Face-to-Face vs. Online GM-ing

This post arose when I responded to s post on the Gauntlet Slack about the fact that decades of F-2-F GM-ing is no guarantee of success in the online sphere. I went on to point out that running games online meant I was having to unlearn some F-2-F habits …

So … Face-2-Face ‘un-learning’:

  1. I liken a table game to a dinner party where, even if everyone is talking at the same time, body language, a glance or a slight change in tone is enough to cut through the babble to a consensus about what happens next … Over the years I’ve got used to assessing mood etc. from all that input and then deciding what to say/do next, and generally ‘managing’ the table

Online is more like a structured business call with much less ‘social data’ coming in unless I structure the conversation more carefully. In my early online forays that has led me to roll on with the narrative as if it was a table I’d judged well, only to find out I’d steam-rollered a player’s agency.

Learning … I must take time to run around my virtual table to make sure that I have interpreted the much narrower bandwidth of information I’m taking in from those postage stamps at the bottom of my screen accurately. I must remember to seek more explicit responses rather than just raising an eye-brow, as I might around a table, and knowing people know what I mean.

  1. F-2-F games … at least the ones I have played in tend to be with people I know relatively well - even if only in a largely transactional/game-related way. I understand what they like and dislike and how they tend to signal either response.

Online, I more often play - at least initially - with ‘strangers’. Over the last 9 months I’d like to think some of them have become friends as we crop up in many of the same games, but because of the narrower bandwidth of exchange (above) I still struggle to consistently pick up or understand ‘their jam’.

Learning … Rather like a Con game (when you encounter complete strangers) I have to consciously avoid assuming I know what they want and use CATS to ensure we’re on the same page and ask more establishing question (which I never did with F-2-F groups) to increase the chance that the game I came to run is the game they came to play.

So … in summary - I am un-learning habits of taking players for granted or making well informed assumptions based on lots of F-2-F data.

I am un-learning a tendency to treat them as actors in my drama, and instead I’m trying (and I do not find it easy) to treat them as collaborators in a drama we are trying to create together.

On the upside I am carrying some of this new learning back to the F-2-F environment … even if they sometimes wonder what the aliens did with the real Alun they thought they understood. Which means the unlearning meme is actually a virus I am infecting them with … but we’re friends and it will do them good in the long run even if it makes them work harder in the short term!


Great post! All very true.

It sounds like you’re also learning new and different ways of relating and collaborating.

That’s wonderful! In my experience, groups which play together consistently develop all kinds of habits and unspoken rules, and playing with different people means having to adapt. The “chemistry” at the table is different with every game group. Playing online adds to the challenge of adapting to each other - no question.

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Alun, it’s fascinating to see your side of things as I’m currently coming from the opposite direction! I was just chatting with @Paul_T about how I’m coming from online-only RPGs for the last 3-4 years to the likelihood of having a face-to-face group. Here’s a piece from my message with Paul:

“I’m in the middle of moving from Jacksonville, FL, where I only gamed online, to Minneapolis, MN, where I have maybe a dozen gamer friends who want me to form or join a group. It’s exciting and scary! I’ve fallen out of the habit of live play other than at conventions, which is easier and more performative. I’ve found gaming with a home group to be more intimate and intense. So, I’m looking forward to it, but also worried I may not be up to the task. I’m such a lazy GM! I learn/prep just enough to run a one-shot or a series of 3-4 games.”



Perhaps it’s because of my direction of travel, @RichRogers, but currently I’m seeing only positives coming out of my online play experiences.

The online skill-set I have seen in the best Gauntlet GMs (you know who you are :wink:), that I’m seeking to emulate …

  • open and explicit collaboration
  • building narrative from the characters and answers to establishing questions
  • flexibility and willingness to follow player leads
  • checking in that players are where you think they are and responding if they are not
  • to do all that while retaining thecapacity to ‘land’ a satisfying ending to a session as well as a series, 'cos at least one player is likely to be missing next time.

I could go on … But my point is that all of that works at the non-virtual table because it is ‘conscious GM-ing’. My bad habits are there because I’ve got used that to running games on instinct without being conscious … because with a regular group I could usually fudge this session end 'cos I know there’s another next week, or ignore a particular character let no 'cos I can do that in a couple of week’s time. On a bad day that’s lazy GM-ing.

You, @RichRogers, will bring all the value add of the conscious GM-ing I’ve seen you deploy to your new f-2-f table.

My greatest concern is that you run less online! So don’t forget your roots :wink: … “Your Gauntlet Needs You!”.


What does this part mean? Is it a typo, or some kind of internet slang I haven’t run into before?

I think what you’ll find most jarring is the different play culture. We play games a certain way on The Gauntlet. I know whenever I play at conventions, I’m always shocked at the quality drop off when it comes to play. That’s not an online v f2f thing; that’s a play culture thing.


I assume he means “checking in that players…”

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*checking in that players …
What I mean is that it’s relatively easy to know where the plyers are in their thinking when in a face-to-face game, because you get a lot of bandwidth of info on whihc to make that decison. Online I feel the need to check in that what I think they mean is actually what they mean because the communication bandwidth is so much narrower. Make more sense?

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Only the plus side, with online games you are in your own house. You can wear shorts/dressing gown, whatever :slight_smile:

One of the reasons I left my old Pathfinder group is they never cleaned up. If you bring in say 1-2 garbage bins full of trash and scatter it randomly around EACH room, that’s how disgusting it was. Not just untidy, but dirty.

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The last dozen or so campaigns I’ve run I have treated prep as getting ready for a weekly one-shot, just 37 times and we don’t need to do chargen. You’ll smoke this, brother.