Organised Play of D&D has had an occasionally rocky history at my local store in Ballarat. Back in 2010 when the D&D Encounters line first started, I volunteered to run it. And for the first year, we struggled to even have one table running. It ran fairly regularly for a while, but when Christmas came around, almost everyone went away and didn’t come back. It is very, very depressing to turn up to run a session and find only one player hoping against hope that there’ll be enough people to run the session. Back in those days, you needed a minimum of 1 DM and 4 players. We fell short a lot. It didn’t help that my FLGS was only open to 7 pm on a Wednesday night. It’s hard running a game when there’s no flexibility of timing.
Eventually, I gave up. I handed things over to a friend, and said “run it if you can”. I went back to my home campaigns and talking about D&D on EN World.
That could have been the end. It wasn’t. Incredibly, players started coming again. My friend found players, and the game got played regularly. At some point – and honestly, I can’t remember when – we moved it to Saturday evenings because people would turn up then. There was only one problem: my friend had (and has) severe health issues, and they were getting worse. I’d be in the store on Saturdays to play boardgames, and seeing this occur a couple of times, I stepped up and started running it again. First, as necessary, and later, all the time.
And for the next couple of years, the numbers grew. 5:30 pm-7:30 pm each Saturday we’d run the latest of the D&D Encounters adventures. And we’d run other games afterwards. I ran an AD&D game for three years in that 8 pm-11pm slot, and we’d get other games as well – Pathfinder, Rifts…
Meanwhile, the popularity of the store was growing. As I mentioned, Wednesday evenings were a problem because the store closed at 7 pm. Well, they started running Magic events on Wednesday evenings, and that kept it open to 11pm each night. Unfortunately, there wasn’t room for both D&D and Magic players, but at least there was more gaming occurring.
The D&D Next playtest began the rise of real interest in the game again. We started running the playtest adventures with two tables. That grew to three. It helped that Wizards put out some fantastic adventures during the period. Running Vault of the Dracolich – a multi-table adventure (written by three people I really respect – Alphastream, Sly Flourish and Scott F. Gray) – with three tables was a brilliant experience. Dead in Thay, which was a multi-table D&D adventure over 12 weeks was likewise incredible. I spent those three months not running a table but being the co-ordinating DM. Actions of one table would affect others and I’d make sure that happened. It had its flaws, but by the end of it, and with the full release of D&D only a couple of weeks away, we finally hit four tables.
Then came Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. We had to run five tables. A *lot* of people came in for the premiere of Tyranny of Dragons. And even more for the second session. At 42 participants (5 DMs wrangling 37 players), it’s still the highest participation we’ve had. To be fair, the old store’s space really didn’t handle that many people that well, so we’ve lot people since then. But we still regularly run 5 tables every Saturday. And I started running a table of D&D Expeditions in the 8pm slot at irregular intervals.
And so, most of a year went by. And then the store moved. The new Guf Ballarat brings together the computer gaming section and the tabletop gaming, in a place which has more gaming space. Which opened up an interesting possibility: we could have both Magic and D&D running at the same time on Wednesday evenings…
I’d actually prepared for this earlier on in 2015. I started running a Wednesday game of Hoard of the Dragon Queen from 5:30 pm – 7 pm. This allowed the Magic players who were interested to participate, and we got a couple of interested people. Enough so that I could run it fairly regularly, although there were a couple of weeks when not everyone could make it. Slowly, the Magic players dropped out, but I got replacements. When the store moved, the greater visibility of D&D meant more people got interested. So, with the release of Out of the Abyss, I wondered if anyone would be interested in running more sessions at that time…
Next Wednesday, we’ll have four tables of D&D at the 5:30 pm slot (three tables running Out of the Abyss and one table running Hoard of the Dragon Queen), and then in the 7:30 pm slot we’ll have one table running Out of the Abyss and potentially one table running a D&D Expeditions adventure.
Meanwhile, Saturday has five tables of D&D at the 5:30 pm slot (all running Princes of the Apocalypse) and two or three tables of D&D at the 8 pm slot (running a D&D Expeditions adventure). We’ve got people enthusiastic enough about D&D that they’re playing in all four sessions. And some of those are now taking their first steps into DMing. Looking around the store, I can count twelve or thirteen players who have DMed Organised Play sessions at some point of the history of the program in our store, and most of which would be happy to do it again.
I value our DMs highly. I ask for a gold coin donation each week from the players ($1 or $2). This goes into a fund which is used to buy the published adventures – and I’m hoping will also purchase the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide – for the active DMs. It’s a very minor cost for most of the players, but it makes it a lot easier for the DMs.
I also love getting new players. We’ve had a lot recently – helping fill the gaps left by other people moving away from the store games (because of many reasons: they’re sick of them, they’re actually ill, their job has changed, or they’ve moved away). New players are a challenge, however. What adventure should they play?
In general, we’ve integrated them into the ongoing adventures. Having a first level character play with seventh level characters isn’t ideal, but as long as the DM thinks about what the experience is for the new player, it can work. And the first level character quickly stops being a first level character and is able to make some significant contributions. It’s not my preferred solution, but it does get the players participating.
More useful for this purpose is asking them to join in some of the low-level D&D Expeditions adventures. This is becoming more and more of an option as more people volunteer to DM and play them. There are very few better first adventures than the series of mini-adventures written by Shawn Merwin for the beginning of each season, but there are a lot of very enjoyable low-level adventures (and even the weaker ones can be made enjoyable by a good DM). So, we have the option of this on both Wednesday and Saturdays now.
Of course, having a lot of players also means that scheduling adventures is becoming something I need to pay more attention to. There are two parts of this: the first is that we advertise through the store, Facebook and my personal website when the events are. The other part – registration for games – is done through Warhorn. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s working for us at the moment.
Organised Play isn’t for everyone. I value it as a place to play games and meet people I otherwise wouldn’t know. (My home group is built around a core of people who played OP with me and decided we wanted to do something else together). However, are my games inferior to my homebrew ones? Not a chance. I love them just as much and I’d feel much diminished if I lost either. What we have here in Ballarat is a real community of D&D players, and I’m hoping we can introduce more people to the joys of D&D in upcoming years.
(If you’re around Ballarat, we have a Facebook group where the schedule is posted).