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Finding New Players — Lose Weight By Eating.

By Robert H.D. Ahrens


This spring I was the principal mastermind behind a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to get a monthly games day rolling in my hometown of Ithaca, New York. This article grew out of a discussion thread on RPG.Net about finding new players and incorporates such wisdom as I've been able to accumulate over an 18 year gaming "career" on both the good and bad ways to go about it.

I started gaming when I was 10. My cousin Abigail got me into playing Fighting Fantasy while we were on holiday in Normandy together. I thought it was badass. So when I went home to Scotland I invested in the Tunnels & Trolls rulebooks and took them to school. I put a poster on the 6th form noticeboard with an ambitious drawing of a snarling troll and some bloke with a sword on it and my phone number. A week later, exactly one person, from the form below, had contacted me. Then my friend Tom showed interest. We spent one lunch time sitting in our classroom rolling up his first character, a Warrior. By the end of that lunchtime over a dozen kids in my class wanted to play Tunnels & Trolls.

Lesson #1: Official channels don't work. But direct proselytising can be a pretty effective.

Lesson #2: What makes most people consider roleplaying is seeing that it's fun.

Through high-school I played with a group that was basically an outgrowth of the group I'd played with in primary school. Eventually, everyone except Tom and me from the original group had dropped out, but there were always new players dropping in too, so some kind of stasis was maintained. By the time we were 14 we had a line-up of 6 guys who gamed regularly and it stayed that way until we finished high school. During that time our only real contact with other gamers was our annual spring pilgrimage to Big Con, the University of Edinburgh's weekend-long convention every February. (It's now Con-pulsion, for those keeping track at home.) Basically, we stayed away from other gamers. They always wanted to talk about how many automatic weapons their character carried or how their halfling once killed a Balrog with a critical hit and we found it a bit embarrassing. I think we thought they were missing the point.

In college, I had to look for other gamers for the first time. Naturally, I went to the first meeting of the Games Society. It was a bit of a shock. The room was filled with guys with long, lank hair and Metallica t-shirts who advertised their games by saying "My name's Nigel and I'll be running D&D. There'll be lots of orcs." As they said this they looked steadfastly at their shoes. I got a Bad Feeling About This.

Eventually I signed up to play D&D with the one guy who wore a clean shirt and looked out at the crowd when he was talking about his game. He even made a joke in his description. I thought a-ha, this guy's okay, and signed up. His game was ... alright ... but there were some snags - he wouldn't let the Thief swap his DEX for his CHR even though the Thief's player tried explaining that he really saw the character as more of a con-man than a breaking and entering type and he'd really like to have a higher CHR. The other players in the game were my then-roommate, who hated it, a silent guy who turned out to be the Thief's player's roommate and a bloke whose Elf Fighter wore the ears of all the people he'd ever killed on a leather thong round his neck. We fought some Orcs in a copse. The Elf ran round after the fight and cut off lots of fresh ears. Everybody else looked at each other nervously. None of us went back.

Lesson #3: Not everybody who games is looking for the same experience. Not everyone will see eye to eye on the way a game should run. Sometimes these differences are insurmountable.

As it turned out, the Thief's player was in the Physics program with me. His name was Dan. We ended up being lab-partners and after a year of trying to disguise the results of failed experiments we had become pretty good friends. In the 3 week gap between finals and the end of the year we decided to have another shot at gaming. Dan ran a freeform D&D game for a friend of his who was about to graduate, the silent roommate and me. It was mind-blowingly good. The next day we spent all day talking about how to find a gaming group.

At the same time, I'd got hold of the Amber rulebook and wanted to try something different. And so we came up with a plan. I would dress as normally as possible and go to the first Games Society meeting in the autumn. I would smile politely and sound cheerful in describing a game that was "a bit different". All the new players who were in the same situation we'd been in the previous year would flock to me. We got six of them and that became the core of the group we played with from 2nd through 4th year. The following year we seized control of the Games Society by running a 40-player freeform game and holding the Annual General Meeting immediately afterwards. This rather underhanded tactic was supremely effective. At the Freshers' fair in 4th year we applied the same tactics to our booth and pushed the Society's membership from 30 to 80 through ruthless salesman tactics. We celebrated with a first meeting which involved a wargame played out with hundreds of Lego figures.

Lesson #4: Not all recruitment strategies are equal.

All good things come to an end, even college. Desperate to prolong the experience, I moved home to Edinburgh to do an MSc. In my absence it seemed that the old Edinburgh crowd had stopped gaming. Tom had moved to Glasgow to pursue a career in acting and in the short times we spent together we were more interested in being ourselves than in pretending to be other people. But I had run a couple of successful campaigns over the long summer vacations with Ross and Jack when we all had too much time on our hands and Tom had just moved back through from Glasgow, so it looked possible to get something started. Ross brought his girlfriend, Tom brought his little brother, my roommate Iain joined in, and suddenly we had 7 players. Then, quite casually, while I was in Black Lion Games browsing through Providence products, the store owner directed a fellow to me. A Tasmanian bloke, fresh off the boat, who was looking to get in on an RPG. I suggested we go for a pint, then found out he was the only Australian to be teetotal, and then we got harassed by members of a stag night up from Newcastle. We were off to a good start. He turned out to be one of the best gamers, and GM's, I ever played with.

Lesson #5: The advertised strategies do work some of the time.

I now live in Ithaca, NY. When I moved out here I took only a sports bag filled with some spare clothing and two novels. I didn't know how long I'd be living in the US and I didn't think I'd be doing any gaming. Then I was hanging out in the basement of the punker house across the street and I found out that one of the kids there, Spyder, had a big stack of Rolemaster books on his shelf. The next thing I knew, he was showing me hundreds of lovingly drawn maps, goblin encampments and fantasy warriors. Unlike my snarling troll of old, these were amazing examples of fantasy art. (Spyder now lives on Hawaii, in a yurt, where he is an apprentice tattoo artist and works as a beekeeper in his spare time.) I got to telling old war stories and Spyder asked if I would run a Rolemaster game. I winced and asked if he had any other games. He pulled out a slim volume of Elric! and we were off.

Spyder brought his roommate Bobwolf. I bullied two of the kids I lived with, ex-goths from Denver, into "trying it out" and Bobwolf brought along a friend of his from herb school who he used to talk about RPGs with. One night as we were playing a kid I used to work with as a political canvasser dropped by to see if we were drinking. He joined in too. Six players, three of whom hadn't played in over 5 years, three of whom had never played, none of whom would describe themselves as a "gamer".

Lesson #6: They walk amongst us.

Once word got out that I was running a game I suddenly got besieged by interested parties. I kid you not, over a dozen more people enquired if they could play in the game. Some of them were very persistent. Cornell architecture students, solid state physicists, cafe workers, drinking buddies, roommate's friends' boyfriends' were all jostling to be in the queue. One of the guys in my office turned out to be a savant of D&D3 and frequent online gamer who had never played tabletop at all. A bloke I knew from the comics store invited me to help him form a group to play Ars Magica on Sundays.

Lesson #7: If you run it, they will come.

Inspired by this upsurge of gaming interest, and by the thought of how many more must be out there and still unknown, I decided that a really good idea would be to put on a monthly open game. We could build a "gaming community", get people to come along, try different groups, different players, different GM's and run a bunch of one-shot games. The result was Lake Effect. I put out propaganda and built a web page. I figured I easily knew two dozen gamers, maybe more and that it might really take off....

Nothing. Through extensive bullying I got a bunch of my players from the regular game to turn up to the first two so it wouldn't be a total flop. And I did get to try GODLIKE and Mutants & Masterminds. But basically no-one else came forward, no-one was interested. No-one was willing to commit.

I took a step backwards.

Lesson #8: The traditional channels still suck.

It's my opinion that not very many of the potential gamers out there are interested in "gaming community". Even people who have been bugging me for a year about joining in my Dragon Lords game do not seem to want to get out of bed on a Saturday and spend an afternoon playing Adventure!. I had to ask myself, "why not?"

The answer, as best as I am able to supply one, is that most people who enjoy roleplaying aren't interested in being Gamers for the sake of being Gamers. All they really want to do is play in a roleplaying game.

So how do you go about finding new players? Boy, I thought I'd managed to dodge that question, but here it still is. My advice, for what little you may think it's worth my this stage, is that you should start small. Find a couple of people who might be interested and persuade them to take part. You can bully two of your buddies into it or seize the first gamer you meet in the store. It's not necessary to lose sleep wondering how many gamers are out there as long as you know one or two. Once you're in motion, things will gather speed.

If I've learned anything from all of the above experiences (and I'm not sure I have learned particularly much, although I did have fun) it's that an active, ongoing RPG which you play regularly and have fun with will gather its own steam and attract players. Posting pictures of snarling trolls on the sixth form noticeboard will not.

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