At one point I was running five different games per week. Three online sessions—usually weekly 4 shots or the occasional 12 shot quarterly and two f2f sessions—bi-weekly with 3-4 groups running multi-year campaigns. The pandemic put a bullet in that. Over the course of 2020 I dropped down to 2-3 weekly online sessions and one f2f (moved online). Now my average number of sessions I run now 3-4 weekly, sometimes higher due to online conventions. Now I'm going to tell you how I do it.
I'm focusing on the online games I run for the Gauntlet, specifically 4-5 session series run in a single month. Since we can post those sessions up to two months out, I’m thinking seriously about what I want to run three months out. Sometimes I’ll deliberately hold off deciding and post closer to the first session date. That’s usually if I want to save seats for new players or to fill in a gap in the online calendar.
I try to mix up what I’m running: easy standbys (Hearts of Wulin), recent hotness (Dune), popular perennials (Masks), my hacks (Night’s Black Agents Express), things I’ve run before but folks couldn’t get into (Legacy), and smaller, niche games which need attention (Yokai Hunters Society). I try to avoid running more than two “new to me” games at the same time. I also avoid running the same system or setting in parallel. That’s an easy way to get lost. I will try to run thematically similar games at the same time or in sequence (space, spies, fantasy) because that means my immersion in inspiration has a better payoff.
For this I’m going to assume we’re talking about a new game, one I haven’t yet played or read the rules for.
LEARN THE GAME
To start I read through the rules to get the basics. Does the game have a clear statement anywhere about what PCs actually do in play? Next I skim at the rules in this order: character sheet, then the basic resolution rules, combat, character creation, feats/spells/special abilities. Then I check to see if the game has a detailed equipment section. If it does, that’s usually a clue that it’s crunchier than I like or may require more prep.
Finally I look at the deeper set-up and setting material with this question in mind: what do the players need to know to actually make up characters and play in this setting? How much am I going to have to convey? If it’s a lot, I may shelve the game or put it off until I have time to work through. If I decide to push on I’ll mark up the book and make outlines in my notebook.
For example, I’ve had Nibiru in mind for a while. The system itself isn’t complicated but the world and set-up is particular rich. And because of the play concept, as the GM you’re going to be explaining lots and answering a ton of questions. So I’ve put that off until I have a chance to really put the work in to grok the whole concept.
At this point I may find that the game isn’t going to work for me. It might be close to what I want, but getting it there would take more work (Romance in the Air). It might be a system I know, but made more complex than I’m interested in (Fellowship). OOH might have dice or card mechanics which are harder to replicate online (Companions' Tale). It might even be that I hit something I really dislike about the system or set up—like PVP or a lack of safety discussion (Mutant: Elysium).
If I decide to run it, I’ll pull out my standard event description template and add it in. That’s three paragraphs: basics & requirements, the pitch, play set up & safety. I look at my schedule to figure out what I’ve already posted. I try to plan things out so that I don’t run more than one game a day and that I leave myself a couple of nights free each week. Before I post to the Gauntlet Calendar, I’ll check if Sherri, my wife, is interested and give her right of first refusal.
Next I forget about the game until a few weeks out. I mean I’ll avoid directly thinking about it. Indirectly I’ll try to consume media which relates to the theme or ideas. That means books, websites, podcasts, movies, TV shows, other games in the genre, etc. When I went to run four months of Night’s Black Agents I read (and reread) multiple LaCarre and other spy fiction novels, listened to the Spy World podcast, rewatched The Sandbaggers and Bourne series, and worked through several audiobooks. That’s deeper than I usually do, but if there’s media available, I try to infuse it into my unconscious.
ACTUAL PREP AND PLANNING
When we get closer to the start date I’ll hunt around to see what resources are available online. Is there a character keeper already made? If yes, then I’ll take that and tweak it to my preferred layout, add my safety tools of choice, pick a color theme, and decide if it needs any rules or move cheats. I’ll also make an online dice roller room. I’ll look to see if anyone’s made rules cheat sheets and download those. I use them if they’re clear and simple. I’ll also look for free scenarios and quick starts. I usually don’t use those as is, but they’re great to adapt for a quick first session set up.
Now I’ll seriously dig down into the rules. If there wasn't a pre-existing online character keeper, I’ll make my own—rebuilding one from a game with the same mechanics if I can. This is a great way to a) learn the rules and b) figure out where rules are in the book itself. If I need to I’ll also make a mechanics cheat sheet, but this is usually only necessary for “Trad-Indie” games like Cypher, 2d20, 7th Sea, or the like. If it’s a game with a base system I know, like PbtA, I’ll try to figure out what makes this game different.
Depending on the genre, I’ll often make a Pinterest board of NPCs for inspiration.
Once I have a keeper and/or cheat sheet, I’ll look to see if there’s anything from the book which players might need in play (like the character creation chapter). I’ll print that to pdf and put that, alongside any reference materials or summary sheets, in an online folder. A week out from the first session, I send a set-up email with that link as well as how we’re going to be playing (like a link to the Zoom meeting) and any other miscellaneous details (like the Pinterest board).
Side Note: The only thing I assume my players will know going into session one is the basic premise. Even if I’ve sent background or cheat sheets, I assume they haven’t actually read them. Unless a game absolutely demands some choices ahead of time, I don’t give homework.
Going into session one, I have two tracks. One kind of game doesn’t require any kind of premise or set up. These are most PbtA games which collaborative setting or world building (Masks, Hearts of Wulin, Monsterhearts). The other kind of game requires me to work on framing and set up.
For example, Unmasked from Monte Cook has a strong pitch: 1980’s weird teen superheroes based on found objects. But it needs a sketched out setting, some NPCs, and an inciting incident. The Dune rpg required some thought because the book is split. On the one hand, it has the PCs being part of a new House. On the other, the example story is set on Arrakis and doesn’t do a great job of taking into account the players’ created House. I had to develop a different pitch. Basically their House would be taking over a new planet, part of the shuffle which happened at the same time as the handover in the first Dune novel.
If the game requires developing framework ahead of time, I try to keep it as simple as I can—I should not be spending more than an hour or two on this. I don’t drag it out.
I keep all of my session prep to the hour before a session starts. This is a hard rule. I don’t even go up to the computer to get ready until 60 minutes out. For session one, I’ll use that time to review the character creation process, look at inspirational pictures, remind myself who is playing, and write up the CATS document for the session.
I always try to start the session five minutes before the start time. Any longer and I find myself sitting around anxiously. Once everyone’s there I check in to see if there are questions. I’ll tell them generally what I expect the session to look like. Importantly if I plan to record the session, I ask permission. If anyone says no, I don’t record. I also tell them I’ll check in again at the end of each session to see if everyone’s cool with posting it. Even if they say yes, they can follow up later if they change their mind.
Once we start, I introduce myself, my pronouns, and talk about the Gauntlet. I explain the basic pitch. Then I walk through my CATS document to make sure everyone’s on the same page. My S stands for Safety, so I go through the layered set of tools I use (Lines & Veils, X-Card, Open Door). I point players to the Lines & Veils table in the character keeper and ask them to add to that as they wish during character creation.
If the game has any second collaborative prep: crew picks. House building, background questions, tone picks, an add/ban palette, we do that now.
If I know the players and that they understand the basic rules then I move to character creation. If not, I check in to see what players know about the system. I’ll give any key premise or rules explanation here. The main idea, again, is not to overwhelm them, but to provide them enough info to make informed character picks.
This info should come from one person, ideally me. If someone else jumps in to interrupt or add, I’ll let them do that once, but then politely ask them to hold off if they do it a second time. This isn’t a power move, but instead is important to helping new players keep focus.
I’ll then apologize for talking so much and set them loose on character creation. I’m careful to be clear about what point they can work up to in this process. That means figuring out the best stopping point. For example, we want players to introduce their characters to everyone before we go on to relationship building or the like.
As we go into character creation there's a potential slow down. When you ask people if they have a choice for playbook/class/concept, etc. they often hesitate to call dibs on something. So call on someone—usually I call a) on the person who wrote about their idea in reply to the set-up email or b) the person who arrived first. If I’m getting a lot of “I don’t know” responses, I make them narrow it down to two or three, and walk through those choices with everyone. That will usually eliminate some picks and narrow folks down further—by the time I go around again, the players have usually chosen.
I try to keep everyone on the same time line of prep and work. Some players will get done earlier than others. It's important to work to make the slower character creators not feel like they’re behind. I tell players that anything they don't pick now they can choose in play. While everyone’s engaged in the CC process, I might go over a few small things I forget earlier. Importantly I assure everyone that they’ll have the chance next session and/or the one after to change their picks around. Nothing is set in stone.
We have player introduce their characters. I try to ask at least one interesting and unusual interview questions about each character as they’re presented. If we have relationship generation built into the character creation process, I don’t drag that out. We move to any preset questions or an outside tool like Backstory Cards. I emphasize that players have to check in and get positive affirmation about those connections. I, as GM, ask for that confirmation so the player doesn’t feel like they’re saying no to a fellow player if they’re uncomfortable with it. I also go over the Lines and Veils picks either before or after introductions.
TIME AND THE GM
At this point there’s a decision I have to make. Most of my sessions last three hours—with two breaks, one at each hour. If the CC process is rolling along and a break at the hour will change the flow, I’ll switch that to one break at the mid-point. But crucially I have to judge if the character creation process is going to go close to or bleed over into the last hour. If it won’t then, I usually take the last part of the session to do a little set up scene—an inciting incident or conflict. If I have 90-120 minutes free, then I’ll actually do a combat or conflict-like encounter.
If I don’t have that time, then I’ll slow things down and draw out the character creation process by asking more questions. Then I’ll break early if I need to and tell the players we’ll start from there next session. A small number of games like Legacy: Life Among the Ruins take more than one session because you’re doing world building, family building, and character building. In this case, I save the majority of the character building final steps for the next session—but I make sure we get everyone’s concepts and pick before we leave.
If I have enough time and we’ve gotten to play some, then I’ll do a Stars & Wishes debrief at the end of the first session. If not, then I hold off on that until the next session. I finish up, check if there are any questions, remind players their choices aren’t locked in stone, and get affirmative ascent to posting the recorded session.
Once the session’s done, I don’t think about it except to upload it to YouTube and post the listing for our weekly video round up. I might absorb inspirational materials or skim the rules during the week to check on something. But otherwise I deliberately won’t think about the game until one hour before the following session. At all. Just don’t.
SESSION TWO+ PREP
Again, I confine myself to one hour of active prep at most.
If the game’s largely improvisational then I…
- Copy down the PC’s names and any NPCs associated with them
- Write down any goals or any moves/feats that have highly conditional triggers
- Make a list of established NPCs and come up with some more
- Make note of a few places or events that might be cool
- If I have a specific session-starting event, sketch that (like a villain, a disaster, or a trap)
- If I have time, write down outstanding plot hooks
If the game has a specific set up, like I’m adapting published material or we’ve set up that something specific will kick off the session (like a party or a murder mystery)
- If I’m working from existing material I make an outline of that and a separate list of any NPCs
- If it’s an event, I work up an outline/timetable along with the NPC list
- If I have time, I’ll also try to make a short list of NPCs, incidents, or details for each PC
If the game has a specific purpose, like establishing a mystery in Brindlewood Bay or setting up the framework for the whole series,
- I walk through the PCs, their goals, and their abilities,
- I loosely make an outline of the structure of the play,
- I establish what information I must get to the players,
- I make a list of NPCs and their connections,
- If I have time, write down outstanding plot hooks
If the game is more traditional, meaning you need to have a little more ready and can’t count entirely on GM moves or reactions,
- Copy down PCs names and NPCs associated with them
- I write down again what the player’s goals are likely to be—especially it we concretely established those in the previous session (like they’re under orders)
- For each player I write down 3-4 things they can interact with. These might be NPCs, scenes, uncovered information, hooks, or cool places or things.
Before I start the next session, I check in about recording. Once we start I do my usual set-up spiel. go over our chosen safety tools, and walk through Lines & Veils. This should be brief as the players have heard much of this before and they want to get to playing. I then have the players introduce themselves and their characters—with special emphasis that they should provide their pronouns. After they introduce their PC I try to mention something I remember about their character (an event, a goal, how banged up they are) from last session to show the player that I pay attention.
Note: I make sure to model player order here—and stick with this order throughout the session. Usually I go in character keeper order, but each session I start with a different player. Establish that early.
Then I’ll go through a brief recap of the previous session, with special attention to things they need to do this session and decisions they made about their agenda. Afterwards I ask the players, in order, if I left anything crucial out. Sometimes I deliberately leave crucial things out so the players can bring them up and comment on them.
Then we play the session—again most often three hours with two breaks. I usually take 10 minutes for break one and 5 for break two. Mentally I try to block out each hour as having one focus. Breaks should be transitions. For example Hour One might be the players getting oriented and talking to NPCs, Hour Two might be running down leads or getting to the key location, Hour Three might be the big conflict. I don’t push it but I keep an eye on the time and try to shape the play a little. If I can I try to break things at cliffhangers or unanswered questions.
At the end of session I do Star and Wishes. Stars are obvious—things folks liked. In all but the last session I emphasize Wishes should be things they want to see in the next session, want to do, would like to see more, or would like to see less of. If it’s the final session of the series, I have the players do epilogues for their characters before Stars & Wishes. For the debrief, I focus on what they liked/disliked about the system and play to help me if I run this game again.
Occasionally a game will feel like it needs more—like another month or two of plays. In rare cases I’ll offer that. The challenge is that scheduling is hard and sometimes the spark won’t be back for a second round. So I try not to do that too often. Once a game is done I don’t go back to it and my notes unless a) I’m running another month of it or b) I’m running the same game for another group. In the latter case I’ll recopy my CATS from the earlier session and maybe skim the player Wishes.