Fledgling PbP GM: looking for help and advice

Online Campaigns General Discussion

Hello everyone.
I'm a long time role-player (started back in 2002) and want to dip my toes in GMing once again, but since I can't find a group in the real world or on a virtual tabletop I thought that PbP could be the right medium to get back behind the GM screen.
I've played a couple of very brief adventures here on the forums, always as a PC, but know almost nothing about how to GM PbP games. I've just bought Pathfinder Society Quest #1A: The Sandstone Secret since it seems the perfect entry point for this project.
I'm looking for someone who can help me get on the right track, give me some advice about how to run a game, which tools to use, things like those. Obviously I'll read Painlord's Guide to PbP GMing: Make Your World a Better Place once again, but was hoping to get some more "fresh" assistance.
Thank you in advance for your help and time.

PS: this isn't the first time I try to GM using PbP, the last time I tried I was planning to run an adventure from level 1 to 7, but the amount of work scared me and had to leave the project; hopefully this time will be different, since I'm trying to do something smaller, but if you have any advice about how to deal with anxiety in these cases you'll probably save my life!

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Welcome Back,

I do recall that game, as I was the Co-DM helping you.

My advice for new GMs is start with a small simple adventure, PFS quests are fine, but then you have to ask do you want the PFS can of worms?

The module I always point to for new GMs is Hollow's Last Hope as the module is a reasonable length for a new GM, and can end their or can be continued on with Crown of the Kobold King and the of Falcon's Hollow Mini AP modules.

Hollows last hope is a good old 16 page free module that gives a good setup for many other adventures.
So the adventure content doesn't need a million books, just the first bestiary and the CRB.
Though to stop any PC problems and the anything like PFS can of worms,
I'd restrict the content to a few Core books (i.e. CRB, APG, ARG, Ult Combat only), no 3PP, no other content then the Core books, no custom races via Race builder etc.

My other tip is look at GMs who have run the module and see what they have done with it, as it'll hint at tips, tricks, and tools they use.

Look at me for instance; I use generic Aliases for NPC interaction among themselves and the PCs, I throw Character renders (using Daz Studio) I've done onto Dropbox and share the link to the renders so all players have a common image of any character in their minds. The other thing is that NPCs don't just stand around waiting for a PC to interact, they may chat and interact among themselves.

Yes, I remember you. You were very supportive and helpful, and I felt very bad for leaving you and the other players. I still feel ashamed to this day, truth be told.

I want to play an PFS Quest to start out because I'm already playing PFS as a PC and I thought it would be not only nice, but also useful to run Organized Play games. But what do you mean with "can of worms"?

I know Hollow's Last Hope, I was planning to play it with some friends, but they lost interest in the PbP format.

Here is the PFS can of Worms,

PFS games have pretty much ALL PF content open, this means every PF Book that has player content, a player can use and you can't stop it (thankfully some broken stuff is banned, but there are broken combos).
This means you can have nothing, but broken OverPowered PC builds in the game and you can't stop it.
Only PFS Core can stop that, but no one does PFS Core since it is way too limited for many player's tastes.

But you're talking of 1st Edition PFS, I'm going to run 2nd Edition games, which at the moment have way less content available.

My advice for a new GM, is I'd recommend using the system your more familiar with, as learning a new system while starting GMing can be a bad idea.
As you'll likely miss rules you should know as your running the game, since PF2nd ed been out for a bit you should have some experience with 2nd ed as a player.

And as you mentioned in the OP, the work load of your first GMing attempt scared you, hence I recommend using the one your more familiar with so as you don't have as much a workload learning one and GMing at the same time.

I am a long time player(1986) and DM(1991), and agree whole heartily with Azure.

Run a PbP game under a rule system that you are extremely familiar with, Core rules only, and not Pathfinder Society. I had to give up on DM'ing two games because at 11th level or so, with everything Paizo 1E available, a combat situation was so complicated that it took hours as a DM to run a single round of combat, and it was near impossible to remember everything that players could do!

Also Hollow's Last Hope, as he said, is a very good low level module with a decent mix of Role and Roll play for a new DM to work with.

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I am going to trust that if the OP wants to run 2nd edition, they are familiar enough with it to feel confident to run it. Otherwise that's for them to figure out.

My advice (I am a longtime tabletop GM; I've only run one PBP game here but it's gone on for several years; we're choosing to close out soon but I feel like that's a decent length of time for experience) to give or take:

1. Agree on finding a short adventure you want to run. But this second part is critical: you need to find something you are excited about running, not just what other people think you should run. PBPs can have a lot of lulls as players need to take breaks or you have limited time, and sometimes certain scenes are a challenge to run. If you feel passionate about the adventure, you will want to stick with it. If you lose interest, you are more likely to want to give up. This needs to be fun for you.

2. State up front to your players about how often you expect them and yourself to post, and enforce it as best and reasonably as you can. E.g., if you expect players to post once a day, and someone is regularly only posting once every three days, have a chat with them. If you find yourself not being able to keep up with the pace you set, it is okay to change it, just communicate clearly expectations and when you need them to change.

3. Pay careful attention on recruitment. If you're just playing online with friends you know that's a different negotiation. But if you're holding an open recruitment to anyone on the boards, pay attention not only to the quality of their statblock/background but also to the following:
--a. Are they already pushing back on any chargen limits you've set/asking for exceptions to the rule (especially if they are whining/complaining about it)? If so they will probably do the same during the game and be a problem player.
--b. Do they communicate clearly with reasonably well-written English (or the language of your campaign of choice), with civil/respectful tones?
--c. Are their proposed characters of a very abrasive or lone wolf nature? Unless the player notes their goal for the character is to help them come out of their shell and become connected to the PCs, this suggests they are disinterested in team based play; at a tabletop game with a friend you might figure out how to navigate this but in a PBP with strangers this is going to be someone who just will derail your game or refuse to cooperate/participate when you need them to.
--d. Are they reliable posters? Click on their profile and then on their campaigns tab. Look at a few of their campaigns. Did they show up and post regularly or did they flake out? Don't recruit unreliable posters; you will screw yourself and other players over. If someone is a total newbie it's fine to take a chance on them but be clear of your expectations of regular posting.
--e. Are they already in too many games? Some players can be reliable posters to a point, where they then start to spread themselves too thin. Some people have 8, 10, a dozen or more active games in their campaigns tab. Some players just compulsively app into everything and then find themselves in too much at once and flake out of everything. Better to choose a player with few or no active campaigns, as long as they look like they can post reliably; they will be more likely to participate frequently and will be far more grateful for the opportunity to boot.

4. Communicate communicate communicate and ask the same of your players. Games stall when people aren't clear what is happening next. If you're waiting for the players to do something and no one's posting, say so so they realize you are waiting for them. Ask them to post when they are ready to move on from a scene (sometimes it isn't clear). When you have concerns or need feedback state this. A lot of info can be lost or presumed incorrectly in a text-based format. (One of my biggest gripes as a PBP GM is I have asked my players several times to post if they have nothing to say in a current scene but are ready to move on. They almost never do. But you just have to keep asking: you ready to go? Bob, you haven't posted in awhile, what say you? Etc.)

5. During combat, don't restrict players to posting firmly in initiative order. Have them post when they can and then organize the action in order of initiative. Run your foes in initiative "blocks." For example, if they are fighting the Goblin Queen, two Lieutenants, and four standard goblin mooks, roll three initiatives (one for each "set" of enemies), not seven (one for each monster).

6. Different GMs have different feelings about this, but I find PBP combat goes much, much faster if you post enemy hp, AC, and saving throws up front. The players can determine when they hit right away and can roll the foes' saving throws versus their spells effects. This takes a massive load off of you as the GM because you do not have to confirm every hit and post after every player to make saving throws etc. I usually still conceal special defenses that the PCs wouldn't know about like DR and immunities until an applicable attack applies but having this info up front helps combat go way more smoothly.

7. If you feel comfortable, use an easily accessible shared document for maps and handouts, e.g., I use Google Draw for battle maps (some prefer Google Presentation but I find Draw works better for what I need it to do). In Draw you can even use the table setting to make a square grid and draw rough battlemaps right there when you don't have a predrawn map. Allow players to move their tokens and add their spell effects. (I had one GM explicitly not allow this because they were afraid players would cheat doing this, but if you can't trust your players in this way then you shouldn't be playing with them. Never play with a player you can't trust, or a GM for that matter.)

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A lot of great advice in here!
Let me add a few pieces to the excellent post above me.

to 4) Hell yes, this is the most important thing. I actually use a discord (text-only) server for the players and me to discuss. Because it is so much faster and accessible than the forum. It is very lively in there (advice: have a few different channels, like: off-topic, q/a, player discussion) and really helps to keep the group together.
I have a year-long running 40k gae running in this forum and we managed to get over several player losses, a handful of multi-week breaks and other things that may very well could have meant the end of the game.

5+6) YES. This is very important. Limit back-and-forth as much as possible and try to enable all players to be active at any time. Either they wait for you resolving things or they should be up. But never should they have to wait until another player does something, because that creates a posting jam.
Plus, as a player, I really like to be able and resolve my action completely as that will allow me to properly write a fluff post, rather than have a single, repetetive line of "and then I tried to hit the goblin for the fifth time in a row *dice roll*"

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Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

I've been a GM since 1977 and I run a great many online games here at Paizo.com. I'm a fan of both simplicity and anything that keeps the game going. Here's my advice:

1) Keep it moving. Post every day. If you're waiting for someone to post, wait one more day and then type "Anyone, give me orders for <missing player's character>."

2) Keep it light. People game for fun and sometimes real life overwhelms their time to post. Don't get upset or take it as a commentary on your game. Tell 'em you hope things will get better and then keep the game moving. Corollary: Don't be afraid to take a few mental health days yourself. Coming back to a game fresh can make you much happier. Just be sure to tell everyone that you're doing it so they don't think you've been hit by a bus.

3) Always post a link to the map. Put it in the "Short Description" section of the Campaign Tab so it's always at the top of the page. I recommend Google Slides as a great and cheap way to allow everyone to move their tokens on the map.

4) Always post the turn order and character status and who's next when in combat. Like this:

Tarondor's Kingmaker Campaign wrote:


Mikhail - 55/112 hp
Kernithar - 72/102 hp, Frightened 1
Piotr - 74/80 hp, Frightened 1
Yeti B - 24 damage, Frightened 1
Aristu - 2/72 hp, Wounded 1, invisible, flying (30')
Yeti Leader - 13 damage, Frightened 1
Alister - 10/96 hp, Wounded 1, Clumsy 1 (frostbite), prone
Yeti C - 63 damage, Frightened 1

Alister, go!

5) Make liberal use of Google Docs to write up any information you want the players to know and post it in the Short Description part of the Campaign Tab. You can see that in my games HERE.

6) Take the time to be descriptive. Gaming online has some drawbacks (speed, mostly) but it also has some beauties that recommend it. And the best of these is time. The time to consider your words and how you can paint a picture of the action. So don't say "The giant hits you" when you can say "as the snow falls all around you and your boots slip in the ice and blood, the giant swings his massive sword in a whistling arc that crashes down on your shield with the force of a falling mountain"

7) Don't assume that things that are clear to you are clear to everyone. Label the heck out of your maps. Indicate doors that haven't been explored, or where levers are. If there are choices your players aren't considering, make sure they know those are options. Some GM's might consider that meddling or even railroading but in my experience, gaming by message board means you have to be willing to hand-hold your players just a little more, enough to ensure they get the choices they have.

8) Remember that you are a player. If you're not having fun, no one will. Play games you think are fun and don't be afraid to make changes when necessary.

9) Even experienced GM's sometimes find themselves in over their heads. I have occasionally talked to the players offline about my concerns for the way a campaign is going and a good airing-out of everyone's ideas usually solves most problems. Historically, it turned out the players had no idea there was an issue and were just as happy to take things in another direction.

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