How To Start A Game: Technical Considerations

There are many different types of games, which can be organized in many different ways. Within these major types, of course, there is endless variation – no two games are ever going to be exactly alike, and even a rerun of the exact same storyline in the exact same world is likely to play out differently. Nevertheless, broad categories can be defined onseveral basis, and each one requires care and tailoring to make it work.


The most obvious factor in a game’s management is the medium in which it is run. Within each medium, there are also subdivisions that lead to specific logistics having to happen a certain way.

Live games involve being in the same physical place at the same time – and thus, are scheduled in advance and only done with people in a certain geographical radius of the gamemaster, for obvious reasons. This category includes LARP (Live Action Role Play), which can be strongly structured (involving dozens of strangers, costumes, rules, dedicated play areas, et cetera for a weekend-long event) or loosely structured, where a few friends just act out what they’re doing in the living room instead of talking about it. Live games also include Tabletop RP, which is your standard handful of players and a GM sitting around a table eating chips and adventuring; subdivisions of this include miniature-and-grid based versus more loosely coherant forms, but almost always involve a system and dice for some reason.

Play-by-post tries to solve the geographical issue by using the internet as a communications medium. The traditional PbP game involves emailing actions to the GM, and usually involves dice although freeform can and has been done. A subdivision of this, Forum gaming, has been much more popular for some time now – thanks to the highly public and centralized nature, there is less work for the GM, particularly in non-dice games. One or two admins can supervise dozens of players, and often individual threads have no GM involvement at all other than a readthrough to make sure nothing unusual is happening. Livejournal is a popular alternative to a forum; my experience here is sadly lacking, but from what I understand, games vary from “all posts must be in the community for the game” to “Posts should be in individual journals of the character” and anywhere in-between.

IRC is a bit of an odd beast. While it is possible – and, in fact, common – to run tabletop-style scheduled games where everyone signs on at the same time, rolls dice in the chan, and is at the mercy of the gamemaster, there is also the opposite end of the scale: games, usually small ones, in which there is no dedicated gamemaster, and instead individual players control various elements of the world (so one player might dictate Elven policy while another works on the religious practices of the Dwarves). The size of games ranges from massive (50+ players) to private one-on-one storylines; the ability to create a new room in many IRC servers just by entering it means play could be going on anytime, anywhere, with nothing more than a casual conversation to start things off. Instant Messenger games, thanks to the format, tend to be one-on-one plotlines; players often meet in one of the other mediums, such as a forum for players seeking other players, and play out the plotline (or “line” for short) over an instant messenger service like AIM or Y!IM. Each player is expected to contribute equally to developing the game, and the plotline is usually negotiated in advance, with each player picking up NPCs that the other character needs for scenes if the characters split up. The major drawback to these types of games, however, is that people have to be online at the same time; however, the entire group doesn’t need to meet at the same time if a scene only involves a few people, and individual sessions can (but don’t have to) be shorter than marathon tabletop sessions, leading to less intensive time commitments – it’s easier to track someone down for an hour than for a six-hour session, particularly if they don’t have to leave home.

There are, of course, Hybrids between these formats – an IRC game with a forum for?those who are hard to get ahold of, a tabletop where one person contributes via webcam, et cetera. Often, the choice of medium is simply a matter of what is more comfortable for the GM and how easy it is to get ahold of the playerbase. As you can see, the format somewhat dictates the structure of the game – but not always, and you can try and impose any structure you like on any format, though you might find players unwilling to experiment with unusual combinations.

When considering the format, live versus online is often an obvious choice – are you running for a group of friends locally or hoping to recruit friends or strangers on the internet? From there, it depends on your preference and your time commitment. Work on a forum game is time-zone insensitive; you can approve applications and start threads just as easily at 3 in the morning as at noon. With a more realtime-interactive format such as IRC, you’ll have to be online when other people are on in order to play. However, on IRC you’ll be waiting seconds or minutes for a post instead of hours or days, and so things tend to progress more rapidly.


And now we come to the quintessential debate: Dice-based vs Freeform. If you’re only comfortable running one of these formats, do that one. There’s no sense making yourself uncomfortable for the sake of your players. That said, live tabletop games tend to be dice-based, while forums tend to be freeform and IRC can be either.
If you’re going with dice, you’re going to have to choose a system. The more regulated the system is, the less you’ll have to worry about micromanaging players to ensure they’re not unbalancing the game; however, you might also end up excluding interesting ideas because they can’t make it work with the game systme. Less regulated systems like BESM or GURPS allow more freedom of character, but also assume you’re paying close attention to ensure that the characters are not going to break the setting. Dice-based systems often come with settings and backstory for the various options, which can lesson the job of the GM, but which can be discarded if the GM enjoys worldbuilding; however, it may be more difficult to build your own world if you have to account for the mechanics of the system – if the characters have a pool of magic points and can run out, you have to justify what that stands for, and might not be able to make a world where magic depends on the location and radiates from magical artifacts. Character creation can vary from “kind of a pain in the ass” to “incredibly complicated” – I’ve not personally seen a system that lets you whip up an interesting and balanced character in ten minutes, but not all systems take hours to generate characters (*cough* dnd 3.5 *cough*), and many have generators that can help with the calculations. Finally, the main reason a lot of people dislike dice-based systems is that you lose some of your freedom – the presence of strict rules about what your character can and cannot do means you can’t tweak things for the purposes of plot as often, and you often have to discard ideas because, for example, the closest equivilent to your idea for their magic is a spell you can’t take for ten levels, wheras in a freeform game you could make a scaled-down version that fits the power level with room to grow.

Freeform, as the name implies, is a lot more free. You can literally do whatever you want. The downside, of course, is that you can do anything you want – and so can people with no sense of scale. You might be great at balancing power levels so that no one character dominates – but the next guy who joins up might make an immortal overlord with armies of skeletons. Obviously you can use character applications to reject that guy (more later), but it does take a lot more policing of characters to ensure that things don’t get out of whack or that the power level of the game doesn’t slowly creep upwards. And of course, there’s always people who apply using one set of powers and then just add more as time goes on. That said, if you’re keeping a close eye on the characters and the setting, freeform can be very rewarding, and you’ll find a lot of interesting character ideas that don’t translate well to dice-based games. Not to mention, in games without any sort of magical or superpowers, dice is often overkill – people can generally use common sense to tell if they can, say, jump onto a ledge, or drive a car, without rolling to see if they somehow critically fail and break their nose. Plus, freeform allows you to use the Rule of Drama – is it a better story if I succeed or fail?

Another point to consider is the rating of the game. This section primarily applies to online gaming; the practicalities of live play often makes all of this moot. The two main components of game rating are sex and violence, with swearing sometimes considered as a third (particularly when kids may be involved).
As far as sex is concerned – is sex allowed between characters? Some adventure-type games just outright ban or do not even consider the idea of relationships and sex – who’s going to get it on in a dungeon crawl? (You’d be surprised). If sex is allowed, is it allowed to be depicted? Often a strict “fade to black” policy is enforced, in which scenes which are about to become sexual “fade out” and pick up the next morning when everyone’s dressed again. If both players consent to playing the scene, can it be played? Some games opt for a compromise: if you play out the sex scene, fine, but don’t post it where others can see, or if you do post it, put a warning so people can choose not to read that log. (In my circle, these are called “redlogs”, thanks to a practice of coloring the log titles red in the archives as an immediate warning). Many sites who archive logs, for legal reasons, do not permit people who have not ceritified that they are of legal age in their jurisdiction to read logs involving sex, and do not allow sex between underaged characters, just in case.

Violence is less contentious in certain respects. Your traditional adventuring game (for example, most DnD games) usually has no trouble with violence – the whole point is to kill enemies. Still, there’s violence and then there’s violence. There’s a major difference between “I lop off the ogre’s head” and describing the blood, spinal fluid, and other nasty bits gushing all over the party. There’s also a difference between killing impersonal enemies and detailed torture scenes. Be sure your players know what level of violence depictions you’re aiming for before you begin play.

Probably the most important component of RP and other writing – and one that is often overlooked – is the concept of a “trigger warning”. Some people have had traumatic incidents in their past, and hearing about these things happening to others can bring back flashbacks or anxiety. It is common courtesy to label logs involving rape, extreme violence, domestic abuse, torture, bigotry, slavery (can be a trigger for domestic abuse victims), substence abuse, or any similar type of content. When in doubt, label the log well and prominently.

GameMaster Considerations

I here use the term GameMaster, shortened to GM; other sites may use the synonymous term DungeonMaster, or DM. This is just a matter of personal preference.

There are many types of GM situations. The most commonly known is probably the single GM – one person is in charge of the world, the NPCs, and rules enforcement. In larger games, they may appoint people as administrators (aka admins) or moderators (aka mods) to help with rules enforcement, but they have the final say as to their world and the characters within. A similar setup involves multiple GMs working in tandem – my preferred setup for dice-based games is to pick someone who has a better grasp of the system rules and appoint them in charge of game mechanics, character approval, and combat, while I detail the setting, plot, and NPCs.

An interesting setup, however, is the round-robin style. In this, participants take turns being the GM, generally running self-contained plots in a shared world. That way, everyone gets to experience being a player as well as running the show. You have to be able to trust your fellow participants for this sort of style to work, however – one bad GM can easily ruin the experience. You also have to be able to share well – you have to be willing to tell people enough about the plot that their plots don’t step on your toes, even if that means partial or complete spoilers.

Then there’s the approach I’m going to call shared world: there is no GM, or more properly, everyone is a GM. The world needs to be fairly defined, with some constants agreed upon, for this to work; it can work very well in a premade setting, with people “claiming” NPCs they need for their corner of the ‘verse and plots arising out of general play. Again, this requires a good amount of trust or very strict moderation in order to work. In a premade world, “canon police” can help ensure everyone’s sticking to what is plausible according to the world rules and not godmoding or hijacking other people’s characters or plots.

Finally, I’d like to offer up the approach I use with my closest friends. We’re about halfway between a round-robin and a shared-world setup; we play freeform, often in homebrew worlds, and we discuss the worldbuilding and plot ideas frequently, but each of us sort of stakes out a claim on a bit of the world – for example, the first person to make a werewolf might write up the entirety of how werewolves work, while another might be concerned with vampires. We then run plots as we feel like it, trusting each other not to come up with anything too rediculous – if the werewolf guy runs a plot involving vampires, they don’t go beyond what the vampire guy has said about them without talking to him first. This works for us because we’ve been playing together for years; it also would work in one-on-one situations, where you can both direct the plot together. I would not reccomend something this loosely structured for a public game, however.

The next consideration is character applications. You obviously require them for most dice-based games; freeform GMs have a choice, however, between requiring them and not requiring them. When playing with strangers, I reccommend them; they let you look over people’s characters before they begin play, weeding out bad ideas ahead of time, and give you a feel for how someone is going to write. You also may or may not require approval before you begin play; some games require an application that is automatically approved unless it’s absolutely awful or incomplete, while others make you wait for explicit approval before you can begin play. The subject of how to write a character application is a little too long for the space provided, but in general, if you don’t have a premade application form (such as for a dice-based game), you’ll want to ask the basics of the character – name, species, age, gender (be sure to leave an option for undetermined or neutral), special powers, physical description, and history. From there, it’s game-specific; a Harry Potter board I helped start recently asks what wand each character has, primarily as a way to get people thinking in terms of Harry Potter and doing a little research into the world.

Finally, an issue that comes up primarily in IRC-based games is the idea of log supervision. Some games require all RP to be done in the presence of a GM, to ensure that the rules are upheld and the world integrity is maintained; this, obviously, requires the GM to have high availibility, as nobody can play without their presence. Other games allow anyone to do scenes at any time, uploading logs or sending them to the GM afterward so that the GM knows what happened. This can lead to irregularities but if the world is well-defined and you trust your players not to break things, it can help grow the game more rapidly.


Ultimately, how you structure your game and how you run it are entirely up to you. As long as you consider the points above, you should be fine – you want to know what you’re doing, but there’s not a right way and a wrong way to design a game. Be sure, however, to listen to your players – if people aren’t joining because, for example, they can’t sign on wednesdays at 3pm, you might want to consider moving the time to a better one or doing a format where they can sign on at any time (like a forum) in order to get more players. The most important rule as a GM is, however, that you need to be having fun. If you’re not enjoying the game, odds are nobody else will either.

Good luck!

2 thoughts on “How To Start A Game: Technical Considerations

  1. Just as a heads-up: It’s very rare, but you can have a stat-based game that doesn’t use dice. Games like that tend to mean that power tends to be statically slanted between characters unless the gamemaster decides otherwise. It’s fairly close to freeform in play-style from what I’ve seen.

    It’s probably too vague to be worth mentioning in this overview post (in fact, it’s probably better that you didn’t), but roleplay isn’t such a strong ‘freeform’ versus ‘dice-based’ dichotomy as sometimes presumed, hence my personal interest in such quirks.

  2. Yeah, I tried to do more of an overview for first-time GMs. I don’t have enough experience with stat-based freeform to really comment on it, unfortunately. Feel free to write an addendum ^_^

Leave a Reply