How to Play D&D When You Absolutely Don't Have the Time
Getting a group together for a weekly D&D game is tough. Most role-players gather with a set group of players to run or play the next chapter of a series of adventures in a campaign book that the party is trying to get through. All role-playing gamers know how hard it is--especially when you're an adult who works and has a family. However, changing your style of play can make it much easier to find the time to game on a weekly basis. This is the first in the series of articles that will explore methods of play that will make it easier to run an ongoing D&D (or other role-playing game campaign) on a weekly basis.
Structuring Your Campaign Around Absent Players
Players aren't going to show up for every session--it happens in almost every long-running campaign. Even if when your'e in the planning stages of a role-playing campaign, the fear of not having players show up might be enough to keep you from getting a game off the ground. This is a frequent problem when running a campaign or long adventure out of a book that requires your players to spend a great deal of time exploring a single location such as a forest or dungeon complex for many sessions of play with the same group of characters.
A good way to avoid this problem is to simply run a campaign that is built to handle player absence. Run a campaign that only needs a handful of random participants for each adventure, and make it so that it doesn't matter which players from your group show up. Run your game so that your campaign is structured something like a TV show, with a self-contained adventure every week that feel like an episode of a weekly show. Run your adventure in a few hours, and wrap it up before the next session so that you can start fresh next time with whomever shows up.
Running an Episodic Campaign
To pull this off, you'll have a group of adventurers who know each other, and have a good reason to work together with whomever is available to go adventuring every session. There are many ways you can do this, but one way is to have the characters work for an adventurer's guild. Every week, an NPC shows up at the guild with a task, seeking adventurers to rid their village of a monster, or to track down a lost treasure, or gather information about a rival merchant. Your campaign can be something of a series of disconnected adventures--at least to start. The players can negotiate a fee or possibly work for the treasure that they find and earn some gold to pay their dues to the guild--which can provide training when they level up.
As a dungeon master, it may be a challenge to come up with a short adventure that's meaningful each week. There are, however, lots of books with short adventures that can get you started. I have used several such books, such as Adventure a Week's Mini Dungeon Tome, and Kobold Press's Prepared!, which contain lots of brief adventures at various party levels. Each adventure is just a few pages long, and can be run in just a couple of hours if you wish--or with a bit of imagination and preparation, you can extend the adventure with an extra encounter or two. For smaller adventures or for a quick action scene before the party gets to the main villain, books like Limitless Encounters are a big help, with a nice set of one-off encounters for that you can easily add to any adventure.
Once your players are established as local adventurers, and have had time to build a reputation, you can build out some long-term story lines. Maybe the party receives a quest one day that ends up being a trap set by someone whom they have crossed during the course of their adventuring. Now the party has a main, reoccurring villain. They'll have a rival to fight long-term that you can work into future adventures. As well, the party can build friendly relationships with non-player characters whom they have helped and develop alliances. Maybe one day, the guild's leadership takes notice of the party's success and looks to them as their successors once the party gets higher in level.
The important thing is to stick to the format and keep the campaign going and have fun. Play a short adventure every session. Fit it to a few hours to accommodate everyone, and don't break a single adventure up between sessions if you can help it, so you can start a new adventure next time with whomever can make it from your group. Stick by these rules, and you'll be able to play D&D on a regular basis even when only a few people from your gaming group can make it.