Our Modern Day Scheduling Crisis

Recently, Wizard of Adventure Michael B brought up an excellent question regarding The Demonplague, our epic level 1-20 D&D 5E campaign. He asked:

I’m interested in running Demonplague at some point, but not interested in running a level 20 adventure. Is there an easy way to cut it short to level 11?

This coincides with another conversation I had recently about how hard it is to schedule game sessions.

I believe game scheduling has become a huge challenge for many GMs because time has changed since I started GMing in 1980.

If you are a grognard like me, you’ll remember setting appointments with friends for “noonish.” And you’d wait a few minutes on either side and then meet up.

Today, however, we count time down to the minute, if not the second. In virtual meetings, my Teams meetings have a persistent clock in the top left corner that tells me the time down to the second. Our phones and daily lives are now filled up to every millisecond.

Growing up, I had swathes of time spent in lines, waiting for something to happen or come along, or was otherwise “unbooked.” But today, notifications ensure you’re busy every second of the day. And if a rare free block of time comes up, we’re streaming something, playing a video game, or otherwise making sure no second goes to waste.

I caught myself doing this last month. I was waiting for some bacon to cook, so I checked my messages. I moved the sizzling bacon around and then checked my calendar. Then I checked my emails. Then I drained the bacon, poured some eggs into the pan, and started reading an article on Angry GM.

Not one second was left unattended.

So, time today is much more compressed. Every corporation and device maker ensures we don’t become idle for one single moment.

And I think this has turned into no one wanting to make long-term plans. That habit, and maybe even skill, is going. Let’s say I’m a somewhat casual player in your campaign. Why should I commit myself to a time and place for hours when a) something amazing might come up at the last minute like a new streaming series drop, or other event, or b) that’s a long time to go without catching up on notifications, memes, and doomscrolling.

I think it’s hard for many GMs to get all players coming consistently to a campaign — a long-form game — because time has become so condensed and micromanaged with people.

Which brings us back to lessons learned from writing The Demonplague and Michael’s question.

Play With Who You’ve Got

Structure your campaign so sessions don’t get cancelled if one or two players drop. Avoid hinging plots, adventures, and encounters on any single character.

The Demonplague is a party game. Unless the party splits up and you start fracturing the numerous plotlines blooming in the village of Tomar’s Crossing, the campaign can continue on regardless of player absences. Adopt the same approach with your game.

Keep Things More Episodic

A purely episodic TV show means you could take a deck of cards and say that each card is a single episode. Then you could shuffle the cards, pick one at random, watch the show, and it would make 100% sense. No plot lines out of sync, or character development arcs jumbled up.

I don’t like running campaigns like this. It’s an extreme, and I prefer plot lines and character arcs. I need some kind of connective tissue between each session so an epic story emerges.

However, to account for tough schedules, we can make our campaigns a bit more episodic to compensate.

For example, The Demonplague has four parts. Part I is chasing down a bunch of interesting quests in and around Tomar’s Crossing. Part II is sandbox play in Luna Valley with extended quests. Part III is hex crawling Luna Valley with a bunch of standalone encounters you can drop onto your table at random or when the perfect story beat triggers. And Part IV is a large and tough dungeon in the “heart of the valley” — which itself is a quest to locate.

Except for Part IV, a GM can run threads and encounters in the other parts in episodic fashion. You can play each of the 5 Room Dungeons in their own sessions, for example. You can put what you want (or roll) in each hex and play that out as a one-and-done quest, challenge, or discovery. And sandbox play in Luna Valley keeps the party in a dangerous and feral world, but always fairly close to home base for an easy session-ender.

If you struggle with herding the cats and player logistics, consider a similar structure for your campaign and play with the cards dealt to you each session.

Stay Low Level

Keep power levels low in your campaign ongoing. Drop XP rates, reduce encounter frequency, and claw back some of the treasure to maintain a grittier game.

This gives you several GMing wins.

Characters advance slower. So when players miss sessions, you don’t get weak PCs adventuring with powerful PCs.

Less prep. Because what challenged the party five sessions ago is still a challenge to them today, you step off the power creep escalator that requires you to spawn ever more powerful NPCs, monsters, treasures, and dungeons. You can reuse conflicts more because the characters have not leveled up beyond them.

Smell the roses. I advocate for a fast pace, but that doesn’t mean cramming every second of a session with new encounters, more XP, and new stuff. Slow down, Master the Moment, and challenge players and characters who are stable enough (e.g., not leveling fast) to test every character sheet element over time.

Better character arcs. Slower level progression actually deepens the bonds between players and their characters. When you level fast, it feels like you have a new character each session you have to re-learn. Old powers are no longer effective, new powers feel strange, and the pace of change makes personality harder to roleplay.

For Michael’s question, you can reduce XP in The Demonplague’s encounters. Gold can be spent not only on personal services but to influence an election, rebuild the devastated milieu, and other non-power creep yet roleplay-fulfilling ways.

You can also spend more time “romancing” each quest, hex, and encounter and relish each moment with them, and not feel rushed because level 20 is not the goal.

Have more fun at every game!

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