Friday, June 30, 2023

How I Run the Table

After this post, Josh encouraged me to write about some of my "soft skills" of GMing. I talk a lot about game design and scenario design. I pretty rarely talk about how I personally run my games. I've never felt confident enough that I'm qualified to really talk about such things. But in the last month I wrote that post about how I do NPCs and I've been working on the GMing advice section of the Tricks & Treats rulebook. So let me copy/paste some of what I wrote and see if it resonates. Keep in mind that a lot of this is written specifically in the context of a game about going on Halloween-y adventures. I'll try to avoid the usual advice you see everywhere. "Be consistent, reward creativity, telegraph danger, blablabla" yeah if you're reading this blog then you've already heard that stuff before.

Giving Information

Don’t stress yourself trying to put on a “performance.” Imagine instead that you’re a reporter out in the field, trying to describe what you’re seeing. Recapping information frequently is a very good technique. Try to quickly reiterate the basic situation nearly every single time you address a player. It helps to describe things from their point of view. Again, don’t speak like you’re an omniscient narrator. You are the eyes and ears of the players.

Mysteries and horror go hand in hand. But it's easy to hold your cards too close to your chest, accidentally leaving players lost and confused. The game isn’t about lacking information. It’s about acquiring information. Generally speaking, knowing stuff is more interesting than not knowing stuff.

The “guessing game” isn’t fun, either. If the players are looking for information, reward them. If they inspect the books, then let them find the secret door even if they didn’t specifically say they pull on the copy of Dracula. That doesn’t mean you should substitute dice rolls in place of critical thinking, though.

That said, the act of describing a thing requires a light hand. You may be tempted to include lots of complicated details. This is less effective than just giving one or two evocative and memorable elements. This is especially true for horror. Instead of long, grotesque descriptions, highlight just one or two disturbing features. Players tune out during monologues. They can't process too much information all at once. If players ask questions, that doesn’t mean you communicated poorly. Conversation is actually the best form of description. It's better to distribute all the information you have across a back-and-forth dialogue than it is to dump it all at once. And you can actually shape your prep with this in mind!

When they enter a new dungeon room that's packed with stuff, don't list it all off immediately. Group things together into categories and make it clear that they contain more detail. "There's a pile of junk to your left" or "there's several people sitting at the table" are decent summaries. Yes, the specific objects and people matter. But the players will ask, "what sort of stuff is in the junk pile?" Just hold back for a sec.

One of the best tools for this purpose are room types. This is when the whole room can be summarized with one or two words based on its core function. For example, if I say that the players enter a "kitchen," then that implies a lot of things they can expect to find. I don't have to say, "you enter a room and find a sink, a fridge, a dishwasher, a table, a countertop, a spice rack, an apron, a broom, some cupboards, an oven, a microwave..." A bathroom, garage, workshop, torture chamber, laboratory, stables, pantry, bedroom, classroom, etc. Use these as often as you can.

Handling Players

Don’t be afraid to call on players directly and ask what they’re doing or thinking. A good method is by going around in a circle, using the table like a checklist of players to address.

If there’s a disconnect between you and a player, you should ask them what they’re trying to achieve. By having them explain that openly, it can guide your conversation forward.

Some players are go-getters who can’t wait to jump in. Most players, however, are either a bit uneasy with roleplaying, a little shy in general, or maybe just need some warming up. Try to make sure everyone is contributing at least a little. Don’t pressure them, though. Use this technique:

  1. GM solicits actions.
  2. Go-getter players eagerly speak up.
  3. "Alright, while that's happening, what are you doing?" or "What's your character doing during this?"
The advantages of this technique are subtle. Saying, "well, are you gunna contribute anything today?" makes people feel bad. But the soft approach of "would you like to do anything?" isn't a good idea either. How do I know? Because I used to ask it all the time, and those shy players would always say "No thanks, I'm good" every single goddamn time. At some point I realized that you might need to trick them. By saying "what's your character doing during this?", you are framing the question in a way where it's harder for them to disengage. It implies that they are doing something, and they have to decide what that is. And it implies that the action doesn't move forward until they come up with something, so they can't just sit back and let the go-getters drive the session.

Dialogue and Social Encounters

This is me now weighing in on some ongoing heated Discourse . Let me copy/paste the text of a tweet that I don't want to link to or give credit for:

My TTRPG hot take: 

The lack of a robust rule set to simulate intellectual & social interaction is low key ableist. 

If you can simulate combat, and non-existent magic, you should be able to simulate social interaction & intelligence 

Some of us have personality disorders, some of us freeze when faced with a new social situation. 

You know who doesn't have those traits? 

The characters we're playing

I have seen a lot of people express similar feelings. It's a sentiment growing in popularity. I sympathize with the underlying feelings, but I'm going to push back a bit. This is a bad diagnosis and an even worse prescription. Because if the traditional "theatrical dialogue" way of doing social interactions in games makes you feel bad, then let me just say that reducing social interactions to sterile minigames about friendship points makes me feel bad.

At its heart, this is just another version of the "player skill vs character skill" debate. People who advocate for character skill are usually arguing that they want to be able to roleplay as someone different than themselves, to be able to do things they can't ordinarily do and for the game to reflect that. Rolling dice based on stats to find out what happens maintains the integrity of the simulation as an internally consistent world, unaffected by factors outside of its boundaries. But people who advocate for player skill are usually arguing that it's way more fun when you get to do things.

I'm a player skill guy, almost always. But I've also always recognized that a player skill-heavy playstyle requires that the players do, indeed, possess the necessary skills!

My big point has always been that you have more skill than you realize. Or at least, you have the skills necessary, which are different from the ones you thought.

I agree that the Trad / Neo-Trad "everyone speaks in the first person, no breaking character, put on a performance" style of doing social gameplay kinda sucks for a lot of folks. I'm not a theater kid, okay? But D&D and almost all other RPGs never actually tell you to play that way. They usually include reminders that you don't have to! So if you're unfamiliar with the alternative, here's how I personally run a player skill-heavy form of social gameplay that doesn't ask you to be a master-class actor.

"What's your angle?"

It's a magical incantation that both my DM and I fall back on whenever we're running a dialogue scene. I don't need you to convincingly act out a little improv scene. I just need to know your strategic approach to persuading the NPC. You don't have to be actually clever and funny or actually intimidating and commanding or actually perceptive and sensitive. It's absolutely within your power to meaningfully distinguish between "I want to appeal to the king's sense of glory and greed" versus "I want to appeal to the king's sense of duty to his people."

In fact, in my opinion this is even better than if you were a master-class actor who performed the whole dialogue without breaking character! Why? Because it keeps focus placed on the gameplay. "Finding the right words" is a distraction. A fun one for many participants, but it isn't the point of those parts of the game. Cut through the lines and jokes and quips and look at the underlying ingredients of the conversation. "This NPC cares about X. You can base your incentives and disincentives off of this. They view you in Y way. You'll have to work with or against that perception. They are susceptible to Z appeals."

In fact, it always struck me as a bit funny when people claim that RPG social gameplay is ableist. On the contrary, I have to imagine that it's significantly more accessible for people than real life conversation. In real life, you have to read body language, eye lines, tone, innuendo, pacing, and on and on and on. And the more people involved in a conversation, the more difficult that becomes, as the finer nuances of social dynamics multiply with each person-to-person link in that group. But in an RPG? The GM is literally telling you these missing pieces. They provide you with so much concrete detail about how other people are thinking and feeling. "The duke is annoyed at you" is something the GM can just tell you, which is often more than you're ever granted in the real world.

Splitting the Party

My group splits up all the time. Like, nearly every single session. I'm not kidding. It's awesome.

I actually did write a post about this once but it's not very good and nobody read it. Allow me the chance of a do-over. I'll spare you the long play report this time.

Sometimes one or more PCs separate from the party, voluntarily or not. This is okay. Just jump back and forth between the groups, taking turns addressing them. Call on them by name so you don’t lose momentum. You might need to spend a few extra minutes with each group if they’re involved in something intensive. But you shouldn’t advance the clock a turn until you’ve addressed every player in every group. That’ll ensure that nobody is waiting more than 5-10 minutes to take their turn. Just remember to divide the time roughly equally between every player, not every group. If one person goes off on their own, they’re not entitled to half of your attention.

Splitting the party can make the game more fun. It makes each group more vulnerable, which helps to emphasize the threat of the monsters and force the players to flee or think cleverly. It gives you a chance to see more of the scenario in action, since a split party covers more ground. Nobody likes seeing their prep go to waste. And it gives players more time to brainstorm their ideas and plans without halting the action. When one group needs a moment to think, just switch to the other group in the meantime. Nudge them to be productive even when they’re not “on screen” so that they have something good prepared for you when it’s their turn again.

Splitting the group is actually the best pacing aid ever. You now have a very convenient cue telling you when to advance the action and when to let things sit. There are less lulls, because you are constantly switching between people who are ready to play. The game is almost always moving forward once the party splits up.


This is actually a difficult topic to brainstorm content for. Like, I know that I run the game in my own way. I have several GMs that routinely run games for me as a player, and everyone does it differently. I honestly would love the chance to field some questions! "How do you do X?" I'm a bit jealous of the RPG folks on the internet who get sent fan questions like that. Throw some my way and maybe it'll lead to a nutritious blog post.



  1. Personally my view is that there really should be robust social rules not because it's ableist but for the more practical reason that combat is gamified and exploration is (to some extent) gamified but conversation is basically completely handwaved and left to the DM. This is bad both because it unduly emphasizes combat within the game, and because it provides little or no structured method of overcoming obstacles through negotiation. I looked at the 3e DMG and PHB once to see waht guidance there was on running such things, and the answer was basically "none." Which makes sense given D&D's origin as people doing Magical Tea Parties around wargames.

    I had some half-decent rules gamifying "what's your angle" before my laptop was stolen some months ago, and need to recreate them. It's easy enough to do that in a way that still allows player agency and requires the player to actually do something while still incorporating character skill as well.

    1. 5e actually surprisingly has some fairly useful rules in its DMG. You can just treat angles like actions - if the argument (or whatever) has no chance of succeeding because its not something the character would be interested in, it fails. If it completely addresses whatever is stopping the character from helping, it succeeds. If its risky, or doesn't cover all the bases of what they care about, throw some dice. You can add in a simple tracker to see how many tries the players get at different arguments until the NPC gets bored etc, things like that (I think 5e tracks this as a scale like "indifferent, friendly, helpful" etc). The angry gm has some useful ideas on running social encounters with consideration beyond aimless wandering.

      To me, the core is mainly just that NPCs have a reason they wont give the players what they want and the players have to come up with some way to satisfy or get around those reasons (or else, they just get the thing). With 5e, insight skills might help with probing for those reasons, or noticing things like "the king is annoyed with you", but the players could probably just ask the NPC, look at their expression, or pay attention to how they react to different attempts.

  2. Hell yeah. This *genre* of post, I think, is very needed and very welcome. I have enough random tables of the tastes of pork in yon tavern. Give me practical advice.

  3. We're on a summer travel hiatus but I need to take "What's your angle?" to my table as soon as they're all back in town...