- On The Gauntlet we use a lot of online character keepers, often based on Google Sheets. When possible try to keep characters on the same tab in these sheets, rather than giving each individual their own tab. It makes it easier for players to navigate.
- If you have games which are scheduled ahead of time, make sure to set for yourself a number of days out that you’ll send a players a reminder. I usually aim for one week out and then one day out. The one week out email usually has links to the game info. Remind people with enough time that they can rearrange their schedule (if they forgot about it) and/or you can find another player (if they drop).
- Get people’s names and pronouns right. Both for them and for their characters. If you goof it up in session one, you’d better come into session two knowing it.
- Maybe the most important skill to learn and teach is when to mute. If you’re not on mic, mute yourself. Explicitly tell this to other people. Some folks don’t realize how noisy or disturbing their environment is. If they’re noisy, tell them so they know. You don’t have to be aggressive about this: just reinforce that it’s part of the table culture.
- On the flip side, folks will forget to unmute themselves when they talk. Give them a second to realize they’re still muted, especially if they’re veteran players and likely to pick it up. Be gentle about telling people they’re muted. It can be embarrassing and annoying (especially if they’ve been doling out great stuff to just themselves). You don’t need to compound that embarrassment.
- If someone’s roboting, too quiet, or there’s some other technical error, you should step in to mention it to the player. Often leaving the call and coming back will fix errors. Sometimes the person has their mic placed incorrectly. If it’s a bandwidth issue, turning off a camera feed may help. These errors usually don’t fix themselves, so it’s best to catch them early instead of letting them interfere with play. Again, be kind in pointing these out. They’re often issues the person can’t detect from their end.
- If someone has persistent tech errors that interrupt and seriously disrupt the session, take a break. Message them and see if they’d be willing to drop from the session. Maybe they can get that fixed before the next one. It’s never fun to have to do this, but in these rare instances it’s better for everyone.
- If you’re running and you’ve had crashes in the past (computer lock up, bandwidth drop, etc.) establish what happens if you crash. How long should they wait? Alternately make sure you have a chat option (like Hangouts or Slack) you can access on your phone—use this to inform the players.
- Always use safety tools. Always use safety tools. Always use safety tools. Notice the plural. Safety tools work best with a layered approach. After a tone conversation, Lines & Veils establishes some baseline limits for play. Combine that with the X-Card to help mark when you’re getting close to those limits or touching on something problematic which you hadn’t established in L&V. Finally an Open Door policy allows players to leave comfortably if they’re feeling overwhelmed, getting sick, or have some emergency arise.
- Lines & Veils should be done as anonymously as possible. We commonly use a check list in our online character keepers which players can mark during character creation (and later during ongoing play). Folks can relatively anonymously mark their choices and add new ones. Otherwise we recommend having the players submit their list privately to the GM and then having the GM announce them.
- One of the best starting points for a new session of series is CATS. It’s a structured way to get everyone on the same page. It helps frame your tone discussion and clues folks into what they’re actually going to be doing at the table. Sometimes we take for granted that players have the same understanding of a genre or know the same touchstones. Better to walk through it briefly. Here’s a CATS cheatsheet.
- Forecast your session structure: We’re going to do X, Y, and Z. We’re going to take this many breaks, usually at these times. If we get to the last 30 minutes, I’m going to hard frame scenes to move towards a conclusion. I usually end X minutes early. I plan on doing this kind of debrief if there’s time.
- It is better to end early on a high point than to drag on to another scene which might not fit within the time left. If you do end early, check in with your players to see if anyone had something they really wanted to get to the table before you break
- Take at least one break at the mid-point. Consider taking a short 5 minute break every hour so everyone can get their second wind and have a moment to think about what to do next. If a scene’s going strong, it’s OK to delay a planned break, but move to it as quickly as possible.
- We use three pieces of tech: our meeting software (in this case Zoom), a character keeper (usually Google Sheets), and an online die roller (https://rollwithme.xyz/). If you use these a lot, you can forget that not everyone knows how they work and some folks have a harder time for new technology. Familiarize yourself with the basics so you can explain them.
- On a related note: when you’re explaining tech set up or teaching the rules only one person at a time should do the explaining. Usually this should be the GM or someone the GM has asked to take up that task. If the explainer has missed something you think is vital, message them in chat rather than jumping in.
- On a related, related note: Don’t forget you may have to teach the rules of the game. Check to see everyone’s level of experience with the system. Give them the basics they need to play and move forward. But don’t go into the weeds and dwell on the minutiae. Try to focus your answer on what the player needs to make choices right now.
- If your online tool of choice allows it, have your players change their screen name to their character’s name. Zoom lets you do this easily.
- Players don’t have to go back to a game they’re not enjoying. If it isn’t for them, the table makes them uncomfortable, or it wasn’t what they expected, they shouldn’t continue playing. It is good form for players to tell the GM they won’t be returning. We call this Open Door and it’s also used if players need to step away during a session. We always make clear they’re not under any obligation to explain that decision. If someone does drop in this way, don’t press for a reason. At most say that you’d love feedback down the road if and when they’re comfortable with it.
- You don’t have to run for people who make you feel uncomfortable or threatened. The GM’s as much a player as anyone else. You can ask a player not to return or if you’re playing in a community group, you should be able to ask an organizer to speak to them. Aim to keep this process discrete and don’t sub-tweet about it. It isn’t an easy thing to do. If you’re a community organizer you should have a procedure in place to handle this.
- Perhaps the most important skill to learn running online: always ask directed questions. If you ask an open question to the table you will get silence, delays, and hesitation. Every time you ask an open question you waste time and energy. Name who you’re asking. If your question could apply to everyone, focus it in. For example, “what do you want to do next? Let’s start with Sherri’s answer”
- Online lack physical cues means you can't read your players' reactions to something you’ve said. After I give a GM response to some actions (like social interactions or information hunts) I try to say “Does that sound cool?”, “Is that OK?”, or the like. Then if I’ve misunderstood their intent or if the player feels what they got doesn’t fit with what they rolled or spent, they can say so. Always be checking in with your players.
- Especially if your players haven’t played this particular system, tell them they have the option to switch things between session one and two (or some other arbitrary time). This takes the pressure off the players to make optimal choices in session one character creation. They can pick what sounds fun. It also helps if they've built a character with a particular forte that doesn’t actually fit with what play’s like.
- There’s usually some downtime at the start while you’re waiting for everyone and during breaks. Take the opportunity to ask new players about themselves. Don’t talk about yourself. Just listen and ask further questions.
- Lots of modern story games don’t have initiative systems. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set an order. Establish the sequence you’re going to use to call on people early and model that play. A good touchstone is the order on the character keeper. Switch this up between sessions so one person isn’t stuck always going first. Let people delay if they’re not ready. Also make clear that if someone has a great idea, they can jump in and we can switch that order up.
- I have two easy “cheat” set ups for one shots or first sessions where the players build characters and I have no idea what’s going to happen before the session. One: assuming four players, pair them up. If two characters have some tension or unfinished business generated during character building, keep them in separate pairs. Run Pair A until they get to an interesting stopping place. Run Pair B until they see some foes going to attack or ambush someone. Switch back to Pair A as they’re attacked and then swing in Pair B. Alternately, start with Pair A seeing something weird, then Pair B sees something different but still weird. The two pairs meet and now they have to figure out the connection between the weirdnesses. Two: Ask the first player why the room’s on fire. Or the tower’s collapsing. Or the boat's sinking. Backfill how they group got there and then immediately have them deal with the threat (usually both the environment and some foes)
- Especially if you have an investigative game, establish your info dump procedure. My practice is that whatever info a player gains in scene one, the next player has in scene two. Sometimes this doesn’t make logical sense, but it helps play online. It avoids extra scenes of explanation and players having to stop and ask what they know and don’t know. While the default assumption is information is shared, if a player says they’re withholding something that’s also cool because they’re being explicit. And it tells the table about their character.
- Know what time it is. I have moved my on-screen clock to the upper right corner of the screen so it is always easily in my eyeline. Don’t look down at your phone—even if you’re just doing it to check the time, it still may give the impression you’re checking your messages.
- If you get lost—say so, take a pause. Don’t let yourself drone on. I get lost more easily running online than f2f so I always have to keep this in mind. Out of habit and stubbornness, I don’t like to say “hey, give me just a minute” but it’s better for your players and your stress level.
- Different players take different amounts of time to answer questions. Watch and try to remember that. Give yourself at least a five count before you jumping in to restate a question or suggest an answer. Sometimes players have legit not heard you (or forgotten their character’s name when called). But sometimes they’re just considering. This is also important for fellow players too. Even if you have a super amazing idea, give the player a chance to think about their response. Don’t just jump in right away with your concept. Give them the first opportunity to take control, otherwise it can feel like you’re stomping on their space even if you don’t mean to.
- Lone wolves are less interesting than a player thinks they are. If a player opts to split and go their own way when the game’s aimed at group play, that’s OK. But don’t then split the play time 50/50 between the solo act and the rest of the party. In a 4p game, someone who goes off by themselves should get 25% of the spotlight, which means it may be a while for you get back to them.
- Anti-authoritarian PCs will often not actually go after the real authorities and powers-that-be but instead kick back at leadership and suggestions within the group. It’s an easier target, but gets old quickly and can be super frustrating for problem-solving players. Be ready to stop that before it gets personal. Have an open discussion about what both players want.
- Give yourself plenty of time in your last session for player epilogues. Let them have the space to narrate where they see themselves going. Watch for player choices here which might negate or undercut previous players’ epilogues and check in with everyone. Negotiate a compromise.
Our Gauntlet Community Open Gaming event starts tomorrow. We still have seats in a few games—and sign up’s free. To celebrate that, I’ve assembled a list of 33 pieces of advice for online GMing. Some of these apply to f2f games, but running games online has a set of special challenges.