Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sharing the cognitive load

PictureThis is a re-post of a blog article I wrote for The Gauntlet Blog.

It's an article for online game facilitators and how they can structure the social aspects of a game session: how to discuss the game, bring in safety tools and eventually how to share the roles which usually all seem to automatically fall into the facilitator's lap with other players. I provide a template I created for your convenience. The final paragraphs are dedicated to how to end a sessions, namely how to do a debrief - and finally why debriefing and feedback are so hard to separate from each but should be separate.


I put together a template free to use for everybody which can serve as an actionable guideline for facilitating online RPG sessions, laogs (live action online game), GM-free and traditional set-ups alike. This article shall explain each step in the guideline and give a bit of background and lessons learnt.

This guideline is not about technical aspects like how to set up a session or how to handle last minute drop-outs, etc. This would be worth an extra article. Here, we solely focus on the social dimension, on how to facilitate the conversation on a universal level.

The guideline is my attempt to combine the best practices on how to introduce a game to players and how to structure a session. But more so, it contains my take on sharing responsibility roles, a concept I first saw in Jason Morningstar’s Winterhorn, and which I adapted to online play. Finally, it contains a proposal on how to do a proper debrief which I consider especially relevant in games with higher emotional impact (and believe me—that can quickly become the case even in your standard dungeon crawl).

The template can be found here: 

Simply make a copy if you want to make use of it.

CATS & Safety

CATS stands for concept, aim, tone, and subject matter. It’s a procedure which was once an entry for the 200 Word RPG contest. It has been described elsewhere in greater detail, so I will only quickly talk about why it’s a structure I consider worth being in this guideline. 

Find a great visual summary of CATS by Tomer Gurantz here: 

When you begin a game session, specifically when playing online with new people or a game new to you or them, it helps tremendously to take some time to get everybody on board. You might already have covered parts of the CATS discussion when inviting players to your session. Actually, following CATS when announcing your game session is good practice, too. 

So, giving some thoughts pre-game and making a few notes about what concept you have in mind for your gaming session, what your aim with the session is and which tone you strive for, gives you a great starting point when entering the session. Don’t hesitate to share the text you wrote and simply read it out loud. 

Five minutes in - everything goes smoothly

After having gone through CATS, you survived already the first five minutes of your session and probably feel already more at ease with guiding several other people through the next hours. CATS serves its purpose of bringing everybody on board directly but also indirectly serves as a warm up for you as the facilitator. 

Don’t forget that subject matter is an interactive step: other players should be asked to bring in subject matters they would prefer being treated with care or exclude altogether. 

Responsibility Roles

Responsibility Roles is a way to reflect the many aspects the facilitator of an online game usually has to consider while running a session.
Reflecting on these responsibilities serves two purposes: keeping them in mind and honoring that they all require work and partly a different mindset. Secondly, that in some of your games it might make sense to share some of these responsibilities with your players. 

Aspects of facilitating an online game

The template provides a table with the standard tasks a facilitator usually has to handle: keep track of time, check-in with players who possibly don’t have a good time, explain what the game is about and how the session will proceed, answer rules questions, support others and take action in case of technical difficulties, and moderate a debrief or feedback section at the end. There might be more things depending on the game. 

In some games, people like to have an image board or a map of an area where the characters move through, for example. Then it’s good to have somebody responsible for keeping these up-to-date. Same goes for taking notes for specific events in the game, tracking counters, updating a list of NPCs, etc.

Share the burden

So before you start the session, consider if you as the facilitator would like to source some of these tasks out to players. Ask a player directly if they would take over a certain task or ask openly if anybody is interested to share some of the work you as the facilitator usually would have alone on your shoulders.
Some things like having a specific person responsible for checking-in with players not having a good time (if possible on a private channel) shouldn’t be understood that everybody else would be allowed to ignore their responsibility in doing so. From my experience though, it helps a lot if you have somebody having their mind fully on such a task. This lowers the imposter hurdle (‘should it really be me pointing that out’) and encourages action. 

Handing out the debrief moderation is something I can personally highly recommend. I’ll talk more about further below. 

Keep what you prefer to keep

Surely, sharing some of these tasks is not everybody’s taste and doesn’t have to happen at all. I would still recommend taking a look at everything that you as the facilitator are balancing while in a game—helping you to understand how much work you are actually doing in a session you facilitate.


By now, there are so many different ways and practices people have while playing online that there isn’t a set of tools that will for everybody and every play culture. Some people stream live on Twitch with audience interaction, others play voice-only but with battle maps on Roll20. 

So the list of tools the template provides is just reflecting one of many different play cultures. It is the one most common in the Gauntlet community, although even in the Gauntlet many different styles are present. 

Managing information

The tools listed here are all browser based. I strongly recommend to have each tool in a separate window so you can easily switch between them. You will probably have the video window, a dice roller, a character keeper, a picture board, personal notes and a search engine open. Additionally, you might have one or two PDFs with the game text open (full rules / reference sheet). That’s already three to eight windows to move between and hence a lot to keep up with.
Take a moment to think about how you can manage all these tools efficiently for yourself. Ask the other players to check if they have access to all tools before the game starts and if they feel comfortable in using them. 

For dice rolling, it’s always an option to have people roll their real dice on their own table. Some people though prefer the excitement of sharing the dice result in a tool and our own Shane Liebling has given us as a wonderful gift. It’s an open source dice roller without registration and provides tools for many different games. It also has a built-in X card and other safety tools. 

Character Keepers

A character keeper is one of the amazing things online play has to offer which works (from my point of view) better than in face to face groups. A typical character keeper is a spreadsheet shared among participants with all information about your characters on one page. So no matter if you want to look up the player characters’ aspects in Fate or check which Bonds somebody has in Dungeon World or which Skin Moves the Ghost has picked in Monsterhearts, it’s all there and instantaneously updated when changes are made. 

The Play Aids folder of the Gauntlet community has character keepers and play aids for over 100 games ready to be used. 

How to end a session / Debriefing

Early ending
An online session often goes between two and four hours. My preferred length is three hours. We are sitting on a chair watching one or two screens and although we will have breaks sessions which go longer can have a tendency to not being fun anymore. Reading other people’s emotions, listening through not always perfect connections and controlling several tabs and windows with information is work and we will be exhausted (but hopefully also excited) at the end of the session. 

So most importantly, end the game when you don’t feel comfortable anymore with going further. In the end, it never pays out to continue beyond your limits. ‘Life is more important than a game’ is what my son (6) always tells me in such situations, giving me a hug, and so should you be good to each other if one does not want to continue any longer. 

When the game is over

When the game is over, the template recommends to switch off cameras and mics for a moment and to stretch your body. Since our hobby is mainly an intellectual exercise we tend to forget what our body needs. We had an exciting times, were totally immersed in our story—so now be gentle to your body. In intense games, this is also the opportunity to de-role. Remind yourself and your players that the game is over and you are not the characters any longer you incorporated. Don’t use character names anymore and talk about your character and NPCs in third person. 

Begin the debrief

It’s then time to hand over to the debrief moderator (if that is somebody different than you). The template provides people with different options and a text they can read out loud if they want. One proposed option is to focus on appraisal and excitement, the other focuses on emotions and reflections. There are many other possibilities, so these are just examples. It’s nice to shuffle your procedure up a bit every other time and to find out for yourself which procedure works best for you. It probably isn’t directly the first one you tried. 

In the case you are recording your session for others to watch, make a decision as a group if you want to record the debriefing as well or not. People who enjoyed your Actual Play, might be very interested in the debriefing, too, and we can all improve play culture by making debriefing a visible part of our online play. However, people sometimes have good reasons why they don’t want to do debriefing publicly. Then stop recording, no questions asked. 

Debriefing does not equal feedback

Most importantly, debriefing is not the same as giving feedback. From a work context, many people have learnt to keep feelings out and feedback procedures in the workplace context focus on rational pros and cons, stuff which worked well versus what didn’t. Feedback is good to get. But this isn’t the kind of debriefing we might need after intense roleplaying sessions. We are allowed to have feelings and we shall have space to express them. (Side Note: that this should also be the case at work is my strong opinion but not the topic here). 

My proposal therefore for debriefing is to keep debriefing and feedback conceptually and as agenda items separate. It depends on your preferences how much space you offer to each of them. It’s alright not to have a debriefing in some games or not to ask for feedback at all. 

Debriefing emotions

Debriefing should therefore focus on personal emotions experienced in a game and explicitly offer them a space. Pick a moment in the game which stood out in reference to your play experience. Talk about it. If possible, focus on emotions, on what you felt. It’s tempting and indeed we are trained to hand out positive feedback and compliments to other players. If that happens, that’s ok but try to focus on your own experience. Keep the celebration for the feedback time. 

Debriefing reflections back into real life

A second and equally important dimension is to allow players to talk about how their play experience connects for them to their life. The game session was just a three hours slice in our lives. 

Our life is what happened before the session, while the session was going and after it ended. We came in with a state of mind, business to do, emotions we worked through (aka bleed in). We related to a fictive world, with the escapist dimension of a game while playing but we also related to real people who we might know well from ‘real life’ or had never met before the game. 

When the game is over these relationships continue to exist while the characters we played become just a memory. But still, although our story, the world and the characters were created by us, they might still mean something (aka bleed out). Maybe the old grandmother I incorporated reminded me of my recently deceased grandma. Maybe the oppression our group of rebels suffered is something my sister had to suffer. 

Use the debriefing to reflect how the game related to your life. It’s totally ok to discuss something light-hearted—if you found a game design element super interesting and this is what you want to talk about—do so.

No need for strong emotions

To emphasise the last point, a debriefing shall not turn into a show-off of how emotionally impacting the session was. It’s alright to have no strong feelings, nothing serious to add. A simple state of happiness or just feeling not moved at all by the game even if everybody else said so, is as good as talking about how life changing the game was for you. Both can stand next to each other. You might also not feel anything you like to talk about but in a couple of hours after the game, after a discussion with your partner or a good night sleep it starts to keep you thinking. If that is the case, reach out to someone in the game you trust and do another debriefing when it feels right for you. 


When the debriefing of emotions and reflections (or any other form suitable for you) is over you can ask for feedback towards you and between players.
You might be interested just in positive feedback or you want constructive feedback about what went sup-optimal. It’s your decision as the facilitator to decide which type of feedback is welcomed. Especially for playtests, you might ask for written feedback or if anybody has time to look in detail about some material. 

My personal taste is to take positive feedback only directly after the session. I’m often pumped by adrenaline and feel happy to have finished the session. But since I still want constructive feedback on how to improve my GMing, game material or how I facilitated the session, I ask that people come back to me a few hours after the game only with such feedback. I have also already reached out individually to people in such situations. 

Another recommendation for players who don’t feel comfortable with handing over negative feedback: you could ask the debrief moderator or another player you trust to hand over the feedback they have anonymously. 

Where to go from here

The online facilitator template is just one of many possible ways to structure an online session. I personally look forward to see variants diverging widely from this one and to continue my own learning experience. I especially look out to how I could incorporate more best practice lessons from the Nordic Larp and American Freeform scene who – from my point of view- are several years ahead in terms of how they facilitate good sessions and good aftercare. Finally, with online streaming there is a dimension in online play whose consequences haven’t been thought through yet (by me): how does a live audience change our games, our safety, what structure would work better for an audience, how to do aftercare as part of the audience etc?