When I think about the biggest problems I had when I just started out DMing, it mostly came down to two things: trouble scheduling and trouble finding players.
While scheduling can be difficult (I’ve spent weeks in doodle poll hell myself), you can solve most of your scheduling problems by finding players who are interested enough in your game to make time for it in their schedule. Thus, while scheduling is important, the most important thing for a DM to focus on (other than running the game, of course) is player recruitment.
The Two Stages of Recruiting Players: Sourcing and Vetting
So how do you recruit for your table? First, you need a large pool of potential players to recruit from. Creating this pool is part of the “sourcing” stage of player recruitment. Then, when picking potential players from your recruitment pool, you need to ask yourself whether a player would be a good fit for the rest of your group and for the kind of game you want to play. This is the “vetting” stage of player recruitment.
Both Sourcing and Vetting are of equal importance. If you don’t source, you’ll find it difficult to keep up with player turnover. If you don’t vet, you’ll run the risk of having a disruptive player who could ruin the fun for everyone, perhaps even to the level of an RPG horror story.
Sourcing players is straightforward: you have 4 to 6 player slots to fill at your table and the larger pool of players you can choose from to fill those slots, the better. Your pool of players will often start with your extended friend circle, and then expand out to other folks in the local gaming community. You can meet these players at events, gaming conventions, Adventurer’s League Games, and online through various Looking for Game (LFG) forums.
Sourcing D&D Players From Your Extended Friend Circle
If you’re like me, you’ll probably start sourcing players from your extended group of friends. I myself started my first Lost Mines of Phandelver group by sending out an email to my friends who I thought might be interested. I was able to get five people in my first session, many of whom had limited experience with D&D.
There was a lot of turnover. By the time we had finished the Lost Mines Adventure about 8 months later, we had only two people left from the original group. Unless you’re very lucky, it’s likely that the recruits from your initial pool of friends will dwindle as well.
This has nothing to do with your talent as a DM; some people just aren’t interested in D&D as you might be. Some of the folks in your initial pool might be curious about DnD but may not be as much of a dedicated or die-hard player as you might be. They’ll probably have other hobbies and commitments that will take precedence over your game, or perhaps they’re looking for a different play style than you’re willing to offer as a GM. Or, you may just have a player who is moving out of town. There are plenty of reasons for players to drop out that have nothing to do with you.
So unless you’re very lucky and all your friends are hardcore tabletop gamers who love your GM style and who happen to have the same free evenings that you do, you’re going to have players who drop out. To replace those players, you’ll likely have to meet some strangers outside of your friend circle. I myself did this chiefly through my local D&D group on Meetup, and now I have a solid group of 6 players who rarely miss a session.
Create a D&D Event on Meetup.com
Although your mileage may vary depending on where you live, for me, Meetup has provided the best experience for sourcing players. The Seattle Dungeons and Dragons and RPG meetup group was great because they have more than 2,700 members and I was able to become an event organizer after sending a quick message to one of the admins.
As an event organizer, I posted an event looking for 6 players for a Lost Mines of Phandelver campaign (This was a different campaign than my initial campaign). Because the group had a large number of members, I was able to fill the slots rather quickly. This gaming group, which was basically composed of 5 internet strangers and 1 friend, is still going strong to this day. If I were to do it over again, however, I’d probably just post a one shot event to properly vet my players as I most certainly could have gotten a random stranger who could have ruined the game.
If you can, find a meetup group in your area with a large number of members and see if you can become an event organizer so that you can post your event. It’s possible that they may not let you become an event organizer right off the bat, so ask the event organizers if you can join an existing event as a volunteer GM. Then, when you have built a relationship with the main event organizers, there’s a good chance they’ll let you promote a game of your own through that group.
Join or Run D&D Adventurer’s League Games
My experience with D&D Adventurer’s League (AL) Games is limited, so I can only speak from my perspective. Adventurer’s League games seem to be a good way to meet new players, as most AL sessions can be run in a single sitting as a one shot–each session usually being with different group of players. After you play a session and advance levels, you can take the character you’ve built and accrued experience for and play in other adventures at that level. The GMs even have special identification numbers so they can verify you were actually in such-and-such an adventure (although I’m guessing they’re seldom used).
Adventurer’s League Games at Conventions
In the Seattle area, I had my first taste of Adventurer’s League games at the Dragonflight convention. This particular convention had several tables with periods of time blocked out for this or that game and there were many AL games listed.
These convention games were not my favorite. They were a random group of strangers who had little sense of any group cohesion, and since this was a one-shot scenario, the reason for us being together was a pretty generic “you are strangers hired for a job” hook. This kind of setup doesn’t really foster good group chemistry. Again, this is just my experience with AL convention games–your experience may differ.
Adventurer’s League Games at Gaming Stores
Your “Friendly Local Gaming Store” (FLGS), will often host Adventurers League events in your area. You can search for participating stores and events through the store and event locator offered by Wizards of the Coast and find an Adventurer’s League game at a store a reasonable distance from you.
The gaming store route seems a better way to meet fellow players than through conventions. If you become a regular at one of the events, you’ll likely make friends with fellow gamers whom you may invite to your own group once you have planned your grand campaign. Consider volunteering as an Adventurer’s League GM so that players can get a feel for how you run a game. This way, when you reach out to potential players, you’ll know that they are interested in the kind of game that you offer as a GM and will be less likely to drop out in the middle of it.
Finding Online Games
I’m writing this article in the middle of the Covid-19 epidemic with the expectation that someday you’ll be able to play an in-person game with your friends. Right now, that’s not an option. Online is the only safe way to play. Thus, all of my in-person games have moved to the virtual tabletop (VTT) software Roll20.
Looking for Game (LFG) postings on VTT forums
For those unfamiliar, Roll20 and other VTTs like it are apps where players can share a battlemap and automate all the fiddly math that comes with dice rolls. Players have a token representing their character which they can move along the map much as they would a mini on an actual tabletop. Other VTTs include Fantasy Grounds, Astral Tabletop, Tabletop Simulator and the open source VTT MapTool. Roll20 is the most popular VTT out there at the moment and the only one I have used, but I did want to call out the alternatives so you can see what’s right for you.
Roll20’s LFG Search
The Looking For Game (LFG) postings on Roll20 are an incredible tool for finding an online game that fits your schedule. As a GM, all I have to do is write a blurb describing the game I want to run and post it to the LFG forum. As a player, I can search for games based on the time slots I’m available and the type of adventure I want to play. If, for example, I wanted to play Descent into Avernus every Monday night, I can do a keyword search for “Avernus” and filter my searches by time slot.
While Roll20 seems to have the best LFG search out there, it’s worth considering other options. Roll20, though filled to the brim with interesting features, has a rather counter-intuitive UI and as of this writing has serious lag issues when servers are overloaded (and because of Roll20’s popularity, this is often). So although it may be more difficult to find players on other platforms, it may be worth taking the time to look elsewhere to avoid some of Roll20’s frustrations.
LFG for Other VTTs
Although Roll20 has a great LFG search feature, there are plenty of other resources for other VTTs as you can see here:
- Fantasy Grounds
- Astral Tabletop
- Astral Tabletop Discord (They have dedicated lfg channels)
- Tabletop Simulator (Thanks to Elder_Salt on Steam for these)
- Platform Agnostic:
Using Locally Oriented Social Media for Online LFG Posts
The hope is that once we’re all out of quarantine, we’ll be able to resume playing tabletop RPGs in person. When organizing a new group for online play, you may want to consider recruiting only local players so that someday you’ll be able to play a game at your friendly local gaming store or a gamer friendly cafe/bar.
Since the VTT community isn’t constrained by location, you’ll often find yourself in games with players from all around the world. I’m based in Seattle, but I’ve been in online D&D games with gamers from Denmark, Poland, the UK, and Australia. While that’s pretty neat, I find that meeting fellow gamers in person can foster friendships and camaraderie that purely online games do not. Also, the randomness of many online game recruitment processes often makes for a rather mixed bag of players with different play styles that aren’t really in alignment with each other. Invariably, there’s at least one annoying or disruptive player who can ruin the fun.
So although you may use Roll20 or FantasyGrounds or Astral Tabletop for gaming during quarantine, consider posting online gaming events on meetup, facebook, through the Adventurer’s League or perhaps even Eventbrite to promote your online game. This way, you’ll be able to connect in person when (hopefully someday) this pandemic is in the rear view window.
Finally, I should note that you don’t necessarily need a VTT to play D&D online. Some GMs I know are using Zoom video chat and theater of the mind to play their games and that seems to be working out fine for them.
“Bad D&D is worse than no D&D”–Probably someone on Reddit
When recruiting for my first games as a GM, my focus was almost exclusively on sourcing new players rather than vetting them. After having read a few RPG horror stories where just a little vetting would have averted the tragedy, vetting has become the priority for me as a GM.
You need to vet your players for the express purpose of ensuring that you only have people you want in your game in your game, and vice versa. You should vet everyone who comes to your table, even your friends.
Vet all Players, Including Your Friends
It’s obvious why you’d want to vet strangers. After all, who wants an insufferable racist edge lord who doesn’t shower and makes other players feel unsafe? If you do an open campaign invite on meetup.com, you probably won’t get someone that horrible, but chances are you might get at a player who has at least one of those traits.
Strangers are one thing, but why would you want to vet your friends? For the most part, you probably will get along with your friend at the table, but gaming will bring out hidden facets of your friends that you might not know were there. It’s very possible, for example, that your friend might:
- Be disengaged, unenthusiastic and/or distracted.
- Expect some preferential treatment from you as the GM
- Constantly challenge your rulings
- Enjoy derailing the campaign
- Not show up to sessions or cancel at the last moment.
These are just a few potential issues that could come up in a campaign with friends and has the potential to strain or ruin friendships. Make sure you determine the kind of player your friend is by playing a few low-commitment one-shots with them. This will save you a lot of future grief.
How to Vet Your Players
There are two ways to vet your players: you can do a one-shot with them or interview them. Also, although not really part of the vetting process per se, you should do a “session zero” at the start of every campaign to reach a consensus with your players about the kind of game you want to play. A session zero, in addition to vetting, will go a long way to ensure your game is a safe and enjoyable one.
Vet your Players through One Shots
The one shot is a great way to determine whether or not a player will be a fit for your table. Not only that, but it’s a way for players to find out whether they like your style as a GM. If you do enough one shots, you’ll have a pool of players to choose from when it’s finally time to embark on your grand, multi-year campaign.
While most one-shots end in a single session, sometimes it can be good to reconvene for a second half–perhaps even planning it in advance. If a module description says it will take 4-6 hours to complete, try planning for two sessions of 2-3 hours. If some folks cancel before the second session, you’ll then know that they have other priorities than showing up for your game.
And there’s nothing wrong with that! People have different interests and there’s no use trying to get people to come to a game if they’d rather do something else with their time. There are plenty of people out there who love playing D&D and would love having a seat at your table. There’s no use chasing after the flakes.
Start building a roster of players you get along with from your one-shots. It won’t be long before you have a list of your favorite players you can reach out to for your campaign. The more players you meet through one-shots, the easier it’ll be to find 4-6 people willing to commit to a regular campaign.
Although less ideal than the one shot, interviewing your new potential players can be much faster. If I’m trying to fill a slot for a player who has left one of my games, I’ll often do a shout out on various social medial platforms and meet a potential player for a beer. During this informal “interview” I’ll ask the potential player what they’re looking for in a game and describe in general terms the kind of game I’m running.
In an interview, it’s hard to get a good feeling for how a potential player may behave at the table, but at least you can find out if they’re a weirdo who obviously wouldn’t be a good fit. If this is the case, you are unfortunately put in the awkward position of having to turn them down, which you would not have to do when recruiting folks whom you have played one-shots with.
The Session Zero
In a session zero, players get together to agree on the kind of game they want to play and, most importantly, agree on what kind of behavior is off limits. While this is not technically the part of the vetting process, it does go a long way to set some ground rules for the game and prevent a lot of drama. For an excellent primer on how to run a session zero check out this reddit post.
Mastering the Least Fun Parts of D&D
The least fun parts of D&D, scheduling and recruiting, can be enough to turn some would-be GMs away from the hobby. I’m guessing that many dispirited GMs give up when they recruit players from their friend circle and, one-by-one, they start to drop out.
While your friends can make great players, oftentimes we’ll have to search outside of our friend circles for new players by going to Adventurer’s League events, organizing one shot adventures through meetup.com, and so on.
But we don’t just want any players. We want players whom we can truly engage with as GMs and who won’t make other players feel unsafe, uncomfortable, or even just thoroughly annoyed. Any player whom you invite could ruin your game, which is why vetting your players and setting expectations for them in a session zero is essential.
If you master these guidelines, you’ll be able to get the least fun parts of the game out of the way, and be rolling in no time 🎲🎲🎲