled campaign, or want to meet new people. We strive to maintain a welcoming environment where everyone feels comfortable to be themselves. Since the beginning, we have invited customers to feel like the store is their home away from home.
A good first impression is extremely important in making a person feel comfortable. We keep the store bright and clean. The staff is friendly, informative, and engaging. Our events are organized and start on time. When someone calls or comes in to the store asking about D&D, we encourage them to come and try it out, they don’t need to know how to play, and they will learn the rules as they go.
Keep it Simple
Before a player attends an event they will usually come to the store to check it out. Arm the store’s staff with information. Provide descriptions of the adventure’s plot, let players take a look at the pre-gens, and let them know they can access the basic rules for free online. Having the option of accessing these tools maintains a comfort level, letting a new player know that there is no commitment; try it first and see if you like it. I find that once players are hooked, they will want to purchase a copy of all the books for themselves.
It is only natural that the longer we invest in a hobby the more exclusive we become causing the barrier of entry to rise. A player joins in for the first time feeling like the new kid in school, trying to figure out what table to sit at in the cafeteria. Having a friendly staff direct players where to sit can go a long way to keep newcomers feeling comfortable. I do this by having a sign up sheet at the front of the store so when players sign in, they know exactly which table they will be sitting at and who their DM will be, before they enter the game play space.
Event Sign Up
I try to encourage players to arrive a half hour early for the event. This give players a chance to socialize, ask questions, go over their character sheets, resolve downtime, level up, etc.
I usually have newcomers play with a pre-gen their first time and let them know that a DM can stick around after the game to help them build their own character, or modify the pre-gen after the game. I find this speeds up game play at the table and also gives the player a better idea of what they want to do with their character after they have played a session or two.
Randomizing Seating at the Tables
Now I know what you are thinking… even Wizards of the Coast has told me that this idea won’t work, but season after season I have found that the overall gain created for the community is more important than the sacrifice of what might get lost at individual tables. I invite you all to think differently with me.
I intentionally randomize the seating. We have 7 tables for D&D Encounters so when players arrive they roll a d8, re-rolling on an 8, to determine their table assignment for the evening. I will allow a couple, two friends, or family who arrive together to roll together when they sign up as long as they arrive early enough that there is enough space at a table to accommodate them. For one shot games like D&D Expeditions, where I only have 2 tables I will be a bit more lenient, but I try to avoid a group of friends sitting together at a table with one stranger leaving that stranger to feel like the odd one out.
During signups I can easily make sure we have an equal number of players at each table so one DM isn’t taking on 6 players while another has 4.
Players have different play styles, and it is impossible to expect every one who comes to organized play to enjoy playing with each other all the time. However, if a player knows that each week they will get to meet new people and have a chance to play with different people, they become more accepting of one another. I have definitely lost players their first time playing because they sat down with a group they did not enjoy playing with and felt like this was going to be the table they were stuck with every week, while looking over at another table having fun and wishing they could play at the other table instead.
By playing with different players and DMs each week, the community grows bonds with the larger group, not just the 6 people a their table each week.
By randomizing the tables players feel more confident to step up and want to DM. They get to see how different DMs do the same things in their own unique way and they get to know everyone in the community as a player so they feel more confident running for their peers.
Newcomers will often suggest that I should try to balance the classes out at the tables, but over time this feedback usually drops off in importance. I think by having a table of all wizards one week can create some really creative solutions in combat and roleplaying situations that will make that session memorable for years to come.
Enforcing a Code of Conduct
I have mentioned this before but I think it is the one thing players in the community have most frequently commented on as to why they keep coming back. Here is a copy of our code of conduct and there is a code of conduct in the D&D Adventurers League Players Guide. We take it very seriously. We are all here to have fun!
Dear Master Dungeon Master,
How do you handle players that say or do inappropriate things at the table or act out situations in character that might make another player feel uncomfortable?
When John Stravropoulos and I were preparing a Twenty Sided / Nerd NYC RPG event at the store, he introduced me to the “X” Card. Since then I have introduced this to all of my DMs and I have a laminated notecard that is put out on each table for every RPG event held at the store. The “X” card allows anyone at the table at any time to tap it, and no questions asked the subject will be changed. Even if this never needs to get used, it makes people feel comfortable just knowing it is there when sitting at a table with a group of strangers.
Is there something I can do in between games to get players more invested in the game or the community?
We have a store RPG Google Group where players can discuss rules questions or what happened last session. Players have used it to post their character profiles, backgrounds, or what they are doing in their downtime. Sometimes they will even continue to roleplay in character.
I also find players participate in our events for the social aspect, so posting local community outings like meeting up at conventions, fairs, art openings, etc, builds friendships that bring people coming back. There are many talented people in the community that perform professionally; getting everyone together to support another member of the community is always great for fostering a strong fellowship.
My problem seems to be a bit different than others in the community. At any time I can field 3-4 willing and reliable DMs for D&D AL, however I cannot seem to develop a growing player base. Is there anything else I can do to help encourage more new players to try out AL or tips that have worked by other organizers?
In the short term you can let your DMs rotate running the table each week. This will get them ready when more players start showing up and will likely encourage them to spread the word to other people they know.
For the long term, I hope some of the tips in this article helps. I would try to run a game for the store’s staff equipping them with the info they need to encourage customers who inquire throughout the week. You might also want to see if the store will let you set up a demo table during a Board Game or MTG event. I would keep this extremely simple. Have some pre-gens available and somebody knowledgeable who can break down the info on the character sheet and explain a bit about the story line and how a cooperative storytelling game works.
All you need is 5 minutes of the person’s time to get them excited about D&D. Provide a handout that has the date and time you meet, and links to the AL or WOTC websites for free PDF on how to play. I will think about how I can provide an article that will give more examples of how to run a demo verses a learn-to-play session, as shown in this awesome video.