7 Things We Learned by Interviewing 100 Game Masters

October 12, 2021
A speech bubble containing a microscope and a question mark on the left side of the frame, and a lot of speech bubbles from the right side of the frame answering with icons of dice, tables, books, documents of multiple types, music, and recording equipment.

I super love talking to GMs. In fact, I seek them out wherever I can. Through mutual friends. At my CSA. In the audience of live-play shows, in line at GenCon and over countless Zoom calls. Professional GMs, amateurs, newbies, and everyone in between. I’ve even managed to find GMs slinging drinks behind bars at 1 a.m.

Why? Because when it comes to creating the best possible campaign management system, the more input, the better. Since March, I’ve talked to nearly a hundred GMs, and I’m incredibly excited to share what we’ve learned. Let’s start with an overview, and in the coming months, I’ll follow up with a deep-dive into each area.

Session recap: the problem

In Debuting Bringing Fire, I outlined a problem with the TTRPG tech landscape: Right now, there’s no one place for a GM to compose and keep everything they need to run a campaign. Tools for some parts of the process exist, but most GMs don’t use them because they’re too hard to use, too restrictive, and they don’t cover enough ground to be worth the trouble. Some GMs are happy with them, but many more are not.

Current quest: clear out the fog of war

But first—are we right about this? How do we know? The people who created the existing tools are smart and dedicated to making GMs successful. I’ve used their tools, I’ve attended their talks, and I have the utmost respect for their expertise. So why don’t these solutions seem to work for so many? Before we can answer that, we need to be high-level experts on who game masters are, what they do, and all the challenges they face trying to run campaigns using digital tools.

This first round of interviews was all about making sure of two things: 1) that we’re thinking correctly about the complete campaign management problem and 2) that we understand what truly makes all game masters tick.

So let’s get to the learnings.

1. There’s no one GM style to rule them all

Duh, everyone knows that! But to build the best possible tools for them, we need to know much more than that. We need to be describing GM archetypes at the TEDtalk level. We built a list of components that describe GM personas like “crafty” (if they like building things), “world-builder” (if they enjoy world-building for its own sake), and “kit-basher” (if they incorporate published material into their original campaigns). We have a lot more to do here, but we’ve got a solid foundation.

2. But they all agree on one rule: Better tools make better games

I expected more GMs to tell me they were very frustrated with the tools they’re using because I certainly am, but that was not the case. But I still encountered universal excitement for new tools that are easy to use and built for a GM’s specific needs. Why? Because...

3. GMs are barely using campaign tools right now

Most game masters are using tools for stat blocks, random tables, and a whole host of very specific mechanical things, but for campaign material itself, they largely rely on text editors and note-taking apps like Word, Google Docs, and OneNote. They’ve accepted the consequences of using these flexible but limited tools—multiple versions of the same information in different places, information about a single thing scattered across multiple documents, etc.—because they find the tools for campaign material too cumbersome and restrictive.

4. Everything breaks down to 5 essential campaign elements

If we’re not talking about stat blocks and the like, what do we mean by “campaign material”?

Every GM who runs long-term campaigns described, by one name or another, the same set of elements that they either create or incorporate into their campaign portfolio. They are:

  1. Setting
  2. Plots
  3. Preparation
  4. Session logs
  5. Ambiance assets

A campaign composer can’t be complete without handling them all. At the same time, GMs use each of those elements in very different ways, making it difficult to design a unified system. A conundrum, for sure, which will take novel technology to address.

These elements are the nouns of game mastering. We also found the verbs.

5. GMs manage campaigns using 3 modes: Author, prep, and run

No matter their individual process, everything a GM does falls into one of three core focuses:

  1. Authoring the fictional content of a campaign
  2. Creating prep material so they can run sessions smoothly smoothly, and
  3. Running a session

Running is largely isolated from the other two, but most GMs do authoring and prepping together, flowing back and forth. In fact, most GMs don't explicitly distinguish between the two modes, but when things are different, your tools have to treat them differently. And because we recognize the distinction, we can make this observation:

6. Prep wins

Some GMs spend half an hour prepping for a 4-hour session; others spend four... or more! Regardless, most GMs orient their routine around prepping an upcoming session; they create fiction and produce campaign ambiance to fill the needs of that preparation. That gives us a very clear mandate: To offer a prep-first approach where authoring and running are virtually effortless outgrowths.

7. There are 3 major gaps in the existing landscape

Ultimately, all of my conversations pointed to three fundamental problems. Until these issues are addressed, GMs will continue to stick with Docs, Word, and OneNote:

  1. There is no central point of truth capable of working with all the essential aspects of a campaign
  2. A scattered and isolated landscape of tools that do not play well together, and
  3. The tools that exist are cumbersome and restrictive

Anything we build has to address those gaps head-on, by being:

  1. comprehensive, accounting for the complete set of elements in a campaign
  2. integrated with the ecosystem of creative tools, rules reference, VTTs, etc., and
  3. adaptive, making it as easy to work with as a text document, while still providing powerful features specifically for a GM.

Next stage unlocked: Build an MVP, and keep learning

These 7 lessons equip us to state clearly what we’re going to build—a Campaign Composer for authoring, prepping, and running epic campaigns—and what will make it the best: it’s comprehensive, integrated, and adaptive.

These words are now enshrined on our homepage but will doubtlessly change as we keep gathering input and learning as we go. If you have any feedback, please let us know! Fill out this GM Survey and tell us what you think. And if you want to read the upcoming deep-dives into each of the seven lessons, sign up for the Bringing Fire newsletter (updates monthly) to be notified when they are posted.

Meanwhile, it’s time to build. Our CTO, Josh, is already working on prototypes to test our designs, and we’re working with a small number of early adopters ready to take them for a spin.

We’re also continuing our research with phase two, which is all about dialing in the precise set of features we should commit to for our initial release — our minimum viable product, or MVP. That means more conversations with game masters, and starting to collect quantifiable data from surveys.

Great session, team

I honestly can’t remember work I’ve enjoyed more than interviewing GMs about their processes. I’m so grateful to them for their goodwill and their generosity with their time. Their enthusiasm is beyond energizing. If you’re reading this, thank you, and I hope you’re pleased with our progress so far. I can’t wait to show you what we’ve got in the works.



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