Organizing a Public Game

One of the things I’m “known” for in my local community is my role as a games organizer. I’ve been organizing a Dungeons & Dragons Organized Play program in Las Vegas for about 4 years, with a few breaks for burnout and while dealing with major life changes. In the course of that program, I’ve met and taught roughly two hundred gamers, and trained about 20 GMs and three other organizers. In this article, I’ll talk about how to organize a public Organized Play program at your local store, library, or other venue.

In a typical “home game” of a tabletop RPG, you have a Game Master (GM) or some kind, and some players. You all sit at one table, and you play an adventure and game system that might be written by someone else, but is almost always modified by the GM.

In a public Organized Play (OP) program, you have:

  • A bunch of players, many of whom might be new to the game

  • One or more GMs, some of whom might be new to GMing

  • A venue, such as a local store, that wants to bring players into the space to play

  • A parent organization that relies on the game being presented fairly and consistently

  • An organizer who tries to meet all of the needs of these players and entities. This article is about that person, what she does, and how you can be her.

Which Program?

The first step in organizing an OP program is to pick the one you’d like to participate in. There are several available, some for your favorite games. I’ll focus on RPGs, but there are OP programs for most miniatures games, Magic: the Gathering, the White Wolf LARP system, and a slew of board games. Many publishers have their own OP or Street Team program, or they might do something informal if you’re really excited about it and want to be rewarded for your efforts.

  • Wizards of the Coast: Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League (AL)

  • Paizo: Pathfinder Society (PFS)

  • Pelgrane Press: Tales of the 13th Age (in-house), or the Double Exposure Envoy program for GUMSHOE games and Hillfolk

  • Green Ronin: Freebooters

  • Evil Hat: Fate Street Team

  • Monte Cook Games: MCG Assets

One characteristic of an OP program is that the adventure, setting, and system are all standardized. If you are playing a PFS game, you know which game sources are “legal” for your character, and you know that there will be a minimum of house rules and on-the-spot decisions.

So, pick your OP program. For me, I have run D&D, both in AL and its previous incarnation for 4th edition. I’m also working on starting up the Pelgrane Press Gumshoe games, though it might be a while before I have a regular venue and group. I’ve participated in organized gaming with several other RPGs and many board game publishers.

Where Should We Play?

Next, approach your favorite venue for the game. Some of the programs require you to use specific venues for your games, or report in different ways. For example, Adventurers League will only allow you to run Expeditions, the 4-hour adventure format, if you are associated with a game store. The AL Epic games can only be run at large gaming conventions like PAX, Origins, and GenCon.

Talk to the venue about what you’d like to do. Do you want to run a weekly game? Biweekly? Will it be open to the public? Do you have a limit on space and how many tables you can occupy? How will you promote it, and how will the venue promote it (if at all)? How would you like prospective players to contact you? Will the venue charge a fee, and if so, who is responsible for paying it? Do players pay a flat fee, or is the whole table responsible for renting the space?

How Do I Get Players?

In the shop where I volunteer, I wrote up a little ¼ page flyer to put next to the cash register. It says when the game is, where to find resources like the rules and the campaign guide for what’s legal in this campaign, how to reach me by email, whether new players are welcome, and where to find more information on our Facebook page. I don’t actually work for the store, so I’m always careful to let people know that I’m just volunteering and setting things up-- I’m not an employee and don’t want to be seen as such.

Even though I’m not an employee, I am often the first person people will really get to know at the shop, and I keep that in mind when I’m talking to prospective players and GMs. I am always professional and friendly. If someone is hostile towards me, I try not to take it personally, and will excuse myself if I need to compose myself. If someone is hostile towards other players or GMs, I step in and deflect their anger towards me-- my role as the organizer is to protect my players and GMs and ensure they have everything they need to have a good time.

How Do I Get People to Run Games?

If you are running one table, and you’re the GM, you’re doing great. I have found, however, that when players learn that there’s a new campaign, they start showing up, and pretty soon you need a second or third GM to help you out.

Once you have more than one table of players, I strongly, strongly advise that you stop being a GM entirely. If you’ve been a GM, you know that it’s challenging to prepare a game, run it, and keep focus during the session, even without distractions. When you are the organizer, there will always be someone who comes in halfway through the session, or someone who wants you to help them level up, or someone who stopped in to lurk and wants more information. If you’re the GM, you can’t just walk away from the table to address those questions. If you’re a player, you can. Especially if, as the organizer, you’ve already made it clear to everyone at the table that you might miss a round of action if you’re needed elsewhere.

Some of the ways I recruit GMs:

  • Work with the venue to come up with incentives. Our local game shop gives free drinks and snack to GMs of public games as well as a small discount the day they’re running their games. It’s not a lot, but it helps show our appreciation to the GMs.

  • Announce before a game: “Just a reminder, if you’re interested in learning to GM, I’m happy to mentor anyone. I’ll pair you with an experienced GM. Perks of running here at the shop include a modest discount, free drinks and snacks when you’re running, and my undying thanks. You don’t have to commit to the full season, but I’d love to have a few more folks able to run games.”

  • Email the people I know who are already GMs and tell them I’m running games.

  • Make a separate GM-only game to run through the adventure. Since I don’t GM on game night, I run the game for the GMs, who really appreciate the opportunity to play. In past seasons, we’ve played Wednesday’s encounter on Sunday evening, which gave everyone a 3 day head start on any modifications they might make to the adventure. I found that running the GM game online, even though we’re all in the same city, meant everyone could make it to the game.

  • Listen and put people on a table when they say “hey, I’m a GM and I don’t mind stepping in when needed.” Get them the adventure and help them pick a night to take over a table and run the game with you sitting in on the table to help.

What Do I Do Before the Game?

You have your venue and some GMs and probably some players. You’ve signed up with the OP program. What next?

Usually, there are instructions for how to get the pre-made adventure the company wants you to run. In AL, you use the Wizards Event Reporter software to “Sanction” an event and order materials for it a month before the game you want to run. Wizards then sends you a PDF of the game. For PFS, you buy the module, at a cost of about $4. For other programs, you might email them in advance, or their requirements simply be to report after you run an event, using your own adventure choices.

I also do a lot of promotion for the game. I post our games on and on the store’s Facebook calendar. If I think we’re having low turnout, I might reshare the event to my own Facebook feed to encourage other local gamers to come out.

I touch base with my GMs and make sure they’re prepped for the game and committed to being there.

I also make sure I’ve read the adventure before the game. It’s happened more often than I care to acknowledge where GMs will back out at the last minute or not show up. Sometimes it’s transportation problems. In one case, it was a GM who took the module and left to run the adventure at another shop, without telling me why he just stopped showing up (Facebook was not his friend, in this case).

What Do I Do On Game Day?

On the day of the event, have all the players sign into a sign-in sheet. Ask for their character information (class/level is usually enough) and their email addresses if you can. For some programs, like AL, players also have a membership number they need to give you so you can record their play.

Then, look at how many players you have and the GMs. Assign players to tables by which ones came in together and what classes they’re all playing. In general, I’ll keep pairs and trios of friends together, but I try to break up larger groups. Organized Play isn’t meant to be a replacement for finding a GM for your home game. It’s a low-commitment way to get players to learn the game and make new friends. Cliques do not make friendships.

I also generally balance by class, though sometimes it is fun to have an unbalanced party trying to solve problems in the dungeon! When you have a party of all rogues and a cleric, their approach to problem-solving will be very different than if they have a fighter or a wizard in the party.

Finally, I raise my voice, call out a GM’s name, and have them raise their hand. I then call out the players for that table and have them move over to join the GM. Rinse and repeat with other tables and then go find the table I’ve assigned myself to.

During the game, I keep an eye on the door. If someone comes in looking a bit lost and kind of like an RPG gamer, I’ll introduce myself and see if they’d like more information. If they’re a customer, I’ll make sure to get the store owner’s attention (shop owners aren’t always attentive to new arrivals).

Inevitably, I have late players show up. Sometimes we can accommodate them. Sometimes I ask them to join a low-turnout table. Sometimes it’s just too late and we’re too busy to help. Frequently, because I’m the last person seated, I’ll give them my spot. It’s a game store, so there’s always other players nearby to play a pick-up board game or miniatures with if we’re just too full for another player.

How to Deal with Problems

As the organizer, you are the go-to person when anyone has a problem. If a GM thinks a player is cheating, you are the person they need to talk to, even if they eventually work it out themselves. If a player has a problem with another player or with the GM, you’re the one they will complain to. If the shop owner has a problem with how the games are going or how one of the tables is behaving, they will talk to you.

Most of the time, a person just wants their complaint to be heard. They want to know if you’re going to do something. My standard answer is to acknowledge their feelings, ask if they want me to talk to the other party, and assure them that I will do so. If the complaint is about hateful speech or cheating, there’s no question-- I will talk to the other party and will put myself at their table for a few weeks until I’m convinced they’ve corrected their behavior. If the complaint is a safety one-- someone being threatening-- I escalate to the shop owner and they’re immediately banned from the game and probably the shop.

When the shop owner has a complaint, it’s usually because we’ve overstepped or outgrown the one or two quiet tables they envisioned for our games. RPGs bring in a lot of players-- 7 players per table means some big, often loud tables. That makes it hard for customers to get to the products on the shelves or to feel like they’re welcome in the space. If we’re too boisterous and crowded, I talk to the GMs and make sure the tables are set up so there’s a clear path to the shelves and to the restroom. When we repeatedly had too many players, I split off one game to a separate game night and we started implementing a table limit and pre-registration before the games. Our culture will change as a result, but it has to-- once we have more players than space, the law of supply and demand means we must change to accomodate.

The Rewards of Organizing

It’s fun to be a public organizer, and it’s very rewarding. I haven’t paid for a snack at my local game store since they opened,  but more than that, every gamer in town knows me and respects what I’ve done. I’ve helped bring a brand new shop into the Wizards of the Coast’s store program from “Gateway” (for new shops) to “Advanced” in only a couple of months. I take pride in that and in what I’ve done for the store.

I know my local gaming community very well, and I’m confident that I can summon 2d8 D&D players on pretty short notice. When I’m looking to playtest my own games or start a home game, I have about a hundred active players who I know I can contact and ask if they’re interested. It’s not infallible, but I’ve been able to make a good few campaigns just by knowing so many of the gamers in my town.

If you’re a woman or person of color, there’s also the satisfaction of knowing that, by being the organizer, you have increased the visibility of your minority in gaming. We get more women and transwomen in my store than I typically find at other game shops. Women know that I’m not going to put up with sexist behavior from the players, and when it’s come up, I’ve made sure racist, homophobic, or any other “othering” behavior isn’t welcome, either.

I encourage you to take the next step and start up a public gaming group. It’s a fun thing to do, and a great way to give back to your community and make it a better place to play.