Building a TTPRG Group From Scratch
Updated: Mar 2
I grew up playing TTRPGs (tabletop role-playing games, for those outside the hobby), slinging dice with my friends in my parents' basement, creating elaborate worlds, pouring over rulebooks like they were ancient tomes of secrets. To me, they were! These times spent playing games and creating stories together had the net effect of instilling in me a powerful love of stories and also in building some lifelong friendships. I continued playing TTRPGs in college and beyond as I figured out my life as an adult.
Then, in my late 30's, struggling through a difficult former marriage, trying to establish myself as a writer, working long hours at a challenging job to pay a mortgage, I began to devalue my time at the table. Playing was fun, sure, but devoting hours every week to hang out with friends? It didn't seem worth it. I didn't actively quit playing TTPRGs, I just stopped. "Life" got in the way.
Life, it turns out, IS hanging out with friends, spending time with loved ones, laughing together and having shared experiences. Life is about the joy you make of it. One of the many lessons I learned during the pandemic. But making friends as an adult is hard - it takes time and intention and effort.
So, after Denise and I relocated to California, I decided I wanted to start playing TTRPGs again, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) in particular (though there are many other great games for everything from Star Wars to Cthulhu to superheroes and more).
I set out by visiting local gaming stores, signing up for Discords and Meetup groups and trying to find a group looking for players. And I found groups! I tried out playing with three different groups, and they were all good. The other players were friendly and the games were enjoyable, but I never "clicked" with the other players. I had a clear goal in mind: it wasn't that I wanted to join a TTRPG group just to play games, I wanted to create new friendships, build relationships in this new place on the other side of the country from where I'd spent the prior 15 years.
I decided it was time to form my own group. But how does one find other like-minded TTRPG players and, more challenging, how does one find the right players? The players you could easily develop friendships with, the players you look forward to hanging out with week after week?
I've now been running a game with the same players weekly for 4 months, and while it's still "early days," I can safely say that I would happily continue to game with this group for years to come.
I'd like to share with you how I put the group together and what worked for me. As with all advice, take what brings you value and throw away the rest.
I knew that I wanted to put together a game that played weekly. I would "run" the game - taking on the role of Gamemaster / Dungeon Master to create the story, the setting, the adventures, etc. - as well as planning and organizing the game. As someone who is passionate about storytelling and worldbuilding and whose day job is project management, these are roles I'm actually very comfortable with.
I wanted a neutral location, somewhere that didn't involve going to a stranger's house, and also somewhere that would be fun and comfortable to hang out at every week. I wanted to do it on a weeknight since it's hard for many people to commit a chunk of time every weekend. Importantly, I knew what kind of game I like and what kind of game I wanted to play in and run. Having tried out a few groups last year and being unable to find one that I liked, I knew that it is important to set clear expectations and find people who like the kinds of games I like. I also knew that the most important factor of all these was going to be finding a group of players that I liked and wanted to hang out with every week.
There's a well-known maxim in the TTRPG community, which is that the only thing that's worse than no game of D&D is a bad game of D&D. The point being that TTRPGs are social experiences. You can play them with strangers and have a good time, but if you want to develop those memorable stories, those deep relationships, you need a long-term group, and that means finding people you like hanging out with week after week.
There are thousands of different TTRPGs in the world, many of them excellent, all of them offering a unique shared storytelling experience. I decided to run Dungeons & Dragons. It's a game I grew up playing and a game I enjoy a lot. Though the rules had evolved since earlier editions when I last played, it is still a game that was in my wheelhouse. I was no expert on the 5th edition rules, but I had enough legacy experience that I knew that I could learn the game without difficulty.
More importantly for my needs, D&D is far and away the most widely-known TTRPG in the space. The popularity of live streams such as Critical Role and the appearance of "virtual tabletops" that exploded in use during the pandemic meant that popularity in D&D had skyrocketed since I last played. It's estimated that 50 million people play D&D now. That meant that I would have the best shot of finding other players.
I picked up the latest rules. I also picked up a beginner adventure, "Dragon of Icespire Peak," that I had heard was good. I figured having a pre-written adventure would mean less work for me. (This, it turns out, was not entirely true. A topic for another blog post.)
This was actually the easiest piece to figure out. Last year when I lived in Vista, I participated in a weekly game hosted at Battlemage Brewing - a gaming-focused brewery. Living in Temecula, I knew that there were several breweries in the area, and none of them were hosting D&D games... yet! I reached out to a number of local breweries, and the good folks at Relentless Brewing & Spirits agreed to host us on Wednesday nights.
Relentless Brewing has been an awesome location to play. Not only is it the perfect space to hang out for a few hours on a weekday evening, they have been incredibly welcoming, providing us with tables, allowing us to play D&D-themed music, and welcoming our antics when everyone cheers for a critical hit or a cries in agony when their character suffer a staggering blow. Thank you, Relentless Brewing!
This is, of course, the most important part! I wanted to recruit players that I would like to play with, but how do you know someone is the right person for you until you've met them and gamed with them? There's no questionnaire that can tell you whether you'll like someone or not, but I knew from experience that I could improve my odds by:
Providing clear guidance about the sort of game I wanted to run. For me, this is a story-focused game where role-playing plays a big part. Some games are more about killing monsters and taking their stuff. My games are about building a story together and seeing the characters evolve and grow. There's nothing wrong with other styles of play, but it's best if everyone at the table is looking for the same kind of experience.
Establishing clear boundaries and rules for what kind of behavior was welcome at the table and what was not. This was intended to weed out the kind of people who think it's funny to make other people uncomfortable, who make jokes at other peoples' expense, and who aren't welcoming and accepting of all types of people.
Rather than jump straight into a campaign, I wanted a chance to meet and play with people, so I decided to run several "one-shot" adventures. A single evening's game with only one night invested. Should we click, then we can see where things lead with future games. If we don't click, no harm done.
I posted a message around social media looking for players. I posted it to the local Temecula subreddit, the D&D "looking for group" subreddit (r/lfg), the Discord for the local gaming store, and several local Temecula Facebook groups. Most of my responses came from the Temecula subreddit.
I had roughly 35 respondents over a week. Turns out a lot of people like D&D! To all of those folks, I sent a follow-up message detailing more about who I was, the kind of game I wanted to run, and my rules for what kinds of behavior I expect. I asked that anyone who wanted to participate agree to my rules. This allowed for players who enjoyed my style of game to opt in and others who didn't want that kind of game to opt out.
Those who responded affirmatively, I sent the date, time, and location and some details about the one-shot.
Here's a copy of the messages I sent out. If you're thinking of starting your own group, feel free to use these as a starting point.
From that initial social media posts, I had about 35 people respond. Because I'm a project manager, I tracked responses and contact info in a spreadsheet. I sent all of the respondents the second "about me/rules" message. About a dozen responded. Some couldn't make the dates work or couldn't commit to the the time for a regular game, but we still wound up with five players.
We met for the first game. One player messaged me to say he had a last-minute work emergency and couldn't make it but wanted to play in the second one-shot if it was still available. The other four players showed up. I ran a one-shot adventure I had prepared in advance using pre-generated characters. The game went exceedingly well. We had varying experience levels at the table, but everyone was friendly, excited to participate, and mutually supportive of the other players. Everyone likes to have their moment in the spotlight when playing a TTRPG, but one thing I was pleasantly surprised to see among a group of strangers was players who made opportunities in the game for the other players to shine.
Of those initial four players, once decided not to join for the longer term since he lived too far away to make it regularly. I originally planned to do a second one-shot, but I had interest from a couple of other players as well, as well as the fifth player who had to back out from the one-shot. We moved forward with me plus four players. We then added a fifth player - a friend of a friend who heard about the game. And then a sixth player - one of the original Reddit respondents whose schedule opened up. While I didn't do a one-shot for these players, everyone had to review the rules and accept them before participating.
We started our campaign with a "Session 0." I highly recommend this for ongoing campaigns. A Session 0 is a session where you get together to create characters, but also to establish ground rules for play, describe what the game will be like, and talk about the use of safety tools. This helped to ensure everyone was on the same page and helped to create feelings of mutual trust and safety and to create a welcoming space at the table.
Here's a copy of my "Session 0" notes for anyone who is interested. You can see we did some introductions, reviewed logistics, revisited the rules I asked everyone to agree to, talked about safety tools such as the X Card (which I call the "Pause Button") and a consent checklist (sometimes called "lines and veils").
One other tip - I setup a private Discord server for the group. This makes it easy to plan and organize the game and provides a place for the players to communicate. I highly recommend this once you start a new group!
I'm really pleased I chose to start a local gaming group, and delighted with the players who are joining me. It's something I look forward to every week, and friends in the game are quickly turning into friends outside of the game. If you're interested in starting a local TTRPG group, you could do worse than to experiment with the above approach!
Here are some resources that helped me think through this process and some other ideas to get started:
Check out your local gaming store and see if they participate in D&D Adventure League. This is a great place to find other players and try out the game if you haven't played before.
If you can't commit to an in-person game, consider online play using Discord, Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, or one of many other Virtual Tabletops.
What approach did you use to form your local gaming group? Share your approach in the comments below. And if you'd like more content like this, please subscribe to my newsletter.
Let me know as well if you have more questions about any of the tools I used, like my Session 0 or safety tools. I'd be happy to discuss further!