"Black Dougal gasps 'Poison!' and falls to the floor. He looks dead."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Open vs Closed Gaming

The last few D&D games I have been part of have all been "open" games. By open I mean that they are played with varying participants. The Northern Marches campaign was specifically designed to be open. It was created to accommodate busy adult lives and was designed so that it did not matter who showed up to play from week to week. The 4E games I am running at the local meetup are by necessity open and the skype B/X game is open in that I just made an open invitation for people and accepted a couple more than I expect to be able to make each scheduled session.

An open game contrasts with a closed game which I think of as how I have previously mostly played D&D in that I was part of a set group. Closed groups may or may not play the same game from week to week but they a fairly consistent in who shows up to play.

Whether a game is open or closed has an impact on social aspects of the game, the campaign design and the game mechanics themselves.

1. Social - a closed game has a slightly different social element than an open game. This is pretty evident since in an open game you never really know who might wind up sitting down at the table. I have found two interesting social dynamics in the open games I have run. The first is that I had the first fight between players during a Northern Marches game. The players did not know each other and it stemmed from a roleplaying incident where a character reacted to having another character accidently gunned down by friendly fire. I don't think that the reaction would have been the same if the players knew each other and had been party of a closed game. The second, an honestly one I tried to cultivate for the Northern Marches, is a bit of competitiveness between players. I wanted to try to get people to want to play frequently by giving them FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). If they new that another player's character found a magic sword during a session they were not able to atend maybe they would be more inclined to show up the next session.

2. Campaign Design - If a DM doesn't know who is going to be at his game, it makes it tough to carry on a plot. I think this leads to one of two reactions from the DM. Either they railroad the adventure to make sure that their "story" gets told or they adopt a sandbox. A sandbox doesn't have an overall plot so continuous attendance isn't required. An open game also encourages more episodic play with each session being more self contained.

3. Game mechanics - I find that closed games lead to more house rules. If you have a long standing group, everyone gets to know preferences and can take the time to learn house rules. Open games make communicating a long list of house rules more difficult.

What do you think? Are there other aspects that are impacted by open or closed games? Are there advantaged to open or closed games? Which do you prefer?


  1. Wow, I don’t consider this rambling; I consider it a valuable topic of discussion.

    Perhaps because *I* am older, perhaps because of the busy schedules of folks (including the kids!) in the 21st century, but I have found it difficult to have “closed” gaming groups. Perhaps the term is a misnomer…I’ve never actually “closed” a gaming table (all games had pretty much an open door policy to anyone that wanted to play, but there WAS a regular core group of players). I suppose if there were too many people clamoring for my attention as a DM (more than 6 or 7 certainly), I might have to “close” the game, but I’ve never had so much interest that I had to do so.

    Regarding house rules and open games: I’m pretty much a stickler for running “rules as written.” If I don’t like a game, I tend not to play it…”tweaking” is not a habit I’m in. This may be one of my reasons behind my dislike of recent RPGs that have such a TON of supplemental material. I don’t want to exclude “canon” material, but I don’t want to buy (and read!) every goddamn splat book on the market…and I certainly don’t want to have a list of proscribed texts sitting on my gaming table. In the “good old days” the rule was: if it ain’t a class/race in the PHB or UA you can’t use it. Dragon magazine allowed some room for negotiation (the begging/pleading player would be required to provide a copy of the Dragon mag to a DM and the character would be accepted, semi-probationary, for at least one session with the understanding it might be banned).

    But I remember the first time I got sand-bagged as a DM when a player whom I just met brought his “Sword and Fist” to the gaming table with a fighter using “Monkey Grip” to dual wield a pair of two-handed swords. What a bunch of shit. After acquiring all the splat books myself, I realized a) there are just too many damn ‘canon’ rules out there and b) a lot of ‘em are garbage anyway.

    SO I try to avoid house rules (or even “extra” rules) all together, regardless of whether or not a game is open or closed.
    : )

  2. Most of the games I have run in my 28+ years have been Closed Games by virtue of the fact that it was the same group of folks and played at one of a handful of homes.

    When I moved I then hosted games and they tended to be more open (often frustratingly so).
    --Then there were games run at a LGS.

    As regards House Rules: Yes. I agree.

    But, I am interested in hearing more of this 'Plot' of which you speak. ;)

  3. "plot"
    probably not the best term to use for the meaning I am trying to convey. Even in a sandbox, the PCs might learn that NPC X is planning some nefarious plan involving all sorts of terrible things. Two sessions later the party consists of only one player that knows about NPC X. The nefarious plan isn't that important any more. Or the archenemy isn't so arch any more.

    Now none of this is that big of a deal but it is something to consider.

    It can also be overcome somewhat by using some sort of mechanism to communicate between players - our blog for instance.

  4. I think you are spot on. A couple of comments and my preferences.

    1. Social: a big part of why I do this is social with friends. We look forward to seeing each other AND to playing. Gaming often starts after some socializing and grilling. Closed gaming is also safe gaming for those less confident in their gaming skills, whether justified or not. It is also safe gaming on a broader scope that friends will be more accomodating and forgiving.

    2. Campaign Design: Since I much prefer to DM a story line, a sandbox game is undesirable to me. http://gnotions.blogspot.com/2009/07/frpg-is-like-rope.html I am happy to play in a sandbox as a character now and again. I just cannot get excited to use my limited DM prep time to work on a sandbox. Also not knowing how many characters are going to play in an adventure makes having your encounters prepared and balaced.

    3. House rules often support subtle or not so subtle tone shift to the rules. This is usually worked out in agreement with what the DM and players desire, so it is not surprising that open games are run RAW and closed games are modified. Any old school wargamer types would be mortified if someone else had more time to understand the (house)rules and how to use them to their advantage.

    In summary, As a DM I am a closed game fan. I also run a semi-closed game once and a while so I can accomadate varying number of players from a pool of known friends. It is fun, but I always find myself frustrated that not everyone knows the story from last time. And yes, we do have game logs. It just is not the same.


  5. Thinking about sandboxes with an open game a bit more...

    A sandbox requires interest and a semi sort of knowledge of the campaign world in question. A new drop in player, or a series of them, would not have the knowledge, nor interest in the world enough to explore. They would need serious adventure hooks to get them going, and at that point, it's no longer sandbox.

    Now ideally, the players enjoy the experience so much that the return again and again and develop that knowledge. So the trick becomes either getting a good game going right off the start or getting new players up to speed very quickly when they join in.

  6. I've been playing in an open D&D 3.5 game for a year, now. We play on weekdays from 19:30 to 23:30 -- there is not much time for socializing except for some banter during the game. We agreed to limit adventures to single game sessions. By now I find that the adventures consists mostly of us travelling somewhere on the wilderness map, fight two big fights, get to the end, and a quick recap of how we returned to town.