I came away from those 24 hours energized, not exhausted.
Some of that came from great players—a father & son team, an Australian who’d heard the podcast, the young woman who showed me her sketchbook of Masks characters. I felt good throughout—like I had a handle on things. Looking back I realize some of my convention style wasn’t part of my repertoire just a few years ago. They’re things I’ve picked up from playing with The Gauntlet, listening to community conversations, and watching others run.
I found three techniques that stand out. These may be obvious for those who’ve played with The Gauntlet or maybe they’re common to your groups. But not everyone knows them. I didn’t know them for 30+ years. Each of these sparked an “OK, wow” reaction at least once at my tables. I could tell they’d be using that for their games.
Right away tell players how you structure your sessions. If you’re doing character creation, explain what that involves and how long you expect it to take. Point out bits they can skip or handle in play. I make a point of mentioning if we’re doing relationship questions and how in-depth those will be. Consider talking about how to handle order and actions at the table. For example, I stay simple by establishing we’ll be working clockwise, but that they can jump in or switch things up if they need to.
If you plan on a break (and you should) announce when that will likely happen. I’ve played too many con sessions where we waited and had to interrupt to request a break. If players know they’ll get a breather it offsets nervousness. Establish how long you plan to run for. I tell them we’ll play until we hit a wrapping point or fifteen minutes before listed end time, whichever comes first. That way they know they won’t have to rush and I’m respectful of their time. For my sessions, I warn in the last 30 minutes, I may push and hard frame scenes to get closure. It gets everyone on the same page.
The overall approach sets expectations. They see the process and know where they are in it. They know what time limits are and that you’ve thought about those. They can expect you to manage the table. They don’t have to worry this is going to drag on—that a slow player will hold them up. You’ve told them you’ll keep them moving.
2. ASK PERSONS NOT PARTIES
Before an online session a couple of years ago, someone asked Rich Rogers for GMing advice. As I waited my turn to offer sage wisdom, Rich broke my brain. What he said seemed so obvious—and maybe you already knew this-- again kudos to you-- I didn’t.
Don’t ask the group open, hanging questions. Address questions to a player. This cuts long pauses, awkward glances about who should go first, and the death of forward momentum. Instead you spotlight players and keep things moving forward.
This even goes for questions about plans, goals, or next steps for the group. You can still ask the classic “what do you want to do now?” question. But instead of dropping it like a bomb in the middle of the table, you point it at someone—“Sherri, what do you think?” or “Patrick, let’s start with you.”
That starts a conversation which can evolve into a discussion. As a GM you can shape this—you might have a sense of who hasn’t gotten a voice for a while, possesses a strong idea of the path forward, or doesn’t like being put on the spot. Your choice of who to ask a question affects the play. It’s a soft technique that works well when you have a good sense of your players.
When you run online, you have to ask specific people. You don’t have the visual cues that f2f groups use. But even f2f, you can keep the game moving with this technique. I’ve run for the same f2f groups for many, many years–the longest for over two decades. I know them and they know each other so well that unspecific questions can work. Maybe that’s why this advice never occurred to me. But when I shifted and began to direct questions at my home table, it sped things up and added momentum.
I ran Masks for my final session of the con. I loved the session, with lots of interesting character moments and an end twist built on a throwaway player comment. But what made it awesome wasn’t me. Wasn’t me at all.
As usual I gave each player a chance to narrate what happened with their characters after the story—and every single one knocked it out of the park. They crafted brief scenes that showed who their characters were and how they’d changed: infected by the final battle, closer to their pseudo-parent, willing to be who they were, rejecting an identity given to them, reconciling with a distant family.
Holy shit they killed it. In those moments they completed existing stories, opened up new ones, brought their head canon to the table, and provided emotional closure for the session.
At a campaign or one shot end, let players briefly narrate what comes after the last scene. I don’t know exactly when I first saw this in a Gauntlet session, probably with Rich again. At first it seemed like a cute trick—but the more I experienced it, the more I realized its power. The unspoken horror of one-shots, con games, and even short campaigns is this: we’re never coming back to these characters. This is the only bite at the apple they’re going to get.
Most of the time you can frame the question openly—what comes next…what do we see on-screen about your character’s future? Players have full authority to narrate that story. If, and this happens rarely, two characters’ resolutions conflict, have them negotiate. Usually players can find a satisfying story in their own lane. If two PCs’ have opposing goals then aim for a dramatic ambiguity at the end.
You can frame this in several ways. In one Dungeon World session the party grabbed the MacGuffin artifact as we ran out of time. The epilogue became an escape montage, giving players a chance to show off and dramatically mow through their opposition. For our Masks session I asked them to describe some panels from a future issue. For Pasión de las Pasiones online I had them narrate a bit from the “Next Time On” teaser at the end of the episode.
Tying back to my second lesson, when you ask for epilogues, toss the spotlight to specific players. If you’re coming out of a chaotic situation, throw to the person who seems to have the best grasp on events. If possible, call on veterans before new players so they can model the process. If someone hasn’t gotten as much spotlight time, make them first or last—setting the stage or tying things up. The last player to give their epilogue sometimes has the opportunity to tie threads together. Consider giving that to a player who has been active in all sessions or has played well with everyone’s stories.
Sometimes it’s hard to admit I haven’t always been an awesome GM. But learning new tricks doesn’t mean your old games weren’t good, just that they’re going to be better.
For the full backlog of Age of Ravens posts on Blogger see here.