This article is the first in a series of articles to help new and prospective dungeon masters start running games. We’ll cover a wide range of topics in this series, all with the goal of getting over the hurdles and speed bumps that get in the way of running a great D&D game.
Dungeon mastering requires a plethora of skills. We must think on our feet. We must have at least a basic understanding of the rules. We must know the world and setting of the game we’re running. We must build off the actions of the characters. We must put together a compelling story from what happens at the table.
No part of dungeon mastering is more difficult than finding a good group of players and keeping it together as long as we can.
We can pick up all of the other aspects of running a D&D game as we run them, and we’ll talk about many of these skills in future articles. Getting the right people to the table and having them come back from game to game always requires hard work and attention.
In this article we’ll dig deep into this topic. We’ll identify the best places to pick up new players, describe techniques for getting the right players to the table, and talk about how we can keep our group together for years to come.
A Summary for Finding and Maintaining a D&D Group
Here is a quick summary of tips and tricks for finding players and keeping a D&D running smooth year after year. We’ll get into all of these in this article.
- Seek out D&D players from your friends, family, friends-of-friends, and co-workers.
- Visit your local game shop and seek out Organized Play games to meet D&D players in your area.
- Use Meetup.com or Facebook to find players or groups in your area.
- Join and run games online to get old friends together or meet new friends from all over the world.
- Maximize the chances of finding a great group by connecting with as many people as possible and making our desires to play D&D well known.
- Get the right players to the table by running single-session or short-run campaigns to see if people are a good fit for the group and vice versa. Run it outside of a regular game time so there’s no feeling of rejection if the game doesn’t continue.
- Choose a regular gaming schedule that works well for the group. Send reminders a few days before each game to build in the habit of the game into the players.
- Keep a list of on-call players who can join in if a regular player cannot. Five to six regular players and one to two on-call players can keep a group running well for years.
- Always seek out new interested players so you’re ready to fill in a seat when real-life pulls a regular player away from the table. Long-standing games succeed with a clear process for adding new players as others step away.
Where Can We Find Players?
While the internet has completely changed how we communicate these days, the most common ways to find players for a D&D game continues to be face-to-face. In hundreds of discussions on the topic, many players and DMs describe finding their group through their friends, family, friends-of-friends, and coworkers above other methods for finding games.
Friends and friends-of-friends has always been and remains a great way to recruit players for a D&D game. In many cases our friends tend to like the same sort of things we like and all it takes is a little nudge to try out some D&D. If our friends like board games or computer roleplaying games, it’s an easy step to move into D&D. The same holds true for family members. We never know if our spouses, children, and extended families have an interest in playing D&D unless we ask.
Many D&D players and DMs have put together or joined groups through co-workers at their jobs. If we’re lucky, we might work with other fans of science fiction and fantasy who would enjoy a fine game of D&D. We never know if we don’t ask, so mentioning our love for this game among our co-workers is a great way to find new players. Sure, many of our co-workers have no interest, but a few might and those few might be perfect for our game. The perceived social stigma of admitting our love for the game might make this hard but the game’s popularity and growth over the past four decades have pushed it much more into the mainstream. It might be scary to mention our love of D&D in mixed company but it gets easier every time we do it.
Local Game Shops and Organized Play
As it has in the past, many players and DMs still find their groups through local gaming stores that run open games of D&D. This isn’t an option for everyone but if we do have a local game shop, we can drop in and let the owners know we’re looking for a game.
Local game shops often run organized play D&D like the D&D Adventurer’s League. These organized play programs give us a larger campaign world and an overarching story that lets DMs and players share the same experiences from table to table. Various gaming conventions all over the world likewise expose us to a huge range of players who share our same passion for the hobby.
For some, organized play games are the perfect way to enjoy D&D. Other players prefer a more stand-alone experience with a single DM and a consistent group of players. Playing with local organized play groups can lead to both options, however. There are few better ways to recruit for a home game than to talk to players and DMs who already play and love D&D at the local gaming shop or convention.
Finding Players and Games Online
Though many people find or build D&D groups through face-to-face contact, the growth of the internet has given us all new ways to connect with other players.
Meetup.com remains a popular way to set up D&D events in a local area or see what events others have going. Organizers also tend to use Meetup to advertise organized play and home games. You can also put up your own request for a game if we don’t see anything going on.
Facebook has a very healthy D&D discussion group and there are many local D&D groups listed there. It can take a little work and research to find the right place to post a request for players or a game but it can be worth the effort.
Our own D&D Beyond forums contain a “looking for group” section to help players find groups and groups to find players. Give it a try!
Running Games Online
So far all of the places we’ve mentioned point towards finding local players and face-to-face D&D games but for some, playing D&D face to face simply isn’t an option or an ideal one.
Running D&D games online through tools such as Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds grew tremendously over the past few years. Running D&D games online removes geographical boundaries and lets us play games with our friends all over the world.
Many groups of old friends have stayed together playing D&D by playing online. These tools often have online forums for players seeking groups and groups seeking players. These “LFG” (looking for group) forums can be hit or miss since they still contain internet anonymity. Sometimes a game works for us and sometimes not. It can take some work and maybe a few false starts before we find the right players and the right group for us. Have patience, grasshopper.
Luck and Persistence
The hard truth is that finding a great group requires some good luck. It’s not a single roll of the dice, however, unless we only try once. By surrounding ourselves with people who like similar things to us and continually making our love for this game known, we’re giving ourselves many rolls of the dice until we finally hit the right numbers and find ourselves in a great game.
If we explore all our options and keep trying, with a little luck we’ll soon find ourselves in a fantastic group.
Getting the Right Players to the Table
Finding players and putting together a game is a challenge. Finding the right players is even harder. As we’re all well aware, not everyone gets along and, for our D&D games, not every player seeks the same thing from the game.
The only thing worse than not being able to find people to play D&D is having the wrong people at the table and not having an easy way to get rid of them. We might have a good feeling for someone only to find out that they’re really not a good fit at the table.
So how do we make sure we have the right mix of players? Try them out.
The easiest way to do this is to run a single-session D&D game, perhaps a four-hour game, and invite prospective players to that game. We might include other players we know and trust who can help evaluate any new players that come to the table.
If things work out at this game, we can set up another game or invite these new players to an ongoing game if we already have one. If they don’t work out, we only lose that single session. Inviting a player to a single session game avoids the potential expectation that they’re joining a long-standing group. We’re not rejecting them if we don’t schedule another, the game was just a single session game.
If we want to give ourselves a little more time to evaluate one or more players, we might set up a four-session mini-campaign and see how that goes.
It feels easier to invite a new potential player to an existing game if we have one but this can lead to a painful conversation if we don’t want them back again. It’s much easier to schedule a single session or short run campaign at a different time and then just call it complete when it’s done. No rejection necessary.
Keeping the Game Together
At this point we’ve hopefully found a good group of players to play some D&D. How do we keep that group going week after week, month after month, and year after year? Like the rest of this topic, it, unfortunately, isn’t easy.
How often we play and how our sessions last can have a big impact on this. Do we play weekly for just a few hours? Do we play a nine-hour marathon session once a month? Each group will likely have their own answers to this question, although weekly four-hour games seems the popular choice.
We’re all busy so it’s hard to fit in anything new. Likewise, not everyone has a full handle on their schedule at any given time. If we want our group to remain healthy, it’s up to us to keep the schedule going and send out reminders every session.
Keeping a Game Stable with On-Call Players
Regardless of how well we set up our games, not everyone can make it all the time. People get busy. People get sick. People have lives that don’t always bend themselves around a game night.
Some groups tend to cancel the game if one or two people can’t make it, but there’s another way to keep the game going even with one or two absences: the on-call list.
When we’re seeking out new players, we might come across one or two who like the idea of playing D&D but can’t commit to a regular game. In other circumstances, we have a stable group of five to six players but find more who want to play. We don’t want to overload the table with eager players who find themselves in a huge crowd with no screen time.
Instead, we can talk to these new potential players about coming on as an “on call” player. When a seat opens up at the game, we can let the on-call player know a seat is open and they can jump in. If the table is full, they won’t be upset if they don’t get an invite as long as it’s clear to them ahead of time that they only join when a seat is free.
Managing an on-call list takes some care. We don’t want players to feel left out or that they’re somehow substandard to the players who have full seats. It’s simply a matter of numbers. In many circumstances players who have changes in their lives step away from the table and become on-call players instead of regular players. This gives an opportunity for one of the on-call players to jump in as a regular. As lives change, some of these players will step away from the table for good and we’ll have someone ready to jump in. At that point we can seek new on-call players.
A group is unlikely to remain stable year after year. If we want to keep our game going strong, it isn’t enough to find players at the beginning of the group. Finding players remains a continual job as long as we keep playing. All of the techniques described above can become a regular pattern for us as we’re always looking for the next player to join our game should someone step out.
If we manage it right, we can have a stable group of five to six regulars and one or two on-call players to fill in when a seat is free. This way it takes basically three to four people being unable to play before we can’t have the game at all.
The Hardest Job of the Dungeon Master
As much as we ponder the rules of the game, sharpen our improvisation skills, and build fantastic worlds for our players to experience; finding players and keeping players remains the hardest job we DMs have. If we want to have a regular game that last decades, it will take constant and continual care to find players, bring them to the table, keep them coming as long as we’re able, and adding new players as we need. Hopefully this article gives you some ideas how you can build your own fantastic D&D group. Keep rolling those 20s!
About the Author
Mike Shea is a writer, technologist, dungeon master, and author for the website Sly Flourish. Mike has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, Pelgrane Press, and Sasquach Games and is the author of the Lazy Dungeon Master, Sly Flourish’s Fantastic Locations, and Sly Flourish’s Fantastic Adventures. Mike lives in Northern Virginia with his wife Michelle and their dire-warg Jebu.