Play-by-Post/Chat Tips

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As basically all gaming becomes online gaming during the pandemic, it’s important to know all of your options.

While video-conference-based gaming is the current default, I haven’t had much luck with it: if people don’t have great computers, cameras, and internet connections it can cause problems, especially if you game with couples who are trying to share an internet connection and suffering audio bleed from being in the same room. Dropping down to voice loses some of the video complications, but also loses all the body language feedback from your players. Both can have issues with slight audio latency that leads to talking conflicts that you don’t get as much when face-to-face: spotlight time goes to whoever is willing to just bull through someone else trying to talk at the same time.

Many have forgotten the grandparent of both of these styles, from the ancient days of IRC and AOL chats, before ubiquitous webcams and headsets: text-based gaming. This can be playing by post or email or everyone live in a chat room. The main difference is just the synchronicity. Text-based gaming has a few very interesting perks:

  • It self-documents, so you can always have the log to read back later. This can be for entertainment or to review information.
  • GMs that, at the table, feel too pressed for time to give good descriptions, or just forget to do so in the rush of talking, can enjoy license to go very purple with prose.
  • It’s leisurely. Even with live chat games, you often have time waiting for others to type to multi-task. My players, in particular, have expressed gratitude that it lets them game while also cooking, wrangling children, or doing other projects.
  • From the GM’s side, this leisure means it’s often possible to run on-the-fly in a way that would be madness face-to-face. There’s plenty of time to improvise, even for those that aren’t used to doing so, and the players have a much harder time telling when everything is by the seat of your pants.

It, of course, also has downsides:

  • Leisurely is code for slow. Depending on your players’ typing speed and distraction level, it can take two hours to knock out a scene that might have only taken 15 minutes at the table.
  • The format is not always intuitive to those that haven’t tried it before, especially people that are not comfortable writers. It can take a while for people to get into a groove.
  • Despite having the record right there, when you’re typing you’re not reading. People tend to miss what’s already been posted way more than you would expect.
  • All of this can be much worse if you don’t adapt to the format. A tactical-map-heavy, rules-dense, initiative-based play style is very challenging to do well in this format.

If you’re interested in how the medium works, my logs for years of Fading Suns are available. Currently, rather than the action formatting that was popular in the days of yore (double colons around actions), I’m trying a more prose-style notation, but the procedure holds up. The session times in that were usually 2-3 hours, for context of how much you can get done in one sitting. That was also mostly with players very comfortable with the format. Currently, with several players learning it as they go, I get maybe half as much done in the same session period.

I also have several specific tips for the format:


My number one piece of advice is to use a narrative-heavy system, or just eyeball the system you have for purposes of narration. You do not have time to request rolls for everything, particularly if the system requires multiple rolls to resolve a single result. When a player tries to do something, then you tell them what to roll, then they roll and calculate success, then you resolve the results, you’ve at least doubled the number of text exchanges you need, and that can take a long time in text.

Instead, consider the Technoir mindset: the PCs always succeed unless acted upon by a serious, opposing force. And when so acted upon, you can just eyeball relative competency, and suggest that a mechanically superior opponent means that the PC needs to come up with a winning strategy, not just get a lucky roll.

By all means, throw in narrated drawbacks if you think that success against the environment shouldn’t be easy given the PC’s skill level. And if they’re awful at something, you can just narrate that it’s not possible (or that they fail in an amusing way). This isn’t about making the players unstoppable, just removing the obstacles that slow down play.

In general, you’re looking to see if it makes sense to remove the randomizers in order to speed play. You can still use them when you want tension (but be prepared for things to slow way down). And if you’re really unsure about what should happen, you can roll physical dice “behind the screen” to resolve it. But it’s still almost always faster for you to do that than to wait for the player to realize you’ve called for a roll and to make it. Get straight from the player wanting to do something to you describing the result.

Have the Sheets Handy

As an aside, relevant to narrating and rolling behind the screen, keep the PC sheets handy. Just have them open in another browser tab. Unlike at the table when you’ve got a billion books and opponent stat blocks taking up your visual space, it’s much easier to keep the PC stats handy when you’re playing on a computer. It saves so much time for you to just look up what skills the PC has that are relevant to what you’re trying than to ask them to tell you their total in chat.

No Initiative

Largely related to the narrative aspect, but distinct, is that you should do your damnedest to avoid initiative order. You think people check out when you go around the table for initiative? It’s so much worse when you’re not sure if the person everyone else is waiting for has wandered off to do something else, totally unaware they’re holding up the game.

Try to set things up as parallel as possible, where everyone can do something if someone doesn’t respond for a minute. This can be legitimately running separate scenes that aren’t clearly linked in time to everything else going on (so the fast typists can do as much as they want while the slower ones are off on their own scene). Generally, though, it’s just that everything is very open and that you assume that people that are posting less frequently are doing something useful that just isn’t being clearly described. “Botting” idle PCs by incorporating the actions you assume they take in your GM posts is much more acceptable than face-to-face.

Mostly, just do everything in your power to avoid situations where you’re waiting on one player to say something before anyone else can advance the scene.

Always Have a Ninja

Corollary to keeping one player from hanging the scene: be prepared to prevent all the players from hanging the scene. This can be especially prevalent when the PCs have gotten off to a safe location where they’re planning or trying to investigate something at their own pace. If you don’t have an active participant in the scene (whether that be an NPC or just a dynamic situation), you can get stuck where the players are stumped as to what to do next, but there aren’t any obvious things that you can add in-play to unstick them from the problem or at least convince them to move on if they’re stumped.

The obvious solution is the Raymond Chandler standby: have a guy with a gun kick in the door (or a bunch of ninjas). This can feel punitive, but maybe the players will keep things moving if they know all you have is a hammer to try to unstick them.

While GMPCs are generally not the best idea, they can be really useful in this format to give you a mouthpiece in any scene. As always with important NPCs, you should avoid having them just take charge or have the players assume they will always have the answers. Instead, the character can usually have middling to bad ideas, but just having someone to pipe up and go, “So it seems like what you’re saying is…” can be enough to break the deadlock, or at least get them to continue talking rather than sitting, sullenly waiting for someone else to post.

Finally, you can aggressively scene frame. If a scene peters out, just describe the next one. This is hard if the players are stuck on how to resolve something and wouldn’t move on without it being resolved, so it’s not my favorite option. But if you can just move them on, do it.

Consider Artifice Exposure

Sometimes, you just have to explain, out of character, what you’re doing. Text loses the nuance you would get from body language and tone of voice. Often you think you’ve described something perfectly, and if the players successfully tag your prose with their own, you’re going to wind up with just the most beautiful piece of writing for posterity.

But while you’re sitting there, unwilling to type anything else because you ended your post on what you think is the perfect feeder line for the player to say something awesome, the players might be sitting there completely baffled by what they’re supposed to be doing. You may need to just throw up an OOC line where you’re like, “Okay, in case this is not clear, the options I see here are X, Y, and Z; you can do one of those, or do something creative I didn’t think of.”

I’m guilty of this a lot.

Examine Your Clarity

As part an parcel of exposing the artifice, consider your clarity in general. As noted, even with the text record indelibly floating above the chat, people can miss an awful lot. It’s very hard to keep track of several posts that come in at once from other players, particularly when you’re typing up your own masterful piece of dialogue. I pretty regularly see players repeating actions or asking questions that were covered only a line or two above. You can even miss things for quite a while, before someone finally notices a discrepancy (in this log, two PCs executed the same villain in two very different manners).

This can be very challenging if you’re trying to run split scenes. In this session, even very clearly noting in chat which characters I was focusing on, players were still getting confused whether I was describing something that they could interact with or something happening on the other side of the zone. Be explicit and repetitive in your descriptions about who can interact with something when the party is split. You can always rearrange the logs later to make the soup of player responses make a little more sense.

Ultimately, always consider that you can basically have a similar problem to peer-to-peer multiplayer video game disagreements. In P2P shooters, one player is the host computer that has the “real” record of all the actions that happened, and if the other computers lag, they can think they’re accomplishing something only to suddenly be confused when it didn’t happen (e.g., shooting a guy that their computer said was in line of fire but the host computer thought had moved). As the GM of a text game, you’re the “host computer” and your vision of what’s going on is the authoritative one. But through various issues with clarity or noticing what’s going on, you can “desync” from the players’ vision of what’s going on.

If the players are doing something that doesn’t make sense for your view of what’s going on (even if it just seems like it’s suboptimal, like they’re ignoring an obvious thing they can interact with) it falls to you to make sure they’re not punished due to the disconnect. If you think they’re missing something, ask them OOC if it’s deliberate before you narrate them failing. You’re never as clear as you hope, and it’s important to make sure everyone has a good time.

GM Tricks: PC Motivation/Context


“You meet in a tavern” is a D&D classic. Also a classic: PCs that met in that tavern immediately trying to get one another killed, either subtly or overtly.

Unless what you want is a PvP game, I’ll argue that throwing a group of PCs together cold and expecting them to immediately bond with no real external factors is a fool’s errand. Cold party formations are much more likely to lead to players having less fun as they struggle with the cognitive dissonance of continuing to adventure with characters their character really doesn’t like (even though in-game they could split at any time) because leaving the party means quitting the game. The meta-game problem of “why am I continuing to hang out with this maniac?” is exacerbated when you have no good in-game reason.

Of course, I’m a big proponent of group chargen fixing these problems. Having your players make a balanced group of PCs with existing deep ties means you get to skip a lot of the bad tension. Hell, maybe they did meet in a tavern, but years ago, and have already worked out their major issues and kicked out the real troublemakers. But, either instead of or in addition to the intrinsic ties from this kind of chargen, you can also think very hard as a GM about providing extrinsic motivation and context.

That is, if the player starts to think about whether her character even likes these other characters and wonders why she would continue along with them, there should be an immediate and obvious answer. That way, the player can get back to engaging with the game rather than fantasizing about the adventures she’d rather be going on with characters that her PC likes better doing things that she’s much more interested in.

There are a bunch of easy options to provide this motivation and context:

Shared Patron

A very easy answer is to give the PCs a patron or mentor figure that suggests they all get together. This is more than just the mysterious old wizard they met at the tavern (nobody really gives a damn what Elminster wants them to do). This is instead someone from their backstories that they have a lot of built-up trust with and/or obligation to. It might be multiple people that are, themselves, connected (“your sires suggest you form a coterie” is a classic Vampire motivator).

You can get this patron in a couple of ways. The most organic is to suggest the NPC play a prominent role in the PC’s backstory before getting to the table. If you don’t have time for that kind of seeding, you can also take the more abrupt tactic of, “by the way, Elminster’s helped you out a lot in the past, and you have every reason to trust him. Figure out how that works in your head.” In either case, it’s good to include a pretty strong carrot for the relationship: what ongoing patronage does the PC expect from this character?

The player should have an expectation of beneficial transactions with the patron in the future sufficient to guide behavior. Beyond cash and XP, what does the PC want that the patron can provide? This could be specialized training, introduction to an elite group, and so on: figure out what the player’s long-term character development goals are, and make the patron key to obtaining them.

The most important thing is, even if the relationship with the other PCs is taking a long time to gel, the player can at least justify that her character would keep going because it makes an important patron happy, and she’s not interested in walking away from that relationship.

A caveat for this motivation is that the patron should have some reason why she can’t ever be of much direct help with the adventure. Maybe she’s politically powerful but not very clued-in or adventure-savvy. Maybe she’s rarely available except in snatches because she’s off putting out fires of her own. Maybe she’s flat out prevented from interfering directly due to the larger context. Importantly, what you want is to keep the players from deciding, “hey, if this is so important to our patron, why doesn’t she get her butt out here and help?”

Shared Organization/Home

An even better answer than a single patron (or small group of them) can be to lodge the PCs in an entire organizational structure. The adventuring guild is the most common of these types. WoD games often feature larger political groups, usually with outright group bases. It’s also classic to just say that the PCs are the only adventure-savvy kids from the same small town (which they have a vested interest in keeping safe from various threats).

This tends to change the dynamic of the game to become much more centralized to the home location of the organization. While fine if you’re doing a primarily city-based game, you need to make sure the organization retains the proper shape for longer-distance plots (e.g., a mandate for distant exploration and problem-solving, as typified by the Pathfinders and the Harpers). A small town thieves’ guild could lose motivating importance if the PCs have been months far away with no support.

The organization does everything a patron can do as far as carrots, with the additional bonus that PCs can be incentivized entirely with rank within said organization. It can also help a lot with games that have rotating casts of PCs: the group assigns PCs to the mission (that just happen to be the PCs of the available players), or a group must be formed out of whoever’s at the guildhall this week/in town and not otherwise engaged.

The caveat for patrons is even stronger with organizations. Particularly in a city-based game, there can be a huge push for just going back to the guild and rounding up a posse when the players have identified a threat that seems dangerous enough that they don’t want to just rush in to engage it. And while it’s pretty easy to explain why a single patron can’t help, it’s much harder to explain why, in this big group of adventuring types, nobody can spare a moment to help when it’s clear that the threat has become more serious than first believed and threatens the whole town. One trick to avoid this is time-sensitivity: by the time the PCs have identified the threat, it should often be risky to take the time to go back and round up additional aid, because the bad guys will advance their plots much further in the interim. Another is to simply structure your adventures so calling in the cavalry is an acceptable solution when time isn’t a factor, at a cost to the PCs in XP and loot because everyone else from the guild is going to get a share. As long as the players are in control of whether or not to call in the big guns, they probably won’t begrudge a big final battle being turned into a narration about how the combined might of the guild crushes the problem.

Another problem unique to this setup is the tendency to lose party agency. When part of a larger organizational structure that regularly gives them missions, your players are going to become less prone to self-determination. There will be a drive of, “we brought the plot to the attention of the guild, and if they want us to pursue it further, they’ll tell us how.” There really isn’t a good fix for this if your organization has a command structure, other than a mid-campaign crisis where the command structure is obliterated and the PCs have to take charge (which obviously opens up its own issues of the resources now available to the PCs). Just make sure that’s the kind of game you’re comfortable running.

Mutual Enemy/Problem

Perhaps the leanest solution is for the group to share an issue that they need to solve for their own reasons. “You get to talking and realize you all want to punch the same guy in the face,” is a very simple start for a campaign. You can even do short solo introductions where you just let the players play out their previously idyllic lives until the villain shows up and does them wrong in an on-screen way.

A slower burn version of this is the “we were all working the same case” angle, where each of the PCs’ backstory motivators winds up all pointing at the same problem. One PCs’ dead parents were killed by the guy that kidnapped the next PC’s brother and is living in the ancient temple the third PC has sworn to reconsecrate. This can be harder to set up than it being obvious who did them all wrong, because you have to figure out a reason for them to actually share information rather than constantly ignoring one another (or fighting one another then running away when they show up at the same investigative location that you thought would bring them together). A brief dip into the patron motivation isn’t a bad idea in this case: an NPC party that also has a related issue isn’t really an adventurer, but has done enough research to identify the PCs and suggest everyone work together with her funding to deal with the problem.

The caveat for this is a big one: if the problem isn’t the end-of-campaign villain, there’s a risk that the party won’t gel by the time the issue is solved to at least one PC’s satisfaction. “Well I rescued my brother… good luck to all of you, we’re going home.” By the time the initial problem is close to being solved, you need to have gotten several other campaign hooks into the PCs so they’ll be inclined to continue past their stated goal. Or you need to be fine with PCs getting subbed in and out as these mini-goals are completed (likely with rules for replacing your PC with one of equivalent power, so players aren’t afraid to lose progress).


This can just be the strong form of the previous motivator: someone’s sending assassins after the PCs, and they need to band together to punch people until the assassination attempts stop. But in a broader motivating sense, this speaks to something innate to the PCs that sets them apart from others and, consequently, drives them together. The classic X-Men plot, and also seen as a key motivator for Baldur’s Gate, there’s something about the PCs that inspires others to hunt them. Maybe they are hated and feared. Maybe they hold a secret power that others want to kill them to steal. Maybe both.

With this motivation, the game is strongly colored by the problem. Every interaction is colored by the fact that the PCs are other, whether or not the NPC realizes it. When there are many powers in the world seeking to kill or capture them, logically even friendly encounters become tinged with the worry that they’ll trigger some kind of alert that brings their antagonists back down on them. And the thrust of the campaign inevitably becomes solving for the problem or transcending it, rather than any other central goal. You can’t just use this as an excuse to put the party together and then expect them to go off on typical quests to slay princesses and rescue dragons without those quests being informed by the greater context of what drives them together.


Finally, if your campaign supports it, you can just start with the PCs being trapped somewhere together. This can simply be the start of one of the other motivations (e.g., beginning with being imprisoned and then hunted after escaping, a Usual Suspects introduction to a powerful patron, or establishing the enemy that had them falsely imprisoned in the first place). But it can also be a major leg of the campaign itself.

As its own thing, the important factor is that the PCs are cut off from broader civilization, and are the only adventure-savvy folks that can investigate the problem. Common tropes involve shipwrecks, avalanches, unexpected transport to alternate dimensions/worlds, and just being in prison as a long-term plot. This can also be a fine introduction to a megadungeon (as the PCs get stuck on the wrong side of a cave-in, and now have to explore the whole complex for an alternate way out instead of just going back to the nearby town). Importantly, the reason the PCs don’t just leave is because they physically can’t. They’re stuck with each other, whether or not they like anyone in the group.

As with all the other short-term methods, if escaping isn’t the whole point of the campaign you need to put in other story hooks before the PCs get out to keep them together long-term.


Have any other motivators that I missed that you’ve used to success in the past? Please let me know in the comments.

GMing Tricks from the Defenders


One of the first things I noticed about the new Defenders show on Netflix was that, by virtue of making an ensemble out of a bunch of established solo characters, it wound up feeling more like an RPG than many TV shows do. And that makes it an excellent example for some GMing techniques that I think it highlights. This post, obviously, may contain SPOILERS for the Defenders (though I’ll try to keep them to minor structural ones), so proceed at your own risk if you didn’t binge it over the weekend.

Splitting the Party

The first thing I noticed about Defenders was that it was using a technique I’ve really only seen in World of Darkness games (and mostly in a subset of WoD games where the GMs all learned it from one another). The group starts out split, doesn’t know one another, and gradually their solo experience compounds into winding up as a team. Importantly, this isn’t just a series of preludes that were all run individually and then the first full session has everyone meet up. Instead, like in Defenders, scenes alternate between PCs (often cutting on a cliffhanger), sometimes two PCs will briefly meet and then continue on separately, and only once the plot is well and truly laid out do they realize they need to work together. Sometimes, it can take multiple sessions. And the other players are all there while this is happening, waiting their turns for the spotlight.

This has several useful effects:

  • The other players get a better sense of your character by watching without being able to interfere when you have spotlight time. Though it’s an entirely metagame experience, it gives everyone a better sense of what you and the GM have agreed is cool about your character.
  • The metagame aspect is also important: it gets the players used to the idea of firewalling what they’ve experienced in and out of play. Inevitably, there’s some slippage as you eventually can’t remember whether you were there for a scene where a crucial detail happened, but the important thing is that you’re trying.
  • It also gets you used to allowing other players to have spotlight time without being disruptive. The social contract is that you’ll get a similar amount of spotlight time where the other players will also keep quiet and let you have your moment.
  • Finally, it establishes that splitting up is a thing that is safe to do.

The adage to never split the party often comes from the idea that you could, at any moment, run into a party-scaled encounter by yourself and lose. Letting the players run around solo for a while gets them used to going off solo or in pairs to do things when the situation demands it, and makes it apparent that this isn’t likely to get anyone killed. Sometimes you’ll run into something that you don’t want to tackle without the whole party, and rarely you’ll get in over your head and have to escape a threat that the party would trounce, but you’re not terrified of being alone.

This technique probably works best in a city-based game, rather than one spread out or in hostile territory.

Recurring Villains

One of the things a lot of games suffer from is insufficiently involved villains. Sure, you might have heard of the guy from his minions and former victims, but you don’t actually meet him until you get to the final room of the final dungeon in the module. Then it’s a fight, maybe after a brief monologue. Boring.

In order for your players to really feel connected to your villains—whether that be total hatred or conflicted aggravation—they need to meet them multiple times. The villains need to do things on screen that drive the players mad, take thing from them, or fail to do things and narrowly escape. The problem is that your players are likely to go nuclear if they’re allowed at all: if they identify the main villain, especially if it’s a combat encounter, all available resources go into putting her down quickly and completely.

The Defenders answer to this is that the bad guys are mostly very experienced ninjas. They go into every fight with the heroes with a cheater’s escape route planned (there are numerous scenes where the “taken out” result for the bad guy becomes “and you knock him offscreen and he’s just gone“). This is a trick you can use for ninjas and teleporting wizards, but it only works so long before the players start planning countermeasures. Other techniques from the Defenders prelude shows are that the bad guy is legally clean, and the law would take a dim view of assaulting him in public, so there can be confrontations in public spaces without either side feeling like it’s a kill-or-be-killed situation. Finally, never underestimate the villain having a conversation, the PCs thinking they have her right where they want her, and then she wanders out after summoning a horde of minions or environmental disaster that keeps the PCs away from her.

Ultimately, the real trick is making sure you’ve designed the villains’ motivations so they don’t necessarily want to commit themselves fully to a fight until the end game. Come up with reasons why they feel their goals can be met without endangering themselves. They should be willing to walk away several times rather than fighting to the death, even if they outclass the PCs.

Constrained Villains

One of the things that’s always in the back of my head as a player is whether it feels like the opposition’s resources are infinite until they’re suddenly not. Will taking out these minions have a measurable impact on the villains’ ability to operate? Is it worth it to strike at a target, or will they just have a similar resource later if we capture this one? Do the villains have to play by the same rules I do, even if they start with more resources?

Defenders does a really good job of constraining the villains (though it’s unclear if those constraints would be totally clear to the PCs if they weren’t seeing the internal bad guy discussion scenes that we’re privy to as the audience). They’ve gambled their most precious resource on obtaining a big payoff, and the time is running out for them to get that payoff.

This gives you a number of really useful plot levers to use as a GM:

  • There’s a natural time pressure: the villains need to do things soon, and aren’t going to wait on the PCs to be ready.
  • There are a number of things that the villains can do that are mistakes to give the PCs an advantage, because they’re out of options.
  • The PCs can capitalize on information to put the villains on the defensive, giving the players an enhanced sense of agency.
  • The PCs can ultimately realize that they have several methods of victory, including taking away a key villain resource and/or just running out the clock on their scheme.

Fighting a group of stressed, worried, and grasping bad guys is ultimately going to make your players feel a lot better about their own options and place in the game world than if every set of bad guys is powerful and secure until the PCs can finally work out a fait accompli to cut off the head.

Supporting Cast

Like a lot of GMs, I’m bad at remembering to use supporting cast. When you’ve got a short session, it can feel like a waste of time to take a minute to have a brief roleplay scene with one PC’s family and friends. But if your player gave you those NPCs in the first place, it was out of hopes that they’d get used for more than damselling or other pathos. Sometimes, you just have to do the groundwork to have them recur enough to feel like part of the fabric of the world, and to give the player an opportunity to express elements of her character that aren’t seen when in full adventurer mode.

This is certainly easier if you’ve started off with a split party, so it’s more usual that there are scenes with one PC off alone dealing with NPCs, playing out what she’s doing when not with the rest of the group.

Defenders does a good job of providing a use for most of the supporting cast. It helps if your system has rules for mental stress that your loved ones can help you remove. Even if it doesn’t, they can be hooked into resources that the PCs don’t have: reporters to get you information you’d missed, cops and lawyers to get you out of legal trouble, doctors and nurses to handle physical ailments, and even less-skilled adventurers that can take some minor threats off your plate so you can focus on the bigger problems.

Also, remember to have the players add their useful NPCs to their character sheets. NPCs immediately become more real to players when tracked as a resource.

Protagonist Plot Glue

The downside of several of these techniques is that it can sometimes be hard to hit the ground running with fully committed protagonists. When you do group character generation, it’s much easier to motivate everyone to follow the plot as a team, as their characters are intimately connected to one another and, usually, the story as a whole. But when the players have made independent, fully realized characters, they may have trouble finding proper motivation to engage. You’ll need to devise the plot to glue the PCs together and to the story.

Some of your players may be like Luke Cage and Jessica Jones: despite their outward complaining about being wrapped up in something that doesn’t truly concern them, they’re at the game to play and will figure out a motivation to dive in. At worst, the GM will need to have an aside with the player and ask what kind of thing would flip the PC from on-the-fence to fully-committed. It may just take a minor incident to convey that the bigger problem will have follow-on problems to things the PC cares about.

Some may be like Matt Murdock: he’s created a deep and robust character, and talked himself into doing less fun things because they’re more true to the character. Without the right motivations, he’ll sit on the sidelines playing lawyer, because he’s convinced himself that the character doesn’t want to risk his mundane life and supporting cast. At best, there are a number of contrived scenes where he gets to play legal counsel to the rest of the team, and maybe secretly help out a little. At worst, you’re spinning your wheels running repeated side scenes where he agonizes over not being able to help while going through the motions of his mundane life. For this type of character, you need to make sure that the plot leaves no escape: the things he cares about are in direct danger, the plot is directly relevant to his backstory, and, what the hell, his ex-girlfriend is back from the dead and deeply enmeshed. The player will thank you for making the decision to engage as easy in character as it is out of character.

Some may be the opposite problem, like Danny Rand: they’re gung ho to go after the plot, but the other players are going to have a really hard time justifying hanging out with this guy. There’s often a Danny Rand in the group, who made a character that just doesn’t fit. Maybe he didn’t understand the memo about, “we’re making down-on-their-luck, street-level heroes,” or maybe there was less direction and everyone else just settled on a theme by happenstance. Maybe he’s a new player who just doesn’t get the social norms of the group. Honestly, modern occult and superheroes games often make “one of us is super wealthy, and the rest of us are broke” an issue with how they price wealth in character creation, and nobody can figure out why they’d hang out with the rich guy as peers, and don’t want to be his de facto minions. This last problem can often be the toughest, and you pretty much have to do what Defenders does: make the odd PC out key to the whole plot, until the party settles into being used to having that guy around.

If you’re lucky, after the first major storyline, the PCs will have gelled well enough that you can be less heavy-handed for the second. But be prepared to keep tabs on where the players are at with their PCs’ emotional lives (possibly through supporting cast), and be ready to keep tuning the game until they’re ready to stick as a group to your satisfaction.

GM Tricks: Short Session vs. Long Session

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A friend who’d primarily played in and run long-session games found herself about to run a weekly game on work nights, and asked for my advice on how short sessions differ from long. Here it is, repackaged and with advice from the other side (for those who’ve done short games but are intimidated by the longer form).


As a meta-consideration, how often you’re going to run the game can make a big difference. In general, the less often you can play, the longer you’ll want to play when you do get to play. The longer you go between sessions, the more your players will forget, and the less inertia you’ll have at the start of a session (which lets you get even less done, as your players try to rediscover their characters and remember their goals).

  • If you’re playing monthly or less frequently, you generally want to get enough done in a session to reach a solid stopping point, where time can pass in play as well as out of play; if you leave your players in the middle of a mission or dungeon and they don’t play for a month, it’s going to take forever to get them back up to speed.
  • Conversely, if you’re playing weekly (or more frequently!?), you can often leave off at the closest break that makes sense as soon as you’re ready to quit for the night, and trust your players to remember what’s going on when you resume.
  • When you’re playing every other week, you’re in a weird spot where you don’t really want to leave too many irons in the fire, but you also don’t have to end on too much of a solid note. Your players will forget minor things, but probably not major things.

All of these issues can be mitigated by having someone at the table that takes copious notes and can recap the events of the last session at the start of the new one. It’s a really big help to have someone like that, and if one of your players is a natural game journalist, encourage it.

Short Sessions

For a short session, I’m generally assuming that this is a weeknight at or after dinner for 3-4 hours. Some of this might not apply if you’re squeezing in gaming at an odd time, and your session length restriction is not because you’re playing after work/school. Some of this may apply even more seriously if you’re only playing for an hour or two during a mealtime. The three big limitations of a short session are side chatter, spotlight time, and combat time.

If possible, establish a set schedule of when you’re focusing on the game and how much table chatter is too much, and make sure everyone sticks to it. Nothing kills your time worse than people gabbing about what they’ve been up to all week and otherwise chatting about meaningful but non-game things. Your biggest issues are how long it takes to actually get started and how often people get sidetracked once you start playing.

The first is a function largely of when people show up and when they’ve eaten. I tend to not even try to get people in game until everyone’s there and done eating; if you try to start and someone shows up later and/or someone’s still eating, it can be really hard to make the game go because they’re a distraction. Conversely, you want to make sure people aren’t showing up super late or taking forever to eat. It also really helps if your players see each other more often than game night, particularly if they’re good friends: if your game time is the only time good friends are going to see each other face-to-face this week, it becomes much harder to get them to focus on the game instead of catching up.

The second you have more control over, but you may have to be more draconian than you’d like. Small jokes are fine if they don’t derail focus on the game: it’s when someone tells a joke and someone else uses that as a “that reminds me…” to talk about something else that causes a problem. You basically have to yank those back to the game if they go on for more than a few seconds, and start to determine which people can safely quip without breaking focus, and which people can’t even be trusted with one-liners. If you’ve got a cut-up that’s causing problems, you have to school yourself and the other players to not reward the behavior; people that are constantly trying for a laugh to the detriment of the focus on the game will (generally) eventually pick up that people aren’t that amused at the distraction and pull back, as long as they’re getting tolerant annoyance off the others rather than laughs.

Player spotlight time is best kept small in short sessions. If a player is off doing something that takes a while and is doing it solo, that can potentially eat up a huge chunk of your playtime so the rest of the players don’t get similar focus for the evening. If a player wants to go off and accomplish something alone, try to narrate it down and err on the side of just letting her accomplish it (particularly if it doesn’t have a major impact on the main plot). If you want there to be a chance of failure, try to sum everything up to a few quick dice rolls, with varying degrees of accomplishment depending on how many rolls are a success.

In general, try to just err on the side of giving players what they want if it won’t make a big impact on the story. Time spent on them convincing you that they can do something and then having to improvise challenges for it, when you’re pretty sure it’s going to be a success, can be wasted time. You can just as easily offer them a devil’s bargain of something like, “Okay, you can do that, but it’ll result in the town guard being pissed at you.” The caveat is that you can absolutely play out unplanned side-excursions if everyone at the table seems super into it. It’s not about using narration to gloss over everything outside of the main plot, so much as not wasting time that could be more productively spent.

Combat time can be a huge pain for shorter games, particularly in D&D and other heavily tactical games with mapping and miniatures for fights. Particularly for games with slower combat, but possibly for any game where fights can eat up too much time: try to figure out if there’s a reasonable game resource you can use as a “narrated success” tax. For example, in D&D 4e and 5e, if there’s a fight that the PCs will get to take a short rest after, you can just ask them to use up a couple of healing surges/hit dice and maybe a daily resource. Then just describe the gist of the fight with a total success. Essentially, if you think there’s no chance of anyone getting seriously injured, using permanent resources, or being that engaged in the fight, it’s perfectly fine to just describe how flawlessly they party wiped out the minor threat and move on so there’s more table time for more interesting fights.

This is possibly more relevant to running modules (where there are often a bunch of filler encounters that don’t affect the plot or really challenge the players), but even when you’re planning your own stuff, be ready to throw out your babies if you realize you’ve put in a combat encounter that won’t actually raise the tension much but will eat up a lot of time to play out. You could even do this on purpose: plan out fights where all you have is a description of what’s in the room but you haven’t bothered to organize the stats, and they’re essentially just opportunities to make the players feel awesome and to let you burn off some of their daily resources before a real fight. Conversely, if players are clever enough to get around them or roleplay through, then they save the resources, but if they totally mess something up you can add a couple of speedbump fights together into a real threat.

Long Sessions

I consider a long session to be over four hours (often six or more hours). You’ll generally get to have these on weekends and holidays unless you’re still young enough to manage an after-dinner-until-after-midnight session without everyone falling asleep before the end. They often overlap at least one mealtime (unless you have an early lunch and a late dinner with a session in between), so the biggest considerations for long sessions are blood-sugar and attention-span related.

For short sessions, particularly those that start with or right after dinner, table snacks are fun but rarely required. For long sessions, they’re more or less essential. You should absolutely get in the habit of either rotating snack duty or getting everyone used to bringing a little something to the table such that there’s a bounty of available foods. You should also work out the healthiest assortment of foods that the group will eat and can afford: cheesy poofs and candy are fine when you’re still in college, but nuts, veggies, and fine cheeses are better for the over-thirties to not wreck their increasingly delicate internal mechanisms. All of these things are to keep hunger from being a distraction.

Unless you truly bring copious snacks or lay out a buffet, a mealtime is probably going to hit mid-session and will require a pause (to consume the food, even if you can get it to the table quickly, but usually to make, order, or go get the food as well). But that’s fine, because one of the problems with long sessions anyway is the mid-session lull. After three or four hours, it’s hard to maintain tension and attention spans start to wander. So even if you don’t have a meal break, plan your game as if you did. Try to have a major story beat, cliffhanger, accomplishment, or other stopping point happen close to the middle of your session time. Then break for food (or just take a general purpose stretch, conversation, and smoke break if you aren’t breaking for food). Ramp back up slowly after the break so you can end the session on another high point (i.e., it’s very much like stapling two short sessions together around a meal break). The break and ability to ramp up again gradually helps with fraying attention spans in the middle of the session.

GM Tricks: Starting a New Campaign

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The Seven Deadly Sins of Worldbuilding have been floating around over the weekend. Coincidentally, a friend asked me for advice on his campaign intro document. Those two together got me thinking about the following.

If you’re the sole GM for your group, and whatever you want to run is what gets played, then this advice may not be tremendously useful to you (though it’s still recommended for getting your players totally on board). It’s meant mostly for groups like mine, where several of your players also like to GM, everyone has limited time to game, and they have to be choosey about what campaigns they commit to playing.

The Pitch

If your players have been bugging you to run a particular game, this is the easy part. “You guys want to play X, right?” you will say, “Well that’s what I’m running.” Most of the time these will be games with an existing setting; your players already have visions of the kind of characters they’d want to play and things they want to do in the world. Even if they weren’t specifically asking to play, using a game with a defined setting that your players already understand makes it much easier to get them on board (or convince them that this isn’t the game for them).

But what if you’re trying to sell them on something you’ve invented? This is most common for fantasy games, but of course fits any sci-fi, modern, historical, etc. games where you’re doing most of the heavy lifting of setting design to match your own vision. This can also include existing games that your players are unfamiliar with; you have to explain to them why you like the setting enough to run it.

Your first step is the high concept. This is your classic Hollywood pithy summary of the game idea, ideally in one sentence. You can go the reference route, using non-game media (“It’s like Blade Runner meets Lord of the Rings!”) or existing games (“It’s like Vampire: the Masquerade meets Birthright!”). If nothing you can think to reference that your players would know seems close enough, you can expand the ideas into a short form (e.g., “You’re an elite cadre of Doppleganger-hunters within a kingdom at war; anyone could be a shapeshifter, even your party members!” or “You’re Dukes that have just broken free of a mad king and turned to the Vampire Lords for aid in the civil war.”).

You’re looking for the “…go on” moment, where you’ve piqued their interest enough that they’re ready to hear more.

That’s when you give them the elevator pitch: a couple of paragraphs of information about the game. You’re still in concept phase; you should be pointing out the things about the game that you love the most and anything you know your players are also particularly interested in. What are your players going to get to do in the game? What are they going to get out of it that they haven’t out of every other game they’ve played? Act like your players are your busy boss and you have one minute to sell them on your dream.

You’re looking for the “tell me more about…” moment. Then, and only then, do you whip out the twenty page player document you wrote up or start going on at length.

What you’re trying to create is a spark of interest that will carry them through the lead up into the game and have them bursting with ideas during chargen. Sure, they’re your friends and might feel obligated to play whatever you put out there. But if they’re anything like my players, they’re busy people that are only going to get around to reading what you’ve written about your setting quickly if you give them a good reason. Working from a high concept to an elevator pitch to a background document also ensures they know what you really want to focus on, and what themes they should be looking for in the grander document.

Ultimately, though, you don’t want to feel like your players are in your game because yours is the only game in town, even if it’s true. If you treat them like you know you’re competing for their free time with other hobbies, games, and leisure-time activities, you’ll have a lot more inertia at the start of your campaign. And, if nothing else, early investment in the concept leads to player characters better tuned towards what you want them to do, which should keep you from having to throw plots at the wall early on hoping one will stick.

The Player Document

So now that you’ve gotten buy in, you have to actually give the players enough information to begin interfacing with your campaign setting.

Not all players like to read big documents. Even your most interested readers can get overwhelmed with too much minutia. The biggest trick to player information is that less is more; the shorter you can get your document, the more likely it is that all of it will get read all the way through. Thus, the trick is to keep it as short as possible while telling the players everything they need to know to make characters. Three pages is great. More than a dozen is pushing it.

You’re not trying to hit everything a new character would need to know, just what’s important for players to know when they’re making characters. They can always ask you more questions about specifics (and, ideally, you have enough space in your design for them to suggest ideas they think are cool that you then work in). Instead, you need your document to be three things:

  • Succinct: Break everything down into bite-sized nuggets. Here is a kingdom, here is a group players can belong to, here are some bad guys, etc. There’s a reason why White Wolf got so far on the splat model; every part of your setting that can have its own high concept makes it easier for your players to each focus on elements of interest. One guy sees that there are druids fighting against desert-creating mages and is all on board. One girl wants to be a pirate that fights the undead plague. Again, it’s better to let your players ask you for more information than to bury them under too much up front.
  • Cool: Everything you put in your document needs to burn with why the players should care. Why did you put this in here? What does it do that’s unusual and interesting? Why did you need to make your own setting instead of using an off the shelf one with tweaks? Your introductory document needs to show why you’re excited to run this campaign; your enthusiasm is hopefully infectious. If you put something in your document that you don’t have a reasonable expectation that your players will look at and say “that’s cool,” take it out or change it until it is cool.
  • Aspirational: Players, bless their hearts, are easily won over with the shiny. It’s a big win to let them start play as something awesome. It’s an even bigger win to suggest how they’ll become even more awesome if they’re in for the long haul. Special groups, vacant leadership positions, and long-lost abilities and items are great things to suggest in your document. If you’re planning a long campaign, you want your players to have long-term plans from the first session; these plans might change, but being able to make them is an excellent channel for creativity in character creation.

Character Creation

If you’ve created a document focused on the awesome of your setting, your players are already bursting with character ideas that fit directly into the kind of game you want to run. This is the point where you start to figure out exactly what you’re doing and making sure the player ideas will all mesh into a harmonious party (or not so harmonious if you expect a little PvP). If someone’s idea doesn’t really fit, you have to delicately shift him or her onto a concept that fits better with the others. Letting the player stick with something that doesn’t really fit can lead to problems that may be much harder to solve once you’re playing the game. But being too up front about “that concept doesn’t work, pick another one” might be touching the butterfly wings of the player’s interest in the setting. You know your setting better than anyone else, so can figure out what might work better while changing as little as possible about the concept.

You can also use group character creation. It really seems like the coming thing, and it’s starting to confuse me when new games don’t include mechanics to ensure that there’s a good reason to make a group of player characters that are already strongly hooked together and ready to cooperate.

As mentioned last week, you should always be on the lookout for opportunities to let players create things that will appear in game. There’s no easier source of investment than a player’s idea becoming important to the whole campaign. Even beyond NPCs, look for opportunities to engage your players in creation of things in the world; leave vague spots in your campaign notes and let players associated with them pull them into focus with new ideas. As long as it doesn’t seem like it will make a player too powerful or break something the players aren’t aware of beyond fixing, it’s a total win. The player gets creative input and you get to not bother detailing something until you know the players are interested in it.

Character creation for a campaign is a little like tending a bonsai tree; you have to be delicate about it, but if you correctly channel the players you wind up with perfectly molded PCs that can hit the ground running on the plots you want to run rather than naturally grown PCs that don’t really fit into the game. Even if you’re trying to make a total sandbox, it’s important to guide the players into making characters with the right tools to play in the sand. If you’re running a more scripted game, you’ll save yourself a ton of stress if the PCs roll off the assembly line with easy hooks into the plot and temperaments suited to active pursuit.

GM Tricks: NPCs

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Eight Types of Recurring NPC

Not counting the kind of NPC that shows up for one fight or encounter, or recurs simply for color (like a shopkeeper), there are eight kinds of NPC:

  • The Beloved Mentor vs. The Pointy-Haired Boss: Some NPCs are more powerful than the player characters and have an interest in telling them what to do. They may be a superior in whatever organization supports the PCs or just a powerful contact that gives them information and assignments. Some of these your players will constantly badger for advice; they’ll generally want to get the NPC to tell them what to do. Others, they’ll chafe under, hate, and wonder why they’re even bothering to work for this guy.
  • The Free Agent vs The Unwanted GMPC: Some NPCs are effectively peers to the PCs; maybe slightly more or less powerful, but on basically the same level. They will generally help the PCs fill out capabilities they don’t otherwise have, or provide extra help in a pinch. Some of these will be beloved allies of the PCs, asked to come along all the time and included in downtime activities. Others you’ll feel like the players think you’re forcing on them and the players will conspire to remove the NPC from their team as soon as possible.
  • The Lieutenant vs The Minion: Some NPCs are less powerful than the PCs, and intended to provide their support organization. They may be a natural consequence of backgrounds that suggest the character should have staff, or purchased through leadership traits. Some of them will have their names remembered by the players and willingly left in charge of vital tasks. Others, the players won’t even remember unless they happen to screw up.
  • The Nemesis vs The Invulnerable Pain: Some NPCs are opponents that just keep cropping up. Maybe they’re actively hostile but manage to avoid or survive every encounter with the PCs, or maybe they’re somehow legally protected or veiled in secrecy so the players can’t manage to fight them directly for many encounters. Some of them will be vital forces which the players love to hate, and may even consider trying to redeem for their own sides. Others will be ongoing annoyances that your players try to kill whenever they get the chance and give you that annoyed look if it turns out they can’t.

Clearly, these are set up in a fashion of the Platonic ideal vs. the too-frequent reality. How do you move recurring NPCs from the right side of the versus (where players would mostly rather the NPC didn’t exist when they remember him at all) into the left side (where the players think of the NPC as a vital, enjoyable character that they want onscreen as much as possible)? Some of the following tricks have helped me over the years.

Use Funny Voices

How are your foreign accents? Can you have a whole conversation in a different cadence or pitch than your normal speaking voice? Can you do an impression of anyone famous?

If not, learn. It doesn’t matter if your funny voice is bad, as long as it’s distinct.

Doing a different voice when you portray an NPC does two things:

  • It makes the NPC memorable.
  • It makes the NPC seem less like a mouthpiece for the GM.

Both of these are really important when you want buy-in on an NPC. If your NPC has a distinctive voice, you can just start talking to them and they’ll remember the character. They’ll also be less likely to think of the character as just another one of your puppets; sounding different is one of the few things you can do to create that illusion at the table.

Don’t worry that the voice is too silly. Players tend to appreciate some humor, even in a serious game. If your accent is really painfully bad, save it for a less important NPC that you won’t mind becoming comic relief. Save the ones you can do well for the NPCs you want taken seriously. But also keep in mind that just because they’re not really taking the NPC seriously, that doesn’t mean the NPC isn’t becoming beloved.

Do make sure you can remember what voice you used with an NPC. An easy way to do that is keeping a note on the back of a visual aid.

Use Visual Aids

Get access to a color printer and some card stock and make some printed headshots of NPCs (four, six, or nine to a page that you then cut up). Leave some space at the bottom to write the NPC’s name once the players know it. Once you’ve put pictures with the NPCs you know you want, get a bunch of pictures in a similar style of a range of faces so you can create a card for a new NPC you’ve invented on the spot.

I prefer this method because it leaves you with a nice blank space on the back to write notes on voice and any short-form information you need. What are the NPC’s relevant social stats? What PCs owe this NPC something? That kind of thing. It also keeps your portraits in a consistent size that’s easy to manipulate and keep track of at the table.

If you don’t have a color printer, you can do something similar in a variety of ways. For fantasy games, Paizo has a nice line of preprinted cards with portraits on them. For modern games, cutting headshots out magazines is an option. If you bring a laptop or tablet to game, you can download images and display them on screen.

The important thing, no matter your solution, is that you hold it up while portraying the character so the players are able to put a face other than yours to the NPC. They have something to visualize when talking to that NPC; even the best-worded description is going to fall flat next to being able to just look down and see the NPC’s portrait. Between having a face and a voice to latch onto, your NPC starts to feel very distinct and real; the kind of character the players can treat with equal importance to the other PCs.

Put It on the Sheet

It sometimes seems like cheating, but you can get immediate buy-in to an NPC by having at least one player write the NPC’s name on his or her character sheet (obviously, in a “contacts” section or similar place). Going one better, add some system where the player has to track something next to the NPC: favors/money owed, friendship rating, tasks the NPC can perform, etc.

Putting details on the character sheet is a shortcut to letting the NPC absorb some of the love the player feels towards his or her own character. The NPC is written down in a place where the player writes down everything that’s important in the game (i.e., his or her stats), so the NPC must be important.

Let the Players Make the NPC

Do you do shared chargen like from Smallville or Fate? Do your players write you backstories with their character submissions? If so, you probably have a ready and awesome source of NPCs the players will already by inclined to care about, because they inserted them in their character backgrounds.

Feel free to cheat and make a character more significant than really intended. If a PC’s beloved aunt turns out to be the head of a secret society when she was originally just mentioned as an aging housewife, it’s only a problem if the player had some kind of other mental construct that needed her to not be important. Feel free to discuss it with the player, but it’s always easy to get NPC buy in when the player is certain that the character didn’t exist at all until that player inserted it directly into the GM’s brain. It doesn’t matter that if the player didn’t invent the NPC, you’d have had to make one similar; what matters is that the player did invent the NPC.

If you start with less background on your PCs this is harder, but you can still achieve it to a lesser extent. Instead of saying “these are the names of your subordinates” just be like “hey, what are the names of your subordinates?”

Let Them Come to You

The easiest way to make players hate an NPC is to make them deal with the NPC when they don’t want to. In particular, NPCs that join the team because other NPCs said so, or the situation was clearly designed so they had to come, can make the players angry. It’s a theft of their agency and role as protagonists. At the worst, it can feel like the players are just audience to the GM’s descriptions of how awesome his character is.

Instead, don’t create situations where NPCs are required, even if they’re really useful. Put the problem out there and see if the players suggest an NPC that might be able to help. And never punish them for failing to bring along that NPC; if the NPC wasn’t memorable or likeable enough that the players thought to bring him or her along, then punishing the players for not going to the NPC will only further ruin the association.

And if you think that you can pull it off without seeming like you’re just being coy, play the NPC as several steps removed (another NPC that suggests someone that could help) or uninterested (the PCs have to convince the NPC to help). But not being coy is the hard part here; if the players start sounding sarcastic (“oh, yes, great one, what will it take to convince you to come along”), that’s the first sign that now the players are extra annoyed because they feel like you’re forcing an NPC on them and making them work to get that help.

Know When to Charge

You can also succeed too much. If you make an NPC someone that the players really like, they may wind up going to that NPC for help more than you’re comfortable with. Make sure there’s always some way you could limit an NPC from just becoming another PC: someone that can be relied on to drop everything and help whenever the PCs need it.

This is easy for mercenaries: they want to get paid, but may lower their rates for really worthwhile endeavors. For NPCs that are clearly supposed to be loyal to the PCs, you need to make sure they have a life outside of the PCs: they’d love to help, but they just can’t right now (or can’t unless the players figure out how to free them up, which may involve an alternate form of “payment” to accomplish that goal).

The converse is also true: you can sometimes increase an NPC’s estimation in the eyes of the players by choosing when to drop everything and help out for free. Knowing that there are things that the NPC will jump to help with is a special kind of characterization. If you’ve really gotten investment in an NPC, you can sometimes have the NPC ride to save the day and it won’t feel like you’re deprotagonizing the PCs (just don’t try that too much).