Maintaining An Online Game
From Leslie Holm
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #343
If you’ve decided to run an online RPG, the main thing you need in your arsenal is dedication. You will get bored. You will get irritated with your players. You will get frustrated by lack of response.
So why bother? Because when everything is going right, when your players are excited and posting daily, when development is at its peak, running an online game is thrilling.
Here are a few tips I’ve picked up over the years on how to be dedicated and keep a game running.
Plan Your Campaign
Sounds simple, right? Every GM plans his campaign, at least to some extent. You will find, however, you need a detailed campaign when you are running an online game. My theory is that the time between posts allows the players to be more creative, curious, and inevitably, thwart the GM who isn’t totally prepared.
In a tabletop game, players can, for the most part, be guided and heavily influenced. Things move quickly, and you can give them just what information you want them to have and move them along.
Online, the players are going to come up with questions about everything. Players in my PBeM want a description of every shop they enter when they make a trip to town. They want names of shopkeepers and folks they might meet on the street. They want to know if the temple is on the west side of town, and the docks on the south side.
Know your setting. Use generators if you need to – town, NPC, whatever – but be prepared to answer lots of questions. I recommend using a published setting that you are familiar with to make your job easier. If you are using your own world, make sure it’s complete before you begin; right down to the garderobes in the castle.
You should also be planning your second adventure while running your first. During current adventure, you should be dropping clues to other exciting things they can do when they complete their goals. That way you can have a week or two break, and start right back up.
Offering a choice of adventures is always a good idea. For example, they could have heard of a gang of thieves operating in a town they visit, one of the orphaned characters (there are always orphaned characters) could have learned something about their family they want to follow up, or they may have heard of mysterious and dangerous things happening at a temple nearby. Then, let the players discuss their options and decide what they want to do. They will participate more eagerly if they think they are the masters of their own fate.
Be Prepared For Drop-Outs
If you lose your only cleric because his player just went back to school, and doesn’t have enough time to play anymore, it leaves the rest of the party in fairly dire straights. I generally start my adventure with 8 to 10 players, knowing that one or two will drop out in the first few weeks for any of a number of reasons, ranging from not liking my game to illness. Since a PBeM usually runs at least a year, you will lose more players along the way.
- Allow lurkers in your game. This almost guarantees you have a person familiar with the story, and possibly eager to jump in, who can take over the defunct character or create a new one in the class you need.
- Always advertise. If your party drops down to just a couple of players who want to continue, and you have no one to fill in, advertise quickly. In your ad, emphasize you have a long-standing game – players often prefer to join a game they know will stick around as opposed to a brand new game of unknown quality.
When you don’t need players, keep a list of interested people can help when membership gets lean. Put an ad in your e- mail and forums signatures, keep your open ads fresh and up to date at various forums.
- Edit logs and post them regularly. Edit a version of your logs for public consumption and reference. These logs give interested players a taste, or help generate interest in prospective players. Party members will find the abbreviated version good for reference and catching up after missing sessions as well.
- Maintain a contact list. Record names and e-mails in an address book or file so you have a quick and easy way to find contact info when you need it. Record recruitment site addresses as well. Keep a separate section for players who are potential invitees or replacements. When a current player drops out, send out invitation e-mails and post at your flagged recruitment sites.
Know Your Players
Don’t accept the first submission you get. When you advertise, it’s wise to explain you are starting a new game, and that character creation will take several weeks. This gives you time to get decent samples of writing – many DMs require a background of 1,000 words or more. If your applicant can’t be bothered to use spell check, or good grammar, chances are he/she won’t be bothering to post regularly either.
You also need to lay firm ground rules with regards to posting – what you expect from each player. It is not too much to expect they will post twice weekly, and that they will give you a reasonably long post – not a sentence or two. Their cooperation during the character creation process should give you a good idea of how they will post.
For example, in a game I am joining now, my GM has written me 6 times in 3 days, and I’ve answered promptly each time. Hopefully this indicates to him that I am cooperative, responsive and prompt, and that’s what you need to look for in a player.
For some reason, in online games, we don’t always take the same care to stay organized as we would in a tabletop game. In a tabletop game, we have everything written down, and we have notes, charts, and maps to refer to. In an online game, you often make an off the cuff post, and if you don’t keep notes on it, you could be in trouble later. Sure, you can go back and search messages for whatever you’ve forgotten, but that could be time-consuming. I have a friend whose game has been running since April of 2004, and currently has 5,610 messages. In a well-run PBeM, plan on between 200 and 500 messages a month.
There are programs to help you stay organized, such as DM Buddy and DM Genie. Some are free; others are downloadable for a small fee. If you would prefer to do it yourself, I
recommend using Microsoft Excel or OpenOffice Calc.
I use one file with many worksheets:
- One sheet lists every NPC I mention, with description, place met, and any notes that might come up later.
- Each town they visit gets its own worksheet. In it, I record each place they visit, who they met there, what they did, and any notes needed.
- One sheet is a game time calendar – day one, they visited a town, bought equipment, slept at an inn. Day two was spent on the road, and so on.
- Each player has a sheet where I have pertinent information recorded. This includes stats, bonuses, spells, skills, feats and anything else I think I might need at my fingertips.
Now I have one file to open whenever I am posting, and I can find whatever information I need quickly.
Okay, you’ve done everything right. You’ve planned your campaign down to the color of the hair on the barmaid in the first tavern they visited. You’ve got great players who can spell and write short stories for their posts. You’re organized and you’ve kept copious notes. Still, for some reason, your game has stalled. Players aren’t posting promptly anymore and it feels like lethargy has descended on everyone. This is where most games fall by the wayside.
First, decide if you still have enthusiasm for the game. The GM falling prey to boredom is the foremost reason players lose interest. If you are still gung-ho, and you think your players can be salvaged, then it’s time to be flexible and shake things up.
One thing you might do is announce a hiatus. During this time, review your game. What has caused it to bog down?
- Think about each player. Sometimes you’ll find it’s just one player, and speaking to him about it, or removing him, will solve the problem.
- Analyze your own posts. Have they become lackadaisical and unexciting? If so, stop thinking about your game. Read books, watch movies, play other games, such as computer or board games. After a week or three look at your game again – hopefully your enthusiasm will have returned.
- Shake things up. Unless you are in the middle of a dungeon or a huge combat scene, (and rarely does a stall happen in these circumstances) take a different direction. If your creativity is in a lull, pick up a module or download one of the millions of free adventures on the web and fit it into your campaign. I think you’ll find a whole new set of circumstances will boost everyone’s morale.
- New blood. Bring in a new player or two. The excitement a new player brings to the game might be infectious!
If nothing has worked, and you want to continue, then just plug away at it. Increase posting frequency, do more to get your players involved, develop the adventure or world out a bit more, craft some NPCs and fun encounters, and hope it all gets exciting again.[Comment from Johnn: one thing I’ve done to stir up a stalled game is present a new side-adventure out of the blue. Sometimes a GM gets bogged down from the slow pace, emerging complexity of the plot (causing planning paralysis), or lack of planning time.
Find an adventure that’s short, different, and captures your interest and imagination. The adventure should be self-contained so you can drop it in and wrap it up without sabotaging your campaign.
I keep the old D&D module Castle Amber always on hand for just such a bail out move. 🙂 Other ideas are published adventure and encounter compilations, Dungeon magazine adventures, the intro adventure you might have in the back of the rule book, and freebies posted at the publisher’s site.
Next time the campaign stalls and gets boring, shrink the PCs down and drop them into a rabbit hole, or have them get lost in mist and find a strange mansion….
More tips on GM burnout: Remedies For GM Burn-Out Text
A Brief Word From Johnn
Would You Visit RoleplayingTips.com Forums?
I’m on the fence about installing forums at http://www.roleplayingtips.com/
There are a few logistical challenges, such as finding moderators, but I think a place to discuss e-zine issues, chat about GMing, and posting tips would be great. There are lots of forums and communities out there already though.
So, my question for you is, would you visit forums if they were installed at http://www.roleplayingtips.com?
Thanks in advance for the feedback!
My First RPGA Event Was Fun
During the Christmas break I was able to play a character at a local RPGA event here in Edmonton. The event was well-organized and I was able to register and book a spot at a table easily via e-mail.
I played a rogue in an introductory Living Greyhawk adventure. He only survived in the end thanks to the leniency of his captor – not by the slow wits of his player. 🙂 It was a lot of fun meeting new gamers and getting out to play.
I tend to come at D&D from a campaign perspective, and I found the RPGA system stretched my sense of disbelief a bit, but that is more than compensated by its playability. For example, the game table was made up of a random group of players, and therefore so was the PC party. (How did we meet? Why are we together? Do we trust each other?) However, this approach means it’s easy for any player to show up on game day and join a group and get right into playing.
In addition, characters have 52 time units each game year to spend. Depending on how each adventure plays out, time units are spent on adventuring, studying, and training. This ensures that, at the year level, all PCs have equal chances for adventure and development. Treasure gained is converted into gold that PCs can spend between sessions purchasing magic and equipment at book prices. These rules make drop-in play and overall Living Greyhawk timeline management easy and fair. They also help keep PCs consistent and equal to their peers over time.
If you are wanting to play RPGs, I highly recommend finding your local RPGA group and giving it a try! Here’s the Edmonton group’s website:
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Handling Omnipotent NPCs
From Mike Bourke
John de Lancie appeared as ‘Q,’ an ongoing character in Star Trek: The Next Generation that transcended that series and went on to appear in Deep Space Nine and Voyager. In the newsstand DVD publication Star Trek: The Collector’s Edition, Part 57, he gives an in-depth interview that contains a number of comments inadvertently applicable to a recurring problem for GMs in most types of campaign: the handling of Omniscient, Omnipotent Beings.
Whether they be deities in a fantasy world or Galactus in a superhero campaign, these gems can be useful to just about every GM out there. The following is a carefully chosen set of extracts from the article, each accompanied by a brief discussion of how they can be applied to roleplaying.
“One of the major reasons John chose to [make] Q flamboyant was Patrick Stewart’s straight-faced performance as Captain Picard.”
Identify the major PC personality elements that the villain is to play against. Then make the villain the exact opposite to keep the interaction dynamic and interesting. If elements are the same, the contrast between omnipotence and ordinary is easily lost. This is why Blofeld was such a popular villain in the James Bond movies – the icy, fastidious, calculating villain contrasts against the natural flamboyance of Bond. Similarly, whenever Moriarty was on the scene, Arthur Conan Doyle always played up the more eccentric aspects of Sherlock Holmes just a little.
Contrasting the manner of delivery with the content of dialogue is a way of keeping the situation interesting but there are limits. “…turn the sound off and you’ll see the difference between what is written and what I do. Did I change words? No. Did I give them a spin? Yes. The script is a blueprint, it’s an indication, it is a suggestion. Like a river, it’s going in a particular direction; you can only swim in the other direction for so long…but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of curlicues that you can explore in the process.”
This is such excellent advice because it can be applied in so many different ways – to the portrayal of a particular character, to the progress of any given encounter or scene, to the construction of scenarios, and to the overall flow of a campaign from one scenario to another. It’s not going too far to suggest that each and every one of these should contain two contrasting emotions or moods or tones or performances.
If the primary purpose of a scene is the dry imparting of technical information, throw in a moment of petulance or a little comedy or whatever – even if you have to add in an additional background NPC whose only role in the situation is to provide a vehicle for the contrasting mood. A bumbling assistant providing ongoing slapstick while the distinguished scientist is trying to lecture the PCs….
“I think the success of playing a villain has to do with tickling the audience with the idea that what you have to offer has validity… There’s no villain who gets up in the morning and says ‘How villainous can I be today?’… if you play a villain and imbue him with a real sense of purpose, … the villain in fact begins to become like an anti-hero, and … are not simply dismissed as obviously evil and therefore not to be taken seriously.”
Again, incredibly good advice, but for roleplaying purposes it should be generalized a bit to say that _every_ character should have an agenda, wish, or ambition, either big and long-term or petty and short-term. The merchant who is bargaining with the party over an emerald statuette is more believable if he is late for a rendezvous with his mistress, or has just bought an expensive bottle of wine to apologize to his wife for some angry words, or whatever. It’s these little things that add nuance and color and life to the character and make them individuals.
“One of the major problems with an omnipotent being is that, since he can resolve any problem, it is difficult to create a sense of danger or tension. This gave John another reason to play up Q’s unpredictable nature and childishness. What you play is, ‘I’m not going to help you, because what I really want to do today is…cooking.”
To maintain PC interest in a situation where there’s an omnipotent being available is to make dealing with that being more trouble than it’s worth. If a character _knows_ that they can fix any situation with a snap of their fingers, they have absolutely no incentive _not_ to wait until the last possible moment.
Individuals have no more significance than pieces on a chess board, and if any happen to be lost, new ones can be created with that same finger-snap. Capriciousness, pettiness, and childishness are often used in their negative senses with such super-beings. What John has identified here is the value of playing to the positive aspects of those attributes as well. Think of the Younger God in David Eddings’ Tamuli trilogy who likes a sunset he’s made so much that he decides to keep it in his studio.
There’s a lot more in the interview, but those four items are the only ones directly relevant to roleplaying – although they are so insightful they are well worth bringing to the attention of the audience of Roleplaying Tips.
Rather than using AIM, use OpenRPG. It takes the AIM chatroom to another level, adding die rolling and maps, among other things. There are plugins available for things like keeping track of initiative for various game systems.
The application is system-generic, meaning you can easily adapt it to any system you can think of or make up. Also, it’s open-source and freely available, having been coded by volunteer gaming programmers. It can be a tad buggy sometimes, but those moments are usually rare, and the experience is worth it.
If you ask me, for long-distance gaming, nothing beats OpenRPG.
Developing Original Races And Cultures In A Fantasy World
Not too long ago a friend of mine designed his own campaign world. He added two races to the usual D&D lineup. The first was a society of bipedal cats that had the society and culture of feudal Japan; the second were bipedal wolves that had the society and culture of Romany gypsies. Upon looking around I realized that most campaigns, and even the D&D core books, created new races and nations by comparing them to societies that exist in real life or that are a part of established fiction (most notably J.R.R. Tolkien).
My friend is not uncreative. He has designed campaign worlds with very unusual societies and cultures, but then he has to spend a good deal of game time introducing these concepts to the players. Think of the Kender from Dragonlance. This was a vibrant and interesting race, so well designed that in the 3rd Edition D&D books a halfling is a Kender, not the Hobbit from Tolkien that was in 1st Edition D&D. However, it required the Dragonlance fiction series to bring this new race into the mind of the average gamer. The trick then is to create a new and interesting race or nation that can be conveyed quickly and easily to the average gamer.
The good news is this can be done in three easy steps:
Rather than give the new race or nation the society and culture of a known people, give them a society of one well-known community and the culture of a different community. Then decide what kind of area they live in. This requires three quick definitions.
- Society is how a race or nation organizes itself. This includes government, economy, and social hierarchy. In Feudal Japan, it is the whole feudal system of samurai following the will of the emperor.
- Culture is the art, technology, magic, clothing, beliefs and religion of a people. In Feudal Japan, this includes both the artistic side of samurai composing poetry as well as their belief in intense isolationism and the superiority of the Japanese race. It also includes technological advances such as the Katana and gunpowder, the style in which the buildings are crafted, and a divine magic system that hinges on non-aggression.
- Location is where the community resides geographically and can influence both society and culture. In Japan, this is a large isolated chain of islands. Put the Japanese culture in the Arabian Desert and it will turn out differently – it will destroy the isolationism of Japanese culture, their dependence on rice as a crop, and most likely the armor they wear.
Take two nations from real life or races/nations from your favorite book or TV show. Take the society of one and the culture of another and mix them together. Place them into a geographic area of your world and check to see if that changes anything. Stir, simmer a few minutes, and serve.
Society: The Vikings. The Vikings are farmers that supplant their means with overseas raiding. Jarls and Kings are decided by popular vote of all men that own ships. They fight in shield wall formations that are devastating to troops who are less organized in combat.
Culture: Ancient Egypt. The Egyptians are a deeply religious people whose beliefs follow the pantheon of Ra and are deeply involved with death and the afterlife. Art and culture are important but usually put to religious purposes, which includes the building of monuments. Clothing is usually brief due to the heat of the region.
Location: A jungle kingdom on a Mediterranean-like sea.
The Result: The Jool people are much feared throughout the Sunlight Sea. Their war triremes (ships) sail throughout the sea disgorging throngs of half-naked warriors wielding Kopesh swords and shields. Spoils are returned to their jungle kingdom where they are used to erect grand pyramids and sphinxes in honor of their deities.
This system has worked great for me producing races and nations the players can immediately identify with yet are unique and exciting. When choosing your base peoples be sure to choose ones familiar to the players. Historically well-known ones, such as the Egyptians, Romans, Medieval Europe, and Native Americans are all good choices. Don’t choose the Maya if your players don’t know much about them.
What you choose from TV and fiction should depend on what your group is interested in. Some well known examples are Klingons, Wookies, Hobbits, Predators (from the movie Predator), Morlocks, Mimbari, and the Dragonriders of Pern.
Trying crafting your own mixes of society, culture, and location and soon your players will be adventuring in a Greek-like city state ruled by screaming, leaping priests, and facing stone age goblins who are breeding bigger and stronger every generation thanks to their Nietzschean upbringing.