Writing and Running Online RPGS

As Gaelcon draws ever closer, folks are thinking about writing games for the con – online this year. I’ve got a few notes on convention game prep to share here, and when I get some feedback and ideas to add, a revised version of this might go on the IGA website as a resource.


You have three hours, and you must get to the end, so timing is critical. Most convention games will have 4-6 encounters, so an intro, maybe 4 encounters and an ending. The intro should take only 20 minutes, the others may vary from 20-40 minutes depending on the players. After 2 hours, you should have a feel for how fast your players are, and have a good idea how quickly you need to get to the final scene  so they have time to play it out. Time drives everything else.

Be Brief

Write only as much as you need. Avoid elaborate worldbuilding – stick to common elements which your players can pick up and work with. If you need to, you can add colour in game, but don’t bury key information under a mass of detail.

If someone else is running your game, they may only have time to read it quickly. Don’t write screeds: they won’t have time to read it. Trust other GMs to improvise on the framework you’ve written

If it isn’t relevant, leave it out. Players will latch onto anything ‘shiney’ – props, NPC, location, magic item, whatever. If it’s ‘shiney’, they may spend a half hour playing with it.

Avoid branches that lead to dead ends, or red herrings – everything must lead to the resolution. If you allow branching or forking, the forks must link back to the main plot quickly.

Also avoid puzzles, or provide alternatives – if they can’t work out your clever puzzle, the adventure may die right there.

If any encounter involves a challenge which players might fail, there must be an alternative path forward to avoid a dead end.


Have complete, fully prepared characters. The character sheets are the main thing your players will have to work from.

Give the players reasons to interact – each character should have some hook to 2 other characters.

Allow every player an opportunity to shine.

Begin with clear motivations for the players to follow the plot; because there will always be one who is determined to wander off.

There will always be at least one or two quiet players – if your character set is well balanced, everyone will need to get involved a bit.

In each scene, at least two players should be able to show off


For a 3 hour session,  6 encounters  is about right- 4 essential, and 2 optional if the players are going too fast. Encounters need to be a mix of exploration, social interaction, and combat

Consider a sequence like this:

  • Intro Introduce situation, explain key rules, players get to read character sheets, ask questions, introduce each other Consider starting ‘in media res’ – drop them in a fight or crisis)
  • Roleplaying/Investigation
  • Easy Fight (Don’t harm players!)
  • Non-combat obstacle: Minor/Medium Trap, danger or difficulty
  • Medium Fight/Roleplaying/Investigation ( Enough Damage to make them be careful)
  • Non-combat obstacle: Major trap, danger or difficulty (climb the castle wall in the dark; get across the gorge, plane crashes in the jungle. Can do serious damage here)
  • Final Fight (if players have taken damage, you might need to remove henchpeople for balance, but make them sweat for this – no pain, no gain)

Expect the first 2-3 scenes to run in the order you planned, but be prepared to shift or cut later scenes as players mess with your plan

Don’t tie secrets or clues to specific scenes: be prepared to move them if you need to.

The paperwork

My (never quite achieved) ideal is

6 character sheets (obviously! And you will need to share those with the players so you need them online in a place where you can share from – Google Drive? Dropbox?)

1 page flowchart/overview – critical for other GMs to run your module, so they can immediately see the plan. Single sentence description of what happens in each scene

For each scene, on 1 page

  • Key intro 150 words
  • Prepared text for GM to read 200-300 words
  • Difficulty level for key stat/skill checks.
  • NPCs: Names & key stats
  • NPCs: reactions and tactics – how do they respond to the players, what will they do in a fight – Monsters aren’t stupid, so unless its a genre where the bad guys obligingly come at the heros one at at time, play them smart .

On  separate pages, 1 page each

  • Scene maps for players if you need them
  • Scene maps with GM info
  • Player stats summary
  • NPC Stats summary

These should have minimal essential formatting*, in a clear font, no columns! Some scenes will run over a page, but I think it is useful to start each one on a new page.

*page numbers are important if a GM needs to ask you a question about a thing!

Running Online

Right now, there are two main platforms in use by people running games in our community – Discord and Roll20. There are several other VTTs out there, but we don’t know people who use them.

Discord was originally a text and voice chat tool, but now includes video and you can pop images up in chat, including, obviously, maps. It has very good dice rolling bots. It’s great if your style is mainly ‘theatre of the mind’. You will need to share character sheets using something else. Preparation is very similar to a regular face-toface game. Discord is free, but you can give the money. We have IGA and Gaelcon Discord servers which will be in use for the Con. Several major events (WorldCon, GenCon) have used Discord as their core technology, and so will Gaelcon this year.

Roll20 is a full virtual table top – it has multilayer maps (map, tokens, GM overlay, Dynamic lighting), tokens you can move, built in character sheets and rules info for most major systems. If you want to do combat in detail, you need a system like this. Setting up maps and tokens requires more work, but it does much of the heavy lifting on rules for you –  attack rolls with bonuses, spells, initiative tracking, all there once you invest time to learn how to use it. Since I’m really bad at remembering rules and looking them up in game, I love this.  Players are fine with free accounts, and GMs can do fine in many systems with a free account, but you might want to go for a Plus or Pro sub. (You can cancel)

Three downsides to all this – Roll20 takes time to master – 2-3 sessions to get to grips with all the key features and use them smoothly. Secondly, it has had problems with the built in voice and video which is why people often use Discord for voice and video alongside it. (Personally, I’ve never had a problem with it on Chrome or Firefox, but I have seen others struggle.) Third, it all lives on one set of servers, so it can drop. They had 90,000 online the Friday of Gencon, and it was fine, but other times it can glitch.

So, where do we go from here? In the long term, suggestions on this are welcome and version 2 will appear eventually.

In the short term, from here until Gaelcon, on Thursday evenings from 6:30 to about 8 pm, I’ll be in the IGA Community Discord and on my Roll20 account to co-ordinate a “Writing and Running Games Online” workshop for our writers and GMs. If you are planning on writing a game, or just willing to run one at Gaelcon, DM  @mikecosgrave on twitter and I’ll send round links. 


Other sources on running Convention games:






Matt Mercer on One Shots – Youtube


Roll20 Overview (12 minutes)








Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *