You’ve prepped, plotted, and planned. You have character sheets from the players, printouts from the rulebook, and everyone found a spot on the calendar that works. Now, your players are sitting around the table, dice in hand, and are looking expectantly towards your end of the table. What do you do?
I wouldn’t go so far to say that running your game is easier than prepping for it, but it is a completely different set of skills. Many of those skills, like using the game’s rules and putting yourself in the headspace of a character, apply equally to all players, whether they’re the GM or not. Others, like taking notes and tracking what’s going on in the setting, look the same whether they’re happening during the session or in prep time before. There is one skill, though, that is both admired and dreaded in equal measure: improv.
Welcome back to How the Wonk GMs! Last time we had a bit of an introduction, framing the GMing experience by talking about campaigns and how one sets up for a campaign. Today, the discussion will be more specific, talking about how one gets ready to run a session. Later, I’m going to go into what I actually do in the GM’s chair, and what running a session looks like.
The one comment I got on the last post in this series was that it was vague, and I concede that. Here’s the thing, though: After you frame up what kind of campaign you want to run, what conceits and systems would be fun for you, you want to keep it vague. An RPG campaign is not a novel, and when you’re setting everything up prior to play you want to leave as many doors open as possible. It is now, when you’re looking to set up an actual session that your players are going to show up to, that you can start closing the doors and settling on what you actually want the game to look like.
I call this session prep, but in the real world with schedule breakdowns, cliffhangers, and everything taking just a bit longer than you’d expect, this might be more of an ‘adventure prep’ given that some of these ‘sessions’ will last two or three. For the most part, then, we’re going to be talking in units of plot rather than units of time. For each of these units of plot, you’re going to be figuring out a problem statement, a problem space, and then a problem resolution. When you’re prepping, though, you start with the problem resolution from last time, use that to write your new problem statement, and then use the new problem statement and your existing prep to define a problem space.
If you’ve been around the site for a while, you may know that one of my favorite games in the old-school sphere is Electric Bastionland. Chris McDowall’s game of electropunk weird fantasy is a high watermark in the world of gameable settings, creating the city of Bastion as a thematically consistent setting which still has nearly endless ability to be interpreted, customized, and hacked by players of the game. A city existing right after the discovery of electricity, it is a huge, chaotic place filled with strange beings and objects, unmappable boroughs and streets, and numerous factions, councils, and unions constantly at odds with each other. If that’s not enough, the Underground below, Deep Country surrounding, and the Living Stars above all serve to create a weird world to get lost in.
Electric Bastionland as a game is designed to use as few rules as possible to get everything working, and therefore allow each gaming group flexibility when it comes to which elements of the setting they want to nail down. That said, the game also includes a very clever piece of worldbuilding tech in the form of Borough creation. For a Borough in the city, or an area of the Deep Country or section of the Underground, there are rules for mapping out the key transit routes through the area. These mechanics create a segment of Bastion with a great number of locations and hooks, and one Borough provides more than enough information to start the game.
What I find, though, is that if you want to use Electric Bastionland for a longer game, you’re going to want more than one Borough. It’s quite possible to prep one Borough at a time, let the map expand organically as the characters wander. That said, many people are going to want some form of larger map. While Bastion as a city naturally resists mapping, I think there’s still value in building out a higher level diagram, something that tells you where the bounds of the city are. That’s why I’ve been experimenting with a game creation framework that I call Bigger Bastionland.
If there’s one thing I’ve been asked to write about over the years, it’s what my home games actually look like. Not an imagined campaign, not a system hack, just how I run when it’s my friends, my ideas, and my time. Needless to say that’s not something that can be condensed to 2000 words, so instead I’m welcoming you, albeit temporarily, to ‘How the Wonk GMs’.
I’ve recently come off of a literally five year stint of GMing for my primary gaming group, and I have run a lot of different games in that time. Spending all this time in the GM’s chair has reminded me that I’m extremely lucky to have as engaged and curious a gaming group as I do…as well as the fact that breaks are good. While taking this break, though, I’m going to be trying to distill down my methods and madness into something approximating fit for public consumption.
If you haven’t noticed, Twitter is imploding. Since Elon Musk bought the company, it’s been learning experience after learning experience, with the most important one being the public at large learning that perhaps Elon isn’t a genius after all. Unfortunately, though that lesson was a long time coming, he’s probably going to destroy Twitter in the process.
Twitter in a lot of ways represents the worst of the app-driven attention economy internet. It’s created the term ‘doomscrolling’ and one of the most common euphemisms for it is ‘hellsite’. But, as much as we hate it, we can’t peel our eyes away. This has been strongly true, among many places, in the TTRPG community.
Twitter’s relatively easy engagement algorithm means that even small creators can find eyeballs, and they can do it without much concerted strategy. Though we’ve often termed using Twitter for promotion as ‘shouting into the void’, the fact is that if you keep at it, you will build a following, and it can be really difficult to figure out how to rebuild such a following in the absence of, well, Twitter.
Games are static documents. No matter what supplements or errata are released after the fact, the text of a game is just words on a page once it leaves the designer’s head. What makes a role-playing game more than that, though, is the act of play. Role-playing games are different from board games or card games because unlike those, where there are procedures and set-up and specific things to do, role-playing games in their text form merely template the play experience. In traditional role-playing games, it’s up to the game master, or GM, to actually produce the play experience.
I haven’t discussed much in the way of procedures for running a game, and this oversight became more clear as I was attempting to write about how specifically to run a long-duration game in the conclusion of Meet the Campaign: Anti-Boredom. Also, and surprisingly, there’s been some discourse about game prep recently? I was under the mistaken impression that understanding how best to prep for a campaign or session was essentially a solved issue at this point, that writing about prep would mean giving advice, not taking a position.
That all said, there is better and worse prep technique, and there are better and worse games to prep for. One reason that so much of what constitutes ‘GM Advice’ in the broader RPG discussion world is merely advice on how to prep for and run a gaming session is that the monopoly game, Dungeons & Dragons, is a poor tool for GMs. When it comes to running the game D&D has been getting worse by the edition, really, and players who were raised on earlier editions, versions of the game that were much more specific about how to prep and play them, are only getting older. So if you are struggling with running your game, my first piece of advice is to stop playing Fifth Edition D&D.
From time to time, you’ll see the gaming press and sometimes even the broader ‘nerd’ press pick up a story about a years-long or decades-long RPG campaign. One thing you’ll immediately notice is the focus of these articles: “Meet the GM who keeps on using the same damn world”. “This group has been playing one single game for 35 years. See how the GM does it.” The GM is the key to any campaign, but when a campaign is both long and sustained, others take notice. Long and sustained is the key for an anti-boredom campaign, and though it may not last 35 years, putting in the work will help keep a long, complex, and rich campaign going for longer than you may have initially thought possible.
GMing a long-running game isn’t about shortcuts, but it’s not not about shortcuts either. As a campaign builds history and increases in complexity, the amount of work the GM must do just to keep everything straight is going to increase. ‘Lazy GMing’ isn’t a preference here, it’s a way to make sure you can do everything you need to do without burning out. This is also where much of the content of the other articles begins to synthesize. A system with more mechanics that support what you want to do will take less effort to run. A setting that is constrained but has depth is much easier to do bookkeeping for than a sprawling wasteland of 150 dungeons and ten nation-states. That said, once the game has started, all that’s left to do is run.
Play in any game system long enough, and you’re going to want to tweak things a little – there’s something missing, or a rule doesn’t quite work the way you want it to. Or maybe you’re coming at things fresh with an idea of what you want to do. No game system matches your idea 1:1, but there are a few that come close enough that you don’t want to have to design a game from the ground up. Whether it’s just for a home game or you’re designing one yourself to publish, that means it’s time to change or ‘hack’ the system in question. But what thoughts might you want to have along the way? I’ve got three.
Welcome to the Cannibal Halfling Weekend Update! Start your weekend with a chunk of RPG news from the past week. We have the week’s top sellers, industry news stories, and discussions from elsewhere online.
The game master rules, but what rules them? How do many games leave the one running the game out in the cold, what kind of rules do other games assign to them, and what is gained in the process? Seamus and Aaron try to figure it out!