It takes real work to make a great TTRPG campaign, and to say that the bulk of that work falls to the game master is an understatement. Within GM circles, stories of burnout, writer’s block, and cooperative game running duties are as common as tales of great sessions, sadly. How do we avoid being overwhelmed by the responsibilities of preparing and running a game? In a word: delegate!
Some of the best advice I can pass on when preparing for a new campaign is to avoid overworking. Don’t go HAM on backstory, mapping, developing NPCs, and plot for all of the above. Why? When the player’s characters start to roll in, with their backgrounds and backstories, you want white space in your world that you can paint with the cool ideas your players are sending you.
This isn’t to say, do nothing. You need concepts, maybe some theming and inspiration for what your world looks like, in order to guide your players initially. From there, it can be a cooperative process, naming, placing and fleshing out the people and places they refer to as they develop their characters’ backstories. Including them in the process like this not only takes some of the burden off of your shoulders, but it also lures your players into becoming more invested in the world, since they had a hand in crafting it.
Another untapped resource to consider, no doubt you have friends interested in your game(s) who aren’t able to participate due to scheduling or distance. They could still be involved by helping you build your world. Adding ideas from minds that aren’t yours can be a great way to diversify your stories, and anything they contribute is work done that didn’t fall on you.
An idea common in boardgames, but less so in roleplaying: the handout is, usually, a one-page or even index card-sized “cheat sheet” that explains the order of play and available actions. They’re terrific for new players, and more complex handouts can fit additional rules for easy reference by anyone at the table, reducing or eliminating pauses in play and cracking open books mid-turn. Even better, someone on the internet has already made at least one handout for every big name game on your shelf, all you have to do is find and print it.
Scheduling, Pt. I
The true BBEG of any campaign is scheduling the next session. Short of going full West Marches on your players, one little trick to make this less of a headache for you is to post your availability – maybe even set up a shared calendar – and let your players hash out which day that you’re available works best for them. All you have to do is wait for them to figure it out.
There’s no reason for you to write the game, run the game, and also figure out who’s going to bring what to eat. Players can coordinate mealtime, whether it’s pot luck, delivery, or moving the session to a nearby pub.
Before starting a new session, ask your players to recap the previous meeting. If no one wants to volunteer, you could have them roll for it, and of course, tempt them to participate by offering Inspiration.
Employing background sounds, like rain, city or forest soundscapes, or even alarms or explosions when appropriate, can add a layer of immersion to your sessions. The right music can also go a long way to setting tone and making everyone more comfortable at the table. Ask one of your players to sync up with the Bluetooth speaker and pick out the background music for the session. You can give them guidelines like spooky, ambient, spacy, classical, or simply anything without vocals.
Note that it’s important to consult your players before setting any of this up. For those who are hard of hearing, adding even quiet sounds or music can severely disrupt their ability to pick out voices, and hearing the other people at the table is a lot more important than 10 hours of campfire sounds or a bardcore Eminem cover.
Ever have your party split up? It could be as simple as one player going to a different shop than the others, but more than likely, there have been stretches of your games where not all of the players at the table were directly involved in the scene that was playing out. This can be an opportunity to recruit them to stand in as another character that is in the scene.
Player A wants to drop in on the general goods store? Have another player be the shopkeep. If they cheese it and give a discount rate, it’s not going to break your game if Player A gets a good deal on a 10 ft. pole. They may also surprise you and create a more memorable scene than bartering over rope has any right to be, and they’re giving you a break to snack or think about what comes next.
Stand-in roleplaying can also be a solution if a player wants to sit out of a particular scene for, y’know, edgelord reasons. That’s their decision and probably fine – but consider offering them an NPC who would be involved to play for the scene.
Scheduling, Pt. II
Session wrap is a great time to bring up the schedule, while your captives – er, players – are all still present. As suggested earlier, give them the days that work for you, then zone out a minute while they figure it out from there. Ask one of them to post the agreed day and time in the group chat.
Notetaking This is one area where you probably don’t want to cede total control – keep taking your own private notes. You hold the key to the secrets the players did and did not discover, but creating a shared document that the whole party has access to can be a good way to cache information, if your players buy in and contribute session notes to it. If they do, it can be a great source of inspiration for you, because the things that stand out to them aren’t always things that you intend. Little story beats and one-off NPCs might really stick with them and once you realize that, you can develop them further
One last option that isn’t going to be open to everyone is co-GMing. If you’re really lucky, you might have other players at your table who are also interested in running games. Working together with them to develop your story or even run parts of a session can have mixed results, but with the right combination of people it can be a big relief when needed.
Whatever tricks you’ve been using to keep your worlds alive and running without falling prey to fatigue or brain drain, we’d love to hear more tips to add to our personal GM bags.
Hello, Respite readers! My name is Ben and I am the guy behind Tabletop Courant. You may have seen me tweeting Chris Pine memes, or stopped by my own blog. I hope you enjoyed this guest article; keep an eye out for our favorite Wizard’s tower writer to drop a fresh post on my page soon. Big thank you to Wiz for inviting me, and thank you to the readers for your support.