I have always been into the idea of tabletop, but rarely dabbled in it. I did a stint playing Firefly with a couple of students nd our Drama teacher when I was in middle school, but I barely remember it. Besides that, I've attempted to start a few campaigns with IRL friends, but they all fell through.
When the pandemic hit, thought, I ended up hanging out in voice channels with online friends more than I ever have before. As a result, I did finally manage to get a tabletop campaign off the ground, specifically about Pokemon. This is my first time ever DMing a game before, and it's been a huge learning experience, so I figured I'd share some of my thoughts.
World Building: How Much? How Little?
So, we decided on a campaign of Pokemon, and I wanted to do an original region. I built a map, created the backstory of the region, key characters and events, notes on the culture, and more. This will be a running theme: biting off more than I could chew.
However, in this sort of campaign, this was probably the right move. The overarching goal of my party is to defeat the 8 gym leaders and stop Team Albus, a group from Galar that keeps trying to exploit Misra, the African-Inspired region, of all its resources (I know writers that use subtext, and they're all cowards). This sort of goal requires a lot of pre-set-up, because it's open-ended. What if the party wants to go to the Sao Islands instead of Soukous? What if they attempt to cross the desert? I needed to be sure I had some basis of a plan before they set off on their adventure.
However, that doesn't mean I don't improvise either. For example, I moved one of the locations of a badge to a new location so that the party could get it quicker. They didn't know that this was the case, but doing so allowed me to pace things out a little better for them. So, you know: if they don't know it exists, you can always change it!
Game Design: It's Hard. Adjust.
I know, I know, hot take. But running this campaign has given me a sincere appreciation for people who create mechanics for tabletop games. We started with Pokerole, which is frankly a great system for Pokemon as a lightweight Tabletop game, especially compared to PTU, which feels like calculus. But even that was a lot, especially for my party, who prefer systems that are as light as possible.
So, I started making my adjustments. And more adjustments. And MORE adjustments. I now basically have my own system built off of Pokerole, with simplified dice rolls and mechanics. I'm still making changes even now - most recently, I've given my party classes, to give them some individuality. Pokemon is a bit of a special case because replicating it in tabletop form is already a challenge: there are so many creatures and moves that even now I have to make adjustments on the fly to keep the game moving.
But despite all this, I'm pretty happy with the system I've built, and it's made our games faster and more engaging. It's important to listen to what your party is looking for, and try and give it to them, even if it means bending the rules. It's tabletop! The rules aren't even real.
Your VTT: It Matters
We started this campaign with Astral Tabletop. At first I was happy with it, especially because I hate Roll20 and its janky-ass interface. But it grew to be more of a hinderance than an asset for games. It was slow, resource-heavy, glitchy, and not too acceptance of improve-heavy games or systems that weren't pre-built into it.
Recently, we switched to Tableplop, which I'm much happier with. It's significantly more light-weight and lets me generate tokens on the fly, as well as the ability to draw maps and update character info more easily. I wish we had started with Tableplop, and done a bit more research on VTTs before I made a decision, and I'm lucky that my party was willing to adjust to a migration. That said, VTTs are awesome for online play, and make it so that I can pull groups together much more easily when I can find eager players across the globe.
Defeating Anxiety With "Yes, And"
The toughest part of DMing has definitely been my own self-criticism. Throughout our campaign, I've been constantly worried that I'm not making things exciting enough, or that the campaign is too long, or that I'm not doing enough to make every player feel included. I'm not Critical Role material - I can't do voices or improv to save my life.
A lot of this anxiety is because I have bad brain, but I also think it's natural to be worried about something like this as a first-timer. Subsequently, I have no prior experience in tabletop as a player to pull from. No one's ever wanted to DM, so the only way for me to experience TT was to become the DM myself.
All of that said, I've found the easiest way to make sure everyone's having a good time is by saying yes to every suggestion. My nebulous details or lack there of mean players can ask questions like "Is there a painting of gengar sitting on stair steps and holding an arcade stick?" Why not? "Can I do this?" is a player asking permission to engage with the story that we're building, so shutting it down serves to shut down that enthusiasm.
That's all within reason of course, but you know. If your party ants to bury a member of your Team Rocket equivalent neck-deep in sand, give them the opportunity - they'll remember it.
That's what a year of tabletop has been like for me. I'm hoping that next year we can finish this Pokemon Campaign, and I also plan on running an Avatar Campaign as soon as that playbook hits my inbox. And that'll have an official rulebook, so I won't have to design it myself this time. ;)