Wednesday, May 3, 2017

What I wish I knew as an Online GM 18 Months ago

In December of 2015, I moved from a college town where I knew lots of people and had a gaming group to a rural location where I knew almost no-one. As a result, I moved from gaming face to face with an established group to gaming online with complete strangers. Looking back over those 18 months, there are a few things I wish I had known.

The GM is Responsible for Making Sure Everyone Has Fun

This is the first and last law of GMing. Every good GM realizes their art is a largely selfless craft. If there is a problem, it the GM's problem. I learned that lesson a long time ago, but I failed to apply it to group management, focusing solely on the plot, setup, mechanics, and so forth. Previously I had gamed with either existing groups with a long history, or with friends I knew well.  I didn't have experience managing player conflicts or new groups, and I had trouble until I pulled my head out of the sand and made those issues my problem.

Yes, it'd be nice if everyone behaved and got along with each other, but they don't, and someone has to fix that. By which I mean that I, the GM, have to fix that. There are other problems that came up, but most of them were fixable once I realized that I had the responsibility to make the game happen, including players and player dynamics. When you're moving to a new medium of play, make sure to remember that.

Be Consistent!

Nothing will kill a game faster than inconsistency. I've noticed my group does much better when I make an effort to play each night, no matter what. You can miss one night, but missing multiple nights in a row is a bad idea. I started having a backup game that could be played if attendance plummeted for a night, and it helped with consistency: players started showing up on nights they knew others would be missing, because they knew we'd end up playing a meaningful game no matter what. (yes, playing with half your PC's gone can become meaningless).

I wasn't an inconsistent GM, but I didn't go the extra mile to make sure the game happened at first. Now I've made it a requirement for myself. If there won't be a game, its because I didn't run it, and I told everyone well in advance: at least 48 hours in advance (though I might have once had to do 24) and hopefully a full week.

I don't know why this is, but I've found it important to remind players to come to the game. A simple email or line in the game chat works wonders: people show up on time, they tell you if they're going to be late or miss the game, and that half-hour of windup becomes an hour of play. A penny of reminder is worth a pound of play. I wish I'd realized this earlier. Its so easy to email or send a chat message along the lines of "I'm looking forward to tonight!"

Small Talk is Important

Gaming is at its core a social activity
Earlier I used the phrase "strangers from the internet". I've come to believe that playing with strangers from the internet doesn't work. Playing with friends you met on the internet does. Online relationships can be harder to build than face to face relationships, but putting in the effort to get to know these folks is worth the effort. When I know a player, I can call them up when I'm starting a new campaign I think is suited for them. I can predict when they won't be able to make it. I know what campaigns they will enjoy. We can make in context jokes during the game. And we can cheer each other up when someone shows up to game night with a long face and a tale of woe. But it all starts with those silly little questions on where people are from, and what they do with their life. Actually, its not so silly when you're online: people are actually from interesting places you've never been to before, and you never know what they've been doing with their life.

The Players You Want are Out There, But it may Take Time

When I started GMing, I made some bad mistakes. I took too many players into my group at once. I played a campaign I really wasn't gung-ho about. I made those mistakes because I was afraid of having no one or only one person show up to game night.  The thing is: people will eventually come. If you're being a good GM and worrying about making sure the players are having a good time, the right players will show up. For me it probably took about 12 months. It might have taken less if I knew more about building online groups, and I wasn't sure I had a good group until a few months after that. I have fairly stringent demands: we play for two hours on Tuesday from 7 to 9 central time, and I have a low-combat, high-investigation play style. So I had a reasonably hard slot to fill. But people who wanted and enjoyed that style of game in that time slot were out there, and I eventually found them.

I also noticed when looking for players that the school year has a huge effect on things. Remember this and don't be discouraged: your players will come. Just be a good GM and keep trying.


I did not figure this all out on my own. I had advice from a number of folks. Some of them were players. Some of them were bloggers. Some of them were forumites. Special credit goes to Mailanka, who reminded me about the GM's duty to make the game work when I was trying get by with the minimum of work. If you haven't checked out his blog, you really ought to do so.

I hope all the GM's looking for players find them, and I hope all the players looking for good GM's find them as well. The internet is a marvelous thing, if we can only figure out the best ways to use it. Good Luck!

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