This write-up ended up being really long…definitely pressing into “Get a blog!” territory…
2021 was the year I made it back to the table! Prior to that, I hadn’t actually managed to play in a game since the mid-00s, and it was even longer since I’d GM’d anything. That last game was D&D 3e. It was a six-hour session of character creation, followed by an eight-hour first session where nothing happened except the DM getting mad because people didn’t want to go into the town, and a bunch of the party getting killed by goblins after everyone failed their spot checks.
At that point, I realized that this was going to be incompatible with grad school, and gave it up. But I kept buying and reading RPGs, and listening to podcasts…so gaming was never far from my mind. In 2018 I started buying D&D 5e books, hoping to get a game going at the office. And then I found 13th Age, and loved so many of its ideas…and started buying those books. The idea of GMing again was pretty intimidating, and time was short, but I really wanted to make it happen…and didn’t. Then, after more delaying, COVID hit.
In July of 2021, I decided I was damned and determine to actually start playing, and the only way to do that was going to be to figure out online gaming, and just jump in. I was as acclimated to COVID-times as I was likely to be, and there was extra time in my days thanks to no more commuting. So I subscribed to a bunch of Patreons for podcasts I had been listening to, and joined a bunch of Discords: for individual podcasts, for a few large gaming servers, and a bunch for individual systems and publishers I was interested in. The main thing I knew was that I didn’t want to just run D&D, and that I wanted to play all of the cool, more unusual games that I’d been reading and hearing people discuss.
I started by jumping into a Fate Accelerated one-shot in July, with a GM who hadn’t run it before, and one other player who hadn’t played it. It went fine! Everyone felt out the system together, and I picked up a model for how to run an online game.
So in September I jumped in the deep end and ran three very different systems over a ten-day vacation: Fate Accelerated, Dungeon World, and Feng Shui 2. This was incredibly stressful, but each game became easier, and, in fact…they all basically went fine. Some players even said they had fun! And the players in the Dungeon World game wanted to start a campaign! I really wouldn’t recommend this approach for everyone, but for me it broke the ice in exactly the way I wanted.
I came away realizing that:
- I could, in fact GM games, and it wasn’t going to be terrible or awkward.
- I really like improvisational GMing! Over-prepping is completely unnecessary.
- Online gaming is pretty great. No driving, no overhead. No COVID exposure! (In-person is great, too, and I’m looking forward to doing that again someday, too.)
In total, I participated in twenty sessions, three as a player, seventeen as a GM. I ran ten new systems, and started two campaigns. One has fizzled due to scheduling issues, the other is still going after six sessions. Thoughts on the systems and games:
Fate Accelerated: I played in someone’s homebrewed game of bronze-age demigods, and ran a session in the Masters of Umdaar setting. This was the very first game I’d run in over 15 years, so I don’t feel I really gave Fate a fair shake. The mechanics were fine, but none of us were fluent, so they also didn’t sing. I really want to play more Fate to figure out what makes it tick.
Powered by the Apocalypse: This was the second game I ran, using Dungeon World and the awesome Cold Ruins of Lastlife setting, and was fortunate enough to have two experienced Dungeon World players. I was pretty well-prepared to run PbtA, due to lots and lots of reading, listening to Dungeon World and PbtA podcasts, and listening to actual plays. I had been skeptical of the core 2d6 roll, and the player-facing mechanics. They both felt great in play! I liked PbtA way more than I expected, and will absolutely be playing a lot more of Dungeon World, and many more PbtA games. The players wanted more sessions, so I ran a second, recruiting more players. The third one ran into scheduling issues and most of the players couldn’t make it, but @CleverName had signed up and stepped in to run a standalone one-shot, which was great.
Feng Shui 2: I wanted a third game to run during my first week back, and I thought that FS2 would be pretty easy and straightforward. I expected to like this one a lot, but the mechanics were really high-friction, and the game felt very sluggish. Some of this was undoubtedly because neither I nor the two players had played it before, but it was, on the whole disappointing. I’d like to play this one again with a GM who really knows what they’re doing.
13th Age: I had really been looking forward to running this one. I selected what I thought was an interesting scenario from one of the battle scenes books, came up with some cool setting trappings (lost city, guns instead of bows, rethemed the orcs as something more interesting). The session was disappointing and kind of leaden. The combat ended up feeling pretty bland…again, that may be because of my inexperience, but it left me feeling that I am not that interested in games with long, d20-style combats right now. I’d like to take the cool bits of 13th Age (of which there are so many!) and transplant them into another system.
GUMSHOE: This was another core mechanic I was pretty skeptical of. (Just 1d6! And those point-spends!) I decided to give the pre-release of Swords of the Serpentine a try. (This involved reading a 400-page, not-fully-laid-out PDF, so that wasn’t the best part of that decision! I learned that I really want something physical to read for prep.) The combat at the start was a bit clunky, but the session ended up going really well, overall, and the story got wrapped up with a bow by the end of the four-hour block. I loved this! I want to run more Swords of the Serpentine, and I also want to try more GUMSHOE-based systems.
Genesys: Rather than going with Star Wars, I ran a fan-made setting called Salvage. I expected to like the dice mechanics…and I did! I was worried that Genesys would be a bit too fiddly…and it is definitely more complex than it needs to be, but that didn’t really get in the way. The session came to a great cliffhanger, and the players wanted to turn it into a campaign. This one is still running! It’s great! I want to play more Genesys!
2d20: I totally was not interested in running a Star Trek game, so I was thinking that I would probably try Conan or Devil’s Run to test out the 2d20 mechanics…but I picked up the Star Trek Adventures quickstart on Free RPG Day…and it was just so damned Star Trek that I fell in love. I started buying supplements, and eventually got a session of this to the table. The session itself went great…I ran the first part of the starter set adventure, and we got a satisfying Trek experience that completed in exactly the allotted time. The players enjoyed it, too, so we played the second part of the adventure in December. The system…wasn’t great. I love the idea behind it, and the core mechanic is really nice…but it is exceptionally fiddly and overdesigned. During that second session, it was clear that it was adding a lot of friction to the game (and the linearity of the starter set adventure was chafing a bit, as well). Currently having some discussions with others who are interested in doing a Cortex Prime version of Trek. The supplemental materials for STA really are fantastic!
Storyteller: I owned a couple of White Wolf games back in the 90s, but never played them. I was always interested in Mage, though, so I really wanted to get a game of Mage: The Ascension to the table…which I did, using the 20th-anniversary edition of the rules. This one was pretty rough. The corebook is huge, and I probably managed to read about 300 of the 700 pages (though I read those quite a few times, to get the rules down). It’s really hard to figure out an angle into this, and I ended up running an intro scenario written by a podcaster who was kind enough to share it when I asked. We were able to test out the spellcasting mechanics, but I really couldn’t figure out how to approach providing opposition to the players…giving the characters any time to prep meant they could hit with overwhelming force. Two of the players were experienced with Mage, and dominated using the quite strong character abilities…I think this would’ve gone better if everyone was new, weirdly. I came away from this still not really knowing what to do with Mage.
The Black Hack: I played in a one-shot that @CleverName ran using the Halls of the Blood King module. This was my first OSR experience! We players mostly avoided combat, and slipped in and out of the Halls without really engaging with any of the big bads. Hopefully that wasn’t too disappointing for the GM, but it did really feel like we played it Old School!
The Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City: I tried running this one using the author’s own SEACAT rules, which are…sort of OSRish? The setting is incredibly evocative, but I found it a bit tough to cram enough of this into even the planned two-shot to really get a proper experience out of it. The weirdness of the Grasslands made it difficult for players to get oriented, and the SEACAT system is not really well-defined. Much of the first session ended up getting bogged down in microeconomics, as players tried to figure out supply and demand for different trade resources at nearby landmarks! Nonethless, it was interesting. I probably won’t try SEACAT again for quite a while, but I’d love to get a UVG campaign going using another system.
So, to wrap up, my takeaways from the last four months of gaming:
- If I want to run a game, active recruiting in a bunch of forums is the way to go…lots of places had people posting a game and then getting discouraged because nobody signed up. By targeting several forums that also took the particular system I was trying to run into account, it was always possible to scare up enough people for a session.
- People really want to try out new games! Posting the one-shots as ways to explore the system, rather than as well-crafted entertainment experiences, helped make these sessions really collaborative, and generally attracted other neophiles with similar gaming goals. It also reduced pressure on me as GM by a lot!
- One-shots are way easier to schedule than multiple sessions.
- Trying out a system before committing to it is absolutely the way to go.
- It’s very hard to figure out what a system will feel like at the table just by reading it, or even listening to actual plays. Just running a session is extremely helpful.
- Prepping a new system is a hell of a lot of work!
- Playing one-shots with new people is a great way to make gaming contacts! Scheduling games became easier as the year went on, and most games had some people I’d played with previously.
- It’s also a way to identify people that I don’t want to game with. If someone doesn’t mesh, there’s no big deal after the session is over. Everyone can just go their separate ways.
- If a one-shot went great, following it up with more sessions is awesome! And a great way to start a campaign!
- Gaming and BS is a great RPG community!