maybe we can talk about those tools later
also everything is opinion when you think about it gang
I run for a group of friends online and have done for like 6 or 7 years, transitioning from IRL games due to geography and life.
Sessions are about 1.5 hours to 2 hours and mostly in the 'Old-School' tradition.
Most campaigns run for 1-2 years, some going on for 3.
I use a mix of improvisation for most details and prep for tactical and major structural elements.
This said, when I've run in-person one-shot games for longer with new people, the sessions have been fun and feedback good.
- Run something you like. Nothing is a worse buzzkill than a DM hating every step. I ran 3.5e D&D for like 2 years and had to fight it constantly. Run stuff you're jealous of your players for getting to play in.
- Don't just look at game books. Whatever media it is that gets you amped up - use it! Personally, it's history books, weirdo philosophy shit and film that gets me all revved up to run a game like that.
- DON'T PREP STORIES
- DON'T PREP STORIES
- DON'T PREP STORIES
- So to explain - you *should* be prepping situations. Part of the joy of an RPG compared to ...most other things is that it starts unfinished and doing it is the process of finding out. By prepping a story you're missing the point.
- To further clarify - absolutely add elements which can be used for a type of story but don't actually prep the story - for example, knowing somebody's dad is in the Mafia is almost certainly going to cause conflict (and story) but isn't the same as prepping the story - we don't know how or when or why it'll happen but we've given the tension for stuff to happen.
- Have a conversation with your players about content. Outline stuff that might come up and invite people to say something privately if that might be an issue. I find it helps people if I share something that I'm super not into - reinforces this isn't about being TUFF it's about like "this will ruin the game for me." Outline your safety process for if something comes up during the game. Playing with friends I'm lucky enough that we know one another and this makes things easier in this regard. Safety tools and processes are not a substitution for paying attention to how people are doing.
- I prep tactical areas (e.g. dungeons) concretely - by having things which exist and can be be used we give more richness than we can come up with on the fly. You can still riff on this prep during play, and new details will emerge. I've always found improv dungeons somewhat lacking vs the designed.
- Areas like cities and towns I almost always improv based on a few notes about areas, vibes, factions etc.
- Get together like 15-20 minutes before the game and have a chat. Blow off steam. Do any little book-keeping bits. Tell your story about what happened at work (for one of my players, this often involves near-misses with heavy machinery). Having this be a regular thing gives players some flex if they run late, want to get snacks but also acts as a marker that we are Now Playing and Real World is on hold for a bit.
- Roll dice with purpose. If there's nothing at stake, don't roll. If something is easy (and time pressure isn't present) don't roll.
- When you do roll, lay out the deal to your players. "Okay, so you can try and jump to the next room but you'll need to [whatever hard roll means in your system] or else fall and take like, [whatever moderate damage means] - does that seem fair?" And that last bit is important, especially in rulings-not-rules systems - get feedback and buy-in to your quick-n-dirty subsystems. Don't be afraid to justify your decisions, but accept feedback too: "Uh why is it hard? We've done this before in that other city and it was moderate?" "So it's raining and these roofs are more like slanted?" "Oh okay cool makes sense yeah"
- Let your players modify these stakes - this gives you more buy-in. "Okay what if I like, throw myself at the building rather than trying to land on my feet?" "Uh so you'll avoid the to make it but you'll deffo take light damage?" "Yeah sick sounds good oh fuck i rolled a 6 i'm dead"
- As a general rule I'll give these direct values when player-characters are able to assess the difficulty by like, looking at it. Stuff which might not indicate how hard it is becomes interesting in it's own right because it's a bit more of a gamble. Your players will respond to this and be more careful when you're not telling them this information.
- Combat breaks this somewhat - because we (generally) have a discrete system I'm a contrarian bastard and tend to hide more information but we'll give combat it's own section because it's different.
- Sometimes you need to let players know stakes without just telling them about dice - the classic example is a trap.
- TELEGRAPH YOUR TRAPS - Fire traps and scorch marks, blood-stains, different colour flagstones, just a bunch of corpses - let them know what's up.
- Set the expectation of traps early - if this is a dungeon others have been to, just have a deactivated trap by the entrance - now they know what they're looking for rather than just dying with no warning.
- Same thing with snipers - have an NPC get domed or a near-miss FIRST, or some corpses with their brains on the outside. Red dot lasers are cheesy but they tell you the stakes.
- I don't fudge dice. I don't change things for the players. I tell them this up-front. Part of laying out the stakes and ensuring we all agreed to them means we're also going to honour the result.
- Write stuff down. Anything that might be important, write it down. Names in particular.
- Give players choices with information. Going left or right means nothing - going towards the wet squelching or the hot-dry slithering is way more interesting. They have something to base their choice on.
- If there's a time-component in-game just start counting down from ten, out-loud. Warn them if this is early on, otherwise just start. They'll know what it means.
- If you make a mistake own up straight away, and then talk about how to fix it. No ego, just make the game right again. If you realise something much later, own up but ride with it.
- Ask your players to call you on on mistakes - again, to make the game good, not as a "haha got you!"
- If you've got quiet players - prompt them. If you think they're up for it, just ask "Oh hey what do you think?" - these players will often have some great insight. If you're not sure, don't push them but DO encourage others to listen when they do speak.
- Playing online, cross-talk happens even once you've been playing together for months or years (although much less) - be courteous and allow others to speak first. Especially if you're a loud dickhead like me.
- You don't control the tone, but you can influence it. Your players will crack wise and that's okay. Play the straight-man. Generally it'll be hijinks when things are relaxed (fictionally) and then serious, tonal stuff when the situation demands it. Trust the players to know when and use music/tone of voice as markers for the different "modes" of play.
- Stuff players do should have consequences in the game world. To be honest you could do a whole thing about this and I probably will but for now just remember to take notes of who sees what they're doing and what they might do about it.
- If the players get bogged down in planning , take stock. They're either super engaged in which case - put your feet up OR they're kinda idly planning - in which case incite. Make something happen. Bring them back in.
- Don't break into writerly purple-prose. You want to convey maximum information in minimum words. Don't be afraid to just compare stuff to whatever visual/experience shorthand you want. Be careful with direct comparisons if you're trying to go for tone - some comparisons are funny, some aren't.
- "This dude is big like a mountain and he's got these like, elephant tusks?"
- "The inn-keep is like a Ron Swanson type"
- "The town feels washed out and tired - like a dirty yellow bed sheet that's been washed a bunch?" - We're just saying it's like this and it's kinda grotty and rank without spending ages labouring the cracked flagstones and whatever.
- That said - we add a little more detail each time they're moving through an environment. When they're riding around this above town:
- "You pass these empty buildings with boarded up windows. They alleys are like, choked with trash and people are picking through it. So you arrive at..."
- And on the journey back... "The pavement is all cracked and wonky and the sky is kinda like bruise-yellow? People are hurrying inside."
- "There's a cabinet just a crack open, a dirty sofa and a bunch of shitty magazines on a coffee table. It smells kinda damp."
- This works when withholding information too:
- "Something is moving out there - just a kinda black shape? You don't get much beyond like, an impression of movement?"
- Use senses beyond the visual - particularly smells and how it feels to be here.
- "The swamp is green and hot and you can feel the wet air like, pressing up against your skin. There's all these tangled plants and the droning of these insects and the smell of dirty water." Remember you can split these senses up and layer them as mentioned above.
- I don't use social skills. I really dig the player skill thing and I find slinging dice for a conversation just kills the fun and the mood. We have rules for stuff we can't adjudicate based on our experiences. Many of us will have experience with conversations - it's just the topics that're changing.
- Obviously this one means big chunks of a lot of systems don't get used. So?
- For real now - rules are tools in the toolbox. We are not beholden to them in an RPG. When they are useful for adjudicating a situation we use them. When they aren't useful we don't.
- Yea he cast the game designer from the mountain and said "get the fuck outta here with this bullshit i ain't got all day damn"
- You have control of the camera - don't be afraid to zoom in and out. Sometimes a shopping trip is just buying supplies and you want to get to the good bit - sometimes playing out this shopping sets the tone for what's to come, or there's going to be something interesting happening. This applies even more so for stuff like overland travel - you can just ask "so what do you guys talk about?" and let them blather whilst you roll on your XXXTREME ENCOUNTER CHART.
- One thing I like to do in my Traveller game is ask a random player to give us an "anecdote" about something that happened during the week spent jumping between systems. This has included finance audits, drug benders, playing hide-and-seek with their glow-in-the-dark tiger and more.
- As an ancillary i don't think it's useful to say "roleplay amongst yourselves" - it's a lot of performance pressure and feels forced - for me the good bit of roleplay is what happens when characters interact with the world and then one another's reactions, not just amongst themselves without a subject.
- You've also got control of the soundtrack - though some find music in the background annoying, I'm a huge advocate. Just pick stuff that's ambient and has the vibes you're looking for.
- Try to match the excitement levels, or at least have it neutral. You don't want some funeral dirge vibes for the big fight - it'll suck the excitement out of the fight when players feel like they've already lost.
- Not all violence has to be combat. A crushing moment from my early days that I'm sure many have had - I'm playing a rogue and I sneak up on someone successfully - okay roll to hit! Oh i miss. How did I miss he's standing there? Because you rolled 5. He turns and kills me.
- This should've been a clean kill without using the rules (see above about rules-as-tools - combat is not the tool for this job)
- Don't have fights that don't matter - it's a waste of time. If it's not risky or dangerous why are we doing this? Just handwave it or don't have it there. Enemies run away. Whatever
- This is part of the reason I like these old-school systems. That and there's like 3 rules so it's easy if you're stupid like me
- Don't just swing and attack and tell your players not to either. Enemies should have tactics, attempt to tackle, flank, throw weird fluids, cast strange (NON DAMAGE) magics, destroy the environment, run away, play dead, vomit insects. Sometimes they will swing and deal damage. But they should be doing a lot more than that besides - and you should tell the players this!
- If you're into system stuff give big bonuses/penalties for attacking prone enemies, flanking, distraction etc
- Keep it dynamic. Something beyond HP should change every round. This relates to the above but can also mean the environment is shifting, reinforcements etc. Anything to avoid the wall of dudes all swinging and missing in a central column.
- Despite what I said up near the top around letting players know the stakes, combat breaks that for me. I'll say stuff like "Yeah this guy looks really experienced - a right tough customer" but I won't say "yeah he's level 5 with +12 to hit" because that's boring. As they get damaged I'll describe the injuries (see below) and how much fight they've got left.
- At my table I tend to do all the work of describing attacks and results - other tables let players do it. I have a specific tone i'm going for but it's something i could do better.
- Personally I lean into blood-and-guts. Violence is gross and nasty. Killing people sucks. By having these things described it invites people to remember what they're doing fictionally. They are also welcome to be like slasher movie fans and cheer. I would recommend this approach to violence but it is your table.
- HP has issues we all know that. Work out what damage means at your table and stick to it. It can be different for enemies and player-characters - we don't watch enemies heal, we do for PCs. This matters less if you're okay with a more fantastical less "ah fuck it'll take weeks to heal an axe wound" type games.
- Keep combat short as possible. Some fights should be long - but still keep them at the shortest possible length.
- Keep things moving quickly - literally start counting down out loud if players get bogged down in maximising action economy or something.
- Continuously restate the current fictional position - Barry is fighting Gary down on the floor, Big Jahn has a goblin in a chokehold - you're between the two, what are you doing?
- Asking your players "did you have fun?" isn't a great question. Instead, think about your experience - was there a lack of energy? Ask about it. Did the combat run too long? Ask about it. By making these questions about things people aren't going to just be like "yeah!" for fear of hurting your feelings, and it means you're dealing with what you think the issue might be.
- Transfer anything you wrote down that still seems important to your reference place. I've got a page with a list of people they've either fucked off or are buddy with. For a different game I'm running a Wiki because god there is so much going on already. Find what works for you.