Ask The GM: Community-Building and Organized Play

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Gamers have largely been victorious in conquering popular media and culture. What was once the realm of satanic panic is now (at least in most areas) our mainstay of entertainment. But it wasn’t long ago that Dark Dungeons, in 1984, tried to shatter our fantasy hopes and dreams.

I spent the better part of my early teens with an AD&D players handbook and nobody to play with… and that’s not uncommon. Thanks to our pioneers in the gaming community, fighting for the right to be dark elves, we can laugh at the past. For me, the gaming community shifted in the nineties, with the rise of Cyberpunk 2020, industrial music, and jrpg’s becoming popular. Secret of Mana, plus Nine Inch Nails, and a roleplaying game of like-minded people bothered by the daystar (it burns the flesh, seriously).

This week, are going further into GM Tips w/ Satine Phoenix and looking at the importance of community building for storytellers. If you haven’t seen it, Maze Arcana co-founder Ruty Rutenberg and Satine discuss the merits of Adventurer’s League and the benefits of organized play.

So let’s look inside the guts of this beastly topic. Because if storytellers and TSR didn’t step up in the 80’s and rally the community…we might not have had one.


If you are part of any local LARP group, this is old news for you. Everything from the Mind’s Eye Society, to One World By Night, to the fine folks over at Dystopia Rising or even any troupe game push the importance of community. Not pissing off 50% of your playerbase is generally a good thing, and without people involved… you don’t have a game. For me, I’ve fostered a group of players who keep coming back for dark, personal horror, and Machiavellian plot stories in a custom campaign. That took a decade (and a lot of Denny’s). Building your community takes time. Help each other out as people first, then as players second. Otherwise… you’ll just be 3 kids in a parking lot looking strange. But tabletop is different, so I asked Satine this:

Satine, why do you feel it’s important for storytellers to even care about their local community and game store? Aren’t most games really just a few people in one house?

“I can only speak for myself and make recommendations for others. For those people who are lucky to have a home group that they play with on a regular basis, perhaps the gaming community isn’t important. But for those of us who like to learn from other players & GMs, who like to talk about similar things and debate game theory we should encourage creating a safe place for us all to do that in. Whether it’s in local gaming stores or on websites’ forums and groups. The key is community awareness and safe spaces. Nurturing your local game store will encourage those who’ve always wanted to play with others to feel safe enough to try their hand at table top gaming”

The Con Circuit

In most con’s now you’ll find the tabletop room filled to the brim, or those impromptu tables outside the hotel bar. Storytellers are doing their thing (for better or worse) to hapless players on pre-canned modules…for the most part. Storytelling at a con is exhausting. (24 hours in 3 days for that free badge… booyah!) and each company handles their GM’s different. Eclipse Phase ( Posthuman Studios) has always treated their storytellers well, and it shows through; with ecstatic storytellers building the enthusiasm of its players. Running the con circuit for a few years is a great way to build up YOUR storytelling skills. You’ll learn what you like, what you hate, see problem players, and see the best there is.

Okay, so, you’ve decided to run a game at a convention or through organized play, Satine, what are is your advice for a storyteller that’s just getting started?

  • “No one knows what you don’t know, so keep cool, breathe, drink water and just move through the adventure.
  • As long as you have an idea of where you’re going, the players will go with you.
    The module you are running is an outline. You have the freedom of filling the outline with life and color. As long as you hit the main beats, NPCs & magic items, you can fill the game with anything you want to make the adventure yours. Move pieces around, rewrite box text. Give your players more to interact with.
  • It might seem daunting because you want to do it right and not mess it up. The writers have done the heavy lifting creating the mechanics of the story; you breathe life into it.”

Moving On

Organized play and the con circuit have their merits, but you’ll also figure out when it’s time to move on. Eventually, you’ll have played through or ran the same content so much, or found that you just don’t like what they are offering. If that’s the case, you don’t need to hang the hobby up, there are tons of other tabletop games that are keeping organized play fresh. Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds offer virtual tabletops as well to get you matched with people. Good companies will also let their storytellers create custom content or start running what you want to run as well. I almost always deviate drastically from modules and add in my own twists. Wizards of the Coast has been pumping out tons of new content for their Adventurers League to stop boredom. After all, even the GM’s need their own guild and to have a good time. So that’s what sparked this question to Satine:

Running the same module over, and over, and over, again can sharpen your skills, but organized play locks you into providing the same experience. If you are at a con and working the Adventurer’s League, it can turn into a full-time job and get boring running the same module. What do you think is a fair amount of leeway to deviate from the printed material? A little? A lot?

“Those Writers have spent amazing amounts of time writing these adventures to get them balanced and timed for play. Deviate a little, move pieces around. The majority of deviation will probably be in the life you breathe in the characters. The modules I’ve run, there were only a few that needed a lot of adding in. But it was in how creative I played NPCs that made the biggest difference for those who had played the modules before.” 

What’s your con experience? Or have you been a Storyteller that built up your local gaming groups? Hit us up with questions in the comments or stalk us on Twitter! 

Featured Image: Geek & Sundry

Image Credits: Teri Litorco

Rick Heinz is the author of The Seventh Age: Dawn, and a storyteller with a focus on LARPs, Wraith: The Oblivion, Eclipse Phase, and many more. You can follow game or urban fantasy related thingies on Twitter or Facebook.

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