Things I Learned From Running Torch Of Freedom

Steve Hatherley

As I write this, Torch of Freedom, a weekend-long freeform has just finished it’s first UK run. I was one of the GMs, having previously played the game in the USA.

Here are some of the the things I learned from my first experience of running a weekend long game. These aren’t ranked or grouped in any order – just in the order they’ve come out of my brain.


Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Unfortunately for the other GM’s, I moved house during the run up to Torch of Freedom. (We moved in about 10 days prior to the start.) Moving house was, for me, an amazingly stressful experience that I have no desire to repeat – but it did eat all the time that I thought I would have to dedicate to Torch of Freedom.

I hope I was able to help positively during the weekend, but I certainly wasn’t much use in the run-up.

So be very wary of committing to a large game if there’s the slightest chance you can’t keep your promises. Instead, tell everyone – and tell them early.


Don’t underestimate how much preparation you need. Things will go wrong. For example, we were still stuffing envelopes two hours before the game was due to start (for reasons I’m not going to go into – suffice to say that something didn’t work as planned). Unfortunately that meant we didn’t have time to prepare in other ways (such as thinking about what the players would do, and walking through the timetable).

So try to get as much done as early as possible. In my smaller games I like to have envelopes stuffed a good two weeks before the game starts so that I can deal with all the other things that might go wrong. And that’s doubly, if not triply true with a big game.

Be healthy

This might sound extreme, but if we’d been at work I’d have sent two of the GMs home – they were that unwell.

There’s a lot of stress in running this size of game – make sure that someone is looking after the other GMs. Some American games use a “game mommy” but we didn’t have such a thing. I tried to sure how well I succeeded.

But even with a game mommy, remember to look after yourself. Make sure you get some sleep. If you have weird dietary needs, make sure you’re prepared. Drink lots of water, eat well.

Because if you’re not performing, you’ll make some bad GM calls – and that’s what you may be remembered for.

Cards of many colours

As I mentioned above, we were stuffing item cards into envelopes at the last minute. In fact, we ended up writing abilities at the last minute. Not only did we have to write them, we had to print them, sort them and stuff them into envelopes.

For future games, I would seriously consider having each character’s cards in their own file. Yes, that’s all of them – items, abilities romance, money, whatever. You can then just print them out onto perforated card (we ran out) and put them into each envelope. The player can then spend two minutes separating them.

(I know this means that they’re less easy to tell apart – you can make them look different with coloured ink or different designs.)

If you then need to make a change, just change the whole sheet and replace. What you waste in paper, you save in time (and it’s easier to buy more paper than more time).


I brought my printer – and it ran out of ink. We then had to go and find a PC World or Office World to get a new cartridge. But that caused a problem as we didn’t know where the nearest one was. It would have helped had I thought about the problem and just brought another ink cartridge with me…

Same goes for paper – and perforated cards. Make sure you know where you can get them if you need them.

Keeping Track

At the end of each day we would meet and briefly describe the events that had taken place and whether there was anything worth talking about. Sometimes there was, sometimes there wasn’t. But because we wrote so little down, there was a danger we would forget something. So in future I would create GM diaries – sheets of A4 with three columns. One for the date and time (Saturday, 11.15), one for what happened as known by the public (Giant’s Foot Tavern mysteriously burns down) and one for GM comments (Black Angel special ability).

Records also need to be made of decisions that councils and other meetings make – although I’d personally prefer the players to make those records. You could even add the public part to noticeboards, but word of mouth worked pretty well. (I may also try this for a small game, not just a large one.)

Roles and Responsibilities

Be clear on GM roles and responsibilities. Know who is in overall charge, and who is dealing with which part of the game. I didn’t really know the rules and I didn’t really know the background (due mainly to the house move), but it would have helped me if we all had much clearer ideas on who was going to do what during the game.That could also have been better briefed to the players.
Most importantly – make sure everyone in the GM team is singing from the same hymn sheet. I don’t know if it occurred often, but I did hear of one or two contradictory GM calls, which is unfortunate as it upsets the players and is best avoided at all costs.

If we’d had more time in advance, I like to think we would have had more time to talk about this and brief ourselves better. But that’s not what happened…

Know when to say "enough"

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Don’t, as we nearly did, add a special ability to one of the characters at the very last minute. (ie, after everything was printed and as envelopes were being sealed.)

If you find a fault, sure, fix it. But don’t make a change that isn’t needed – particularly when you’re up against a tight deadline. The game worked just fine without it.

GM Communication

Think about how the GMs are going to communicate in the game. In the US they used radios, and the American GMs recommended them. They’re a bit expensive for just one game (and I’m not sure I’m 100% sold on the idea), but I’m sure they would have helped.

We didn’t really have anything set up for GM communication. We survived, just, but it could have been better. (I think the GM diaries could have helped – I could have circulated interim copies to the GMs stuck on the desks during the game.)

Cool scenes

Don’t expect to see the cool scenes, such as the opera or the fencing tournament. Things happen during them – particularly secretive things that need a GM. (Robberies, arson, that sort of thing.)

Hold a "What If" session

What do we do if Semele decides to ignore the fact that she’s an identical twin? What happens during mass combat to everyone else? How do people get elected to the town council?

You can do some of this if you circulate rules sufficiently in advance that the players can ask their own queries, but if we’d done a "what if" session we might have been better prepared. (I know I was struggling with some of the queries.)

Master Timetable

Create a master timetable, with all the events on it. We nearly missed one – the arrival of the taxes. I know this one because I bumped into a bunch of players waiting for the taxes to arrive. I felt very stupid – I knew nothing of this, nor how we were going to deal with it. (But that was easily sorted.)

The problem arose because the master timetable wasn’t on paper, only in other GMs’ heads. But in the heat of the moment anyone can forget something…

The Tape Map

Let’s end on a good note. I think the tape map was excellent – it really created a sense of space and the players used that. The town council met in the Town Hall, weddings were held in the Cathedral, prisoners were thrown into the prison. The ambassadors were often found scheming in their embassies and the gypsies were in the gypsy camp.

I don’t know how much thought went into the tape map, but it worked. Even without the revolution, I think I would use a tape map again – just to create a sense of space.

Article by Steve Hatherley.


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