One thing that I’ve found as a middle-age man with other hobbies and real-life concerns is that finding a regular group to play every single week is much more difficult than it was in my heyday of 1st edition AD&D during high school, college and the Army. The path I’ve chosen instead is an epic multi-path sandbox inspired campaign. There are multiple storylines being chased, characters that drop in and out of sessions and off-table action run via email, chat and twitter.
Altogether this results in a campaign that is similar to epic fiction (Wheel of Time, Lord of the Rings). The party forms, breaks apart, reforms, expands, contracts as they attempt to make friends, make enemies, solve problems and help to create the world and story in which they play.
This is the tracking chart that I use to help track the various PCs. Experience points and gold are tracked by me until they are on the player’s own sheet. Once that happens I make the column blank, because I will not need that information while I create the next encounters and new paths for them to follow.
As I stated when first discussing this large group, episodic campaign, calendaring is also important. The group of three that are in Sheljar are two weeks “ahead” of the group that is at the caravansaray. Maurice is 3 days “behind” the group at the caravansaray. Mansaray and Shonie are semi-retired for real-life reasons. Shonie is now an NPC that group can use to help get intel, etc from Telse. Mansaray will either re-enter the campaign as a PC or an NPC reconnecting a current plot line that’s been abandoned.
Doing something like this creates more off-table work. Not only does the DM/GM need to create encounters, adventures and campaigns they need to use some kind of tracking sheet and calendar, and understand that the non-linear nature of the campaign means that players will forget things. Reminding them should be a bit more involved than a typical 5-10 minutes “in last session” verbal recap.
Provide the players with a digital recap, maps, images and other things that maintain a connection to the story that you are all telling together. Recognize that not every PC will be involved in every plot line. Maybe the hook doesn’t catch with them for either player or character reasons. Allow those players to know what plot line will be the focus of a session and they can either show or not. If they don’t show for story reasons (I haven’t encountered this yet) help them advance the plot hooks that they do like.
Don’t try to run a table session with more than 5 or 6 PCs. All the standard concerns about table time and organization return with that. Feel free to run a mini-session with just 2-3 PCs. They could be scouting an area, or doing a social tier with a local authority. These advance the story, but more importantly let your players know that you value their time. Those characters get rewarded with xp, gp, treasure. The players get rewarded with the entertainment of role-playing.
Be prepared for variable level encounters. With bounded accuracy this should not be as much of an issue as it would be in earlier editions of the game. Establish from the outset what the rules are about death, drop-in character creation, etc and work with your players to make certain that they are having fun with the system as it exists at your table both real-life and via digital communications. Feel free to grant xp for actions taken when the character acts in off-table activities.
By combining story xp and encounter xp you increase the level advancement as well as help social and exploration tier PCs advance. The more players that you include, the more likely you are to interact with PCs that emphasize the different tiers.
Finally, you should probably already understand this, such a campaign requires more organization and isn’t right for casual play. But the payoff is the creation of a story that mimics multi-novel stories, and that’s a lot of fun.